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Fan the Flame of Your Creativity: The Endgame and the Fuel



Sometimes it’s hard to keep the flame burning. Here’s one of my favorite Amazing Stories. She was the first crush for a generation of boys. But, after 27 years of being dismantled by multiple sclerosis, her last three were a living hell. Once the most recognizable teen on the planet, she was now unable to recognize anyone. She existed in a coma-like state, propped up in an electrically controlled chair, nearly blind, unable to speak or go to the bathroom on her own. In those last three years, she was fed through a tube. Her throat had to be cleared several times an hour to prevent her from choking to death.

 

There was a time, years before when she was a pop culture icon. No one received more fan mail than America’s favorite Mouseketeer. In 1960, a nationwide poll voted her the teenager of the year. Dubbed America’s Sweetheart, she went on to drive young men crazy in movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini. Those films weren’t Shakespeare, but they made her a Hollywood superstar.

 

She broke hearts everywhere when she married her agent in 1965. Even Charlie Brown deadpanned in a Peanuts cartoon strip, “Good grief. Annette Funicello is getting married.” After the wedding, she stepped out of the limelight. But no boy in my generation could ever forget our first crush from the Mouseketeer Club.

Annette had begun to lose control of her legs when she came out of retirement to do a movie in 1991. A deeply religious woman, she was afraid people would think she was a drunk. So she went public about her MS. America applauded her gutsy battle with this degenerative disease. When she dropped out of sight again, no one knew how much MS was ravaging her. But her family had a front row to her nightmare. When they announced her death in 2013, her children said, “Our mother is now dancing in heaven.”

 

Within a week, Google and YouTube recorded millions of views on her life and death. Almost every article carried a single throwaway line: “In 1986, she married her second husband, horse trainer Glen Holt. Glenn was just an asterisk in Annette Funicello’s obituary. Few people knew that her first husband was horrifically abusive, or that this horse trainer gave her refuge when she had nowhere else to go. Within a year of their wedding, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Yet, during those last years, he bathed her, lifted her on and off the toilet, changed her diapers, and attended to her every need. In the end, America’s Sweetheart was ravaged, bloated, and comatose. It’s easy to love the girl of our fantasies, but Glen Holt loved her in dirty diapers, while she was constantly drooling and disfigured beyond recognition—not for a while, but for 9,000 straight days.

 

When asked if it was a burden, Glenn replied, “How can it be when you love somebody?” Maybe you’re weary today. Perhaps the flame of passion has burned down so low that it’s almost extinguished. If you feel like a smoldering wick, you’ve come to the right place. I didn’t write this story in my Book of Amazing Stories to make readers feel sorry for Annette Funicello, as much as to introduce the world to a real hero, Glenn Holt. Anyone can carry a burden until nightfall. Heroes get up and do it again tomorrow and the next day, and for days afterwards.

 

The theme of the INC Arts Conference is from St. Paul’s words to his disciple: “…fan into flame the gift of God which is in you…” [2 Tim. 1:6] These words remind me of something he wrote earlier to a church: “Let us not be weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” [Gal. 6:9]


What does all this have to do with creatives?


Paul was an artist writing to another artist. He was a rabbinical lawyer and a great theologian. But he was also a master artist. He used his quill and ink as a paintbrush and his parchment as canvas. Thoughts and words were his medium. As an author, he has no equal. He wrote a third of the New Testament, inspiring the faith of countless millions for two thousand years. More people have read St. Paul than Homer, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Hemingway, and all the other great writers in history. The Apostle Paul changed the world forever through his artistry.

 

And he is writing to another creative, Timothy. Pastor Timothy is an artist on the stage. He knows how to take the great scripts written by his mentor, St. Paul, and communicate them to audiences. His tongue is his paintbrush, and the hearts and minds of his people are the canvas on which he paints wondrous truths that transform their lives. When his messages set a fire in his bones, his passion is like that of a dancer who flies through the air, an opera diva who sings an aria from heaven, or a musician playing a rapturous melody that stirs the soul. Timothy also changed the world through his artistry as a communicator.

