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Painter or Artist?

Erik Cooper —  November 25, 2009 — Leave a comment

My friend Davy has really impressed me over the years. When I first met him, I knew him as a stellar, young guitarist who joined the music team I was leading.  A few months later, I found out he was an absolutely fabulous singer (think Adam Lambert’s range without all the, well…disturbing stuff).

About a year into our friendship, I learned he was into graphic design.  I thought, “awe that’s nice, this kid likes to draw.”  Then a few months later he took up photography (like, from scratch…never done it before).  I was impressed.

But the world was going the way of the internet (not sure if you heard that or not), and he didn’t really know how to do web programming or development.  Until he did.  Taught himself. Did this kid ever stop?

Watching Davy helped me realize something important.  He isn’t pencil sketcher.  A painter.  A computer designer.  He doesn’t just take pictures or write web code.  He is an artist.  And he’s willing to use whatever medium presents itself to bring to life what was is really inside of him.

I want to be the same way.  But how many of us get caught up in the expression of who we are instead of, well, who we actually, really are?

A lot of people have asked me if I miss doing music full-time.  In some ways I definitely do.  Music has been a life-long passion, and the piano a technical pursuit since I was just four years old.  I was just beginning to see my dreams of songwriting and record production come to life when we stepped away to start City Community Church.  Sounds crazy.  But I’ve tried hard to define myself by what’s inside of me, not by the way it comes out.

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and my purpose is to bring God’s Kingdom alive in the world. Today that expresses itself, not through music, but in co-leading a brand new community of believers.  Through speaking and teaching.  By writing and blogging.  Through sitting across a table from real people as they process life, what it means to genuinely encounter Jesus, and if they really buy into all that or not.

I’m not a musician or songwriter, a teacher, a writer, a pastor. That’s just what I do.  And hopefully I can effectively use those expressions to accurately bring the redemption of Christ to life in this broken world.  I want to constantly work on who I am, and who God is becoming in me. The outflow always starts from there.

What’s driving your expression? Is there any substance behind what others see?  Are you nurturing what lies under the surface?  What’s at the source?  Are you an “artist” or just a “painter?”  What defines you?

I’m a practical idealist.  A pragmatic dreamer.  It’s a blessing and a plague.  I’m full of passionate dreams, world-changing imagination, big vision – all combined with a sobering (and sometimes paralyzing) inoculation of reality.  Some days it feels like schizophrenia.

I remember the moment like it was yesterday.  I was a 2nd year music major at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, laying in the upper bunk of my dorm room in Herron Hall, staring at the textured ceiling early one morning.  I was chasing my dream, to be in the Nashville music scene, and had the educational trajectory to prove it.  Only problem: my realism gene was kicking in.

So many of my older friends were graduating (with $50k+ in debt mind you) from this prestigious school that had successfully populated so much of the Nashville music industry.  And their highly respected diplomas were leading them to wait tables at the local Chili’sBig dreams (and big debt) wrapped in a soaking wet blanket of real life.

Heck, I didn’t need to spend $50k to wait tables.  I could do that for free.  So I left Nashville and my dreams of music biz stardom and got a degree in the absolutely most practical thing I could think of: accounting (yeah…I know).  Reality swallowed and digested my ambition.

So what’s the right answer?  Live as a pragmatic realist, squashing every dose of passion with the hammer of responsibility? My grandfather did that.  Forty years in a Chicago steel mill, consistent schedule, regular paycheck, good pension.  Hard work, but safe.  Consistent.  Responsible.  I often wonder what untapped vision he surrendered to the compelling call of responsible realism. What dreams were buried with him?

What I see in my generation is quite the opposite, but maybe even more disturbing.  Lots of dreams.  Lots of visions (usually of grandeur).  Lots of imagination.  Countless choices.  Zero realism.  And so influence goes unused and imagination stays stored in a little locked cupboard full of immobilized idealism.

The expressions of these two generational perspectives may look completely different, but the symptom is the same: control.

Pragmatists choose predictability over possibility.  Idealists choose imagination over action.  Practicality eliminates the possibility of failure.  But so does just dreaming.  In both cases, we keep control of our lives, our efforts, our destinies. We call the shots.  We make the rules.  We eliminate the risk.

We write our story.

And while we continue to furiously scribble with our ink-less pen, the Creator of the Universe patiently waits for us to simply surrender ourselves to His beautiful, dream-filled, action-packed narrative.

Risky.  Unpredictable.  Costly.  But very real.


Erik Cooper —  October 29, 2009 — 2 Comments

“Do good and you’ll be rewarded for it.”
Proverbs 28:10 (MSG)

I love verses like this. I could camp-out here (if I didn’t hate camping).  Stay for awhile.  Maybe put down some roots.  That’s good stuff.  I like rewards.  Rewards are good.  Right?

There I go assuming again…

As I pondered this verse over the past few days, a sobering question arose.  Rewards are good for me, but who says that rewards always feel good? Am I making some bad assumptions:

Reward = comfort
Reward = notoriety
Reward = riches
Reward = happiness
Reward = my desired outcome

Woohoo!  Bring it on God!  I’m ready for my reward!

