Today marks one week since our most recent election. Many races have been decided, while some are due for an automatic recount due to the close vote. At least one senate race will have a runoff between the top two candidates (Georgia), as some races haven’t been decided at all, since the vote counters took Veteran’s Day and Sunday off. Then we have all the legal, but late arriving mail-in ballots from the military and overseas residents. These too need counting. We’ll know the final, final results sometime after December 6th, when Georgia results are in.
Pundits on the left and right can give you commentary ad nauseam for the duration with breaking news alerts or standing up for what’s right(wing). They’ll talk demographics, policies, and statistics, but you won’t get that commentary here. I’m more interested in the deep derivations of the arcana of the day. Arcana is that mysterious or specialized knowledge, language, or information accessible or possessed only by the initiate —usually used in plural. The singular arcanus, is from the Latin, arca, chest. It was first used in the 15th century.
Of course, the conspiracy mongers among us are busy weaving tales of hanky panky. As an aside, my spell check wants to make this phrase “hanky pancakes.” I’ll check in with Cornie’s Kitchen to see if there’s any special ingredient for making hanky panky pancakes. Hanky pank once referred to any of the various carnival games in which contestants might win small prizes for the exercise of simple skills (such as dart throwing). State Fair enthusiasts who succumbed to the barkers of carnival games might, if they were lucky, grab a few of these prizes, but as in casino betting, the wise player remembers the house usually wins. It’s an old word, dating from the 1840’s, maybe related to Hokey Pokey. Both these words referred to trouble making bordering on the illegal, if not out right against the law.
This is why your parents warned you not to run away and join a traveling circus or side show, as “There’s hanky panky going on there, child, and you’ll come to no good!” Not that I ever tied a peanut butter sandwich up in a bandana and walked away from home, or at least I got as far as that sandwich took me, which was to the end of the city block. Hot summer days can change a child’s mind about running away from home.
Those trading in false tales were known as mongers, from which we get the word “costermongers,” or apple sellers. In the 1510s, “itinerant apple-seller” was formed from coster (a type of apple ) + monger (“to traffic in, deal in,” often implying a petty or disagreeable traffic, by 1897). The sense extended from “apple-seller” to “hawker of fruits and vegetables,” to any salesman who plied his wares from a street-cart. Contemptuous use is as old as Shakespeare: “Virtue is of so little regard in these coster-monger times, that true valour is turn’d bear-herd” (2 Henry IV), but the reason for it is unclear.
But I come not to bury America, but to praise her, especially the American democratic project, which so far has earned the distinction of having the world’s longest surviving written charter of government. It was written in 1787, ratified in 1788, and has been in operation since 1789. We’ve celebrated 233 years of our unique brand of representational democracy. We aren’t ruled by mobs/anarchy, nor by a wealthy few/oligarchy, or even by one/autocracy, but by all who vote/democracy. As Whitman writes, we must be careful to distinguish between the “chosen” and the “act of choosing.” It’s not the winning candidate which represents the “heart”of our democratic achievement, but rather the “quadriennial choosing” itself.
If you follow my musings, you’ve probably guessed Whitman is a favorite poet, and the varied landscape is a renewing and inspiring source of reconnecting with a creator God. I recently took a vacation to California and photographed some of our great national parks in the month I took off to see America. On my journey, I met generous, kind, and decent people everywhere I went. May God bless America and use her bounty and her people to bring peace and prosperity to the nations of the world. I hope my images do justice to Whitman’s words.
Election Day, November, 1884 By Walt Whitman
If I should need to name, O Western World, your powerfulest scene and show, ‘Twould not be you, Niagara—nor you, ye limitless prairies—nor your huge rifts of canyons, Colorado, Nor you, Yosemite—nor Yellowstone, with all its spasmic geyser-loops ascending to the skies, appearing and disappearing, Nor Oregon’s white cones—nor Huron’s belt of mighty lakes—nor Mississippi’s stream: —This seething hemisphere’s humanity, as now, I’d name—the still small voice vibrating—America’s choosing day, (The heart of it not in the chosen—the act itself the main, the quadriennial choosing,) The stretch of North and South arous’d—sea-board and inland—Texas to Maine—the Prairie States—Vermont, Virginia, California, The final ballot-shower from East to West—the paradox and conflict, The countless snow-flakes falling—(a swordless conflict, Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s:) the peaceful choice of all, Or good or ill humanity—welcoming the darker odds, the dross: —Foams and ferments the wine? it serves to purify—. while the heart pants, life glows: These stormy gusts and winds waft precious ships, Swell’d Washington’s, Jefferson’s, Lincoln’s sails.
In the “late unpleasantness” which has some of our Methodist congregations in turmoil, many have their reasons for going or staying. As one born into the Methodist Church, who spent a portion of my life looking for a “better god” before God called me back home, I have some experience with faith. I’ve had it, lost it, and received it once again. My privilege in seminary to work along side the Wesley librarian allowed me to touch authentic Wesley letters. I also had the blessing of being the late Dr. Billy Abraham’s assistant for the Evangelism Chair. When I think of faith, Romans 12:3 comes to mind:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Here Paul’s word for faith is the Greek word pistis, which is always a gift from God, never something that can be produced by people. In short, faith for the believer is always “God’s divine persuasion” and therefore distinct from confidence or human belief. The Spirit continuously births faith in the yielded believer so they can know God’s will (1 Jn 5:4).
The former UMC Bishop Mike Lowery wrote in his notice of withdrawal from the Council of Bishops as he surrendered his elder’s orders: “I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all.” (Jude 3, CEB).
I’m not picking on the former bishop. I knew him from my Emmaus community days in Southwest Texas. But his posted letter, which can be read at the link below, charges the United Methodist Church has lost her Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. This piqued my interest, so I decided to focus my own thoughts, as well as to inform others, on this matter of faith.
Faith as Doctrine of Assent vs Doctrine of Assurance:
Today we often think of faith as a set of beliefs, or the Doctrine of Assent. In Wesley’s time, he understood faith as the Doctrine of Assurance, a unique gift to the Christian church, whereby believers can know with certainty they are truly beloved of God with a steadfast love which endures forever.
This love is unconditional and saves us from the tragic consequences of the law of sin and death by bringing us into the law of life and love through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That descriptive mouthful is John Wesley’s heartwarming experience he had at Aldersgate in 1738 on the fateful evening when he attended a meeting very unwillingly, yet had the heart changing event that set his life on a different path.
Historic Wesleyan Faith is a Gift of Grace
We need to ask, “What is the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith, anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior?” Is it located in regeneration, aka the new birth, or is it located in human morality as proof of righteousness in Jesus Christ? This probably means nothing to people in the pews, but if we’re going to claim the mantle of John Wesley, or the argument from tradition, we must get Wesley’s understanding of faith down pat. We find Wesley’s thoughts in his Notes on the New Testament and in his StandardSermons, both of which are part of our Methodist teaching.
In the sermon OF EVIL ANGELS, Wesley reminds us faith is “our evidence of things unseen.”
“Faith is the life of the soul; and if ye have this life abiding in you, ye want no marks to evidence it to yourself: but [elencos pneumatos/Spirit control] that divine consciousness, that witness of God, which is more and greater than ten thousand human witnesses,” is Wesley’s explanation of faith in AWAKE, O SLEEPER.
Faith as the Spirit of Adoption
Another way of saying this is Romans 8:15-17,
“When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
For Wesley, faith is a gift of salvation, our trust in the saving work of Christ. As he says in the sermon AWAKE OH SLEEPER:
“Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is His gift, by the operation of His Spirit.”
Then Wesley gives his altar call: “In what state is thy soul? Was God, while I am yet speaking to require it of thee, art thou ready to meet death and judgement? Canst thou stand in His sight, who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity’? Art thou ‘meet to be partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light’? Hast thou ‘fought a good fight, and kept the faith’? Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed upon with Christ?”
