How the Incarnation Invites Creativity

We’re pleased to welcome Sue Cunningham back for another episode this week as we engage the topic of creativity, particularly in this season of Advent.

Sue reminds us that, during this season of anticipation, “we’re not just observing, we are participating, we’re invited in into the mystery. We’re invited into creativity, God’s and our own and our fellow humans.”

Listeners, you’re in for an extra treat as Sue graciously shares one of her poems, “Mary and Michelangelo.” She and Dan then reflect both on the poem itself and on the creative interpretation process that readers or listeners may have.

In case you missed it, you can catch up on last week’s episode with Sue, Sharing in the Creativity of Christmas, here.

About Our Guest:

With more than 30 years of experience, Susan Cunningham,  MA, MS, LPC, NCC, ICCA, has walked alongside and listened to the stories of countless women and men across the United States and around the world, helping them to discern and engage what God seems to be doing in their lives. Because of her unique background, she is an especially attentive listener and effective communicator. Her work is thoughtful and wise, Biblically and theologically informed, educational and inspiring. She is committed to providing practical guidance in the present and God’s hope for the future.

A Licensed Professional Counselor for over two decades, Susan continues to work with the Allender Center, facilitating lay counselor training and women’s sexual abuse recovery. She enjoys a vibrant counseling practice and was voted “Best of Charlottesville, Virginia” for four years in a row by the public.

Susan and her husband John live in Fresno, California, and are the parents of two adult children, Evan and Elisabeth.

Episode Transcript:

Dan: We are in the middle of Advent, and I have the great pleasure of having back on the podcast my dear friend and colleague, Sue Cunningham. Thank you, Sue, for joining me again on the conversation of how you create and decorate to recreate something of the wonder of what Eden is and was and what the new heavens and earth will one day be. All that to say, the conversation last time was so fun for me, but what do you remember and what do you wanna highlight from where we were?

Sue: Yeah. Well, first of all, thanks. It’s great to be here. Great to be back. I think the thing I love about a conversation like this during the season of Advent is that it really just sparks our imagination. That we’re not just observing, we are participating, we we’re invited in into the mystery. We’re invited into creativity, God’s and our own and our fellow humans. And that’s just a very… we talked about play. It’s very fun. But it also really anticipates a lot of goodness because I think that is true about creativity, is there’s anticipation for it, and that’s what advent is. It’s anticipation of Jesus coming. And I think that we could all use some of that anticipation, some of that hope.

Dan: Oh, yes. Well, and in some ways, for me, as I started thinking about the idea of decorating and going around the house, so in going back into the house after the podcast, I’m looking at all this again going, wow, this came when we were in Ethiopia, 2006. And again, the people, the conversation, the purchase, knowing something particularly of the women who had been trafficked who were creating this as a means of both their employment, but also an expression of the faith that they were living into. All that it, there’s such a intersection between memory and anticipation. There’s a kind of different present in this time because so much of our, and I think appropriate nostalgia, that kind of sickness to be back home while at the same time anticipation of all that will come. One of the things I love is the anticipation of those who will be with us, opening gifts and whether they will be truly surprised. Did I hit the mark? Yes. Or is it, oh, thanks dad. That’s a really nice gift, which I’m glad for, I mean a “C”… as somebody who didn’t do that well in college a “C” is a really good grade. All that to say your invitation go. I’m sorry I…

Sue: No, it’s great. I was thinking, I think one of the best things I can hear on Christmas is when one of my kids or John will say, oh, thank you. This is exactly what I didn’t know I wanted. You know, knew me at a level that you knew I would love this and you knew what I didn’t even know about me. It’s just such a fun way to say that we belong, we belong to each other, and there’s love, there’s mystery, there’s creativity, there’s play there’s vulnerability, it’s all in there.

