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Dave Fife, Worship Leader

June 14, 2011

Dave Fife

Part 1: The Inner Gaze

“Sleeping Muse,” by Constantin Brancusi

For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. –Romans 8:19

The challenge of a worship leader is to create excellent music while providing an atmosphere in which people turn their inner gaze to God. He or she can choose to do one or the other—to bring people to worship while making bad music, or to make amazing music that brings the listener’s attention only to him or herself or some other distraction, but the real challenge is to do both simultaneously. Yet another challenge is sticking with something, whether it’s a vision, a commitment, a community, or a journey, through all the ups and downs. Both of these are part of Dave Fife’s life. They are his life. As the longest member on Greater Chicago Church’s (GCC’s) staff since he first began to lead worship in 1997 and having been part of one of the original churches that became GCC since he was a child, Dave is on this adventure for the long haul.

Dave grew up in Oak Park, and as he puts it: “Ministry runs in my family.” In fact, he is the fifth generation involved in Christian ministry. His own father, Wayne Fife, became pastor of Christ the King Church when Dave was in high school. He maintained that position until Christ the King joined with the Vineyard Oak Park church plant that began in 1997, which later became GCC.

In addition to ministry, music has been a common theme in Dave’s personal history. He fondly, albeit comically, recalls being part of the Fife Family Singers. “We would get up every special service and do ‘our thing.’ I just remember that not being ‘my thing…’ I actually did play music, trumpet and piano during my high school years, but I was much more into sports.”

After graduating from Oak Park River Forest high school, Dave left Illinois for Arkansas, where he went to participate in Youth with a Mission’s (YWAM’s) Discipleship Training School (DTS) and School of Evangelism (SOE). Sometime around then, before he moved out of state, Dave’s picked up the guitar and began to learn the instrument for the first time, foreshadowing the unfolding of his destiny. “My dad introduced me.” And when Dave headed to Arkansas for the DTS, he was in good company. “It seemed like half the guys played guitar, and that was the big draw for me. I played a few basic chords, some strumming patterns. So that was kind of the beginning of playing guitar and singing, but I didn’t start leading worship until the second phase of my YWAM.”

It is strange how life’s most significant moments, as small as they might be as they are happening, sear themselves in your mind–how you know even as you are experiencing something that you will never forget it. Dave continues, “I remember sitting on the porch of my dorm and the leader of my SOE came and asked me about leading the worship for our school. I knew only a couple chords and a few songs, but it seemed like it was meant to be. I was nervous, but it felt really natural. It was more acoustic so it really enabled me to find my own technique of playing the guitar and singing at the same time. I was able to hold my own in that as well as leading other people.”

After YWAM, Dave went to Montana, near Glacier National Park, where he continued stepping into his future.  Dave describes, “The first year was training, a mix between boot camp and Bible school, and then they asked me to stay on staff for two years…” The time passed quickly, and soon, Dave explains, “I was out in Montana and coming to the end of my second year. I was at a crossroads, part of me wanted me to stay in Montana and then another option was to come back to Chicago.” Dave came home.

Dave’s first Sunday back in Oak Park happened to be the first day of the merger of Christ the King and the Oak Park Vineyard in 1997. “I came back for a month or two break after my second year [in Montana]. I had a youth pastor position offered in southern Illinois, but during my two months here there were several confirmations that seemed like they were from God that spoke to my staying here. The former worship leader of the Vineyard church plant was already planning on moving so he and Dave Frederick identified me and asked if I wanted to take on the leadership role.”

“[Coming back] was certainly a transition point. It was a little letdown getting back into the routine of life back here–ministry, training, leading songs, leading worships–after being away for four or five years. And leading worship was my first time working with a band, so that was a whole new experience. It was cool to enter that realm of working with people from all different places. For a while I did that as a lay leader, and I did carpentry full time. But eventually it became pretty evident that this was becoming more of a job, so they brought me on as part time staff somewhere around 1999 or 2000.”

Part 2: The Perfect Pose

“Mademoiselle Pogany II,” by Constantin Brancusi

I can’t hear you
But I feel the things you say
I can’t see you
But I see what’s in my way
Now I’m floatin’
Cause I’m not tied
to the ground — Neil Young, “I’m the Ocean”

Dave’s job is to do what he loves, which is to lead people as they worship God and to assist others as they learn how to lead people to worship God. To me, it sounds ideal: he gets to do his thing—create his art—which is at once a corporate experience and an expression of his love for God. During those times on stage, he is in one sacred moment creating art, worshiping God, and connecting with other humans who he is also helping worship God.  How good can it get? “I don’t have any questions about what I am doing in any way, because it does align with my core passions as an individual, and having adequate time to give to it is a real privilege. I love playing music, I love leading worship, I love leading other musicians, I love writing songs, so that being what I get paid to do is pretty cool. But I can honestly say that’s not why I got into it. I can say I would still want to do this even if I had to go back to carpentry.”

Dave leads worships and he trains musicians to lead worship. However, a few years ago, a visiting couple doing ministry within the church told Dave that he would begin to document our church’s worship music and that it would be disseminated far and wide. Since then, Dave and the church leadership have founded Greater Chicago Music and recorded two albums, The Hiding Place, by Jess Smiley andGlimpse, featuring a number of church artists… Which leads us to now, as the third album, Greater Things, becomes available. This latest release is a compilation of original songs that have become part of GCC community worship over the last year—mostly songs by Dave Fife and Heather Treadway, along with a couple by GCC musicians Trevor Parker and John Fancher.


Part3: The Rising Lotus


“Bird in Space,” by Constantin Brancusi


Hope is the thing with feathers–
That perches in the soul–
And sings the tune without the words–
And never stops– at all–  –Emily Dickinson, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers”

Dave loves bringing musicians in to join him in the worship experience, even if they do not share his faith or his own motives for being a worship leader… “I am excited to work with them if they are open, if they are hungry, if they really connect with why we are here, if they are willing to engage with God on some level. You’ve got people who have years of experience with church and people who don’t, and it seems like we have been able to make a place for both. I think the music is the key element, the common thread that brings everyone together. Typically, musicians don’t sing. I think musicians feel the music, they feel the power of our praise through the music and that’s what they engage with. Even if they aren’t engaging with the words, they are engaging with the power of the music. There are a couple guys in worship who have been around for years. Some are attracted to our church because of the music; they don’t necessarily pay attention to all the lyrics.”

Recently, however, Dave has been experiencing a new artistic endeavor in which lyrics also play a central role. In what sounds like an Old Testament-in-the-desert-with-Moses-manna-like experience that began in spring of 2010, Dave has been writing original worship songs with Arts Pastor Heather Treadway. Dave is an experienced songwriter, having composed and published beautiful worship songs that have been recorded on Vineyard albums and sung in other churches, but this new method of songwriting has been a strange phenomenon for both him and Heather. She will write the lyrics, in huge chunks of words at a time, and he will, upon receiving them—often in the unlikely form of emails or text messages—almost immediately write the music for those lyrics.

Dave explains, “The first song [for which this happened] was ‘Radical Love.’ It was the first time I have ever had that experience where someone has sent me a full song in lyrics, and within 20 or 30 minutes I had the whole structure of melody and chords. It was one of those times where I thought, ‘What the heck just happened? That was not normal.’” And the pattern continued… “Heather started sending me lyrics on a consistent basis, and every time I received this download of melody. Some songs weren’t as solid in song structure, but there have been quite a few songs that are just finished, complete—written in the moment with me laying down music. It has been a whole new experience for me in songwriting.”

Having personally participated in worship during which we sing these very songs, I can say they are haunting and interesting and thought-provoking and individual and passionately worshipful. In Dave’s words, “Some songs out there lack creative elements from a musical standpoint. They all start to sound alike. The challenge for us as worship songwriters is to continue to stretch ourselves musically and lyrically, and Heather and I have found that dynamic.”

Dave and his worship band brought these songs to life for posterity when they recorded the live album, Greater Things, at the stained glass, grey-stone-walled house of worship that has been the home of GCC. “As Heather and I started just busting out song after song, I began to think this could be the next album. This could be meant to be. I really believe timing is everything when it comes to this sort of stuff. I am really glad we didn’t try to do this sooner because these songs wouldn’t exist. Working with Heather has been amazing—having her send me these incredible lyrics and then being able to bring music to it. Her lyrics bring something new out of me every time which is fun. There are melodies that have come out of me that I didn’t know were there, and that wouldn’t have come out of me with my own lyrics. There is something special about collaborating.”

It was only a little over a year ago that this joint artistic process began, and since then Dave compiled the songs and orchestrated the live congregational worship service recording of them. “Some worship albums are just made up of corporate worship songs that don’t necessarily tie into each other musically or thematically.” That is not the case with this album—it is intentional. “I worked with Daniel Larson behind the scenes on song order and arrangement. The surprising thing about this album is that it takes you on that journey as a whole and each song is a journey in itself as well. I am delighted how much the songs have tied together as an album which isn’t something I initially tried to make happen.” The band practiced the music together for a month or more in advance, the list of songs were sent out to the registered attendees before the live recording so that they could familiarize themselves with what was going to be sung, and some two hundred people attended the final night.

Other musicians within the church have been experiencing this explosion of creativity. The two songs on the album that are not by Dave and Heather reflect this. One is a popular GCC worship song by John Fancher of Johnny and the Beloveds, and the other is a songwriting collaboration of Heather [Treadway], John [Fancher], and Trevor Parker. Nevertheless, almost all of the songs were already familiar to the live audience; they are regularly sung during GCC worship. “Being able to lay all the songs together in a corporate setting and… distribute it through the product itself has become my preferred way of recording. I have done the studio approach where you layer each part, each instrument, each vocal—one by one—but this [recording process] was a lot of fun… This was that much more enjoyable for me from a recording standpoint, and I think the dynamics of the song were enhanced in a way that may not have come into play in the straight-up studio approach because we had that team dynamic chemistry happening.”

At last, as the separate worship and arts groups have been joining hands within our church, I was curious how and where Dave saw himself fitting in. “As an artist, as a musician, I identify more as a worship leader than just a performing artist. I think there are people who can do both worlds and I know that is a part of who we [as a church] are…What do I really feel called to? Right now at least I really feel called to the church in the music realm and worship leading. I doesn’t mean I can’t play music in the bars sometimes or don’t want to, but I think my primary role right now is to be a worship leader within my gifting of music and songwriting. But there is still that balance as a worship team that we are not here for ourselves but to serve. I think it’s okay to be blessed and it’s ok to expect that as we come together. I think God likes to fill us up and provide us life on a personal level. Less is more is a pretty popular phrase with us in worship and music… Something that we learn from each other is that sensitivity to what’s happening in the moment. We try to touch on the most spiritual realm.”

Dave is following his path without regrets, without second thoughts, without longing looks over his shoulder, even as the road ahead remains not entirely visible. He is walking ahead, onward and upward into the light. He is being the person he was made to be.

Diane Marshbank Murphy, Writer

December 13, 2010

Diane Murphy

Part 1: The Real Chicagoan

Mediation, painting by Alexa Meade

Some artists wear their artistic identity like a scarlet A, albeit proudly. Some wear certain clothes and hang out at certain coffee shops just to make sure people know who they are. Some don’t. Some may know they are artists somewhere inside even though the rest of the world has no clue. Perhaps, as in Diane’s case, their identity is already so tied to other things (e.g. “she’s a go-getter in city government”) that people would assume that is the extent of who they are. But every human has the capacity for infinite creativity, no matter how hidden. What we see of another person is so little of who they really are–who they are in our mind is the tip of the massive iceberg that’s underside can reach miles down into the ocean.

In the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico there are dark pools of water called ‘cenotes’ that you can find hidden in the jungle or associated with Mayan ruins. The cenotes are sinkholes that connect to much deeper underwater caverns–entire river systems under the rocky surface. Diane is like a cenote. She seems like a really fun place to go for an afternoon swim (no inappropriate connotation intended), and then you realize there is a whole world you could explore with some snorkeling or scuba equipment, a world that could bring you back to the surface far away from where you began, perhaps in the middle of some ancient Mayan temple. But she is so modest and unassuming, you may never get the chance.

More than anyone I have talked to in a long time, Diane is from Chicago. The city’s blood runs through her veins like the hum of the highways and the bustle of the pedestrians and the wind through the skyscrapers. She and her mother and grandmother lived together in Hyde Park, and her mother taught in the public schools. Besides living in Iowa for a couple of years during college and some travels, Diane has spent her life in various corners of this big city, getting to know its various nooks while serving the people and working to make it a better place for some two decades of her adult life.

After going through the Chicago Public School system on the south side in settings where she was almost always a minority as a Caucasian, Diane went to Drake University in Des Moines, IA, a school where everyone was white. Before applying to colleges, however, Diane had the idea that she could get a good minority scholarship since she had always considered herself a minority, the definition being, “when there are less of you than someone else.” The push to go to Drake had come from Diane’s mother’s desire to expose her to a different social environment. But after two years at Drake, Diane was done: “I lasted for two years; it was too much culture shock for me.”

