Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.07.54 AM

Title Pending: Have Something To Say? Say It All

Later this year, I’ll release a short book I’m calling “Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff.” Between now and then, I’m posting previews of the book here at this blog and elsewhere, like the Art House America blog or On Pop Theology.  Below is the third installation (the first is here, the second here).

I don’t believe, at all, that every piece of art needs to make some kind of statement. But, in the event that part of what you want to do with your artwork is to say something you think is worth saying, then say it entirely. Write it all the way out. Sing it as loudly as you can. Paint it as broadly as your arms will allow.  And if you do it all with both excellence and courage, I guarantee there is an audience willing to receive, engage and consider your idea or your critique,.. even if they disagree.

Give your readers, viewers or listeners the credit they deserve. They are whole persons whose lives are as nuanced and conflicted as yours. They can handle you being human and having human passions. In fact, they may need your art to be angled and slant and nuanced and conflicted so that it might help them give voice and shape to the lives your work touches. 


For more in-depth previews of Title Pending, as well as for special access to unique content, sign up on the email list

Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 5.38.05 PM

Robin Williams, Inspiration and Depression

Here is something true: If it weren’t for the work of Robin Williams and Steve Martin, I’d most likely not have taken the stage. I loved music as a listener and like the idea of making it personally, but what Robin Williams did from stage moved people. His comedy captured listeners and his stories inspired. Very early on in my life, watching his “Live At The Met” performance, I decided I wanted to do the same.

Here is something that seems true: If Robin Williams had seen the outpouring of gratitude and appreciation following his death, he might have had second thoughts. But he’d lived in that glow for many years and, as is the case with so many brilliant women and men, there is simply no telling what kind of actual impact the celebration of their work has on them. If it is true (as it seems to be) that he was wresting with depression, then there also no telling what would have pulled him out. It’s awful, depression is. Depression often means forgetting everything of value in, around and about us – we lose connection with life.

At the tail end of that 1986 performance at The Met, Williams does a short bit on the future – whether or not it’ll end when some decrepit world leader mistakenly hits a nuclear launch button or it’ll go on in technological wonder for years to come. The whole thing is frantic and silly and hilarious… and then he turns a corner, talking about his son.

Sometimes,” he says “my son looks at me and gives me that look in the eyes like ‘Well? What’s it gonna be?’” Williams responds to his son (in the imaginary dialogue he’s having), saying “Hey, Zach, it’s um.., I dunno. But maybe along the way, you take my hand and we’ll tell few jokes and have some fun.

And everything he’d done in the past hour and a half on stage took on a different tone.

Because comedy, like all great art, is about connection – The connection between cultures and races, between family members and neighbors, or even between myself and my own life. When we can laugh at our disconnect and discrepancies our failures and follies, we can receive ourselves and one another as human. Robin Williams’ work did that as well as anyones and better than most.

Depression seems to have stolen from him the kind of vision and connection he helped to create for fans of his like me.

May you and I never lose that vision or connection. May we always take the hand of some Great Love in our lives, the way he asked his son to take his – with little assurance of what the future holds but an invitation to face it together.

___

*WARNING: The linked clip contains foul language… cuz… it’s Robin Williams)

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.07.54 AM

Lacrosse, Joy and When To Quit

Later this year, I’ll release a short book I’m calling “Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff.” Between now and then, I’m posting previews of the book here at this blog and elsewhere, like the Art House America blog or On Pop Theology.  Below is the second installation (the first is here), this one written in response to questions about when to quit working on a project. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 


One of my best friends in college was a lacrosse stud. I was, on the other hand, a Philosophy Club nerd who didn’t know what lacrosse was. So, Carrie tried to explain her beloved sport to me. “It’s just the best,” she said. “It’s like… I don’t even know… it’s just so great! You should come see me play.”

I had to leave a meeting called “Existentialists Who Love Ice-Cream But Can’t Justify Their Feelings About It” early to catch the second half of the game, which had started just before I arrived. Nearing the field, I saw Carrie trotting to the sideline, waving to me and shouting, “You came!” She halted on the sideline and what at first seemed like a design flaw in Carrie’s uniform came into focus. A brown and red stain roughly the size of Rhode Island covered the upper-left half of her white, collared jersey.

