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Think Inside the Box: Discipleship as Creativity By Constraint

In 2019, Harvard Business Review did a comprehensive survey and compilation of 145 empirical studies from academic journals on the conditions that support creativity and innovation.  And they discovered something very counterintuitive.

It turns out that we do our best inventive thinking when we think inside the box. 

The box itself spurs us on to come up with solutions we never would have considered if we had the complete freedom we think we want.  This is the phenomenon of “creative constraints,” and scientists have been finding very consistent results on the positive effects of creative constraints on human innovation.

Why do they work? 

Creative constraints take the focus of our thinking from wide to narrow, and the creative challenge increases our motivation to innovate.  Having endless options both increases our decision fatigue and makes us want to default to the most obvious, path-of-least-resistance answer. 

(Side note: the psychological peril of endless options doesn’t only refer to overwhelm when looking at 5000 Amazon choices for a can opener.  It’s also why online dating can increase alienation.  We do better with fewer choices in a lot of arenas in life.)

Creative constraints drive people to become remix artists, pulling in multiple unexpected sources, methods, and ideas to create solutions that remain within the confined boundaries. 

Now this isn’t an infinite phenomenon–too many or too harsh constraints start to limit creativity.  Companies such as Google and Apple deliberately orchestrate and carefully calibrate constraints to stimulate innovation. 

Think about the famous scene in the movie Apollo 13 where the NASA ground crew literally has to make a square peg fit into a round hole to create a carbon dioxide scrubber using only non-essential equipment already onboard the imperiled spaceship.  They thought they couldn’t do it, but knowing that their colleagues’ lives depended on it, they used those very strict constraints to spur their creativity, using what seemed like a few extra pieces of junk on the rocket to make a life-saving device.

People are more willing to accept and even enjoy working within constraints if they feel supported and feel like they have others to lean on and collaborate with.  There’s a lesson for Christian community in that last point that we probably want to keep in our back pocket as we explore this further.

For us post-modern thinkers, it can be difficult sometimes to understand the value of some if not many of the texts of the Bible. Why do we keep anchoring ourselves in this ancient, outdated text?

Because God has used it to spark creativity within restriction.

The Bible itself functions as a creative constraint for our entire lives.

We often think that we’ll be better off with total freedom to do whatever we want. “Think outside the box,” is a better known gospel these days than “love your neighbor.”

But the scientific evidence proves that we’re more innovative when we think inside a quite restrictive box, and I’m making the case that our prayer life and our service to God function the same way.

This is not some reactionary call to live within unjust laws and rules that foster oppression and repression. But it is a call to examine our assumption that structure always means stuffiness.

Our liturgy is highly structured, and that reliable framework is here to lean on when we’re in grief and trouble, and to support us when our spirits want to fly free.

The whole spiritual life could be described as creativity through restriction. Consider the experience of the monastics. They took on some of the most restrictive lifestyles imaginable, and they had vivid experiences of God to show for it.

So let’s test this hypothesis, in good academic investigatory practice.  If we document correctly, we might even make Harvard Business Review

Our first lesson is from Acts, the story of Peter’s vision of animals and his learning about clean versus unclean. 

What is the constraint we take away from this story? 

At first it’s misleading.  We think it’s about a lifting of constraints, the dietary laws that God’s people had functioned under prior to that point. 

But Peter, and we, are being asked to function under a new constraint, and that constraint is a restriction from our old paradigms. 

We have to give up our authority to decide what God’s laws are, and accept them as they’re revealed to us—which we find right here in this text, might change over time. We’re not allowed to use our comfortable categories we’re used to, for either what to do or who is acceptable to God and the community.

We have to conform to God’s view of who is saved, and it will not match what we think. 

By accepting this creative constraint from God, Peter and the others find a new mental and spiritual flexibility.  God gave them a new box to think inside of, and they found it very roomy, very interesting, and a place for new experimentation in building Christian community.

In our gospel lesson from John, our creative constraints are even clearer, and they’re quite harsh. 

“Little children, I am with you only a little longer,” Jesus says.  He’s leaving.  Having Jesus gone is a pretty significant creative constraint for the disciples. But there’s more. 

“Where I am going, you cannot come,” Jesus continues.  The constraints are really adding up now.  The disciples are being told they can’t go to where he is.  They’re confined to a space without the physical presence of Jesus.

And then here comes the big one.

“Love one another just as I have loved you,” Jesus says. 

The disciples are now being told, “Here are the boundaries for your conduct.  Here is the box that I’m asking you live in.  Your actions and your decisions are now constrained.  You can’t do whatever you want.  You don’t have perfect freedom.  I’m asking you to live within the constraints of loving one another just as I have loved you, with me having ascended to the Father.  Whatever solutions you come up with, whatever plans you make, whatever decisions or actions you consider, they have to adhere to that standard of love, without me here physically with you to guide you.”

