In the Darkness, I can still see America the Beautiful

9/1/11, art, coronavirus, Faith, Fear, Forgiveness, grief, Healing, Holy Spirit, instagram, Ministry, nature, pandemic, photography, purpose, Racism, renewal, Spirituality, vision

On a long ago Monday morning, I had no other pressing issues on my mind other than “More coffee and swing by the local garage for a new battery for the church van.” That’s what happens when a simple van doesn’t come with automatic headlights. When I arrived inside the church, I was greeted by the shocked looks of folks gathered around the radio. “Preacher, the Pentagon has fallen and the Twin Towers in New York have collapsed.”

I was aghast and speechless. I went to the garage, where I knew the TV and the coffee would be on, plus the old boys gathered there would be in the know. I’d kill two birds with one stone. “I’ll be back soon. If folks want to pray, tell them I’ll be here by noon.”

Some Mondays require more coffee than others.

Some churches are family centered, so they want to gather at home and hug their loved ones tight at times of crisis. Other groups don’t have family nearby, so they gather together to offer one another comfort in times of grief. I stayed at the church that afternoon and was there for the strangers who noticed our light and stoped on their sojourn along the highway of life. God meets us where we are.

Right Wing Violence Growing in America
Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City Federal Center Bombing in 1995, which killed 165 people and injured 500 others, and was first blamed on Middle Eastern terrorists, was the second-most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history, except for September 11, 2001.

I mention it because although Americans have always found the “bad guys/others/scapegoats” as worthy of our nationalistic scorn, but homegrown far-right terrorism has significantly outpaced terrorism from other types of perpetrators, including from far-left networks and individuals inspired by the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Still, right-wing attacks and plots have accounted for the majority of all terrorist incidents in the United States since 1994, and the total number of right-wing attacks and plots has grown significantly during the past six years.

When we remember our friends and fellow citizens who lost their lives in the 2001 attacks, we also must take a moment of silence for the citizens of our world who also lost their lives. 9/11 was by far the worst terrorist attack in American history with 2,977 victims (excluding the 19 perpetrators). While the attacks were aimed at the United States, 372 foreign nationals from 61 countries were also victims. Why is this important? Nearly two decades ago, America saw herself as a leader among nations, rather than as a nation behind a wall, alone. We went to war, not only to avenge our “honor” and take “retribution for our loss,” but also to “make the world a safer place in which to live.”

Citizens Lost at 911 from Nations in Blue

War Against Terror and the Axis of Evil
Before a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, President George W. Bush declared a new approach to foreign policy in response to 9/11: “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” Bush declared that the United States considered any nation that supported terrorist groups a hostile regime. In his State of the Union speech in January 2002, President Bush called out an “Axis of Evil” consisting of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq, and he declared all a threat to American security.

I remember how full our church was the Sunday after September 11, 2001. Each person there wanted to know what their pastor would say about the one, true, Christian response to the attack, and where a person of faith should stand on war that was surely coming. I’m sure my people were surprised I didn’t tell them there was only one true way, but several paths Christians across the centuries have faithfully chosen. Thinking for yourself by using the Scripture, the traditions of the church, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is the struggle we people of faith are called to make.

Why are we building walls?
Since that fateful day, we’ve thrown up a wall of sorts on our southern border. While it was supposed to be a “big beautiful wall, like you’ve never seen before, from coast to coast,” the truth of it is Trump has promised to build at least 500 miles of new fencing by early next year, but his administration has completed only about 110 miles so far.

Cactus felled to make way for the wall

Nearly all of the new fencing the Trump administration has built so far is considered “replacement” fencing, swapping out smaller, older vehicle barriers for a more elaborate — and costly — “border wall system.” The administration has been slowed because building new barriers where none currently exist requires the acquisition of private land, and many owners don’t want to sell. They would lose access to all of their land by selling a portion. Even with the slated construction goals, most of the southern border will not have a man-made barrier, since the terrain is considered too tough to traverse.

Big Walls Make Bad Neighbors
Where building has occurred, the neighbors haven’t been happy. Bulldozers and other heavy machinery were brought up to the edge of the Oregon Pipe National Monument outside Tucson. There the crews also detonated bedrock to lay the barrier’s foundation. Crews removed cactus and other plant life near the international wildlife preserve to make way for access roads, which Border Patrol say are needed to enhance security. The Army Corps of Engineers in February conducted a series of controlled blasts along a sacred Native American heritage site known as Monument Hill.

These are just a few of the indignities to our natural resources, our environment, and our Native American peoples in the mad dash to protect the country from “marauding caravans.” Remember the caravans? So 2019—they were last year’s scapegoats. The people to fear this year are “people of color who are coming for your suburbs, led by Corey Gardner and the Democrats!”

Good Walls Make Good Neighbors
Of course, if artists and architects from both Mexico and America had collaborated to design the wall it might have been more welcoming as cultural destination. In fact it might have been a money maker for tourism on both sides of the border, but who cares about money in these days?

Architects’ rendering of Border Cultural Destination

Truth and Lies
I grew up in the Deep South back in the awful days when governors stood in school house doors to prevent black children from attending classes with white kids. I thought America today was better than this. While Black Lives Matter protests have been peaceful and the vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent, unfortunately disinformation campaigns have convinced some that the opposite is true.

However, in more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the BLM movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity. Peaceful protests have been reported in over 2,400 distinct locations around the country. Violent demonstrations, meanwhile, have been limited to fewer than 220 locations — under 10% of the areas that experienced peaceful protests.

