What does it look like when writers, artists, poets, musicians and storytellers choose to use their gifts for the glory of God? Have you ever wondered why God chose to work into you a love of words? A vivid imagination? An ability to write poetry or compose music? An appreciation of colour and form and an ability to translate that into something tangible?
At Hutchmoot 2015, Michael Card spoke about the importance of imagination when coming to Scripture. Not imagination in the sense of dreaming up something that is not true, but the kind of holy imagination that helps us engage more deeply with truth. If I could point to one thing that has changed my Christian life it would be when I began to see Scripture as an epic story rather than disjointed books. We can be so factual about our faith. So theologically correct. I believe good stories help us exercise our imagination and awaken the sense of wonder that allows us to view God’s word with a sense of holy awe.
Whether it is through stories, songs, poems, art, or some other creative expression of the heart of God, the role of people with gifts like these cannot be underestimated within the Church.Heidi Johnston
I will never forget the first time I read about Aslan’s death on the stone table. I was a small child but I remember sobbing uncontrollably, totally overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Even then I think I knew on some level that my tears were for something more than Aslan. The power of that story took the truth of the cross and buried it deeper in my heart, allowing me to feel the awesome truth of Jesus’ sacrifice in a way that went beyond mental understanding. I know that I am better for it. I am not suggesting for one moment that we abandon theology in favour of stories but I do believe that the one can be better understood in the presence of the other.
In many ways the storyteller also plays the role of prophet, allowing us for just a moment to see something beyond our natural vision. Last year, my friend Lanier Ivester wrote a beautiful post called “Creativity: Spiritual Battle and Spiritual Discipline” which changed my understanding of this. Sarah Clarkson had previously written about a time when she had asked God to give her a picture of what he was calling her to do through her writing. She says this:
Instantly, I do mean instantly, a Millais painting came to my thought. It has long enchanted me for its vivid, startling image—that of a blind young girl sitting amidst a glory of a golden field with two rainbows like stairways to heaven behind her. Not a bit of it can she see. But in that painting, a small child sits next to the blind girl, peeking out from under her cloak, neck craned in awe at the glory, telling the blind one of all the beauty. And I knew in that image that my task, as a soul, but particularly as a writer, is to be that child.
Lanier responded by asking God for a similar picture and I in turn did the same. On both occasions God answered in a way that was different and yet full of the same sense of purpose. I love the way Lanier sums up Sarah’s picture: “Write the rainbow, God told her. Tell this broken world of things it cannot see.”
A few years ago I was speaking at a conference in Edinburgh and during my talk I mentioned the Chronicles of Narnia. Afterwards a lady came over and told me this story. She was a teacher in an inner city school. Some of the kids in her class had really difficult lives, evidenced by the defensive hostility they instinctively employed. As part of their course the teacher read through The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the end of a class, as everyone filed out, she noticed one particular girl at the back of the room. Visibly upset, the girl remained in her seat. When the teacher asked her what was wrong the girl mumbled through her tears, “I just wish Aslan was real. I feel like he would understand me.” Stories have a way of slipping past our defences in a way that can both break and heal us, softening hard ground in readiness for the Sower.
In a similar way, stories allow us to step back and view our own lives from a distance, perhaps seeing things we were otherwise too close to notice. The story of David and Nathan, in 2 Samuel 12, is a powerful example. After David’s adultery with Bathsheba and subsequent murder of Uriah, Nathan the prophet comes to visit him. Instead of confronting him with his sin, Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who took a poor man’s lamb and slaughtered it for a banquet, despite the fact that he had countless animals of his own. Incensed, David applies Scripture and pronounces judgement. When the truth is revealed, the power of the story is such that David is utterly broken by the revelation of his own heart, throwing himself on God’s grace with the raw grief of Psalm 51.
I grew up outside Belfast at a time when there was a sharp divide between the Protestant and Catholic communities. With very little contact between the two communities I had a subconscious wariness of those on the “other side.” When I was ten, I read a book called Across the Barricades. Telling the story of two teenagers from opposite sides of the peace wall who embarked on a relationship, it was a Northern Irish Romeo and Juliet that was based in a culture I knew. It brought a sense of familiarity to people I would not otherwise have come into contact with at that stage in my life. In allowing me to enter their world, it chipped away at the distance between us and broke down the prejudice that could easily have taken root.
Stories can deeply influence and develop our sense of community. When I read sweeping stories like Narnia or the Wingfeather Saga, or watch movies like Star Wars, they stir within me a sense of common purpose that can only find it’s true expression in the Kingdom of God. I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the picture of community modelled so beautifully amongst those who gather at the Rabbit Room goes hand in hand with a profound love of story.
There are times in our lives when we are faced with things that weigh down upon us and stop us in our tracks. For me, this has often been when the poets, songwriters, and musicians step in like angels of light, helping me name the struggle and grieve it’s presence, while at the same time bringing hope.
Biblically, this is the world of the Psalms. The place where questions are asked, hurts are expressed, and trust is affirmed, even in the darkness. It is a place to wrestle with deep questions, acknowledging the pain and yet, at the same time, choosing to cling to the belief that God is good.
For me, the most moving example of this is Psalm 73. Alongside guttural cries of deep pain and confusion come beautiful declarations of faith. Pain and trust, co-existing around the central truth in verse 17 that only God’s presence is the difference between struggle and despair. This is the tension that is so beautifully expressed in songs like Andrew Peterson’s “The Rain Keeps Falling,” anthems that step in again and again to strengthen us in our weariness and walk beside us in our searching.