“Hast thou oil in thy lamp? grace in thy heart? Dost thou ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength’? Is that mind in thee, which was also in Christ Jesus? Art thou a Christian indeed that is, a new creature? Are old things passed away, and all things become new?”
Faith comes as a Gift. Our good works respond to Christ’s work.
Most of us are in agreement Wesley’s initial understanding of FAITH having to do with accepting Christ’s work for us as the only precondition for our salvation. There is no good deed or accumulation of good deeds needed to earn our salvation from God. What many of us have difficulty is accepting we also don’t earn our perfection in holiness by our own power.
Our Christian perfection is always a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit. As the Spirit works in us, we respond to work toward the complete renewal into the original image of God in which we were created. While it’s possible we might attain this perfect state in this lifetime, most Christians will attain completion in the purity of love of God and neighbor at the moment of death by God’s work, not by our own accomplishments.
Do the Born Again Christians Sin?
In Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” he quotes 1 John 3:9—
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.”
Wesley admits people who are born again can err or make mistakes, but they don’t sin. That’s a bridge too far for many to accept today, for many of us are prone to judging others. We have a dysfunctional understanding of “perfection.” We think it’s like a Martha Stewart design, forgetting she has a whole staff of helpers to carry out her ideas. As one of my professors once explained it, “Once you’ve been to Waxahachie, you’ve always been to Waxahachie.”
If you don’t know Waxahachie, it’s a midsized Texas town about the size of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was known for cotton in its hey day, and now hosts a crepe myrtle festival. Once you’ve been there, you can’t lose that experience. In the same way, you can’t lose your status of new birth. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, given by faith through Christ.
But some of us will try to throw it away anyhow. Wesley wrote in that same sermon, The Great Privilege, “Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.”
The Outward Appearance vs. The Inward Attributes
So, one who has faith doesn’t sin, since we have to lose faith in God to sin. In other words, we have to reject the gift freely given to us without price. As he also says in his great sermon on Christian Perfection, “Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” [Gal 2:20]— Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
For Wesley, the goal of Christian perfection, or the recovery of the image of God, was to love God and neighbor with one’s whole heart until nothing else could exist inside. No favoritism for a group, no exclusion for a group, no yearning to be better than others, no desiring a better place at the table, no hoarding of resources for selfish purposes, no fear of tomorrow, nor any other anxiety that strikes the human heart.
We give our resources away so we can have room for new blessings. God always provides for those who give with generous hearts. We open our doors to the least, the last, the lost, and the unloved, because Jesus and Wesley went out into the fields and met the people where they were. Those are our people out there, and they aren’t “living moral lives,” any more than the imperfect people within our churches are. But we all can and do live lives of faith. We all can learn to trust a savior who loves every sinew of our wounded and broken bodies. We can love a God who never gives up on us even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
We United Methodists might be messy, but we surely can love God and neighbor. Moreover, we’re all going on to perfection, even if some of us are moving more slowly than others. We’re still a community of faith, a people who trust God’s grace and one another to get through this thing called life together. We’ll bring each other along, for we’re not leaving anyone behind. We include in the great worldwide Body of Christ the body of Christ whom we meet outside our doors. After all, the race isn’t to the swift, but to the ones who help their brothers and sisters to the finish line, where we have a finishing medal for everyone, along with a big potluck dinner with enough food for folks to take home leftovers. That’s the never ending banquet table to which we invite all who hunger and thirst for community—both spiritual and personal.
Trusting Faith for a Risky Love in Unsettled Times
All we have to do is ask ourselves in this unsettled time: “Do I have Wesley’s trusting faith to live this risky love? Are these the people with whom I want to experience God’s steadfast love and share the grace of Christ? This is our heritage in the United Methodist Church, for we’re a people of faithfulness, who believe the “Bible has everything sufficient for salvation.”
I can only hope for those who leave, whether they become global Methodists, independents, or community congregations, that they will provide a large enough tent for our big God and big Christ, for the Spirit always is seeking people and places to fill completely with the gift of God’s extraordinary love and power.
My prayer is our United Methodist churches will receive a fresh rush of the Spirit to become even more of what we are today, for
“Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).” Theological Guidelines: Scripture https://www.umc.org/en/content/theological-guidelines-scripture
The mandala is a geometric design representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. It generally has a circular form and can be varied in any number of ways, but it’s always balanced. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, mandalas are objects of meditation to aid in one’s spiritual development. The imagery depicts the universe and the symbols represent one’s spiritual journey, the cycles of birth-life-death, and the interconnectedness of all living things.
The Hindu tradition focuses on the realization of the self as one with the divine. Whereas in the Buddhist tradition, the emphasis is on the potential for enlightenment (Buddha-nature) and the pictures within the mandalas illustrate the obstacles that one has to overcome in order to cultivate compassion and wisdom. Drawing mandalas in this tradition follows strict rules.
Carl J. Jung was the Swiss psychiatrist who introduced to the West the practice of creating mandalas for self-expression, discovery, and healing. He discovered the shapes, colors, and symbols of his mandalas reflected his mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being at the time that he created them. He noticed his mandala drawings changed as his mental and emotional states changed. Reflecting on these mandala drawings, Jung concluded our subconscious and conscious selves are always seeking balance. When Jung worked with his clients, he would have them draw mandalas. He observed through creating mandalas, his patients experiencing chaotic psychological states could regain balance and calm. Jung also identified universal patterns and archetypes that reoccurred in his and his clients’ mandalas.
As in other cultures, the round shape in Christianity represents the universe, and therefore, is seen as a way to connect the earthly and spiritual realms. Whether in the form of windows in a church or as a rosary, mandalas are used to take the time to contemplate the self and the divine. Perhaps the most iconic representation of the Christian mandala is in the majestic stained glass windows that decorate many churches and cathedrals. While some of these are on a far grander scale than others, the stained glass window is often made up of a central point – often the figure or scene being depicted – which is surrounded by a design that is inherently geometric due to the fact that it’s made up of hard-edge pieces of glass.
Some of the world’s oldest cathedrals are home to rose windows. The rose window is one of the most classic examples of the mandala in Christianity, and their origins trace back to the Roman oculi. These windows are created using geometric segments, and can contain extremely intricate patterns made from different colors of glass, all of which extend out from a central starting point in the middle of the circle.
Aside from its famous French Gothic architecture, this venerable cathedral contains some of the most iconic stained glass in the world. Pictured here is the South Rose Window—a gift from King Louis IX of France—which was designed by Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil. Installed in 1260, the window is 42 feet in diameter and contains 84 panes divided into four circles. It serves as a counterpoint to the window on the north side, which was completed a decade prior.
Of course, we can also see balance and symmetry in architectural designs around and above us, even if they weren’t meant meant to be “symbols of the universe or creation.” We have to ask ourselves, “How do we feel when we enter a space of a particular design?” The architect uses forms, voids, lines, and heights to imbue in us certain emotions, as well as to make the building practical for its intended use. I always know I’ve found my home when I’m house hunting because the place will “call me by name.” I’ll feel at ease when I walk in. It won’t matter how badly the current owners have decorated it, the place will call to me.
This 1899 upmarket department store with a soaring Tiffany-stained-glass ceiling in the lobby was transformed into a luxury hotel in anticipation of the 1968 Olympic Games. The ceiling, which evokes the country’s Mesoamerican heritage with a lively palette of turquoise and gold, was designed by French artisan Jacques Gruber and also features a Louis XV–style chandelier. The domes in the center have a geometric, mandala design.
The Louis Comfort Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center measures 38 feet in diameter, making it one of the largest stained-glass domes in the world. Held together by an ornate cast-iron frame that features some 30,000 pieces of glass shaped like fish scales, the dome was finished in 1897, the same year the building opened as the city’s first public library. The dome underwent a meticulous restoration in 2008 and is now lighted electrically. Tiffany pushed the art of stained glass to the extreme, but this dome certainly has the wow factor the citizens of that era expected, for Chicago was a world class city experiencing tremendous growth, while attracting such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright and hosting the World’s Colombian Exhibition in 1893.
