Sharing in the Creativity of Christmas

Many of us are inspired to create during the Christmas season – perhaps through hanging up decorations, baking treats and meals to share, or dreaming up creative gifts for loved ones. But beyond the tangible holiday projects, how does the season of Christmas inspire us to engage our creativity and playful nature?

This week, Sue Cunningham, Licensed Professional Counselor and Facilitator at the Allender Center, joins Dr. Dan Allender to reflect on how creativity emerges through Christmas.

Sue says, “The way God moves in the world with the Christmas story: Mary, Jesus, the whole story is all about creativity. And I just love the thought that God is the original creator, and we humans are image-bearers. So we get to share in that creativity.”

We hope you enjoy this episode.

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.

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Episode Transcript:

Dan: We are so near Christmas that it is, again, one of the best seasons to reflect on the incarnation. And I have a delightful guest, a dear friend, colleague Sue Cunningham. Sue, you have been on before, but unfortunately, I think probably most people don’t go back years ago to hear past episodes. So I’m gonna introduce you again. And that is Sue Cunningham is a therapist, spiritual director. She is a colleague and friend working in the Allender Center, both teaching, leading groups, providing utterly needed maturity, to all who have the pleasure of knowing her. So Sue, welcome.

Sue: Thank you. It’s great to be here. And it’s great to be here during Advent, so near Christmas. I’ve never done that before.

Dan: Well, I, and again, as we think about Advent, I literally had no one else that I wanted to have be part of this conversation. So let’s just start with Merry Christmas.

Sue: Thank you. Thank you. I am really leaning into Advent, and that’s the period of time, you know, it’s usually, I guess, what, four Sundays before leading up to anticipating Christmas. And, that’s just such a rich time in the midst of all the chaos of, you know, Christmas. So yeah, I’m thrilled to be here during this time and, kind of leaning into the season.

Dan: Good. Well, to further say why I would want you particularly, you are unquestionably one of the best therapists I know, and one who opens the door to the intersection between one’s life and heart, but also the story and the life of Jesus. And in that rich interplay, I would say also, you are one of our, there are a number, but one of our great poets, at the Allender Center. And in that the conversations going to play between the reality that we all decorate our homes. Yeah. Well, maybe not all, but the majority of people do something with regard to a seasonal acknowledgement. And in that, that decorative process, is one that actually is incredibly creative, even if it’s fairly standard in terms of the things you bring out from your attic and you put up on your door and your tree, et cetera. But there is something about the season and creativity. So that’s, that’s gonna be the focus. But I, first question really is how do you decorate your home?

Sue: Wow. Okay. I always start with a wreath because the greenery, like a fresh evergreen wreath for the sensory experience of being able to smell it and just see it and have it be kind of pervading the room or our home. And also, it’s the easiest thing for me because I think that when you think about creativity and decorating, or how do I express this wonderful, you know, this wonderful season that is complex, it’s not only super happy for a lot of us, it holds a lot of emotion. And so when I think about decorating, I think of anticipating. I just think of how can I put up something that is a beginning? And for me it’s a wreath because I can get it, I can smell it, I can see it. It’s in the, it’s in the air, it’s in my sight. And, it’s easy.

Dan: And so how do you proceed? Like if you begin with a wreath,

Sue: I begin with a wreath, and then I just try to put up things. I mean, we, one of the things we did, especially when our kids were little, is we collected stockings. We collected like different kinds of ornaments every year and different sort of symbolic things. But I like haul out the tubs and go through it And just kind of see what speaks to me this year. I don’t put up everything all the time, but what, what speaks to me this year? What makes me happy? What do I wanna look at for the next, you know, six weeks or whatever it is and that’s what I do. What do you do?

