Archives: 5 Easter

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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This Is How I Break My Vows

Well, folks, we’ve got a weird one.

This scripture from the Book of Acts is one of the more bizarre episodes in the Bible, and we’ve got a lot to choose from.

Peter has this vision of a sheet full of live animals being lowered down from heaven before him, with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air,” and he is commanded to kill and eat them.

Reptiles? Really? An angel commands him to kill and eat snakes and lizards?

Sounds more like a bad acid trip than a manifestation of God.

But I was thinking also it may be the first occurrence of a venerable church tradition: the church picnic.

Both my parents were raised Southern Baptist.

My mother was raised in a university Southern Baptist church, right off the campus of Baylor in Waco. They were very sober, respectable, pillar of the community types, and based on her descriptions of the services, were the closest thing to high church Baptists I can picture.

My father’s church, however…well, to begin with it was called Confederate Avenue Baptist Church, and if that doesn’t sum up the Old South I don’t know what does.

And Confederate Avenue was an old-fashioned, sawdust on the floor, traveling preacher, week-long revivals in the summer type of church.

The hellfire and damnation preaching was so intense, my father says, that he got saved two or three times just to be sure.

And at my father’s church, there was a regular phenomenon called “chicken on the grounds.” “Chicken on the grounds,” from what I can tell, was a combination outdoor coffee hour and church picnic that happened every Sunday.

This was also the type of church for which the noon meal was only halftime, there was church that night as well, with some kind of educational program for the kids called “Training Union” that still makes my parents shudder to remember it.

So at chicken on the grounds, my father says, everyone would sit down at the tables out in the yard. Continue reading

If You Try to Stick Your Hand Up My Skirt, I’m Going to Get Baptized

I’ve been thinking a lot about power lately.

Actually, I’ve been thinking about power for years, because I think it’s so central to our spiritual path.

Power is the number one addiction of our unredeemed egos, and as such it has enormous potential for danger and abuse.

But lately I’ve been starting to wonder if it has a good side as well.

As I look back over just the last two weeks in my own life, I see a lot of instances of men, women, and power, and how the three forces interact for better or for worse. And as I make these observations, I’ve started to question some of my beliefs about power.

I have long believed that Jesus teaches downward mobility.

“Blessed are the poor,” Jesus says. “Blessed are the meek, those who mourn, the peacemakers…he who would be greatest among you must be the servant of all.”

I still believe that.

Many of the most formative theologians in my life have also taught about giving up control and power—St. Francis, John of the Cross, Gerald May, Richard Rohr. I find their teachings incredibly important.

There is still a lot I can learn about giving up power, because I know that my basest desires and fears can and will drive me to exert it destructively if I don’t submit myself humbly to the work of God in my soul.

But here’s what else I’ve finally noticed: all of these theologians who teach about giving up power are men.

And many of Jesus’ teachings in the gospel—while certainly applying to men and women alike—were originally directed, in the moment, to men.

Presumably the crowds he preached to had both men and women, but many of his most pithy and pointed teachings about giving up power were directed to the disciples and the scribes and Pharisees, all men.

Almost all of Jesus’ most intimate, one-on-one interactions with women were either 1. healings, or 2. telling them to take up power. Continue reading

What Is Martyrdom, Really?

The gospel that we read today will be most familiar to many of us as “the funeral text” because that is how we most often have heard it.

I would say that for close to 80% of the funerals I have done as a priest, the family has chosen this gospel for the service. There is clearly something deeply comforting in it.

It is often called for shorthand “the many mansions” text for the older language translation of Jesus saying, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places.”

What we notice this week is that someone does die in our assigned texts. We have the martyrdom of Stephen in our lesson from Acts.

What if we considered this gospel as the reading for Stephen’s funeral?

How would that affect our understanding of it?

And how would it affect our memories of the loved ones we have buried with these words echoing through the worship space?

Stephen is important because he is the first person who really follows Jesus all the way to the end of the story.

He followed Jesus in life, and he ends up following Jesus into death, persecuted and killed by people who cannot bear the searing and life-changing truth of the gospel message.

For most of Christianity we have settled for worshipping Jesus rather than following him.

That is quite possibly because following Jesus can and does have rather dire consequences, as Stephen finds out.

Our other tendency is to glorify literal martyrs such as Stephen, and there certainly is much to admire in people who are able to give up their physical bodies to die for Christ.

But it can become an outsourcing of the necessary death that we must undergo in our own lives, before we physically die, if we truly wish to follow Jesus into resurrection.

What does it really mean to be a martyr?

And is it a calling we all share, or the province only of the rarefied saints like Stephen? Continue reading

Preparing for Priesthood by Failing My Ordination Exams

There are a number of good ways to study and interpret scripture, but one of the ones I enjoy the most is to take details within a particular passage that jump out at me and ask what they mean in my own life.

The people who wrote the books of the Bible were trying to communicate the events of stories, but part of what makes these writings Holy Scripture is the fact that they are layered with meaning.

Each time we come back to them we find a new echo, a new resonance in our own lives. This is why the Bible is our heartbeat as the people of God.

Our lesson from Acts today is rich with sentences and phrases we can mine for meaning in our own lives.

The basic story is about Philip the Evangelist and the Ethiopian Eunuch.

This Philip is not the Philip of the Twelve Apostles. Rather, this Philip was a member of the early church who was chosen as a leader to help administer and organize the church so the apostles could go and pray rather than sort out disputes about food and money.

At some point Philip becomes known as a talented evangelist, and begins to go on conversion missions under the direction of the Holy Spirit.

He finds a eunuch traveling from Jerusalem back to the court of the Ethiopian queen, where he is a high official. This eunuch is reading the text of Isaiah in his chariot.

Philip interprets Isaiah to him in the context of telling the story of Jesus, and the Ethiopian man is so moved that they stop and baptize him on the spot.

Philip is taken away by the Holy Spirit to evangelize elsewhere, and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. Excellent story, the end.

But like I said, it’s worth slowing down and taking a look at the details of the story. I find some of my most fruitful prayer and insight about my life come from this type of Bible study.

I’m fascinated right from the beginning of this passage. “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.”

This is a wilderness road.

What does it mean to be called by an angel of the Lord to go to a wilderness road? Continue reading

Becoming an Ancestor: The Life of a Living Stone

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

The image is a fascinating contradiction that immediately draws us in: living stones.

Stones are associated with many images and ideas but rarely are they called living.

We think of them as permanent and lasting, but as dead and inanimate, void of spirit and life.

Peter, the one who was named “The Rock” by Jesus himself, asks us to rethink our assumptions about cold, dead stone.

And really he is carrying forward Jesus’ own teaching.

In the Gospel of Matthew, when Simon Peter recognized Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus did not say, “On this river I will build my church,” or “On this tree I will build my church,” or “On this metaphysical theory will I build my church.”

Jesus said, “On this rock I build my church, and even the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”

Jesus built the Church of the Living God on living rock. Continue reading