Completed by Catalan Art Nouveau architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1908, this steel-framed concert hall boasts a stained-glass skylight featuring a three-dimensional depiction of the sun. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the music hall contains countless other artworks, including the busts of Anselm Clavé and Beethoven flanking the stage. It’s also the only European concert hall to be illuminated only by natural light. The impressive stained-glass ceiling and the way it’s designed allows the Palau de la Música to use only natural light to illuminate the main concert hall during the day.
Designed by Italian architect, Santino Solari, the Salzburg Cathedral in Austria stands out in a city already filled with stunning architecture. Built in the 17th century, the cathedral was the site of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s baptism. In the center of the dome is a sunburst behind a descending dove of the Holy Spirit. The hexagonal shape repeats down through the dome, with window openings ending at the four trapezoid shapes at the column junctions, which contain paintings of the four gospel authors. It is peaceful and serene, ordered and mathematically precise, much like a Mozart composition. It’s said Mozart wrote his pieces almost without correction, as if they came to life fully born, like Athena, who sprang to life in full adult form from Zeus’ forehead when he had a terrible headache.
Our class has painted mandalas before, but this was before Sally had joined us, so it was a novel idea to her. Still, she decided to go for it, using her new favorite color, Manganese blue. The growing and expanding flower shapes show her love and connection to the natural world. She can paint faster than her decision making can override her energy. This takes time to learn the discipline to hold back the hand, or one can choose to paint on a larger canvas to spread that energy around. Sometimes we have to get our tools fitted to our personalities so we can make the art best suited to our energy and creative imagination. Then our work will begin to “speak to others and call to them with the unique artistic voice of the creator.”
Mike’s mandala balances dark and light, circles and squares, and various sizes of triangles. I get a sense it’s a representation of the creation of earth, but I didn’t get a chance to confirm this with him. Mike typically sits down to paint and doesn’t talk much during class. This is his quiet place, his meditation place, and his medicine for his very busy life. The only thing that will get him talking is “Did you hear about those SEC coaches calling each other out? That’s gonna be some kind of hoodoo when they get together.”
I got started on another creation mandala: the plants and vegetation. I’m basing it on the sunflower, but I’ve only just begun. I have the graphite underdrawing, and part of the central image painted. I’m just a bit irritated at the graphite, since it mixes into the paint and grays it out. This is why I usually sketch my initial image in a pale yellow wash, which I can easily paint over.
Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams and Reflections, “The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the Self. This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man” ( Pages 334-33). As Philippians 3:21 promises,
“He will transform our humble bodies so that they may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
Those of us who spend time in meditation don’t do this practice merely to feel better or to relieve stress, but to become one with the creator of the universe. As we come closer to God and Christ, we also become closer to the people for whom Christ gave his birth, life, death, and resurrection. As he said,
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” ~~ John 12:32
The unity of those for whom Christ lived, died, and was resurrected, is all encompassing. It’s not for a selected few, or for some who look like us or believe like us, but for “all people.” It’s a common fault among human beings to ask, like the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus led him to understand the one who showed mercy to the hurt one was the true neighbor, even if Samaritans normally were shunned.
If drawing mandalas brings us to understand our Bible, our faith, and our God in a deeper way, I’m all for it. If all we’re doing is making pretty patterns on a blank surface, without contemplating the generous Providence of the God who created and sustains our universe, we might as well be mumbling the Apostles Creed on a Sunday morning without giving a thought to any of the words we say. Both of these can be time fillers, mere mind numbing activities, that keep us from having the inner form of Christ, while we give the outward appearance of Christianity. This would be a waste of time, and as the ancient word concerning the law says,
“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” ~~ Deuteronomy 10:16-19
Next week is our last class for the spring, to let this old teacher have a summer break. We’ll start up again in the fall after Labor Day. If you’ve never painted before, this a one room Art School. Everyone proceeds at their own pace. You only have to give up your competitive spirit and your desire for immediate gratification and perfection. It’s art, not microwave pop tarts. You won’t be Michelangelo and that’s a good thing. He’s dead. We want you to be alive and growing in Christ.
Are we our works? Are we valued by our works? Is work a noun or a verb? The child in me asks these questions until the parent in me wants to answer, “I don’t know. Go ask Alexa!”
We’ve all been there with the rug rats of our families and kinfolks. Children are curious and for this we’re grateful. This incessant questioning is their way of learning about the world. It’s altogether better than a puppy’s chewing on every new object it comes across. If families are to encourage their child’s interest, they get them a library card so they can have internet access and books to read, and they answer as many questions as possible. If they don’t know the answer, “Go look it up in Google or the encyclopedia.”
In ancient Greece, Socrates taught by asking his students questions, a technique we call the Socratic Method. Some of us teach art in this way also. When we see the student at a stopping point, we teachers ask, “Are you having a problem and not figuring out a solution?”
The student can usually point out what they want to change on their work, but they don’t have the experience or prior learning to drawn upon to solve it. For instance, if the flower petals all look flat because they’re painted in one color, the beginning student knows this doesn’t look right, but they need a trained eye to point out the variety of values in the petals. Once they see the gradation of light to dark, it’s never again unseen. We know it’s there.
Teachers can point out the range of values from dark to light that make up the visual vocabulary of shading a two dimensional image so it looks like a three dimensional shape. Students can learn this technique and master it over time. Mastery then becomes a matter of hand and eye coordination. In a sense, we have to lose ourselves in the subject matter so we can let its energies enter into our hearts and minds, and quicken our hands. The rest is a matter of practice and learning how our egos can quit controlling the outcome.
The spiritual writer and Jesuit priest Richard Rohr speaks of the three eyes in his book, The Naked Now. The first eye grasps what the senses can understand, the second eye understands the science and poetry, while the third eye is aware of all of the above, but especially how all things connect as part of God’s great mystery. When we enter into this “now,” we’re present not only to God, but to all creation, as well as our own selves. This is the contemplative spirit for which the artist strives, and not just for the mastery of the materials or for the rendering of the subject matter.
If we allow this energy to move our hands, does that mean our work also becomes part of us? If we baked a simple yellow cake out of a box, we might not ask that question. When we start decorating a cake made from scratch and adding frillies of frosting, then we start identifying with the cake. Should someone smash the cake enroute to the soirée, there’ll be hockey sticks to pay.
I remember almost fainting in Italy when I saw a glue blob on one of my delicate watercolor paintings, which had just been framed for an exhibition there. A stiff shot of some unknown alcohol brought me back to life. The framer made it good, for the glue was water soluble, so we could gently lift it up. I was more of a drama Queen in my 20’s also. I take things as they come these days. I also was more immature, for I didn’t separate my work from my identity.
Some say we are what we eat, so then are we what we create? Jesus had an answer in Mark 7:18-19 for those who thought certain foods were unclean, or forbidden to eat:
“He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
That fancy dinner we ate two nights ago leaves us after a few cups of coffee in the morning. We don’t recognize it and most of us don’t even inspect it as we flush it down the toilet on its way out the sewage pipes to the sanitation station. Of course, only parents can get excited about their two year olds who manage to do their “business” in the toilet instead of in their diapers. I know I was one of those. If Facebook had been invented back in the day, I’m sure I’d have posted an update.
As we grow older, we enjoy making and crafting for the experience of the textures and the command of the materials. Children have fun pushing the paints, papers, and glue all around the surface of their artwork. Parents often look askance at the grey, scribbled messes their children excitedly present to them for the honored place on the refrigerator display, but these muddy creations are the result of a dramatic story of their child’s imagination. “Interesting, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Is an adult’s best response in this situation.
I’ve had kindergarten children meltdown because they had difficulty cutting a snowman on the fold. It’s hard to be five years old and live in a home in which the parents don’t want their children to make a mess. These children, as a result, have poor fine motor skills, have difficulty writing, and handling scissors. Even folding a piece of paper is tough. Then they miss the important information: hold the fold, and cut on the flaps. If they hold the flaps instead, they end up with two halves of a snowman. And a meltdown into tears.
