Merry Stressmas Everybody!

Creativity, home, Love, Ministry, mystery, photography, purpose, Spirituality, Uncategorized, vision

“The kiln tests the potter’s vessels…”  ~~ Ecclesiasticus 27:5 

I was baking cookies all day Friday, my oven never going higher than 375

Firca Master at Work

Firca Master at Work

degrees Fahrenheit.  This is a great test for butter, sugar and flour: leave it in that heated box too long and the smoke detector just outside the kitchen door will start its screeching. Pottery however, gets tested at much higher temperatures in the kiln.  When I was in Turkey recently, I visited at the Firca Ceramic Shop in Avanos. The craftsmen there work in a cave that was carved out in the middle ages and have been plying their trade for over two hundred years. They make museum reproduction pieces as well as their own creative work done in the Turkish decorative style. Their artists learn their trade by producing first the trade or tourist goods, and then progress onto the craftsman’s level and then to the artist’s level at which they sign their work.

The quality of the ceramic ware may vary, but all the pieces are subjected to the same testing in the heat of the kiln: very high temperatures to turn the fragile clay into hard and durable pottery.  In fact, the whole process of making a pot or dish is one of pressure and stress upon malleable clay.  First the clay lumps are slammed upon a plaster slab to drive the bubbles of air out.  If these stayed inside the clay during the firing, the air trapped inside would expand and explode the pot as the kiln heated up.  Then the clay is slammed upon a wheel.  The potter dips her hands into water, applies pressure to the sides and the top and begins to raise the cylinder to a certain height. Then holding the sides with one hand and pushing in with a thumb, the potter pulls the clay in a firm and even motion out to the desired width.  Only then does she raise the pot to its final height.  Once the clay dries out, it goes to the oven/kiln for the first firing; this makes it hard enough to work on for the glazing/painting so that it won’t break.  The final firing at the highest temperature (2400 F) sets the glaze.  Even here, the results aren’t predictable: the glazes can slip, they can give off gases that discolor other glazes on other pots, or the kiln can cool too quickly and break the pots when the cold air hits their hot skins. The stress of being made into a beautiful pot is sometimes too much to bear.

As I was baking sugar cookies, I was cutting the next batch into stars, Cornie's Kitchensnowflakes, and bells. I would pull out the cooked batch and let them cool on the pan for a minute. Then as I took them up with a spatula, some of them would break. Since I was giving these away, I was forced to eat the broken ones. It is a rule in Cornie’s Kitchen: “only the best goes out for others.” I know that no one forced me to do this, but someone had to do it, and I wasn’t waiting for volunteers. Even a sweet cookie breaks under the stress of the heat of the oven. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is the old saw that gets repeated during times of stress.

I have noticed that this holiday season has been a time of stress for many people. I remember that when I was in active ministry, I used to clear my calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas because I would be handling a lot more counseling for people having seasonal meltdowns than at any other time of the year.  I have felt the stress in the air even though I don’t have a church of my own now. The Kroger clerk told me how she really felt about the guy in produce who didn’t mark all three of the brands of blueberries that were on sale that week. I have friends that I had to recommend to a “real counselor” because they were using me as a therapist and weren’t ever talking to me about anything else anymore. They no longer were “friends” for I never heard about their lives, but only about their sickness. It was stressing me out to the point that it was impacting my health, for I was starting to have the auras that warn a seizure might be imminent. At least I have an early warning system, and can take counter measures in defense.

But what about the people who are tied into the news 24/7? Their stress levels are off the wall, for every event is part of their immediate pain and suffering. And what of the people who are mentally unstable, who feed off the constant attention given to the intense interest and glorification of the victims of mass shootings? There have been 62 mass shootings in the last three decades, and 24 in the last seven years alone.  Mass shootings are those in which four or more people have died. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/why-are-mass-shootings-becoming-more-frequent/)

These people may not be able to set boundaries on their obsessions and then they finally give into them. The fact that they have a gun is what makes the carnage so devastating. The sad thing is most of these mass shootings were done with legal guns. Perhaps the only answer is to have armed guards at every public gathering place, but then we would be living in a police state. I don’t think most Americans want that to happen.