Dan: Well, and one of the phrases you used I wanna come back to and that is picking up the clues. You’ve picked up the clues. If you get to that point where somebody’s like, whoa, I didn’t know that I wanted/needed this at the level that I’m now anticipating or experiencing. So that feels like, again, the core of the incarnation. The radical disruption. In one sense, the contra-versy, this is contra meaning against or upsetting the verse, the structure, the world as we knew it. And that controversy, the incarnation’s meant to be contra-versial. And in that verse, disruption, there’s something about the presence of God. One of the books I read, and again, I won’t claim I read the whole thing every year, but one of the books that’s on my… books that are absolutely within six to eight inches reach, I have a nice bookcase along a wall but the books that are near me and stay near me through a year obviously mean a lot to me. And this book Thomas Torrance, and it’s a book called The Incarnation, the Person and Life of Christ. It’s one of those books I read every now and then a segment, 10-15 pages, but particularly at the incarnation, particularly in this season, I read, so I wanna read a little bit, not long, don’t worry. “In Christ, what God communicates to man is not something but his very self. This is distinct from all other acts of God. This is God’s unique act, his reality in the act. And apart from this act, there is no God at all in the act of creation, God does not communicate himself, but creates reality wholly distinct from himself. But here in Jesus Christ, God acts in such a way that he is himself in his act and what he acts he is, and what He is, he acts.” It is just one of those passages that I don’t care how odd this makes me, but I can barely read that without tears. That sense of, I love creation. I love trout streams. I love mountains. Literally right now, from when we did our last podcast, it’s snowing in Seattle, which at least for the first day is wonderful, but because it ices and then freezes and then becomes really a nuisance, at least in the first act of the beauty of creation, is just glorious beauty around. But all that is not God. He is separate from his creation, even if his creation reflects something of his glory and beauty. But the way that Torrance puts it is that unlike anything else, anything else, we are in the presence of God, in the presence of Jesus. And in that act, it is a giving of oneself. So if we can use this phrase only, God creates “ex nihilo” out of nothing. Something, but not something, himself. And in this regard, we all create, not “ex nihilo”, we create out of something. And in that our creation is not the same, and yet it reflects, it has a life consistent with the incarnation itself. And so from that, I just wanna go, where does your mind go?

Sue: Yeah, I love, love the possibilities. Like God creates out of nothing and has all the somethings, and then we create out of all the somethings. And so there’s so much to create with even, you know, have people that do trash sculptures, they go and they find things people have thrown away. You have people creating with paint and words and metal and wood and words, just all the things. It’s just crazy how many things. And then someone will do something completely different because they’ll get an idea and the viewers can look and say, oh my gosh, I was looking at the same thing, but I wouldn’t have put those together. And that’s the beautiful thing of making something new that wasn’t there before with a person, with a human. It’s just unbelievable. Yeah. And when you have an eye for it, a nose for it a feel for it, you see creation happening all the time. All the time.

Dan: Well, and I love that phrase we create out of something, but in that creation of something, we’re actually revealing something of our identity. And in that sense, God creates some things, but in Jesus, he is not creating something, he is creating and revealing himself in a way in which we now know the heart, the mind, the very being of the Father through the presence of the son. I don’t know if this is a fair parallel, but there’s something in our something creation, not “ex nihilo”, that is revelatory of our engagement with life, with love, with goodness, or with heartache and anger, or all the complexities of what it means to live in a fallen world with a heart and mind toward recreation. So in that, I want to return to that category of what you began to put words to in terms of your poetry, and just a little more of a history for us as to how you came to be able to call yourself a poet.

Sue: Well, as you’re talking, I’m thinking about how when we see creation, when we see something creative, when we see God’s creation, when we apprehend the incarnation, as you’ve just read, it helps us know God. And it also helps us know ourselves. And then the more we know ourselves, the more it actually helps us know God. And so it’s this back and forth dynamic, really, between God and ourselves and deepening. So a deepening and deepening. And I think for me to find my identity, which is something I’ve kind of struggled with, that question I’ve been asking since I was 12. You know, who am I? And still continuing to ask in many ways. And the more I know God, the more I can begin to answer again in fragments. But the more I see the fragments, the more I say, oh, this is like God. So for me to say that I will call myself a poet because I believe God put it in me. You taught me that once a while back. You said, if you love something, you can be sure that it’s because God put it in you. And that just really opened up these worlds for me because there’s so… I love color, I love words. I love interplay. I love metaphor. I love so many dimensions of the artistic life or poetic life. And then to think, oh, because God created me that way, God put it in me. It’s very exciting. And so there was a sense, I was in conversation with someone and they said, well, would you hesitate to call yourself a mother? I said, no. He said, would you hesitate to call yourself a therapist? I’m like, no, those aren’t hard. Then why would you hesitate to call yourself a poet? And I was like, oh, it seems even so much more vulnerable than those two. And also just so wonderful to say, oh, this is part of how God made me. And when I can line up with it and accept it and receive it, it actually opens up worlds for me.

