Pressing Against the Darkness: Mandy Smith on #CreativeUncertainty
Last January (2019), one of my new year’s resolutions was to start a regular guest-post series here on the blog around the topic of writing about difficult things. I was seeking to cultivate community among creatives who actively engage the “tough stuff” of life in and through their work, especially from a Christian spiritual perspective (broadly defined).
Then COVID-19 hit, life liquified into a slough of chaos, and I put the project on the backburner. Somehow a year has gone by but the desire to build relationships around the tough stuff in the creative life has only become more critical.
So I’m excited to finally launch this new series, which I’ve entitled “Creative Uncertainty.” It’s a biweekly series of Q&A-style posts to help us think about how we can engage uncertainty with the life-giving imagination of creativity.
Every other Wednesday, a fellow writer, visual artist, or other creative will share about the role uncertainty and struggle plays in their work. (If you’re interested in pitching a submission to this series, check out the submission guidelines here.)
Today’s contribution comes from my friend, former pastor, and fellow lover of beauty Mandy Smith, based in Cincinnati. I met Mandy during grad school when I attended her church. Shortly after meeting her, I began my conversion to the Eastern Orthodox Church, during which Mandy was always a voice of discernment and quiet wisdom. Since then, Mandy and I have both become published authors, and I’m glad to kick off Creative Uncertainty with her lovely reflection on pressing into the darkness with the “yes” of creativity…
What is one quotation that has helped you create meaning in times of uncertainty?
“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours. . . . It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally.”Frederick Buechner (see here)
These words speak to me of a struggle I have on a regular basis as a preacher and writer. I worry that my experience is too personal and particular to really mean much to anyone else. And so I’m tempted to generalize so that it begins to mean nothing much to anyone, including myself.
It’s a risky thing to let a story be told from its birthplace—this very life—and trust that although the details are very different from any other life, the story will mean something to other lives. If we’re honest, our desire to be objective hides a desire to stay safe—to keep ourselves out of the story.
It’s much safer to keep Christianity in a place where it doesn’t ask much of us. But Paul describes “a letter of Christ . . . written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” We’d prefer solid, objective tablets of stone to study at arm’s length. But God writes his story in a much more intimate and tender place.
We’ve been warned not to draw attention to ourselves at church, which suits us just fine because we’d rather not expose those hearts of flesh. What we call humble objectivity could also be a desire to avoid our calling to bear witness. As my favorite preaching book, Preaching as Testimony (by Anna Carter Florence) says, testimony is both a narration of events and a confession of belief: “we tell what we have seen and heard, and we confess what we believe about it.” It’s possible to be so present in the story-telling that we disappear and all anyone can see is Someone Else.
When I’m helping folks in my congregation prepare to share testimonies, I tell them the same things I tell myself: “Talk about God’s work in specifics. Where were you? What were you feeling? smelling? seeing? And don’t feel the need to say you’ve arrived. Share how you’re still figuring it out.” And then we all get to watch how an ordinary person lets God be revealed through their ordinary story and it becomes a little easier to believe in the Incarnation.
How does your faith inform your work as a creative?
The Bible helps me understand the very real darkness which wants to keep humans quiet and afraid. When I watch how many things get in the way of our creative expression, I have to ask, “What is so powerful about the release of a human imagination that it always stirs up so much push-back?”
I’ve watched darkness smother the childlike spirit, crushing tiny seeds of ideas with performance pressure: “Will it be good? If not, why bother starting?” And I’ve watched it bind adultlike agency: “Who do you think you are to try to change the world? Aren’t there enough books and songs and paintings already?”
Either way, it turns us inwards.
It’s not a spirit of generosity but of self-consciousness. Not a spirit of abundance but scarcity.
It’s only recently I’ve noticed how much it sounds like the whiny, sham-sympathy of temptation.
Last year, on an empty beach, I had a strange urge to dance my prayers. I confessed it to a friend via text, having already decided it was foolishness. She simply texted back, “Why not? You might make someone’s day.” It turned my eyes outwards—what if the joy in me is a gift I can choose to share? Maybe it doesn’t have to become the best dance anyone ever saw.
Whatever spark in us doesn’t have to become a best-selling book or a platinum album or art fit for the Louvre. What if our invitation is to just say yes to the primitive prompt—“Write!” “Dance!” “Speak!” “Draw!” “Sing!” What if our “yes” allows something to happen in us which might also become something in someone else? And what if that something presses against the darkness? Maybe just because we feel less alone?
Who are we to keep it to ourselves? We might make someone’s day!
Where do you create in the age of lockdown measures and work-at-home life?
When we first bought our home 20 years ago, we pulled up the carpet to discover glossy oak floors. But in random spots the gloss was marred by ugly black blobs of adhesive. The man in the hardware store instructed me that the stuff needed to remove the adhesive was the exact same stuff that would strip the varnish if I rubbed a few times too many. So my first act of love for my new home was to sit alone, in the dark, empty house and patiently rub just enough but not too much. I felt a surprising peace in that spot, a sense of belonging which was strange after fourteen years of renting. And now, that same spot is where our dining table sits. It’s still my place of paying attention. So, although I’m an introvert, one end of the dining table right in the middle of our house has become my place for creative work, whether the kind of creativity required for writing or painting or leading a congregation. And it’s (almost) always cleared away in time for dinner.
Originally from Australia, Mandy Smith is a pastor and author of The Vulnerable Pastor: How Human Limitations Empower Our Ministry (IVP). Her next book, Unfettered: Imagining a Childlike Faith Beyond the Baggage of Western Culture (Brazos), is available for pre-order and will release in 2021. Mandy and her husband, a New Testament professor, live with their family in a little house where the teapot is always warm.
Read about her work and join the conversation at thewayistheway.org. Twitter handle: @uccmandy