My First Lesson in Creative Sermon Prep

I am an unapologetic geek when it comes to certain things. For instance, when I got called for jury duty, I spent half the day marveling at the privilege of participating in “trial by peers”, and thinking about how unique this experience was to the rest of the world.

I know, it’s that bad.

Well, I got picked, and we heard our (short,civil) trial and began our deliberation.

(As an introvert, this is where it got awkward for me: putting me in a room full of people I don’t really know and then asking me to work and speak with them for hours on end… ugh.)

There was an older gentleman there, and during a break he started talking about how he’d worked in newspapers (remember those), and how he was a news junky. Then he asked us a question:

“Do you guys know how to find out what’s really going on in the United States?”

Let’s face it, we knew that we were not supposed to say “Yes.” So we all shook our heads.

He said, “You find out what’s going on in the United States by reading the news from Europe. Want to know how to find out what’s going on in Europe?”

“Sure.”

“You read the Russian news.”

He then lead us all around the world: Russia, Asia, etc. (I can’t remember the entire sequence, but you get the point.)

The point he was trying to make was that only when you got a little objectivity could you really see what was going on in a country. The best way to find out about a “thing” is not necessarily to read about the thing from people who know it best, but to read about it from people who aren’t really as connected to it. 

I think it’s a little like that with sermon prep.

I know there’s lots of websites out there that help with sermon prep, but I think a little more objectivity is required.

So to think about teaching the Bible, I go to “Europe”: which (for me) means

I collect and distill ideas and stories into Evernote, and then tag them and store them until they are needed.

Since I feel like the gospel touches all of life, it’s not always a huge chore to connect our inability to walk in a straight line to discipleship, or Nine Inch Nail’s record The Downward Spiral to the story of Samson.

Or, I suppose, to connect jury duty to sermon prep.

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Sunday Spine

I’ve been reading Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit, and it’s really great: practical productive ideas on creating from a long-time practicer. She talks about the need for every creative work to have a “spine”, something which knits the whole work together. It answers the question, “What am I trying to say?” with ruthless clarity and conciseness.

What’s interesting to me is that the spine is not necessarily the same thing as what the audience/public/congregation sees or hears or experiences. That’s the story; the spine belongs to the creator or team of creators that orchestrate it.

For those of us who work on Sunday, I think we have the opportunity to think about spines as well. We already know our story (and it’s a good one); but we don’t always think about our particular spines. In my context, a spine may be anything that holds a set of songs together besides the obvious (a journey towards God). For better or for worse, this past Sunday my “spine” was a musical one: it was the concept of a power trio. Could I (a) have no acoustic guitar; (b) play slide in open tuning; (c) re-arrange some familiar songs to have a heavier, bluesier feel to them; and (d) do all of this without it becoming distracting or prideful?

In regards to the spine, “What am I trying to say?”

I am trying to say that worship music can be bluesy and soulful and still congregational. 

That was my thinking, but a spine can be just about anything: it may be a stylistic approach to the songs; it may be a progression of musical keys; it may be a subtle facet of spirituality—meditation or contemplation, say—that’s not overtly being discussed but that I’ve been working with.

Now, here’s the deal: First, in Sunday worship “business”, spines are not necessary. We’ve been handed a story to tell, and it’s up to us to tell it clearly and compellingly. In a sense, we don’t need spines.

(I hope I don’t need to tell you that spines should never detract or distract from the story. People shouldn’t notice that all your songs were in the key of A; they should notice this God that we believe in.)

But spines enrich our stories. They give us the opportunity to make our Sunday stories multi-layered and rich.

They also infuse our creative lives with fresh wind.

(I daresay they make it fun.)

What some of us need is a dose of creative energy, a breathe of fresh air to engage our thinking and give us the strength and focus to run another leg of the ministry race that we’re in. Ultimately, I think that spines are a useful tool to keep us engage over a period of time with the work we do.

(By the way, I also use the concept of a “spine” when I’m developing a sermon; it governs what stays in and what goes out. In this sense, sermon prep for me is like poetry. It’s about editing down to the essentials and trusting that what is left over after the process is sufficient and essential.)

What spine can you insert into your work this week? What would give you energy?

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Actually, Cover Bands DO Change the World…

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

One of the great slogans in the Seth Godin/Linchpin world (which I actually enjoy poking around in) is, “Cover bands don’t change the world.”

It’s a call to be unique to seek to strike out to do something bold and new in the world, to be disruptive, to reach for something that’s never been done.

