January 15, 2017 / Creativity Inside the Box / Sara Wolbrecht, Kim Saunders, Levi Bilderback
Friends, how are you? Good, good. If you were here last week then you know that we launched a vision for where we’re headed in the next few months as a community, and it is to launch Thrive Teams, our version of small groups, by March 1st, as we begin the season of Lent. A season where we’ll read a book together as a community on prayer, and let that fuel our Sunday morning content, a season lasting six weeks that will take us to Easter Sunday. A season where these Thrive Teams – which will hopefully include as many of us as possible – these teams will not only be a place to grow in relationship with God, and deepen connections and inside jokes and vulnerability with each other, but also to be teams of people who coalesce around an area of ministry, a passion for which to take the lead and responsibility in helping take Salt House to the next level, where God really shows us what’s possible, what can be done, in community like this one.
Which is why, for January and February, to get us ready for that – we are working through a paradigm shift together, looking at unleashing our collective, creative potential into what it means for us to be community, a community that shows up to creatively be the love and grace and justice of Jesus here and now. We’re calling it Force of Nature. When we show up, with the creativity God has designed us for – it is a force indeed.
And so today. On this journey of exploring the Force of Nature that is community, we have the great privilege to hear two voices from our Salt House family. From both you will hear more about their stories, their own wrestling through who God has made them to be as a creative force in this world. It is so good for us to share our own journeys with each other because God uses those stories to teach and inspire us. And you’ll also hear from them, they’ll each offer an invitation, an opportunity – and maybe it will be for you.
And the first voice is Kim Saunders. You see Kim here on Sundays playing with the band. You have also seen her in action as the head of our Leadership Team, maintaining key roles in the development of the New Bethlehem Day Center (serving homeless families in our basement), and now with our decision to sell a portion of our land to become a 24-7 shelter for families and women experiencing homelessness. There is so very much she does behind the scene that I am so grateful for. She won’t tell you all of that, but she will speak of some of the other paths her life has taken – we listen together, hearing what God has to say to us through Kim’s journey. Thank you, Kim!
Creativity Inside The Box
The scripture I’d like to explore today is from the gospel of Luke, chapter 2. From The Message version:
Luke 2:19 Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself.
And the second part of Luke 2:51 His mother held these things dearly, deep within herself.
I was born an introvert. I find joy by myself, exercising, reading, thinking, being. Like Mary, I hold things deep inside - the essence of me hidden from sight, a secret, a mystery. As a child I felt radically different than my parents and three siblings and by extension most of humanity. But being a mystery wasn’t a bad thing. I thought about that deeply buried essence of me as a black box of magic from which power would emerge at surprising times in unexpected ways. But in the past few years, I have begun to discover a new, or maybe just a more expanded, truth about myself and that magical black box. It turns out that I am far more than an introvert, and that for most of my life I have mislabeled that black box.
When I was 16 years old I went off to college at the University of Virginia. I went there to join the Echols Scholar program, which allowed students to build their own curriculum across every school in the university. This was perfect for a student like me, who had graduated from an accelerated high school program for math and science but spent every free moment in a land far, far away, accompanying choirs on piano, or acting on stage, or hiding away somewhere reading. As an Echols Scholar I ended up taking classes in engineering, in architecture, in design, neurobiology, environmental studies, English, music, physics, yes really… and then spent many hours a week immersed in bridging my passion for black music and culture and a white Southern student body. Outside of the U.Va. sports teams, the show choir I founded and named Musique was the only integrated group on campus. 16 singers, 8 dancers, 10 instrumentalists that performed on campus, on local TV, around the region; I was crazy busy. But I had a secret. The hours in the dark of night when I was supposed to be sleeping – those were prime time for my best work. I would carefully lay out freshly sharpened #2 pencils and a crisp yellow pad, set my alarm clock, and go to sleep. I would wake to the alarm every two hours, get up and write until I stopped, then go back to sleep. Write, sleep, write, sleep. And then the magic. When I got up in the morning I would read what I had written. And without fail it would be something surprising. An idea I didn’t remember considering, a setting I knew nothing about, a theorem I had never thought through, a story of a girl or boy or family that I didn’t recognize. This was my secret, my black box full of the most amazing things, unique only to me, magic. Nothing I owned or could really take credit for. Simply magic.
I knew about God. My family was Christian. My red-haired engineer dad and athletic, artsy mom brought my two brothers, my sister and me to House Church, a small United Church of Christ community that met in state parks, retreat centers and living rooms. We had celebration, not worship, social justice was the heartbeat of the community, and my mother’s beautiful calligraphy inscribed every “God is love” church communication I saw until I was 10. That year I was asked by my elementary school choir director to play piano for his church choir at Peace Lutheran Church, a job which I had for almost six years, until I left for college.
