Since it is springtime, and we are enjoying all that which comes with the calendar turning to April, I will start with this question:
How do we know that God is a baseball and softball fan?
The answer? Because the first line of the Bible is “In the Big Inning.”
Yes, one of my favorite corny “dad jokes,” but appropriate perhaps because we are talking this month about creativity and there is no better place to start than the book of Genesis and how God brought us into being.
This first book of the Bible, Genesis, tells us the story of how God created the world and the “stuff” that is in it. The soil, the trees, the sky, humans ourselves, and the other beings that surround us. Those first lines we read today tell us that God created the heavens and the earth. Ponder with me for a moment what that means. One interpretation is that in one moment, there was a nothingness, a void, an emptiness, and then suddenly, the heavens and earth appeared. They were created. Powerful and amazing stuff, beyond scientific explanation.
In fact, what science teaches us is that what God did, according to Genesis, cannot be replicated (repeated) by humans. The Law of the Conservation of Mass states that anything that humans make is simply a re-formation of matter, of molecules, into a different form. Humans cannot create like God did in the sense that we cannot bring into existence something from nothing. Rather we create things by taking materials that already exist and combining them in new ways.
Take an artist, for example. We admire spectacular paintings or sculptures for their visual appeal, the way they might portray a scene or capture the essence of a person. Before the work started, though, the canvas was just an empty piece of paper. The paint was sitting in a tube. The brushes were clean. I could go even further back in the process. What materials were combined or re-formed to make the canvas, the paint, the brushes? But you get the point. In order to create, the artist has taken all this stuff and using their brain, what they imagine inside their head, they have put them together in some new way, perhaps a way no one has ever thought of.
It is an easy trap, though, for us to think about creativity only in this artistic sense. Yes, painters and sculptors are creative. I am in awe of those folks. They have skills I will never possess. Musicians and dancers, actors and singers. They fall in that category too. We have seen some wonderful examples this week in chapel. But all of us, in our way, are creators. As Chaplain Kennedy noted, every time you solve a problem, you create.
What problem solvers do is take sets of facts, sets of data, sets of assumptions, and test them. They create theories, possible solutions to problems; they try them out. They think analytically and develop a way forward on vexing issues. Life asks you to do this every day in small and big ways. I certainly hope your teachers are training you to do this frequently.
In his book, The Data Detective, Tim Harford gives his readers ten rules to use when trying to interpret data, particularly statistics, during this analytical, problem-solving process. In the narrative, he cites an experiment done in the 1960s, which is instructive when we think about how we can best be creative. He describes how a researcher took a group of people who were heavy cigarette smokers, asked them to listen to lectures, and then grade each lecturer on his or her ability to persuade through speech. The researcher told the participants that the recordings of the lectures had been done in a small room with faulty equipment, so there had been a fair amount of static and other noise interference that made the lectures hard to understand. However, the researcher further told the participants that they could improve the sound quality by repeatedly hitting a button on the listening device so that they could better understand what was being said.
What the participants, all heavy smokers remember, did not know was that a bit of a trick was being played on them. You see, the researcher played for them two types of lectures - the first, about how bad smoking was for their health, the second, about how smoking was actually not bad for you. What the researcher discovered was that the participants were much more likely to try to remove the noise interference in the recording when the lecture was confirming that their smoking habit was ok and less likely when the lecture was telling them how bad smoking was for them. Similar experiments with similar outcomes were run with other subjects having to do with political and religious opinion. The experiment showed that people like to hear their opinions agreed with, their preferences confirmed. We would rather ignore or block out anything that opposes us and with which we disagree. Do you fall into that trap? I know sometimes I do.
This tendency drives against creativity.
Let’s consider another human creation story, this one written about 5000 years ago by the ancient peoples of Mesopotamia, a culture that had a different idea of God than Jews, Christians, and Muslims. This one describes the origins of the earth in another way. Rather than a supreme being who brought into existence the world out of nothing, their god instead created the world by bringing order to a chaos that already existed - one could argue a less divine and a more human act. Their god - called Ea, Bel, or Marduk at different times in their history killed another evil god Tiamat and re-formed her body into the earth and heavens. He established a divine order from the confusion that Tiamat had wrought.
And in fact, isn’t that how we are creative problem solvers? We bring order to chaos. We take ideas in the same way that an artist takes their materials - their canvas, their paint, their brushes - and combine them in new ways to develop, to create a solution.
Ah, but here’s the problem. Let’s go back to our researcher. If we succumb to that human temptation to block out that with which we disagree, we no longer have the material with which we can create. It would be like the artist who brings the paint but has neither the canvass nor the brushes. When we separate ourselves from the ideas of others, we limit our ability to imagine. As I have said before,
Love is connection; sin is separation.
Problem-solving is creation and, in this context, is an act of love because we connect to those people and ideas with which we disagree. It serves others by making their lives better, lightening our neighbor’s load. But it is not easy. It requires us - all of us - to leave our safe space. One of my spiritual heroes Bishop Robert Barron talks about how all heroes in literature at some point have to leave their safe space. They need to confront that which is hard, but most importantly, those with whom they are in conflict. It is the only way to move forward. And my experience has been that there is no running from these situations. If you don’t seek them, they will eventually find you. Better to engage in a constructive and proactive way than in a defensive and reactive way.
Christians are just exiting the season of Easter. The central story of Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, and resurrection is the incarnation of God on Earth. Jesus came so that the God and human could be brought into complete unison. Humans could touch and experience the divine, and God’s only son could experience the triumphs and tragedy of humanity. While humans do not have the ability to divinely create, to bring something into existence out of nothing, we do touch God when we create by bringing something new to life through a reformation of the old. It is through that act that we can most love like God and love our neighbor.
So my hope and prayer for our community in this month of April is that we commit ourselves to connect with those whom we would rather block out, to proactively engage, to be problem solvers. It is in those moments when we bring order from chaos, those in which we create by re-formation, that we touch the divine.