Right-wing Extremism
Right-wing extremists perpetrated two thirds of the attacks and plots in the United States in 2019. In addition, right-wing extremism accounted for over 90 percent between January 1 and May 8, 2020. Second, terrorism in the United States will likely increase over the next year in response to several factors. One of the most concerning is the 2020 U.S. presidential election, before and after which extremists may resort to violence, depending on the outcome of the election. Far-right and far-left networks have used violence against each other at protests, raising the possibility of escalating violence during the election period.

Between 1994 and 2020, there were 893 terrorist attacks and plots in the United States. Overall, right-wing terrorists perpetrated the majority—57 percent—of all attacks and plots during this period, compared to 25 percent committed by left-wing terrorists, 15 percent by religious terrorists, 3 percent by ethnonationalists, and 0.7 percent by terrorists with other motives.

The Truth Will Set You Free
All terrorism feeds off lies, conspiracies, disinformation, and hatred. Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi urged individuals to practice what he called “satyagraha,” or truth force. “Satyagraha is a weapon of the strong; it admits of no violence under any circumstance whatever; and it always insists upon truth,” he explained. That advice is just as important as it has ever been in the United States.

Mahatma Gandhi practiced Satyagraha or “holding onto truth, ” to designate an attitude of determined but nonviolent resistance to evil. Gandhi’s satyagraha became a major tool in the Indian struggle against British imperialism and has since been adopted by protest groups in other countries. Jesus was fond of saying, “The truth will set you free.”

Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism
In this 19th anniversary of the Tribute to the Victims of Foreign Terrorism, I wonder if it’s not time to rethink this memorial. The loved ones deserve to be remembered, the brave responders need to be honored, but we need to come to grips with the pain and agonies within our own greater community. The Pandemic has revealed structural inequalities that have been built over generations. Just as our interstate highway system was a great infrastructure project of the 1950’s, but we’ve driven on orange barrel roadways ever since because no one in congress has the will to spend the money on the concrete the people use. Instead they give giant tax breaks to corporations with the thought the money will “trickle down” to those below. When it doesn’t, they try again, thinking “It’ll work THIS TIME.” Now we need to address the cracks in our country and mend our brokenness.

One image depicts a magnificent wall of musical organ pipes, 30 feet tall, punctuated with openings every 20 feet allowing people to pass through. Photo: JM Design Studio

Revisioning and Reimagining Due to the Pandemic
For the first time since 2002, the annual Tribute in Light—the dual beams of light that commemorates the victims of the September 11th terror attacks—will go dark. The organizers, the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, which manages the installation at the Battery Parking Garage in Lower Manhattan, made the difficult decision, citing the health risks of the pandemic. After consultations, the museum concluded, “the health risks during the pandemic were far too great for the large crew—30 technicians, electricians, and stagehands—required over ten days to produce the annual Tribute in Light.” The twin pillars of light, which can be seen up to 60 miles away, became a fixture following the second anniversary of the attacks.

Birds and Moths caught in the 911 lights

The lights, featuring eight-eight 7,000-watt xenon light bulbs are placed in two 48-foot squares, but they are directly in the path of migrating birds. The convergence creates a spectacle that is eerily beautiful, yet according to one study, endangers some 160,000 birds a year, starkly illustrating the perils of humans and animals sharing an urban ecosystem. The tiring detour through the beams of light can put birds at risk of starvation or injury to populations already threatened by light pollution, collisions with buildings, habitat destruction and climate change. To solve the problem, the lights are switched on and off at twenty minute intervals. This allows the birds to reorient themselves and safely travel on. Otherwise, the light lures them in, and the glass windows of the buildings finish them off.

The pandemic and social distancing has also forced the museum to scale back the commemorative ceremony on September 11th, including a live reading of all 9/11 and 1993 bombing victims that has traditionally been conducted by victims’ family members. A recording from the museum’s “In Memoriam” exhibition will be used instead to minimize the risk of exposure to families visiting that day.

September 11 Victim Compensation Fund
From 2001 to 2004, over $7 billion dollars in compensation was given to families of the 9/11 victims and the 2,680 people injured in the attacks. Funding was renewed on January 2, 2011, when President Barack Obama signed The James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act into law, which was named for James Zadroga, a New York City Police officer who died rescuing survivors. In 2015, funding for the treatment of 9/11-related illness, was renewed for five more years at a total of $7.4 billion.

The Victim Compensation Fund was set to stop accepting claims in December 2020. On July 29, 2019, President Trump signed a law authorizing support for the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund through 2092. Previously, administrators had cut benefits by up to 70 percent as the $7.4 billion fund depleted. Vocal lobbyists for the fund included Jon Stewart, 9/11 first responder John Feal and retired New York Police Department detective and 9/11 responder Luis Alvarez, who died of cancer 18 days after testifying before Congress.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind
Americans have a notoriously short attention span. We’re given to the latest fads. Once upon a time goldfish swallowing was all the rage, as was stuffing telephone booths (we don’t even have those anymore), and planking. Oh my. I remember piling into VW bugs in the early 60’s with the school chum who had a convertible. She got bonus points because we could stack the most petite of our friends on our shoulders in a tower. Photo op for yearbook. With social media and 24 hour news channels, a story can be here today and gone tomorrow. If we were upset at the Tide challenge one day, the cinnamon challenge follow hot on its heels. The next challenge will be how tidy your sock drawer is, and you’ll experience excruciating pandemic pain that you’ve lost the last six months of your life with an untidy dresser.