Even though I knew the language of Christianity, my creative black box wasn’t about God or love – it was simply unexplainable magic.
After college I went out a built a life. I got married to Raynard, my Musique assistant director, had five bi-racial children, got divorced, fell in love again and married Michelle, my wife. I toured as a keyboard player, ran a consulting business, wrote two books on database design, spent 18 years as a senior manager at Microsoft, did church music, and went all-in as a parent growing a community with and around my kids as they did music, sports, and theater. I exercised my creative skills in everything I touched, but what I didn’t do was pay much attention to that magical black box which faded way into the background of my sense of self.
Several years ago my son Heath and I were working together on a community production of the musical Les Miserables. After several shows where he had been my assistant, now he was the music director and conductor, and I was playing keyboards in his orchestra pit. There was a young man who was a reed player, studying music in college, who had been in productions with us previously. During this production, however, his sister was also in the pit playing viola. And when they interacted with each other, Heath and I witnessed something surprising. The young man suddenly appeared much younger than his 21 years, and a lot more awkward. When we asked the director what was up, she responded that the young man was on the autism spectrum, and had been profoundly impaired from a very early age. Heath and I were both shocked to think that this young man, a competent, friendly, somewhat weird musician like all of us, had a diagnosis of autism. And we both were fascinated by the question of how this might be – how a person could receive a diagnosis that often profoundly limits their potential, and yet grow up to engage in the world far beyond those limitations. Heath was inspired to explore this question musically, while I noodled on the idea of a novel, developing characters and setting and a storyline. We both wondered: when does a diagnosis help, and when does it hurt? Within a few months we had come together and agreed to collaborate on a single piece of musical theater, combining his early musical ideas and my story ideas. This collaboration became Newton’s Cradle, a full-length musical about Evan Newton, a young man on the spectrum, and his family.
Newton’s Cradle is more to me than a piece of art. It is my gateway into a new life. Writing it turned me inside out.
I was immersed already in empty-nesting. My youngest twin daughters were at college, I had recently left Microsoft and begun exploring new work options. But now I had to figure out how to collaborate as a peer with my son, despite feeling both an unequal partner to his giftedness, training and experience, and an over-developed sense of parental responsibility for our joint outcome. I had to actively clear away the cobwebs and oil the rusty hinges on my old black box of creativity. I had to figure out how to sustain my marriage through a major shift in my focus and sense of self.
But oh, what I discovered. First of all, over time the writing took on its own life as it became more and more clear that the characters were writing their own story. And surprises emerged as we settled into the rhythm of our collaboration; I would send Heath a scene, and he would send back some music, and then we would iterate together around those things. In the handoffs, he would see things in what I wrote that I hadn’t been aware of, and I would see things in his work that surprised him as well, but these surprises had a sense of inevitability. It was like we were both looking at the same thing but neither of us had sufficient perspective to capture it all on our own. The magical black box that had been buried in me was re-emerging, and I felt it surrounding both of us. Or more accurately, I sensed a merging of his creativity and mine.
At the same time as I embarked on my new journey into creativity, our new Salt House community was emerging. I was excited to see us venture more deeply into what Brian McLaren writes about in his book The Great Spiritual Migration, wherein our prime contribution to humanity shifts from teaching correct beliefs to practicing the way of love as Jesus taught, where church becomes a school of love.
Today that creative, magical black box is becoming a little bit translucent. It isn’t that I understand it any more, or that I can predict what’s inside with any new certainty. But I have named it differently.
Today I call that creative, magical black box God.
I had been living my old understanding of Luke 2:19 Mary kept all these things to herself, holding them dear, deep within herself. I had thought I was introverted, coping with the demands of a large family. making things happen outside, and storing things up on the inside. Holding on.
But other translations of Luke 2:19 don’t describe Mary as “holding” these things inside. Instead, they reference “pondering,” “dwelling on,” and “meditating.” Instead of a passive holding on, Mary is actually making an active choice that prepares her for what is to come. And, the small difference between Luke 2:19 and Luke 2:51 also points that direction. Instead of focusing on the what of holding, here Luke focused on the how of dearly – His mother held these things dearly, deep within herself. “Dearly” in other translations references “treasuring” and “keeping in her heart,” much more an act of love.
Today, I name my magical black box God the creator. I experience creative collaboration with my son as a space where the magical creator God is active. I experience my creative collaboration with our growing church community as evidence that the magical creator God is not just active, but guiding.
It turns out that I am far more than an introvert. I am a co-creator who was made not only to hold things inside, but to form and share them with others. And I know this magical creator space lives not only inside of me and Heath. Whatever the name, the creator space also lives in you. It is the gift given by our Creator to all of us, we humans who are made in God’s creative image.