 

Yet, somewhere along the way, this young artist has grown discouraged. His flame is flickering. Maybe he wants to throw in the towel and walk away from the gifts and the stage God has given him. Perhaps you are a creative who feels like Timothy. For a moment I want you to step into this story. Put yourself in young Timothy’s place. Pretend that I am like the other creative, old Paul, who has come to help you fan into flame your precious gifts from God. So, let me share just two things that have helped keep my flame burning bright.

 

1. What’s your Endgame?

The centerpiece of the International Network of Creatives (INC) is our 10:27 Journey. We gather together creatives and take them on a journey upward, inward, and outward. We are all on a journey somewhere. But, unless we have an ultimate destination, we will invariably get lost along the way. Do you know where you are going, and why you are doing what you are doing? The endgame makes all the difference when rugged mountains stand in your way, or seemingly uncrossable oceans, or a detour into the dark valley of despair. Maybe you’re at one of those places now. Do you have a final destination, a reason for living, beyond this moment in time?

 

There are lots of good reasons for you to create your art. And, you must do. Plato said that it’s not the statesmen or warriors who rule the world, but the storytellers. We live in a media-saturated culture where people are more visual than verbal and make their decisions by how they feel rather than what they think. That makes creatives like you more influential than at any other time in history. We need Christian writers, dancers, painters, sculptors, singers, actors, directors, musicians, and cultural influencers in a world growing increasingly dark. We need your flame to burn more brightly than ever before!

 

So, what’s your endgame? What drives you to create? Well, it could be for self-satisfaction. But what happens when the creative juices dry up? Where’s your self-satisfaction then? Maybe you do what you do for the applause and adulation of others. Do you need to be affirmed? If so, what happens when you get criticism, when you don’t get as much applause, or the lead parts, solos, jobs, commissions, sales, or you become a has-been—shoved aside by the newest hot ticket? Or perhaps you seek commercial success. But COVID and downturns in the market leave you with fewer sales or gigs. Or your creative skills are no longer in as much demand. Now you wonder how you are going to feed your family, pay the rent, or put your kids through school. So, you are considering laying your creative self aside and taking a 9 to 5 job. And, that’s not the endgame you wanted. There are a lot of reasons why we do what we do. But most of them lead to doubt, despair, an identity crisis, and snuff out the flame.

 

Jesus has an answer that’s made a difference in my life: “Seek first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you.” [Mt. 6:33] What other things? Jesus has been talking about all the things that cause us to worry, to lay awake at night, to go into despair and hopelessness. Surely, food, housing, clothing, a good job, a steady income, and the bad things that could happen to us tomorrow are important. But Jesus says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness…” That’s our endgame: to glorify God, to be like him, and to enjoy him forever. St. Paul said in another place, “Whatever you do, do it all to the glory of God.” [1 Cor. 10:31]

 

I remember that St. Louis Courthouse restroom when I worked as a youth officer during my seminary years. Those sinks and toilets were so shiny you could see your face reflected in them. They were maintained by an old black man. He shuffled through those restrooms with his mop and bucket, wearing a smile bigger than Texas and humming gospel songs. I found out that he was also a preacher on the side. I asked him once, “Why are you so happy cleaning up the nasty messes left behind by other folks. He quickly replied, “I do this for the glory of God. When I clean that porcelain, I do it so that the face of Jesus shines right back at you.” That old gentleman wasn’t a janitor or maintenance man. He was a creative. An artist, painting masterpieces to the glory of God with rags and cleaning detergents on porcelain basins, toilets, and tile floors.

 

What’s your final destination? We will all stand before our Creator, the One who made everyone, from Michelangelo to that St. Louis courthouse restroom artist, to create beauty for his glory. I have one endgame in mind, and that final destination keeps the flame burning: to hear those six most beautiful words of all when I cross over to the other side: “Well done, good and faithful servant…” I want to glorify my Creator. And then those next most wonderful seven words of all: “…Enter into the joy of your Master.” I want to enjoy my Creator forever. That’s what keeps me going and my flame burning.

