Sarah Parsons on Valuing Yourself & Your Creativity

 
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Sarah Parsons, 33, is an artist from Franklin, TN where she lives with her husband, Josh, and their dog, Lucy. Together, Sarah and Josh are the Worship and Creative Arts pastors at Grace Center. We met for the first time four years ago over pancakes and coffee. The conversations we had that weekend about our histories, spirituality, and creativity became an integral part of my own journey of identity and knowing God. In these four years, I've seen her take on various leadership positions, grow her artwork and her business, experience loss and grief, and navigate recovering from trauma while being a pastor, wife, and now, a soon-to-be mother. Through all of it, she remains open to the possibilities of God -- patient, confident and expectant. She is steadfast and hopeful, so overflowing with joy and peace that it comes out in each and every painting she creates. 

What is your background with faith?

I grew up living with my mom and my sister. We moved quite a bit and we church hopped quite a bit. My dad grew up Catholic, one of nine kids. Occasionally when I was with him for the holidays, we’d do a Catholic Easter mass. Basically, “church” was just something you did or tried out. It wasn’t ever real to me until my freshman year of high school when I officially met the Lord for myself.

Since meeting the Lord, has there been a recurrent theme or message that's come from your relationship?

I actually have a mission statement. At the end of my life, I would be so proud to say I spent it doing this: “To make beautiful things and to encourage others to do the same, to remind them why it’s valuable and important, and then to see them actually come into agreement with and execute that.”

What has been the connection between your identity as an artist and intimacy?

All forms of creativity are super vulnerable. You can’t separate what’s being created from the creator. One of my favorite things that someone has said about this was a post by my friend Andy Squyers: “Wine tastes like the soil the vines grew in.” He was relating it to music — whatever it is you’re thinking about, wherever you’re at, that will come out in your music.

That’s true for creativity in all forms. Whatever you’re going through is going to come out through your artwork. It’s super vulnerable to decide to put that on display for others to see, feel and experience.

It’s what we want to hide, but letting people into that process is the very thing that will bring the most life to others — and to ourselves.

So many people don’t pursue their creative ideas out of fear of what people will think or say when they see this part of you that is raw and messy and dark. But I think it’s really beautiful.

 
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What is one tool you would recommend to a people reading this who struggle with that fear?

Everyone must face that initial fear of putting yourself on display and having no idea what the response will be. It forces you to figure out if you actually care about other people’s responses, or if you’re doing it because it’s something you’re made to do, that brings you life, that you feel the Lord’s pleasure on.

That’s exactly what happened with me. There was a time where I had completely set aside painting to pursue what I thought was practical, because pursuing painting felt like a frivolous hobby.

Through a string of confirming events like people giving me canvases and prophetic words, it got to the point where I felt like I just had to pick up the paintbrush. From there, the Lord told me to put it on display. Having that first show was the most scared I’d ever been, because it was important to me. There was this wrestling — What if no one gets it, what if it has no value to anyone else? Is it still worth putting up in public?

I’m so proud that I faced that fear and put those five paintings out at that coffee shop. The response was overwhelming and gave me confidence to keep going. But even if no one had said anything and I’d never sold anything, there was this thing in me that had so much fun doing it that I knew: this had to be it.

I do this because I feel the Lord’s pleasure on it, that’s how I most connect with him. And that’s enough.

Whether I’m in a season of selling things or not, if no one ever sees another one of my paintings ever again, it can’t be about that. Those are all doors the Lord ended up opening, but it was never about me pursuing a business. It was realizing there was so much life on it, even while I was wrestling with how it would practically fit into culture or pay me money.

How do you relate to the Lord through your art?

Again, you can’t separate the work from the creator. I don’t have “spiritual” pieces and “non- spiritual” pieces. Because I’m a spiritual person, they feel spiritual. Because I’m full of hope, or whatever it is I’m exploring at the time, I think you’ll feel that from the piece.

I wrestled with this a lot in the beginning because I had only seen “religious art” in church or things with crosses or lions. I thought for it to be interacting with the Lord, it had to look that way. It took me awhile to figure out that actually that’s not how I paint, and I’m still interacting with the Lord when I’m painting how I paint.

 
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What does your creative process look like with the Lord?

I’m reminded of an interview with a worship leader I heard awhile ago. They asked him, “How do you know where to begin or what the Lord is saying?” He said, “It’s actually just whatever I’m feeling, because I’m lead by the Lord. I trust he’s already highlighting things to me. If there’s a song I’m loving, it’s where I begin.”

It’s the same approach with painting. I pay attention to the colors that I’ve personally been interested in, color schemes and compositions — things that I find interesting. It’s about the co-creating process with me. The Lord really wants to know me and create with me, so I don’t have to set aside all of myself and then ask him to give me some divine thing. It’s trusting that what I’m sensing and feeling in the moment is great and that it’s the Lord speaking through me and through my work.

It can take some artists a long time to see it that way.

If you don’t know yourself or you don’t value that what you personally love is enough, you actually don’t know who you are. The whole part of you is absent from the process.

What he’s really wanting is that thing in you, that idea, your point of view, that desire to just twirl around, whatever you just can’t get away from. That’s a great starting point. That’s where I’ve found the most freedom.

Would you say that painting is intimate for you? How does it build intimacy with God?

For me, it’s the most intimate way I connect with the Lord. It’s this thing that I’ve still not been able to describe… like prayer would be, but it’s not me speaking. If I’m stuck, I can paint and I can feel or sense his closeness and his pleasure.