“I’ll never be able to make a snowman! My snowman is cut in two pieces. Why can you make a perfect snowman and I can’t?”
This lesson always called for me to wear my therapy hat, and remind my five year old students I’d been making folded snowmen for a very long time and my first ones looked just like theirs did. There was hope for them. We just needed to go over the directions again and make one together. Sometimes we miss a step, and that’s ok. It’s just a piece of paper. It’s not like we took away recess from everyone forever.
Usually when we went over the directions again, I could remind them of the way to hold the fold and cut the flaps. Then they’d all be amazed at how easy the project was. “Everything is easier when you follow the directions.” They’d laugh and start decorating their snowman, all their meltdowns forgotten.
Most of us aren’t successful the first time we attempt a new experience. If we were all extraordinary artists right off the mark, none of us ever would get excited about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Picasso. If we could all pick up a musical instrument and play it well right off the bat, who’d have the need for civic symphonies or even bar bands? We’d all be happy making our own music. The truth is some of us not only have the interest and inclination, but also the will to spend not just hours, but years, honing our craft, until we sing our notes purely or paint with a master’s hand.
If we all aren’t masters, we all can enjoy the journey if we learn to detach our egos from our products. When I wrote papers in seminary, before I opened up my graded work, I’d repeat the mantra, “I am not my grade. I am a daughter of the living God, chosen for God’s work.” Then I’d look at the markings on the inside. This helped me to remember who I was, whose I was, and what my purpose was. I was also two decades older than that fainting child in Italy.
As I would tell visitors to Perkins, “If your well-being is wrapped up in your grade average, you might want to rethink either that notion or choose another school.” “Oh, really?”
“Yes, if you’re going on for a PhD, you’ll get over a 90 in your classes. The top grade for the Mdiv is 89. If you get any grade higher than that, the professor thinks you could do PhD level work.” “That doesn’t seem right,” they said.
“It’s a curve. If you go elsewhere for a DMin, those schools know Perkins’ grading system. Think of it as an A at 89 and don’t worry about it.”
Some people can’t restructure their world so their 89 is an A, but if that’s the system they’re in, that’s how it is. If they have in their mind nothing less than a 95 will validate their worthiness, then if they do their degree work at Perkins, they’ll always be up against the immovable wall. When they go out into ministry, they’ll discover everyone they meet has a grading system. That can drive a person crazy, unless he or she decides the ultimate approval they seek comes from the one who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Likewise, if we’re beginners in art, we have to suspend our criticism of our imperfections in our work. Instead, we reframe our critiques into “areas which need improvement.” Even now, after decades of working in my studio, I’ll let a canvas rest near me in my living room. I’ll eye it in different lights, until I hear it call my name. I’ve totally repainted some of these, and others I’ve destroyed. A few I leave alone. All of us will keep learning something new, both from our “good paintings “ and our “need improvement works.” Most likely, artists quit painting when they they think they have nothing left to learn, or when they lose the courage to risk moving into the unknown mystery, as it’s written in 1 Corinthians 2:9—
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Paul also writes in Romans 8:27-28,
“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
So we too ask the Spirit to work more in us and free us from attachment to our need to be loved and affirmed by our works, since God is already working for good for those who love God and who are called according to God’s purpose. As we drop our old ideas and preconceived notions of the good, we become open to God’s good and God’s purposes. Releasing control to God is an act of humbleness and faithfulness, both of which are contrary to our modern belief in self-actualization and autonomy. This is the way of the mystic, or the contemplative, and the inspired artist.
I was an art major before I attended seminary at Perkins, where I had the great privilege to take Philosophy from Dr. Billy Abraham. Of course this privilege was extended to me because I failed my one and only philosophy class in undergraduate school. I had taken it pass fail, but hit a terrible depression after my art teacher died. I had no energy to even hand in a paper with my name on it, even though the professor offered this as an act of grace to pass me.
“I’ve not done the work, I’m in over my head, and I haven’t understood any of these concepts in this class,” I said. “I don’t deserve to pass.”
“It’s a pass fail class. It doesn’t count toward a grade average, but it can count against you. Just turn in the paper,” he pleaded.
It didn’t seem appropriate to me, or honorable to take this option, but that could have been my depression coloring my decision making process. Still, I wasn’t raised to take credit for haphazard efforts, and providence ensured my F didn’t count against me when I transferred to art school the next semester, so that F didn’t affect my ultimate grade average after all.
I speak about this because in seminary, Billy Abraham daily stretched the brains of every one of us first year students. First we heard one Greek philosopher say this was “true and real.” Then the philosopher who was his student came along and directly contradicted his old master, saying, “No, instead, something else is true and real.”
We all were in hair pulling mode, not to mention Dr. Abraham’s favorite description, “getting our underwear tied into knots.” I’ve always heard there’s a Rosetta Stone, which can unlock the meaning of an unknown language for those who have the eyes to see it. Perhaps only the creative ones, those who can see the patterns and the similarities, or what the mathematicians call the “sets” and the biologists call the “modules,” can suddenly see the key in plain sight.
I admit I too was floundering until I had the eye opening realization I already held the key in my hand. I’d met this same question before in my art studio and history classes: “What is beautiful and what is truly art?” This definition had changed over the centuries, so why should the ideas of what is “reality and truth” remain fixed? This is a great example of “transfer of learning,” a well known educational concept, which resulted in my “lightbulb moment.”
As I explained to a fellow student, “Think of these as distinct historical ideas, not as your individual truth. It’s like looking at a fashion show from the ancient times to the present: no one expects those clothes to look like what we wear today. Just memorize what each of these styles look like. You don’t have to wear a toga to know what these Greeks thought. We just have to know how these old ideas influence later trends of thought fashions.” This is teaching by analogy, which is familiar to Bible readers as “parables.”
Most people can get over that intellectual hump. Seminary is designed so persons who aren’t agile thinkers will reconsider their educational choices. Philosophy and theology will winnow those who need to be told what to think, rather that learning how to think and understand deeply. Biblical studies will sort out those who aren’t able to interact with more than one voice of biblical interpretation. Then the internships and clinical pastoral settings will further sort those who don’t play well in groups. Finally the supervisory process we all go through toward our ordination into one of the orders of the annual conference is a long period of discernment, for all concerned.
The good news we can all do ministry, for we’re ordained by our baptism into the priesthood of all believers, not only reflect the Christ who lives in us, but to be the Christ in service to our neighbors. As we read 1 Peter 2:9—
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
This is why it’s important we consider such concepts as truth, beauty, and the good. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates English for “beautiful.” Kalon has more of an ethical tone, but doesn’t mean the same thing as agathon or the “good, ” but rather is a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” or “admirable.”
What was true for Plato were the forms, and everything here on earth were mere reflections or imitations of these ultimate truths. The true beauty and the good existed beyond this world, but everything and everyone could aspire to that ideal. Plato thought art and poetry were the arenas of greatest beauty, as Simonides, the Greek poet, drew an explicit analogy: “Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks.”
While some say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for Plato imitation is found in the appearance of things, rather than in reality (the forms, which exist in an ideal world elsewhere), so judged on its own terms, the product of imitation has an ignoble pedigree (Republic 603b). Therefore, the imitative arts direct a soul toward appearances and away from proper objects of inquiry, which are the forms. While a mirror reflection might prompt you to turn around and look at the thing being reflected, an imitation keeps your eyes on the copy alone. Imitation has a base cause and baser effects.
Plato also believed poets created their works under irrational conditions, with inspiration arriving sometimes spontaneously, as if it were from the gods, a “divine madness,” as it were. Even today, people think creative types are more likely to be mentally ill, but science doesn’t bear out this romantic notion. Illness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity, even though many artists have suffering in their life histories.
Creativity of any kind—making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine—tends to make individuals more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those who score high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to those who engage less in everyday creative behaviors. Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases our immune system functioning, and the emerging field of post traumatic growth is evidence we can turn adversity into growth.