That feels a bit overwhelming.  “Love one another” feels so big, but it also feels so small.  It feels like a big job within a tight restraint. 

But science tells us what God already knew: those are actually the conditions that lead directly to human flourishing, to innovation and discovery.  By giving us the creative constraint of loving one another as he loves us, Jesus is giving us a massive creative push into new growth and freedom.

Consider your experience at your own congregation.  Your church has been a full-on laboratory of creativity within restrictions during the pandemic.  You found yourselves with quite a lengthy list of things you couldn’t do.  You had to find a way to do ministry inside a box of limitations, restrictions, and constraints. 

How have you used prayer to make your way through that?  What courageous actions did you take to keep ministry going?  Because you have kept ministry going, and more than that, you’ve continued to grow ever deeper into the core values that make this congregation the rich and beautiful tapestry of love that it is.  You are living proof of how the Holy Spirit comes alive within and among us when we have to or choose to live within creative constraints.

So start reflecting on the experience of your community in this time and continue to explore how creative constraint can function in your own spiritual walk. 

What creative constraint is Jesus inviting you to in this season? 

What limitations will you deliberately accept in your life, not just for the well-being of others, but for the chance to see how God can help you experiment and grow in completely new and unexpected directions?

As followers of Jesus, we choose to impose certain restrictions on ourselves, like giving up time for prayer and for service, like not returning hatred for hatred, like loving our neighbor.

Spend some time this week looking at your restrictions, both voluntary and involuntary, and explore how the Holy Spirit  is inviting you to go wild with joy and creativity by means of those restrictions.

“My boundaries enclose a pleasant land,” the psalmist says. I think we’re only at the beginning of exploring it. 

It’s hard to believe that we’re more free with slightly less freedom, but the scientific evidence backs it up.

And don’t tell Harvard Business Review, but God knew it first.

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It’s Week 2021 and I’m Running Out of Time

Do you know what week it is? For me it’s 2021.

“No,” you may say, “the year is 2021, not the week. It’s the 2nd week in August. But it’s okay, we’re all stressed out, I’m not surprised you misspoke.”

But I didn’t misspeak. The week is 2021. For me. Today is August 15, 2021, and I was born on November 15, 1982. In a very strange non-coincidence, today marks literally the 2021st week of my life. On August 15, 2021, I have officially been alive for 2021 weeks.

The reason this catches my attention is because of a fascinating new book I’ve just read. It’s called Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. He points out if that if you live to be 80 years old, you will have lived 4000 weeks. 4000 weeks—that seems terrifyingly short! Having moved past 2000, I’m already over halfway through!

Most people’s first thought on thinking of their lives as 4000 weeks give or take, is, “Am I making the most of it?”

If the time is so finite, are we cramming every possible meaningful important thing into it that we can? The answer is usually no, as we look out at a landscape of emails and diapers and grocery runs and recurring attempts to get a gym habit going again, punctuated by a vacation here and there which we mainly experience through the viewfinder of our phone camera.

We start to feel the pressure—work harder, play harder! I have to make the most of my short time on this earth by doing more.

Which week are you on? Week 1350? Week 1800? Week 3140? Was it a good one? Did you check something off your bucket list? Or at least return that phone call you’ve been putting off for a month?

Burkeman points out that we are stuck in an industrial notion of time that deeply shapes our quality of life in ways we’re largely oblivious to.

Our ancestors in the faith had a very different relationship with time than we do. For thousands of years, human life was shaped by loose, open rhythms of time communicated to us by the earth and the skies. You went to bed when it got dark and you were tired. You got up when the sun began to rise and the rooster crowed. You harvested when the crops were ready, and planted when the soil was ripe.

You didn’t need precision, and you certainly weren’t going to “run out of time” to do anything. You churned the butter until it firmed up. It wasn’t like it was due at 4 p.m. and if it wasn’t ready you had to send an apologetic email to your boss.

I certainly don’t do much romanticizing of days gone past—as a woman with many religious ideas I’d like to share, in the old days I definitely would have been burned at the stake at the very least. I enjoy not having dysentery. I like air conditioning.

But this business of time is something I do envy our ancestors’ experience of. Jesus never heard an alarm clock, is the point I’m making, it wasn’t even patented until 1847, and so the entirety of the scriptures are predicated on a relationship with time that was very different from our own. The ancient rhythms of the church, of prayer and communal gathering, of feast and fast, harmonized with the rhythms of the earth, which created together the rhythms of human life for centuries.

Our relationship with time started to change with industrialization. In order for a large, mechanized factory to work with multiple workers, everybody had to get there pretty much at the same time. Which meant that we had to agree on what time it was.

