Devotions for the Artist

The word “devotions” has gotten a bad rap.  “Devotions” are often tied to boring rituals of Bible reading and long prayers, when the “boring” piece is usually the fault of the person doing the Bible reading or praying.

God is certainly not boring; he is anything but.  So how do we resurrect the practice of devotions, and how can artists make this essential discipline a unique expression of their gifts and calling?

Bible

I have had the blessing of growing up in a Christ-centered home with parents who value and pursue a relationship with God.  Since my childhood I have heard and seen them listen to and read the Bible, pray, and do ministry.

My own experience has followed theirs.  I have never second-guessed the need to read the Bible or pray, but I have often missed the opportunity devotions provide to me as an artist.

I remember many sessions of prayer and Bible reading where my mind would go wandering through a to-do list, through a movie landscape, or into a concert hall.  That is, if I had not fallen asleep already!

My dad speaks of the reality of joy in a discipline being on the other side of perseverance, but I often had difficulty finding that joy.  I seemed to get lost in the perseverance stage.

Recently, however, I have found a new joy and peace in my relationship with God, and that joy and peace has filled my devotions more and more.  Here are a few things to consider if you are looking to improve your time with God.

General Considerations

  • Find a quiet place by yourself and away from distraction.  I find it best for me to use an analog Bible (read: paper and cover book) but I do sometimes use my YouVersion app.  The less electronics the better, which will take some discipline at first.  Eventually your heart and mind will crave that silence and freedom from being “plugged in.”
  • Set your heart on knowing God.  I do not mean knowing as in going to the library, but knowing as in knowing his heart and knowing how he looks at and reaches out to you.
  • Ask him to reveal himself to you before you read the Bible or pray.  He usually doesn’t show up in a vision, but you may find your heart and mind drawn to particular words in the Bible passage you are reading.  The Bible promises that if you seek God with all your heart you will find him.

For the Artist

Here is where devotions become really fun.  The options are endless.

Just a note for the perfectionists among us: Don’t judge your devotional art harshly.  God is not looking for perfection in your relationship with him; he is looking for your heart.  

  • Write a song based on a trait of God you find in the Bible passage you are reading.
  • Paint a picture to represent your prayer to God.
  • Write your prayers in poetic form.
  • Build something out of Play-Doh or Legos to represent your response to God.
  • Rewrite a Bible passage in your own words.

Today

This morning I wrote a song based on God’s pursuing love.  That phrase set in my heart yesterday and showed up again in the Psalms I read this morning.  Since I said that God is not about perfection, I am going to post the lyrics here.  They are only an hour old.

Pursuing God

Verse 1
Love of God so great and strong,
triumphant over fear;
reigning over hope and faith
you sing salvation’s song.

Chorus
Pursuing us through sin and death
and climbing Calvary’s tree,
I will sing my whole life long
of how you rescued me.

Verse 2
Leaving heaven’s throne and crown
for swaddling clothes and hay,
laying down his kingly rights
redeeming love came down.

Verse 3
Love exchanged a golden rod
for rugged wood and nails,
set aside his purple robe
for clothes of dust and blood.

Verse 4
Love destroyed the chains of death,
escaped the tomb of stone.
Power of God and Son of Man,
your love has rescued us.

Do something artistic during your devotions and post the result below.  Remember, perfection is not the focus; responding to God is what matters.

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How God Partners with the Composer and Songwriter

A year and a half ago a friend of mine asked me this question and I have been thinking about it ever since.  How does God partner with the composer and songwriter?

Electric Guitar Bridge

I’ve been writing music since I was a kid.  In high school I had lots of black and white composition books chock full of lyrics.  I was into heavy metal and I had rock-n-roll lyrics for everything.  My writing had all the fine literary style of a high school student high on emotion and experiencing the world for the first time.

I don’t know what happened to those books.  I think I may have thrown them away.

When I got to college I studied music composition as well as poetry composition, and in the 12 plus years I have worked in churches I have done quite a bit of arranging for everything from choir to rock band to orchestra.  In the past five years I have once again started writing pop and rock worship songs in addition to writing classical music and poetry.

I have a real passion for setting the written word to music.

So how does God enter into the songwriting and composition process?

Idea 1: God enters into the songwriting process through his creative image in you and me.

God is creative; he created everything.  He is the ultimate creative power.  Part of the evidence that we are created in the likeness of God is the fact that we can create new things.

For the longest time I thought as Solomon did, that “there is nothing new under the sun.”  This idea led me to a very defeatist line of thinking:  “What’s the point?  I’m replicating things that have already been.”

Solomon was wrong.  He was depressed.  If I met someone in that state of mind I would send him to a psychiatrist.