Realism was the primary purpose of painting until the 19th century, when the invention of photography took over this task. This freed painters to engage in the higher search for what is beautiful and what is true, rather than to limit a painting to reproducing a likenesses or the mere imitation of nature. Yet many people still judge a work of art by how close it resembles the natural world. Of course, we also say the say the same about the embalmer’s art as we view the deceased in the casket: “My, doesn’t so and so look natural! So lifelike, as if they were asleep.”
For our first lesson back in art class, we worked on seeing the familiar in a fresh way. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re so used to recognizing faces in the ordinary way, to see them in a different way is a struggle. Take the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s an icon or representative image of the renaissance portrait. No matter what an artist does to it, we still recognize it as the Mona Lisa. Our goal was to take a photo of of someone we know, and push the limits of the facial expression and shapes so it wasn’t like the image we worked from originally.
Mike copied the cover of the Bad Girls of The Bible, and made a good likeness. In between calls from work, he focused on replicating an image he could see. After several years of sincere efforts to paint what he sees, it’s hard to break this habit and paint something beyond his vision.
We’ll take a shot at this again. I a similar lesson early in the group’s existence and I remember it was distressing to them to draw without seeing. We were feeling the objects inside bags, and they didn’t like not looking. Bring out of control was disconcerting.
Gail took her grandchild’s photo and stretched it into another dimension by treating the image as if it were a Night of the Living Dead character or the Scream from the German artist Munch. She had the most success of any of us in terms of breaking the norms of “portrait.”
Sally, new to our group, began a lyrical study of a woman’s head. I confess I never saw the image from which she drew her inspiration. It’s her first try, and we’re glad she got paint on the canvas. We’ll keep working on it together. All art, as is life, a work in progress.
I worked from an icon of Jesus, which I knew would test me to break the form I saw before me. As it turned out, I too couldn’t break it on this first day. When the Platonic Ideal Form exerts its pull on the mind and hand, the artist keeps making the reflection of that form as a work, which exists as an imitation or a window into the true reality where the Holy is found.
After a long summer break with all the Covid isolation a person could stand, I quite forgot how much energy teachers expend in explaining new concepts and in the excitement of the first day back. I noticed about 11 am I was struggling for words and not making good choices with my brush, but I ignored it in the thrill of being back with people. After cleaning up, I always check my blood sugar before I drive home. It was 45. I’d never seen it that low, but I was paying attention to other people, not to my body. I ate the crackers I always carry for just such an emergency.
The Wisdom of Solomon (7:26) speaks about God’s Wisdom personified: “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.”
In Hebrews (1:3), the writer describes The Christ: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
This long discussion on Plato, the true forms elsewhere and the imitations and reflections here help us to realize how much debt Christian spiritually and art history have to Greek thought. Art isn’t just “I know what I like and that’s all that counts.” We can all experience making art and enjoy it on any level. Having the depth of understanding to see how art connects us across the human community will give us a greater appreciation for our common spirit.
I promise I’ll bring a healthy snack to eat during class next Friday! I’ve learned my lesson on this, if nothing else! We’ll work on faces for two more weeks, then we’ll take a short break and come back in October and decorate cookies one week for Day of the Dead and paint an autumn themed subject for the other week.
Joy and Peace,
Simonides on poetry and painting—Plutarch: The Glory of the Athenians 3.1, 346f-347a.
Autumn is just around the corner: I know this in my heart of hearts. My friends, who have lost hope in this endless pandemic, tell me, “It’s heat stress, nothing more.” I persist in my belief the bright yellow leaves scattered among the green canopies and the orange and red tinged foliage are the harbingers of the cool breezes of fall.
When the thermometer kisses 100 F and the heat factors have blown past that number like a NASCAR driver taking a hot lap for the pole position, my body only wants to swill decaf iced tea and stay close to the air conditioning. When I taught art back in Louisiana, my art rooms were in an old wooden shotgun shack. It wasn’t air conditioned because “it’s tradition, so it won’t be air conditioned, no matter how much you ask for it.” Private schools have their “traditions,” some of which aren’t healthy for either the teachers or the students.
Two days into the school year, I fainted from the heat. A visit to the nurse’s station got me glasses of sugary iced tea and cold compresses, plus it was air conditioned. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Someone drove me to my dad’s office in the Medical Arts building across from the hospital. I got the once over and was sent home to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and not go outside. My couch never looked so good to me. Mom and dad even kept my little girl so I could rest.
I learned later I had a brush with death. Passing out with other people there allowed me to be helped. People who are alone in the heat aren’t so fortunate. Heat can kill a person. The hurricane Ida is already taking out the utilities in south Louisiana, which means they might not be back for weeks. The hospitals full of Covid patients hope to have ten days of power and food, but that’s just to get them through until relief supplies can roll in.
I actually repainted this canvas a second time, since I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with it on the first go round. The Airport image above is the first incarnation of this painting. While I don’t mind the colors in the ground, the overall texture of the work didn’t appeal to my senses and the runway with its numeral stuck out like a sore thumb. It was either going into the trash bin of my work, or I’d leave it alone long enough to find the inspiration to cure it.
Painting is a journey in itself, as the white canvas disappears under the brushstrokes of color. We can think of a pristine sand beach in the early morning, and its well marked surface erased by the high tide under the moonlight, only to be marked again when the sun rises. As Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister in the 19th century once said:
“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
Sometimes we can better solve a problem by ignoring it, for the the problem will find its own solution. Trying to impose our solution upon it just leads to more death, but not to life. Letting the painting come into being in its own time is a better choice, for it can’t be born before its time. In the spiritual life, kairos time is God’s time, while chronos is human time. When we work on deadlines or punch a clock, we operate on chronological, human time, but if we wait for the inspiration from the divine energy, we’re operating in the God moment, or the propitious moment for decision or action.
Along my life journey, I’ve made some unique handmade preaching stoles. When I decided I no longer had use for them in retirement, I decided to cut them up. This is why some of the pieces are the same rectangular size, such as the gold and silver diamonds pattern with the blue and white diagonal stripe in the upper left corner. Some of the pieces are the backings, and others are deconstructed sections. I incorporated several types of gold: acrylic paint, embroidery thread, and a metallic candy wrapper. I also used multiple textures of lace and fabric, some of which I overpainted. All of these come from recycled fabrics. In life, nothing is wasted.
Perhaps this no longer looks like a map of an airport, but more like a place remembered in a dream, when one wants to travel on the whiff of a breeze, which has brought a half remembered smell of a time in the past or a love long lost. Autumn can bring those memories to mind, as well as our hopes for a more beautiful future, for just as a leaf flutters free from its tree, our thoughts can fly away: golden leaves on silver breezes.
Look for the golden leaves, my friends, and let them call to mind those of fond memory and the dreams of journeys yet to come.
After the initial burst of summer excitement, my community is not only sweltering in a heat wave, but we’re also smack dab in the midst of the third wave of this Covid-19 pandemic. We might be more than halfway through 2021, but at the rate my home state of Arkansas is pursuing vaccinations, it’ll be years before we reach the holy grail of herd immunity, estimated to be at 80% immunity. Only 37% of our people are fully immunized, with Alabama and Mississippi pulling up the rear nationally with 35% and the states of Louisiana and Wyoming tied with us at 37%.
Like the old gal who’s always worn a certain size shoe or dress, my state now tries to fit an increasing number of Covid patients into a fixed set of ICU beds in our state. My days of a size seven shoe or skirt are a dim memory, as are the days of empty medical facilities.
“We have nowhere to send COVID-19 patients within the State of Arkansas. There is limited bed capacity at trauma centers increasing pressure on the time-sensitive healthcare system,” said Jeff Tabor, program director for the COVIDComm system, which helps match covid-19 patients with hospitals.
