When the seasons change, I have days when I drag. My get up and go has done got up and went. Perhaps my increasing age has something to do with this feeling, or the pandemic’s lack of social interaction has dulled my senses. Some days I think I’m moving through molasses, and then the next I wake up on a brighter side of the bed.
Occasionally, I wonder where my mind is. I recently had to get the attendant at the Kroger gas station to help me pump the gas. When I used my loyalty card, the pump didn’t reduce my price. I forgot this pump had a screen prompt, which I’d ignored. Once I was retrained, I got the good discount and filled my car up. I really need to get out more. I’m not driving as much as I once did because of this pandemic. I used to say, “My brain has gone to Pluto,” but now it seems to have gone to the pandemic instead. I could always count on the old grey matter making the circuit back to earth, eve if it took 248 years, but until this Pandemic passes, I may be slightly silly. Some of you will say, “No one can tell the difference,” but I know better.
One of the benefits of this enforced solitude, which we’ve all endured, is we’ve had the opportunity to consider everything tried and true, and decide if we need to keep it or do something different instead. Some of us have redecorated our homes, take up a new hobby or occupation, or even become teachers or caregivers. Many of us cleaned out our closets and clutter because looking at it daily was too much. We’ve done what we had to do. Others of us have held on to the old traditions, as if they were security blankets. We won’t change them until our world feels safe again.
To make progress in art or any creative endeavor, sometimes we have to “burn the security blanket” before we can go forward. This is hard to do, for we get comfortable with whatever small success we first make. Basketball great Kobe Bryant would practice by himself for hours before his teammates showed up and would make four hundred shots every single practice. Notice that’s MAKE, not TAKE. Work ethic is a hallmark of greatness. Kobe was never satisfied with only the good, but sought to be his best.
Building a Community of Encouragement
Yet we are also people who need encouragement, and this means we need community. In community we can build each other up by “catching the good each one does.” We can reward and praise this, even though we usually find ourselves pointing out the spot a person missed, or how they could do it better next time. There’s a difference between criticism and critiquing someone’s work. Criticism usually only has negative statements, but a good critique begins with at least three positive comments before it notes what needs improvement and how to accomplish that task.
Artists and creative persons learn over the years to separate their identities from their work. Who we are as God’s beloved children never changes, no matter how badly our work gets panned. Most of us artists think we’re misunderstood anyway, so we go back to our studios and work some more. Words won’t kill us, and plenty of artists were never commercially successful. Most artists or creative people work at their craft because they have an inner need to express their experiences or ideas about the world in which they live.
Finding Our Own Voice
We work to discover who we are and what our voice would say to the world. In most art classes, the teacher makes a model and the students attempt to copy it as faithfully as possible. This process may use the elements of art, the media of art, and the end product may look like art, but the students are imitating someone else’s creative process. Thinking through the problems of shape, shadow, color, composition, and texture are part of the creative process. I’m very proud of our group, for each person is finding an individual voice. You would be able to identify their work, even if it were unsigned.
Season of Harvest
Hoshana Raba (Heb. הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא; “the great hoshana”) is a name for the seventh and last day of the Sukkot festival, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
In the medieval poem “Om ani homah” attributed to Eleazar Kalir, the Israel nation declares ‘I am a wall’. The poem is recited during Hoshana Raba (Great Supplication) which begins this evening.
Ingathering or Harvest Festivals are part of the seasonal experiences of our lives. Last week I brought a bunch of gourds and pumpkins in for class. I gave each person the opportunity to choose the ones that spoke to them to use for their still life. We had quite the variety of solutions.
Gail’s pumpkins were bold and bright, filling the canvas.
Mike’s were exuberant and about to come alive with energy.
Margaret was new in class, and made a highly textured still life, complete with cast shadows.
Mine were socially distant, a commentary on this pandemic life.
I brought the pumpkins and gourds home to grace my altar. It changes with the seasons, so come advent, it takes a more exuberant and celebratory vibe. For autumn, it’s full of natural bounty. When Nehemiah was celebrating the festival of booths and purifying the temple, this was the prayer of the people:
“O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-29)
All good things come from God, and we owe our lives and our living to the Holy God. Help us to care for the least among us, especially those who hunger and thirst at this time of harvest and during this season of change.
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30
What is Real? What is True? What has Meaning for our shared lives in community? Is there an Authority for any of these questions, or are we all on our own when we try to figure out how to make sense of our world? The ancient Greeks were onto these questions long before the fateful day when Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Today we have a branch of philosophy which studies how we know things. It’s called epistemology. The word comes from the Greek words episteme and logos. Episteme can be translated as knowledge, understanding, or acquaintance, while logos is often translated as account, argument, or reason. Logos also means word, saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, and reckoning. In some strains of Greek thought, the Logos was the rational principle which governed and developed the universe. In early Christianity, the Christ was the Logos or Divine Word through which God created and ordered the universe.