When she came back to Chicago to finish up her college education, Diane’s boyfriend at the time helped her apply for an internship with Mayor Daley’s Green Streets Program, where she was given more responsibility than she bargained for. From there, she was propelled through various departments of Chicago government, from the Mayor’s Department to the Environmental Department to the Department of Streets and Sanitation (“dees, dems, and dose kind of guys”) to the Budget Department. At some point, one of Diane’s bosses, someone who truly cared about her happiness and future success, recommended that she take the time to get a graduate degree.  “She said, ‘you need to go to grad school. It’s never going to get easier.’ So I got my Master’s of Public Service at DePaul night school. To be honest, I really wanted to do public policy, but none of the public policy programs did part time… When I got my degree, I got a job in the budget office.” Fortuitously, for her job with the grants program in the budget office, she would “screen the grants and get them approved,” a process that led her to Heather Treadway, who happened to be seeking grants for the Cultural Affairs Department. Diane and Heather would eventually team up to begin actively pursuing a church community together.

Part 2: The Seeker

"Ann," painting by Alexa Meade

Diane had not been interested in Christianity or faith in past years, but that was meant to change. “That was when God was showing up in my life ferociously. I started asking questions.” While looking for a new housing situation and ending up with a Jewish yoga teacher in Bucktown she had not known previously, Diane became cognizant of God’s presence. “I wasn’t in that God zone yet, but it was that first time of being fully aware of the higher power telling me everything was under control. That’s where the awareness of who God was really started stirring in my life.”

Diane ended up becoming great friends with her yoga teacher roommate. “I was asking questions, and she definitely asked questions, and she encouraged me to go to a psychic. On my way to see Joriann the Coffee Psychic, I heard this voice in my head that said, ‘You know she’s gonna tell you you’re psychic,’ and I thought, ‘huh, that’s really weird.’ Of course I never thought of myself that way before… Sure enough, she said, ‘You know you’re a psychic?'”

Over the next months, and Diane’s first and second psychic experiences (the second one being the last), she says that light and dark were battling for her. While trying to meditate and empty her mind of thought one day, she threw up a question about a romantic relationship in her life at the time. She got a very clear answer back, which took her by surprise. “I did this meditation thing, and I heard the universe speaking to me. And then I decided, well I guess God created the universe. If the universe answered me and I believe God created the universe, does that mean God spoke to me?” After thinking about it more, Diane began to wonder, “Why wouldn’t he speak to us? Are there other people who think God would speak to us?” And so she determined, “I need to figure this out. I need to find people who think God would speak to them. And I found someone [Heather] who had a framework for it, which helped.”

A friend had given Diane the gift of visiting a psychic again (the second time), and though she had mixed feelings about it by that point, she decided she would go. Heather tried to convince her otherwise, but in the end, Diane went. But the power of darkness over her life had already lifted. “I  have no idea what the psychic told me. God already had me. I was on this other path already.” By the end of the session, the psychic asked if Diane had questions, and after a distracted pause, Diane said yes. She continued, “I was thinking about joining the youth group at church. Do you think I should do that?” Recognizing Diane was, at best, only vaguely engaged in the experience, the psychic said, “Yes, that is exactly what you should do.” And in Diane’s words, “The dark was defeated at that point.”

Part 3: The Finder

"Curated," painting by Alexa Meade

Back at work, Diane had been put on a short list of people to lose her job, but for no clear reasons. “I felt like the only thing I really had was my reputation. I was someone who got stuff done in city government, and this guy ruined my reputation.” During that period of insecurity, Diane felt God telling her, “It’s not even about your reputation, it’s about me.” And that was a turning point for Diane, a time when she would begin to concretely rely on God’s provision. With her identity as a city government go-getter in question, she realized that God wanted her entirely, underwater cave system and all.

“I was feeling scared and financially challenged, and then I told God I would really like to go to Europe before I ever get married. I asked, ‘Can you do that God? Can you get me a free trip to Europe?'” The next week, Diane’s friend called and asked if she would like to come as her guest to Amsterdam and London, first class.

Meanwhile, another friend got Diane’s Chicago dream job at the library. I kept wondering, “Why did our boss recommend her and not me? I was so jealous. In my mind, that job was meant for me.” A year later, “I was ‘pressing in,’ saying [to God] I need a different job.” She felt God telling her, “Just wait, I am preparing it for you.” And sure enough, “My girlfriend who had the job ended up moving, and I applied for it and got the job.”

God’s presence was becoming undeniable for Diane in other areas too. She describes it this way: “I had just started the job [she had been wanting for so long], and God was clearly moving in my life, kind of in crazy ways.” Someone close told her, “I just have this feeling that the guy who is meant for you is going to drop out of nowhere.” Not long after, it was Thanksgiving morning, and Diane was taking the bus to her mother’s house. “I was for some reason saying I was so tired of being single. ‘I am ready for whatever you bring me, but just bring it on.’ And God said, ‘He’s gonna be cute too.'”

A few days before, Diane’s mother had called and told her that a cousin was bringing a friend for the holiday dinner, which was a rare occurrence since her grandmother was uncomfortable with strangers in the house, but Diane had not thought twice about it. After arriving at her mom’s house, “I am in the kitchen cooking, no makeup, wet hair… He walks into the house and we saw each other across the room.” You can imagine who he turned out to be–Diane’s future husband. “I heard God say he was gonna bring him, but I didn’t expect it to be three hours or less. It wasn’t love at first sight, but it was knowing at first sight.” God had also told her, “[This guy’s] gonna sit down and talk to you, and I really need you to be open.” When Mark arrived, he told Diane, “‘I feel like I need to tell you who I am,’ and I was ready.”

Diane continues, “On our second date, he was cooking dinner in my kitchen and he said, ‘This is weird, right? It feels like I have been here forever.'” Diane and Mark were married only months later, and have been together for a few years now. Though he has lived in Chicago for over twenty years, however, Diane still has not granted him Real Chicagoan status. According to Diane, she is willing to call him a Chicagoan if he can pass “the final test,” which would be to “get around the city on public transportation without any help.”

Part 4: The Artist

Photograph of Alexa Meade painting a subject in an installation called "Blueprint"

Diane continues to serve the city as the Director of Acquisitions of the Chicago Public Library, and at church she has been leading the Facilities Team, which is searching for a new worship location. Though Diane is exceptional at all her endeavors, her art has not played a prominent place in her work or any other public arena in the past. Perhaps this is, in part, because, as Diane describes it, “I always listen to others; I don’t speak up.” But recently, Diane says, “I put something on paper, and I shared it with people,” which is a bold step for someone who is afraid to speak up and feels like the artist inside has been hiding. This new venture took place after take she took a writing class through the Newberry Library .

But before that, three years ago, Diane joined an “Artist’s Way” group after a friend’s prompting. She explained that as a “completely repressed artist,” the experience “raised her awareness.” She found that sharing the class with the other participants who were also seeking to ’embark on their creative journeys’ had positive results: “being around the creativity helps breed the creativity.” And after 17 years working for the City of Chicago, she had realized that “city government doesn’t really breed creativity.” Very honestly and with profound self-awareness, Diane also admitted that she had experienced envy of others who were practicing and succeeding in their artistic endeavors, which was also an eye-opener. “If you ever experience jealousy [about art], look in the mirror. It means it’s something you wish you were doing.”

So Diane is a writer. In addition to Diane’s plans to write a mystery series, she says she has “a musical/play, maybe a tv series, and some chic lit books inside me somewhere as well.” I do not believe it is coincidence that timing has played such a profound role in Diane’s life. Everything has unfolded in a time and way that could not have been anticipated or manipulated by Diane herself. And this newest phase, of writing and being open to sharing her work, is no exception. Don’t underestimate the underside of this iceberg or where this cenote could take you.

Books Diane would recommend to the aspiring writer:

A Broom of One’s Own by Nancy Peacock

The Right to Write by Julla Cameron

Heather Treadway, Poet

November 4, 2010

Heather Treadway, photo by Jen Aldrich


Part 1

"Leafhorn," environmental sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy*

Do I dare

Disturb the universe? — T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Heather lives surrounded by the English language—by words. She is enchanted by them and enchants with them. With words, she creates images, empowers people, builds cities in the mind, breaks down walls, devises blueprints, feeds and houses, worships, and prophesies. Words don’t escape her. In fact, they gravitate towards her and emanate from her.

It is this quality that makes her intimidating at times. Few people have such an intimacy with language and familiarity with the written word, past and present, and an ability to make connections and exhort you, while leaving you speechless.

Nevertheless, Heather claims, “I actually don’t define myself as an artist.” When I asked her about being a writer specifically, she said, “It’s hard for me in my genre to say I’m a writer, because I’m not published.” But the truth is that she has been writing poems since she was a child, such as poetry for friends and family about the mundane things in life, and she has filled hundreds of journals with her poems and other writings over the years. And these days, poems and songs, particularly spiritual ones, are coming to her at a  faster, more natural rate than ever before.

Heather has had a good life. She was raised the only child of parents who loved her and raised her to be a conscientious, creative person. Her first memory of being introduced to poetry was in her grandmother’s upstairs library when she pulled a collection of T. S. Eliot’s poetry off the shelf, discovered “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” loved it, and subsequently snuck it home with her, afraid that it would not be deemed age-appropriate by her parents. Heather aspired to be the first female governor of Tennessee and ran government campaigns when she was younger. After going to Carson-Newman College in Tennessee for political science and literature, Heather moved to Washington, DC, to experience the political world. After a year there, she entered law school back in Tennessee, which had always been her dream, part of her plan to enter politics. But during the first semester, she realized, “I don’t want to practice law” and boldly dropped out, returning to her alma mater to work in the admissions office.

At long last, it was time to move to Chicago where Heather had been accepted into a master’s program in literature at Northwestern University and gotten a job for an illustrious political media firm. Chicago had been tempting Heather for a while, what with her fascination with metropolitan centers and general knowledge of the city, so she was excited to make the move. The rest is history. From there she worked various jobs, governmental and not-for-profit, helping the poor and supporting the arts, sometimes both at once, and slowly but surely fell in love with the old political, architectural, cultural, Midwestern crossroads that is Chicago.

Heather is someone who has kept her spiritual life and her professional life separate in past years. Both arenas have been full, fulfilling, and rewarding but she has had reservations about being labeled religious by those in her workplaces. I am just speculating here, but I assume she would sooner be called a Democrat, a vegetarian, a feminist, a dog person, or a Southerner. There’s baggage associated with Christian culture. I am not sure how conscious this decision has been for her, but I imagine it has become more difficult over the course of the past year, since she became a pastor, the Arts Pastor, a job which involves overseeing and increasing the various roles of art within and outside of the church.

Heather describes herself as, “bred, born, raised and educated in my home state. A Tennessee girl through and through, who bleeds orange.” As a Tennessean myself for a few formative years, it is rare to meet liberals like this one down there. The church-going, yes, that makes sense. The warmth, yes. But the obviously intelligent thoughtful well-spoken-ness and fearlessly political feminist persona, coupled with the serious Jesus-loving-ness, not so normal. Most friends from my high school in Tennessee were in one camp or the other—they were all very sweet, but they seemed to be either outspoken Baptists or conservative Presbyterians, or they were eager liberals with a strong desire to change the tides of racism and sexism, not only in Tennessee, but in the country and the world. The two characteristics were not commonly found in one person. Maybe this is why Heather has kept the two separate. How do sincere Christianity and impassioned but liberal political views coexist in one mind and one body?

Part 2

Environmental sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy*

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind. — Emily Dickinson, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant”

It is hard for me to write about Heather, because she and her life seem more poetic than sentences and paragraphs. Words, yes, but the confines of grammar are too structured, not “slant” enough to describe her. Heather sees life in an odic, spiritual context. She is someone who has crazy things happen to her, but she is aware that they are happening enough to recognize and recall them later.

Case in point. A few weeks ago at church, Heather was worshiping. She describes, “I saw a great golden gate, the ‘golden gate of beautiful.’  I heard the Lord singing a song over his people, helping them call forth its opening: ‘Open wide, open wide, open wide.’” From this picture, Heather was inspired to write lyrical “spontaneous prose.” Her poem, “Beauty Gate,” begins,

“How beautiful the feet of those who have danced over sorrow and triumphed

How beautiful the withered hands outstretched, reaching out despite, in spite of”and ends:

“Open. She will open. Open wide the gate. Come open. Wider. She will open still.”

The words and message of the poem are powerful and moving in and of themselves, but Heather went on to tell me that after the service, she realized there were deep associations behind what she had written. After doing a little research she learned that, indeed, the “Golden Gate,” otherwise known as the “Gate Beautiful,” was a real gate, which not only figures prominently in Christian scripture, but still stands, though sealed with bricks, in Jerusalem as the oldest gate in the Old City Walls. It was through this gate that the “Divine Presence” used to appear according to Jewish tradition, and it is through this gate that he is to appear again once the Messiah returns. Moreover, it was through this gate that Jesus came on a donkey, worshipped by the very people who would soon allow him to be crucified on the day we commemorate with Palm Sunday. And the “Golden Gate” or “Gate Beautiful” is referenced in the New Testament when Peter and John heal the man “crippled from birth” who leaves them “walking and jumping, and praising God.”

It would seem that Heather’s picture or vision, whatever you want to call it, was about this very real historical structure she was not previously aware of. We have no proof that God transmitted that image which inspired that poem into her head, but the whole thing does seem coincidental.  But from what I have heard about Heather’s life, experiences like these are far from uncommon. They seem to happen on a weekly basis.