Perhaps I am lucky in having a physical condition such as a seizure disorder that can send the “flashing yellow light” that warns me to slow down. Stress lowers the seizure threshold, so too much of a good thing or too much of a bad thing can cause my brain’s electrons to misfire.  I don’t know what sets off a mass murderer, but I do know what stresses out the average person: things that are out of control. I remind everyone I meet, we are not in control of how anyone else receives our words, our actions, or our intentions. We are only in control of what we do, think, say, act, and intend. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make it drink.

As someone living with epilepsy, I know that if I smell things that no one else can smell, I need to cut back on anything that causes stress in my life.  In ancient times, folks would have screamed “demon possession!”  Today, we modern people are beyond that, and realize that the kiln of life is just “testing this cracked pot.”  I can either keep on going and ignore the warning signs and explode into a seizure, or I can back away and stay seizure free. I choose the latter.

Our lives “explode” sometimes, though most of us don’t become mass murderers. We have fights, fusses, dramas, and all the other distresses of the human condition. It seems all the worse at Christmas because we have the expectation of an idealized and serene family experiencing a blessed birth.

Most of us don’t realize that the reason “there was no room for them at the inn” was because no one wanted Mary and Joseph and their “inconvenient truth” which was “conceived out of wedlock” to be born at their hotel. People were cruel then too. They stayed in a stable because one innkeeper wasn’t so hardhearted. God gave the message of the Christ child to the shepherds and to the foreigners, but not to the Israelite priests or the middle class merchants, for God’s love for human kind includes the poor outcasts and the aliens. The king and the priests conspired to kill all the baby boys, but the Holy Family had already fled into Egypt.  Does the early life of Jesus sound like a sweet innocent Hallmark or Lifetime movie now? (Luke 2, Matthew 2).

Jesus’ life was more like ours: full of stress and pain, not all sweetness and light. Remember that the baby in the manger doesn’t bring the faith you need to get through the days like these, but the Christ who endures the trials of the kiln, the Savior who tests his love for you on the cross.

As an artwork to process your pain in the midst of darkness, consider Christ as the Light that comes into the World.  Chiaroscuro is the term we use for strong contrasts of light and darkness. Set your subject in a strong light, so that the shadows are equally intense. Have only part of your image appear against the darkness. Use paint, crayon, pastel, pencil or photography. Consider how goodness in this world is sometimes obscured by evil, and how we have to find the silver lining in every cloud.

Meditate upon this verse: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” ~~ Romans 8:28

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The Fairy Nativity: A Simple Christmas

Creativity, home, Imagination, photography, purpose, renewal, Uncategorized, vision

“There are winds created for vengeance and in their anger they can dislodge mountains. On the day of reckoning they will pour out their strength and calm the anger of their Maker.” ~~ Ecclesiasticus 39: 28 

Seventeen days and counting to Christmas: Grey Thursday, Black Friday holy family and the Great Christmas Sales are upon us. Wal-Mart is covered up with people like the great ski slopes in the mountains should be covered with snow at this time of year. The Salvation Army bell ringers are out, but their friendly jingles and smiles aren’t making much of a dent into the general mood with Fiscal Cliffadedron, Egyptian Meltdown, Iranian Idiots, or Syrian Chemical Weapon threats weighing heavy in the air.

People aren’t much in the mood for Christmas this year, perhaps because our expectations are too high. We wanted a “Good Thanksgiving” with a happy family all gathered around the table, but the drunk uncle made his appearance once again and the kids all wanted to text the entire meal, while Dad wanted the food served in the “media room” so he wouldn’t miss any of the game.  This didn’t make any of the lady folks happy after baking and cooking for two days for the thirty-minute meal. So the gals took the credit cards and maxed them out on the early deals Thursday afternoon.

Now we have the incessant commercials of increasing expectations berating us on the TV: moving up to a bigger car, a bigger diamond, or giving your stepchild a diamond just like the one you gave her Mom (this is outrageous, children shouldn’t get diamonds until they are grownups! They need to have something to look forward to!). But most of our lives today aren’t like this, for we are more like the 99% and less like the 1%.