Tabor said the one COVID ICU bed which is available is located in southern Arkansas. There are five hospitals, also in southern Arkansas, showing limited COVID bed space. Tabor said some COVID-19 patients are so critical at rural Arkansas hospitals that they cannot be transferred to other hospitals because the patient is too critical and because of bed space.
Recently our state legislature adjourned a special session without amending their misguided law mandating no masks ever in public schools or government agencies. Act 1002, by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, prohibits state and local governments, including public schools, from requiring people to wear masks. Act 1002 became effective on July 28.
The state’s largest school district, joined by a small district already suffering from Covid quarantine attendance problems in its early opening days, filed suit in court to stop this law from going into effect. The judge issued a temporary restraining order. The reasons for this aren’t political, but are found in the Arkansas constitution.
LRSD and MSD are likely to succeed on the merits. Act 1002 violates the Education Article of the Arkansas Constitution, Article 14, § 1, which requires that “the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” A suitable and efficient system of public education would not require students to risk their health and their lives to get the education promised to them in the Arkansas Constitution, especially when the State is required to “adopt all suitable means” to provide them “the advantages and opportunities of education”.
An affidavit provided by Dr. Glen Fenter, the superintendent of the Marion School District, said that incentives, including gift certificates, groceries, and even big-screen televisions, didn’t entice many local citizens to take the vaccine. Only one out of every three students in the district has acceptable home internet service, making remote learning difficult; even then, “very few” students who did “participate in the virtual education option last year achieved an acceptable level of academic progress,” the affidavit said.
The Marion superintendent said that his district was forced to “quarantine over 500 students and employees” based on CDC and state health department guidance after the second week of school. The school year in Marion began July 27, 2021. This rural system has only 3,325 students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year. Their math proficiency score averages 22% and reading averages 31%, compared to the statewide averages of 47% and 45%.
The broader lawsuit argues that the Act violates an education clause of the state constitution, the equal protection clause of the state constitution, and that certain federal laws preempt the state from enforcing the Act. It also argues that the Act violates separation of powers principles, conflicts with a subsequent state law, and violates the premise of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Mass., the 1905 U.S. Supreme court case during the smallpox scourge, which allowed mandatory vaccination policies — and penalties for those who refused to comply — to stand.
On another front, the mayor of Little Rock, Frank Scott, Jr., said the capitol city’s covid-19 task force had recommended to him that “masks be worn again in public spaces for which the city is responsible.” He strongly exhorted businesses to follow suit. Scott made note of the many children who visit city parks and community centers and who will be returning to school later this month, adding that “right now, they don’t have the ability to mask up.”
In the middle of all this stress, I ponder these questions: “What inspires a work of art? In our search for beauty in this world, do we have to forget our pain and become as the lotus eaters of the ancient myths?”
Worn out from the years of the Trojan war fought in a foreign land and tired from an unending journey full of trials and tribulations on the way home, Odysseus found his men succumbing to the hypnotic lure of the magic flower. When eaten, it caused people to forget both their troubles and also their future plans. In the words of the hippies of yore, they were content to “get high and get by.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lotus Eaters, inspired Robert S. Duncanson, an African American landscape painter, prior to the Civil War:
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Odysseus had to bodily carry his men back to the ship and tie them to their seats to keep them rowing on a straight course for home. Today we’re treated to videos of airline passengers taped to their seats because of their unruly behaviors. Rage flying has taken the place of rage driving. Neither the roads, the post offices, nor the skies are friendly anymore. “Going postal” has almost lost its meaning when no workplace is safe these days.
In the midst of the record deaths of despair, come now the increasing deaths of our most precious inheritance—our children. The number of children contracting Covid-19 has increased fivefold since the end of June, with a “substantial” 84% jump in the last week alone, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. This number comes as numerous states report upticks in child hospitalizations amid the ongoing delta surge. In Arkansas, we’ve had three children die from Covid.
Some would say this is an “acceptable loss or trade off to allow others to have freedom.” I find this line of reasoning heartless at best and cruel in reality. I wonder what these folks would say if their child had lost their life instead. It seems not too long ago some of these same persons were advocating for the elderly to accept a shortened lifespan, since their productive lifetimes were expended. They seem to value people only for their economic ability, rather than for their humanness or for their lived experience. Allowing the “weak” to die in this part of the pandemic also devalues those who aren’t yet ready to produce economic gain for the big machine. (Yet, they fail to recognize the loss of future gain of these young “production units.”)
I would rage blog at the inhumanity of our legislators, who couldn’t find an giant acorn in the midst of an empty football field, even if they had the scales removed from their eyes, but then there’s always the hope they might learn the lesson of Job, for whom suffering brought new understanding of God. Then they’d call themselves back into session and amend their own misbegotten law so it’s flexible enough to meet our current, extreme circumstances. Who knows, they might even rescind this unconscionable law, for persons who truly have the capacity to lead with courage also have the ability to change their minds. Some say it’ll never happen, but I’ve always been afflicted with incurable optimism.
In the meantime, I paint and pray. Even this dire event can inspire a work of art. One of our local hospitals has already canceled elective surgeries in order to concentrate on Covid care. The other hospital has very limited intensive care unit availability. Right now, no one in our tourist town needs to get sick and we certainly don’t need a mass casualty incident. Of course, I could live in a rural county and my nearest medical facility with a trauma unit could be hours away. I remember my early years of ministry when I reminded people, “If I’m ever unconscious, please just have them stabilize me and send me off to the big hospital in Little Rock or Memphis.”
Today I blog about another painting based on a Google map of my adopted city, so it’s another “cognitive map.” I used scraps of an old preaching stole. I made the stole from odd pieces of fabric, plus an old pair of overalls, and a garden glove. I deconstructed the stole, since I’m no longer preaching in my retirement years, and added a few worn out face masks, in which I sewed small pleats. I took some of my grandmother’s old crochet and rickrack trim to mark some of the roads, but let the three dimensional shapes mark the other directional lines. My mother made Belgian lace collars for my young daughter’s dresses, so I’d used these for masks.
I too wore these masks until I was tired of them. I was hopeful when those who know more than I do believed the virus had subsided and we were safe to shed our face coverings. One day in early July at Kroger I had an hour long conversation with a young man who was also glad to be shed of the mask, just to see people’s smiles. We talked for a while and I learned he was just a few weeks past a suicide attempt. This pandemic has been hard on him. We talked some more, for I’ve been in the dark place before too.
I don’t need a preaching stole anymore, for preaching isn’t what I do best in this season of my life. God sets people in my path who need an encouraging or healing word. The world, in its beauty or its sadness, inspires me to paint a new vision of the world as it could be, for I don’t think I’ve ever painted what was ever “real.”
People ask, “Why don’t you make a painting that looks like real life?”
I answer, “We have cameras today for this. In any event, how do we know this ordinary world we see today is what God intended? This could be the fallen world, and not the original world of colors and joy, which God originally created.”
Perhaps we need to rethink our cognitive maps or how we view our world. If we consider all persons to be made in the image of God, then caring for them becomes important also. We can’t separate the Spirit of God from the body in which it resides. We also have to recognize God works through extraordinary events as well as through ordinary events. If we are to reject the inspiration and special providence of God in the matter of scientific discovery, then we’re going to go back to living in caves for a long time.
I remember when my daddy came home from his medical office with a small vial and a special double pronged needle. The windows were open, so it wasn’t yet the heat of summer. He stood next to the light, as he always did in his office when he worked, and gave us children the smallpox vaccine.
“Let’s put a little light on the subject, shall we?” I laughed as I proffered my left arm. He washed it with a cotton swab and alcohol, in his usual calm way. I went first because I was the oldest. Also, I was a role model for my brothers, but I was used to this because of my birth order. I knew to trust my daddy and to show my brothers the way forward. A few tiny pin pricks later, a bandaid, and I was good to go. My brothers followed suit, and we were all told, “Hands off.” We were restricted from playing with our friends because of our parents’ fear we’d end up with a limp or in an iron lung. Polio was eradicated in the USA in 1979, but it still occurs in war torn and poverty areas worldwide.