Part 3

"Striding Arches," environmental sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy

As today writing after three days of rain

Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease

And bowing not knowing to what. — W. S. Merwin, “For the Anniversary of My Death”

I knew that Heather had not always felt the nearness to God that seems so influential in her life now, so I asked her how this stage had come about. Sometime after she had relocated to Chicago, Heather was in Tennessee visiting. She explains, “I thought, I’ll just go to church with Mom and Dad since I didn’t have anything else to do.” She brought a book to read discreetly in the back row. There happened to be a charismatic speaker from Africa preaching the sermon that week, and sometime near the end of his message, he stopped and his tone changed, attracting Heather’s attention.

He looked around and said something like, “There is a woman. God is calling her back to him. She doesn’t actually go to this church… You have a prophetic call on your life.” Heather explains, “To say it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I was thinking he was talking about me would have been the understatement of the year.” The man continued, trying to get the individual in question to come forward. He gestured to the area of the building where Heather was sitting. Finally, the preacher took it to the next level: speaking of God, the man said to the unidentified woman, “He’s gonna get you in the gut right now so you know it’s you.” Heather felt her abdomen immediately wrenched in sobs. She describes it as “total spontaneous combustion.” The pastor concluded, “He got you in the gut; you know who you are.” Heather went up afterward and she describes, “He said, ‘You’re the one,’ and began to pray very powerfully over me.”

In fact, years later the same speaker came back to Heather’s parents’ church and sought out her parents to ask after their daughter. He told them he had been praying for her every week since then. So, though I have never experienced that sort of thing myself, I can imagine how it would get you thinking. When she came back to Chicago, Heather says, “I decided I needed to go to church.”

After making friends and joining forces with a fellow lapsed churchgoer (Diane Marshbank Murphy) she had met through work, Heather took a lengthy tour of all the churches in Chicago. Well, at least a good sampling of most of them. They ended up at the Hyde Park Vineyard because “Diane’s mother had seen an ad in the local Hyde Park paper that they were ‘contemporary’ and offered free coffee,” but they both decided they felt too old for it. However, after deciding “we liked the casual vibe of the church” and getting a brochure listing other Vineyard churches in the area, they made it down the list to the unfamiliar suburb of Oak Park.

When they walked in, a woman was preaching, which helped seal the deal for Heather. And the worship music was good. That night there was going to be a Vineyard 101 meeting, so Heather and Diane decided to kill the day in Oak Park, only to find out when they returned in the evening that the meeting was part three of a three-night event. Nonetheless, they were welcomed with open arms and made some bizarre connections with individuals who happened to be there. For example, Heather found out one of the pastors was not only from Tennessee but from her own town and had even gone to school with her mother.

Part 4

Frozen wool environmental sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy

This poem is endless, the odds against us are endless,

our chances of being alive together

statistically nonexistent; — Lisa Mueller, “Alive Together”

If you attend Greater Chicago Church regularly, you have probably seen Heather, on stage. Though not a regular speaker or part of the worship team, you may find her making her way to the front to share a poem or song, often in spoken word. Over the last year, some of her congregational songs have begun to be sung as part of the general worship, but these songs I am describing are different. They are spontaneous. I have learned that they come to her during the worship periods at church, unavoidably, every week, all the time. In her own words she explains, “It’s hard for me to be in church and not have a song. I feel like I carry the song and it never goes away… Rarely does a day go by that I’m not thinking about a song.” Some of these songs lead Heather to go up and sing them in the moment (“I really sometimes don’t know how I get from my seat to the stage”), and some are written down to be saved for later. And she does not feel like they all are words from God: “I feel like there’s always a song in my heart, but it might not be his song. It might be my song. When I am interpreting his song, I feel it in my chest; it will be a physical, visceral reaction.”

To illustrate the strange spiritual coincidences that mark Heather’s life, I will give my own example. Not long after one of the first times I heard her read her writing—I think it was a poem about Chicago–in church, I told her that, not to be rude or anything, but the style reminded me of the notoriously offensive Allen Ginsberg poem, “Howl,” which begins, “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked…” If there is an opposite emotion than offended, that was Heather’s response. She informed me that when she had once asked God for a personal mission statement some years ago, he had given her that poem.

Again, in an email about this interview, Heather, probably not remembering my comparison and our conversation, wrote this: “Six or so years ago, when I was praying about what my ‘ministry’ or call might be, if I even had one, because I didn’t have a CLUE, God said this about as clearly as possible short of bellowing from the Heavens, ‘Here’s your mission statement…’” Heather continued by writing out the first several lines of the poem, as follows:

“‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,

who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,

who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,

who passed through universities with radiant eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war…’

Now do something about it…”

Let’s suffice it to say that Heather is no stranger to strange and unusual connections in her life. Every time we talk, she has a new story that she shares with me, albeit cautiously, assuming I will think she is crazy, but telling me anyway. The truth is I think she thinks it is all crazy too—not bad crazy, just unanticipated crazy. I know her life before her renewed faith was full of beauty and poetry and passion and vision, but her life now reminds me of an old blown-up computer chip of electric synapses. She’s like the Old Testament, better yet, a James Joyce novel, full of hidden, unlikely references past and future that mean much more than what is happening at any particular moment. It’s like each moment of her life seems to have deeper, eternal significance, not only for her but for others.

It almost feels unfair. While I am at home loading the dishwasher, who knows what unspeakably powerful spiritual experience she might be having. But maybe that is just what being in touch with God looks like for Heather. Her life was great before, and now it is overflowing.

Again, in an email to me after our interview, Heather explained, “When I had my ‘Damascus Road Experience’ (i.e. the prophet at my parent’s church), my life was really, really good, on course, on par… I wasn’t desperate. I was in graduate school pursuing my dreams, working at the Chicago Cultural Center, living in the city by the lake, and enjoying all Chicago had to offer as a single, free-spirited woman. I was in love with everything and everyone around me. Engaged to the smartest, kindest, most talented, literary and amazing man I had ever met. I have had and still do have loving relationships with my family. I loved my job.  I was studying with brilliant scholars and getting encouraged and affirmed everywhere I turned. But God knew there was more. The great wasn’t enough. It had to be the Greater. And He continued pursuing me. Of course, the greater came at a great cost, and that’s a whole other story, but it is so worth it.”

So, in my opinion, Heather’s art is her use of language. Her poetry is flowing and methodical, characterized by strong rhythms and powerful, universal images, often about God and his presence, if not about something quirky and everyday. The songs and poems are both melodic and chant-like, filled with descriptive words and phrases that you don’t expect to come next, pouring, rolling, beating. She has a gift for describing beauty and inspiring change through her poetic words and songs. And this talent, this art, is being used by God as the manifestation of his presence in her life and a means of communicating with others.

Heather loves and appreciates places and spaces, like her home state and Washington, D.C., and granola-y Oak Park, and all of Chicago and the towns around it. Furthermore, she is someone who is aware of the pregnant moment, the moments, and chooses to find meaning in both the mundane and the bizarre. That is what a poet does. Her love of Chicago and her belief in God’s love for Chicago and his people is expressed poetically and in song, constantly and repetitively, like David’s endless psalms about the Hebrews and the Gentiles who will one day worship God themselves. What others may miss, like the archetypal beauty of a sunset or the experience between a mother and her child, the poet sees and shares. Heather does this about God and the mysteries with which he punctuates her life and the world around her. What details and messages we miss about and from God, Heather notices and describes in song and poetry.

* The art of Andy Goldsworthy was included because of its beauty and its inherent embodiment of the ethereal, supernatural mystery of life, time, and space on earth.

Read some of Heather’s writing:

All You

The Ballad of Britney Spears

Beauty Gate



Dissing or Dis-covering Excellence: Heather’s reflections on Arts Sunday October 31

Translations: Heather’s perspective on a morning worship service at church

True love

True North: A poem written for a friend, Laura Husmann

Read about a few of the writers who inspire Heather:

Henri Cole“Embers,” poem by Henri Cole

Joanne Diaz: “Syringe,” poem by Joanne Diaz

Jane Kenyon“Happiness,” poem by Jane Kenyon

Lisel Mueller: “Alive Together,” poem by Lisel Mueller

Sophocles“O for mortals,” poem by Sophocles

Jay Fancher, Painter

September 2, 2010

Jay Fancher

Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a wish fulfilled is a tree of life. –Proverbs 13:12

Part 1

Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up. –Pablo Picasso

When can someone start calling herself an artist? What is an artist? How much art must a person create and who needs to deem it worthy to earn the title? Can any area of life be an art? Many of us have encountered the memorably titled tome The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, taekwondo is one of many martial arts, and people who do tricky robberies are called con artists. So is there an art associated with everything? Can anything be done artfully? If so, who decides the standard or is there any? Do we all have the potential to be artists? Does knowing that all of us can be artists takes away the value of the title?

My sister, who edits this blog, expressed a concern (after about the fourth interview) that I was going to run out of artists. I told her no need to worry, because my church is packed with them. But would it be possible, many, many months from now, to run clean out of artists or could I just keep expanding and altering the definition? I don’t know. If the artists go on forever, what’s the point?

Jay is someone who questions her right to be called an artist. She is artistic, for sure—she dresses in colorful, funky clothes, many of which she buys at thrift stores and then alters or adjusts to her taste. She plays the drums and sings. She went to a four-year art college and studied design. She sews clothes, pillowcases, baby slings–you name it. She has always been good at drawing: “I was the kid who other kids asked to draw stuff.” She paints murals and builds fantastical theater sets for a living. So she should call herself an artist, right? You would think so.

Part 2

You said, “Life has no limit if you’re not afraid to get in it.” –“If You Ain’t Got Love”, Mason Jennings

Jay’s preferred method to go through life is “having a goal of something I’ve always wanted to learn and heading towards it.” When she went to Columbia College Chicago, she studied sign language and fashion design, two things she learned well and enjoyed but doesn’t currently pursue in her career. The list of skills Jay has honed thus far includes bartending, playing the drums, bowling, roller derby, tap dance, jazz, and ballet*. At the moment, Jay is working on two more of her lifetime goals—speaking Tagalog in order to connect to her Filipino roots and, of course, unicycling. But her ultimate goal, the real doozy she throws at you, is slightly less impressive to many of us; Jay would like to learn how to type without looking at the keyboard.

When Jay was pregnant and painting the walls of the baby room for her oldest son, Dylan, Jay realized, “I don’t want to just do this border—I want to do something fun and different.” So began her career for the next fifteen years as a muralist, as she sought to become an expert at what had started off as her own curious attempt to make her son’s bedroom more interesting.

After painting her son’s room with a Winnie the Pooh theme and realizing—“This turned out pretty well. I think I can do this for other people”—Jay offered to paint a mural for a family she had worked for as a nanny during college. Another success under her belt, Jay decided to make the murals her work focus, in part because she wanted to be her own boss and to stay at home with her new child. Jay’s husband, John, promoted the business by phone to in-home day-care centers and news of her murals spread. Amazingly, Jay never uses any special sketching technique or method to blow up images on the walls she is painting; she draws them all free-hand. She found she had an uncanny ability to “look at something the size of a half-sheet of paper and blow it up,” with all the correct proportions. Her murals improved: “It seems like I would just get better and better and better. At first [the paintings] would be like a coloring book with lines and solid colors. Now it is much more shaded.”

Mural by Jay Fancher

Nevertheless, Jay explains, “I never thought of myself as an artist with the murals.” In fact, Jay has been weaning herself away from the mural business. “I really don’t enjoy it as much anymore,” (probably because it is another skill she can check off her life list). Recently she has been doing “three-dimensional murals,” otherwise known as set design. She loves the challenge of building complex, multi-functioning, beautiful sets for plays. She referred to how much she enjoyed envisioning and constructing, along with the help of middle school students at the school where she works, “a ramp that needed to look like a falling tree” for a performance of The Jungle Book.

At some point over the last decade, Jay remembers her husband John, not intending to be hurtful, saying to her, “You’re not really an artist; you paint what people tell you.” Though she knows he didn’t mean for the statement to be taken personally, she shares, “When he made that comment, it stuck with me.” She explains she had “never painted on canvas—never painted for myself. Give me a wall—I’ll paint something on a wall. Give me a little [canvas], I have no idea what to do with it… I’ve always been told what to paint.” So Jay began thinking, “maybe I’m not an artist.”

Set Design by Jay Fancher

For my part, I think Jay is underselling her murals. In particular, she described one mural she painted nine years ago for a huge dining area at Irving Elementary School. She had to propose a concept in order to compete for the job against numerous other artists. Jay’s mural, which was ultimately selected and painted within three weeks, covered all four walls with an evolving scene of underwater, land, sky, and outerspace—each wall portraying one landscape drifting into another.

Part 3

She’s an artist, she don’t look back. She can take the dark out of the nighttime and paint the daytime black. –“She Belongs to Me”, Bob Dylan

A year or so ago, individuals began painting on canvas during worship at church, and Anthony Allen, a friend of Jay’s, was the first one to paint. Jay was curious to see how he did his work, so she “stood up to worship and went to watch everything he did.” While she was watching, she explains, “God just downloaded a painting to me,” and after the service, Jay found Anthony to tell him, “I think I have a painting I want to do.”