Dan: Well, I, the wreath is really important too. And, again, I didn’t make any of them. Becky made them all, but there’s like a wreath on our, you know, front door. There’s two or three wreaths around the house. So that, that’s a really common, but they’re all made from material from different homes that we’ve lived in. So some of these reaves have been, you know, they’re, they’re rather shaggy, but they, they hold so much memory. And then the, the next, I think revelation are, I’m gonna exaggerate, not like that’s a new phenomena, but,  like 200 or 300 creche scenes, you know, nativity scenes. And some of those have been gifts from dear friends. Some of them, the ones that I think matter most to us, were made by folks who were escaping sex trafficking worlds. And so they are, we have some from Asia, we have some from Africa, and they’re just glorious each, each and every small piece. Like, it’s like a puzzle piece that when it all comes together, it’s just stunning. And then we had years where, you know me, I’m pretty cheap. The artificial tree was sufficient. And it lasted, I think almost 25 years, but it was beginning to be so thread bear that we finally gave up its ghost and began buying trees. But, we often cut a tree, yet it looks, it looks like, and I purposely pick usually a Charlie Brown type tree, ’cause there is something about an inelegant, you know, in auspicious tree that for me holds something of the complexity of the season. But that does not fit the aesthetic perfection of the one that is my beloved. So the Charlie brown tree currently is outside of the garage of my office, which lingers outside appropriately. And then inside is a freaking $45 table top tree that is like, I can’t believe we paid that much for a tree. But nonetheless, it is stunning. And it gets decorated.

Sue: If you got a tree for $45. I hate to say it, but you’re doing pretty well.

Dan: No, no, I’m, I’m talking like, it’s like three feet tall. We’re not talking about it. When I say tabletop, it’s a freaking table top tree. So again, we look at one that was a little larger and it was 75, and then a, you know, like one that most people would have that have gifts and such, and children and grandchildren, that would be like 90 to 120. And I’m like, we’re going tabletop. If you want a perfect tree is gonna be teeny. So all that to say, it is so fun. I just, I don’t do a lot of the decorating because that’s more of what Becky chooses to bring to our world in terms of handmade, stockings for each person. They get laid out. It is beautiful. And it’s, so when I say reminiscent, it is something that holds memory for us, but also it holds that sense of anticipation of what the day of Christmas and the season of advent holds. So that’s, that’s our decorational orientation.

Sue: Well, I think, what you’re saying about memory and this sort of year after year, we have, we begin to have rhythms and traditions. And I think this idea also of belonging and home, that like, there’s a place you come home to, there’s a place you belong that has the things that you remember from years past. From, like you were saying, the different crushes and major scenes. You have some that have been carved from olive wood, from Israel that are just, you know, very special gifts and, reminders of other times that even seem so far away. And yet here you have this very concrete image that we can, that we can look to, um, when we feel like, you know, we don’t, we don’t know what this year’s gonna hold. And that’s one thing I do love about decorating as well and creating is lights. I love the, just the very simple twinkle lights and like a lot of people at night, you know, to turn the light, you know, to turn everything off. But the, but the little lights, it just, it brings some sort of magical or spiritual element of quiet even in the dark, that there is light.

Dan: Yes, yes. Again, the light’s on the tree. And every morning for us, we get up early. So Becky said this, I don’t know how to what it is, but something that turns the lights on without us actually having to do it. And like five in the morning, the lights come on. And I love getting up right before it. So that I am in one sense, in the presence of the light shining and that process of beauty, of light of memory, it is, I’m gonna state it and then ask you to engage it, it like, this is really meant to be one of our most creative periods. So how is, shall we say, advent and the season beyond just the idea of decorative? How is it for you, creative?

