A WORK IN PROGRESS: Grieving Enabled Through the Creative Process

Creativity, Family, Health, home, Imagination, Ministry, photography, Prayer, Spirituality, Stress, Uncategorized, Work

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Just the other day, one of our younger clergy brothers died from a massive heart attack in the wee early morning hours, or late at night during his sleep, depending on your point of view. His contemporaries were in a state of shock, as well they might be, for if death could take a strapping young person in the prime of life, who had a spouse and small children plus an active and vibrant ministry, death could suddenly appear on their doorstep or in their bedroom also. From the facebook posts and videos, he had a grand send off. The show of grief is over and now the real work of grieving begins.

“The memory of the righteous is a blessing…” (Proverbs 10:7a). Yet for those who grieve, their love is often mixed up with wondering all the “what if’s”: should I have insisted on more doctor visits, been more careful about our diet, put my foot down on taking days off to be with the family, etc. usually, nothing we could would have changed the outcome in the short run. We can’t carry guilt for another’s behavior to our own graves.

For the living, especially for a bereaved clergy spouse, the true loss of their loved one will come all too quickly. As soon as the new appointment is made to the charge, the “eviction notice” comes to the parsonage. Most of us clergy live in the home provided by the ministry to which we are assigned, so death or divorce comes with an eviction notice to the non pastor spouse. This is when depression sets in, for the loss of the loved one now involves the loss of a home that has the memories of laughter, meals together, and quiet times on the couch holding one another close.

For all the outpouring of fellowship and grief at the celebration of our brother’s life, this is the time his widow actually needs the most attention. Feeling helpless and powerless, in addition to feeling abandoned both by her spouse and the conference (I’d hate to be the DS delivering this news), I’ve seen otherwise gentle folks get angry at God and everyone below.

Healing will eventually happen, but not if we don’t attend to it. We need to make this most recent loss part of our life experience. As a pastor I’ve buried lots of people, some of whom I’ve known well and some of whom were strangers to me. I think my record was seven people in ten days. That’s a bunch of sermons about how persons lived their lives before God and experienced their faith in action. I was summing up for the families the faith stories of their loved ones so they could carry the good memories forward. As a pastor however, I often didn’t have the opportunity to grieve myself, for I needed to be available to help others to grieve.

I found that keeping a journal helped me to be creatively cleansed of all the pent up emotions that I wasn’t able to express in my professional life. I didn’t have time to wallow in grief, for I had grieving people to encourage and to counsel. I would find a bible verse just by opening the Bible, reading until a verse grabbed my attention, and then I would inscribe it on the top of a page of a cheap spiral bound notebook. Then I would date the page and begin to write whatever came into my mind. I chose the cheap book because too often we come before God with our words and panic: it must be perfect, have complete sentences, good punctuation, good spelling! You would think we have some image of God as an old fashioned school mistress. Where in scripture does it say this? No where! Get over it! Talk to God more often and you will lose that fear. Let the words flow. Do not judge. Don’t reread, don’t rewrite. Finish today and call it good enough. Come see God tomorrow with a fresh verse and a fresh page.

Now I paint as a form of journaling also, for it too is a creative expression. Before I went to seminary, I was virtually nonverbal. Now that experience, combined with the call to preach, has unleashed my tongue. I am finding my art has grown by leaps and bounds over the four years of my incapacity leave. I process emotions and ideas best visually, however, rather than through the written or spoken word. Images from nature cause thoughts to pop into my head, rather like the prophet of old who saw the almond branch blooming and God asked him what he saw (Jeremiah 1:11).

In the unfinished painting attached to this blog, I was on a walk around Mercy Hospital in Hot Springs when I saw a group of trees reflecting in a still pond under a cloudless sky. I thought of how the water is like another place and time, perhaps heaven, and the earthbound trees are our connection of clergy. We have storms, but the sunshine comes in and a rainbow reminds us of God’s care and providence for the earth and its creatures. The solitary tree without leaves is the brother we lost. Because the water is not of this world, the colors of the trees don’t reflect naturally or according to shape. In fact, even the leafless tree reflects in this heavenly pond with a full set of leaves. All the reflected trees share the same colors, for in heaven our differences disappear (Matthew 22:30–For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.) The question for each of us today becomes, are we so busy with our tasks lists and our need to be at the next destination on our overcrowded schedules, or are we open to the voice of God saying, “what do you see?” My prayer is that your heart is open.