Normally, in ordinary conversation, we don’t throw around these fifty cent words, but prefer instead the nickel and dime ones of our fast food conversations. “How was your day?” We answer, “Fine,” but don’t pull up the deeper words of our emotions to share with the ones we love the most. Eventually we come to a quiet acceptance of togetherness, but perhaps also an inherent loneliness also. The isolation of this Pandemic has cut us off from sharing with others, so now we may feel this inner pain more acutely.
I personally miss the brief give and takes between the random strangers whom I meet in the grocery store or at the coffee shop. Just the opportunity to compliment a stranger or to help an elderly shopper find a product makes me feel good. Likewise, if someone does the same for me, I also feel better about myself. Making connections gives us a sense of community and unity in this trying time.
If we put on a brave face, smile, and say, “I’m fine,” are we being Real, True, or merely hiding behind what society has determined is the appropriate response to this time and place in which we find ourselves? Artists find themselves in this position every single time they approach a blank canvas, a lump of clay or a block of stone. “Am I going to do what all the artists before me have also done, or will I look at this in a new light and make an entirely new expression?” When the first Cubist paintings went on exhibit in France in 1911 at the Salon of the Independents, the people who attended were outraged, for the artists had broken every rule of “good painting,” which the attendees could see first hand in the other exhibits.
Cubism broke the plane of the canvas into an overall fractured space, rather than an attempt to render a three dimensional subject on a flat surface. It presented multiple viewpoints of the objects at once, rather than a single view. Picasso and Braque challenged the accepted representation of art: does art have to represent the world as we see it? Do we instead carry the ability to disassemble reality and reassemble it in a way that’s not limited to the dimensions of the real world? These artists were groundbreaking because they actively deconstructed the real form to illustrate the chaotic and puzzling side of the real world. For cubists, artists aren’t just people who paint beautiful things, but people who give others the chance to think about the world they’re living in through artistic expression.
Traumatic events like September 11th and this Pandemic also “disassemble our reality” and may cause us to reject it outright, hide from it, deny its impact, or find a way to make sense of a fallen and broken world. We can either become wounded healers or we can become wounded people who keep on wounding others. Nothing can take away the losses we’ve suffered, but we can learn to make use of our grief to help others get to better places in their own lives.
Art often serves as therapy for traumatized persons, as does journaling. This is because both are physical means of expression and both require focused breathing. I find I can’t paint when I’m agitated, but if I do a little cleaning of my palette and preparing of my work area, I begin to calm down enough to concentrate. With writing, I like using old fashioned pen and ink on paper to let the good ideas flow, but I can also tap, tap on the iPad if I have a well conceived idea beforehand.
If we let the thoughts inside of us come up to the surface, we can become aware of them and deal with them. Sometimes we don’t like these painful images that arise, for they remind us of old trauma and grief, which may depress or anger us. We need to look these feelings in the face for what they are: emotions only, but they aren’t the definition of our eternal Truth. These are mere moments in time, not forever moments, unless we choose them to be. As a person living with chronic depression, I had to learn how to think positively and stay appropriately medicated, as well as to do the healthy self care behaviors to enhance my ability for an optimistic outlook on life. We can be survivors, not victims. If I ruminated on my sad thoughts or anxious feelings, I wouldn’t be able to take positive steps forward. Learning how to refocus my thoughts took time and practice, but the effort was worth it.
Art pushes our boundaries outward, so we are more resilient when we meet struggles in the world. If we struggle and fail on a painting, we still learn from our work some lessons to apply on the next one. Art is a series of building up of failures until you get competency surrounded. One day your hand, eye, heart, and mind all click into one circuit. Suddenly your art looks like you seem to know what you’re doing. It has a voice unique to you and begins to speak to the world beyond. This is the moment when your inner spirit and emotions are at work, for you have enough technical ability to get the meaning across.
How long does this take before your work takes on its own personality? We all have it from the beginning, for we each have our own unique insight into the world built up from our past experiences. The better question we ask is “when does our work look good?” At this point we’re asking, “Is it Beautiful, Technically Competent, Engaging, or Appealing?” Sometimes we’re asking, is it commercially viable, or will someone buy it? If the test of great art is someone will purchase it, Rembrandt’s later works and most of Van Gogh’s oeuvre don’t make the cut. Yet, history proves these are museum worthy paintings. This means we don’t need to concern ourselves with this question, but we shouldn’t quit our day job anytime soon.