Sue: Well, I think that what you’re just saying is, I mean, it is such a beautiful rhythm that you get up and you wait in anticipation of light. And of course, that’s reminiscent of Genesis one, you know, like this, there’s light and God’s most creative beginning. And, I think that that’s what this season of creativity is. It’s like we get to participate, we get to collaborate with God in so many ways of creativity, with the way God moves in the world, with the way, you know, the, the Christmas story, Mary Jesus, like the whole, the whole story is all about creativity. And God, and I just love the thought that, you know, God is the original creator, and we humans are image bearers. So we get to share in that creativity. But you know, what I always say to clients is, the enemy, the evil one is not creative. The enemy, the evil one is relentless, but it’s, it just kind of cycles through the same things. And it’s all all all derivative. It’s nothing creative. It’s nothing new. And so that’s what I also love about creativity is it’s so uniquely godlike and human.

Dan: Well, and what you bring us to is that Genesis one, let me read a section out of John chapter one. “In the beginning was the word,” just that echoes indeed the beginning of Genesis one. “And the word was with God, and the word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him, all things were made without him, nothing was made that has been made in him was life. And that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” I mean, I just don’t think there is, you know, there are other incarnation adhesions too. There are other sections of the incarnation that, you know, we could easily bring into this conversation. But in terms of the interplay of the creation of the universe and the incarnation, in some sense, the incarnation is a cleansing, a restoration, a new creation, uto address what had occurred as something of the ruin, uh, of what God intended in the Garden of Eden. So I don’t think John is anything other than highly cognizant of the play between his beginning and Genesis chapter one. So when you think and think of all the things that I just put words to from that scripture, light, darkness, creativity, that nothing was made, that was not made through him, all that implies that if, this is not a creative season, you’re missing something of a glory of recreation. And this is recreation, re-creation, just slightly different pronunciation that I intend. But it’s spelled the same way. Recreation and re-creation are part of what it means to be part of the incarnation. So again, want to ask you to ponder something of your own creativity and how you bring, like, words to a page. Again, we’ll have a chance at some leader or conversation like in a week to open the door to some of your poetry. But for now, just I’d love to hear how you, how you create particularly in this season.

Sue: Yeah. I think that, you know, when you were reading that passage in John, it’s just so full of the sensory and that that is, I think the key to, creativity is using all the senses. And a lot of people will know, like, this season is marked by like, as we are talking about creative decorations and light and also music and the sounds and the carols and the instruments and the richness of sound. And then there’s the taste of food, the rich… you know, people start baking and cooking and planning menus and, and, you know, trying new recipes because there’s something about being embodied, being creative, being image beer that like to use all our senses of sight and sound and taste and, and touch. And, and to be able to take it in that is, is one thing, which is, which can be kind of overwhelming, but also, very accessible to very beautiful. And, so for me, I, and I think this is true probably for everyone, is you find sort of where you’re drawn creatively. Like I’m, I love to eat good food, but my joy isn’t really to create in the kitchen and I love music, but I’m really not about writing music or, or songs or singing them solo. But… like you, Dan…

Dan: Yeah, we won’t, we won’t do a duet. I promise.

Sue: Okay, great. But, I do love playing with words on the page, and that’s kind of a new thing. And I remember conversations that we have had in years past about clay and how sue you need to play. And I was like, I don’t really know how to play. I’m not, I don’t feel very playful. And it was like this very kind of exciting discovery to, to discuss to, you know, realize, I play with words. And so of course, the passage that you just read, the word, the word becoming flesh, John, John is definitely playing with his own words and, and, you know, echoing genesis, it’s very fun. And so that I think, each of us kind of find what are the ways that we like to play the best, or that, that come that’s accessible. And that doesn’t mean we don’t develop it and that we don’t like work hard. But it’s kind of where we’re drawn. So I was drawn to words, and that’s how I, that’s kind of my realm.

Dan: Well, and how, how did you discover that? How did you find that your playground, is got, you know, the instrument of words?