I gasped, “What the hell happened to you?”
She tugged at her jersey and the mess covering her shoulder glistened, still wet.
“What can I say,” she called back, “I’m a bleeder.”

A few of her teammates chucked.

“I got smacked in the nose a few minutes ago. I’ll get her back.”
“How’s it going besides that?” I asked.
Carrie laughed, saying “Oh, man. We’re getting slaughtered. Hey, listen, I need to focus. I’m glad you’re here. Let’s talk afterward.”

Carrie took joy in playing lacrosse. And in that joy, she loved the work of it, even when that work came in a losing effort during which she was injured and bleeding. When I can’t see the work in front of me that way – when I lose joy in what I am doing – I have to seriously consider putting it down, maybe for a long season but more likely for good. Here is something true: the absence of joy is the only justifiable reason I’ve found for quitting a work.

I have set projects aside for a time in order to regain perspective or grow in the knowledge and skill required to do it well. I have unhappily slogged through days or weeks of project work, wondering if it would turn out at all. But in most of those scenarios, I still found meaning, hope and purpose in those works. I still felt connected to them. In short, I still found joy in the work. On the other hand, when a project has become little more than a chore and I’m only tinkering with it to get it out of the way, I probably need to put it away and probably for good. 

Screen Shot 2014-08-05 at 9.07.54 AM

Who Needs Another Book About Creativity?

Later this year, I’ll be releasing a short book I’m calling “Title Pending: Things I Think About When I Make Stuff.” Between now and then, I’m posting previews of the book here at this blog and elsewhere, like the Art House America blog or On Pop Theology.  Below is another such preview. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 


For a good five minutes I sat, staring at the email opened on my screen. My fingers resting crookedly on my keyboard, I wondered how to answer the question it posed:

“Would you be open to talking with my students about your creative process?”

I was open to the idea, but I sincerely did not know what I would say about creativity to a classroom of college students. Maybe, I thought, I could read a few passages from Ed Catmul’s “Creativity Inc.” and then facilitate a conversation around his stories and themes. Or perhaps I’d be better off with a few Seth Godin quotes since they’re always so rich. And as I was weighing these options, it struck me that I was mis-reading the question. I hadn’t been asked to provide my take on The Creative Process. I was being asked about my creative process. Lifting my hands from the touch-typing position and closing my laptop, I leaned back and focused on an empty space on the wall, mentally drawing up a list of things I had created or been part of creating…

I’ve written songs.
I’ve recorded albums and EPs.
I’ve written books and blogs
I’ve created and curated events.
I’ve designed and helped build web sites.
I’ve planted a church.

And in all of these, I knew there were patterns of thought and behavior I often returned to – I had a way I went about creating things. There were common moments of inspiration, common obstacles and common practices in my process, regardless of the particular thing I was creating. I even began to recognize that the breadth of my creative experience and the variety of my efforts might just mean I have a unique or even distinctive perspective to add to this conversation.

I opened up my computer again and started typing, “I would love to talk with your students about my creative process; especially if you can set them up to talk about theirs.”

A few months later, I sat on the edge of a desk in the front of a lecture hall, listening to the questions, struggles, insights and wisdom of a room full of students – each one a creator in his or her own way. I found myself sincerely inspired and hoping that each of them followed through with their creative scheme; not because each idea was perfectly original or highly marketable, but because the things they wanted to make (and their desire to make them) was clearly part of who they were. I wanted them to create because that’s who they are – they are creatures who create.

I don’t think you and I create because one of us is eventually going to make the piece that satiates the primal, human hunger all other art pieces had previously failed to satiate; Or because one of us is going to write the song that renders all other songwriting unnecessary for the remainder of history. I believe we create because doing so is a key part of who we are (individually, culturally and historically)- that creativity is a matter of human identity. Furthermore, while we may be born at a particular time and place, to this or that set of parents and socioeconomic circumstances, we will ultimately be remembered by what we make from what we are given. Just as a mother offers her child a gift in the life she’s made for them, the gift an artist passes on to his world is particular in its expression while being universal in its essence. You have your work to make in this world and I have mine.

So, who needs another book about creativity? I don’t know. But that’s not why I’m writing this one. I’m writing this one because doing so is part of who I am.

Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf (part 3): Moving Mountains, Moving Lakes

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the last in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf.