Worship painting of person in the rain by Jay Fancher

Worship painting of person walking by Jay Fancher

Anthony told her she needed to go for it, but Jay was concerned the painting in her mind, of a tree and its roots dripping blood, was a little morbid. Nevertheless, she explained, “I could not get this picture out of my head until I painted it.” It was a new experience for her. Although she was worried about the image, she believed it was from God. “Who am I to change the painting that He gave me? Even if one person is blessed, it’s good.” In contrast to her expectations, Jay “got such an overwhelming response.” One person told her, “The second that blood started to drip, I felt like I was going to get knocked over.”

Jay was unaccustomed to the new experience. “After all these years of people telling me what to paint, God was telling me what to paint.” Jay is now a regular ‘worship painter’ at church, and though the people watching made her nervous at first, she is now able to forget about the congregation behind her. “When I’m painting, I don’t get scared, because it’s just me and Him. For the most part, I’m in this zone, just painting for Him. So I don’t worry as much about what I have to paint because I trust He’s gonna do it.” And by ‘do it,’ Jay means give her another painting. During one recent church service, Jay was uncertain what she was going to paint until the very last moment. “He told me right as I was walking up.”

Jay’s paintings capture the imagination. Some are more realistic-looking than others, and some incorporate universal symbols, such as trees, hearts, and paths. The human figures and faces she includes are usually only seen as silhouettes. Overall, the paintings are surprising; if you are watching her as she works, they usually don’t end up looking like you think they will when she begins. There are mysterious people and unexplained messages. The paintings give the viewer the freedom to be moved by them in a personal way–the interpretations are not obvious, allowing them to remain open and available for reflection over and over again. All of the answers are not provided in each painting. Instead, the viewer is entrusted with the power to see them however he or she will.

Worship painting of tree in colorful quadrants by Jay Fancher

Doing this different kind of painting has been empowering for Jay. “Now I feel like I’m an artist after all these fourteen years of mural painting. I didn’t really feel like that for so long. It was not to prove John wrong but to prove something to myself.”

But Jay’s artistic abilities reach far beyond drawing and painting. “My favorite part of receiving a present is putting it together. I would love to be a mechanic.” Jay told me about how she fixed her car door handle by creating a metal mold for a piece of plastic using her stove to heat the materials to be shaped. Every year, John’s grandmother would give him tools in his stocking, and every year, John would “say ‘wrong stocking’ and hand it to me.” In fact, one year “for Valentine’s Day he gave me a cordless drill, and I was so excited.”

Worship painting of padlock and key in sky by Jay Fancher

Though I don’t think we are all artists, I think we all have the potential to be. Jay is. And Jay is someone whose art is not limited to her painting, but is expressed throughout all of who she is. She is a profoundly imaginative and creative person. She does almost everything as though it were an art to be perfected. From personal experience, I know you want her driving, parallel parking, and playing dj (i.e. figuring out how to hook up the ipod to whatever stereo system there is) whenever you go anywhere. Furthermore, I don’t think that the fact that we all can be artists cheapens the definition. God wants us all to be artists and to do everything with the passion and devotion Jay gives to, for example, her unicycling. We all have the ability to create if we want to. Just like Jay wanted to be an artist in her own right and felt her wish granted by the paintings God has started putting into her brain–which have only confirmed to her that not only is she an artist, but that God sees her as an artist–the desire for the gift of creativity will always be fulfilled.

*I can attest to the fact that Jay is also very good at zumba.

Worship painting of chain and earth by Jay Fancher

Jen Aldrich, Musician

July 31, 2010

Farm Girl

Who’s never left home, who’s never struck out, to find a dream and a life of their own? — Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces”

Jen grew up on her family’s farm in Iowa, miles from any town. After four years at Iowa’s Morningside College and five more years teaching music to middle schoolers in Nebraska, Jen moved to Chicago during the summer of ’98 “looking for some adventure.” I think she did end up finding adventure, and unexpectedly, much of the adventure has been this church and its wild journey over the eleven years she has been around.

Moves to Big City

No lovelier lovely – smoke, fire, and curved steel. One great rusty heartbeat – no lovely so real. — Poeme, “Love Song for Chicago”

Jen had a friend who was coming to Chicago after graduating from college, and for Jen, accompanying this friend seemed like an open door into the unknown. Jen considered: “I can take this chance and go or stay in small town Nebraska… When the opportunity came, I took it.” And so she came out to the city of the big shoulders without any plans.

For six months, Jen worked at a bakery in nearby Riverside. She had grown up Methodist, but felt very open to exploring the area’s churches, which she perused in the Yellow Pages. She remembered a friend telling her back in Iowa that she should try out a certain church because she would like the music, but Jen was not going to drive an hour away each Sunday to attend it. Jen remembered that the church had been called “Vineyard,” so when she saw another Vineyard church here in Oak Park, her curiosity was piqued.

After visiting, Jen explains, “I didn’t like it right away. I liked the music right away. The teaching wasn’t the polished style I was used to. But what I recognized was that something would stick with me each time. God was speaking to me.” She had grown up going to church camps where she learned that “you could have a relationship with God that was alive,” but churches she had gone to in the past had not always inspired that same feeling. “God and I had a relationship to begin with, and once I got past the ‘this isn’t what I’m used to’ feeling,” Jen felt that the Vineyard was the church for her.

Plays in Band

Maybe I’ll be an astronaut and work for NASA. Maybe I’ll see you on the moon. There’s lots of things that you can be when you grow up, just wait and see. — Great Lake Swimmers, “See You on the Moon!”

A classical piano major and percussion minor in college, Jen can play many instruments well. Joining the music ministry team at the Vineyard was a natural step, but she had wanted to play drum set. She was frustrated when that door did not open, and she was instead asked to play percussion. She explained, “They had a set of congas in the back room,” and someone said to her, “‘Well, we’ve got these drums, but we don’t have anyone to play them.'” Though percussion was not her choice, partially because she had never played percussion in a band setting before, she described the opportunity as “a fresh start to worship through an instrument I had never been paid to play.”

Coming in as a trained musician, Jen “had some performance things to let go of.” She got the opportunity to “take my eyes off of everything around me and learn how to be intimate with the Lord.” Jen says, “Pride stuff was the first thing God worked on and that took a number of years.” She explained that you don’t need a percussionist in a band, making her music an unnecessary part of the worship.

Jen described what it is like to be a part of a band. She is rarely the one on center stage, playing lead–her music is most often there to add depth. She explained, “If I am on keyboard and John [Fancher] is on guitar–those instruments play the same role–they add atmosphere and color–I have to listen to the other instrument so we’re not stepping on each others’ toes. You have to listen to each other and give space. It’s about being community-wired and letting each person have their voice.”

Sometimes during worship, someone will get a particular beat or melody to share, which sounds like an amazing experience. Jen doesn’t like to feel as though she is just performing, but she says if she thinks about sharing her music in a certain way, it is a thrill: “I feel like I can get melodies from heaven and release them and I am happy to do that. When I think of myself as a conduit, I am ecstatic to be God’s voice in those moments. I want to be close enough to God to hear his heartbeat.”

Jen doesn’t have just one favorite instrument–each one plays a different function in her life. “If I want passionate warrior worship, it’s percussion. My heart really connects with that expression in an intentional way… If I need to just spend time with the Lord, I’ll play the piano. All those hours at the piano have really affected my sensitivity to the Spirit… My personal worship time is with the guitar at home. Writing songs on the guitar got me through my hard years… Drum set is the most fun–it’s my joy place.”

In addition to playing music, Jen writes songs, an element of her artistic self-expression that is also deeply entwined in her spiritual journey. “I wrote my first song on a women’s retreat in Wisconsin while sitting on a picnic table under a tree. Songwriting always started out with God speaking something to me in a way that would reach me. I don’t consider myself a songwriter, more a song-receiver.” Jen shared lyrics from the first song: It’s not your big plan for me. It’s not how you can use me. You are all that I need.

“During my hard years–after my first few nights of counseling [where therapy enabled Jen to work through relational challenges from her past]–I would have worship night. Some of the friends who came were singers, and I would share my stuff. I’ve started writing more again, totally in a different way, not because I am broken and need him to heal me through song, but because music is my language.”

Jen’s language is understood by children too. She had an awesome experience of “receiving” a kids song in Mozambique. “It came to me while I was in bed, and I wrote it in my journal. I knew it was a kids song and knew it was for our church when I got back. The song, which I had heard my four-year-old daughter singing around the house long before learning that it was Jen’s, goes, I’ve got joy in my toes and wiggle in my bones. I’m gonna clap and shout his name – Jesus!

Is Bound for Big Things

This is the story of how we begin to remember. This is the powerful pulsing of love in the vein. — Paul Simon, “Under African Skies”

The path Jen has been on–the change in her music and worship–has also reached other areas of her life. “The prophetic journey has been to shed those personal things. It started in practical ways with the band but progressed to deeper ways. That’s what motivates me: to make sure I’m not harboring anger or having unresolved issues but just being available for God to use. I really feel a friendship with God: it’s not like he’s using me; it’s like we’re working together. I want to be where he is and do what he’s doing.”

“When I first came, I had a hurdle to jump over with the Holy Spirit stuff. But I learned to worship under Dave Fife, who has a heart of gold. Dave would never perform but just close his eyes.” It took Jen some time to be comfortable worshiping while not worrying about the people around her. “I learned to raise my hand, and that was my first hurdle in worship. Once I got up to where the church was–once I caught up with everyone else and experienced the freedom–I grew with the church alongside people I trust.”

I didn’t mention that six months after moving here those eleven years ago, Jen quit her job at the bakery (cavities for the first time in her life had been an unfortunate side effect of that occupation) after applying and getting an administrative position she had seen advertised in the Vineyard bulletin. Over the past decade of working at the church, Jen has been been able to observe and participate in various seasons of change. “I love being on the inside and knowing things that are going on. I love knowing what God’s doing with individual people. I love hearing prophetic words and seeing people the way God sees them. I love hearing words for the church and having a bigger picture of the future. I am a practical person,and when I hear those visions I can help take us there.”And from all of her experience, Jen believes this is an “exciting time in our church.”

As for herself, Jen says, “I feel myself getting bigger and bigger, because I am destined for big things. I’ll probably go back to Africa, but I don’t know when or for how long. I think once you go to Africa, it’s in your blood.” Jen went to Mozambizque on an exploratory week and then again for three months a couple years ago. Jen relished her time there, but she has her own perspective on the purpose of her trips. “I don’t know what I did for them. I gave some music lessons and visited some people who were dying. I think really God took me to show off his kids to, as if he was saying, ‘Look, look, aren’t they great?’ They are great. I love them. Their worship is amazing.”

When I asked Jen if she had anything she wanted to share with me before this interview, she sent me a recorded clip of a ‘prophetic word’ she had received. She said it would give insight into her life now and what her future potential would be, and she said she could tell me about her life thus far. Among other things, the recorded ‘word’ talked about Jen being a powerful worshiper and how she was choosing to devote herself to worshiping God. The speakers also talked about how Jen is someone who isn’t afraid to tell the truth–things that people need to hear. Jen is someone who is not focused on the past. She is present now, fully engaged in and thrilled to be living her life, and somehow without pride, she is confident and certain of her value in the Kingdom.

Megan Russell, Songwriter

July 6, 2010

Megan Russell

art (noun)

1) skill acquired by experience, study, or observation
4) the conscious use of skill and creative imagination especially in the production of aesthetic objects

artist (noun)

1) one skilled or versed in learned arts
2) one who professes and practices an imaginative art

worship (noun)

reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power

— definitions from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Ark of the Covenant

Part 1: This Love

And this love, this love between you and I, is older than that burning ball of fire up in the sky. — “One Hundred Million Years”, M. Ward

Maybe it’s just me, but I often find that the most captivating people are the least outspoken—the most modest and unassuming ones, especially when those people have something to say. They are individuals you don’t notice until they blow you away by saying or doing something profound and meaningful, without a lot of hoopla to let you know they are about to say or do something profound. People who aren’t dramatic. People who say what they mean and believe, even if they don’t really feel like it, but because they know it’s the right thing to do.

In some ways, it was hard to write this interview. I didn’t know Megan previously and though she sent me some of her music to listen to, it’s hard to get to know someone through song lyrics. Additionally, she isn’t trying to advertise to herself or make a statement, as many people often are (myself included). Her identity is something she seems to almost keep hidden. You don’t know who she is right off the bat. In fact, I still feel like I don’t know who she is to the same degree I feel like I have gotten to know other people in brief periods of time, though I do feel like I learned some interesting things about her and her art. And I learned that I want to know more. People who don’t say things that aren’t necessary have always been the most interesting to me, probably because I am the opposite of them. It is an amazing quality that makes the secrets and information they do share that much more powerful.

This is notable as far as Megan is concerned, because her art is her form of worship, and worship, for most people, and I am assuming especially for more inward people, is deeply personal. So Megan’s art form—writing music and lyrics—is a, if not the, primary way that she worships God.

Megan’s depth of passion and sincerity is palpable when she sings her songs or talks about God. It is evident that their relationship is a long, intimate one that has been cultivated and cherished for many years.