And I give thanks every day for the chance to experience and experiment with it, and Him.
God, thank you for Kim’s story – and how it reveals our own. That we are co-creators, made not only to hold things inside, but to form and share them with others. Thank you, thank you for the chance to experience and experiment with it, and with you, and with each other. Continue to speak to us about how we might co-create with you in our relationships, in our work, in our play, in our time here as a part of this new community. Thank you. Amen.
Friends, this Thursday you can get a sneak peek into seeing Newton’s Cradle – for all the ways we are now obsessed with Hamilton, think of what it would have been like to see an early video of that show before it made it big. This is that kind of opportunity. We are doing it here, this Thursday. We’ll start the video at 6:30pm, but come early with some food to share, potluck style, as we’ll eat and talk and then keep eating while we watch, together. It’ll be about 2 hours, including an intermission. Folks with little ones – you can always come and stay for as long as you can.
Now, we continue to hold what Kim has shared with us as we open ourselves to hear and be challenged by more.
Rewind to last spring. As we celebrated our first birthday as a church – Salt House turned one year old! – we committed to three months of intentionally identifying our emerging sense of mission and identity at Salt House. So much beautiful work came out of that time – and I won’t get into all of it. But one of the dreams that emerged was the dream of developing a community garden.
But here’s the thing: we all loved the idea, but none of us had that knowledge, experience, green thumb necessary to really lead that. But we sensed it was something God was forming in us as a way to use our land, engage our neighborhood, serve the day center, and be more engaged in the very soil of this place that is ours.
Then in July. In walk Levi and Kaylee Bilderback on a Sunday morning. And even more than the synergy we’ve found in having leaders who will lead a Thrive Team for our community garden, even more than that gratitude I feel for what they’ll do, I feel it for who they are. And the humble, playful, vulnerable ways in which they have shown up here in community. I’ve asked Levi to share just a few minutes about his story in getting to this place, and then let you what’s coming up for our community garden.
Levi Bilderback – Finding God in the Garden
God, thank you for the great gift of pulling together our longing for a garden, and Levi and Kaylee’s courage to walk through these doors. As we dream about what you’ll do in the soil of this place, we are mindful of how grateful we are to have this place, this land, this community, where you plant seeds – literally and figuratively. Thank you, for all the ways you challenge us to grow, to keep on, to find the work that we can enjoy – may we, like Levi, do just that.
Friends, the Community Garden will be one of the Thrive Teams available to us in a few weeks. Stay tuned for more. Thank you, Levi.
Finally, to close our time, and to weave a final thread through what we’ve heard today, we’re turning back to this painting. Painted live during worship on the four Sundays of Advent by Dani Dodge. Dani designed each of the constellations to have deep meaning – specifically around what it means to be community. And so we are revealing the meaning of one constellation each week for January and February.
And today, we talk about the lower body of a Greek Man. You see it there? Dani wrote this about it: Lower Body of a Greek Man: “While Greece and Rome at their height were still male-dominated societies, they show us the first signs of a successful Democracy. They were not without faults, but it was a different way of operating in a community. They got creative.” -Dani Dodge
This is a good week for us to talk about creative democracy. Tomorrow we honor the life and work of Martin Luther King Jr, and the freedoms he fought for that continues to be threatened today, and then on Friday is the inauguration of our next President, Donald Trump. And in light of what feels like a great tension between those things, and again in weaving in what we’ve heard from Kim and Levi and the journey we’re on as a community who will mobilize into teams soon, I want to close with this quote from President Obama’s farewell on Tuesday. Can you hold all of those threads together, as we hear this? Let’s do it:
“The most important office in a democracy is the citizen. So, you see, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when you own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime. If you’re tired of arguing with strangers on the Internet, try talking with one of them in real life. If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing. If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clip board, get some signatures, and run for office yourself. Show up, dive in, stay at it.” President Barack Obama, Farewell Address
My friends, in the creative democracy that is Salt Houseit is a deep joy and honor to do life here with Kim, with Levi, with Linnea in the sound booth, with Jill and Bob and Michelle leading our kids, with Nancy in the kitchen, with David serving communion – and like Kim and Levi we all show up here with different stories, different passions, different histories with God. So let’s be perfectly clear that the story we’re attempting to write together at Salt House is one where we show up, dive in, and stay at it – by the grace and power of God. And we bring the creativity we’re made for – and watch as God makes beautiful things of it. I do not look forward to Friday. But I do know that God co-creates with us as we show up in the creative democracy of Salt House, in the creative democracy of our country, in all of it.