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BRINGING IT LIKE BON JOVI

Children, Evangelism, Family, Forgiveness, home, Love, Ministry, photography, Physical Training, purpose, salvation, Secrets, shame, Spirituality, vision, Work

I dilly dallied, as is my usual habit. I have some inner compunction that forbids me to turn up too early. It’s a learned behavior from early childhood: showing up too soon meant additional chores, whereas I’d rather be playing or reading or doing my art. However, Bon Jovi was coming to Verizon arena and that meant 18,000 people and possibly 6,000 vehicles were going to descend upon the twenty acres just across the river from downtown Little Rock. Late wasn’t an option. You can arrive late for church, walk in and find your seat while the congregation sings the first hymn or praise songs, but late for football or a rock concert means hoofing it from the far parking lots. Your seat may be reserved, but your parking space is a crapshoot.

I left my hotel at 5:30, arrived at the arena 15 minutes later, saw that the Burger King directly across the street was offering $10 off street parking, and I bagged this along with a Whopper Jr. with cheese and no pickles to go. About the time I’d finished my walking picnic (do calories eaten while exercising count?), I was at the entry. There a man asked me, “Will you be needing to drink tonight?” Do I need to or want to, I asked him. “Want to,” he said laughing. Oh no, I’m good to go as I am. I’ll be driving afterwards, so nothing for me. He wished me well and went about his work. He was checking the IDs and placing the orange bands on folks so the beverage people wouldn’t be slowed down for the inside sales. I thought of all the church greeters who miss an opportunity to engage in some type of meaningful conversation with the folks that are passing through their contact zone. If a church is a community, our first line greeters initiate that experience.

Once inside the door, I had two hours to kill or fill. Killing time is a long tedious process, but filling time is pleasant and refreshing. First I stopped to shop. Yes, I sacrificed at the altar of all things Bon Jovi to buy a $45 T-shirt with the logo on it. It’s a witness shirt. Of course, most people don’t read your clothes because they don’t see anything past the border of their personal space. We have been taught not to stare from an early age, so reading someone’s chest/breast is impolite. Only artists, children, and other rude people defy this social convention.

I sat next to a young couple from near Pine Bluff. The boy clearly loves this gal, but she’s had a hard life and can’t really believe it. When I showed her my shirt, I said I really wanted the hot red one with gold bling, but it didn’t come in “full mature womanly figure” size. “Oh I love red and gold, but I’d be afraid someone would take it.” Her boyfriend looks at her and says, “Come on honey, I think you’d look hot in that shirt!” Both these kids have had tough lives, but they have found each other and are making the days better for each other. I learned all this in less than an hour at a rock concert. How long do we take before we ever open up at church? Many of us never will, except for our physical illnesses, for we hold the mistaken belief that God rewards our silent suffering or worse, if we admit to suffering, we also admit to being an imperfect person. God already knows we are imperfect, so it won’t come as a surprise to the Almighty. It might only surprise the others who labor under the same delusion.

As I sat, I took photos of other folks killing time by checking facebook. Pretty soon, nothing would post and Instagram couldn’t refresh its feed, since too many bored people were online at once. I gave up and began to take photos only. It was as if we were all dressed up with no place to go, yet we were all here and being held in check, like racehorses behind the starting gate. Some found their way to the foot tall margarita stand, others to the beerita stand (half beer/half margarita), and others to the food and drink stands. I chatted with my other seat mates for a bit and realized I knew them from one of my appointments during my ministry. There may be six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but only one degree of Bon Jovi or Methodist ministers. I heard of the woes of their recent pastor and the trouble in their town. But it’s a broken and fallen world we live in, and we pastors can’t take responsibility for other peoples’ actions. This is why a God gave us Jesus to fall back upon when we fall down or the world falls apart.

At 7:30, I realized that the concert was no where near starting, no matter what my ticket said, so I went in search of the ladies’ room. On my way back, I chatted up the aisle folks. Some of them seemed surprised that a stranger was speaking to them, but then we do tend to live in our own little bubbles. This experience was the most like church, for I realized that while folks had come in groups or pairs to the concert, they came to experience it in their own private universe. They may have been part of the crowd, but their experience was much smaller and more intimate. I had come alone, however, and was seeking unity within the whole. Therefore, I was reaching out to connect with as many as possible to feel a part of the group. This is why a “friendly church” can seem cold to a stranger, but welcoming to the in crowd.