Clocks came in with monastic orders who wanted to time their prayers more precisely than by looking at the stars, which might be covered by clouds. So the monks did it first, but everybody else had to get “on the clock” once we started moving off farms and working at factories. The church bell was replaced by the factory whistle, and the acceleration that began then has literally never stopped.

Almost every piece of technology introduced in the last 100 years has had as at least one of its primary aims to “save time.”

But does your time feel saved?

Even though you know that it took your great-grandmother about four times the time and effort to do her laundry than it does you, do you feel awash in peaceful, discretionary time brought to you by your washer and dryer and the hundreds of modern conveniences you have?

We “save time” every day with our machines and gadgets, but what are we “saving” it for?

You can’t actually save time. It moves forward whether you “save” it or not. We want to save time because we’re trying to hoard it, as though that were possible. I don’t know about you, but my time feels increasingly out of my control, like it’s either over-programmed or dragging by, like I’m never making the best use of it and I’m too tired to try.

The infusion of capitalism into the concept of time created something called “instrumentalization.” What this means is that the value of something or someone consists in the result it can produce. It is instrumentalized—we use it as an instrument to create specific outcome.

This sounds fine at first—the valuable result of a cow is meat or milk or cheese. The purposeful outcome of a day of work is 20 emails returned or 6 classes taught or 4 computers repaired or 16 dresses made. Again, fine.

But as capitalism ate the world, we didn’t notice that both time and people were being instrumentalized as well. The value of time is now much work you can get done in it. The measure of a human being is how much output they can produce.

It’s so pervasive that even rest, leisure, and Sabbath are now marketed by their ability to recharge you to do more work. Pay attention to your rest and self-care, we’re told, they’ll make you more productive!

This pierces me to the heart because I’m an inveterate self-improvement junkie and productivity chaser. I love learning about the newest life hacks that save time and make your day more efficient.

But stepping back, I realize that I am instrumentalizing myself and everyone around me. I am taking my 4000 weeks and feeding them to an economic machine that is destroying the earth.

But Burkeman points out that all of our hurrying, all of our pressure to make the most of our time on earth, is really a reaction against our own human limits. The fact is that whether we save time or waste it, lose it or spend it (notice how many of our time images are economic metaphors), it is finite. The psalmist knew this when they wrote, “The span of our life is seventy years, perhaps in strength even eighty, yet the sum of them is labor and sorrow, for they pass quickly and we are gone.”

And we hate that. We rail against it. We will do almost anything to fight off the reality that we’re going to die, and in the span of things, we’re honestly going to die pretty soon. As Jim Finley says, “We’re all on the same highway, and the exit is coming up.”

But what turns this from tragic into beautiful is realizing that God does not instrumentalize time and people the way we have learned to.

We do not exist to produce things. The purpose of time is not to create more output. You do not have to earn your 4000 weeks on this earth. Your time here is not to prove that you’re useful or worthy or good enough. That happened when your soul was created by God before the foundations of the world, hidden with Christ in God.

You have intrinsic value, not instrumental value. And your time on this earth has intrinsic value, not instrumental value. You are enough, right here and now, no matter what you have done or not done up to this point, and no matter what you do or fail to get done for the rest of your life.

Consider what internalizing this Good News could do for you. Consider how living it out could change your relationship to your 4000 weeks. And notice how much differently you could love your neighbor if you weren’t instrumentalizing them. What a miracle it is that your 4000 weeks coincided with his or her 4000 weeks, in the 200,000 years that humans have been around!

Jesus only lived about 1700 weeks, but by God he made them count. But not by measuring the empirical, quantitative results of those weeks. If we measure how “successful” he was by the efficiency of how he used his time, he was a dismal failure. He only used 156 weeks for his active ministry, the rest were “wasted.” He only had 12 fully trained employees, about 70 unskilled workers, and in terms of social media followers? He lived in a total backwater, a 3rd rate colony.

Not a good use of his time. Not productive.

But Jesus didn’t measure time or people the way we do. He loved and healed and fed the people right in front of him, and he allowed himself to be loved and healed and fed for long enough, thirty years in fact, until he was ready to go out and serve others.

He valued people radically, and he didn’t “use” time at all. He allowed the current of love to carry him through time, and he held his time so lightly that he didn’t even consider how short it was being cut by allowing himself to be crucified. He could have extended his time on earth—he certainly had the power to not get arrested and killed until 20 or 30 years later, when he could have gotten more done.

But that’s not how he looked at the world, and it takes a radical conversion for us to join him in his outlook, where time and people are holy gifts rather than tools.

So here we are on page 7 of this sermon and I haven’t had time to get to actually talking about our scriptures this week. Sorry.

But once you start paying attention to the way time works in your life, you’ll also notice how the concept of time is all over the scriptures.