There are new things under the sun every day.

Not long ago I heard Erwin McManus of Mosaic say in relation to this passage of Scripture, “I am quite certain that the wheel was brand new at some point in time.  In fact, I think Jesus walking on water and rising from the dead were pretty new.”

When we create something new we are demonstrating the image of our Creator God.  Even someone who does not know Christ can be extremely creative and, without knowing it, express the image of God through what he or she creates.

God enters into the songwriting process by the fact that we are made like him: to create.

Idea 2: God enters the songwriting process through our minds and preferences.

When we begin to create something new there is always a nucleus of a thought, an idea that takes hold in your mind.  When that idea takes hold in your mind and catches your attention like never before, you have just experienced a taste of God working through you.

God makes new things out of nothing.  He spoke the world into existence out of a void.  He spoke the sun, moon, stars, and all things into existence out of nothing.  God breathed life into man; without God we could not draw a breath.

In the same way I believe that without God we could not think a single original thought.  When we express a new idea or thought God is revealing himself through us as Creator God.  He is using our preferences and abilities to give fresh expression to himself.

Partnering with God

We have been talking specifically about composing and songwriting, but, in reality, God partners with human beings in every single creative activity in exactly the same way.  Sometimes we twist the pure ideas he places in our hearts, and other times we hear clearly and express his ideas well.

Before you begin the day, thank God for what he has done and ask him to guide your thoughts and ideas, actions and motives.  During the day, when you begin a new project or a meeting, ask God to partner with you.  Ask him to create something out of nothing through you.

How have you seen God partner with you creatively?

A New Year’s Blessing

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Yesterday was Christmas
and New Year’s is coming;
do you know what you want
or do you want for nothing?
Was 2012 gentle and sweet,
full of friends and good times,
or has this year been painful
and rest hard to find?
Is your life on the upswing
with success by it’s side,
or have you weathered failure
and put some dents in your pride?
Will this year be remembered
by the loss of a loved one,
or have you found your true love,
your soul mate, your lost son?
Perhaps yesterday brought a barren tree,
no house to hold it and loneliness, too;
will 2013 be as unwelcome to you?

At a time of year when we celebrate plenty
a little seems much smaller
and nothing is an sullen friend.
Earthquakes and storms
on earth or in homes
can reshape the terrain
of our lives in a moment.
Instead of carols we sing a funeral dirge;
Christmas puts away it’s colors
and wears black.

To all for whom Christmas
brought laughter and joy,
plenty to eat and new favorite toys,
may your heart be humble
and your hands generous
towards those less fortunate,
and may God bring you more
of what this year provided.

To those who mourn
and for whom Christmas brought
fresh tears,
deep sighs,
tender fears,
may the New Year bring
refreshing grace,
true peace,
renewed joy,
open hands instead of fists
and a soft heart instead of flint.

In the words of Tiny Tim,
this is my prayer for you and me:
“God bless us every one.”

Tomorrow’s Promise

When the pundits pause
and the polls close,
when the pens stop
and the ques stand empty,
when campaign placards
litter the ground
like obscene peonies,
and the sun rises on red eyes
and rumpled ties,
yesterday’s news
will be today’s refuse
and the new day’s blue sky
will be a president’s prophecy
of tomorrow’s promise.

Excerpts from Flying for the Window

Today, for something a little different, I want to share two poems with you from the collection Flying for the Window, written by Charles Coté.  Charles lives in Rochester, NY, where he practices as a clinical social worker.  This collection is his first published collection, poems about his son Charlie, who died of a malignant melanoma in 2005 at the age of 18, right after graduating from high school and while the front man for a popular Rochester-area band, Fivestar Riot.

More importantly, Charlie, as I call him, is a dear friend and has been my guide and counselor for the past several years through my own challenging times.  Often we talked about poetry, and he coached me on my writing.  Flying for the Window is available on Amazon, or you can find the book on Charles’ blog.  I post these poems with his consent.

Here are two selections.

On the Car Radio

Every song a melody
you didn’t write,
played by those
I didn’t lose.
Take this moment
for instance:
wherever I go,
you aren’t here either.

I love this poem.  From the first reading it’s pungency and brevity hit me like a ton of bricks.  The turn at the end is magnificent.  This poem speaks so well of how I felt about my own loss.

