Following Generative Paths in a World Where Things Fall Apart

[A version of this post was shared as a presentation at our October 2018 conference gathering in Goshen, Indiana]

by Amber Butler

I often oscillate in and out of a media news diet – I can’t pay attention to it all the time, because it becomes debilitating, nor can I possibly take it all in. But when I hear threads of conversation popping up in all corners, I know I need to dial in. This was one of those months.

The intensity and brokenness of the wider discourse that surrounds us only makes the urgency and importance of bringing healing and connection to our culture more clear than ever. Creative work is a vehicle that carries the most precious kind of antidote – it gives us a space to tell the truth, and space to allow healing. Artists can give this as a gift to others, a gift to our whole culture – whoever can hear it.

I read a book earlier this year which encouraged me deeply because it was a very strong effort to give language to why art matters, and was especially aimed at church leaders. The ability to communicate well on this topic both in and out of the church is something that I’ve struggled to express for decades. In those pages, I found a sense of hope – even a sense that we as the DSC community are not alone – we are not the only ones seeing both dysfunctions in our cultures at large, but also carrying the belief that things could be dramatically different.

In “Culture Care,” author Makoto Fujimura’s basic premise is that culture as a whole is worthy of care by the people who contribute to it, not unlike caring for the environment, or the kind of care we receive from health practitioners. He shows there are ways in which the culture has been polluted, damaged, is diseased, and not a safe place to thrive. People who provide care for culture choose to nurture it, and thus affect parts of, and eventually, the entire ecosystem of the culture. He characterizes this culture care as “generative” ie. it is fruitful, bringing new life. It is “constructive, expansive, affirming, causing growth beyond a mindset of scarcity.” For followers of Christ, this generative reality finds its source in God. As we stay connected vertically – we listen and seek out ways to tap into the the fullness of life in this universe, and let it flow in us as well.

In characterizing elements of generative thinking, Mako names three concepts we want to introduce for our use this weekend. These are genesis moments, generosity, and generational. Let’s unpack that for a minute.

Culture care notices genesis moments. A genesis moment is a new beginning. It often begins through a moment of failure or struggle, thus opening an opportunity for insight, creativity and change. Genesis moments allow us to reframe failure and start over. They are products of a practice of reflection. It’s a seed cracking open, it’s how we grow

Culture care is generous. It is open-handed, lavish, giving, unselfish, and kind. This mentality works strongly against the mindset that makes survival and utility the bottom line. Mako says, “Art is ultimately not “useful.” It serves no practical function. This is why it is indispensable, especially in the modern age.”

Culture care is generational. Whether positive or negative, we are connected to, and in conversation with, generations past, and generations going forward. In this context, we become aware that our work may not come to full fruition until centuries or millennia have passed rather than the next months and years.

These ideas felt like someone putting a finger on much of the logic behind many decisions I have made in my life – except that I made them on a much more intuitive level, without having a way of expressing what was at the core in a way that others would understand. This weekend we are making space through the art stations to allow each of us to spend time together reflecting on our lives through these lens. In our past, present and future, how does culture care play a role? The focus of each station allows us to reflect with God on our own genesis moments, generosity, and generational influences. We are also watching for sign posts as we travel on this journey together. Read more about this on Founder Jonathan Reuel’s post on “Going to the Hills, Part 1

We have embarked on a significant leadership transition here at Dandelion Seed Company. About six months ago when I got the call from Ben Metz where he outlined the shuffling of leadership roles within the DSC that the team was considering, I was a bit floored, and a bit overwhelmed. I’ve almost always operated in a close to the front support role, but not in this particular way. But when I heard the invitation, my heart responded yes, and in many ways it felt like the fulfillment of a dream I’ve carried to get to contribute and give my best to help create something new, to lead and serve a community into and through the next stage of growth. And let’s be honest, I also like the idea of leading. 🙂

But it took me aback, because it came at a time where I already felt stretched thin. Shiny Shiny Black, the band my husband and I are in together, is always hungry for more development, both on the artistic and business sides. After a mostly dormant, years-long hiatus, I was finally seeing signs of life in my attempts to re-engage my writing life, and was working on my songwriting and poem-writing practices. I was painfully aware from our recent trip to Thailand to support Connect (a sister organization) that my bass guitar skills were functional, but not where I would like them to be if I was going to keep saying yes to opportunities to play in a variety of contexts. My home life is punctuated by the needs, education and dreams of our two young daughters, which often contrast dramatically with my own. My husband is a brilliant audio engineer, and in order to build up our business life and practice, we’ve chosen to say yes to almost all of the work that has come in that area for a number of years. So much so that we are now trying to find sustainable ways we can say no to some of the work offered to him, and dial in on what connects the most. All of these things made saying yes to something else seem an almost herculean effort.

It remains that deepening another significant role in my life feels practically impossible at (most) times. But it also feels like this new role is becoming an organizing principle, that my involvement in DSC ends up enlarging my life rather than taking from it – even though there are practical realities that don’t always feel that way.

So we find ourselves taking stock – leaning into what the Dandelion Seed Company is, and can become. In this season, all of the DSC leaders are also artists in various stages of growth, and we want that growth and work as artists to remain vital and primary. So we are looking for creative ways to do that, while building the capacity of an organization and community we can rely on to bring us together, to support each other, to seek God together and to welcome others into our midst.

There are costs to saying yes to the unknown costs of leading this community – but there is also so much to gain. This world needs more empowered artists, we need more encouragement and fuel to continue on this path. Each of you are carrying seeds of a powerful work that is a gift to this world. And that vision for why this work is worth it, and the potentially exponential gains, is why I have said yes to the work of leading DSC.

Part of saying yes to the work is also saying yes to helping others understand the work we’d like to do, to help them gain a greater understanding of what art and beauty could bring to their lives, to our wider culture, and then, beyond just understanding, to ask for their help in this vision – gaining the support of our communities, friends and families – by becoming more transparent, and letting people see what truly resides inside us to do. One of my biggest failures has been assuming my core creative work (the thing I dream about doing or being) could not possibly fuel my life, unless it was already “proven” to me ahead of time. So for years I largely didn’t do it.

So often the culture of survival and utility led me to aim at the lowest common denominator, and slightly higher than that – to making a living in the arts. Especially since I was also married to an artist who wanted to pursue art at all costs, I felt like I had to be the grounding element in order to survive.

This year someone encouraged me in prayer that when I thought about the arts and creative work I was only asking God for a shrub when I could be dreaming and asking for an oak tree. What a contrast!

Jesus, after describing a persistent friend asking for help, said, “And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” My friend’s encouragement to ask for the oak tree became a genesis moment for me, and has been a touchstone idea this year. While owning and carrying our creative work is difficult, it is only a vision for something more (rather than something reasonable) that could help elevate our lives and our community to experience the healing and true generosity of life that we long for. I am thrilled to discover with you what we have to give to others that reaches far beyond ourselves.

THIS is a genesis moment. This is the time to demonstrate generosity. Not only for Jonathan and I, but for you as an individual, and the community as a whole. In so many ways, the wrestling we struggled with in the last season, and especially this year, meant everyone on our DSC team and core community stepping up to say it was worth it. To say yes to the unknown, yes to our callings into creativity, and yes to living transparently with each other as we did that. We have given generously of our time, energy and attention to create something beautiful. No one asked us to do that. But it was worth it. It still is. This weekend it is something that all of us gathered here get to participate in. I’m so glad you are with us.