Just in our texts today, which weren’t chosen because they talk about time necessarily, we read, “The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years.” God says to Solomon, “Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches…I give you a wise and discerning mind…I will lengthen your life.” Paul writes in our lesson from Ephesians, “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time… [give] thanks to God the Father at all times.”

And Jesus brings it home for us in one word that he uses a lot. And that word is “forever.”

Forever is a word that is outside of time. Forever encompasses all of time and all that lies outside time as we understand it.

Jesus renders all of our worrying about time, how to use it, how to have enough of it, how to save it, how to spend it, completely moot when he tells us, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day… I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.”

When we root and ground our lives in Jesus, our short time on this earth transforms into part one of eternal life, life that flows onward even when our physical bodies wear out and die.

We never run out of time with God.

Life on earth gives us 4000 weeks, but Jesus gives us forever. There is no purpose other than joy. There is no goal other than love. There is no rush and there is no waiting.

The Kingdom of God is among you. Forever is here and now.

Don’t waste any more time worrying about it or trying to achieve it. “Now is the acceptable time, Paul says, “Now is the day of salvation.” Receive it. Embrace it. Savor it.

So which week is it for you and how are you going to live it? Today I’m living week 2021 of my 4000. I’m so grateful God allowed me to spend this day, this time, with you.

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The Terrifying and Short-Lived Providence of God

There’s not much I can say at this point that I would be confident in attributing to all Americans.

Most generalizations are pretty dicey right now.

We are such a divided country with such widely divergent experiences that it’s hard to speak for everyone.

It feels most days like the political divide has us living in completely different realities from one another.

But here is a generalization that I feel 100% confident in attributing to pretty much all Americans: we are really, really tired of not knowing what’s going to happen next.

If you’re like me, you let yourself be lulled into a false sense of optimism coming into 2021. It’s like we all thought that if we could escape the literal numerical reality of being in 2020, the Year of Doom, things would look up.

Everyone knew 2020 was a wash, but 2021! Things are going to be different!

We earned a fresh start.

We stuck it out and didn’t go (completely) crazy through a pandemic that restricted our movements and took away friends and family too soon, massive racial justice work on the streets and in our hearts, lost jobs among soaring income inequality, and rounding it out with murder hornets of all ungodly things.

We made it. We were all so ready for a new year with a fresh start.

And then on day 6 of the new year, right wing militants led an insurrection that invaded and desecrated the United States capitol.

After thinking for so long, “Things can’t possibly get worse,” they did. In spades.

If you’re like me, you’re exhausted, afraid, disappointed, embarrassed, and losing faith that this dream called America is even real anymore, if it ever was—and we know it wasn’t for generations of oppressed people.

White violence was tolerated and apparently even welcomed in the halls of Congress, as capitol police put up a pitiful defense against the insurrectionists and in some cases ushered them directly in.

White supremacy ran amuck in the House and Senate for five hours—or rather, it did so in flag-waving openness rather than just in the polite, buttoned down, suit-clad form in which it usually manifests there.

I can’t take any more crises. I just can’t.

The constant swerve between adrenaline-fueled panic and apathetic exhaustion has worn me to a paper-thin facsimile of myself.

I need to have something to lean on. I need something to count on. I need to know that tomorrow is going to be okay.

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The Red and Blue Bridesmaids

“Keep awake, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

How many of us have been keeping that commandment of Jesus from our gospel today all too literally this week as we waited for election results?

I’m usually asleep at a deeply unfashionable 10 p.m., but on Tuesday night, actually Wednesday morning, I was up at 1:30 a.m. waiting for returns. I did that even though I knew full well it would be very unlikely for us to have a final result on day one, two, or even three of this election week.

We spent all week knowing neither the day nor the hour of a conclusive election result, and honestly it’s been one more exhausting ordeal in a year full of them.

It was a little 2020-ish in our story from the Gospel of Matthew as Jesus tells it.

This is not a happy group of women waiting in the house for the result.

You might say they were divided.

You might say they were polarized.

You might say they were unable to find common ground.

I feel like maybe half of the room was painted blue and the other half red.

The interesting thing was they all had lamps. But only half of them had oil.

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We Need Mustard Seed Churches Now More Than Ever

Well, first of all, congratulations! You have a new priest! I’m so thrilled for you, and Grace Church will be very much in my prayers as you live into this next chapter of ministry with Father Bill.

We talked last week about what a precious time this season of transition is.

Often congregations want to kind of fast forward through the time between priests.

There’s a complex mix of emotions.

There’s grief from losing your previous rector.

There’s uncertainty over how the Spirit is leading the next steps of the church—are we making the right choices?

There’s anticipation but a bit of anxiety as the days tick down before your new priest arrives and joins your ministry.

Will things work out? Have we made the right call?

And that is a challenging set of emotions in normal times.

Add in the additional set of roadblocks that come with facing a transition during coronavirus, and anyone would want to throw their hands up in frustration.

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