The first is here.
The second is here.

The third is here.


We are moving a lake here at Woodleaf.

I can hear the pump humming across the street, where it sits on a platform in the middle of the old mill pond. The Honda WT30X trash pump is pushing water through 760 ft of 3” PVC pipe, which Woodleaf’s property staff purchased and assembled. A good portion of that pipe runs beneath La Porte Rd before dumping 32 gallons of water every minute into a trench on the far side of the property. The water then travels just over 800ft down that trench to the 5.3 acre, man-made lake where all of Woodleaf’s waterfront features are hosted.

Why are we moving a lake here at Woodleaf?

Because the water level in the man-made lake had fallen unexpectedly low, rendering several of Woodleaf’s waterfront features unsafe and unusable. Of course, that’s the technical answer. At heart, we are moving a lake because several of the 300 kids at The Leaf this week live in the Los Angeles foster care system. By definition, these are kids whose homes could (or would) no longer sustain, welcome or care for them. Many of these kids have moved more than 15 times in their lives, and likely at least once this year. Many of them have a parent currently in prison and have lost friends or family to drugs and gun violence. Their histories tell a story in which they too easily see themselves as circumstantial persons, victims and even mistakes; children who “happened” along someone else’s way but for whom there was little to no room.

We are moving a lake here at Woodleaf because offering this property to these kids at full capacity (which means having the entire waterfront open) is a significant way for us to say to these kids (to every kid, really):

“You are welcomed.
You are valued.
You are cherished
You are beloved.
You are worth every inch of our time, energy and effort.”

Serving at Woodleaf, I am clearly reminded that the facts of life, regardless of what they are, can be changed, like the measurements of water levels. Circumstances can be restructured, like the assembly of a water-transfer system. Being at Woodleaf, I am reminded that whole lives can be transformed. And just like the moving of lakes and mountains, doing so can seem ridiculous and impossible.

It’s not.

Changing lives, like moving lakes, just takes more hours, money, emotion and labor than we are often willing to give. But every inch of the effort we put in is worth it. Every kid is worth that time, money, emotion and effort.  Had it been a mountain, Woodleaf would have move that, too. Not because doing so is a spectacular feat of strength we are impressed at having accomplished, but because, at Woodleaf, moving mountains and lakes is a way to say “We love you.”  

Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf (part 3) – The Gift Of Our Disabled Friends

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the second in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf.

The first is here.
The second is here.

Michael, one of my Summer Staff guys, is talking with Anthony by the light of a flashlight. Anthony is one of 72 campers here at Woodleaf this week who are part of Young Life’s Capernaum Project. Capernaum cares for teens and adults living with various disabilities. Michael has asked Anthony if he wants to go through the military-style obstacle course just up the hill from where we are standing. Anthony is explaining that he’d like to but that his chair won’t make it up the hill. It’s a significant piece of machinery, designed to carry up to 650lbs, and while Anthony probably only weighs 170lbs or so, getting him up the steep hill and through the muddy course with his chair is a practical impossibility.

Michael is leaning over now, talking closely with Anthony and I can’t hear what they’re saying. But I can see Anthony’s arms in the air and his head nodding wildly up and down. Michael is laughing as he reaches to un-buckle Anthony from his chair. And moments later, Anthony is fist-pumping and thumbs-upping his able-bodied friends from high upon Michael’s shoulders.

Over the next fifteen minutes, Anthony would conquer each of the eight obstacles on the course with the help of his new friend, Michael. And, when it’s all over, as they descend onto the main road, Michael  is buckling Anthony back into his chair, saying “Thank you so much. That was awesome.”

And I don’t think he’s simply being sentimental when he says it… I don’t think he’s being patronizing. Though Michael is the one who did the bulk of the work, he’s expressing his thankfulness for the gift Anthony offered him – a gift I’ve been offered myself here at Woodleaf many times. Something close to magical happens to the able-bodied among us when we allow ourselves to befriend, serve and know our disabled sisters and brothers; I think we become more fully human.

