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Y’all would not believe the time I have had writing this sermon for today. Oh, the irony of getting writers’ block on a piece about creativity! But there you go. Stuck on that blank, white page. Kids home from school for a second full week, that definitely didn’t help. But I had to pull it together somehow, because this is the first worship service of 2017, new beginnings, new goals, new inspirations for my beloved congregation!
And that, I realized, was my problem. My creativity was blocked because I was afraid of failing, of letting down the people who need me to be creative and inspiring and… courageous.
The origin of “courage” is the French word for heart: “coeur”. To have courage is to live with your heart. Bravery comes into it because a lot of the time living with your heart is really scary. If we’re lucky, it’s not. But living with your heart means putting your heart out in front, to take the lead. It leaves our heart exposed, vulnerable.
A heart in that position takes enough beatings, and it might not have the resilience to recover. That makes me hesitate, every single time.
Brene Brown once asked herself, when she was examining her own vulnerability, “does this mean that our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken-hearted?”
I spent many years afraid of a broken, irreparable heart. I saw it as a fragile thing, made of glass, easily shattered, unless every movement was known ahead of time and carefully planned. It was a safe life. And it was devoid of true creativity — the creating of me.
When I finally started down this path to professional ministry, after years of not leading with my heart, it became clear that I had to learn how to take risks, how to be courageous in my creativity. Because how can I serve a congregation if I can’t show them who I really am?
Last year, when I first told you the story about why I started running, it was about proving something, about proving someone else wrong in their assumptions about me. It was, in a way, a creation narrative, and it happened to succeed.
What I talk less about, at least from the pulpit, is how I fail every single time I put on those running shoes.
I’m really bad at it. I’m slow. I always look ridiculous, even in my snazzy outfits. I sweat buckets, and I smell no matter how much deodorant I put on, and I’ve never, ever, ever had a runner’s high. I fail at running on a regular basis.
And then, I do it all over again. Sometimes, over thirteen miles worth.
And yeah, someone hands me a shiny medal and I get to eat a lot of really terrible but delicious food for one day. But what I come away with, and what leads me to always sign up for another race so I have to keep training, is that I did something that I am not good at, that I will never be good at. I did something just for the experience of doing it… and I didn’t die. I survived, and it hurt a lot, and my heart is a little stronger each time because of it. What was once made of glass, that I was afraid would turn to stone if I let it be hurt too much, turns out to be a living muscle, warm and flexible and willing to lead me into amazing new realities of my own making.
I may have started running with a purpose, with an expected result. But it soon became something I did for its own sake, because of the experience itself. When Marie Curie wrote about her life’s work, she said:
We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for humanity.
While scientists sometimes describe the things they encounter in their work as beautiful, it’s not often that we as a culture consider the act of science itself as an art, as a creative act of beauty. And yet, it is. Science, in the way the Marie Curie approached it, was worthy of doing for its own sake, and by equating it with music, and painting, and language, it then also must be held over and against the demands of the humanities — our morality and ethics.
One cannot tell the story of Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, and the good it did for many lives as a cancer treatment, without also telling the story of how unchecked consumerism took this scientific, artistic discovery, and proceeded to market it without further experimentation. These people were all absolutely convinced that there was nothing else to be learned, no more creativity to be found, except what could line their pockets.
Instead of doing what Marie did — continuing in the science, in the creative act of loving the world by learning about it — they assumed a false state of static, complete knowledge. Radium began to be used in cosmetics, as store-bought health aids, and in the most well-known case, in paint used on watches. The women who did this work, who were told to lick their paintbrushes to make points for detailed work, are known to history as the Radium Girls, whose lawsuits barely covered their living and medical expenses as the cancer caused from the radium exposure slowly killed them.
Even Marie Curie herself died from near-constant exposure to radioactive elements throughout her career, although she lived much longer than the people who consumed radium products.
The Radium Girls were not given the full breadth of knowledge, and even when they began to investigate, the company outright lied to them to protect their assets.
And yet, Marie Curie, who was forced to flee her home and her country to a strange place where she had no connections, no safety net, changed the world not because she could, but because she felt compelled to try new things and see what would happen. The results of these experiments, as we have also learned, cannot be put to use without ethical and moral examination. But Marie Curie was willing to risk her own life in order to live it to what she felt was the fullest extent.
Last year, one of Rev Gail’s sermons talked about how, when seeking to innovate, if you can aim, then it’s not really innovation. Because if you can aim at it, it’s known territory. True creativity, true experimentation, requires a willingness to shoot without a target. It requires shooting just to see where it lands.
What that reminds me of is how people talk about desperation. “Any port in a storm.” “Settling for what you can get.” So often that’s framed as a bad thing. And yeah, if you’re only going to shoot once, and commit yourself to wherever it is that you end up, probably not the best idea. Leading with the heart, having courage, truly embracing creativity, is being willing to shoot without a target, and then do it again if the result doesn’t work.
Innovation is scary. Creativity is scary. Because they are unknown, and our lizard brains hate the unknown. Unknown means danger.
But the unknown is also where we find freedom from our chains. The unknown is where we catch the glimmer of our vision, the tiniest seed of possibility. The unknown is where we must go to build something that works better than what we already have.
And that, my friends, is ultimately why creativity is so very very scary — because, by its nature, it seeks to undo the status quo. It seeks to undermine stability, to make you examine everything that you’ve been told is how it ought to be. It’s why artists are the first prophets of a revolution, it’s why tyrannical regimes seek to keep people so desperate and anxious that they cannot feel the pull of their hearts, and it’s why the rich and powerful always seek to own and control scientific innovation.
And I’m going to let you in on a secret.
That courageous, creative prophet who will change the world?
Whether it’s writing, or a science experiment, or designing a new education curriculum, or painting, or engineering, or any number of other things… something as yet unknown in the world, is calling from your heart.
In this new year, let us in this community help each other find our courage. Let us help each other explore the beauty in this world just because it exists. Let us find freedom in celebrating our creativity, no matter how scary, and no matter how many times we fail.
May it be so.