How to cultivate creativity and love your neighbors
Look around the room that you are currently sitting in. Within just a few feet of your current location, you could probably count hundreds of inventions that once only existed in the mind of an inventor. The world is filled with innovation and creativity. Some of these innovations — like solar panels, technologies that detect cancer, and beautiful paintings — contribute to the common good. Others seem frivolous — like banana slicers. And some innovations are far worse than frivolous — when, for example, people abuse their God-given talents to create evil things, such as chemical weapons, designer drugs, and iPhone apps that help people commit adultery.
It’s rare to combine the words creativity and love. But creative love is exactly what Jesus is calling us to through his command to love our neighbors as ourselves. We are called to be entrepreneurs of blessing, inventors of neighborly kindness, and artists of shalom — employing our whole minds, including our imaginations, in loving God and our neighbors.
Repurposing our gifts for others
Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor as yourself” might seem like a sweet and harmless command. However, it’s actually a call for creative love. This passage isn’t just calling us to just be nice people; it’s calling us to audit our lives, identify the resources we use to love and bless ourselves, and then reimagine them as instruments of love for our neighbors. John Calvin expresses this clearly when he says that “all the gifts we possess have been bestowed by God and entrusted to us on the condition that they be distributed for our neighbors’ benefit.”
In order to love your neighbor as yourself, you must first answer the question, How do I love myself? You will probably come up with many answers. You may have bought a home, earned an education, grilled steaks on Sunday afternoons, pursued life-giving friendships, grown a garden, ridden a bicycle, or saved money. We all have an array of good things that we use for our own benefit, such as relationships, education, training, possessions, skills, and personality traits. However, the uniqueness of the kingdom is that we are called to view these things as the raw materials of love and to repurpose them for the sake of others.
Over the past decade, I’ve met with people on a weekly basis to intentionally dream up creative ways to reimagine simple gifts — from rusty shovels to spare bedrooms, bicycles to baked goods — as instruments of love. We’ve taken simple things and tried to see them and use them as resources that God has given for the flourishing of our neighbors. Let me tell you just one of those stories.
The Tempe bike gang
During one of our discussions about how to creatively love our neighbors, someone mentioned a recent news story about a huge gang of bikers that had swarmed a car, pulled a passenger out, and brutally attacked him — almost killing him in the process. We were disturbed. We prayed. We also started to ask a strange question: “How can we reimagine the mob mentality for the common good?” One of us had the idea to start something called the Tempe Bike Gang, a mob of people on bicycles who would cruise around the city doing random acts of blessing. We joked about this being the hipster version of the Sons of Anarchy, but our conviction that we should move forward with this increased even as we laughed about its absurdity.
If you were on the streets of Tempe in March 2014, you may have seen a strange mob of more than twenty bicyclists swarming through the parks, cruising through alleys, and clogging the bike lanes. You may have seen us dismount every fifteen minutes or so to engage in some act of generous love. We picked up dog poop at the local dog park. We stopped in front of a house to give out an “Awesome Front Yard” award to unsuspecting residents with a beautiful garden. We jumped on board a minibus to give the driver a one-hundred-dollar tip. We gave out more than thirty thank-you notes to coffee-shop baristas to honor their excellent work. If you saw us, you may even have been compelled to join us, just like the handful of strangers out riding their bikes around town who did decide to join our mob — as if they had heard the voice of Jesus say, “Come follow me!” through our silly acts of vigilante love.
These simple expressions of creative love display the self-giving love of Christ by finding ways to shift our resources outward. It’s not complicated; we need to slow down, think, pray, and reflect on deliberate ways we can use our skills, possessions, resources, time, and imagination to serve our neighbors.
Learning from carrot cake
Many of us think that creativity is the gift of rare and eccentric people. However, I believe it’s more like a skill that can be learned with deliberate and attentive practice. If we want to learn about creativity, we just need to learn from something like the invention of carrot cake. While I’m not certain how it was invented, I often imagine a family invited their neighbors over for a meal, and one hour before the meal, they realize they don’t have a dessert prepared. They search frantically through their cabinets and pantry to find ingredients and stumble across some flour, water, sugar, baking powder, and, well, carrots. They decide to combine these seemingly unrelated items together and produce the world’s first carrot cake.
Learning to love our neighbors creatively is a bit like inventing a new recipe. We look into the pantry of our lives, see what we have to work with, and imagine a new dessert that will show love to others. This doesn’t take a stroke of genius or an eccentric personality. It just takes the ability to see three things:
The world’s brokenness (problems)
Your resources (gifts)
Some way to use your resources to address the brokenness (creative love)
If we slowed down enough to reflect on the brokenness around us and the potential blessing embedded in something as simple as a bicycle, an iPhone, or a degree in accounting, our minds would be overwhelmed with the redemptive potential at our fingertips. Over the years, I’ve developed a few different practices to help people cultivate creative love. However, they are all simple ways to help people be attentive to the brokenness in our communities, the resources God has given us, and the potential ways we can reimagine the assets God has given us to steward as instruments of blessing.
Among the many words associated with Christians, what if creative and love were at the top of the list? What if we displayed the creativity of the Father and the sacrificial love of Christ by being a people filled with simple innovations of blessing? What if Christians were known as innovators of good? What if we were just as serious and deliberate about inventive love as Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, or Thomas Edison were with their innovations?
Editor’s note: This is an adapted excerpt from Jim Mullins’ and Michael Goheen’s new book, The Symphony of Mission: Playing Your Part in God’s Work in the World. Used with permission.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 2006), 695 (3.7.5).