Give me my chance to do my very best.”
Are you an artist? Do you recognize this cry?
It’s from the closing scene of “Babbette’s Feast.” In this beautiful film, a poor French widow fleeing political persecution finds improbable asylum in an austere Danish fjord. She is taken in by two aging sisters, daughters of the town’s beloved, long-deceased pastor. For years, Babbette earns her keep by cooking and housekeeping, winning hearts through loving service.
But there’s more to her than meets the eye. Babbette has a secret. In her former life, she was head chef at a famous French restaurant. She is an artist of the highest order. It was said of her that “she could turn a meal into a kind of love affair, where the delights of the body and soul become as one.” Unfortunately, she has no opportunity to share her gift. Her fellow villagers are austere Lutherans whose fears of earthly allurements make them wary of any but the most simple foods.
Babbette at last gets the chance to share her art. She cooks an epic feast for the community, showing honor and sharing her gift. Old wounds heal, fond memories rekindle, and grace abounds. When the sisters learn that Babbette spent her entire 10,000-franc savings on the feast, one of the sisters, Martine, exclaims, “But now you’ll be poor the rest of your life!” To which a happy and triumphant Babbette replies, “An artist is never poor.”
An artist is never poor. That’s because she has gifts to make and give, gifts which increase the more they are shared.
Once, an old friend who is a former seminarian asked me, “So how is life as middle-manager of Catholic, Inc.?” Ouch. He asked with sympathy, not mockery. He meant no harm, only to convey that he understands the pressures of the modern priest. And yet, the question stung, probably for its truth. Too often, I have allowed myself to become just that: middle manager of Catholic, Inc. And yet, deep down, I know this not who I am. I am an artist! That’s the real struggle of the modern priest, if you ask me: the tug of war between the artist and the middle manager. I suspect priests are not the only ones with this struggle.
Through fifteen years of ministry, I have often felt like Babbette. The church, my home and village, is a place of warmth and love, and kind people have always taken me in. I do my job, and I mostly do it pretty well. I am a dutiful priest who does what is expected of him. I know that God uses me to do wonderful things, some that I see, many others I do not.
But I have a secret. Deep down, I am an artist. Like Babbette. The only problem is, what if the art is gourmet French cooking, and you live in an austere puritan village? What if your gift is gourmet Kingdom cuisine, but work in a cafeteria specializing in church casserole?
There is often a mismatch between ministry-art and church culture. I often experience what feel like crushing expectations and pressures to be a sacramental icon, religious functionary, or, alas, manager of Catholic, Inc. And, I, man of little courage, have too often acquiesced, to the benefit of nobody and nothing, except the status quo and my own small comfort. As I scoop out casserole and hide my inner chef, my self-negating ministry choices too often rob me and others of the joy and artistry of Kingdom feasting. “Give me my chance to do my very best!” How many of us have stifled this cry? It makes me ashamed and want to say, with Peter, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man.”
Sometimes, prophetic change is triggered by outside voices. For me, it’s been coming from marketing guru and entrepreneurial humanist Seth Godin, who says, everyone can be an artist. As he defines it, art is the intentional act of using your humanity to create a change in another person. An artist’s job is to challenge the status quo by making and giving art that changes people, both artist and recipient. An artist engages in emotional labor and gives a gift. For free. Like Babbette!
Want to be a linchpin, says Godin? Want to make yourself indispensable in the new creativity economy? Choose to be an artist. An artist sees work as a platform for art. Art can be anything that is creative, passionate, and personal. The less quantifiable, the better. Defined this way, any job can become art. Even ministry.
My ministry is my art. I have creative ideas for advancing the movement of the gospel. But ecclesiastical structures, the inertia of institutional traditions, low expectations, and my own cowardice often conspire against me. I often feel like a cog in a church factory, dispensing word and sacrament in perfunctory, transactional ways. We have trained people to expect little else from us, and have too often treated them in this cog-like way. And I let it happen. Shame on me.
I kept thinking of Babbette as I read Godin’s Linchpin. I kept hearing the question: what would it look like if I “took permission” (favorite Godin phrase) and went for it? What if I chose to cease “doing ministry” and instead chose to be an artist? What might the church look like if I was given the chance to do my very best? How might others benefit? What if all ministers – or for that matter, all Christians – chose to be artists?
Well, for one thing, we would most likely be a lot happier, and our church would be more attractive. I suspect that if those in ministry – I speak not only of clergy but parents, educators, mercy workers, activists, everyone engaged in Kingdom advancement – are happy, fully alive, and engaged in giving their greatest gift, their own unique brand of gourmet Kingdom artistry... then surely, Kingdom appetites will be fed, and gladness will multiply. We may even begin to staunch the hemorrhage of those leaving our churches in droves.
The fact is, we do have the chance to our very best. No one is stopping us, really. Except us. But we must step up, first as individuals, and next as builders of a church culture more encouraging and conducive to this.
My advice to leaders (this is by no means limited to clergy), starting with myself: No more church casserole. Let’s feast! Let’s get creative! Let’s give gifts! It’s time to say no to being cogs in the church machine. Catholic, Inc. is not what Christ created the church to be. He created it as the place for the Kingdom banquet, and he has authorized us to be the chefs. What if we chose to use our work of ministry as a platform for art? Just witness the delight of those who are savoring the Kingdom art of Pope Francis!
Seth Godin writes, “Some organizations haven’t realized this yet, or haven’t articulated it, but we need artists. Artists are people with a genius for finding a new answer, a new connection, or a new way of getting things done. That would be you.”
“Some organizations” include, alas, the church. Imagine instead if every Christian leader – you, in other words – were a Linchpin, an artist. Imagine a church culture that celebrated and encouraged people as the artists they are! Maybe it would be Babbette’s Feast all over again. And if that’s the case... the church may begin looking a lot different. And a lot more attractive.
Lord, please give me my chance to do my very best.
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