Final Thoughts
If we are to fight wars, let them be for just causes, with proportional responses against armed aggressors, but not against civilians. Let’s not stand alone against the world, but link arms with allies who share our values of democracy, self-government, and freedom. Let’s also care for the most vulnerable among us and unite with the nations of the world to protect the environment, for all of us are endangered by climate change and pollution.

If the “lights are out” on 9/11, perhaps we can use the darkness to look inside our hearts for the future path forward. If we take a healing path, we can dedicate it to everyone who has lost their life in the America that was before, and then we can build for their descendants the America they have always dreamed of and hoped for: America the Beautiful.

ANSEL ADAMS: Ruins of Old Church, ca 1929, printed 1977

September 11 Tribute Light Goes Dark in 2020
https://gothamist.com/news/911-tribute-in-light-wont-shine-in-2020-a-first-in-18-years

Oklahoma City Bombing
https://www.publicradiotulsa.org/post/ap-was-there-oklahoma-city-bombing-story

George W. Bush: Foreign Affairs | Miller Center
https://millercenter.org/president/gwbush/foreign-affairs

The Escalating Terrorism Problem in the United States | Center for Strategic and International Studies
https://www.csis.org/analysis/escalating-terrorism-problem-united-states

Timeline of September 11 events
https://www.govtech.com/em/safety/Timeline-of-How-the-Tragic-Events-Unfolded-on-Sept-11-2001.html

Brilliant Maps
https://brilliantmaps.com/9-11-victims/

Border wall construction plows through southwestern US undeterred by COVID-19 – ABC News
https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/border-wall-construction-plows-southwestern-us-undeterred-covid/story?id=70649546

Washington Post Deep Dive on Government Wall Documents
https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2020/national/immigration/border-wall-progress/

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project
https://acleddata.com/special-projects/us-crisis-monitor/

ACLED collects real-time data on the locations, dates, actors, fatalities, and types of all reported political violence and protest events across Africa, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia & the Caucasus, Latin America & the Caribbean, and Southeastern & Eastern Europe & the Balkans.

The US Crisis Monitor is a joint project of ACLED and BDI, the Bridging Divides Initiative of Princeton University. Through this project, ACLED is able to extend its global methodology to conduct data collection for the US, making real-time data available for public use, while BDI is able to use these data to identify emerging risks and to inform and motivate policy and programming discussions within its civil society network.

Designs for Trump’s Border Wall. https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/2086420/designs-trumps-powerful-mexico-border-wall-include

The 9/11 Tribute Lights Are Endangering 160,000 Birds a Year
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/09/nyregion/911-tribute-birds.html?referringSource=articleShare

September 11 Victim Compensation Fund
https://www.vcf.gov/

Keep It Simple

adult learning, art, Attitudes, beauty, Creativity, failure, Forgiveness, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Love, nature, Painting, Philosophy, photography, renewal, Spirituality, Strength, trees, Uncategorized, vision

I awoke Sunday morning to a fog enveloped world. My brain was much the same until I made my morning cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this took longer than I expected, for I had only one tablespoon of grounds and a full bag of beans. I’m glad the electric coffee grinder was standing silent beside the coffee pot, waiting only for its moment to be of service. On any ordinary day, I ignore it completely, just as many of us fail to observe the subtle changing of colors from day to day or how the sunlight of the seasons has a different temperature and feel.

Seeing is a learned skill, but like the ancient, secret, gnostic wisdom known only to a few and passed by word of mouth, seeing is best learned in an art class with one who is an eye already. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye—yet what an eye.” Monet taught students not to think of the tree, the building, or the flowers they painted, but of the colors and shapes they were putting on their canvases. This is a conceptual leap, as if we were translating English into Spanish or Martian (we may need this when we go to Mars).

Mike’s Trees

When faced with all the many impressions daily flooding into our consciousness, most of us have learned to block all these distractions out. We do this to “get our chores done in record time” and “come home to escape from this rat race.” “Out of sight and out of mind” is a phrase I often heard growing up. We are often “unconscious people,” walking about in a fog. My dad grew a mustache and my mother kissed him every night before bed without realizing he’d changed his facial appearance. I came home for a visit and said, “When did you grow the Col. Saunders’s look?” My mother was shocked she hadn’t noticed it.

Our first lessons in art class are drawing the geometric figures, since we can simplify or translate most things in nature to these forms. Bushes are balls, houses are cubes, trees are cones, and so on. Some are multiplications of the forms, such as some tree’s foliage is made up of several ball shapes. You get the idea. This way of looking helps to simplify the details so people don’t get stuck on every single leaf.

Another way to simplify is to leave out some of what you see and focus only on what you think is important. If you were a camera in front of a landscape, your eye would take in everything in front of it. We aren’t cameras, however. We can paint as much or as little of what we see before us as we want. I remember in seminary study groups, we prepared for final exams together. The exam would be 3 hours long and cover a semester’s work, which included all the class notes and 15,000 pages of reading. Some of my pals would write a book length answer to one study question. “Fine, but there’s going to be a dozen other questions, so can you hone this down to an essay?” Keeping it simple is a good motto in art class.

Gail’s Trees

Friday in art class I brought in angel hair spaghetti. If the kids eat it, I’m not worried. Fortunately, my “kids” are grownups, but we like to get our inner child out to play every once in a while. We put paint on the sticks and tossed them down on our canvases wherever luck would have them land. In biblical terms, this is “casting lots.” I had given them some ideas for landscape images or they could do some squares in the style of Paul Klee. They went with trees. Mr. Energy and Exuberance, aka Mike, finished his up with jewel tones. Gail, Thoughtful and Precise, did a hard edge tree with a lightning bolt in the background. I worked on a Klee square piece, but I only got the first layer down. It needs more subtle overpainting.