It’s also obviously a bit of a slap in the face to anyone who may be a feeling slightly more conservative or iterative. Folks who are not as “disruptive.”

(It’s also an insult to cover bands, but who’s counting?)

As usual, the truth behind the slogan is a bit more cloudy, because in a sense cover bands have changed the world, and actually continue to do so, primarily because many of the most iconic and world-changing bands in rock history started out as cover bands.

Beatles? Cover band.

Stones? Covered blues.

The Who? They called their versions of Motown songs they covered, “Maximum R&B”.

The Band? Started out playing rockabilly covers in honkey tonks all over the midwest.

James Brown? yup.

(Now, I get that these artists are all “old guy” bands, but I’m taking the approach that the verdict is still out on how much Arcade Fire, The National, Coldplay, etc. are going to change rock and roll. That being said, I know the Black Keys at least know blues really deeply, and I’ve heard at least a couple covers from them.)

Now,I get what Seth is saying: you really do need to find your own unique voice. But here’s the deal: all these artists who later changed the world were cover artists for a significant and formative time in their career.

So what’s the point? Well, I’m not just being contrarian. Being in a cover band has its advantages, and in fact provides critical experience for working your craft.

Because when you’re in a cover band, you get to learn

You get to learn what makes a great song…

You get to learn how to work in a group with others…

You get to learn how to work a crowd…

What gear works in a bar, versus in your bedroom…

What outfit looks ridiculous on you…

Don’t get me wrong: aspiring to something great is absolutely critical and something to be encouraged.

But before you change the world you might want to be good at your craft. Lots of bands start out wanting to change the world, but their ambition greatly (and almost tragically) outstrips their ability.

So maybe you’re in a “cover band” right now…

… Maybe the organization you’re in isn’t as wildly creative as you’d like;

… Maybe the position you’re in isn’t the perfect fit;

… Maybe your platform isn’t in front of the “right people” yet.

If this is the case, than here’s what you do:

  • You get better. 
  • You dig in and learn. 
  • You figure out how to with others (particularly a drummer who doesn’t keep time well and a singer who doesn’t always sing on pitch).
  • You learn what “excellence” looks and feels (tastes and sounds?) like. 

Your “cover band moments” are not wasted. They can be the crucible, the workshop that helps you develop and hone your craft for the moment when the world comes calling, and needs you to give something to it.

… Now go practice.

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Do All The Work in Your Head

I was watching the finale of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, where they were in Brooklyn, NY.

Anthony ended up at Brooklyn Fare, which looked like one of the most unique restaurant experiences I’ve seen in a long time.

Mostly, because there are only 18 seats.

At one point, Anthony Bourdain looks at his friend Eric Ripert and says, “All the hard work for this took place in the chef’s head.”

Amazing food; 18 seats.

They know how many portions to produce, and when to serve them. Some of the biggest variables in the restaurant business, handled immediately.

In the chef’s head.

Way ahead of time.

Sometimes, when you want to do something amazing, the best way to start is in your head. 

  • What variables can you control?
  • What waste can you eliminate?

If you know ahead of time precisely how you will shape the experience, you can get about the substance of what you want to create: in Brooklyn Fare’s case it’s the food, but it can be anything…

  • the book
  • the worship gathering
  • the melody
  • the life

Control what you can control, so you’re free to delight people.

Jack Gets It

Jack White gets it.

In this interview, he talks about the relationship between creativity and constraints, and I think it’s right on.

So much of creativity is about boundaries; great things are made at frontiers:

  • emotional frontiers
  • technological frontiers
  • physical frontiers
  • spiritual frontiers

So much of our life is about making things easier and more efficient. Faster, easier, more convenience.

But as a very wise man once told me, “love is not efficient.”

If you do what you love, you’re not interested in efficiency; you’re interested in engagement, in connection. 

The thing about any creative endeavor—be it a sermon, a song, a painting, or a restructure—is to engage and connect with it in such a way that moves you towards a frontier.

One of the ways this plays itself out in my life is the difference between typing on a laptop and writing with a pen: for me there’s a significant difference. Different parts of my mind (and heart) are engaged. When I want to get ideas out quickly and almost sub-consciously, I type. When I want to make sure I’m emotionally connecting with my ideas, I write.

(By the way, I approach my calendars the same way; when I need to slow down and “own” my calendar more intentionally, I start using paper. When I’m okay with feeling a little more reactionary, I use an electronic calendar.)

It may seem counter-intuitive, but is there anything you need to make more difficult, if for no other reason than to wake you up?

A Disruptive Gospel

I stumbled across this video this week.