Sue: Well, it’s kind of funny because I’m gonna say like, I didn’t really realize it until I turned around. I was like, oh, it was everywhere. So right before one of my birthdays, I was in line getting coffee, and I was waiting for my order. And I turned around and there was a big board where, you know, different people, places had posted different offerings. And there was an offering for a poetry workshop, and it was near my birthday. And I looked at it and it had one of those things you could tear off the number. And I, I was like, I don’t know why, but I just wanna do that. And so I came home and I said, John, like, I know what I want for my birthday. I want to do this poetry workshop. And he is like, great. And when I started, I literally tell the story. Like, I was like in preschool, kindergarten, like, and here, there were all these like accomplished poets and different people, but everyone was so kind and so accepting, and they just kind of took me by the hand and helped me find my voice. And as I look back, I would look at old journals and things as I was in the middle of these workshops, and I would find little fragments of poems that I’ve been writing all my life. I just hadn’t put two and two together. And so I would say, like, I’ve always been a poet, but it’s only been very recently, even this summer, I had this, you know, big sort of come to Jesus moment to say, will you call yourself a poet? And it was not an easy thing to, to accept and receive and name, even though it’s like what I wanted my whole life. So, that is how I have discovered, and I’ve been discovering, and I’m still discovering.

Dan: Well, and you saw fragments, that’s such an interesting category. You saw fragments of verse of thoughts perhaps put within what we’ll eventually talk about as what is poetry. But for the moment, we’ll just say in some poetic form, how was, how were those fragments working for you when you were younger? I meaning what were you doing?

Sue: Well, you know, I think I was expressing myself. I was trying to find a way to express myself. And the thing that is so funny, and I say this, so that people can kind of understand, when I look back at the fragments, like they’re very, very juvenile, they’re very immature. They’re not, it’s not like, I go back and I say like, oh, I found all this fantastic poetry that’s really amazing. It’s like, no, it was very undeveloped, very, you know, very primitive. But what was important to me is the expression of it, the self-expression. And of all the things I could have been doing, I could have been drawing, I could have been painting, I could have been writing songs, I could have been singing, I could have been, doing physical things at that point, but to express myself, it was, it was poetry. And that self-expression seems for me to be, the important thing.

Dan: Well, I’ve heard you say this phrase a number of times from a particular poet who talks about poetry as being, “on the slant.”

Sue: Oh, yes, yes. Emily. Yes. When you can’t, thank you. When you can’t speak directly, you speak to the slant. And that’s what Emily Dickinson said, tell the truth, but tell it slant. And I think in my family and other families in the world, like, you know, sort of a prophetic voice, which poetry is a very prophetic language, as you know, and the scriptures are full of. But it, if you knock people over the head with things, they don’t, they can’t hear it. It’s too much. And, and rightly so. But if you come in from the side or from the slant, it’s a little easier to swallow. It’s a little easier to take in. And that’s also the play, that’s what makes it fun, because it’s not creative to just hit someone over the head with something that you think is profound. But what is creative and fun is finding a way in, that can kind of go in before they even realize it. And that’s probably what poetry has done for me, entered me without me even realizing it in the same way that I think God and the Spirit, like enters into us and speaks to us in ways before we even realize it.

Dan: Yes. Yeah. So again, not necessarily walking into your whole history, but what, what would’ve compelled you to be operating in the slant as a young person? And how, in one sense did that work for you to find a voice, even if that voice didn’t get found fully, and maybe never fully, fully, but fully until you, you know, almost accidentally ran into, you know, a phone number, and a birthday present. So is that, should we say inarticulate question, make any sense?

Sue: Yes. No, it’s good. I think that, you know, a couple things are at play. One is, I, my, all four of my grandparents are, are genocide survivors from the Armenian genocide. And I talked about that, I think, on this podcast at different times. And so, speaking and silence were very embedded. Like, they never talked about their experience, but we all knew it, or we were supposed to know it. It was kind of like, we’re not gonna talk about it, but you have to know. And so there was a lot of picking up of clues. So I spent a lot of time just feeling my way through, you know, when we, especially the years we lived with my grandmother, and, you know, just spending time and the like with the, with the rhythms, with the food, with the ways that we, that we moved through the day and with the talking and the way she would, engage with me. Little things like teaching me and having me help her fix her bed every morning and like picking up just little things from the way she moved in the world, as a survivor of genocide which I knew, but I had no idea what that meant, until later in my, my work actually, with the Allender Center and being trained in trauma care. But the other thing was, and not unrelated, is I was really shy as a little girl and young, I was, you know, sandwiched in between two very, brilliant brothers. And, you know, like I was shy and I didn’t, I didn’t talk all that much in on one hand. On the other hand, I was constantly trying to elbow my way through as well. But I think that, that’s one way that, poetry and words kind of, they were very internal, cause I had a lot of internal world internal imagination, internal things that you couldn’t really see until it came out in kind of a creative expression.