A recent study found if a family has an annual income of $100,000, a child is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise the annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, for every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, a person is two percent more likely to enter a creative field. This is why we see so few persons of color in the art world today, for historically their art was not only disparaged in early American history, but today people of color have lower median incomes than whites, partly due to systemic racism resulting from inequalities in education, but also lack of entry into home ownership due to redlining.
Art is like ministry: we don’t do it to get rich. We do it to live our best life. We do it because we have a need to express the deeper voice which we hear in the depths of our hearts and mind. It isn’t the call of the world, but the mysterious calling of the Divine Word, which we remember from John 1:1-5, was “The Word Became Flesh:”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
When we make art of any kind, we reassemble a new reality, for we proclaim we’re living in the power of the creating God. We know we aren’t a god, but we share God’s image and God’s work of creation. Because of this, we can rebuild the broken world, heal the broken people, and show love and compassion to all we meet. For many of us who grieve or judge ourselves harshly, maybe self compassion and self love is the first reconstruction of our world we should work on. If we aren’t painting or sculpting, we can bake pies or cookies, keep gardens, grow flowers or veggies, or do any other life giving endeavors.
Art gives us an safe space and an opportunity to build a new world. If it doesn’t hang together, we can always paint over it and try again. Or we can start afresh on a brand new canvas. How many of us wish we could wipe yesterday from our memories? Or come to tomorrow clean and new? We can have hope, as Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
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 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.”
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.
Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
My family has a tradition of handcrafts and needle working skills, passed down from generation to generation, as do many Southern families. I admit I didn’t care much for the sitting still part when I was young, but I really liked the bright sequins and beads of the tree skirts we embellished with the symbols of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first six days were overloaded, while the last few had only a sprinkle of sparkle stitched to the colored felt, but then we were coming in under the wire by Christmas eve and Santa wouldn’t visit our house if we didn’t get into bed as soon as possible. We just barely made it.
Most of our projects didn’t have such a time limit, however. I remember learning to make doll clothes on a toy sewing machine before my mother trusted me on the electric machine. I made tiny tucks across the bodice of these outfits from the scraps of the materials my mother used to make my school clothes. My Nannie had an old foot powered sewing machine on her back porch. It was often hidden under piles of newspapers or canning jars resting on their journey to the garage out back. From her I learned to sew straight seams, unbeknownst to my mom. My small foot wasn’t able to power the treadle of the old machine very fast and I’d been warned within an inch of my life to keep my fingers a good distance from the needle. I was doing this sub rosa, and that added to my excitement, but my mother probably knew. I only thought I was doing something forbidden.
Soon after this, my mother decided I needed to learn to make simple clothes from a pattern. Not that I would do it unsupervised, but she did have a degree in home economics and a lifetime teaching certificate. I made one of those easy patterns with only a front, a back and a neck binding. Of course, I was too young to need to worry about darts yet, so this wasn’t the most difficult project in the sewing room. I did learn how to pin, cut, and sew with the right sides together so the seam would be on the inside.
Later I’d learn to hem my clothes. My mom always thought I sewed backwards. I suppose since she sewed in the opposite direction, I was backwards. I’ll blame this on my being a breech birth, for if I came into the world backwards, I can do things in an opposite manner if I want to. Sometimes it takes a person who sees the world from a different viewpoint than everyone else to help others make sense of the world, especially when the world isn’t in the order we’ve come to expect it to be.
July is the season of the year when active Methodist clergy move to new churches. I’d hear my friends say, “I’m going to hit the ground running and show them I’m ready!”
I’d nod my head, and reply, “I’m going to take my time, get to know folks, find out where they are, and what they need. Then we’ll figure out where we need to go together.” I was past the age of running anywhere, since ministry was my fifth career.
This pandemic has changed many of our rituals and routines. Gone are our potlucks and coffees, our get togethers and small group sessions. We now meet from afar and we’ve learned to like it, or else we live in isolation, and we’ve learned to endure it. I told a friend, “I’m blessed to be single, because if I get on my nerves, I’ve got no one to blame but me! If I get that upset with myself, I go down to the exercise room for a walk.”
As this pandemic has stretched out, I’ve come to realize treating it like a new appointment might be the best practice. Ministry is more of a marathon than a sprint, for we need to keep a steady pace for a long distance, rather than run fast for a short initial spurt. Throwing all our energies at it in the first few months, especially now when everyone is socially distanced, isn’t going to be the most effective use of our potency.