Perhaps more importantly, I get the feeling that her spirituality is not put on or something that she is saying to impress you. She is in no way pretending she is something she is not. She talked frankly about different times when she has had more exciting sorts of experiences with God than she has had recently–like all relationships, it sounds like theirs is one that is accompanied by changing seasons, and she does not pretend like it is always perfect.

Part 2: The Weight of Truth

And the mercy seat is burning, and I think my head is glowing. And in a way I’m hoping to be done with all this weighing up of truth. — “The Mercy Seat”, Nick Cave

Megan has always loved music. She grew up in a Christian household in Kenosha where her parents regularly hosted church groups in which worship music played a central role, and her father loved playing the guitar for fun and for meditation. “Every Sunday morning, I’d always hear the guitar.” Megan took voice and piano lessons, along with other instruments like the oboe during school, but she didn’t start writing songs until college.

Worship has also played a foundational role in Megan’s faith. She explained, “I feel like I have learned so much about God through worship. Sermons don’t stick with you for ten or 15 years, but I will remember a lyric forever.”

Megan’s art is done for and through worship. In fact, she claims, “My intimacy with God developed through worship… and probably a good part of my theology, which is probably good because people aren’t usually singing about dark, apocalyptic stuff.” Her artistic process is simple: she sits down to spend time singing and playing piano while worshiping God, and then sometimes these songs come out. New songs. “They come to me during worship. I don’t know what that means, but they can come.”

In high school Megan stopped playing piano so that she could narrow down her extracurricular activities per her mom’s suggestion, but when she got to college she started playing again because she had missed it and felt it was a healthy outlet for herself. She used much of her time playing the piano as a way to have private worship experiences. “I wanted to be able to say something. I wanted to speak to God directly. I wanted to say my own things and not something someone else said.”

For Megan, the hardest part of writing songs is making it anything other than a personal experience. “The hardest part of it has always been the performance aspect of it, which I guess is because of my personality… If it’s only me and God, I don’t have to sing perfectly and keep a perfect beat. It’s hard for me to share something vulnerable and then have to sing on top of it.”

She told me about how she would attend meetings of the songwriters group at church and “shake so hard.” She would occasionally get up the nerve to share a piece of music, but “it didn’t matter what anyone said. I thought it was terrible. I’d make it through the song, but… the whole time I would think ‘maybe next time I’ll have Rachel Allen perform it.’”

Megan has recently started sharing her songs with others, recording some and offering others to be performed by friends at church. “The first songs I wrote I’d never give to anyone and expect them to perform them in any worship setting, but I’m on the flip side now. It’s been a really gradual process.” Sometimes she thinks, “maybe I am supposed to keep this to myself.” But she also knows that her feelings of insecurity are mostly her own issue and not based on actual perceptions of others. “I feel like if I get to the place where I am worshiping and not performing, it really makes a difference.”

Part 3: Without Fear

He said that you could come into His presence without fear, into the holy place where His mercy hovers near. — “The Mercy Seat”, Third Day

When we started the interview, Megan asked me if we could trade seats. I was kind of surprised, since I had chosen my seat with some intention (namely so that she couldn’t read my notes while I was taking them), but she then explained that she is deaf on her right side. She says that when she enters the church sanctuary now, she hears the music differently than she used to before she lost her hearing in one ear early this spring. Her doctors have told her the deafness is permanent, but Megan did not express sadness or fear about how the injury will affect her music or appreciation of music in the future.

Megan talked about some of her favorite musical artists and about certain songs that have stuck with her over the years. One in particular was called “The Mercy Seat”. She had heard it at a church she had traveled to in Pensacola, Florida, during high school, and she couldn’t exactly remember who it was by, though she thought it was Third Day. While looking it up, I found a lot of fascinating songs about mercy seats and ended up learning what the mercy seat actually is. According to Wikipedia (the most trusted source on earth), “the Holy of Holies could only be entered at Yom Kippur, and even then could only be entered by the Jewish High Priest, who was covenanted to do so in order to sprinkle the blood of a sacrificial bull onto the mercy seat [or the golden covering of the Ark of the Covenant], as an atonement for himself and his family, the other priests, the Tabernacle, and the people of Israel; the directions specify that incense was first burnt in the Holy of Holies so that a cloud rose up and appeared above the mercy seat.” Clearly, there is no wonder why a song about the mercy seat would stick with someone.

I think I have had a hard time with worship music in the past because it seems contrived or too self-aware or too happy or trying to be something it’s not. There are no Job-like worship songs, about the hard times in life and there aren’t any without easy, happy endings. I mean, I know the point of worship songs is to talk about how great God is and that that is a happy ending in itself, but sometimes I just don’t trust the level of ultra-joyfulness they exude.

With Megan’s music, I feel like I can trust it. I don’t feel like she is trying to force any overly positive emotion. In one of her songs, she sings about people not being able to escape from God. While the idea is ultimately a positive one, she is tackling the question of humans trying to escape God’s love, something she explained she had dealt with among people close to her.

When you listen to Megan singing her songs (and you aren’t singing one yourself in a worship setting), you get the feeling that you are eavesdropping. It is obvious that she has not planned on performing for an audience or that she even had an audience in mind when she was creating her art. She is doing it purely out of her own desire to worship, and the creation of music, her art, is a side note.

Megan’s music is haunting and angelic, with serious, intense lyrics. Musically, the songs she shared with me are simple (according to her), but they are beautiful and engaging, with lilting piano accompaniment. Her voice is sweet, and she sings earnestly and without dramatics, as though she is simply expressing herself, as she is.

Maybe I feel like I can also trust her music just because I trust her. After getting to know her as well as I could in the brief time we shared, I felt that she was not trying to control my perception of her or to consciously portray any particular element of who she was. She was just hanging out and trusting that I would be honest in my interpretation of her and her art.

I do believe it is important to trust the artist. Sometimes you see or hear music or paintings or plays or movies that make you feel like you are being manipulated in some way. And while it is sometimes good to let your comfort be pushed by art, it is not as good when you feel like your emotions are being toyed with (think of your average romantic comedy). It makes you feel like a puppet. When you can listen or watch or look and be stirred, intrigued, or moved in a way that doesn’t make you feel like you are being intentionally mastered, then you are probably experiencing honest art that allows you to trust it and the artist.

Megan’s music is like that. You don’t feel like her music is meant to convince you of anything or stir any specific emotion. In fact, you don’t get the feeling that it is for you at all, unless perhaps you are wanting to sing it in your own worship. Her music is meant for God, and that is obvious.

You can listen to one of Megan’s songs, “Open My Eyes”, on the recent Greater Chicago Church worship album, “Glimpse.”

‘Poor tempest-tossèd soul, be still; My promised grace receive’;
’Tis Jesus speaks—I must, I will, I can, I do believe. — “Approach, My Soul, the Mercy Seat”, John Newton

Ruth Patzloff, Painter

May 24, 2010

People worshiping

Ruth Patzloff painting during worship

Part 1

Stained glass by Marc Chagall

When the voices blend they sound like angels
I hope there’s some room still in the middle
But when I lift my voice up now to reach them
The range is too high way up in heaven
So I hold my tongue, forget the song
Tie my shoes, start walking off
And try to just keep moving on
With my broken heart and my absent God
And I have no faith but it’s all I want
To be loved, and believe
In my soul, in my soul.
— “Waste of Paint,” Bright Eyes

"I and the Village" by Marc Chagall

What are our souls like? Someone recently told me that members of a certain Native American tribe believe you have to wait for your soul to catch up with you after you travel by airplane. I like that idea. But I am curious about my soul’s identity. What is it like? Is it quirky and awkward? Is it artistic? Does it know what good food tastes like? Does it love to be outside, by the sea or on a mountain? Where would it go if its bloody, fleshy shell, my body, was gone? Who would it be then? Does it have my memories? Does it age?

I know a human’s identity cannot be summed up in a series of factoids, and I know that you can never capture an identity, much less a soul, in any way, shape, or form, but you can take portraits, verbally, visually, orally. You can have glimpses. I also know that every soul I have ever had the chance to glimpse has been exquisite.

Ruth Patzloff does not think of herself as a real artist. For her, art is something personal, something that has been a necessary, automatic accompaniment to the rest of her life, something which began when she was very young. She was cautious about having me interview her because of this. “I feel I am not a professional artist, though I do know I am an artist in a different sense.” Her eccentric parents from the little village of Dronninglund, Denmark—her politically active, pedagogically-minded mother and her artistic father, a tailor who had dreamed of working in Paris—took her early bent toward drawing seriously, though they didn’t know quite how to support the gift where they lived in the countryside.

When Ruth was 16-years-old, her impressive talent was recognized by higher powers, and she was offered a “real job” at an advertising agency she had worked for previously. However, she did not want to risk having to possibly draw illustrations for a project she did not agree with, so she sat in the meeting—“so principled, afraid I would have to advertise something I didn’t believe in”—and turned down the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. In some ways, it seems like Ruth regrets that idealistic decision. She never again was provided such an easy avenue to become an artist by trade, and afterward, she had trouble making art her priority. Art classes were not offered at her high school, so she took music instead, and her application to her chosen graphic design school was rejected, so she went to teaching school instead. She explained, “If you don’t have a profession it will haunt you. I could have made it a profession, but I didn’t.” But how would it have changed her soul?

In images, Ruth told me about her life. She described her life in scenes, giving me a story and then adding visual imagery and details little by little, using words like strokes of a paintbrush, without doing so consciously. She believes “we have these things inside of us,” and for her, some of “these things” seem to be powerful memories that she expresses through her art.

She sees her first art memory, Leonardo da Vinci’s horses, which were on TV when she was a child. She remembers the horses’ back sides—“these scribbled circles. And I started drawing horses. I didn’t have horses. I wasn’t a horse girl. I was just drawing.”

"Rearing Horse" by Leonardo da Vinci

"Study of Horses" by Leonardo da Vinci

"Horses" by Leonardo da Vinci

She sees her father who had been polio-stricken as a youth, trying to get the telephone as quickly as he can, unaware of his own disability and of the sorrow and loss his disability made her feel as a girl. “Having a disabled father and seeing him run, limping, to get the phone, breaks your heart.”

She sees herself sitting on her patient father’s lap as he showed her how to draw using perspective. “He would say, ‘now I am going to draw a road.’ He would draw electrical lines and they would get smaller and smaller. I could show you exactly what it looked like.”

She sees the house she grew up in until age 11, in the countryside—a beloved, huge, bizarre old school-building turned into a high-ceilinged massive home surrounded by trees for her education-loving parents and their children—her “paradise by the forest.”

She sees she and her brother “riding cars in Europe” together, through Paris, Lichtenstein, Munich, on a whim in the days leading up to her college art final, before returning home and working tireless hours on a huge exhibit of sculpture, paper mache, paint.

She sees the stunning paintings her young art students in Nepal created of the mud red huts and grass roofs around them when she was a teacher there in her mid-twenties. “To live in Nepal as a whole was a very creative experience—like theater, we even dressed differently.”

She sees a young Danish boy being baptized with a bowl of water—a bronze Nepalese bowl used to collect breastmilk that she had found at a market and shined until it glowed with otherworldly brilliance—in a church in Nepal.

She sees herself in Oslo, Norway, taking a nine-month-long art program as a 36-year-old alongside 20-year-olds—“It didn’t matter because we had art”–biking up and down beautiful mountains.

She sees herself retreating to the Danish countryside in her 30s. “Sitting on the train one day, I realized, ‘I have to get out in the countryside. I cannot be in the city.’ I had to go out to the forest, the soil, the natural world, not all this stuff that is made up, these positions we put ourselves in. That’s where I started out as a human being, in the forest where people grew stuff. So when I was in a crisis, I had to go back there again.”

She sees women singing in an African American church she visited on Roosevelt Road here in the west suburbs of Chicago. “You hear this humming coming up and they start singing.”

She sees her church from childhood. “When Danes sing hymns, and you hear the congregation sing these songs they love and that mean so much to them and carry them, what am to say the spirit of God is not moving them?”

Part 2

Paper art by Peter Callesen

For nothing is hidden, except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it should come to light.  — Mark 4:22

Ruth’s art has been woven through the span of her entire life thus far. It is not something she does as a hobby or to make money. It is intensely personal and is ingrained in her very way of living. “There is always another language, culture, way to do things… Art I could do through everything. It’s so personal to me, because it became my friend through everything I did—a private room where I could put all these things together, all these experiences.”

Ruth shared with me some of the artists who influence her (including all of the artists besides Ruth represented by the works in this blog) and she also shared with me some of the objects she finds and sees that inspire her, not without expressing self-consciousness about the fact that her husband has to cohabitate with her series of seemingly random collections. She showed me dried leftover paint from one of her palettes. The chunks and shavings of waxy color created a surreal mix of jumbled shades in a tiny jar she can’t throw away. She passed me some old-looking, miniature purple flowers and explained how she can’t get rid of “any dried flower with color left.” She handed me a tiny leaf with strange coloration on the back from a “lipstick plant.”

Ruth’s art is colorful. The range of colors she employs in almost any given painting encompass the hues of the rainbow, often in the abstract patterns of the background of the painting itself. Her figures and images are big, hovering, dreamlike, and impressionistic. Some of what she does is abstract—shapes and patterns of color, while other works are human figures hugging, looming, floating in space, holding out their arms, carrying fruit.