Dan: So to me it’s a way of saying, look, play is not distraction. If it is, it’s an escape, but in some deep, deep sense, all our play has at least a resonance, a connection to something of our heartache. Something of the reality of why do we need recreation? Well, because creation has, in some sense been fouled. And in that we know things are not as they are meant to be. And we have an impulse, again, this sounds so anemic to use this word, but we have an impulse to improve. And if we take that word back a little bit to say, oh, no, to, to improve, we wanna create goodness. And that is so true with regard to what I’m hearing for your story, that as a shy, but also a young girl in the midst of having to read clues, I think that phrase is a lovely phrase to think about, not only how one writes poetry, but how one’s meant in some sense to read poetry. But also, it’s also one of the reasons why you’re such a good therapist and spiritual director. You can look at fragments, you can look at, this is a harsh image perhaps, but you can look at a crime scene and begin to follow the track of the clues. But what we’re really talking about is the incarnation is a mystery, not so much to be solved, but in some sense to be transformed by. But if we don’t approach the incarnation, the the wonder of God becoming flesh within that sense of what, like? If there’s not some sense of offense of like the scattering of expectations of this doesn’t, this doesn’t, this doesn’t make sense. So in some ways the incarnation is a form of poetry in that it’s working in each of us on the slant, at least it’s meant to versus just a frontal Jesus is God, he was born of a virgin, et cetera. And again, not that I challenge any of that, that’s true. But when you approach it head on open door. Yeah. Isn’t a wonderful, versus being in some sense surprised or offended or surprised, offended, overwhelmed by, does that resonate with your sense of creativity?

Sue: Yeah, I was just gonna say, there are a couple of, things that really struck me. And one is when you said the mystery. The mystery I think is meant to be, like, you know, not just like, like you said, solved like a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be entered into. So I think of mystery as an invitation to literally step into it, taste it, touch it, smell it, you, you know, all the things of the senses to try to under understand. But with using the word understanding, not like, oh, got it. Like, I comprehend it, but what little clues, what little things are being revealed to me? And I think that’s the, the mystery of the incarnation is these, these, these revelation, these, these revealed, these revealed moments realities things, you know, that are definitely in the, in the gospel story, but also in all of our lives. And I just wanna say one thing about the distraction play is not distraction. I think with art, what play is, it’s like it transports us. So it is like, at another level, it’s not like I’m distracting, I’m trying to get out of this world, but it’s more through art, whether it’s poetry, music, the visual arts of film, you know, all of the ways that we can, a beautiful meal, a taste that can transport us and let us know, like, oh, there is more. There is a world that is opening up to me, in this, in this mystery. I don’t understand it, but I’m here for it. I’m into it. I want to be part of it.

Dan: Well, and before we end, I just want you to ponder, how does, how does this conversation, shall we say, lean you into your gift purchasing for those you love?

