When Artists Stop Creating
There is a time when artists stop creating. It is not a new struggle but a struggle we find over 2,000 years ago in Babylon. The reasons are many. It may be a long stretch between gigs. It may be a weariness of the soul. Maybe you even achieved your goals and still feel unsatisfied. Regardless, the time will come when you wonder if it is worth carrying on. If we take a moment to unpack the poetry of the psalmist, we can find great wisdom for our soul and hope for our heart.
The Recognition of Great Talent
Countless artists and artisans lived in Babylon. We know this because of the rich history, the archeological finds and the stories of Ancient Near Eastern literature. Babylon was beautiful. Hanging gardens, grand parties and the pride of an empire. Yet, there remained beauty and talent elsewhere. This is true in the same fashion today. Producers, gallerists and agents all know there is talent beyond Los Angeles and New York. In the great city of Babylon they heard of talented musicians who sang jubilant songs of Jerusalem.
Losing the Will to Create
There was a problem when the artists from Israel showed up. They had no desire to sing. To be clear, they were not hired for a gig. They were conquered and now in exile. Depressed and discouraged, these artists had lost their joy. Their hearts were overwhelmed with grief. Faced with the anxiety and fear of a new normal: living and creating outside of the city they love, without the peace and familiarity they had enjoyed. They were far from Jerusalem. It was in this context that we find Psalm 137, and these interesting notes about the musicians.
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung our harps.
They had their creative gifts with them. They had their instruments. What they did not have was a desire to use them. So they took their harps and other instruments and hung them up in the poplar trees.
And Yet, I Cannot Stop Creating
The Psalmist tells us they did not want to create. And yet, as if by instinct, they held on to something. They knew their gifts had not been given to them completely in vain, and their hearts still longed for something. They held on to hope of a return. A return to life in Jerusalem and a return to a life of creativity. In their desperation, they saw a connection between their creative motivation, and their spiritual home. So deep was this connection, that they equated forgetting one with forgetting the other:
If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
When you go through your own spiritual desert, you are tempted to give up on your passions- spiritual and creative. Why? Because they have not provided the salve to your wounds you hoped they had, or provided a way out in the way you had hoped.
Like those musicians, we all have skills as artists, which we have developed over the years. Practicing scales, painting canvases, or rehearsals and years of managing the business of your craft. For me, I recall the long years of private lessons and countless hours spent on scales, sight-reading and performing. Those skills are precious to artists. They are the tools that have opened doors and given them accolades. Yet, when you have worked so hard, and the results seem too paltry, it is tempting to give up.
Psalm 23 For Creatives in Hard Times
We have all prayed or recited Psalm 23, but unless you have been through a crucible or a severe crisis, they are verses many read without much thought. One in particular is verse 4:
Yea, though I walk through
the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil; For You are with me;
Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.
We often hear this passage first when we are quite little. As children, safe from the struggles of paying the rent, or keeping an art business afloat, these verses are lovely pictures. Our hearts had not yet been broken, and our spirit tempted by cynicism. As we grow older, the weight of the world strips us of naïve ideas about work, the world, and our spiritual life. We learn that evil is real, temptations are plentiful, and life can be a daunting endeavor. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, and our valley of the shadow of death, what should we do? Consider my alternate translation.
Psalm 23:4 for creatives:
Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I will not stop creating, playing, and performing, for thy rod and thy staff comfort me. I will not give up hope for I know, I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, Amen.
Creativity and God’s Presence
Is not creativity, art and music symbolic of the fact that God is with us? The question is a matter of hope, and more precisely, the source of that hope. Within the history of God’s people, there has always been a connection between God’s presence, and the creativity of His people. Bezalel, in Exodus 31 would be the most obvious example, though creatives may find a muse in a person, a season, or a location, the ultimate ‘muse’ is the presence of the Lord. This is not about inner peace. It is not about physical or financial blessing. It is about spiritual hunger and the only fountain from which we can find satisfaction.
Our Spiritual Challenges
Living in Jerusalem is a unique experience, and though I have great memories of living there, it was not idyllic. Military presence is their ‘normal’. Violence on the border and in the city was a given. I will never forget when one of my mentors stated, “It may be a land flowing with milk and honey, but it devours its inhabitants.” All the tourism brochures conjure up ideals of spiritual mountain tops experiences, but they do not convey the tension of everyday life when you live there.
We must remember, the Christian life comes with promises of a new life (which are true), but also with the cost of discipleship. God will allow us our valleys as well as our mountain tops. We need both so that we do not trust only in our own gifts and talents.
Our Spiritual Home
Jerusalem was a picture of a spiritual home, and now we look forward to The New Jerusalem. If this is our hope, we can find a reason to create, no matter where we are, nor what our circumstances may be. Jerusalem means “city of shalom” or “city of peace, beauty, justice, love,…”. The paradox is this: it has almost never possessed the picture of what it foreshadows. If you remove King Solomon’s Reign, it has almost always been a symbol of a future hope. Thus, it is the same future hope for us, as it was for most Israelites throughout history.
The Opportunity in the Dark Valley
Facing a dark valley is an opportunity. That is when your faith is tested, and you see what you truly believe. The point of decision is when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death. What will you give up on, and to what will you retain your foothold and your grip.
Remember the words of the psalmist, “if I forget you, Jerusalem, may I forget the skills I have spent years of time and money acquiring. May I forget the talents you gave me.” Whether you need to change your vocation or artistic opportunities, resist the temptation to forget your savior or the talents he has given you. Both are gifts for you to cherish along the journey.
Never give up on using your talents. They are a gift of God. They are a blessing.
Though these verses show a poignant connection between your creativity and your spirituality, there is more to you than your art. God may want you to put your art in the back seat for a season because he has something else he wants to teach you. God wants you to develop your gifts and to flourish, but not at the expense of his primary goal – helping you to become like Christ.
When times are tough, you may consider pausing your creative career, but don’t give up completely. There may be a season in your life where you stop pursuing art full time. This could be for many reasons. Maybe you need to take care of a loved one, or help bring in the money needed to provide food, rent or even medical bills. It may be the wise thing to do. . . for a time. I explain this fully in my Artist Calling Course.
Most of all, I want you to see the connection between your passions and skills, and the Lord of heaven and earth – who gave you those passions and skills. God does not often give us the inside scoop on his plans, but we can trust that he is good, and is directing our steps because it brings glory to him and helps us to become more Christ-like. And remember, even if you only create something that is private, you always have an audience of one- God himself.
Never Stop Creating. Completely
If you need a break, take it. But don’t make the mistake of assuming it is permanent. Learn from what God has placed before you today, and look forward to the day you can rejoice through new art, new seasons, and new creative works. The God who gifted you is also the God of all hope, so put your trust in Him, and be patient, knowing his love for you is boundless.
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Copyright © 2020 Joel & Michelle Pelsue. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.