It happened just a few months into my first official position as a “youth pastor.”
It was summer, my first in Virginia; hot and humid. My allergies were still learning to cope with the horrific pollen levels in the air. The youth pastor who was over me in the chain of command decided to have a “food fight” as a youth group activity. The purpose of this activity remains unclear to me to this day, other than to keep the students amused, which is what youth pastors are typically charged with. What was clear was that all those assembled were to bring some sort of food, and we were going to throw it at each other. He advised bringing old clothes.
My logic was this: even my “old clothes” were painting clothes, and I would need them again in the future. It was obvious that the clothes worn to the “food fight” would be best disposed of afterward. So, I would go purchase something cheap, and toss them when I was finished.
Where else, but the local Goodwill?
I picked up a pair of black jeans and a black and blue pinstripe long-sleeve shirt that fit, not being too careful knowing that I would wear these one time. I went to the check-out lane. The woman ahead of me remarked on my choice: “Oh, you matched those well.” My heart sank a bit, but I refused to succumb, holding onto my utilitarian attitude: these were for the kids! This was a worthy sacrifice.
I wore them, made an unsalvageable mess of them, secured them in a trash bag when I arrived home, and left them on the curb after my thorough shower. I hadn’t thought of that ruined outfit, purchased for desolation, until this weekend.
I was acting in a short comedy sketch this weekend for my faith community. My wife assisted, as she is so handy with, in building props. The other actor entered carrying a tray of popcorn bags, like you would see at a ball game. So, Karen dutifully popped a bowl full of popcorn the night before, that would be placed on top of the stuffed popcorn bags, just enough so that it looked realistic.
Now, I know it’s only popcorn. In my head, I’m thinking, this is for my art! This is for the audience, and this is about God.
And then I thought of the clothes from a few years ago.
When I was a sound and scenic designer in college, I remember the debate about how “environmentally friendly” theatre was or was not (the term “green” had yet to surface in mainstream culture at that time). I remember at least one publication discussing what to do with the leftover scrap lumber from the set construction, as well as the set pieces themselves after the show was finished. I remember the sense of sadness watching my first real set be destroyed after the run of the show, striking the stage for the next production. There was a tug-of-war there, of sorts, although it hadn’t really pushed its way to the surface yet. I was the kid in high school that drew remarks from a teacher for having a Greenpeace decal in my locker, before I had any idea what they were about. I was the guy who bought an Earth Day t-shirt my freshman year in college. I’m currently the recycling fanatic in an American Southeast that largely couldn’t care less about recycling.
In short, I think I’m a bit of a contradiction.
I wonder if there’s any room at all for utilitarianism here? I currently practice theatre in the venue of a faith community. A huge amount of lumber from sets is recycled for housing repair. We do huge clothing drives. There’s a lot less to be guilty about here, because creating is in itself justified in God’s image, and the art is worth some waste. There is also, however, a point of careless disregard for our activity that hurts those around us indirectly. The clothes for the “food fight” a few years ago were at that level, I think (the other pastor felt guilty afterward, as well). Funny how I did something I’m suddenly very certain was extremely distasteful to God in order to engage in a pointless activity that I thought He would be passionate about.
Now, perhaps it’s silly that a bowl of popcorn would cause this level of introspection, but, at the same time, there are people who would gladly give anything for that popcorn before they starve to death…some of them in our own country. So, at what point does our art justify waste? At what point is creating outweighed by the collateral damage?
Okay, maybe someone wouldn’t “give anything” for popcorn, but it does seem to flaunt our excess a bit, I guess. Worse, however, is the realization as I write this of the actual food that was used in that “food fight” years ago, made for the evening, also destined for waste, that could indeed have fed someone. The irony that the latter is the function of the church, but that we used it for the former, strikes me painfully in this moment.
Is the answer a difference between legitimate artistic creative ventures and youth activities? As much as I’d like to believe that, it seems a bit elitist to say, as well as a bit of a double standard. If one is wrong, then it seems it should at least be indicative of a line, beyond which the other is wrong, as well.
Or, perhaps the answer is the danger in crossing a line toward fanaticism in believing God “called” us to do something specific, and thus we dive into something forgetting logic, damning the torpedoes and full speed ahead. In short, am I justifying wasting food for the sake of the art that I love, while condemning the same waste in a “ministry” that I fully believe I entered in error?
Or, perhaps the answer is neither of those. Whatever it is, I don’t have it. What I do know is that this is a valid question, and, while I’d be rather pretentious to think that I had the answer at this point, I’m hoping that I stumble across it soon.