John 6:1-21
1After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias. 2A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick. 3Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples. 4Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

5When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?” 6He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do. 7Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” 8One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, 9“There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?” 10Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all. 11Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted. 12When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” 13So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets. 14When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.” 15When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

16When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, 17got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them. 18The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing. 19When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified. 20But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.” 21Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

In the center of most small towns in Ireland, pubs and shops of all kinds line the narrow streets. One day, a shopkeeper was dismayed when a store opened up right next door to him with a huge sign that said, BEST DEALS!”

To make things worse, a few days later, yet another store opened on the other side with a huge sign reading “LOWEST PRICES!” He began to panick. But Irish shopkeepers are nothing if not clever and creative. So the next day, the shopkeeper put up his own sign, bigger that the other two, that simply read, “MAIN ENTRANCE.”

Today in our series on Celtic Christianity, we’ll be talking about the divine spark of creativity. But what exactly is creativity? It’s related to the word create: To make something, to bring something into existence. But it’s possible to make something by accident…like a mess, or a problem. We don’t usually consider that creativity. It’s also possible to make something that someone else has already made, to replicate something, but we don’t usually consider that creativity, either.

True creativity then, as I see it, requires two things: It requires the imagination to envision something that does not exist, and it requires the skill to turn that vision into something real and tangible–something that can be seen or heard, touched or tasted.

The first great act of creativity was in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth. God created the universe ex nihilo–out of nothing. Most creative types generally begin with primitive or limited resources: The artist with a blank canvas, the poet with blank page, the gourmet chef with flour, water, and seasoning, the community organizer with unorganized people, the builder with stone, wood, and steel.

Creativity has been with us since the beginning of civilization–from the earliest cave drawings and epic poems to ancient pyramids and palaces, there is not culture that doesn’t make creative and beautiful things–sometimes functional, but more often just for the sake of making them: Music, dance, drama, sculpture, art, architecture, and poetry…these things represent the pinnacle of creativity in every society. In fact, some sociologists believe they are the very things that define an advanced society.

Unfortunately, the creative arts are also among the more fragile aspects of society, and so when the great Roman Empire was in decline, under attack from invaders on all sides, many of its creative works were destroyed; its creative class lost, its people struggling just to survive. This is one reason why the period after the fall of the Roman Empire has been called the “Dark Ages.”

But, as we have seen, not all was dark. Far in the north west corner of Europe, on the remote Island of Ireland, there was relative peace in the hundreds of Celtic monasteries that were growing and thriving. And in every monastery was a room called the scriptorium, where scribes busied themselves daily copying and caring for great manuscripts that containted and preserved the literature, poetry, philosophy and theology of the Greek and Roman civilizations. For more on that story, you can read Thomas Cahill’s book “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”

But the Celtic scribes didn’t just copy Greek and Roman literature. Celts were natural storytellers, and so they also recorded the songs and legends of their own people. They added their own artistic touches to the manuscripts they copied, with intricate designs and illustrations that are still considered among the greatest works of art in the world.

When Amy and I were in Dublin last month, the longest line we waited in was to see one of these illuminated manuscripts–the Book of Kells. The government of Ireland considers this book their greatest national treasure. Shameless plug: At our Wednesday night cookout this week, we’re going to show an animated children’s movie called the “Secret of Kells” that features this famous book.

The Book of Kells may be the greatest work of creative genious from the Celtic people, but it’s certainly not the only one. If you’ve ever watched Riverdance, read a novel by James Joyce, a poem by Seamus Heaney, or listened to the Irish rock band U2, you are already familiar with the creativity of the Celtic people. Celtic Christianity places a lot of emphasis on this creativity as well.

Both Roman and Reformed Christianity have often emphasized logic and reason–an analytical approach to theology and worship. But Celtic Christianity is more likely to embrace mystery and wonder–the things that serve as inspiration for our creativity. Roman and Reformed Christianity values orthodoxy–everyone believing the same thing, the “right” thing. There is one destination and one path to get there. But Celtic Christianity, because of the creative impulse, values diversity and originality–one destination, but take the most interesting path you can, and yours is probably different than mine.

Once again, if we turn to our scripture passage from John 6, I think we can see the Celtic Christ in these two stories…or at least we can begin to appreciate Jesus’ actions in the way the Celtic people would have when they read this passage in their amazingly illuminated manuscripts.

“When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.”

In other words, Jesus has already envisioned what does not exist, and what the disciples can’t even begin to imagine: Enough food to feed 5,000 people. Jesus works with the limited resources he has–five loaves and two fish–and uses divine skill to bring that imagined reality to pass in a way that we call miraculous.

Incidentally, doesn’t the creative act always seems miraculous to its intended audience, whether its the composition of a beautiful orchestral symphony, or a three-layer German chocolate cake made from scratch?