Music has a mysterious power to move us. While I have little musical ability, my appreciation of music has been forever altered by Ben Shive’s Hutchmoot session on the language of music. Despite the fact that most of what he said was far beyond my understanding, I left the session deeply moved by the ways that different music can make us feel. In some ways the patterns and their affects can be understood (well, by Ben anyway) and yet there is still mystery. Why does music impact us the way it does? It seems, even from the womb, God has breathed into us a response to music that goes beyond our conscious thought.
It is interesting that in 1 Samuel 16, when Saul finds himself repeatedly gripped by an evil spirit, the only relief he can find comes when David is summoned to play his harp. Similarly, in 2 Kings 4, when Elisha is faced with a situation which makes him so angry that he struggles to hear God’s voice, he calls for a musician to play so that he will be able to listen to God.
Life, of course, is not all shadow. There are seasons when light breaks through and illuminates the path ahead. In the paradox of God’s sovereignty, there are often times when the sorrow and the rejoicing go hand in hand. Whether in joy or suffering, the poets and songwriters and musicians have a glorious role in calling God’s people to worship. There is a beautiful moment in 1 Chronicles 15 v 16, when David asks the Levites to “appoint their relatives the singers, with instruments of music, harps, lyres, loud-sounding cymbals, to raise sounds of joy.”
Similarly, the ability of visual artists to change the way we look at the world astonishes me. Throughout Scripture God repeatedly uses the visual to communicate with His people. In a bush that was ablaze and yet growing within the flame, God called Moses, teaching him about His character and preparing him for the role he would play in the nation of Israel. For Peter in Acts 10, the image of a blanket let down from heaven and filled with all kinds of unclean animals was the catalyst for the welcome of the Gentiles into the Church. With one image God was able to sum up his call to Sarah and Lanier.
Whether it is through stories, songs, poems, art, or some other creative expression of the heart of God, the role of people with gifts like these cannot be underestimated within the Church.
In Ephesians 4 v14-15 Paul gives us a glimpse of the impact this sacrificial offering of our gifts will have.
“As a result we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ.”
In bringing our gifts to the Church we help each other to stand firm, protecting one another from being tossed here and there by everything that comes our way. For weeks now the words of a hymn have been lodged in my heart and mind.
Still my soul be still
Do not be moved
By lesser lights and fleeting shadows
Hold onto His ways
With shield of faith
Against temptations flaming arrows
(Keith & Kristyn Getty / Stuart Townend)
Until recently, I tended to think of temptation only in terms of sin. While that is an obvious and very real part of the struggle, I have been learning that there is also a temptation to despair. In a season of struggle, that is the temptation I have faced. Yet, as proof of what I thought I already knew, the gifts of others, in so many forms, have helped me to stand firm. Pointing me again and again to the One who is the source and the reason for hope.
Not only do we have a role in helping others hold fast, we also teach one another to handle truth well. Not just to know it and let it change us, not just to speak it out but to do it all in love. Has there ever been a time when we needed this skill more? To invest intentionally and sacrificially in each other is to mature together, gradually growing in understanding, holiness, and humility and becoming more like Christ.
Paul finishes this section with a final emphasis on the importance of this growing together and the part we each play in the process.
“ …we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (v16).
If we as the Church are “fitted and held together by what every joint supplies,” if the body grows “according to the proper working of each individual part,” then the roles we have been given are not optional.
According to Paul, if we choose not to offer our gifts to God’s people the church is impoverished.
Madeleine L’Engle said, “We can’t take any credit for our talents, it’s how we use them that counts.” It is important that we are good stewards of our gifts, honing them and making them the best they can be, all the time remembering that the wisdom and strength we need to use them comes only from God. A friend of mine said recently that your prayer life is a barometer of how much you need God. We may have been given gifts but the task is still bigger than we are. There is great freedom in understanding that. Without grounding ourselves in God’s word and cultivating His heart we will fail, either because our strength gives out or because we begin to believe we have strength enough without him. The stirring exhortations of Ephesians chapter four are always a response to the grace of chapters one to three. In the same way, our service for God rings true when it is a response to everything God has already done for us.
If you don’t understand how important your gift is the church will be weaker for it. However, the responsibility that comes with that knowledge must be balanced with an understanding of the fact that we exist as part of the Kingdom. We are not lone rangers. Not even the introverts. We are not created to exist in solitude, or even to hang out in groups of like-minded people, praising and seeking praise. Paul makes it clear here and also in 1 Corinthians 12 that our gifts are for the common good.
People who consider a love of stories to be an indication of spiritual immaturity have often mystified me. I wonder if one of the reasons they devalue story is that they have a narrow view of the collaborative nature of Kingdom work?
If I, alone, am called to fully explain the gospel in everything I do, then stories or songs or art, in isolation, will have limited benefit. On the other hand, if they form part of a richer tapestry, where artists and theologians and caregivers and mums and pastors and teachers each bring their gift and offer it for the good of the Kingdom, the result is a fuller, more authentic picture of the heart of God. We are called to step into a story that is bigger than ourselves and to bring every gift we have to the collective task of telling it.
Individually, we can perfect and master the gifts and talents God has given us. And so we should. However, unless they are offered sacrificially to the Church, for the glory of God, they will always fall short of the very purpose for which they have been given.
Heidi Johnston is the author of Life in the Big Story and is currently the Rabbit Room’s only Irish contributor. She studied law at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and now, amongst other things, teaches a class on “Poetic and Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament” at Belfast Bible College. Heidi is passionate about getting people to engage with the Bible and has a fascination with the book of Deuteronomy.