On my way back down to the floor, this handsome silver haired gentleman performed the requisite ticket check on me. He asked, “Do you like Bon Jovi?” Oh yes, I said. How about you? “Not so much, but I do get to say hello to very pretty ladies.” Aren’t you sweet, I smiled and said as I left for my seat. He probably had ear plugs for the evening. This was a nice moment to keep as a memory. I’m glad I’ve taken to wearing my hair up in braids. It makes me look approachable, young, fresh, and not all bound up. Uptight isn’t alright anymore. That was ok for the professional look, but now I want go look like me. My Sunday go to meeting clothes are now my dress casual clothes. I’m deep into retirement and not much on dressing up anymore. Once I had 47 pair of shoes, now I’m down to 12. I actually wear just 2 pair most of the time. Maybe we should simplify our lives, our dress, and our behavior: just be the same wherever we are. No one could call us a hypocrite then.

Finally the lights went dim and a roar rose from the crowd! Our anticipation wasn’t for naught. Bon Jovi and the band were taking the stage. The spotlights flashed brightly, strobing the darkened amphitheater. Blue lights burst into the stage that was just 17 rows and an orchestra pit away from my seat. Then oranges and reds quavered across this field and the sounds of “That’s What the Water Made Me,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Runaway,” and the “Lost Highway” rolled out over the excited crowd. We sang along, at the top of our voices. Some of us sang the whole song, others sang just the choruses, but we all shared in the experience. A rock concert differs from a classical performance in that the latter is done by the artist for the audience to appreciate the artist’s abilities and talent, whereas the rock concert is a communal or participatory event in which both the artist and the crowd share the creation.

This experience alone reminded me the most of why church ain’t bringing IT like Bon Jovi. How many of our congregations have the moniker “the frozen chosen?” For this group, worship is done to them and they merely observe the performance. After church they may intellectually discuss the merits of the sermon or the song selections, but preaching to this crowd is difficult, for encouragement isn’t their long suit. They are well trained in stillness, silence, and the flat aspect of their faces while in the sanctuary. It’s as if God might strike them dead if they so much as bat an eyelash. Get them around a potluck table afterwards, especially the deserts, and they are quite lively. Perhaps we should serve chocolate brownies instead of communion wafers and 5-Hour energy shots instead of the communion wine or grape juice.

A song that surprised me was “Whole Lot of Leavin’.” because it had never been released in the USA. Fresh to our ears, we applauded even louder, but when Jon rolled into “It’s My Life” the screaming broke loose! It wasn’t the nice church ladies on my left (who I periodically checked on to make sure they were still alive), but the gal who couldn’t believe this was her birthday dream come true. She was on her first syllable of the nonstop scream that was her entire commentary of the evening. When the Spirit takes over, some are wont to speak in strange tongues or languages. Others break out in laughter, barking, or whooping, while some twirl or dance in place. All that was happening all over the stadium as Bon Jovi sang “Because We Can,” “What About Now,” “We Got It Goin’ On,” and “Keep the Faith.”

This was one of the high points of the concert, for which we’d been standing, singing and clapping all the way through so far. We were probably 45 minutes into the concert and I noticed the young couple in front of me were plum worn out. I said, He’s 55, working it for all he’s got & you’re tired? Stand up and honor this! (I checked my fitbit after the concert when I got to the hotel. My steps/activity counter posted over three miles just from the aerobic workout dancing and clapping in my foot and a half of floor space.) I thought, I’m as bad as all those judgmental church folks who think this younger generation doesn’t have what it takes to “do IT the right way.” In truth, they are probably just worn out from a long week at work and hassles with the kids. I should give them a break. There may be more than one way to skin an IT, after all.

Just as preachers can’t bring the same sermon every week, rock stars don’t play the same set at every venue. Life would get old. For us Arkies, Bon Jovi played a set that related to our history and our connections. Just as there are the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, almost everyone in Arkansas is an FOB or an FOH, the Clinton’s of course. We heard “It’s Only Make Believe,” (Conway Twitty cover) and “Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night” as part of that recollection and connecting. As the mood slowed, we heard “Diamond Ring,” and “(You Want to) Make a Memory.” All the young and old lovers took this moment in time to hug and kiss, to make their own memory of the night they shared with Bon Jovi.

But enough of all that smooching, the band had come to rock! “Born to Be My Baby,” “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” (with snippets of Jumpin’ Jack … more), and “Bad Medicine” (with snippet of Shout) rounded out the main program.
The old preaching saw is strike fire & sit down. Leave them crying for more. Cry we did. More they had! “I’ll Be There for You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Have a Nice Day,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” wound up the best night in twenty years in Arkansas. Don’t wait so long, BJ, you have friends here.