“When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea, got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.”

Jesus has missed the boat. Anyone else would catch the next one, walk the long way around, or swim. But Jesus imagines a direct path where one does not exist, and uses his skill with the wind and waves to make his path a reality. We read this passage with our modern eyes, and we say, “that’s impossible!” or else “that’s a miracle!” but I wonder if the ancient Celtic Christian read this passage and said, “Walking on the water, eh? Now that’s downright creative, Jesus. Wish I’d thought of that!”

I’m going to switch gears now, and move from the ancient to the present, and to the intensly practical. I believe that the creative arts–music, poetry, dance, theater, art–are today all under attack in our culture and our institutions, especially in the place where they most need to be fostered and protected: In the education of our children.

A buzzword you hear a lot in educational circles right now is STEM–it’s the acroynymn for the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. These fields are a source of anxiety, that perhaps we’re not keeping up with other countries in the pursuit of them, that these fields produce high paying jobs that will go elsewhere if we don’t adequately prepare our children in them. And so STEM receives a lot of attention, a lot of assessment, and a lot of funding in our schools these days, as the creative arts are pushed out, or sometimes cut altogether.

If you are a Scientist, a Technologist, an Engineer or a Mathematician, I mean no disrespect to your profession. These fields are important, they are good ones, and needed in our society. But as I talk to people who have chosen professions in the STEM fields, I see a pattern emerge. One of my best friends is an scientist who worked for NASA, and he was inspired in that career choice by the music of Gustav Holst, the composer who wrote “The Planets.” Another friend is an aeronautical engineer–a pilot in the US Air Force, and he was inspired in that career choice by the dramatic performance of the actor Tom Cruise in the 1980s film, Top Gun.

All three of us were in the Coronado High School marching band together, and I’ve heard both of these friends say that they learned things in band that prepared them to be leaders in a way that no math class, no engineering, science or technology class ever could.

Thankfully, most high schools in El Paso still have band programs, and other fine art programs–although funding for them is more precarious than ever. But thirty years ago, there was a full-time art teacher and a full-time music teacher at every single school in El Paso Independent School district. In their earliest years at school, El Paso children were nurtured in the creative arts on a daily basis. But today, my own children are lucky if they get to share a part-time music teacher with three or four other area schools. They are lucky if their regular classroom teacher is qualified and creative enough to incorporate just a little bit of art in-between practicing for the next round of standardized tests.

And so, I’m thankful for the church. For the children’s choir, the handbell choir, for Sunday School arts and crafts, and for Christmas pageants pre-school performances in the spring. I’m thankful, but I also think we can do more for our community and for the creative arts.

Recently, First Presbyterian Church retained an architectural firm to help us come up with a master plan for rennovations and possible expansions to our church facilities. The elected leaders of our congregation–the Elders, Deacons, and Trustees–met with the architects, and through a process of disernment, an idea emerged that would both meet a critical need in our community, and draw upon our church’s strong history of children’s performing arts groups under past leaders like Bruce Nehring, Richard Glasser, and Amber Ferguson. It would also draw on staff and leaders in our congregation today who have enormous talent with children and performing arts: Steven Avila, Marc & Wendy Moomaw, George Salas, Vanessa Williams, Amy Locke–all of whom are certified educators as well as talented musicians.

The vision is to expand our education wing and create a dedicated rehearsal and performance venue: “The John & Bernice White Center for Children’s Performing Arts,” so named to honor a remarkable family who gave tremendous time and support to our congregation, our community, and its children. There are other performing arts venues in El Paso, but none built specifically for children, designed with children in mind. It would be a performing arts center–music drama, and dance–but also with space for the visual arts, art classes and an upstairs art gallery.

It would be a place where our preschool could expand their already high-caliber creative arts programs; where our just-starting-out homeschool ministry could combine with community after-school programs in the arts; and where our church’s own children might learn and share our faith through music, drama, dance and art.

We are still in the earliest stages of planning all this, of course. It’s a dream, some sketches on paper. But do you remember how I defined creativity? If we can imagine and envision this thing that does not exist anywhere in our community, and if we can bring to bear all of our skills and resources, and the skills and resources of others in our community who see the need, I think we can do something…miraculous.

In the film we’ll watch this Wednesday night about the Book of Kells, it is a child who provides the inspiration for one of the world’s greatest creative masterpieces. And in our scripture passage, the feeding of the 5,000, it is a child who provides the inspiration for one of Jesus’ greatest miracles–a little boy with just a few loaves and fish.

I hope that we, too, will let ourselves be inspired by our children to do great things. Inspired by them, and for them. And may their creativity, nurtured in faith and by the arts, someday inspire the world.