At Urbana Missions Conference in St. Louis, 16,000 college students, staff, and volunteers entered Jesus’ story in the book of Matthew. Dr. Patrick Fung, director of OMF International in Singapore, challenged us in Jesus’ birth story in Matthew 2 to think about three characters and identify which character we most relate to:
The Magi – out of wonder and awe, traveled great distances to worship Jesus and bring Him their best gifts.
Joseph – in the midst of chaos, an angel told him to flee to Egypt and become a refugee. And he obeyed immediately.
King Herod – fought his whole life for power and position. His drive for success and security led him to kill boys in Bethlehem under the age of 2 in a desperate attempt to keep his power.
I reflected on these characters – ruminating over them and asking the Holy Spirit to read what was written on my heart. I was surprised at what I heard. In my attempts to secure achievements and success, I have become more often like Herod than Joseph or the Magi. Even in ministry, when I am driven by a hunger for accomplishment, I can unwittingly become disobedient and deaf to God’s call on my life. Ouch.
But this wasn’t the most shocking part. What surprised me most was what I heard in response to this prayer,
“I want to be like the Magi, Lord, searching earnestly for you – chasing after the stars of Bethlehem that point to you and offering all that I have in joy to worship You. What is the gift you want me to bring to you, O Lord? I want to be more like Joseph – obedient through an immediate 'yes' to whatever your call. What would you ask of me?”
I expected some call far out east – to go to the unreached places of the world and participate with the persecuted church to advance God’s Kingdom – risking my life for Jesus. I expected a challenge to sell all my possessions and go and live among the poor. Instead, I heard a voice call me to do the very thing that happens to brings me the most joy:
“Create. Tell my story by worshipping me through holy creativity.”
“Paint, write, preach, sing – tell the story about what I have done and will continue to do for you.”
“How is this an act of obedience?” I wondered. It seems so small, so commonplace, so…luxurious, even, to sit comfortably behind my computer, coffee at my side and write a blog while across the world thousands of believers are laying down their very lives for Christ. Is this call really worthy of the Gospel?”
And then the next day I heard a testimony of a woman in the Middle East who started a blog about her faith – and was murdered by her own brother for proclaiming God’s story in her life through the internet.
And I realized – just because I have the freedom to share without the fear of losing my life doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth telling. The Holy Spirit reminded me that He is serious about this creative gift He’s given me, and as much as I try to avoid it, it is an act of obedience to cultivate it. And conversely, it is an act of disobedience to bury it under the sand in my drive to accomplish and finish tasks.
But because creating brings me so much joy, there is still a part of me that thinks this can’t be right. God calls us to the things that require us to die to ourselves, right? Does this even happen in the creative process?
Yes, but not in the ways I expected. Yielding to what must be said through creative form requires me to die to myself just about in every way. Any creative person will tell you that staying faithful to your craft is an act of self-sacrifice. It’s hard to make a discipline to practice your instrument 4 hours a day, for example. Or to get behind your desk to write, putting yourself out there in spite of criticism – internal and external, all for the sake of staying true to that voice internally that says you must. It’s hard to fight the “is this worth it?” battle.
When I create, I must die to myself in a much more subversive, counter-intuitive way. Participating in the act of creativity requires me to overthrow the drive to be successful. It requires me to die to my ambition to achieve a standard that the world places on me - or even the one that I fabricate for myself.
In this dying, I surrender my life instead to be written by the One who sets the standard of success - to the one who also makes surprising and unexpected calls on what a successful story is about. The kind of stories that shock and surprise us – like why it is a much better ending for a woman to pour an alabaster jar of perfume on Jesus’ head than sell it to benefit the poor – while in the previous scene, Jesus says that the kingdom is prepared for those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, look after the sick, and care for those in prison (Matthew 25-26).
True creativity requires me to open my tight fists that desperately try to control and manipulate my life into what I want, and yield instead to a story I never would have thought to tell. The kind of story that God breathes out of my own – the most vulnerable and risky story of all.
So here I am, with this alabaster jar, awkwardly standing in the center of the room and wondering whether or not this risk is worth it. I am looking at Jesus sitting there among the disciples and I know I must make a fool of myself in what I am about to do.
But my feet frozen stiff must embody a hope that rises above fear as I walk towards Jesus. And under the guise of the disciples, I must pour myself out amidst the accusations, “Why this waste?”
Why this waste of time writing or fumbling through paint when you could be out there sharing the Gospel? Why this waste of space, energy, and money to spend time in solitude in your studio when you could have been out feeding the poor?
Yet, as I lavishly invest myself in creativity, pouring myself out with fear and trembling at Jesus’ feet, I hope that I can do so amidst my accusers in a way that makes Jesus proud. A shocking, extravagant, but bold move that leads Jesus to come my defense and say, “She has done a beautiful thing for me.”