Paul Klee Color Study
(Not my work)

Learning how to see is a lifetime process. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality, said Aristotle. Art opens us up not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world. As we see more in the world about us, we find more compassion for its brokenness as well as more love for its beauty. Likewise, we realize we too are both broken and beautiful, so we find we can be more compassionate and loving towards our own selves. As forgiven and reconciled people, we can pour God’s love out into the world and into our art as well.

We discover art isn’t just about decorating a surface with pretty colors and shapes, but art is more about the spiritual process of growing in grace, accepting our lack of strength, and learning to depend on the power of the Spirit moving our hands and hearts. The more we try to impose our power upon the work, the less life it has, but the more we “get out of ourselves,” and let our inner witness work, the more life our creation embodies.

So the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is creating:        

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

~~ Isaiah 65:17

LESSONS FROM A MASTER

adult learning, arkansas, art, beauty, Creativity, Faith, Icons, Imagination, nature, Painting, photography, purpose, vision

“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing, does the painter do good things.

Edgar Degas, the French artist known for his ballerina paintings, is a good teacher from whom to learn. A true artist learns something new every day and isn’t afraid of failure. Failure is just another word for discovering what won’t work. As artists and as Christian believers, we are a people of hope. In fact, one might say we’re afflicted with chronic optimism. Even when our work fails to satisfy us, we can say, “Look at what I learned on this, and what I can carry over to my next work.”

North Carolina Sunlit Path

This little landscape is the second stage of a previous painting, one which I began while I was ill with a sinus infection. If I wasn’t at my best, I also wasn’t at my worst, so I was painting at my easel. I knew I wasn’t happy with it, but I thought I’d live with the painting until I heard it tell me what was needed.

Stage One

The trees of the finished work are more slender, more shaped by the wind of the Carolina coastline. The bush masses are larger and have more contrast, while the sky is more evenly colored. Even the path has more sunlight and less shade.

Original Photo

Artistic license is the ticket to drive we all got as children with crayons and poster paint. We could paint the sky red if we took a notion to do so, give our dogs blue tongues, or paint the grass orange. Only the grownups among us squelched our creative spirits. Sometimes we have to learn to forget ourselves on purpose to learn art, faith, love, compassion, or joy.

I’m going to teach Friday morning art classes again at Oaklawn UMC. You bring your materials, I volunteer my years of experience teaching K-12 and adults. You get to learn real art:

  1. Perspective

  2. Shading in Value & Color

  3. Color Wheel

  4. Drawing & Painting from Life

  5. Still Life

  6. Landscape

  7. Icons

One thing you’ll never do is copy anything I’ve already done or come home with a work that looks similar to one of your classmates. Art is about expression of your inner truth. You get to do you, and have a safe place to grow and struggle.

As G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy:

“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”

We artists will not go mad, but we will stretch our minds, deepen our souls, and gain a greater appreciation for the creative struggle.

The first class will begin Friday, September 6 at 10 am, and meet on Fridays afterwards. We’ll break for thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll get a material list to the church office soon.

Reflections of God

arkansas, art, Creativity, Faith, Forgiveness, generosity, grief, Holy Spirit, Imagination, incarnation, instagram, Love, Meditation, ministry, nature, Painting, photography, purpose, Reflection, renewal, righteousness, Spirituality, trees, vision, vision

I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.

Winter Lake Reflections

Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.

The Cloud Rising

This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—

“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,

so that a flood of waters may cover you?”

Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.

Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–

“For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).

If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.

Day of the Dead Altars

adult learning, All Saints Day, Altars, Ancestry, art, Creativity, Day of the Dead, Faith, Family, grief, Healing, Health, Imagination, Meditation, Ministry, photography, poverty, Reflection, renewal, Spirituality, vision

DeLee—Ancestor Altar

Some things I take for granted, since I had the great privilege of knowing my great grandmother in her last years. I knew all but one of my grandparents, since my daddy’s father died when I was only a year old. Even my daughter knew both her Nana and all four of her grandparents. Growing up we attended family reunions or homecomings every summer without fail. We renewed ties with the distant or “kissing cousins” who also showed up for the food and fellowship. I also have family members who care about genealogy, especially if this gets them into exclusive organizations, but I’ve never joined these.

The Mexican festival for the Day of the Dead pays respects to the ancestors. In truth, we don’t need to know who they are, or to have had an intimate relationship with them. After all, I certainly didn’t know my great great ancestors! I can appreciate I wouldn’t be here without their gift of life to my more proximate relatives. This is what the writer of Hebrews means by, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1).

The Day of the Dead is celebrated on or around All Saints Day, and sometimes for several days on either side of it. It began with an Aztec custom, and blended into the Catholic tradition. This is a time for feasting, celebrations, and joy, to make memorable the experience of recalling the lives of the ancestors. Sweet foods shaped like skulls are one of the traditions.

Michael—Altar

Michael worked on a pyramid of foam core boards, which he painted to look like stones. He decorated it with store bought skulls and a photo of his deceased brother. He has more nuts and bolts from a found object stash to add to it. Telling the story of his beloved one is part of the project. Art is part therapy and part project. We may work with our hands, but our hearts and minds are also involved.

Michael—Found Objects

Gail worked on a tombstone painting with images of her ancestors and their pets. She figured our how to transfer photos to cloth via the printer! Technology! I was impressed! Plus Gail made coffee for my sake, and it was a means of grace, since I’ve had a serious sinus infection that won’t go away. Coffee really is a blessing.

