"The writing insisted on being written."
That's how Lindy Thompson, a poet and lyricist who attends Christ United Methodist Church in Franklin, Tennessee, described the role of writing in her life.
"It just comes up from within me," she said. "Writing is my God-response. Different things that I see or hear or dream, it's like dropping something into a pond and the input settles to the bottom, and then something is going to come up and present itself in front of me and wait to be written."
In 2013, Thompson began working with Mark Miller to combine her lyrics with his music. A well-known United Methodist composer, organist, music and worship leader, Miller is also associate professor of church music at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey.
For Miller, music helps him encounter God.
"Music takes me out of myself," he said. "The basis of religion is that people can understand there is something beyond ourselves, something bigger to give our lives to. Music was the way for me."
The Rev. Karla Kincannon, director of spiritual formation at Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Alexandria, Virginia, connects with God through visual art.
When she's painting as a spiritual practice, Kincannon is waiting to hear "the still, small voice of God," which "requires deep listening, unhurried time and patience."
"I'll spend a few minutes in centering prayer or lectio divina (sacred reading)," Kincannon said. "Then I'll use my non-dominant hand and begin to paint intuitively. There's no end product in mind. What I'm doing is trying to paint an inner landscape of what's going on with me. Frequently, there will be an image that emerges that I didn't know I painted that leads to an opening in my spiritual life."
The Rev. Gary Shockley, an elder in the Western North Carolina Conference, uses art full time to help individuals and congregations experience God.
Shockley – who does sand art performances, illustrates children's books and uses art to help congregations with church planting – starts any artistic endeavor with a prayer blessing.
"I literally invite God to be fully present and allow me to be a co-creator with God on whatever I'm working on," he said. "There's always a sense that it's more than my two hands working."
Shockley's sand art ministry is quickly growing as a way for people to meet God in a new way.
"There's an opportunity in our culture today to proclaim good news, to inspire and encourage people in a more visual way," he said, describing how he tells biblical stories through sand art. "It appeals to everyone. It's a vehicle for communicating the gospel and good news in a non-traditional way."
Kincannon said using art as a spiritual practice can facilitate healing and lead to forgiveness and greater self-awareness.
"This creative contemplation helps us transform our inner baggage so we don't have to carry it anymore," she said. "Then our hands are really free to love our neighbor. Creative expression shows us who we are and also who we are created to be."
Creativity is natural
Regardless of the type of artistic practice, Shockley encourages people to view creativity as a way to live into their identity as God's handiwork.
"Because we are created in the image of God we are, by nature, creative, and we are co-creators with God," Shockley said. "I try to help people understand that creativity is not just about visual arts or music. Let's expand this notion of what artistic creativity is and help people consider the possibilities."
Thompson also believes there are many ways to encounter God through creative endeavors.
"I absolutely think that writing can be a means of grace for people," she said. "Clearly, for millennia it has been a practice that people have used to explore life, explore their understanding of God, and explore their own soul."
As part of that exploration, Shockley and Miller both said they believe Christian artists have a call to be prophetic in their creative work.
"We are to shine a light on injustice, inspire acts of mercy and help others in their humble walk with God," Shockley said. "The world needs us."
In composing music or leading worship, Miller aims to "bring people into the mystery that we call God and also connect people to issues of how we treat one another and how we live out this mission of social justice."
Creativity as a spiritual practice is for everyone, Kincannon said.
"In the United States, we have understood that art is relegated to a few who are somehow special or gifted. In many other cultures, this is not the case," she said. "Everyone has the right and the joy and the privilege of self-expression. I do believe the arts are for everyone, particularly when used as an expression of the inner life."
Thompson encouraged people to try writing as a spiritual practice.
"Commit to making a little bit of space for it, and don't judge yourself. Just let it be whatever it is," she said. "If there are any rules, I'm not aware of them."
For those who want to engage in musical expression but don't consider themselves experts, Miller recommended a lighthearted attitude.
"You have permission to do things that haven't been done before," he said. "An attitude of permission-giving and an open spirit of playfulness, I would encourage those values."
Whatever expression is chosen, Kincannon said creativity can provide "a deeper sense of knowing God."
"It doesn't necessarily solve problems or change the outcomes of where I find my daily life, but it does give me an abiding presence of God as a reality, as a felt experience."
Emily Snell is a freelance writer living in Nashville, Tennessee. She writes frequently for Interpreter and other publications.