Though that instrument is undeniably weird (and cool), a couple ideas sprang into my mind.

“Random” isn’t really random. The proprietors of the festival proclaim that the attenders had just witnessed a “random act of culture”, but it actually was only random for those who didn’t know that “art” was about to happen. For those “on the inside”, the act was actually intentional and really well thought out. Wu Tong is wearing a mic. The audio guys needed to know when he was going to play. There had to be some sort of signal for him to come in. A few people really knew what was going on.

What it you substituted the word “gospel” for “art”?Do that, and you have a very interesting idea. Great art disrupts people’s lives; it interrupts the “flow” of the world. It makes people sit up and take notice. In fact, in some instances art can change the world forever. Shouldn’t the gospel be just as disruptive (in a good way, of course)? Couldn’t the gospel make us sit up and take notice, and change our world forever?

To disrupt the world—to get the word’s attention—you need more than “random acts” of art (or gospel). You actually need “artists” who are willing to plan and execute an interruption in a very intentional, strategic way. If the gospel is the ultimate culture-disruption, what are you planning? How can you get the world’s attention in an intentional, compelling way?

Wonder, Craft, and My Secret Love of Electronica

I’ve been really blessed this week to see and hangout with some really gifted artists like DJ Promote and Propaganda, a really great hip hop artist. Tuesday night DJ Promote was doing a set before a big rock band played, and the kids were just going crazy. Propaganda was talking to me and another guy and said, “You know, I’ve been all around the world with this guy (the DJ), and no matter where he goes, within ten minutes the room is just going crazy. He always wins.”

I replied, “I think I know why; it’s because I can feel the joy in his mixing. I can sense the emotion behind what he does.”

Ever met someone who somehow was giving and generous the moment they shook your hand?

I’d met Promote backstage before I even knew what he did, and even then he was gushing with joy and wonder.

Ever felt blessed by just being introduced to someone? You don’t even know how it worked, but you turned away and felt richer and better for just having said “Hello” to them?

That’s the way it was with both Promote and Propaganda. (He did some spoken word stuff that was just so legit, it was amazing.)

Though I have no doubt that they both put in their “10,000 hours”, the thing that set them both apart was the joy and wonder that they put into their art.

Have you ever considered the fact that joy and wonder can be translated by technology? That emotion comes through bits and bytes, electricity and wires? I have not idea how it’s even possible, but I am blown away that repeatedly this is the case. You can hear it. You can feel it.

Great art is, in fact, a gift, but the gift that’s being given in these cases are emotional and spiritual, not merely musical. It transcends craft.

… I would almost venture to say that joy precedes craft.

Keeping in mind that “our art” may involve the crafting of our gospel-shaped lives, or a specific artistic endeavor; remembering that “calling” exists at the intersection of our deepest needs and the world’s deepest joy…

What kind of joy are you putting into your art today? What wonder are you bringing to your calling?

In the meantime… enjoy some great mixing and spoken word.

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Guest Blogger :: “creativity is spirituality is creativity is spirituality is creativity (and other run-on sentences)”

This week I’m playing guitar with some friends at a youth conference, so I’ve asked a friend to write a piece regarding creativity and spirituality. 

David is a “slash guy”, meaning: singer/songwriter/guitar player/Jesus follower/creative guy. He is a dear friend and one of the best people that I know. Please follow him, and buy, lots, and lots of music from him.

But enough from me… Dave?

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confession time: i’m a creative type (whatever that means). it’s likely that the handful of  stereotypes that just went through your head are true about me. it’s a fact that i don’t have what we’d call “a steady job.” it’s been scientifically verified that i’m running no less than 30 minutes behind schedule precisely 97% of the time. you’ll find (over the course of reading this blog post, maybe) that i most certainly lack the tools to maintain a linear conversation. it’s all true. and even though it greatly resembles chaos, i’ve found myself thriving in it.

i’m of the belief that creativity isn’t a state of mind, but more a state of being. in other words, it’s not the way in which i’ve been made as much as it’s the way i’ve made my life work: in choosing to allow as much room as possible for that unpredictable and mysterious friend called inspiration–a friend who almost always shows up unannounced, at the most inconvenient times. the only predictable thing about inspiration, as far as i can tell, is that, if one gets comfortable ignoring it, it’ll return the favor by showing up less frequently until infrequently becomes not at all.