When I checked out of my hotel the next morning, the clerk was just in awe that I had gone to see Bon Jovi. I thought, no one ever says that about church. Is that because it happens every Sunday? If we held church once every twenty years, or asked people to pay steep admission prices, would that encourage us to attend? What if we had songs that we played over and over, like the top 40 and country hit stations play their lists, would that engage our participation? What if the seats cost more depending on their location (in church, the back row would cost the same as the concert orchestra pit)! We might have a better, if not rowdier, crowd down front. The preaching might get more exciting too. Then again, these two worlds aren’t meeting for the most part, for the same reason that the screaming fans and the prim church gals don’t run in the same crowd. They need a person who walks in both worlds to either be the church for them or to bring the church to them. The walls of the church itself are the barrier, even when the church ladies go out into the rock world, and the world can’t come into the church itself. This is why the church ain’t bringing the message of healing for the hungry and the hopeless like Bon Jovi is bringing IT. This is why the concert felt like the church ought to be, but each of us needs to bring our true heart to into true concert with the God who can rock our world, and not just our arena.

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The One Who Shows Weakness Is The One Who Is Healed

Creativity, Family, Food, Health, Holy Spirit, Mental Illness, Ministry, poverty, purpose, renewal, salvation, shame, Strength, Uncategorized, Work

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Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:1-5)

Jesus is all about the change or the cure. Jesus makes the difference in a person’s life from being on the margins to being brought back into community. This is the original good news of the Gospel, but we in the modern church seem to have relegated this message to “scripture alone.” We are more about showing only our “fixed up faces” rather than our “withered hands” that need The Lord’s touch to make us whole again. The former we can fix with make up and masks, but the latter needs true spiritual power.

No wonder that when our paintbox is exhausted and our good hand is weary of holding up the disguise of competence before our faces, our carefully constructed facades of “managing” begin to crumble. One more tilt in our tectonic plate will cause the whole to crumble like a Haitian slum dwelling. Yet we persist in thinking that “If I only try harder to hold onto my strengths, I will make my way through these hard times.” We don’t understand the gospel message of surrendering to our weakness in order to receive healing and wholeness.

We tend to think of healing as the absence of disease, but often healing is acceptance of our condition and making the changes in our life necessary to live in “wellness.” When my doctor said I was insulin resistant and on the way to becoming diabetic, I began to exercise more and count calories and carbohydrates. I lost 50 pounds, am stuck there now, but have my blood sugars in the range of normal. I still have the low blood sugars, so I’m not out of the woods yet, but my lifestyle change is a form of “healing.” It’s not a miracle of course, but my faith and the Holy Spirit empowered me. Likewise, for one who is depressive or bipolar, taking medicine regularly and participating in therapy sessions is a part of their wellness plan.

We move so quickly each day, throwing on the mask or the makeup, that we don’t engage our selves in the mirror except to think, “my upper lip needs waxing again!” Or “how did my eyebrows get so brushy?” Then we are on our busy way, filling up our hours and minutes with activity both meaningful and mind numbing. The searching of our heart of hearts, or introspection, isn’t our long suit, anymore than long term planning. We tend to do what is immediate and before us. Because we have constructed our masks so well and worn them for so long, our heart of hearts is buried under many layers.

If Jesus came to our place of worship, would he be able to see these withered hearts? Are any of us as brave as the man in the synagogue, that we would offered our withered heart out for all to see? The one who shows weakness is the one who is healed.

A DEEPER SOURCE OF WATER

Creativity, Health, Imagination, Italy, photography, Spirituality, Strength, Stress, Travel, vision, Work

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I’m sixty five years old. I have an iPhone. When I see an interesting image, I stop and park my car. I take a little walk, getting in a few more steps for my otherwise sedentary life. The viewpoint then becomes important, otherwise I’m just taking snapshots. The place has “called me,” as we say, for I’ve driven past hundreds of trees on my way home, but this one tree stands by itself, calling for a visitor to commune with it. As I clambered down into the stream bed, I noticed the water flow was weak due to our lack of rain. The large black basalt outflow rocks were quite dry, so I sat down for a lower vantage point. This was good, but I decided to lie down, to get one last view.

Did I mention that I was wearing bright red pedal pushers and an equally bright yellow blouse? The sight of a gray haired gal taking photos while lying down in the midst of a stream did get celebrated by a number of the passing vehicles. I waved back, it’s Arkansas. Folks don’t often do out of the ordinary here.

