The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr


Exploring Spiritual Formation and Creativity

Last fall I attended Getty Music’s Sing Conference. I was interested in finding places where the conversation around Spiritual Formation and Creativity might be already happening. I still am. I had performed with the Getty’s at Carnegie Hall years ago and appreciated working with them. That said, I didn’t know what to expect from their conference. Overall, my experience was good. Good conversations, the communal singing was astounding (I had never experienced that many people singing together in one space before), and the speakers were powerful. As with me in these kinds of events I found a thought to chew on.

John Lennox, a world-renowned mathematician, connected to Getty Music by family, was at the conference via zoom. He spoke about something he uses to remind himself of God’s sovereignty. That is, this idea that in all the hierarchies of power, God sits at the top, ruling (if you will) over all. Approaching it from the negative, he said, simply, that he does not acknowledge the authority of the devil. That is to say that he doesn’t acknowledge the authority of an evil power over a present situation.

This got me thinking. What or who do I acknowledge has authority in my life or circumstances? This is an interesting question especially in a time when it seems that many institutions have been losing their position of authority. In my family, growing up, my parents had authority. As I grew, I took on more authority, and with it, responsibility in my own life. But then there were other places and people who held positions of authority. In school, there were teachers and principals. In Tap Dance Land, there were my mentors and other elders in the community of craftspeople. In the city I lived in there were the police, city officials, and judges.

As I was growing up, I trusted that people in positions of authority were supposed to be there. As in, they were the right people to be in that position, and because they were the right people, they should be trustworthy. Because, naturally, people in authoritative positions only got there because they knew what they were doing and had other people’s interest in mind. So, I trusted people in authority. It was only when I started bumping up against institutional momentum that went against that assumption, that I began to shift a little bit.

The Shift

It turns out, not everybody actually knows what they are doing. That is, not everyone has significant tactile experience in the area which they are positioned as an authority. Not everyone has other’s interests in mind, either. While many people in positions of authority do have tactile experience leading others and deeply consider the interests on others as they make choices, the field seems lacking. Too many times, have I bumped into leaders who expected me to not follow, to protect myself, and to maintain a kind of survival ethic.

I started to ask myself questions like, “is this how it has to be?” and “why shouldn’t I trust the leader I’m with?”

Instead of accepting the reality that people aren’t always trustworthy or caring of others, I began to explore why that isn’t the case. I also tried to find out why I thought it should be the case.

Immersion and Early Learning

I grew up in a family that was immersive. We were always together, always wondering about each other’s lives. I’ve explored this before, as it comes with its own challenges, but I’ve settled on enjoying having to work out the challenges of being too close with my family than the opposite – being isolation. Immersion makes for assumptions. I assumed other leaders would be like my father, the leader of my family. That they would be as confident and caring as he was with me.

I also grew up learning tap dancing from the best tap dancers in the world. In the 1990s there were no other better tap dancers than Gregory Hines and Savion Glover, and they were both my mentors. I assumed that anyone else I would be led to learn from would have the same level of knowledge of craft. As I look back, it was almost ridiculous of me to think that would be the case – that I would land in the same kind of situation, learning from the best in the field, even as I grew.

I have since come to understand that I am not meant to live in apprenticeship to another human being for the rest of my life. That is, to live under the authority of and to learn from the teaching of another person. But the context of apprenticeship, when done well, is amazing! The student is protected, cared for, challenged, guided, and found to be part of the family of practitioners. Then in a kind of dramatic shift, the student becomes as the teacher. Having developed the skill necessary, the character required, and the motivation of commitment, the student assumes the role of fellow practitioner. They are now the same as the teacher. Continuing the learning, but now doing without essential oversight. Soon, they will begin to teach, too.

In Life

The ideas of immersion and apprenticeship have a lot to do with authority and life. The contexts we are immersed in take on a kind of authoritative position in our lives. Immersed in a world organized in significant ways towards evil, makes it easy to think that evil has authority in this world. Consider the pervasiveness of the market and politics. They are so ingrained in our lives that even when exploring different worldviews, the language of the market (words like “value”) and politics (words like “rights”) are ever present. And language has a lot to do with how with think.

Similarly, the model of apprenticeship brings to life the idea that we seem to learn the most from following. It is human to follow. Yet, we live in a world in which many people are competing for our attention and literally for followers. But following is not just informative, it is transformative. In following a particular idea, we inevitably adopt that idea. It can easily move from an interest to a consideration, to a belief, to an action, to a habit, to a second nature, and finally to a characteristic of our being. The who and what we follow are that which we place in a position of authority over our lives. That last sentence might grind against the individualistic nature of some of our culture, but it is nevertheless true.

Our Part

We do have a part in all this. Our part is in acknowledgement (and maybe agreement). Who or what we acknowledge has authority over our lives has greater power than that which we actively don’t acknowledge. That which we agree with, we ultimately align to. That which we disagree with we separate from. Notably disagreement doesn’t have to mean animosity, contempt, or anger. It just means that we won’t follow or conform or align ourselves with someone or something we disagree with.

So, to return to John Lennox. Can my simple acknowledgement of a different kind of authority change my experience of a situation? Even my life? I think it can. Without denying the existence of evil, we can acknowledge a higher and greater authority. That acknowledgement can interrupt the immersion in evil we may feel, even the challenging circumstances we often face. Please know, that this is not to make light of any situation – as may happen with pithy remarks or brain hacks. This is a concrete shift in what we believe, pay attention to, and follow in the midst of our lives. And that shift can lead to a completely different experience of the world.

The Notes with Andrew Nemr
The Notes with Andrew Nemr
Andrew Nemr, a critically acclaimed tap dance artist, explores the intersection of creativity and spiritual formation.
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