I think something happens in my spirit — it’s almost like how a spirit language doesn’t make sense, but your spirit’s being edified. It’s the same thing when I’m painting. When I pick up a paintbrush, when I see colors come together in new ways, I feel like I am touching something, part of the Lord I just can’t get to any other way.

If today was a hard day, I could pick up my paints and in ten minutes, feel peace and the kindness of the Lord, a recalibration.

 
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What is the connection between valuing yourself and intimacy?

If I’m an orphan or at least believing I have no parents, I’m never going to try to access them, their love, or their resources because I believe it doesn't exist for me or that I’m not worthy of it.

Identity is the very foundation of intimacy.

Really believing what the Lord says about you, really believing that you are co-heir with Christ. There has to be this significance piece where you understand who your dad is. You can boldly approach him. He’s not afraid. You can make messes and get stuck in performance or shame and he doesn’t love you any less. He just wants to help with it.

I’m not saying you can’t have intimacy without it, but it would redefine how we interact with the Lord if we saw ourselves the way he sees us.  

What do we miss out on when we don’t value ourselves?

People walk away from so many things because they’re unhappy with the outcome of a thing instead understanding it’s worthy just because you created it and spent time on it. Certainly, you can always grow technically, but I think there’s a thing about knowing that the Lord is the original creator and anytime we create is partnering with the part of him. How could you throw that in the trash and say that’s not valuable? It’s a beautiful part of this process and your journey. You’ll never arrive, so you might as well be proud of where you are.

 
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Would you say you love yourself? Was it a journey to get there?

Yes. From when I was young I loved that my name meant “princess.” I felt like I was made to do something significant. I would get mad when I felt treated less than I thought I should’ve been treated, like being bullied or made fun of. Of course there's been times where I’ve battled in the loneliness, "Why am I lonely, am I not significant enough to loved?”

But for the majority, even now, I live in this understanding that my life is meant to look a certain way and I’m just navigating the disconnect between my current situation and that. I feel like I’m royalty. I feel like I’m God’s favorite kid and meant for something great — not just words, but really meant for something great. I’m meant to make an impact in the things he’s put in me that I daydream about. I believe he’s put them there on purpose, not to torture me. It’s just a matter of time before I’m heading that way.

Of all the wonderful things that have happened in your life, marriage, jobs, baby on the way — do you believe all of that was possible because you expected you should receive good things?

I honestly do. It’s foundational in our beliefs [at Grace Center]: your current circumstances reflect your past beliefs. I do believe in glory to glory and reigning in this life and that the Lord does want to bless me.

When he’s said to me, “Don’t settle for this,” I’ve agreed with him and not settled. I’ve seen tremendous fruit from that.

I’ve seen that from the very beginning of my story with Josh. The Lord told me “Look for this in a husband.” When we first dated, it became clear those weren’t the circumstances for either of us. We went our separate ways, because that wasn’t what the Lord told me to wait for. I didn’t sacrifice and I didn’t settle. And then it ended up being way better than we could’ve ever dreamed of because we both took that season apart.

There’s such an epidemic of insecurity and unworthiness in our world. What would it look like if all of that was settled?

If there was this unshakeable belief that you’re amazing and I’m amazing because we all understand that that’s what the Lord says? Whatever season it is — a painful one, a weak one, a discouraging one, maybe you’re stalling out — you would know you’re still amazing, because you’re the Lord’s. We’d probably navigate those seasons a lot faster.

 
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What is your greatest tool for unlocking intimacy?

As an artist, my closeness with the Lord comes from vulnerability and the acceptance to be messy. For example, letting people see really ugly paintings that I’m not proud of, because they were part of my first show. That’s actually part of my journey, and now I’m proud of myself for putting them out there because I can see how far I’ve come.

It’s essentially all of Brené Brown’s material: the very thing we most want is connection and acceptance and belonging. It will only come through vulnerability and letting people see the messiness of our process. But that feels so scary, so we usually hide all that in hopes that people will like us. It’s the same thing with writing songs, singing or putting your artwork out there.

We don’t do anything until we’re “good enough” or it’s perfect, but that’s such a lie.

My work has changed so much over the last eight years, but it reflects where I was at in each season. I think it’s really beautiful.

What's a practical tip you would give someone who wants to experience the Lord through creativity?

Whatever it is that’s peaking your interest is great starting point.

We make it so much more complicated than it is, because we’ve got a value problem with ourselves. We are constantly devaluing those things — you’re humming while you’re doing dishes or you keep having this daydream about this story, whatever it is. Pay attention to where your mind is going. If you value it, I think the Holy Spirit is constantly speaking in those ways. We just don’t know how to listen to it and disregard it as not being the Lord.

Those tiny repetitive thoughts are invitations to more.

I spend most of the creativity classes I teach reminding people this is valuable — spending time doing this, who knows where it will lead? Remember what it’s like to be a kid and just play and be creative and hopefully a side effect of that is connecting with the Lord. Who knows what doors the Lord will open? I didn’t set out seeking any of the things that are happening with my artwork now when I first settled it within myself that I would paint simply because I love and the Lord loves it.

Where to start: you’ve got to get out your paint or your pencils or your guitar and do something. Literally anything.

In my class there’s this quote I use from Picasso where he’s talking about inspiration: “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” Just get out and start doing something and allow it to evolve. Exercise those muscles. It’s not just going to hit you one day.

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More of Sarah on Instagram.

View & purchase Sarah's paintings on her website or UGallery. 

Portraits of Sarah & Josh by Trenton Alan.

Find Sarah's resources for creativity & identity here.