Gail—Ancestral Line

I’m slowly working on a new box for my daughter’s memory. This is the third anniversary of her death. When we think of the Dead, we remember
we believe “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20:38). So we don’t grieve like others do, for our loved ones aren’t lost to us. Since God is close to us, and our loved ones are with God, this means our loved ones are always as close to us as God is.

In these past three years, grief has roiled not only our nation, but the nations of the world. Since 2015, more than 33,000 Americans have died as a result of the opioid epidemic, but drug overdose deaths overall are even larger. In 2015 alone, 52,404 people died from a drug overdose and 64,070 died in the year ending in January, 2017. Across the world, 2015 was remarkable for forcibly displaced persons: 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and 3.2 million asylum seekers. The photo of the drowned Syrian boy, who washed up on a Turkish beach, helped open Europe’s doors to people fleeing the war torn country they once called home. Now we have neighbors from the south fleeing gangs and corruption in the hope of a place to work and give their families a better life.

Perhaps we’ve had so much of our own grief, we can’t deal with any more. We’ve become numb to the pain of others. If this is the case, we are dead inside, and others need to grieve for us. The fancy name for our condition is “compassion fatigue,” for we hear folks saying, “We should take care of our own first,” but our own go hungry and sleep in the bushes behind our churches or on our city streets.

To live with joy isn’t easy in the early days after the death of a loved one, but as our journey progresses toward recovery, we come to remember who we are and whose we are. Making a scrapbook, writing a journal, or building an altar are all physical means to engage the senses. Once we tap these, we can open the floodgates to our emotions and thoughts, and then healing can begin. We aren’t healed in a moment, but by a process over time.

“Hear, LORD, and be merciful to me; LORD, be my help.
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”
~~ Psalms 30:10-11

NEXT WEEK: We begin a new still life painting series—Ornamental Gourds.
No, we aren’t painting ON the gourds…Bring paints and a canvas!

Joy and Peace, Cornelia

Drug Overdose Statistics:
https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2657548

Ripples in the Water

art, Attitudes, Faith, Love, Ministry, photography, poverty, Prayer, purpose, renewal, Spirituality, Supreme Court, vision

After all is said and done, the taste of victory will not be sweet for the winning side. They will be eating a roast beast cooked to ashes. It will feed them, but it won’t nourish them for the long haul.

The agony of this latest defeat for the survivors, who came out of hiding to share their stories of pain in solidarity with others, is just a minor setback, for their bravery has been honed by years of struggle. One skirmish doesn’t make a battle, anymore than one person can make or break our spirits. We know our worth and identify is located in our being loved by God and loved into the image of God.

Yet, if we listen to the news feed of any political persuasion, either “the kingdom has come according to God’s will,” or “the apocalypse is upon us now!” I admit to being one of the latter, but even I can put on my drama queen crown for a day. Television, social media, and our instant society push us in this direction. We are seduced into overconsumption of media during times of high drama, especially when an unusual event occurs, such as a natural disaster or a Supreme Court appointment.

Why would we even care, as people of faith, about a political appointee? While this government position is technically separate from the church, the people who rule make decisions affecting God’s people and God’s world–especially the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. We want to know that all 114 of the justices since 1789 not only are well qualified in matters of the law, but have the “temperament suitable for the highest court of the land.”

This is like the classic “sorting hat” of Harry Potter fame—or the Southerner’s expression “couth”—you either have it or you don’t. If you have to ask what it is, you don’t have it. Mostly down South, we easily recognize “uncouth.” That is plain as the nose on you face or people screaming at you to listen when your mind is already made up.

So the vote to confirm the 114th was close, but affirmative, and we now have a new Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. People think Justice Kavanaugh will tilt the Court to the right, since there’s no swing vote currently among the nine. Since I’m afflicted by the dread disease of chronic optimism, and infected by family systems thinking, I don’t believe in static systems. After all, every place I’ve ever been and every job ever had, both secular and sacred, all had the same people and conditions, but when you replace one key person (or change the way the key person relates to the others), change happens.

I observed an interesting effect of Family Systems behavior patterns when an extroverted clergy pal, who led youth groups, and I were part of a leadership training seminar. Our normally reserved group leader began to toss the dinner rolls across our restaurant table as he called out our names. The more he “acted out,” the straighter and quieter my friend became! I was dying laughing inside, but I couldn’t laugh out loud at her expense.

DELEE—Ripples in Water of Lake Hamilton

When we throw a rock into a lake, it creates a ripple. We may think these waves dissipate after a few feet, but under the water are small fish who felt the water’s expansion, so they moved to another part of the lake. Perhaps the fisherman, whose luck was poor all day long, made one final cast and caught the bigger fish that had moved over to seek the small fish from our tossed pebble area. We may have given him a meal for his family or just made his day glad. We’ll never know the results of the small acts or decisions we make.

Likewise, when a new Justice arrives into the very small pond—there’s only nine of them—it’s bound to make a ripple. If we believe “God is working for good in all things, for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes,” then by faith we’d trust God will work in this small pond to move the hearts and minds of these justices. In their discussions and interactions, they would affect one another. They don’t make decisions in an ivory tower, for they’re not like a judge in an individual court, but colleagues who come to a consensus opinion, even if one may write a dissent on the side.

As a stone sharpens a blade, we can hope and pray for the light of God’s love to illumine both the mind and heart of all who serve on our high court. They’ll have many important questions to come before them. Our hope is they and we always remember psychologist Ellen Langer’s advice for making tough choices: “Don’t make the right decision. Make the decision right.” Since we never have enough information to make the best choice, all we can do is make the best of the choice we’ve made.