But what if God’s greatest reward is my crushing? What if it’s the systematic disassembling of everything I ever thought I wanted?  The loss of my dream so that His dreams can come alive in me?  What if that reward is a closeness to God that can only be obtained by the complete dismantling of everything I am?  What if that reward is the putting to death of all my self-driven motivation? What if it comes full of pain, questions, uncertainty, and gut-wrenching, sleepless nights?

Well, uh…you can keep that reward God.  Not interested.  I’m happy to leave that one on the table.  Save that one for someone else.  Yeah, in fact I know exactly who you can give that one to.  Want a name?  I’ve got it right here in my iPhone...gimme just a second…

God’s greatest reward is His presence, His love, His deep and ever-pursuing passion to make right everything in me that I can’t make right on my own.  And all it takes to obtain that reward is…

…all of me.

My reward is His life, but the pathway to get there costs me everything.  Some reward?

Yeah, it is.

Rock Stars

Erik Cooper —  October 7, 2009 — 5 Comments

Most of us are oblivious to what lives inside of us.  We live in slow motion, in monotonous routine, because somewhere deep in our souls we don’t believe we have influence, that we matter, that the world has any need for the things that we allow to lay dormant inside of us.

We’re in a culture inundated with inspiration, self-help books, mind-stimulating podcasts and messages, more self-esteem builders and delivery methods than any time in all of history.  Yet I’m convinced that most of us fight feelings of worthlessness and mediocrity more than we realize or are willing to admit.  We’re blind to our own potential.

We’ve ingested, perhaps even subliminally, our personality-driven culture (definitely prevalent here in America, but becoming a reality in all areas of the developed world).  We all want to be rock stars (yeah, I see you playing air guitar in your office to those old Journey tracks you just downloaded from iTunes).

Our approach to life proves our underlying belief that if we’re not gifted in something that gets noticed by the masses, then we’re really not gifted at all.  And in this new age of technology and a flattening globe, our self-defined value is becoming tied to things like blog subscriptions and Twitter followers.

And because we can’t determine how to influence thousands, we choose to influence…no one.

In risk of turning this into just another self-help post, you really do have something of value to add to the world. You were created to make a difference in someone else’s life.  You just may not believe it.  You may have to dig a little deeper to find it.

Don’t confuse creative capacity with artistry. Just because you’re not a singer, a painter, a writer, a front-of-the-room communicator doesn’t mean you don’t have amazing creative potential to offer to the world.  In fact, just because you’re an artist doesn’t mean you’re creative.  I know plenty of artists who are just cheap copies and phony imitations of others.

So what has God placed inside of you that needs to come out? To be expressed?  To find life and breathe life?  You may never be globally known, play a stadium gig, or write a best-seller.  But will you cheat the world of the innovative capacity you were created to bring forth? What if the very thing you have to offer could drastically change one person’s life, but you never pursue it?  What if you choose to give in to your own insecurities?  To believe that only mass influence is real influence?

What do you need to risk?  To release?  To create?  To invest?  Will you live the adventure or just play it safe?  Don’t be blind to your own potential.  The possibilities are endless, but you have to realize what’s inside of you that just might need to come out.

Using God

Erik Cooper —  September 30, 2009 — 4 Comments

Confession time.  I think we use God.

Now maybe that statement takes you back, or maybe it’s as obvious as the nose on Owen Wilson’s face.  Either way, it’s true.  If we’re really honest…I mean really honest…most of us would have to admit we like having God, or at least the idea of Him, in our lives for relatively selfish reasons. It can easily become more about the pursuit of happiness than truth.

And in America, more than any other country on earth, the “God-subculture” provides big opportunity to capitalize on that self-interest.  There’s big possibilities in the “God-business” (and not just for full-time ministers).  We have Christian versions of everything: music, movies, television (God help us all), books, schools, seminars.  Even our churches themselves become big platforms for aspiring artists, speakers, teachers and thinkers.

And (hear me very clearly here…seriously, are you listening?) none of these things are wrong in and of themselves.  In fact, there’s a lot right about it (except for Christian television…I’ve got nothing there).  I’m glad we have talented believers in Jesus Christ dreaming big, creating cultural goods to launch into the world, reigniting creativity and the arts, making our local communities and church gatherings full of vibrancy, and life.  I hope I’m one of them.  But here’s the haunting question:

Are we ever guilty of using God, His Kingdom, His people, His Name as just another of the many available avenues to fulfilling our own, self-promoting aspirations? Is the Kingdom we’re pursuing truly a call to service, to death-to-self, or is it just another vehicle for self-absorbed people (who maybe couldn’t make it to “market” through more traditional means) to achieve their 15 minutes of fame?  I don’t like asking that question.  It makes me uneasy.

The Message paraphrase of Matthew 7:23 puts it in another uncomfortable way:

“All you did was use Me to make yourselves important.”


I don’t enter this dialog with judgment or condemnation.  I’m just learning to live in the tension, to never allow myself to fly forward unchecked without moments of deep introspection or wrestling with the difficult questions.  To never stop diagnosing my motivation, what I see, what I’m pursuing, and why.  I’ve learned my broken humanity too well.

So, what do you think?  Do you ever use God? Is the Kingdom you’re pursuing a way for you to give, to serve, to bring God’s hope and new life into this broken world?  Or is it just another method, an avenue, a vehicle for you to get your fair share from the system? Have you simply invited God into your story, or have you allowed your true purpose to come alive in the role you were designed and destined to play in His?