I was recently in Turkey in the region of Cappadocia. There is an area called the Fairy Mountains that has unusual stone pillars and shapes that have been worn away by the wind, rain, and blowing sand.  One such

fairy mountains cappadocia

fairy mountains Cappadocia

shape is a camel, and another grouping of three is known as the “holy family.” This Nativity Scene makes me think of all the precious sculptures I’ve seen. Most of them are highly sophisticated, brightly colored, and “clean” for that is truly how we view holiness.  This isn’t the world the Christ Child was brought into by his parents, however.

Mary was a young teenager when the angel came to tell her she would bring the Christ into the world without benefit of a husband, that is, it would be a virgin birth. Folks in the village soon began to talk, and Joseph was going to break off their engagement, but an angel told him in a dream it would all work out ok.  When Mary began to show, however, she needed to leave town, so she went to see her older cousin Elizabeth who was also with child.  These two were alike in that they were “outsiders:” Elizabeth was alone because her husband wasn’t able to speak because he doubted the Lord was at work in his wife’s pregnancy and Mary was alone because her family and town doubted her story.

When the census time came, everyone had to go to their ancestral hometown. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of David, but no one would let them stay in their inn. The text says there was no room for them in the inn, but Joseph wasn’t a stupid or slow man.  He didn’t wait until the last minute to take his very pregnant wife on this trip, so that all the hotels and motels were already full. People back then are just like people now: they talk, they make judgments, and folks decide that out of wedlock babies are unwelcome in their nice establishments.  One innkeeper did take pity upon them and gave the family a place in the stable among the animals. The baby was born there; the king of the world had a manger for his throne, and the animals for his court.  Angels proclaimed the Savior’s birth to shepherds, outcast persons on the margins of society because they were not clean. They were the first to honor him. Strangers from the east came to worship him and give him gifts, aliens and nonbelievers rather than the Jews themselves.  His mother  “…treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

The King and the priests heard the strangers from the east ask: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matthew 2:2).  They conspired among themselves to murder all the newborn baby boys when they didn’t find out the one name. Joseph took Mary and Jesus in the middle of the night out into Egypt, for he was warned in a dream that the child was in danger.

This Christ Child knows the pains of the world from the very beginning of conception, for he knows the loneliness of the poor and the isolated, the rejected and the misunderstood. He knows that if the king of the world will be rejected and despised, so will all we lesser human beings. If we are persecuted in this world, we are in good company, since he was singled out from birth and many innocents died on his behalf (Matt 2:13-33). His family fled with the clothes on their backs, but they carried the gold, frankincense and myrrh gifts he received as gifts for his ministry and burial.

Most people don’t read the Nativity Story this way, but when I look at the way the wind wears away the stone, I have to think that these figures are the strength that is left after the winds have torn away the soft parts. The hard parts, that core that remains, is the true part that is the inner strength that comes from the inner spirit of a person.  The winds may move mountains and reveal a new shape, but that is just God’s recreating power at work.

The biblical word for wind and spirit are the same, so the Holy Spirit can be the rushing wind that changes our hearts and minds into the new shape God has in mind for us.  The American Bible Society says that each American home has 4.3 bibles in it in 2012. However, most people aren’t reading it, for 46% couldn’t tell the difference between the Koran, the Bible, or the Book of Mormon.  What’s worse, 50% of Americans, including Christians, couldn’t name ANY of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John). The Bible’s oral traditions have been around for 6,000 years, and it’s been written down for 4,000 years.  Surely that is a testimony to its robustness: the winds of other ideas may blow against it, but its inner strength stands firm against all the storms.

As a spiritual art project, make your own nativity from found objects, the more humble the better.  If you go on a nature walk, find rocks or pine cones and paint them with minimal decoration so that they are recognizable as “figure” or “animal”. If you make them from toilet paper rolls, use construction paper and simplify the figure drapery.  These should be fun because you need to quit thinking “perfect” and allow yourself to “enjoy Christmas for a change!”  Have yourself a Merry Simple Christmas!