If we remember we’re all children of God and all of God’s children are well loved, then we can go forward without rancor to recreate the world anew. If the current occupants of political office aren’t responding to this transformative calling, we should run, organize, vote, and elect others who will work together for the good of all, not just for a few. This takes vision, planning, and a long term view.

Most of us will only think about as long as it takes our double shot white mocha latte with soy to come over the counter at our favorite cafe spot, if that long. Plan for a major holiday? Five year plan? Plan out the church year in advance? No wonder we don’t even know what we’re doing this weekend. Most of us are just trying to get through the day. No wonder we live moment to moment and crisis to crisis. We don’t ever pull back and reflect on where the ripples go when the stone drops. All we do is keep throwing stones. This isn’t evidence of a life of faith and purpose. Calendars are going on sale now. It might be time to make some prayers and plans.

I haven’t read this book, but the New York Times gives it a rave review.
“Farsighted,” Steven Johnson’s riveting new book on how we make tough long-term decisions, uses compelling stories that reveal surprising insights, and explains how we can most effectively approach the choices that can chart the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. “Farsighted” will help you imagine your possible futures and appreciate the subtle intelligence of the choices that shaped our broader social history.

The DNA of Gods and Heroes

#MeToo movement, Ancestry, art, Family, greek myths, Imagination, Love, Painting, photography, Reflection, shame, Stress, Uncategorized

Danae and the Shower of Gold

Danae and the Shower of Gold

Danaë was a princess of Argos in Greek mythology. Argos was an island kingdom ruled by Danae’s father, who had no sons to inherit his throne, but a prophecy foretold his fate: his grandson would kill him and rule in his place.

To defy the gods, Danae’s father sealed her up in a prison so she’d never get pregnant, but Zeus, the king of the gods, transformed into a rain cloud, came to her in a shower of gold. As a result, she bore a son, Perseus. The king put his daughter and grandson into a chest, set them adrift upon the open sea, and left them to their fate. They would either drown in the sea, or drift so far away, they couldn’t harm his kingdom.

As fate would have it, Danaë and her son washed up on a far land, where a fisherman took care of them. It’s at this point I chose to enter Danaë’s story and combine it with images from my travels and imagination. This seascape is from a photo from a journey to the Oregon coast. The sunset’s crepuscular rays reminded me of the golden rain of Zeus’s disguise. Magritte has a famous painting of a “merfish” (a Fish headed body) on a beach with a seascape similar to this one, but Picasso’s beach paintings are more like the figure itself. All artists owe a debt to the images from our culture and history. We can trace our artistic DNA from the masters who went before us, just as we can see the influence of our forebears on the faces and health of our children.

While Danaë already had given birth when she washed up on the beach, this is a dream construction of her memories prior to that time. The stress of losing her parents, her home, and her support system must have been overwhelming. Add to this the burden of knowing her own child will kill her father. On top of this, she had conceived by unusual means, which portends ill for those who attempted to circumvent their fates. The giant sea shell is a reminder of her sexual union with the god, as well as her openness to the power of the gods. Danaë doesn’t resist her fate, but surrenders to it.

In the ancient world, the Greeks believed humans were foolish if they attempted to manipulate fate, for the gods had their own designs in mind. In the Greek myths, you can run, but you can’t hide. Destinies are fixed and immutable, due to fate. The three fates wore white robes and were incarnations of destiny. One spun the thread of life, another wove the cloth, and the third snipped the cord to determine the length. They controlled every mortal from birth to death.

Happiness comes from accepting one’s lot in life, for the gods will prevail. Today, we are more likely to believe we can change our destiny by our own efforts and will. Gone are the days when women submitted to powerful men, whether they were fathers, husbands, employers, or “gods.” In the context of the #MeToo movement, women today read this myth and say, “I reject a destiny of submission to another’s power over my own body. I claim the right to my own body, not only for the sake of love, but for the power it represents when I give it to another. No one takes it from me.”

Today women are more likely to chose the hero route, to take on the role of Perseus. As Perseus grew up, the king of the place sent him on a quest for the head of Medusa. While he was gone, the king tried to marry Danaë, but Perseus returned, just in time, and froze the wedding guests into stone with the dread head.

With his mother free, Perseus and Danaë returned to Argos. His grandfather had fled to Thessaly to avoid his fate, but while Perseus was competing in athletic games there, his wayward throw of a quoit, an iron ring, struck his grandfather in the head, killing him instantly. He couldn’t bear to rule Argos, so he swapped city states with another king, and ruled there instead.

If this story sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’re thinking of Jason and the Argonauts, a hero of later myth. He and his hero pals sailed in the Argo, a ship built by Argus, who was from Thespiae, the city of the Muses. His hero story shares many similarities with that of Perseus, but that’s for another day. For each of us today, the ancient myth calls us to reconsider how we relate to one another, from the most toxic evils of date rape and sexual harassment in the workplace to the commonplace demeaning behavior known as “mansplaining.”

If men need to rethink their behaviors, women need to choose to speak up and risk public humiliation, rather than staying silent with private shame. Silence only enables bad actors by giving them continued cover. The heroic women, who take on the quests to defeat the monsters they fear, redeem their mother’s shame and silence. They also make a better world possible for the next generation. The DNA of gods and heroes flows through the veins of Danae’s descendants.