Worship art by Ruth Patzloff

Worship art by Ruth Patzloff

Worship art by Ruth Patzloff

In addition to her paintings, Ruth creates rich-textured, sparkling, vibrant mosaics of fabric, pinned or sewed in patterns and shapes on huge pieces of material to be hung on walls. She showed me, one, in particular, that she has been working on for a long time. Most of the massive collage of color was abstract, but one face stood out, floating amid the shades of amethyst, plum, orchid, pomegranate, crimson, garnet, copper. The floating head looks like a princess or queen from an ancient Byzantine religious icon, laced in gold—surreal and captivating. It is hard to stop looking at her mysterious face rising out of the whirls of the blazing background. Where do ideas like this come from?

I asked Ruth what it is like living here. She lives very close to the intersection of Austin Blvd. and North Ave., right on the border with one of the most violent neighborhoods in Chicago. While we were talking about her experience with an outdoor church group she and her husband enjoyed for a while, she explained, “It made me feel more normal to be out near the soil.” While she spoke, police and ambulance sirens wailed down the busy road a block away from us, somewhere after 10 pm. Near the soil? What must living in this urban cement-town be like for her?

I know she maintains a bountiful garden in her yard and that she brought a significant number of old, wooden pieces of furniture with her from Denmark to ground her here, but I asked if she ever feels sad about being away from Denmark. She answered no, with honesty, I believe. The only time she feels sadness about living away from her land and people, is when she realizes that she is consciously not sharing her life knowledge and ideas with others or providing her input when it is relevant, simply because it will take too long to express the context of her history. “When you have something to say but you stop because it takes too much to explain, that’s where the sorrow is. That’s where the art comes in.”

Part 3

Religious painting by Arne Haugen Sørensen

When one has once fully entered the realm of love, the world — no matter how imperfect — becomes rich and beautiful, it consists solely of opportunities for love.  — Works of Love, Søren Kierkegaard

Last April, Ruth was asked to paint during worship at church. She is not sure why she was asked, because nobody really knew she had painted, but she was more than willing. A month later, her 83-year-old mother mailed her a book of the artwork of Arne Haugen Sørensen, a fellow Danish painter. To me, the art in the book is strikingly similar to the paintings Ruth creates. After showing me some of his work, Ruth expressed, “When I look at this, I want to cry. It is so much me. It is saying what I would say. That’s a sore sometimes—that you can’t always explain where you get your inspiration from.

But Ruth has chosen to travel much of her life and to be away from who and what she knows and the people who know her. She married an American from Minnesota (who does speak fluent Danish); she has lived in Nepal and Nigeria; and she even chose minority studies over art at one point in her education. Clearly, Ruth has a deep love for and curiosity about other people, places, and environments. She told me about when she returned to Denmark after living in Nepal for three years, the school would regularly call and ask her to come back, but she would force herself to stay in Denmark, because she believed it was the right choice at the time.

Furthermore, possibly due to the atmosphere she grew up in, with her parents trying to make a difference in their community through politics, education and their faith, Ruth is drawn to working with people who are different. “It’s not of this world, loving people who are different. You spend a lot of energy adapting and integrating yourself. What I love is when I stop feeling like the other—when the people you are with don’t have to feel like they are so other.”In general, she has trouble focusing on one or the other—arts or social justice. “I am so torn between the arts and the social issues and then I don’t end up focusing on the arts, but a socially engaged artist is much more powerful than a ‘Christian’ artist. We need really good artists who are socially engaged.

For Ruth, art has been a means of holding on to her roots while processing her life as it continues. She talked about how when she was at the Einar Granum School for Drawing and Painting in Norway in her 30s, she did a self-portrait of herself looking into a mirror that was hanging on an easel. In the painting, which she shared with me, you mostly just see her back. After the assignment was complete, her professor pointed out that her self-portrait was very similar to paintings by the great Danish artist, Anna Ancher, who is known for character painting and color. Ruth had not made the connection herself; she had not intended or even recognized the unconscious similarities with the work of yet another fellow Danish artist, but her inheritance was so ingrained in her self-expression, that it came out nevertheless.

"Woman in the Kitchen" by Anna Ancher

"Sunshine in the Blue Room" by Anna Ancher

"Young Woman Playing a Guitar before a Piano" by Anna Ancher

Ruth explained, “When you start painting, you don’t know where you’re going. There is an identity you get. It’s something that’s coming out that you’re not completely in control of—part of you that’s coming out.” Over the course of her life, finding space and freedom to paint has been a challenge, which is part of why being invited to paint in front of the church during worship has been a blessing over the past year. “My story has been a struggle to get elbow room to do what I want to do or even know what I want to do. There is something that’s coming out of the painting that is my whole inheritance. From here on I have to step into something else, and I don’t know what that is yet.”

Part 4

Ceramic by Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye

Thou knowest best my needs,

My sighs Thou heedest;

Thy hand Thy children feeds,

Thine own Thou leadest;

What should I more desire,

With Thee deciding

The course that I must take

Than follow in the wake

Where Thou art guiding?

— “Sunrise Hymn,” Thomas Kingo

Art is an expression of who we are: our identities, our memories, our lives, perhaps our souls. In some ways, because of how far away culturally and geographically her previous experiences have been, Ruth’s art is foreign to us. Having been acquainted with the paintings she had done for church before the interview, I liked them and found them vibrant and interesting. However, the human figures, in particular, didn’t seem familiar on some indistinguishable level. But after seeing the overt similarities between her art and the art that inspires her, most of which uses the same palette and even the same blend of reality, impressionism, and the abstract, they fit into a much fuller context. Understanding the artistic backdrop allowed me to identify with her art more deeply. I had to see what it came out of for it to make complete sense. The human-like shapes now have an urgent poignancy to them. They are not meant to look realistic but to express and impress subconscious emotions, recollections, symbols.

While painting abstract images and mysterious scenes, like her interpretation of Psalm 23, Ruth creates things that express who she is and her own heritage. As outsiders, we see the paintings, find them interesting or beautiful, but don’t entirely understand them. They have less context for us, and most of the context they do have is probably religious, due to the bonds we have with Ruth from our shared faith. Music captures a country’s ideals, people, even geographical landscape—think of how everyone from Willie Nelson to Lady Gaga does this for America or how good it feels to be driving out west somewhere listening to Neil Young—and I believe visual art does the same thing in more ways than I previously realized. When we can picture and understand the art and memories that Ruth’s earliest images and emotional connections come from, her art becomes something far deeper for us.

"Psalm 23", painting by Ruth Patzloff

In some way, I do believe art expresses a person’s soul. And if we are to believe what we say we do about God, each piece of art and each artist represents a different part of him. To know other humans and feel the connections of the universal human experience through art or any other medium, while recognizing the simultaneously profound and insignificant differences between us is to live, and, more importantly, is to get a glimpse of God. If we can connect with Ruth’s art by grasping where and who it comes from, we no longer perceive her as other. But this is not because we overlook her past and history and wealth of experiences different than our own, but because we understand those things and they envelope her art in a tapestry of meaning. Once we have context, she has even greater freedom to tell us stories that will reach our souls.

Some of the artists who inspire Ruth:

Anna Ancher

Peter Callesen

Marc Chagall

Jorgen Clevin

Leo D.V.

Veronica Daniels

Paul Klee

Ib Spang Olsen

Janet Schill

Alev Ebuzziya Siesbye

Arne Haugen Sorensen

John Fancher, Musician

April 21, 2010

John Fancher (left) and Perry Marshall perform. (Photo courtesy of Jay Fancher.)

If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. –William Shakespeare, Hamlet

Everyone has a different story. Everyone has a different dream. Everyone has a different idea of heaven. Everyone has creativity inside of them that they don’t even know is there. A person can live decades and not even know a part of who she is. There are discoveries waiting to crack open that require a specific fertile environment before they can become alive. Like an ice age man frozen in a blue glacier, just waiting for some more global warming.

The most fascinating thing about artists can be how and why and when they became artists—how something clicked in their brains and they began to move forward with purpose in one specific direction—how they found some particular medium that works to express what they need to express, what they were meant to say.

I always regret that I wasn’t forced to start playing the violin at age three, because I would be so good at it now. I feel that way about a lot of things—skateboarding, surfing, piano, dance, etc. The truth is, though, that being encouraged to practice with discipline from an early age is not the way anyone becomes an artist. It helps to be exposed to things young, and if you are ever so lucky, you may become some sort of iconoclastic savant in the random activity your parents shoved you into before you were potty-trained. And obviously, if you aren’t exposed to certain things, you will never have the chance to be ridiculously successful at them. Case in point: Why aren’t there Olympic figure skaters from Central America?

For the most part, however, art is something else. It doesn’t necessarily come hand-in-hand with years of dedication. Those artists—the ones who don’t spend agonizing years perfecting the craft, but instead unexpectedly find within themselves some strange and bewildering and beautiful something—are the most interesting. Which brings us to John Fancher.

John is–ummm–a rock star. No, a poet. No, a performer. No, a singer-songwriter. I don’t know the best word to describe him, but let’s say that his idea of heaven is performing music in front of people. And as luck (or grace) would have it, he is very good at this thing he loves, even though he has spent but a fraction of his life doing it. Did I emphasize that he is good?

All ya can do is do what you must. You do what you must do and ya do it well. –Bob Dylan, “Buckets of Rain”

John explains, “The only reason I ever learned guitar was to play in front of people.” Most of those opportunities did not present themselves to him until recently. The idea of only playing in order to perform seemed weird to me at first. By weird I mean egocentric. The more I think about it, though, the more self-aware of a comment it becomes. Sharing something with people through performance, exhibition, publication, or production is the most natural reason to create any sort of art: it creates human connections.

John played piano starting in the fourth grade, but he did not buy his first guitar until college. He then wrote his first song, his only song for many years, as a sophomore. He didn’t even play guitar much until after college, and he did not join a band until finishing grad school a while later. At that point, he was good friends with the members of a band with the lovely moniker Catgut, and they let him be an “auxiliary” guitar player and bassist. Part of the band, he began to write songs again, and the band would let him play lead and sing on those he wrote.

Sometime not long after that, in his mid to late twenties, John married Jay and began having kids, one thing right after the other. And around when they had their first child, a son named Dylan, and John became busy with his job and family, the guitar playing and performing fizzled out, naturally, as creating art for pleasure often does. Opportunities to perform and write songs to perform were not presenting themselves, and they became difficult activities to make time for along with his other commitments. Furthermore, the other Catgut members were not as motivated to get gigs, which was John’s primary purpose for being in a band. On top of that, much of the time they dedicated to practicing was couched in hours of hanging out, which John had limited time to do.

John’s music-making was put on hold for a decade or so, until about five or six years ago when he began to play songs at the weekly open mic nights at Fitzgerald’s. He wanted to have new material to perform at the bar, so songs again began to be conceived inside of John’s head. He explains, “When I look at my times of writing songs, it comes when I can sing in front of people.” Since beginning to play at Fitzgerald’s, he regularly journals in stream-of-consciousness until some sort of hook or chorus or melody line or little lick begins to form. He knows if he can hear a lyric in his head, it will be a decent song. If the music never comes like it should, the would-be song is a poem.

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand. Look into my heart, and you will sort of understand. –Bob Dylan, “Thunder on the Mountain”

A number of John’s songs were recently recorded with a band of musicians he respects immensely. They call themselves “Johnny and the Beloveds.” Even though John loves playing on stage, it’s not something he wants to do alone. “I don’t see myself as just myself and a guitar, I see myself as me and a band. I’ll write a song and wonder how it will sound with other people and learn things I didn’t know from them. The ideas they have make it better.”

When you listen to John perform in an appropriately noisy, old-school bar, you feel taken away. And it’s almost better when you hear him perform one of his favorite songs (covers or his own), in exactly the same rich, wild, guitar-driven style, but within a stain glass-windowed, high-ceilinged house of worship, knowing there are probably angelic hosts around you. It’s surprising that this guy has not been playing music his whole life, and it seems sublimely lucky that he has found something on earth that gives him so much unadulterated pleasure.

John’s music is full, twangy, soulful, and imaginative. It makes you feel like you are on a raft with Huck Finn, maybe taking the Des Plaines River by what is now Maywood a long time ago, hearing the strains of a troubadour and his traveling band playing through the trees and wishing you could dock and go catch the tail-end of the show. Or that you are in an old, cabin-like music hall in the lush green hills of the mountainy south somewhere where people are just enjoying life on a warm night in the backwoods. (You should be aware that Fitzgerald’s is the closest you will get to that feeling in Chicagoland, so it is only natural that that is where John performs most—location always influences things.)

Forced to put John’s music into a category, I would say it’s rock—more specifically, it falls somewhere between folk rock and alternative country. The tunes are catchy in that country way, while somehow they avoid being cheesy, not so much in that country way. His melodies stick in your head, and the band behind him is fully featured, complete with lingering honey of female back-up vocals. Each song on his album is different, but it’s not like one is good and the rest suck, the sort of album where you just listen to the first song. Each song is individual and complete, with its own melody, story, and mystery. The album is fun to listen to, but you can’t be sure you have plunged all of the richness in the layers of meaning in the lyrics even after listening many times.