the main outlet of creativity for me these days is writing songs. in this pursuit, i’ve learned to make sure inspiration feels welcome at all times, which means i’m regularly waking up in the middle of the night to hum a melody into my iphone or sketch a design for the next album cover (two examples from this week). making inspiration feel welcome also means i may pull over on my way to an appointment because, while en route, a journal-worthy idea finds me, resulting in an inspired me showing up late to get his teeth cleaned.

it’s certainly not more convenient to be a creative type. i’ll even admit that, at times, it borders on inconsideracy to those around me–especially my wife (sorry, hon). and it’s not the road to stability, that’s for sure. that’s why every poet has parents telling them to get a business degree to fall back on. okay. truth be told, a creative life, in and of itself, is at best a foolish pursuit, and more often just a huge narcissistic “look-at-me”  spectacle… but what if a creative life is necessarily bundled with eternity? wouldn’t that make it all worth while?

(aaaand the point…)

creativity has been the entry point to my life’s most spiritual and holy moments. i think that’s because God, who in just being, poured out the very idea of creativity and lavished it on His masterpiece (that’s you and me, friends). He’s waiting to meet us through beauty that doesn’t exist yet–at least not until we breathe life into it. God, who spoke the word, “sunset” and saw that it was good, reflects His magnificent beauty in each of us (regardless of whether we credit Him or not, i believe) whenever we choose to imitate that characteristic to make something beautiful out of a blank canvas or an empty stage or wood and strings or an adobe program or some spices and a particular cut of meat or…. (and the list goes on).

so, you wanna meet with God? create something beautiful. wanna worship God? notice and give credit to beauty’s inventor. wanna make space for that? allow yourself to be late to a meeting every now and again because you didn’t dismiss inspiration when it found you.

david greco is not a licensed blogger. he doesn’t even really read any blogs. wait. does 30 rock count as a blog? well, he doesn’t technically read that anyway. he just watches. mindlessly watches.

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Faith, Sermons, and Creative Destruction

I don’t type up sermon notes. In fact, I don’t type up anything—research, quotes, examples, etc. I handwrite it all, often with diagrams and visuals. After the teaching is done, it all goes away (well, most of it, occasionally I’ll retain the research somewhere). While I have a couple different reasons for hand-writing things (I feel the physical act actually connects me more deeply to the subject matter, for instance), I’ve found that this method actually borders on a spiritual discipline for me.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve really been enjoying Jonah Lehrer’s book on creativity, and I will reiterate: this book is really good. If you’re involved in any creative activity (and I will argue that life itself is a creative activity), you should definitely pick this up and read it. In it, Lehrer references a story about Bob Dylan.

He packed a typewriter in with his luggage and could turn anything into a desk; he searched for words while surrounded by the distractions of touring. When he got particularly frustrated, he would tear his work into smaller and smaller pieces, shredding them and throwing them in the wastebasket. (p.4)

How many great songs did Dylan tear up? Would you tear up your work if you were the most essential songwriter of rock and roll? (Actually, don’t answer that…)

I believe this is a great statement of creative faith because of this thought: tearing up the old is a bold assertion that more will come. 

More ideas.

More poems.

More songs.

More paintings.

Giving a sermon is not necessarily easy for me. I haven’t been doing it very long, and I’m still “finding my way” in terms of methods of preparation and delivery. But I’ve found that I almost need this somewhat radical step of destroying what I’ve just done in order to say to myself—and to God—“I believe another one will come; I don’t need to rely on this, don’t even need to retain it in order to refer to it in the future. The future will take care of itself.”

It’s a statement of faith, not just in myself, but in the fact that God will be with me.

However, the truly profound idea here is that the idea of “creative destruction” doesn’t end with creativity or sermons.

“Creative destruction” touches all of life.

Let me ask it this way: are there things that you are holding onto, areas of your life where you say, “I need to retain this, because I’m not sure that anything else will happen after it.”?

  • A job?
  • A vision of where you will live?
  • A limit to God’s mercy?
  • A limit to what God may call you to?
  • A certain belief of your role in the Kingdom of God?

What if these things—as good and grace-filled as they may be—are actually locking you into a pattern that may not be what God has for you?

What if God is calling you to jettison these ideas, to metaphorically (and faithfully) crumple them up in order to say, “God, what’s next?”

The past can root us and connect us, but it should not necessarily lock us into something, when God can promise something amazing and new.

Because more will come.

More life.

More faith.

More “work”.

More ideas.

More engagement.

…I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear… Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? (Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 6)

Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. (Hebrews, chapter 11)

 

But forget all that—
It is nothing compared to what I am going to do.
For I am about to do something new. (God, speaking through Isaiah the prophet,
chapter 43)