The Burning Bush

art, Children, Faith, Family, grief, nature, Painting, photography, purpose, renewal, school shootings, texas, Travel, Uncategorized, vision

How long does a new and unusual aspect of our environment need to be in place before we notice it? On the other hand, how long does it have to persist before we treat it as the new normal and begin to ignore it? THE BURNING BUSH

My mom and dad were married right after World War II, so they’d lived together for nearly forty six years when I came home for a visit from seminary one weekend. Right off the bat, I noticed something differ about my dad.

“You’ve gone and grown a mustache.”

“You like it?” He asked, as he smoothed the unruly hairs into place.

“Oh yeah! You look like a perfect Southern gentleman.”

He smiled. Perfect and gentleman was his aim.

My mother, who was sitting in the identical chair next to his, separated only by a small table with a lamp and magazines, craned her head around that lamp to look at him.

“When did you grow this mustache?”

“Mother! You’ve slept in the same bed with daddy every single night of your entire life. You always kiss each other good night. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed the hair on his upper lip!”

A little rattled, she replied, “It’s always dark when we go to sleep.”

I laughed. My daddy smiled. My mother always had an answer for every thing. I noticed his mustache because I hadn’t seen him in a while, whereas mother had watched the slow progression of the hiding of his upper lip. I should say, it’s been my experience the husband usually fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, an act which causes much family drama.

When I travel, I don’t go from point to point with the goal of arriving as soon as possible. If that were the case, I’d fly. In my car, if I see an interesting place, I’ll go visit, since the journey is more important than the destination. Once I’ve arrived, I even make side trips, just for a little exercise. I was walking around Lake Bridgeport, in the town of Runaway Bay, Texas, when I stumbled upon these grasses, flowers, and small trees. The afternoon light caught the center stalk so it glowed its reds and golds. The few leaves left from autumn’s color, which hadn’t been blown away by the seasonal rains quivered in the light breeze. A few flowers added color to a rather grey afternoon.

Why would ordinary weeds catch my eye? There’s nothing remarkable or heroic about weeds. Most people spend good money to rid their lawns of ugly and invasive weeds. Here around the lake is a wild place, however, and the weed is in its natural state. This red weed is unique among the other natural grasses, for its not a single blade, but a stem with alternating leaves. I had to pick my way through some underbrush to find an opening from which I could take a good photo. I felt as if this weed had called to me.

I’ve often wondered how long the bush burned in the wilderness before Moses looked up from counting his father in law’s sheep and said, “What is this? I must go see it!” Extraordinary events happen all the time, yet we’re too consumed with our day to day busyness to see the glories of God’s hand at work in the world. Or we come to a watershed moment, when the bush would burn brightly for us, and throw water to quench its fire, for “it’s never been done, it can’t be done, it’s always been this way, and people will never change.”

If Moses believed this, he’d have never followed God’s call back to Egypt. The Hebrew children would still be slaves in Egypt. But Moses trusted God. This is called a sea change, or a transformation. We don’t do this just on our own, but by a power at work greater than our own. We might resist, but God persists.

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh,

and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”

He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you:

when you have brought the people out of Egypt,

you shall worship God on this mountain.”

~~ Genesis 3:11-12

What sea change is happening in our world today? Are people finally fed up with treating human life as a cheap commodity? We do this if we treat people as objects to be used and then thrown away when they’re worn out or too sick to be worked hard. When we fail to fund schools and health care for all, we don’t get the best people for our citizens or our employees. If only the wealthy can afford health care and a quality education, then our democracy suffers, for we will have a permanent underclass and a qualified few. This bifurcation doesn’t bode well for the future. Does a bush burn in the wilderness for any of my readers?

Are we tired of exchanging precious human lives for a shibboleth? The word means “stream” in Hebrew and was used as a sorting test to distinguish warriors of Gilead from those of Ephraim. Today, the 2nd Amendment serves the same purpose, because the National Rifle Association gives politicians large amounts of money for their campaign coffers and spends extra money on their behalf also. The NRA is the front for gun manufacturers, who profit if they sell more guns. They never want any restrictions on any freedom, but we don’t live in an anarchy, so a democracy can restrict certain aspects of gun ownership and use.

Public mass shootings have occurred on average every 172 days since 1982. Since September 6, 2011, there’s been 14 mass shootings at an average interval of less than 172 days. These don’t include domestic violence or criminal activity. Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have taken place in a school, including Sandy Hook elementary and Virginia Tech University. The deaths at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida were the 180th mass shooting since 2009 and the third mass shooting in 2018. By Valentine’s Day in 2018, 17 school shootings had been reported, and in the week after, even more.

Schools now receive an average of 50 threats of violence daily, compared with 10 per day at the end of 2017, NPR reported. Since I began this blog in 2011, mass killings in public spaces have snuffed out the lives of 270 persons in grocery stores, church sanctuaries, schools, post offices, and restaurants. In seven years, an average of 38.6 individuals did not celebrate with cake and ice cream on their next circuit of the earth around the sun. I didn’t know any of these personally, but we may have lost the next Steve Jobs or the next Mother Theresa, or someone who would have fought happiness to their small corner of the world.

Some want to arm the schools, but what about the other places of mass shootings? Why not just ban the weapon which enables the taking of mass casualties? Or are the lives of grocery shoppers less valued than school children? Ask an orphan if a parent is valued. We don’t want to become an armed state in America, or at least I’m not for it. Perhaps the NRA wants this, for the gunmakers would boost their bottom lines. They make enough money off the rest of their product lines.

Some would say, opioids take MORE lives, as does tobacco use (1,300 deaths per day). These substances are legal and on the market we expect people to use them responsibly. They’re also addictive and controlled. The largest incidents are mostly since 2004 when the ban on semiautomatic weapons lapsed. These weapons, civilian equivalents to military type issue, are meant for mass killing, not for sport, hunting, or target shooting. Their high velocity ammunition doesn’t just pierce flesh, but obliterates it. Survival rates are slim and none.