Finally, while some will write off as heartless idiots the ones using the tired canard of freedom of choice (the ones who fail to protect our vulnerable children), I remind them we require measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to enter schools because medical professionals deem it important for the children’s health and welfare. Of course this same group throws back to us the name “liberal whackdoodles” in return. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought less of our own egos and territory, and cared more about the welfare of our future generations.
We could then fulfill the promise of God in Isaiah 57:19—
“Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD;
and I will heal them.”
God is full of grace and love, given to offering gifts of healing to those who are both close to us—our neighbors—and those who are far from us—the strangers. If only we humans could love one another as God loves us all.
Changing the way we see our world, one map at a time, brings
Every nation has its Golden Age. Usually, it’s a bye gone time, located in the dim past, and remembered faintly only by the oldest of the old. My Golden Age is my childhood, for I spent much unfettered time out in nature, whether it was in the backyard, the neighborhood, or at camp. I was so excited about camp, I would lay out my clothes for day camp, and pack my dad’s old army duffle bag a whole month in advance for week long camp. Mother would see this overstuffed cylinder, and laugh, “What are you planning on wearing between now and then?” My excitement and my planning didn’t always get all the facts together.
Going out into nature has always revived my soul, even as a child. Walking under trees, beside a lake, and sleeping with the sounds of the wild places instead of civilization has always appealed to me. If I have a choice between traveling on a major highway or on a back road, I often choose the back road. Today with GPS, we know how far the next gasoline station or rest stop will be. The back roads often have the most interesting sites and sights. The main highways are efficient, but the little roads retain their charm.
Whenever I longed for the gentler days and the healing powers of nature, I would seek out the back roads of Arkansas. Sometimes I would get into my car and drive until I found the solace of the natural world. If I got lost, it didn’t matter, for I had no particular place to go. I would find the place I was meant to discover, as Aldous Huxley, the English writer said, “The goal in life is to discover that you’ve always been where you were supposed to be.”
I’ve always trusted the word of the prophet Isaiah (58:11):
The LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Of course, those who know my navigating skills might question how I ever found my way anywhere. The secret is all small roads lead to a larger road. Also, if I ever grew concerned, I’d stop and ask for directions back to the big highway. I’ve met some interesting folks by getting lost, just as I’ve found some beautiful landscapes. I’ve never been in such a hurry I can’t stop and take a photo. These images I use for inspiration for future paintings. I took this photo by the roadside off interstate 30 west, near Texas 44 west, near Simms, Texas, in 2014.
While the flowers by the side of this road were only yellow, I decided to add in notable reds and blues, since those are well known colors from Texas also. These primary colors represent lazy Susans, Indian paintbrush, and bluebells. The wind and light in the trees were beginning to freshen up, a true sign of spring on the plains. The whole is full of light and has the promise of the new life and hope, which every spring brings to those who find renewal in nature. William Allingham, an English Poet of the 19th century, wrote a poem called “Wayside Flowers.”
Pluck not the wayside flower,
It is the traveller’s dower;
A thousand passers-by
Its beauties may espy,
May win a touch of blessing
From Nature’s mild caressing.
The sad of heart perceives
A violet under leaves
Like sonic fresh-budding hope;
The primrose on the slope
A spot of sunshine dwells,
And cheerful message tells
Of kind renewing power;
The nodding bluebell’s dye
Is drawn from happy sky.
Then spare the wayside flower!
It is the traveller’s dower.
When we speak of a dower, this is a treasure or endowment gifted to a future visitor who passes by. Because of this, all travelers should respect the wildflowers and leave them in situ. All living organisms need to reproduce. Digging up wildflowers, picking wildflowers, or collecting their seed will reduce a plant’s ability to reproduce and will adversely affect its long-term survival in that location. Removing wildflowers from the wild can have a detrimental affect on pollinators and other animals that depend on that species for food and cover. Removing wildflowers from our national forests and grasslands prevents other visitors from enjoying our natural heritage. Most wildflowers when dug from their natural habitat do not survive being transplanted.
Every nation has its Golden Age, an idyllic past in which all her citizens were supremely confident, filled with energy and enthusiasm and utterly convinced that their country provided the heights of artistic, scientific, and civic achievement for all. The Greeks had their Golden Age after the Persian Wars with the building of the great architectural monuments on the Acropolis, the morality and philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and their followers, as well as the physician Hippocrates, who’s considered the father of western medicine. “Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now,” remarked Pericles, the Greek statesman, orator and general of Athens during the Golden Age.
America had her Golden Age also, that period time we know as the post-World War II economic boom when manufacturing and employment were at their peak. Many people my age wonder why these present times don’t continue the past prosperity, but most forget our world economy has changed, especially since the 1980’s. To give an example, I had friends in the oil business back in Louisiana. They let the roughnecks go and they went out into the fields to take their place. At the same time, when oil prices were so low, the private school where I taught art let me go, since they considered my subject an elective. The art classroom was the only place some students could achieve and find positive affirmation during the school day, but the school would oversee the increased discipline needs. Even during this decade, employers were cutting jobs and asking employees to do the work of two people. Labor has taken a beating in the decades since.
In the forty years since, our whole life has changed. When I was young, a high school education was sufficient for many entry level jobs. Back in 1941, less than half the U.S. population age 25 and older had a high school diploma, while today, 90 percent has that achievement. When my dad was a young man, an 8th grade education was more than sufficient for blue collar jobs. Today at least two years at a community college is the new “Union Card” for employment. Why is this, you ask? Our young people need to know more than we did! Our adults also need to keep learning! This is why I keep teaching myself new things, going to seminars, and writing blogs that require research.
I’m very proud of our class members who attend the Friday Art Experience at Oaklawn UMC. Work can sometimes take a priority over this enrichment experiment, and we went on hiatus for part of the pandemic. One of the goals I gave the group was to find their own voice and not to copy mine or someone else’s. We can learn from each other, for we all have a unique perspective on life and how we interact with the world. When we stretch ourselves, we create new pathways in our brains, a process called brain plasticity. A new activity that forces you to think and learn, plus require ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy, since eventually our cognitive skills will wane. Thinking and memory will be more challenging, so we need to build up our reserves.
Much research has found that creative outlets like painting and other art forms, learning an instrument, doing expressive or autobiographical writing, and learning a language also can improve cognitive function. A 2014 study in Gerontologist reviewed 31 studies that focused on how these specific endeavors affected older adults’ mental skills and found that all of them improved several aspects of memory like recalling instructions and processing speed.
I don’t know about you, but I was born with only two brain cells and one of them seems to travel regularly to the planet Pluto. I need to be in the studio as often as possible if I’m to call that wandering cell back from its journey elsewhere. Art for me is life, just as a walk among the trees or beside a creek renews my soul. As the Psalmist writes in Psalm 19:1, The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Gail was the only one attending this week. Graduations, which were happening in various academic settings, kept others away. She brought a photo of a field of yellow flowers, with a house up on a hill. In the middle ground was a pond and on the crest of the hill were a windrow of cedars. We discussed the formal elements for a bit. I showed a series of wildflower ideas as a slideshow to give a sense of the varied way artists across history have approached this subject.
Then we got down to work. Note the sense of light and air in Gail’s painting. The windrow of trees shows the direction of the sun and we can sense the breeze coming from the same side. This is an unfinished painting, so we can’t tell if the yellow meadow will have more varied colors, but the first layers of the wildflowers in the foreground give us the sense it might.
Sometimes we can finish a painting in one sitting, but other times, even a small work takes another session. Life is a work in progress. We can’t hurry it. When we finish a work, we often find flaws in it. This is because we’ve learned new skills, and we judge our work by our new abilities, rather than by those skills we had when we began. Artists aren’t like those who look to the past for a Golden Age. Instead, they look to the future.