 

2. What’s your fuel?

Purpose gives you direction. Your endgame keeps you on track. But you need fuel to keep you going. Fire needs to be continually fueled. And the greatest fuel on earth is passion. But passion, like all other fuels, comes in limited supply. Yet, there is a fuel that never dissipates or burns out. I’m talking about the Holy Spirit. When God’s Spirit first descended on that group of 120 disciples in a small upper room in a Jerusalem backstreet, it appeared as tongues of fire on their heads. When Moses saw God for the first time, he appeared as fire in an old bush. When the prophet Jeremiah spoke, he said, “There’s a fire in my heart, and it consumes my bones.” [Jeremiah 20:9] When John the Baptist pointed to Jesus he said, “I baptize with water, but the one who comes after me will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire.” [Mt. 3:11]

 

That’s the fuel that never goes away, and keeps me going. The Holy Spirit brings the presence of the Risen Jesus to live in us when we receive him as our Lord and Savior. So, what happens as a creative when my passion runs low and my engine starts to sputter? When I find that my self-satisfaction—my personal pleasure in what I am doing—begins to wane, I turn again to Jesus to hear, “It’s okay, I’m here, and I take great pleasure in what you are doing.” When others turn away from me, the applause dies down, the affirmation of others is absent, or I’ve been put on the shelf or in the shadows, and I begin to wilt emotionally, he whispers again, “I will never leave or forsake you. I am with you always.” When I begin to worry about whether or not I can take care of my family, pay the bills, or keep my creative enterprises going, he whispers again, “Why are you worrying? Don’t I know every sparrow that’s ever fallen? Haven’t I numbered the hairs on your head? Didn’t I clothe the lilies of the field and give the foxes the dens in which they live? How can you think I won’t see you through the month, and all the other months until I bring you home?” And when I begin to feel like I’m all washed up, and nobody ever remembers the songs I once sang, or the dances I once danced, or the music I once played, he whispers again, “You are so valuable to heaven and precious enough for me to come to earth and die for you. You are my workmanship. Someday, I will present you to the angels as my finished masterpiece and the applause of heaven will reverberate through the universe.”

 

God’s glory is my endgame and the Risen Jesus in me is my fuel. The fire of the Holy Spirit has kept me going through half a century as a storyteller, writer, and communicator of God’s Word. And, at age 75, the flame burns brighter than ever before! I hope it will for you too. So please allow me to end with another story from my Book of Amazing Stories.

 

When Belle Silverman was sixteen, her voice teacher said that she was tailor-made for the opera. But nothing ever came easy for the girl nicknamed Bubbles. She spent ten frustrating years on the road trying to make it in second-tier operas. The New York City Opera turned her down seven times before they accepted her. When she finally snagged a starring role, critics panned her performances as uneven. Leading opera houses refused to let her appear on their stages. It was only after she went to Europe, and won over the toughest opera fans in the world, that critics finally recognized her magnificent voice.

 

Even when she became a star at the Met, and Time magazine dubbed her America’s Queen of the Opera, her adoring public never knew that Bubbles was raising two handicapped children. One of them was severely retarded. She spent a fortune building a sanctuary for her kids in Martha’s Vineyard. After they moved in, it burnt to the ground. Then her husband collapsed with a stroke. She cared for him for eight years while raising two special needs children and juggling a demanding career.

 

You might think that a lifetime of setbacks would make Belle Silverman from Crown Heights a sour woman. But the lady nicknamed Bubbles plowed through her troubles with infectious joy. Barbara Walters called her the happiest person on earth. After a Sixty Minutes interview, Mike Wallace said that she was the most impressive person he had ever met. When he asked her how she had overcome bitterness to be so bubbly, she replied, “I can’t control the circumstances of my life, but I can choose to be joyful.”

 

You may remember Belle Silverman by her stage name, Beverly Sills. When she died in 2007, a New York Times obituary proclaimed the Brooklyn-born coloratura soprano to be America’s most popular opera star since Enrico Caruso. But to family and friends, she will always remain Bubbles. Two years before her death, she summed up her challenges and triumphs to a Times reporter: “Man plans and God laughs. I’ve never considered myself a happy woman. How could I be with all that’s happened to me? But I choose to be a cheerful woman.” So, I end by channeling St. Paul, Glenn Holt, and Beverly Sills to say to you, “Don’t you dare give up. Keep on keeping on. Fan the flames of the gift God has given you.”

 

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Dr. Bob Petterson is an amazing. prolific storyteller!

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