Dan: Yes. And yet, I wanna underline the nouns that we’re willing to use, or the nouns we’re willing for others to use with regard to us are some of the most difficult and vulnerable realms. And I fully understand how reluctant you were to use the word poet. And yet I would’ve said literally at least a decade, if not two decades ago, of course you’re a poet because I had the privilege of reading some of your poetry years and years ago often at a recovery week, often as a means to hold the complexity of the trauma we are in and needing, not so much release, but a different kind of engagement with beauty. And so in that sense, I’ve known you’re a poet, well before you had, can I use the word courage? The courage to name that to be true. But the strange interplay of how nouns used are this intersection at one level, one side of the coin is courage on the other side is incredible vulnerability to be able to hold that. And I found that to be true for myself. I’m still slightly reluctant to call myself a writer. It’s not something I would normally use, but it has become a dear friend offered me the same kind of input with regard to why is it, I’m good to say, oh, I write, the verb is not difficult, it’s an action. Yes. But something about nouns come to the realm of identity.

Sue: I’m glad, I’m glad you’re saying that Dan because I’ve known you for decades, and I think it’s hard. I don’t think people realize how vulnerable it is, I think nobody would think that you would struggle that way. And it’s only in conversations where you, I’ve said, oh, this is hard for him as it would be for anyone. But sometimes we don’t realize because we just think that, well, I see it so it’s clear to that person. But there are mysteries that are kept from ourselves for various reasons that our friends and the people near to us can reflect back to us and remind us.

Dan: And I think that the invitation to our listeners is what nouns are easy for you? And again, no fault for them being easy. One of the first nouns I would use is I’m a fly fisherman. Beyond that, certainly husband, father, et cetera, et cetera. But if somebody were to say, what are the nouns related to your sense of calling, I’m a teacher, I’m a speaker. My dear personal assistant calls me a inspirational speaker and I’m going, do you know what that brings to mind

Sue: Just what you always wanted to be?

Dan: And she goes, oh, you’re a motivational speaker. And I’m like, have you ever watched SNL? So the nouns we use easily really do reflect, but that question of what are the nouns that are difficult, yet you’ll give a verb to it, but not an om becomes the realm of identity. But there’s something in the giving of Jesus as the very person. God there’s something about identity. The season is meant to, shall we say, open. I would hope even more than open to cohere to have that sense of I am identified with the babe Jesus. But also the incarnation is always moving beyond itself to the ongoing story. But before we get too much further, I want you to take us into the poem that you have offered us. And we’ll also not… I don’t know how people listen to the podcast, but we’ll put the poem up so you have access to its written form rather than just listening. But I do think there’s something about listening first before you actually go read because of the sensuality, because of the rhythm, et cetera.

Sue: Yeah, that’s really great. Cause poetry is, it’s auditory, but there are a lot of us that are not auditory. And so we like to see it. But I think that when you asked me, you said, do you have a poem for the incarnation or advent? I’m like, no, I actually don’t, but I will get right on that. And so it was fun for me to play and try to dig down into what I might say. But the word I wanna use is, and I’m so glad you used the word beauty, is that if there can be a way to access beauty, and it could be an unlikely beauty, it doesn’t, beauty, don’t forget beauty doesn’t mean pretty. It’s a very deep aesthetic and sensibility. And if beauty can be revealed, which is why I think the arts are really where it’s at… to reveal beauty and mystery. So with that in mind I will read this poem is entitled Mary and Michelangelo. And the epigraph is after the Pietà by Michelangelo. And if you’ve never seen that, I would encourage people to Google to look at the Pietaà by Michelangelo, because that is the inspiration what was in my mind.

Dan: So sequence wise, it’d be like listen first…

Sue: Listen first…

Dan: Maybe read, but eventually take a look at that infamous…

Sue: Yeah. Because it will mean hopefully there will be layers and the layers will unfold.

