Learning to Collaborate

My friend Emily and I sat across from each other at a nearby breakfast place one morning during the spring of 2018, and I described to her my utter exhaustion. It had been a pretty miserable year so far, honestly. I’m a singer-songwriter, and I had been on a three-month house concert tour the previous fall. Few things make me feel more alive than traveling around the country sharing songs and stories, mostly in homes. When I’m doing that, I feel deeply connected with people and situated within the story God is telling in Christ.

I had come home from that tour in 2017 and dropped straight into family time over Christmas, but then I found myself alone at home, all day, everyday. It was winter. Cold and dark. I sank into a paralyzing loneliness and depression. I saw almost no one for two months. Now, this had all caught me by surprise (it will help to explain that I live with my brother Sam, and we both work from home). I had expected to come home from touring and slip right back into routines with my brother. But I was alone.

Sam had taken a job at a local ministry called The Mustard Seed. It’s a group home and day-center for mentally challenged adults (mainly folks with Down’s Syndrome). He had worked there for twelve years heading up the ceramics workshop, but he had just taken a new position as the Guy’s Group Home Parent. That meant he was basically a dad to ten of the male “Seedsters.” I had known that was going to be the case long before I got home from touring, but what I hadn’t counted on was the fact that Sam would essentially live on the Mustard Seed campus full time. I had assumed he’d be gone from 4pm to 9am, weekdays, and our home routines would be essentially the same. What neither of us had fully understood, though, was that the realities of the job would mean we’d hardly see each other at all that year.

If you’ve experienced any kind of depression, even the mild and occasional kind, you know that the things you intellectually understand you need are also the very things you feel most unable to move toward. I knew I needed people during that time of isolation, but I felt unable to reach out. I became frighteningly stuck. Somewhere during the third month though, I began to feel a kind of desperation, which was enough to push me to call a few friends and ask for help.

Why is asking for help so terrifying? It’s a similar terror to confessing to a wronged friend and asking forgiveness. Maybe it’s the admission that I’m “not enough,” that my unreasonable expectation of my own strength has to crumble. Maybe it’s the simple fear of being vulnerable. What if no one shows up? What if this can’t be healed? I don’t know exactly, but it’s one of the mind tricks of intense sadness to lull us into mistaken despair. I’m thinking of Tolkien’s comment that in order for despair to be valid, it would be necessary to know all possible outcomes (and to know they were all bad), which is simply not possible. Despair, then, is always a lie. Good, unforeseen possibilities can never be entirely ruled out—that would require a comprehensive, God-like vantage point. As Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings, “Even the very wise cannot see all ends.”

At any rate, the misery of being alone outweighed the misery of asking for help. So I let out a thin little chirp to ride upon the passing breeze, in case it might reach someone. Turns out, there were some listening ears. Some friends showed up for me, and the grip of that darkness began to recede in the light of their love. Once that had happened, and I had gained a little distance from the depression, I began to look at the circumstances feeding into it. I learned a few things.

Firstly, there’s always a post-tour crash. Touring is not normal life. It’s a bit of a mountain-top thing, and when you come down, there’s a natural sense of loss or grief. This happens in lots of little ways too: coming back from a retreat or conference, a vacation, or even after finishing a really good book. I’ve learned to prepare myself for that. Also, as I’ve described, coming home to an empty house was something I hadn’t seen coming; plain old loneliness sucker-punched me that Winter.

One of the main things the Lord taught me through that season was how much I need other people, along with this corollary: that need is not a flaw, but a gift from God.

I guess I knew that, but it really came home to me in a new way that year. The truth of my (God-given) need for others became painfully apparent. That was nearly three years ago, and I’m still learning from all this. At the time, though, when it was all pretty fresh, I found myself sitting across the breakfast table from Emily.