When I was an art student, I had the privilege to study art history for a summer in Italy. Two days a week our professors took us on bus trips to see art in situ and three days we worked in the studios over the town square of Cortona, our home base. In a historically rich and artistically wealthy nation, the Italians don’t bat an eye when they see an artist sketching or painting in front of a monument, sculpture, or landscape. I even found that putting my tool box with coins and paper money down near my feet would bring additional gifts of appreciation from passers by.

In fact, the Italians are downright spoiled by the beauty that surrounds them. (There’s a Borromini church! Uh? Oh, so?!). We too are sated by that which surrounds us, but it isn’t a reverence for the cultural treasures of antiquity. The Italians have an art history that extends back through pre Etruscan times (1000 BC). Our history begins in 1620 at Plymouth Rock. We are a people who would rather tear it down and build something new. When I see this tree standing strong, offering its branches and shade as a shelter to any who come near, I think of an old home or an old church that has protected and provided for generations of families that have come under its “roof.”

Just as I had no fear when I lay down in the middle of the stream, the tree has such deep roots that even when the stream itself drys up, it has a deeper source of water to tap. This is where most of us fall apart in our daily lives, our creative lives, and our spiritual lives. I speak as if these were three separate items, but in fact, each one is only a facet of a singular treasure. When our daily life is stressed, our creative and spiritual lives suffer. When our spiritual life is ignored, our creative and daily life withers. When we aren’t creating, we don’t feel alive spiritually or humanly.

We each need to find the deeper source of water, that will refresh our thirsty souls and spirits.

“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.”
~~ Jeremiah 17:7-8

THE PARK MAY BE CLOSED BUT THE CITY ISN’T

at risk kids, Creativity, Food, generosity, Imagination, Meditation, photography, poverty, Travel, Uncategorized, vision, Work

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I took the back way home. Even though I was using the GPS, I deviated from her well intentioned directions. Perhaps I was just intent on exploring, or perhaps I had “authority issues” I needed to work out on leadership, since no one in our country’s Capitol seemed to care for the the poor and the weak any more. “It doesn’t affect me, so why should I worry? Most people won’t notice anything amiss in their daily lives.” How easily we discount “the other.” We think so often only of ourselves: of me, myself, and my. My exploration, as I call the GPS recalculating mode, led me to an island of peace in the heart of the industrial zone of Hot Springs National Park.

Because of the current government shutdown, the park spa, museum, and natural spaces are shut down. We can still walk up to the fountains of the ever flowing springs and fill our water bottles for free, but hiking the trails are forbidden until the money flows from DC. The City of Hot Springs National Park belongs to the state of Arkansas, so it was Wednesday as usual. Our schools had lunch and adults went to work (unless they were federal employees or national guardsmen).

I ended my exploration at Sanders Plumbing Supply. There I found an old wooden railroad trestle bridge crossing both the road and the creek that runs beside it. I parked in the business lot, took my iPhone and crossed the street. The slope down into the creek was gentle and dry, for we haven’t had much rain in these parts. As I clambered into the shallow stream, I walked on an extruded basalt flow. That this old volcanic rock had coursed across the earth in an ancient time and still persisted reminded me that life is more than just today. Even the years of water had not worn it down. I made a short instamatic video of the rippling water, the waving weeds, and the sunlight touching the water. I was finding my peace again.

These black basalt beds were big enough to stretch out on, so I took advantage of this position. Folks in Arkansas aren’t much used to seeing a gray haired lady dressed in bright yellow and red lying in the middle of a creek bed and taking photos. I got a lot of friendly honks & waves from the passing cars. Then again, a person of any age doing something out of the ordinary is apt to get encouragement from the folks who aren’t quite up to stepping out of the safe path themselves.

When I came home, I made this little drawing in a Strathmore watercolor sketchbook. It’s no bigger than an iPad mini. I used an ordinary ink pen, the same tool with which I journal on most days. To focus on the antiquity of the natural elements and the constancy of God’s divine providence for God’s creation reminded me that this day’s problems are being handled by a higher power. As I drew the old railroad trestle bridge, I realized that “this train is bound for glory” (Woody Guthry). We may not see the train right now, but it won’t carry the self-righteous anymore than the hustlers or the sinners. It will carry the humble, the ones who put their trust in God, and care for all of God’s people, not just for the ones who can return the favor.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).