Mary & Michelangelo
after the Pietà by Michelangelo
Even though Gabriel the angel
broke God’s silence with
Don’t be afraid
Mary noticed
her shallow breath
and the slight tremble
of her left hand.
His deep question within
her hollow, muscular womb.
Was she open
to being over-shadowed
by the hovering Holy Spirit?
Her gut stirred
her voice steady
Let it be to me.
Mary broke down after he vanished
her body free to sob
with consent.
Her left hand cupped open
like wordless prayer
wholly virginal
a vessel.
Michelangelo understood her
when, out of Carrara marble
he chiseled
polished her
as she cradled her dead son
with her right hand
her left hand open
When I slowly approached his Pietà
I noticed my shallow breath
and the slight tremble
of my left hand.
Mary’s unruffled face
and her left hand
held still
palm up

Dan: Holy, holy, I again find myself near tears. There’s something so holy and shall we say, altering something alters in my perception, not just to the painting, not just of the gift, but of the reception. And so I don’t know how to do this other than to say asking a poet to talk about her poetry feels almost on the border of asking to be allowed to enter the front door. It speaks on the slant powerfully. So if we can do the next portion of this without feeling like I’m asking you to explain the poem, that will be the challenge. Because yeah, no poet should be asked, what do you mean?

Sue: Right. Yes, exactly. I think that’s why people sometimes are afraid of poetry because they’re like, I don’t know what it means. And it’s like, well, it means whatever you think it means and whatever it means to you. And so I sort of wanna flip the script a little bit, Dan, and say, what moved you or what did you feel? Maybe that’s a better way to say, I don’t know. What did you feel? Was there some place that you felt something or saw something or…?

Dan: Sure. That probably is the wiser course so that I’m not doing what I, but I also am tempted to come back and see if I can get in the side, maybe at the side door break into a window.

Sue: I’ll tell you a couple things.

Dan: But the first is her vulnerability. And again, it’s not just a category, it’s now language. It’s Mary noticed her shallow breath. Now we don’t know that from the text, but nonetheless, the story itself, if her breath didn’t change, come on. It’s almost you have a vision of the incarnation and her being filled by the spirit in a way that does not hold mystery. So that simple phrase, her shallow breath and the slight tremble of her left hand, but in the next shift is this term muscular womb. And I’m like, oh my gosh, that is such a disruption of… yet I go, absolutely. There’s something, I’ve never used the phrase muscular womb before. And yet that interplay of that beginning of the frailty, fragility, vulnerability, and yet there is that question and her gut stirred her voice, steady. Let it be to me. Even the phrase to me just strikes me again as genius, not let it be, not let it be me, let it to me, I see myself as both identity, me, yet also something being done to me. And yet when it comes into the next stanza, were back to vulnerability in terms of she broke down after he vanished, her body free to sob already back to vulnerability. But what is her sobbing? Its actual consent. So in what has been sometimes I think a tragic misunderstanding that Mary was put upon by God that there wasn’t consent. This is a powerful statement of her choice. And so are, yes, there are sociological/philosophical issues being addressed in a very simple phrase. So as you’re building through this, and then you come to Michelangelo, and I read the poem and I was shocked, like, okay, I saw the title, but I kind of forgot the title in the midst. And so as we come to Michelangelo, and really maybe my way of putting it is you bring his creativity into play through the open left hand. Now the left hand makes sense, or I don’t know if it’s the word sense, it just makes something. And in a way in which now I’m engaged, what he knew that I don’t know. What did he know that I don’t know that you’re asking me to know, and I’m still not sure what he knew that I don’t know. But I’m now pondering that going, wow, and as he cradled, as she cradled her dead son. So already the incarnation is being spoken to with regard to the crucifixion and being able to hold the novelty, the joy, the creativity, the imagination, the remembrance with the horror of death. Again, that took me in a way that by the time you bring yourself in, and I’m like, oh, and I slowly approached his Piatà, I noticed my shallow breath, and I’m like, ah. I don’t know if I can say it fully, but there’s something about reading this poem that I felt like was indicative of inviting me to my own shallow breath to in some sense, the intersection of both: Ahhh takes your breath away. That took my breath away. Yet in it it’s a recurrence of what trauma is. And that is literally we become fragmented. So you’re asking me to hold awe-some and awe-full. The glory of the incarnation and the horror of his death. And yet all within my palm, her palm being up receptive. Yeah. All I can say is you just wrote that.