In fact, John doesn’t think of himself as a great guitar player. He just knows how to rock out with his friends to the rollicking songs that come out of his head, along with fantastic covers of pretty much any Bob Dylan song you could ask for. And the joy he feels playing his favorite music in front of an audience is thick in the air—it’s palpable. “It feels good to play in front of people—nothing gives me more energy. The times I played with this band are some of the most joyful experiences of my life. When I am up there I feel like I go to this different place. I feel like there is nowhere else I’d rather be. I am doing exactly what I am supposed to be doing at that moment… When I play poker, I feel like I am naked. When I am on stage, I feel like everyone else is naked.”

If you know John outside of his role as a musician and if you have ever seen him perform, you have seen two different people. He is not especially outgoing off the stage. “During small talk I am worried about saying something awkward. On stage, I am not afraid of a train wreck.” In fact, he sometimes suggests to Jen, one of the members of his band, that they go attempt to have a train wreck of a performance, just to see what will happen.

And I’m still carrying the gift you gave. It’s a part of me now, it’s been cherished and saved. It’ll be with me unto the grave, and then unto eternity. –Bob Dylan, “In the Summertime”

So how did he end up at our church? John grew up in a mainline Christian church in southern Illinois. His family rarely talked about it at home, but they did pray before meals. By high school, church had become optional, and John “opted out”, choosing a more hedonistic path through college. Then, after college, John worked at an insurance agency where he met a “really nice guy,” Dick Riffle, who went to the Urbana Vineyard: “This guy talked about crazy stuff like having a disease and then praying and having it go away.” He was “not hypocritical at all. He was way more interested in you as a friend than making you into a Christian.” John even went to House Group (group Bible studies in a home) with this man, which he explained, “would have seemed bizarre if it wasn’t for him.” And this man was never judgmental, only loving, even when John went to church with him after obviously rough nights. And thus began John’s curiosity about Jesus.

John acknowledges Bob Dylan and Neil Young, among others, as inspirational, but he notes that U2, in particular, was a “huge influence musically and spiritually.” John once played U2’s song “40” as the opening song on Sunday morning at church. He explains, “I love the way they did that song… It’s called ‘40’ and not ‘Psalm 40’ and Bono mumbled the words. He sucked me in.” John explains how he listened to a live recording of Bono introducing the song and explaining it without explaining it, “It doesn’t mean 40 seconds, it doesn’t mean 40 lines…” Later, “I read in Rolling Stone that it was from Psalm 40, and I went and looked it up. I started looking for little Christian hints and they were all over the place.” John sums up the impression they left: “I didn’t know you could sing about God and it could be cool.” The uncool Christian music stereotype was probably related to some unfortunate heavy metal Christian music videos he had come across in the past.

John emphasizes, “U2 is a rock band.” John’s issue, it seems, is with people emphasizing the Christian-ness of their art before making sure it is truly art. Why would anyone want to make bad “Christian” art? Is it somehow morally superior to excellent secular art? If you know much about Bob Dylan, you know he became a Christian in the seventies, after which he recorded a few excellent gospel albums, including one of the best worship songs of all time, “I Believe in You,” and attended a Vineyard church in California. John believes the reason Dylan ended that Christian-music phase is because he didn’t want to be put in a box. John interprets what Dylan was thinking after being pigeon-holed as a Christian artist: “No, I’m not an evangelist–I’m a musician. I’m not a protest singer, folk singer, voice of a nation–I’m a musician.”

I see my light come shining, from the west unto the east. Any day now, any day now, I shall be released. –Bob Dylan, “I Shall Be Released”

In fact, John believes Dylan continues to be a Christian. Dylan just does not like being labeled. John explained, “If you want to know what Bob believes, you listen to what he sings.” According to John, there is only one lyric Dylan wrote before becoming a Christian that you couldn’t sing as a Christian–“not even Jesus would forgive what you do” [from “Masters of War”]. And John pointed out that it is meaningful that Dylan has sung that particular song only very rarely since “becoming a Christian” (including one time after the confusing tragedy and aftermath of 9/11). On the other hand, he still sings the overtly honest song about Jesus rising from the dead, “I am the Man, Thomas,” with relative regularity (check out the lyrics here), and he often even begins his sets with old hymns and gospel tunes.

Now, I still don’t know the answer to a lot of questions about John. I can’t find the perfect label for his box, so that I can shelve it in on the correct aisle in the massive warehouse of people and artists I have met in my life. I don’t know if he knew he had the capacity to write these soulful songs and put on these entertaining shows for all these years, he was just waiting, or if he would not have been as good as he is now if his talent had not been on hold until the right moment. I don’t know if he knew he had this gift the whole time, or if he was as fascinated to discover his music abilities and love of performing as I am to hear about the course his life took to lead him to now. I don’t know how John feels about his long hiatus as a musician—if he wishes he could have made music a career, or if he is totally satisfied with the way things are playing out.

However, I do know a couple things. Like Bob Dylan, John doesn’t generally write or sing “Christian songs.” I don’t think he would call himself a “Christian artist.” John is a musician, poet, song-writer, etc. But all creativity comes from the Creator. The gift of creating lyrics and melodies was written into the mitochondria of John’s cells. It is part of who he is. John’s music and poetry is honest and beautiful and it is about what he believes, faith-wise and otherwise, but, perhaps more importantly, it is an expression of his creative nature. So I know that this particular road John has taken has led him to the place where he is able to provide joy for himself and others doing something true and something that is part of the elemental foundation of his being. This intangible, creative thing—this melted-free Neanderthal man—was inside of him, and it’s come forth. And it’s crazy good.

Laura Husmann, Designer

March 18, 2010

Laura her oldest son, Emmett, in China.

Lesson 1: Life is what it is, however you want to interpret it: a road, a journey, a story, a mystery.

“Life’s like a road that you travel on, when there’s one day here and the next day gone. Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand, sometimes you turn your back to the wind.” –Tom Cochrane, “Life is a Highway”

Let me preface this story, and I call it a story because it captures dimensions of tragedy and hope and redemption (as a good fairytale does), with a vignette Laura told me about her art school experience years ago. The teacher gave everyone five minutes to draw a sunset. They each focused on their papers, mustering all of their artistic abilities to create something beautiful. After the time was up, the teacher told all the pupils who had drawn a palm tree to move to the side of the room. This was a large chunk of the group. Then the teacher had everyone who had included a beach in their sunset scene join the first group. Again—a number of people left. After them, everyone who had drawn a mountain was removed. The exercise went on until only a very few students remained. This was the point.

The teacher wanted to emphasize that all of us usually have the same first ideas when given a topic, but that she desired for her students to push past those initial ideas in order to get to the truly unique and special discoveries that were lurking beyond, waiting to be chiseled out and breathed into life. I don’t know how to explain this eloquently, but somehow Laura’s life is like one of those ideas way, way, way back in the farthest caverns of your subconscious brain. Her story, her life, is one where the path was not anticipated, nor is it what would first come to mind if you were going to write about a wonderful life, but it is singularly rare because of that. Since we would not want to forget Batman in this discussion, Laura’s life is like that purple flower Bruce Wayne goes searching all over the foggy, green, temple-pocked mountains of China for.

Do you ever wonder what happens when you leave the path your life was supposed to take? When you don’t do what God hoped you would do? I still blame myself for making some dumb decisions in my life and getting sidetracked from what I imagine to have been “God’s original plan”. Nothing huge so far, but choices I should have thought through more carefully or thought about at all. For example, why did I go to college in this freezing, steel city when I could have been somewhere where I could have learned to surf, like San Diego? Why didn’t I take a year off before college in the first place? But the truth is that there wasn’t an ‘original plan.’ There is only your life, no other. There weren’t millions of possibilities for you to choose from or alternate universes where you made the other choices, as I like to imagine. You chose or followed the path, however you philosophically want to explain it, and that’s your life—by the time it has happened, it is time to accept it, make the best of what is behind you and what tools you have been given, and step into what lays ahead…

I imagine that Laura has had more reason to feel this way than many people. In her early twenties, she moved to Chicago straight from small-town Iowa, as a newlywed, to work in the best graphic design firm in the city. She had had a fortuitous meeting with the boss months earlier, before she had even completed her art degree. A friend had a job with the company and she had convinced Laura to bring her portfolio in for fun. That same day, Carlos, the award-winning designer and owner of the company, told Laura she had a job as soon as she was finished with school. Laura did not know of any other classmates who had jobs, or even job possibilities, and she had one waiting for her—in the far-off big city of Chicago.

And again, this job was not just any job. Laura began to realize that people would come from all over the world to work for free for 50-hours-a-week or more for this place, just for the experience. Laura explains that she learned more at the firm than she had in art school, from international, awe-inspiring designers. She learned how to push the envelope and not to be afraid. She learned how to approach problems from different dimensions than ever before. The chance opened up worlds and gave her unprecedented opportunities to learn from her peers. She describes it as “the best place I could be to learn to not be part of the machine.”

However, her colleagues at the design firm were not exactly cut from the same religious, spiritual, or cultural fabric as her. Laura explained that at the time it felt like “the most oppressive spiritual climate I have ever been in.” When her coworkers learned she was a Christian, some were amused and tried to offend the “girl from Iowa.” On one of her first days, for example, she found a magazine with people being crucified upside down on the cover, waiting for her on her desk. The pictures ended up being from a feature on the Burning Man Festival, but they were not the sort of thing Laura had seen much of before back home.

Laura often wondered in her first months why God put her there. One morning as she was coming into the building’s atrium, she thought the rapture was taking place. A voice booming, “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light and no one gets to heaven but through him,” blasted stereophonically through the halls. At last she realized it was coming for the office of Sun (the business partner and wife of her boss). When Laura went in to see what was going on, she found Sun curiously listening to a Christian radio program. Sun confided in Laura that though her life was full of fame and money, she just wasn’t satisfied—something was missing. It was exactly the kind of situation kids fantasize about when they are learning about witnessing in Sunday school.

So Laura took the cue and asked the question that made the most sense to her, “Do you want to go to church with me?”

Sun studied her calendar for a minute, and then replied, “Yes. You just have to ask Carlos.”

So Laura walked to Carlos’s office. After she explained the situation, Carlos asked, “You go to church!? What do you do there?” He was genuinely intrigued.

Unable to think of any more tantalizing descriptions under the circumstances, Laura gave a simple reply that matched, if not confirmed, her reputation: “We sing songs.” After making fun of her for a while, Carlos agreed that his wife could accompany Laura to church. And thus began a pattern. Every Friday, Sun would make Laura ask Carlos if Sun could go to church with Laura, Carlos would make fun of Laura when she asked, and then Sun and Laura and Laura’s husband would all go to church together.

When she became pregnant a few short years later, Laura assumed it would only be natural to quit her job, in spite of the sacrifice she recognized it would be. She knew she would be giving up not just a great opportunity, but years of developmental knowledge and work that would lead to future design expertise, recognition, money, and likely, fame. On the other hand, her bosses took it for granted that of course she would stay on—that it would be impossible for anyone to give up such a break, much less a girl who had been blessed with the unusual favor to get the job in the first place.

But Laura went forward with her decision. She quit her job (at her farewell dinner, Carlos claimed she was a sister to him) and shortly thereafter moved out to the suburbs, first Forest Park and then to the edge—Maywood, past all the El stops and Oak Park public schools. It was hard leaving the excitement and buzz and creativity of her community in Chicago behind, especially since her husband continued to commute to the city and experience it every day, but in their minds, moving was the right choice. And for a number of reasons, such as their ideal of classical education, they decided she would homeschool their kids.

Lesson 2: You can’t control everything. Sometimes, you can’t control anything.

“And in my hour of darkness she is standing right in front of me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” –John Lennon, “Let it Be”

Life continued, and Laura expressed herself through her home, church, children, and friendships, until the unimaginable unfolded. Laura’s husband left her and their big house on the edge of one of the most crime-ridden parts of Chicagoland with three boys five years and younger. Laura’s courage and faith, which almost suggest naivete to the cynical among us, have already manifested themselves in her story, as she moved from the farmlands to the big city and then quit her gift of a job to venture out to the lonely suburbs as a homemaker. But her story becomes even more fascinating at this point, because again, she did not do what was expected.

Laura’s youngest son was one and a half when her husband left and he is four and a half now. When people ask her what happened, she describes it as “a few years of hell,” but as a friend of hers during that time, I would have to say that is a pretty euphemistic interpretation. I am sure this is not the forum or even season to describe her experience then, but even as an outsider, I felt betrayed, furious, devastated, and helpless. Several other marriages were ruined during that period, and in many ways, my own faith has been off-kilter since then—I still haven’t figured out how to process the fact that good people, beloved and chosen by God, can make horribly stupid and selfish choices. I guess I still don’t know how to forgive when it really matters. And I only share my own perspective to shed light on what this must have been like for Laura and to emphasize how much God has redeemed something so wrong and unjust.

So after the fallout, Laura decided to finally send her oldest to school and then the others, but they are still living in the same beautiful house in Maywood. And her boys are doing fine. She recently had supernatural closure and forgiveness with her ex-husband, who continues to be invested in his sons’ lives, which Laura deeply appreciates. She is now “trying to figure out how to provide for a family of three sons and make space for creativity and earn money and be a good mom.”

And strangely, this is where Laura’s most recent artistic journey began. What had been put on hold indefinitely with the beginning of her family was renewed for her at a more explosive level than ever before. In her words, “God loves to throw you in the deep end.”

