I spent my years from 16 to 30 being a professional musician/songwriter in various rock groups. Whenever I’d meet someone they’d inevitably ask what line of work I was in. I’d respond honestly and usually the next thing they’d say would be, “Right, but what do you do for a living?” I’m sure all actors, musicians, comedians, sculptors, composers, writers/poets and what have you have engaged in a similar conversation many times over. The majority of folks in the world tend to consider artists of any ilk as misguided Bohemians who have yet to get a grip on reality. Not everyone thinks that way, mind you, but most. Yet it’s the dreamers, mystics and the clowns that God employs most often to display His love, beauty, kindness and mercy. 1 Corinthians 1:27-28 states, “But God chose what the world thinks foolish to shame the wise, and God chose what the world thinks weak to shame the strong. God chose what is low and despised in the world, what is regarded as nothing, to set aside what is regarded as something, so that no one can boast in his presence.” Brennan Manning wrote, “Sacred scripture is too important to be left exclusively to biblical scholars. Theology is too vital to be consigned solely to the province of theologians. To explore the depths of the God who invites our trust, we need the artists and mystics.”
I’m amazed at the talent God gave authors like Dostoevsky but I must admit I’ve yet to get all the way through even one of Fyodor’s lengthy novels because I’m lazy in that way. (I can read the thickest tome by Stephen King in a matter of days because with him I feel like I’m just along for an exciting ride.) Nonetheless, I’ve read enough passages by Dostoevsky to recognize God’s fingerprints in his work. In Crime and Punishment, for example, a character named Marmeladov is the town boozer and frowned-upon bum. He’s a local punch line and his only daughter, Sonia, has turned to prostitution in order to survive. In a bar one night he talks with a young rationalist, Raskolnikov. Despite his despicableness Marmeladov requests he not be pitied. He explains, “But He will have pity on me Who has pity on all men, Who has understood all men and all things. He is the One. He too is the judge. He will come on that day and He will ask, ‘Where is the daughter who had pity upon the filthy drunkard, her earthly father, undismayed by his beastliness?’ …He will forgive my Sonia, He will forgive, I know it. Then He will summon us. ‘You too come forth,’ He will say. He’ll say, ‘Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!’ And the wise and those of understanding will say: ‘Oh Lord, why dost Thou receive these men?’ And He’ll say: ‘This is why I receive them, oh ye wise, this is why I receive them, oh ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.’ And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him …and we shall weep …and we shall understand all things! …Lord, Thy kingdom come!’” Those of us in the Celebrate Recovery ministry know precisely what Dostoevsky was trying to convey. Marmeladov was a sorry sot but he knew God’s character better than most. Sometimes faith is all a person has left to cling to. We who’ve visited rock bottom (and maybe even dwelt there for a while before being rescued) know firsthand God’s unconditional forgiveness and mercy. The all-powerful Creator and Supreme Architect of the universe alone loves us enough to reach down and save us from ourselves.
Before I rededicated my life to Christ almost seven years ago I was completely unaware of what was happening in contemporary Christian music. Once I started paying attention to the songs and lyrics I was hearing at church and at CR meetings I discovered I’d been missing out on a huge cache of genuine greatness. Artists like Chris Tomlin, Lincoln Brewster and Kristian Stanfill along with ensembles like Mercy Me, Hillsong and For King and Country are utilizing their God-given talents to stretch our limited understanding of God’s glory. Surfing the crest of high-quality, soul-stirring music, their thought-provoking images and sublime metaphors awaken our awareness of the Holy Spirit living within and allow Him to open our eyes and ears to a more expansive vision of the magnitude of our redeemer. They help us to temporarily escape this fallen world and step into the spiritual realm where we don’t have to try to figure out God. Instead, we can just let go of pretense and stand in awe of His majesty. I think that’s what Meister Eckhart meant when he said, “I pray that I may be quit of God, that I may find God.” God uses artists like the ones mentioned to lift us out of the doldrums and touch us in ways nothing else can. Karl Rahner prayed, “Eternal God, let them say what Your Spirit has given in their hearts rather than that which would make pleasant hearing to those who represent the forces of all that is average.” As adopted children of the great I AM, we never have to settle for anything average ever again.