Sue: Well, you’re so much fun, it’s so gratifying because for every word, and this is true for all the poets and writers, you know this in your books, labor over every single word, and especially because poetry is condensed language, every word has to count. You can’t just… So usually I write and then I start slashing, slashing, slashing because it just has to be lean. But it’s fun to hear you just hear you engage with my creation. It’s really, really, it’s super vulnerable and also super gratifying and exciting and honoring. And I feel like I could weep with that. But I guess I wanted to say about I’ve had this relationship with the Pietà by Michelangelo for many years, and what I didn’t put in the poem because it didn’t work, but when I walked up to the Pietà, I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t never heard, I just didn’t even know what I was looking at. And I just burst into tears. And I didn’t even know why. It was just so visceral. And then I’ve looked and I’ve studied it, and I’ve studied Michelangelo, every single angle that you can view that at, I’ve viewed it. And it was her left hand upturned. It got me, it got me every time because it was that vulnerable consent and that at the beginning and at the end, she’s still open palm up. And that just means everything. And I also wanted to write this poem just out of audacity, that this is a perfect piece of art. When you look at the sculpture, you’ll be like, it almost seems like the sculpture itself is incarnation. I mean, it’s so beautiful and perfect, and how did he do it is just mind boggling. And so how can I put my poem, my little poem? It’s not a comparison. Not, and we’re not at the level of, well, if we’re not Michelangelo, then we can’t create, it’s more like I’m going to throw my hat in the ring and this is my offering and I can enjoy it and play and be in conversation with Mary and Michelangelo and Gabriel and myself. Yeah.

Dan: Yes. I say amen. But I also wanna knock on the door at least one time. Okay. Do you make of the left hand,

Sue: What do I make of it? Yeah

Dan: Indeed. I agree. Receptive. Yeah, but it’s not her right hand. It’s her left hand. Yeah. What do you make of the left hand?

Sue: I mean, you might be thinking of something that say to me, it is just so open and vulnerable and other, it’s unexpected and it’s surrender and it’s not the right hand, it’s the left hand. Is that what you’re saying? What are you saying? Say it. Just say it.

Dan: Again. I think this is again, the power of interpretation. Nobody gets to go, this is the right interpretation and therefore all other interpretations are not true. So when we engage in the interpretive act, we’re actually addressing not to be too boring, but we’re addressing epistemology. We’re addressing how do we know what we know? And then we’re coming into the process of going, what’s involved in exegesis? What’s involved in reading reality? And is there a way to know, it is not a mere skill. It actually is an art in and of itself. Yes, there are skills no question. To know the original language is actually a very important tool to engage scripture. Yet, I think it is a very fair statement that translations are not only sufficient, but multiple translations help you get closer to what the original Greek and Hebrews is inviting you to engage. So again, not to minimize your skill. You have done courses, you have had input from other poets you have labored to create the skill. Yet in it you’re also choosing to use language that at some level is a mystery to you. Is that a fair way?

Sue: Very fair, yeah. Because I mean, there’s the reality and it’s somebody else. It’s like you’ve also taught, other people have to tell you what your face looks like. You’ll never see your face. And same thing, you can see things that I can’t see even about what I’ve just created.

Dan: So in that sense, you have to be an interpreter of your own creation. And your interpretation in some sense may have a few feet more ahead of the rest of us, but you’re still on the race. It isn’t that you have already arrived and you’re done. I think that’s an important category with regard to this power of mystery. And in this case, the power of creativity is those who create often can’t fully name what they were hoping to create. So when we come back to the left hand, I just know culturally why, what? What’s the left hand known for? And I won’t be too graphic, but the right hand is known for the ability to, shall we say, reach out and touch because it’s the clean hand. The left hand is not the clean hand and y’all can figure out if you will, what I might be referring to. But in that sense it it’s the most vulnerable hand. It’s the dirty hand, it’s the complex human soiled. Broken. And one sense the hand most needs to reach out. So in that regard I think you are inviting us as you read Michelangelo, but as you wrote Michelangelo. You’re inviting us into all creativity, including interpretation is a mystery of surrender and a vulnerability to be honored as long as you bless, in one sense her muscular womb, that I will be in my little mind playing with that for a long season. Well Sue, as we come closer and closer to Christmas, let me just again say thank you for the gift, not just of this podcast, but of your life for the kingdom. And it is a rich gift. And may those who read, look at the Piatà actually begin to ponder their own privilege of creating in this season. So thank you.

Sue: May it be so. Thank you, Dan. This has just been so fun and so creational itself. Oh, we had no idea where we were going to go, but I knew it would be fun with you. So thank you. Thank you.

Dan: Welcome.