I wonder if this moment in our nation’s life is our burning bush, our opportunity to hear the voice of God calling to us, and we rise up to set our people free from this pain and insanity.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;

I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.

Indeed, I know their sufferings,

and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,

and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,

a land flowing with milk and honey…”

~~ Exodus 3:7-8a

HOW DID A SAINT BECOME A SANTA?

art, Children, Christmas, Civil War, Faith, generosity, Icons, Imagination, Love, photography, poverty, purpose, Spirituality

Once upon a time, Bishop Nicholas of the Greek Orthodox Church was known for his charity to the poor and other good deeds. After his death, enough miracles in his name elevated him to sainthood. People began to give gifts to others in his name to celebrate his feast day, December 6th.

Later on, the gift giving at Christmas became more important. After Clement Moore’s 1823 Poem, A Night Before Christmas, the visit of “Old Saint Nick” came alive in children’s imagination. With Thomas Nast’s Illustrations during the Civil War era, Old Saint Nick transformed into Santa Claus.

Of course, even though the two were once one person, their personalities are different. Everybody loves Santa Claus. He embodies holiday cheer, happiness, fun, and gifts—warm happy aspects of the Christmas season. How do Santa Claus and St. Nicholas differ?

Santa Claus belongs to childhood;

St. Nicholas models for all of life.

Santa Claus, as we know him, developed to boost Christmas sales—the commercial Christmas message;

St. Nicholas told the story of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all—the hope-filled Christmas message.

Lorenzetti—Saint Nicholas giving gold to a poor family

Santa Claus encourages consumption;

St. Nicholas encourages compassion.

Santa Claus appears each year to be seen and heard for a short time;

St. Nicholas is part of the communion of saints, surrounding us always with prayer and example.

Santa Claus flies through the air—from the North Pole;

St. Nicholas walked the earth—caring for those in need.

Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem;

St. Nicholas, for all, points to the Babe of Bethlehem.

Santa Claus isn’t bad;

St. Nicholas is just better.

We can actually keep the spirit of both Santa and the Saint all year long if we keep the joy of giving and receiving gifts to all, especially by giving to those who have less than we have.

If we keep the love of all persons in our hearts, then we’re loving as God loves us, for this is how the saints love the world. Even Santa loves all the world like this—really! Does any child ever get coal in their stocking? No! This is only a grownup threat to make the child behave. All children get a Santa gift, for the “Santas” in the community will make it happen, for they are the Saints who walk among us.

I want to thank the folks at the St. Nicholas Center for this idea. They have good resources for teachers for downloading. Check them out. I found the images on google search.

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/compare-santa-st-nicholas/

EPIPHANY SNOW

art, Epiphany, Faith, Family, mystery, nature, New Year, photography, poverty, renewal, Spirituality, trees, Uncategorized, vision

The snow arrived overnight, as promised! Just enough to change the landscape of winter on the lake in Arkansas. The trees, mountain, and grey sky are just shades of black and white. Snow changes our perception of the landscape, so it is an epiphany of its own kind. 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, or the night before Epiphany, folks used to take down their decorations and trees. They gave each other the last of the Christmas gifts, though I’m sure no one ever got “twelve drummers drumming ” as the old song goes, unless they were a rented band who went about drumming for hire. 

Today we celebrate National Take Down the Christmas Tree Day on the same day as Epiphany, for folks who aren’t in a rush and have lost the connection to the spiritual reason for the season. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the wise men at the birth of Jesus. The word means “reveal,” so God revealed the divine presence in Jesus to the nations of the world when the wise men visited the rude accommodations of the savior’s birth. The poor shepherds had already seen his glory in the manger, as well as the creation, represented by the animals in the stable. 

Who was missing from the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany? The extended families of Mary and Joseph aren’t ever mentioned, yet our modern celebration of this revelation of god to the world is celebrated primarily in the home, not amongst the poor or the outsiders. We focus on the giving of gifts to our families and friends. Shoppers around America planned on spending an average $929 on gifts in 2016. Religious organizations had average donations of $1,703 (secular households donate $863 on average to other causes) (2012). 

I mention this, since nowhere in scripture can we find a proof text to affirm going into debt to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We can find multiple texts in which God forgives debt, but Mastercard does not forgive debt. John Wesley asked his clergy, “Are you so in debt as to embarrass yourself?” The wags among us answer, “I’m not embarrassed if you’re not embarrassed!” The correct answer is “NO.” 

Sometimes it takes an epiphany, a revelation of divine insight, if you will, to realize Christmas isn’t a day, but an emotion. Even if we take down the decorations, put away the carols and stockings, and return our homes to “ordinary time,” we can always live in the season of welcoming Christ into the world. If we look upon the face of the poor, or the least of these my brothers and sisters, we are seeing Christ. If we look upon the natural world, we are seeing representatives of those who first saw his glory. If we see our families, we see those who failed to attend this miracle, and we give them the gift of grace, for we too were off doing other more important things those twelve days of Christmas long ago. We can gift ourselves a little grace also. 

Today is Epiphany. We can have the revelation anew because God is always inbreaking into our world of grey, or black and white. I see the world in shades of grey, rather than strictly either/or, but an epiphany will light up the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome this light. 

Happy New Year to everyone! May you keep Christmas in your heart every day! May an epiphany be yours at the right time. (God’s time is the right time, so be open!)