Sitting in His Empty Room

Three years I watched his body
waste away, radiation burning the hair
off half his head until he shaved the rest.
So no one would gawk at the scar and ask
questions, he wore a knitted skull cap
and a drooping smile on the left side
after the surgeon removed his parotid gland.
Still, he lit up the room with that smile, and dark
brown eyes, eyes like no one else in the family.
Picture a high school gym filled with classmates,
a red carpet, his girlfriend holding his right arm,
black velvet crown on his glad head,
a poster child for the happy, raucous
cheers from the crowd.  Later that evening,
a show at Water Street Music Hall, his band
Fivestar Riot opening for Dysplastic Revulsion,
he’s still wearing the same crown, the homecoming
king’s cape, singing Better, his best song.
That was a year before he died.
See me now, sitting at the foot of his bed
the night he left us, asking, Are you scared?
No, he says, the knitted skull cap
tossed on the wheel chair, Just curious
about what’s next.

I am touched by the recollection of a parent, and I think about sitting on my boys’ bed and the kinds of answers they give to my questions – often very unexpected answers, like this one: “No, just curious about what’s next.”

How do these poems speak to you?

Life: the Greatest Editor

Life has a way of editing your writing.  Case in point.  Two years ago I read the Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning (a must read about the radical grace of God, written by a recovering alcoholic and former priest) and was moved to write a song based on how the message of the Gospel of grace really sunk in with me.  I was impressed with the way God releases us from our humanity because of his grace when we ask him for forgiveness, regardless of what we are asking forgiveness for.  Manning’s example of outrageous grace is a beautiful one.

The lyrics of “Grace” then showed a stark depravity against the unflinching and progressing grace of God.  I also used Desert Song by Brooke Fraser and Hillsong United as a model because I am thoroughly impressed by the song, both musically and technically.  Here are the lyrics:

Broken we come before you now
Humbled our hearts before you bow in worship
Here in your presence stained with sin
dead and decaying deep within our hearts we worship

Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
and nothing I can do can set me free

Jesus, your love is life-defying
challenging all we know is right and just
Taking the cross to greater heights
passing the life lived pure and right to us
you overwhelm us

Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
and nothing I can do can set me free

When I am speechless, you speak your Word
When I am dying, you work your Strength
When I am failing you complete the task set out for me
You set us free, so free

Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
and nothing I can do can set me free

Restored we claim no inner gift
Healed we seek to share the grace you give
knowing there’s no greater praise
than a life redeemed by faith in you
we believe you

Now, two years later, my perspective has changed.  I am still confident in the radical grace of God and thoroughly dependent on it because of all the mistakes I make and sins I commit on a daily basis, although I am making progress, again by God’s grace.  That said, I look at the first verse and I find it not quite theologically sound.

Before Christ we stood before God stained by sing, dead and decaying deep within.   We could not worship because we had not been transformed.  We could not be viewed another way because we were not under the mercy and saving grace of God.  Because, however, we have received Christ and asked him for his grace and mercy in our lives, God no longer views us that way.  yes, we sin, but because of Christ’s blood he sees us as complete and whole and beautiful.  We are alive and growing, not dead and decaying.  As the old hymn says, “The Lord has promised good to me; his Word my hope secures.  He will my shield and portion be as long as life endures.”  We cling to this promise that God remembers our sin no more and shows us mercy by giving us grace in our most dire times of need.

My theology has changed, or perhaps my writing has caught up to my theology.  Time has allowed me to look back at these lyrics and say, “No, that’s wrong.  There is no hope in the original lyric.”

I have also noticed that my ending stanza is stilted and not in line with the rest of the song, so I am scratching that stanza and replacing it with a reprise of the first half of the first verse, still ending on the “V” chord.  Here are the lyrics now, edited to reflect these changes.  I am also going the change the title to either “Your Grace” or “Broken.”

Broken we come before you know
Humbled our hearts before you bow in worship
Here in your presence free from sin
holding your promise deep within our hearts we worship

Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Jesus, you have come and set me free

Jesus, your love is life-defying
challenging all we know is right and just
Taking the cross to greater heights
giving the life lived pure and right to us
you overwhelm us

Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Jesus, you have come and set me free

When I am speechless, you speak your Word
When I am dying, you work your Strength
When I am failing you complete the task set out for me
You set us free, so free

Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Your grace covers me
Jesus, you have come and set me free

Broken we come before you know
Humbled our hearts before you bow in worship

How are you allowing your life to edit your writing?

eulogy

Recently both an uncle on my father’s side and a member of my church passed away.  Both are in a better place and released from bodies which were failing to house them well, as all of ours are bound to do at some time, whether we like it or not.  Nevertheless, respectful grief is due the loss of wonderful people, of which the world has too few.  Here are a few words in their honor.

Eulogy

A blushing moon mourns,
his face half shroud-
ed in starless
night,
whilst the ousted
light
coyly plots his
bright and avowed
resurrection morn.