So I’m on a two week trip around the country… Started in South Carolina, of course, and drove to Florida. I left my wife and kids there, for time with extended family while I was away. I flew out of Tampa to Chicago.
So I was in Chicago for the Willow Creek Arts Conference. Overall, it was good. I’ve heard from many that this year was “south” of past years as far as breadth of worship experience. But it certainly made up for it in some wonderful, spirit-filled and passionate teachers.
The first day we had Nancy Beach teach a session in which she looked at Psalm 40 and the inspiration it provides for artists and creative folk. It was powerfully woven-together with drama and video and song in a way that was amazing, and so much more profound than a speaker behind a podium.
That same day, Gilles Ste-Croix from Cirque du Soleil and Nancy had a conversation on stage, which was interesting, but provided little in way of take-home (for me, anyway). Brian McLaren was scheduled to speak for the last session that day, and me and my best friend decided to skip it and go downtown to Navy Peer after eating dinner at Ed Debevic’s (from which point I lost my glasses!).
The next day we had “breakout sessions”, classes and training more geared to specific emphasis areas, like drama, dance, singing, audio and video, etc. Very little in the way of writing or sermon-preparation and delivery, which would have been more along my interests. Due to this, I picked a number of things that related to other areas of interest or familiarity (or I thought I did).
My first session turned out to be about the process of managing a team of writers to produce effective dramas. Interesting, and has areas of overlap with my devotion writing/leading ministry. My second session, which was titled “Thriving at The Front of the House”, I completely misread. I thought I might find good information about technique and encouragement for those singing at front, but turned out “Front of House” refers to the audio/visual support team. Yeah. lots of interesting stuff and not at all a waste, but not what I was expecting.
My third session was led by Mark Batterson, the lead pastor at National Community Church. All I can say is awesome. Best breakout session for my own take-home potential. He spoke on preaching with creativity, focusing on practical ways to share God’s eternal truth so that people are changed and can experience our God.
My last session was on monologue. I thought it would be about writing, which is more my thing. It was not. It was totally about bringing the skill of an actor to bear to turn words on page into connecting, real, authentic and poignant art that spoke truth to people. Any ideas I may have had that an actor’s “art” was not of much value or skill was wiped away. I watched as the leader helped some prepared individuals completely transform memorized lines into believable and gripping monologues. These people, for an instant, ceased to be actors and became the individuals they were portraying. Just amazing. I possess not a single iota of this skill, but now have a deep respect and admiration for that art!
The final day was great, though the end left me stunned. It started with Kendyll Payne, who was a wonderful singer, and a gifted story-teller. She was followed by Richard Allen Farmer. To say this man is both eloquent and passionate about God is an understatement. He spoke on the character and nature of artists. One of the points that stuck out to me was his idea that artists must be articulate. it is not enough to produce art. One should be able to account for it, to speak to it, to share what it means and what it is for. He coined the term “linguicide” and gave a witty example of an athlete who can’t string a cogent sentence together after a game. We ought to be so filled with excellence and preparation that there is nothing lacking. Anyway, I thought it was wonderful. At the same time, he spoke to creative people as needing mystery – describing it as speechlessness. So together he brought to bear articulate and speechless as describing the wonder and awe of God and the thirst to expound and share what we can in the most excellent way possible.
He was followed by Francis Chan, who though so different from Farmer, spoke with power and passion for us to be filled with the Spirit, and not just the excellence that comes from preparation and skill. We must run after skill, we must be prepared, but we must do it so that God is the one who is glorified. If our “skill” gets in the way of God getting glory, its a waste. He sort of spoke it this way: Lots of time people say Chan, you spoke well. How often do they bypass me altogether and glorify God? That’s what Jesus says, that they will see our good deeds and glorify God. Not us. God. Do we serve in such a way that it points to God? Do we allow the Spirit to be the one truly at work, or is it all cleverly built and orchestrated clutter in order to twist emotion and response?
Well, his closing prayer was aimed (at least what I heard) at asking God to speak to us. To help us to operate in a fashion that he alone would receive the glory as the Holy Spirit operated within us. And that is where it got odd for me. I heard God tell me something for my very near future. To be quite honest, it completely freaked me out. I am still recovering. I intend to do what he said, but I know it will be a challenge. It is completely beyond my understanding and not where I thought I was heading. It turns months of living upside down and calls it all into question. Makes one ask, “what in the world are you doing, God?” It fits into the growing feel of calling on my life but completely turns it on its head. I don’t mean to be so secretive – I’ll likely share more later. In short, it will be exactly what Chan was talking about. Something for which I will be able to take no credit. It’s not in me. There can be no prideful appropriation of God’s glory. It will be all God.
Anyway, what followed was the song, “God of this City.” It was powerful and awesomely done. Everyone around me was singing. I, however, was dumbfounded – still in shock from God. I couldn’t speak or sing. I honestly stood there weeping (not much – I am a guy after all). I stood motionless until the last chorus, at which point I found myself simply singing out with all my being to the Lord. So ended the conference. I was still pale and awestruck for quite some time, speaking little, contemplative, moody (not in a bad way, just shifting thoughts and trying to make sense of it all). I would ask for your prayers, of course.
Last evening, in what turned into a long wait-and-see, I finally left Chicago and flew to Spokane. My company is based out here, so I’m here to do some work with the corporate office. Next Saturday I’m on my way back to Tampa, planning on driving back to South Carolina the next day.