It’s also noteworthy that God has a sense of humor. We were created in His image so it would seem we’ve inherited that unique, non-animalistic trait from Him. 14th century Catholic mystic Catherine of Siena reportedly began her prayers with the utterance, “O Divine Madman.” She once described God as being crazed and intoxicated with love. Thus it’s natural for us to surmise the Lord makes good use of class cutups in our midst in order to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously and, by so doing, overlook His blessings. There are many verses of Scripture that implore us to lighten up already. David wrote in Psalm 40:16, “May all those who seek you be happy and rejoice in you! May those who love to experience your deliverance say continually, ‘May the Lord be praised!’” We’re told in 2 Samuel 6 David’s the same guy who, wearing a loose priestly garment called an ephod, entered Jerusalem ahead of the sacred ark procession doing cartwheels and “…dancing with all his strength before the Lord.” His ecstatic behavior was infectious and soon the whole population was “…shouting and blowing trumpets.” But every party has a pooper and Saul’s daughter Michal voluntarily took on that role. When David went home for supper she met him at the door and snarkily said to him, “How the king of Israel has distinguished himself this day! He has exposed himself today before his servants’ slave girls the way a vulgar fool might do!” Some scholars say David surely was clad in more than a vest as he bounded down the boulevard but his wife’s outrage suggests her husband didn’t have on much more than the modern equivalent of a speedo. But her disgust didn’t faze David in the least. He said to her, “It was before the LORD! I was celebrating before the LORD, who chose me over your father and his entire family and appointed me leader over the LORD’s people Israel. I am willing to shame and humiliate myself even more than this!” Evidently Michal didn’t get over it because she then exits stage left, never to reappear. God certainly wasn’t put off by David’s display of unbridled exuberance because the first line in chapter 7 reads, “The king settled into his palace, for the LORD gave him relief from all his enemies on all sides.” David’s buffoonery didn’t bother the boss.
Acquaintances of Francis of Assisi nicknamed him the “clown of God.” Before addressing 3,000 Franciscans at their very first organized conference he paused for a moment to politely ask the birds to stop chirping until he finished his sermon. They respectfully complied. It’s said he once picked up two thin tree limbs, pretended they were a fiddle and bow and loudly sang hymns to God in French. He’d sometimes stand on his head to see how things looked that way, then tell others to do the same so they’d see life on our planet literally hangs by the slender but strong threads of God’s kindness. The Heavenly Father’s wry sense of humor is also made evident a mere 18 chapters into His Holy Word when laughter suddenly breaks out. The Lord and two of His angels show up at Abraham and Sarah’s tent to inform the elderly couple the stork’s going to pay them a visit soon. Sarah, in her 90s, giggles under her breath. Abraham subdues a chuckle. They’re both trying to keep straight faces because their guests act like they’re being dead serious. About this episode Frederick Buechner wrote, “They’re laughing because with part of themselves they do believe it. They’re laughing because with another part of themselves they know it would take a fool to believe it. They’re laughing because laughing is better than crying and maybe not even all that different. They’re laughing because if by some crazy chance it should just happen to come true, then they would really have something to laugh about. They’re laughing at God and with God, and they’re laughing at themselves too because laughter has that in common with weeping. No matter what the immediate occasion is of either your laughter or your tears, the object of both ends up being yourself and your own life.” Three chapters later we’re told the post-menopause Sarah birthed a son, Isaac. She then exclaimed, “…God has made me laugh. Everyone who hears about this will laugh with me!”
In John 9 we’re told of a beggar cured of lifelong blindness by Christ. He was dragged before the Pharisees who asked him how Jesus pulled off the magic trick. He shrugged and said, “He put mud on my eyes and I washed and now I am able to see.” They didn’t like that answer at all. After grilling the man’s parents to no avail, they brought the poor guy back and asked him the same exact question. “He answered, ‘I told you already and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? You people don’t want to become his disciples too, do you? [wink, wink] …Never before has anyone heard of someone causing a man born blind to see. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’” They then unceremoniously tossed him out on his ear but I’m willing to bet he was laughing all the way to the bank, so to speak, and never tired of telling his pals what blithering idiots the stuffed shirts in the Sanhedrin were, blinder than he ever was!