Benjamin Franklin said, “The Golden Age was never the present age.” Usually the Golden Age is a fondly remembered past, but only the best parts of it are treasured by those who benefited most by it. We need to remember, as William James, the American philosopher reminds us, “There are two lives, the natural and the spiritual, and we must lose the one before we can participate in the other.”
Or as 2 Corinthians 5:17-20, so aptly puts it:
So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.
If we do this, we can bring the Golden Age into the present for all people.
Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
In 1938, Jung had the opportunity, in the monastery of Bhutia Busty, near Darjeeling, of talking with a Lamaic rimpoche, Lingdam Gomchen by name, about the khilkor or mandala. He told the famous psychologist , “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.” (Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.)
Today, in 2021, over eighty years later, a lot of folks must have their psychic equilibriums out of kilter. They look for certainty in an uncertain world. They seek a savior in a frail human being. They make war to bring about their peace. Whatever angers and fears stir their soul, they act on them, to the detriment of the common good. They are like unbridled, runaway horses, stampeding to a cliff edge without awareness of the consequences of the fall.
The mandala is a graphical representation of the center or the Self. It is unique to each person and would be different from day to day. Jung believed the circle invited conflicting parts of our nature to appear and allowed for the unification of opposites in order to represent the sum of who we are. He found this sense of wholeness was reflected in the lives of his patients, as he was able to trace the progression of an individual’s psychological recovery by correlating it with the coherence of the mandalas they drew. Jung believed making the mandalas over time would help a person gain insight into their Totality or their Wholeness, or “True Self,” as we say today. Totality or Wholeness is the psychic stage in which the union of the unconscious with the consciousness has been achieved. It is the final aim of Jung’s psychotherapy.
The Self was a term coined by Jung and reflected the Hindu Upanishads and its depiction of the higher personality, or atman. It’s considered to be the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality. The most familiar way the Self can make its presence known in Jungian work is through dream imagery, but this isn’t the only way. Another possibility, and one which had a particular fascination for Jung is the mandala.
For Jung, the individual consciousness is only the flower and fruit of a season that grows out of the perennial rhizome under the earth, and it finds itself better attuned to the truth when it takes the existence of the rhizome into account, for the root system is the mother of all.” This imagery begins to unfold in the mandala imagery. We can imagine a half circle below the earth, where the seed is planted just below the ground, and another half circle above the ground, where the flower will blossom, and then recall the Christian symbolism in the parable of the fertile soil in Luke 8:1-15, which states at the end of this section, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.”
In art class, we worked for several weeks at the beginning of the year on our personal mandalas. Since each of us have unique personalities and come from different experiences, we each create a different design. After all, as the Psalmist says to God in 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Gail designed her mandala in the form of a Passion Flower, a wild vine of various colors, with a circular crown in the center. This form suits her background and service in the national parks system. She has an affinity for nature.
Jung knew he needed to maintain a balance between his inner and outer worlds by whatever means, whether it was by painstaking anamnesis (the remembering of things from a supposed past existence), creative activity, and yoga activities or by any other means. He knew his family and patients depended on him, so even though he was in personal crisis, with an unconscious that could have “driven him out of his wits,” he maintained through his obligations of the here and now. Jung was also aware of the possibility of being whirled around by “the winds of the sprit”, since he had observed his colleague, Nietzsche, who “lost ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than his inner thoughts.” Jung described Nietzsche as being possessed by it, rather than him possessing it, and so succumbed to exaggeration and unreality. To Jung this was horrible state, for he aimed for this life and this world.
Of the things that kept his balance, creative activity, which would manifest in his active fantasies and paintings, allowed Jung to become certain he had to delve into these primordial experiences himself, in order to be able to help his patients. If he had gone through it, he may be able to bring the light of understanding to the existential darkness that his patients experience. He could be a spiritual guide, so to speak. This is why he spent time creating the mandalas from his own experience.
Mike’s mandala was created from his inner imagination. His legal work is with persons who are either in trouble with the legal system or need the legal system to bring justice to their cause. Sometimes this is an all day marathon in the courthouse. Keeping all these people, their situations, and the details of the law organized might require a lot of psychic energy. Mike went with a free form design, a choice that might have been a very relaxing and refreshing change from his daily life.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, but it’s a very special kind of circle. As a magic circle, it encompasses the circumference (perimeter) and the center, but not just ordinary space. The mandala has become a word that is synonymous with sacred space. The very presence of mandalas in the world remind the viewer of the sacred in the universe and in oneself. In some of India’s earliest and most important pre-Buddhist philosophical texts, the mandala already signifies a sacred enclosure and is at times understood to mean a place created for the performance of a particular ritual or practice, or for the use of a great teacher or mystic.
Structurally, the mandala is a combination of a circle and a squared form, usually a variation on a cross. Designs that integrate the circle and a four pointed theme, or one in which the circle is squared represent a mandalic space, or a geometric symbol of life. The four points can symbolize time and space, the equinoxes and solstices, or the four seasonal turning points in the year. In terms of space, it is the four directions. The circle with no beginning and no end is a symbol for the eternal whole which contains time and space. Jung stated that the mandala is the archetype of wholeness, relating it to the Self. He thought a mandala revealed “the center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” Others have stated, a mandala ‘‘expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between (a person) and the whole of nature.”
Therefore, the mandala is one of the image archetypes that often emerges spontaneously when people are in the healing process, either in artwork, or in dreams. Creating mandalas has been found to help the physical healing process as well when they are used in conjunction with meditation. In dreams, mandalas show up in many ways in imagery that shares its geometry or meaning, such as a flower, a square in a village or town, or a fountain. Jung encountered several common symbols when he or his patients drew and interpreted mandalas. These included circular or egg-shaped formations, flowers or wheels, circles within a square or squares within circles. He frequently saw the number four or its multiples in mandalas, which was often represented by squares, crosses or suns or stars with four or eight rays.
Mandala work is very useful in therapy. Art therapists generally simply draw a circle, or have the client draw a circle, and use that as the start of the mandala. This creates an inner and an outer space. If we remember the principle of balance and repetition when we begin to add the shapes to our mandala, we’ll discover its power to unify and center our own energies. In spiritual traditions throughout the world, mandalas focus and reflect the spiritual content of the psyche for both the creator and the viewer. Jung believed that creating mandalas offered a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness,”providing a sacred space into which we can invite the Self. He also noticed that creating mandalas had a calming, focusing effect on his patients’ psychological states.
We also see examples of mandala in all the ancient cultures, even in Christianity in designs with animal images representing apostles (and the zodiac), such as the small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle of the Basilica of Santa Prassede, which was built as a mausoleum for Paschal’s mother Theodora. It’s the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight, as this chapel has the only 9th century Byzantine mosaics in Rome.
For Christians, the Self is a a complicated and mostly negative notion. We usually use the notion in a negative sense, as in “selfish, thinking of our personal needs, rather than the good of the community.” As Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This doesn’t wipe out our individual needs, however, for we’re also called to “Love our neighbor as our self.” How can we love our neighbors if we can’t honor and love our Self?
This is why we Christian believers can find benefits from introspection and spiritual guidance with the help of a trained person. We shouldn’t take this journey alone, for we need someone with experience who can help us to “test the spirits,” as it were. Above all we should remember the words from Colossians 3:9-11—
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Our search for the True Self is a quest to be renewed in the image of God and conformed to the nature of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A mandala is easy to draw. All you need is a circle and a straight edge, if you’re into perfection. You can do the work freehand if you like. The mandala doesn’t force you into any forms. You make the mandala from your own gut. It will change from day to day and week to week. This too is part of the mandala experience. You can cut it out of paper, use crayons, pencils, ink, or even make it on your computer. If you want to doodle the design on the side of a page, consider it a sketch from your inner spirit, responding to the Holy Spirit, who is calling out to you.
David Miller, Ph.D.: MANDALA SYMBOLISM IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: THE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF THE LOWENFELD MOSAIC TECHNIQUE FOR ENHANCING THE INDIVIDUATION PROCESS, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-37-02-164.pdf