Because of his disability, Anthony will likely not experience many of the things able-bodied folks find affirming and validating in the human experience - career, education, vocational success, courtship, sexual intimacy, financial success, etc… and it is in relationship with their Young Life leaders, their loving parents and with friends like Michael that Anthony is reminded, over and over again, that he is fully human, fully loved, fully accepted and fully valued. His disability may prevent him from a significant list of experiences, but that’s different from suggesting he is defined, intrinsically, by his disability. He’s limited. So am I to a degree. Limitation is part of being human – it forces us into relationship. And in relationship, we find the roots of our most fundamental value and identity.  

Anthony high-fives Michael before being wheeled off toward his cabin to wash off the mud from his legs, arms and face. Michael says, for the third time now, “Thank you.”  And this time, I feel like he’s saying it for me. For folks like Michael and myself, able-bodied and upwardly mobile, our connection with friends who live with disabilities reminds us that our value isn’t anchored to our particular successes, failures or even experiences, either. I am reminded that the value of my life is given, acknowledged, received, taught, etc… it isn’t earned and it cannot be diminished. The value of my life is rooted in my relationships, first with the Creator and then with the family, friends and community among whom I get to live out the gift that is my life. 

Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf (part 2) – Life, Like Dancing, Is About Joy

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the second in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf.  The first is here
The song’s low-end rumbles so deeply I can feel it through the cement beneath my feet, the beat is a steady 4-counts… and the kid in front of me is missing every one.Of course, he doesn’t care how well he’s doing it or how it looks. He’s just dancing.
The vast majority of these kids have little to no training in dance. They might know a few steps to a popular movement like “the Dougie,” but they don’t all do it with precision. And that’s not the point of it all, is it.

Nobody here is dancing because they’re trained or qualified.
They’re dancing because it’s fun.

They’re dancing because music makes us want to move.
They’re dancing because they’re with people that care for them.
They’re dancing because they’ve been told that they are loved unconditionally by the Creator.

Certainly, we can practice and dance with skill and there is deep value to doing so. But having skill isn’t what makes movement “dancing” … I think joy makes movement dancing. Just like joy makes life worth living,.. even worth living with skill.I can so easily get hung up on trying to get life “right,” that I squeeze the joy out of even something like dancing. There are few ways to legitimately “do life right,” which makes that goal as troublesome to achieve as it is boring. In dancing or anything else, joy is a better goal than precision.

I remember that when I’m here at Woodleaf.

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 11.59.27 PM

A Christian Homosexual? A Homosexual Christian?

I went to Philosophy Club parties in college. In all honesty, those parties made up about half of my collegiate social experience . . . the grown-up half. My other social outlet consisted of spending time with gaseous, chain-smoking, sixteen-year-old skate-punks as a Young Life leader. What great mercy God granted me that I met a girl who lived out of state and never actually saw the anemic nature of my social life.

During a particularly tense conversation at a Philosophy Club party, I found myself looking down the barrel of a rather loaded critique of Christianity. St. Mary’s is a Catholic college, but the majority of the folks I met in my classes were not friendly toward religion. This was definitely the case with my Philosophy Club friends, among whom faith was widely considered a weakness of thought and an intellectual compromise. A few jabs into my philosophical boxing match, Nathan came to my defense. He spoke eloquently about the philosophical foundations of his faith and pointed at the assumptive nature of our friends’ critiques. He was gentle and confident and gracious. I was dumbstruck. At that point in my life, listening to a homosexual claim to believe in Jesus was like seeing a unicorn. Only this unicorn was gay and claiming to be a Christian. I didn’t have a box in which to put the unicorn. Yet there he was, waxing philosophical and full of faith.

I told Nathan afterward I hadn’t known he was a Christian. He said that was okay because he didn’t wear it on his sleeve the way I did. Beyond joking with me about the way I carried my faith, he was referring to the tapes of my music I had given him. The songs on those tapes were rather overtly evangelical. I’d given him the music in part because I wanted to tell him about Jesus. You know, help my gay friend give his life to Christ since those two things — being gay and knowing Jesus — were diametrically opposed , . . right?

The conflict never came up in conversation between the two of us, though it was in my head whenever we hung out. What was he? A Christian homosexual? A homosexual Christian? A unicorn? My inability to fit him into the categories I normally used to control my world became one of the better gifts God has given me. Because of that gift, I ceased looking at Nathan through the filter of his sexuality. He wasn’t a homosexual first and then a Christian. I also stopped seeing him through the filter of his religion. He was not a Christian first and then a homosexual.  Before any of that, he was my friend, Nathan.  

