This guest post is part of the Good Ways blog series, a collection of stories and practices for finding God in hardship.
When I was 15 my friends and I started a ska band. That’s right, a ska band. Horns and everything. We played every church basement in town, and had an absolute ball doing it. It was a pure creative energy.
When we were in our 20s we started to take the band real serious. We had dreams of playing for thousands and making a living. We made new recordings to sell and promoted ourselves to anybody who would listen. All of this of course meant we could no longer be a ska band. Who takes ska music seriously?
Toward the end we started to get pretty desperate. We wanted things to work because we loved it so much. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make it, earn money, to get to the next level. The glory days we experienced when we were younger never really returned.
Eventually we signed up for a music competition. I know…we weren’t exactly thinking clearly. The television show “Showtime at the Apollo” was coming through town as part of a national talent search. You could win the chance to be on the TV show. Seemed like a good idea at the time.
Alongside about 20 other artists we showed up to perform the night of the show. The hall was filled with several thousand people ready to either cheer us on or boo us off the stage. That’s how it works. It’s all about audience approval.
Midway through the show we walked on stage and started to play. About 5 seconds into our song the audience started to boo. It started with just a few people, but it grew louder and louder until the sound was overwhelming. In all our dreaming we never imagined it would come to this, being booed offstage by several thousand people. It was humiliating.
I kept it together long enough to gather up my gear and make it out to the parking lot. A friend who had been in the audience was waiting for me. He looked at me like I had just backed my car into a lake. He reached out to give me a hug and I started to cry. I remember well the words that came out choked. “Why? Why do I do this?”
In those days, had I been more honest with myself, the answer was clear. I wanted success and everything that comes with it. I wanted approval and respect. I wanted people to admire me. I wanted to stand out. I wanted to be important, someone people listen to. I wanted to matter.
Does any of that sound familiar?
The world functions on an economy of power, successes, and usefulness. The work of your hands either accomplishes something good and worthwhile - something useful - or it doesn’t. The message we get over and over again is to try harder, do more, produce, succeed.
No wonder artists and creative types have a reputation for being moody. We often end up on the fringes of society. We’re prone to discouragement and depression. What good are we?
What is the use of a painting? What good is a poem? Why write a novel about pretend people’s problems when we’ve got a world full of real problems to deal with? Why choreograph a dance to communicate an emotion? Isn’t it easier to just use emoticons?
Ultimately, though, artists are at their best when they’re useless. It is in being useless that we find kinship with the useless people of this world. It’s in being useless that we allow God to be God, and us not. It is being useless that we understand grace. Art and grace live in the same house. They belong to the same space. Art is grace.
I’d like to suggest a practice to help remind you that being useless is ok. Find that creative or artistic thing you love to do, and then do it. But do it simply for the joy of doing it.
Write a poem, and don’t show it to anyone. Put on some music and just dance. Sing a song all alone. Get together with some friends and harmonize. Play your instrument just for the joy of playing it. Write about something you love to write about before you write something you “need” to write. Draw or paint something with no agenda, no preconceived notions of what you’ll use it for, or who you’ll show it to.
Getting booed off stage reminded me how easy it is to forget why I do what I do. My sense of self and accomplishment were assaulted and I had to go back to the beginning. Why do I do this? To accomplish or succeed? Not in the beginning. When it all started I did it because I loved it, and that was more than enough.
Paul LeFeber is a pastor in Portland, Oregon. He plays music and speaks regularly. He spends as much time as he can with his wife Mariah and daughters Adah and Junia. Learn more about the church where he serves at newhopepdx.org.