It’s the artists, mystics and clowns among us that help to expand our inadequate assumptions about who God is. Manning said, “They deepen our trust by reminding us to submerge the enormous difficulty of suffering and evil in the borderless sea of infinite wisdom and absolute love. They force us to pose the question, ‘Is God different from what we perceive?’ They lay bare an incandescent truth long concealed by ignorance, myopia, and inauthentic tradition: our perceptions of God, of our fellow ragamuffins, and of ourselves are flat-out wrong.” In other words, we’re so totally inept at gauging one another’s inner motives it’s no wonder we harbor such nutty ideas about our Creator. Philip Roth wrote, “You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance. …You come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals. …And yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you’re anticipating meeting them; you get them wrong while you’re with them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. …So ill-equipped are we all to envision another’s interior workings and invisible aims.” We, collectively as a species, conceitedly think we’re admirably clever when in fact it wasn’t that long ago we finally figured out the universe doesn’t revolve around earth. Duh. I’m on board with Jimmy Buffett when he sings, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.”
When we believers go in the other direction and get down on ourselves, thinking we’re useless to God and not worth a flip to anyone it is, once again, the artists, mystics and clowns that are there to pour the new wine of the Gospel into fresh-off-the-assembly-line bottles and pull us out of our funks. The Christian message is not restricted to the recitation of words alone. The healing language that announces the freedom only Jesus can provide to the lost and hopeless is frequently conveyed best through symbolic interactions or gestures, the graceful poetry of nature or the inexplicable miracle of music amplified by the unlimited energy of the great I AM in order to transform our minds and hearts into holy organs. When the horrors, atrocities and terrors of this world overtake our senses and Satan shouts, “You better start looking out for #1 or you’ll be eaten alive by the sharks and wolves that surround you,” it’s the oddballs the human race value-wise underestimates and takes most for granted that calm our fears and rejuvenate our faith by inviting us to look upward into the undeniable beauty of God manifested in His creation – the artists, the mystics and the clowns.
David, a great songwriter if there ever was one, figuratively shouted in Psalm 148, “Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the sky! Praise him in the heavens! Praise him, all his angels! Praise him, all his heavenly assembly! Praise him, O sun and moon! Praise him, all you shiny stars! Praise him, O highest heaven, and you waters above the sky! Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he gave the command and they came into existence.” When Augustine commented on this Psalm he asked, “Does God proclaim Himself in the wonders of creation? No. All things proclaim Him, all things speak. Their beauty is the voice by which they announce God, by which they sing, ‘It is you who made me beautiful, not me myself but you.” Manning wrote, “The poets, singers, songwriters, novelists, musicians, clowns, and mystics enable the voices of creation to shout, ‘How beautiful is the One who made us!’” Eugene Peterson’s translation of Matthew 6:28-29 is appropriate at this juncture. It’s Jesus, the Grand Designer Himself, who points out, “Look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like it? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside them.”
Buechner wrote, “In Shakespeare’s King Lear, one of the mightiest of all preachments, terrible as well as wonderful things happen. It is the ‘poor naked wretches’ of the world, as Lear calls them, who somehow survive in spirit and the rich and powerful who are finally brought down by their own power. It is the madmen and fools who turn out to be wise and the wise and worldly who turn out to be fools.” When we look back through civilization’s history we see this irony resurface over and over again. God proves (by showcasing our own inanity) He is, has been and forever will be in control. In Psalm 46:10 He says, “Be silent and know that I am God.” In light of that verse Buechner offers this poignant statement: “The preaching of the Gospel is a telling of the truth or the putting of a sort of frame of words around the silence that is truth because truth in the sense of fullness, of the way things are, can at best be only pointed to by the language of poetry – of metaphor, image, symbol – as it is used in the prophets of the Old Testament and elsewhere. Before the Gospel is a word, it is a silence, a kind of presenting of life itself so that we see it not for what at various times we call it – meaningless or meaningful, absurd, beautiful – but for what it truly is in all its complexity, simplicity, mystery.” We all should pray “Lord, send in the clowns. Please.”