Sue: Well, I mean, I do think that when I’m being creative, I am my best self. Like I’m my, I’m my most loving because I think creativity is very, like, it’s synonymous with love. I think that’s how God is. And God creates in love and, and is. He did create God did create God is still creating in love. And, you know, as I become more creative, and I will say, and I do wanna say it’s not necessarily easy, it’s not automatic. There is like in any, anything that you try to develop, whether you’re playing an instrument or, doing something, you know, like I said in the kitchen or, um, on the page or on a canvas, or, oh, there’s so many in film. It takes work. It takes like sitting down, it takes discipline. It takes like doing it when you don’t feel like it, it takes like participating. When you feel like, I wanna judge this, I wanna say it’s terrible. I wanna say like, why even bother? I’m not Emily Dickinson. How could I write a poem? But again, that just gives up on the, the entering in on the mystery, on the participating. On the collaborating. So it feels like it’s a collaboration with God, with other humans, because I see other humans all the time creating. And when I cannot judge either myself or them, then it does become fun. It does become play. It’s like, let’s all create and let’s all love.

Dan: I love that. And for us, for least for me, I, but it boils down to look it, if you want me to buy you a pair of slippers, fine. Tell me what kind of slipper and given our capacity, to feed the dark entity Amazon. It’s, you know, so yeah,

Sue: Yeah, send me the link.

Dan: Send me the link, I’ll buy it. But why don’t you just buy it and I’ll give you the money. I’ll Venmo you. Wouldn’t it be simpler or why wait till Christmas to get it? If you actually need slippers, get ’em. So I think we’ve come to this point of, of like, like, if you want money, just tell me, you know, no, I won’t give you that amount, but I’ll give you X amount and, and do with it what you want. Because for the most part, the purchase of gifts, unless you really have studied, pursued, understood what a person to purchase something that the other person doesn’t know they want yet, they deeply want, I think it’s one of the great surprises, but it takes a lot of labor to be able to do that. So that’s, that’s one direction of what I would call incarnational, gift giving, surprising gifting that you didn’t expect, didn’t actually know you want yet in the receiving, it’s all that you could have ever hoped for. To me a second is time. Time and experience. Like, the kids have known that every now and then, one of them will get two meals with me where I take them out and, but we’re gonna read a book and they either get a choice or I get the choice as to which book, but it becomes then what we’re going to talk about at the meal. And like, you know, the first few times it was pretty cool, now it’s like, oh, who’s gonna get dad? Who’s gonna get dad? And, and, and, and at least, at least he takes you to a nice restaurant. I don’t really care. Creating conversation that actually engages the word, the word meaning all of reality, all of life, and the presence of the goodness of God and the land of the living. That becomes the playground for getting to know people, getting to receive and to give where there is actually the play of mutuality. And I think that’s in part what I want us to be able to move toward in our next conversation, the mutuality of a conversation about one of your poems, particularly a poem related to this season. So welcome back when we do.

Sue: Okay. Can I say one thing?

Dan: Oh, you say whatever you wish as we end.

Sue: I, you know, you talked about like this, surprise and, the knowing and so, to give a gift where you, you actually know the person. It’s very vulnerable. And so, you know, it’s vulnerable in a way that like ordering the link that you sent me or giving you money or cash or Venmo-ing you, is not vulnerable. You know, it’s kind of the sure thing. But when you create, and I think this is where God and a lot of the characters in the scriptures come, come to life to say, it’s so vulnerable to give a gift, it’s so vulnerable to know and to hope. You know? Right. Hope you’re, hope you’re on point and hope they respond the way you, you think, and hope they might. It’s really, a beautiful knowing and vulnerability. Yeah.

Dan: And so it, maybe my last sentence is I don’t do that with my grandchildren, because I want them to have that joy of ripping up a present that they kind of know they want. Maybe they sent a note to Santa. I’m all for that. I’m just talking about when you’re dealing with your adult world, do you really just wanna send, you know, a pair of sneakers that they’ve already told you they wanted? This is that realm of the playfulness, of this incarnation season is the realm of re-creating, of recreating a playing, but playing, knowing and being known in a way that takes our heart, into a connection with one another, but a connection to the living God who has become the humbled. If not, in one sense, totally vulnerable baby in a so-called major. So as we engage this, Sue, I look forward to our conversation next week.