After her husband left, Laura went back to visit Carlos and Sun at her old design firm. She has developed a very close bond with them over the years and feels indebted to them for all they have given her. She told them both the whole story of what had happened to her marriage. Laura describes Carlos’s response: “Hearing you say everything you’ve said and stand there with the same smile makes me think there actually could be a God.”

Lesson 3: You really never know what is about to happen or what is around the next corner. Ever.

I fell in love again, all things go, all things go. Drove to Chicago, all things know, all things know. We sold our clothes to the state, I don’t mind, I don’t mind. I made a lot of mistakes in my mind, in my mind. You came to take us. All things go, all things go, to recreate us. –Sufjan Stevens, “Chicago”

Laura's design of the book of a friend's (Mat Barber Kennedy) paintings of objects mentioned in the Bible.

Laura’s style, which she expresses in web design, print, logos, recently paintings, photography, and design/illustrations for a friend’s book (featured above),and most recently writing her own book, is hard to describe. It is extravagant, but crisp. It is colorful, but simple. It is words and pictures, lines and organic contours. It captures your imagination, while it engages your attention and focus. She says “communication is what I am passionate about,” but her methods of communicating are not only verbal. She captures your memory, emotions, and subconscious with her collaborations of word, shape, color, pattern and figure.

Laura continues to do freelance design work but she recently had the unusual opportunity to design website ad banners for companies. The work is both artistic and strategic—she chooses the right visuals for the right audiences (one particularly successful ad she created had Carl Sagan’s face on it) and then tweaks them to increase web traffic using strategic analysis. Though the marketing-type work is not her ideal style or field (“I did not go looking for banner ads”), she enjoys it and believes that “for the place I’m in my life where I am raising three kids and trying to be with my kids and work, it’s a blessing.” And, she explained, “This allows me to write my book.”

Laura’s book is part visual, part personal experience, and part teaching, and she believes God gave it to her: “It was like a download.” She let me read one of the first introductory pages. When I begged to see more, she said I was lucky to have looked at what I had since she hadn’t shown it to anyone else. She explained, “God doesn’t want other people’s opinions.” Again, the level of faith with which Laura talks about God is borderline bizarre, particularly after the snaggle-toothed path her life has taken. She talks about him like he is in the next room. “I feel God and I are making a way creatively, financially… I’m trying to be where I am but with anticipation for what’s to come. I won’t ever again have three small people who need me.”

One final detail. Perhaps I am the only one fascinated by gold teeth, but I had to ask Laura about hers. Yes, she has one, or at least newly-appeared gold filigree through an old filling, and she doesn’t act like it is that unusual. This is how she explains it. “I feel like God is so unexpected. He is so unpredictable. I appreciate that instead of analyzing it. It’s like the crazy things about my kids. I don’t understand why they are the way they are, but I love them.” She went on to give another angle. “I’m a recovering Pharisee. I was a religious person, comfortable when all things were under control, specifically my control. I’m now much more comfortable in freedom than in control. I have thoughts about [the mysterious gold] but I’m in a season of not trying to explain God but just enjoy him.”

I can’t stop asking gold teeth questions, so I pushed her a little more to explain why she thinks God gives them to people at all. What’s the deal? “It seems to happen where there’s a filling. There was something wrong, and that something was fixed at some point. But then he took something that was okay and goes beyond that and makes it amazing. He doesn’t just patch up the thing that’s broken, but he does something astonishing.” Again, we’re back to where we started. This sounds like it could be an analogy for what God seems to be doing with Laura’s life.

Josh Russell, Filmmaker

February 18, 2010

From left: Josh and Megan's son, Asher; Josh; and Josh


“Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature.” –Augustine of Hippo, City of God

While trying to find out some information about Josh Russell from the scant amount available online before the interview, I learned that he apprenticed with Edward T. McDougal—a screenwriter, director, and Emmy-winning producer whose films have been distributed in over 30 countries—for ten years, beginning when he was 16. In my opinion, the idea of apprenticeship is genius and should be more common. How many hours of stressful schoolwork would you trade to have some practical knowledge of how to perform a skill you actually care about?

This apprenticeship was the first thing I wanted to ask Josh about. Though I love the idea, how does it ever happen, especially in this age, where we are forced to treadmill our way straight—as quickly and successfully as possible—through preschool and kindergarten, twelve years of grade school, four of college, and preferably, at least a couple in grad school? What makes this question compelling in Josh’s case was that: 1) he was living in Rock Falls, a tiny, rural Illinois town; 2) that the mentor was an actual, real-life, award-winning filmmaker; and 3); that the vocation in question was filmmaking. Artificial cattle insemination would have been a more predictable choice.

But Josh’s life has an inexplicable pattern of supernatural destiny that trumped all the more foreseeable outcomes. One of the first in this series of unexpected gifts was a stable, loving grandfather who believed that it was supremely important for kids to have the opportunity to discover what they love and then be able to do and enjoy whatever that activity might be. While this may seem natural, I know of grandparents and parents alike who are either not personally invested in their children or are determined to have their offspring follow a specific, chosen path. But Josh discovered that he loved making videos, and his grandfather, full of unknowing wisdom, let him borrow and play with their family’s expensive 1980s camcorders, freely. And so, at the ripe age of eight, Josh decided that he wanted to be a moviemaker and began his training with dizzying films of his brothers wrestling on the floor.

After about four years of this cultivation, a chance meeting took place when Josh was twelve. He was going to summer camp and was excited about rooming in the cabin of the cool, older son of some family friends. But Josh was blindsided when his mom requested that instead he be assigned to the cabin of a forty-something-year-old man, a filmmaker who had made a movie at the camp the year before and was serving as a counselor as a one-time favor. Josh’s mom assumed that in spite of her son’s frustration and disappointment, it would be good for him to get to know someone in the field if he was serious about it. Of course, the counselor was Edward T. McDougal, the man who would become Josh’s mentor—the man whom Josh claims “has given me everything I have.” And so it began.

McDougal had been praying for an opportunity to invest his experiences and knowledge into someone during the period before they met, and after that summer, McDougal and Josh spent the next few years in irregular but continuing correspondence. Josh explains, “I asked him, how old do you have to be to work legally?” When McDougal said he thought you could work part-time at 14, Josh replied, “Then when I am 14, I am coming to work for you.”

Beginning at the age of sixteen, Josh spent ten years in an apprenticeship, visiting and staying with McDougal and his wife for months at a time. Josh describes McDougal as an old-money Winnetka aristocrat who wears Velcro shoes, shorts, and button-up shirts. But he is the sort of person who is, “less concerned with other’s expectations, and more concerned with his ideals… He has such a commitment to his ideals, unlike I have ever witnessed in my life.”

Josh’s respect for McDougal, even as a teenager, is striking. When I asked if it was awkward to be hanging out at this man’s house, with his wife and family, night and day for weeks, Josh said no. In fact, he explains, “He could have told me to sleep on the roof, and I would have gladly done it. I would have believed he had a reason for it.”

Josh ended up as a producer for McDougal’s yet-to-be-released movie, Dog Jack, in the summer of 2006. Of course, in keeping with the theme of unpredictable coincidences, Vanessa, the editor of the movie, was from the film program at Columbia College in Chicago. She recognized that Josh was “charismatic enough to lead a class” and offered him a job as an instructor for a course on production, though he had no prior teaching experience or equivalent degree. So, Josh taught at Columbia for a year until, again, another door opened. “Then Vanessa’s husband recommended me to teach at DePaul,” which is where Josh currently works.

According to Josh, “One of the big turning points was when I got my father’s blessing.” After reading Wild at Heart, a book which explained that if you did not have an earthly father to bless your life, and in Josh’s case his art, God could be that father, Josh was moved. But when he asked God to ‘be that father,’ he felt God telling him, with absolute clarity, “I can’t give you this blessing, because your father is going to be the one to do it.” A couple months later, while Josh was home with his father for Easter, without his four siblings, that moment occurred, exactly as Josh had known it would.

Yet another fortuitous occurrence was when Josh thought of a new form of teaching screenwriting—a technique that has never been used before. It was based on a literary theory class he took in college. The professor taught him about “unpacking what happens when we read a sentence.” Josh learned about the way we interpret a sentence’s subject, project our own life experiences on it, and finally reconcile our interpretation of a sentence with the author’s version. Josh is now using this method to “unpack” the way we read stories and watch plays or movies.

The concept, which came to him—out of the blue—while he was lecturing a class, has dramatically improved his ability to teach screenwriting and write plays himself. Strangely enough, months ago, a visitor at our church who knew nothing about Josh nor his identity as a filmmaker spoke over his life, telling him, “You bring order to chaos. You have invented something people have been searching for for decades.” Josh explained that film is often described as “organized chaos,” and he described a number of other experiences during which people have given him apparently prophetic words about what God is going to do with him. “I’ve had that happen in the last few years with a frequency that’s blown me out of my socks.”

I asked Josh about his thoughts on these sorts of ‘prophetic words’ and the gold tooth phenomenon at our church, knowing he has been involved in the church leadership and assuming he would have rational perspectives. He replied that he has a “fantastic bull#$%@ detector” due to questionable past church experiences. Nevertheless, he shared, “I am making the active choice to believe that God does that…Why not err on faith? It is something to be unpacked and wrestled with like a good film.” He went on to explain, “I think the core of Christianity is to seek truth and not to seek to fool ourselves. I want the truth no matter who it is. And you know what? God is not afraid of that.”


Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible. –Gabriel Axel/Isak Dinesen, Babette’s Feast

Not surprisingly, the same mysterious hint of supernatural destiny that pervades Josh’s life story shows up in his writing. In the screenplays I read and watched, the main characters are ostensible losers at living. One is an out-of-shape wrestler whose popularity has spiraled to such a degree that he has only one naïve child fan left, another an overweight singer who wets himself during his life’s most important moments, and another a nerdy, clingy, genius kid so undesired that his parents have both rejected him, leaving him in the custody of a boarding school. But each of these fools has a providential gift that shapes their fate in spite of their own gross shortcomings.

One character, Francis Topeka—the fat singer, whose looks do not match his voice—spends his existence fantasizing about a gorgeous girl who writes him an adoring fan letter during his brief period of childhood fame. When he meets the girl decades later, numerous fluky signs lead him to believe that she too carries a torch for him, even though she does not recognize the disheveled, abrasive man he has become. This fantasy is devastated when he confronts her about the “signs” he has observed. However, their futures ultimately harmonize in spite of the lack of any authentic original feelings on her part. It is as though they are “meant to be together” even though they weren’t really fated to be together, as he had deluded himself into believing for so many years. Or were they?

In The Spectacular Brink of Life, the egotistical but clueless child genius named Wilbert is building a rocket to heaven for a middle school thesis project. A string of stressful and humorous mishaps lead to his new best friend, Florentine—who happens to also be his competitor in love, being sent on a one-way trip to space. The journey to heaven is all but abandoned due to the countless disasters, and Florentine, suffocating and alone in space, discovers an equation that disproves God. After waffling back and forth about whether to try to save Florentine or not, since the benefits of winning over the love-interest in question are great, Wilbert puts his own life and romantic relationship on the line to attempt a rescue. In doing so, they end up on a very heavenly planet. Then, in a beautiful forest on that planet, Wilbert runs into the father who disdained him. Is it a chance encounter? Maybe, maybe not.

Question Deemed Irrelevant

God needs no witness.  Neither to Himself nor against.  –Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing

The uncertain line between what is meant to be and what we make happen in our lives seems to be a question intertwined with Josh’s profession, his stories, and his faith. Is his life as a filmmaker destiny or was it a course of random events that happened to allow him to do what he loves? Is God making miracles happen, is it all able to be logically explained, or is it some mystical combination of the two? Both Wilbert and Francis Topeka have encounters with shooting stars in their respective tales, and both seem to interpret them to be some sort of sign. But millions of shooting stars, or meteors, fly through the earth’s atmosphere every day. What constitutes a sign?

Josh believes things. He believes he is doing what he is meant to be doing, and he has believed in himself as a filmmaker since he was a child. I have not met many people with such a sense of certainty about who they are. In his own words, he tried to explain what he believes God is doing. “I’m living my father’s dream. He’s doing something crazy, and he’s using me to do it, and I’m the luckiest bastard in the world.” Wow. I find myself wondering if he is just optimistic. At the same time, I find myself desiring that same sense of absolute purpose. It is inspiring.

At last, Josh’s faith is necessary not just as he creates his art, but as he seeks to share it. Producing independent movies does not sound like the easiest task. Fancypants, a movie about a wrestler who has passed his prime and his lone fan, will be Josh’s directorial debut. The movie has been filmed and edited, but has yet to be released because it needs up-front funding to be shown in theaters. Though this will likely happen in the very near future, the process of convincing people to personally and financially support his dream has been part of the entire process of making the movie, and will be part of his future movies. He describes the demand for others’ trust that is required to do this: “It’s ridiculous that you’d write me a check for $5 million, but why don’t you write me a check for $5 million?” And though it is ridiculous, it is hard to imagine many people easier to put your money on—Josh’s faith makes you want to support him, his vision, and his art. Yes, we will be waiting to see how this next chapter unfolds. Anything is possible.