 

And I’ve come to believe that is probably the way God sees him, too. I don’t think God sees Nathan as His gay, Christian son or His Christian, gay son. Nathan is God’s son. Everything else, no matter what it is, comes second.

 


This is an excerpt from “CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Available now at JustinMcRoberts.comHearts and Minds and Amazon.com

Now through June, I’ll be celebrating the release of my first book by posting excerpts, rarities, clips and beginning to point at my next release.  Sign up on the email list and keep your eyes peeled here at the blog for all the goodness.

Across the Pond

Lessons From The Leaf: Real Life Cost-Benefit Analysis

I am spending the month of June mentoring college students and playing music at Young Life’s Woodleaf. This property has played a key role in my life’s process. I was baptized here in December of 1993, been here just about once a year since 1987 and worked every job a volunteer can do here. This is the first in a series of lessons I’ve learned while at Woodleaf. 

Mike, who is on Woodleaf Property staff, is instructing my Summer Staff about a particular element of the obstacle course Woodleaf designed for their HighSchool guests.

“We’d like to use that slide through this entire summer if we can,” he says “and the metal studs on most jeans catch on and tear up the slide.”

Woodleaf’s high school guests had been asked by their leaders to wear anything other than jeans on the course,.. “but sometimes” Mike continued, “a kid just forgets or isn’t paying attention.”

Then Mike said this: “On the other hand, I’d rather spend $1000 to fix a slide than to single a kid out. So, if a group comes through and one kid among them is wearing jeans, just let them through.”

Every, single element of this remarkable property is designed to facilitate relationship. In the same way that Pixar’s vast wealth and expertise serves Story as king, Young Life’s Woodleaf property serves Relationship as king. Nothing is more important than the connection between the people who spend time here. In fact, the literal millions of dollars it costs to run this property elevates Relationship rather than overshadows it.

I don’t have the resources that Woodleaf has. But here reminds me to weigh the time, energy and resources I have against the value of relationship – to actively live like there is nothing more important than those to whom I’m given.

Screen Shot 2014-05-15 at 11.48.23 PM

There Is No Default Setting In The Human Mind

Sevita told us she taught herself English. She said her brother was always inspired by his sponsor’s letters and that she wanted to read those letters they way they were written. So she sat for hours comparing the handwritten English letter with the Hindi transla- tion. “Eventually,” she said, “the English started to make sense.” That blew my mind. She’s fourteen and lives in a mud hut. I’m thirty-nine and have a Bachelors in English Lit but still confuse the proper use of “whom” and “who.” My friend Steve asked Sevita what she was going to be when she grew up. She didn’t hesitate before she said, “I am going to be a banking manager.”

Sevita lives in shocking conditions and is considered sub-human by many in her culture. On top of that, she’s growing up in an envi- ronment in which she is generally considered a second-class citizen because she is a woman. And yet she expects to run a bank.

Why would she expect such a thing?

As it turns out, the teenager who sponsors her brother often writes about her mother,.. who is a bank manager in Canada. Sevita expects to become more than her culture says she can for the same reason Deep expected Jesus to help his father — because her teenaged sponsor is telling better, more beautiful stories. She is telling stories that don’t end in physical or emotional paralysis; stories in which Deep and Sevita aren’t untouchable.

I have come to believe that there is no default setting in the human mind. My expectations, along with a large portion of my identity, are formed in me by the words and presence of others. I may believe I am trash or I may believe my life is of immense value, but I don’t arrive at either conclusion after a sterile observation of simple facts. I believe what I believe about myself because I’ve been convinced those things are true by the voices I allow into my life. The expectations I have for myself and for my world are developed in relationship with others and I hold them as articles of faith. Part of what this means is learning the way my voice plays an essential role in the process of people I love. If those people don’t know I love and value them, I have to let them know.


This is an excerpt from “CMYK: The Process of Life Together
Available now at JustinMcRoberts.comHearts and Minds and Amazon.com

Now through June, I’ll be celebrating the release of my first book by posting excerpts, rarities, clips and beginning to point at my next release.  Sign up on the email list and keep your eyes peeled here at the blog for all the goodness.