Emily asked how I was doing. How was music stuff? Ministry? I said I was exhausted, depleted, and just beginning to come out of the depression I’ve been describing. She brought up reaching out to others, which by then had already become a theme God was hammering in. Emily is a missionary in East Asia, and she had spent the previous year or so learning many of the same lessons which I was just beginning. She had had to learn to raise support, which requires you to admit, accept, and communicate your needs. So she said bluntly, “Why in the world are you trying to do everything by yourself? You need collaborators; you need to raise support, and you need to be regularly communicating your needs to people committed to praying for you.”

I knew she was right. “I know,” I said, “but I’m so used to it. I’m used to doing it this way.” The truth is I liked doing everything myself, because there were no surprises—no messy hassle of involving other people, no one to challenge me, no one to stir my insecurities with something cool I wish I had thought of. By then, however, I had become tired of myself; I didn’t want to do the work alone anymore.

So, I started a ministry partnership portal on my website called Patron Partners. I let another little chirp of “Help!” fly on the wind, and to my amazement, folks heard it and showed up. Now, I have a little group of Patron Partners whose financial support, prayers, and encouragement remind me that I have a ministry family to send me out carrying my calling in Christ. I can’t tell you what a big deal it is. God sustains us through the love of real people.

I’m still learning that same lesson in different ways, particularly when it comes to making music. It’s been a sign of immaturity in myself as an artist to do so much of the creative process alone. I’ll go so far as to say that the music of mine I still actually like is the stuff that involved more collaborators. The music I made alone I find boring now—boring because there’s nothing in it of other people, nothing to surprise me from outside myself.

This is built into the very fabric of our being as creatures made in the image of the Trinity. God is three Persons in a unified, collaborative, creative vitality; lonely work is anti-reality. I’m trying nowadays to align myself with Reality as set forth by the Trinity—trying to learn to entrust myself to others, collaborate more deeply, let go of control, welcome the delight of being surprised by people, and take joy in the good idea I never would’ve thought of (rather than seeing others’ gifts as a threat).

Last fall, after my normal tour was cancelled due to COVID, I sent an email out to a handful of friends asking for help with a new project. I needed a place to take a songwriting deep-dive for two months, to complete a trilogy of full-length albums I’ve been dreaming of creating for the last five years. It was a moon-shot request, but I got a reply. Steve and Terri Moon offered me their basement bedroom for as long as I needed it—I shot for the moon, and I got The Moons! That time of friendship and creative immersion wound up being incredibly fruitful. I completed writing for all three albums, and I’m in the process of recording the first eleven songs for the Trilogy right now.

In the midst of writing, a handful of folks agreed to be on a “listening team.” These friends volunteered to give detailed feedback on the songs as they were being written. This was all new territory for me, and it was equal parts terrifying and wonderful. Now, in the recording process, where I’ve typically done almost everything myself, I’m having so much fun involving others. There’s something about offering up some part of yourself and seeing how someone else responds to it creatively, adding their own vitality and surprising gifts. The work comes to life in a new way.

I can’t help but wonder: is this same kind of thing going on with Jesus and the Church? Does God choose to make himself vulnerable by involving us in the ongoing creative work of redemption, in order that we may make something good together? Does God value our clumsy participation so much that he’s willing to set aside the ease with which he could surely accomplish his work alone? Is it possible that our involvement offers even God some element of delight similar to what I’ve been finding in collaboration? Could it really be that God is setting us a brave and wonderful example by gladly opening his most precious plans for the cosmos to us, by allowing us to contribute?

The late theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar used the analogy of drama in the middle volume of his trilogy on Beauty, Goodness, and Truth. I’ve been reading Aiden Nichols’ little book A Key to Balthasar—a sort of Cliff’s Notes summary of Balthasar’s hefty trilogy. He suggests that God the Father is like the playwright, God the Son like the principal actor, and God the Holy Spirit like the director of the play. But what about us? Nichols summarizing Balthasar suggests we are in the midst of this grand drama’s ongoing enactment, and that “in this production, the spectators do not simply participate in the action by empathy as they watch it unfold. In this play, the mode of production is rather avante garde. People pass from the auditorium onto the stage. Indeed… in the last analysis there is no one who can remain a pure spectator. All have some part to play.”

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