This is where quilt making comes into play. Quilts can have a structured pattern or they can be various strips of cloth sewn together until they make a square or an entire top. Right now, we’re in crazy quilt land, while we wish we were in structured pattern quilt land. We have to make do with the materials we have at hand and make the most beautiful work with what we have. This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit, which binds the people together, no mater how separated and isolated the community is.
I pulled out some fabric from one of my boxes to make a patchwork pillow. I had no plan, for mostly I was distressed at the brokenness and sickness of our world. I thought if I stitched some strips of fabric together, I would find some order, and perhaps some beauty. Of course, I kept stitching and realized I had more than enough for a pillow, but not enough for another project. I looked at my plain jean jacket and thought it could be improved. I kept stitching, so soon I had enough for the jacket and yet another pillow! This is enough. I’m going to put up my machine and go back to my easel for a while.
I know I miss my friends and family, for they’re like the strips of cloth I’ve sewn together. I try to connect with them by writing my blogs and sharing my spiritual pages, so I can give a voice to the emotions others perhaps are feeling. I write because I’ve never been accused of saying too little, but more often of not knowing when to quit. That’s ok, for someone needs to put into words the feelings this pandemic is putting many of us through.
I hope you’re finding some creative project to do during this pandemic time. I suggest a journal, to write out your memories of your life before this strange time. We don’t know what our future will bring us, and the generations who follow us will wonder what an ordinary life was like back in the day. If we write about the pandemic itself, we may fail to touch the grief of what we’ve lost, and only write about our grievances of today. If we can find an opportunity to note the small blessings of each day, perhaps we can access our memories of our past lives also.
My granddaddy hung his dress jacket in the old wood chifforobe on that back porch where the antique sewing machine resided. The cabinet retained the aroma of his favorite chewing gum, even when he was gone from the house. I can still smell today the juicy fruit chewing gum my granddaddy always carried in his coat pocket.
I hope you’re finding moments of joy and peace amidst this time of pandemic and uncertainty. I’ve attached a poem at the end I think you might enjoy.
Memories are worthy treasures, as this poem reminds us. This is a true story, for the author finished the quilt in 2017. Her husband’s mother had started it and was about a third done with the quilting when she passed away in 1986.
Thirty Years By Ruth Poteet
My closet’s free of a strange parolee, coldly imprisoned for thirty long years; gone with the rest of my walk-in’s debris, I’d marked it “Goodwill” with cynical cheers.
Rescuing the box, my mind shifted gears. And ready to face fair verdict instead, a quilt, yet unquilted, moved me to tears. At seventy-three I finished this spread.
It took just three weeks, while my fingers bled, now “thirty years” rests proudly on my bed.
July celebrations kickoff with the Independence Day holiday. In this Age of Coronavirus and social distancing, we rabbits might not be at a company or church sponsored picnic, and we might not seek out a crowded beach for a vacation since Florida and Texas are currently experiencing peaks from this new disease. I’m still hanging close to home, choosing to enjoy a variety of foods, and starting some sewing projects in addition to my art and writing interests. Due to a past brush with heat exhaustion, I don’t tempt these hot temperatures with my presence. “Stay cool and stay hydrated” is my motto for the next few months. Rabbits and humans both have the same need for water, fresh fruits and veggies, plus lots of shade in this heat. An ice bottle might be a treat for them on a hot day too. I find myself craving frozen fruit for a snack.
While I staycation, which is what I actually do all year long, except for my occasional road trips to visit museums or the grandchildren, I’ve had time to reflect on my past life and the events of today. I began writing this in June, near Fathers Day and after the weeks of protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. One of my family members mentioned, “Your daddy would be rolling over in his grave at all of this mess.” I answered, “If he’s with God, God has cleansed him of all his old prejudices and now he’s rejoicing people are asking for justice and equality.” We got into it after a bit, so we had to take a break for a while. Arguing might not change people’s minds, but I don’t have to affirm antebellum thinking. There’s a reason it’s called a “Lost Cause.” Denying the equality of human beings in the sight of God is to deny God’s love for all God’s people. Not being able to walk in another’s shoes is to deny injustice persists for many people.
The life in God is based in change. If we aren’t able to change our attitudes, we can’t change our behaviors. If we can’t see we were wrong, we can’t turn toward the right. If we turn from God, we also have to be able to return to God. Our love may fail, but God’s love never fails. Some folks think people never change, perhaps because they have no intention of changing. Change is difficult, but necessary. We’re changing from the moment we’re conceived to the moment we leave this world.
We call change in the spiritual life sanctification, or holiness. It’s a process, which is led by the spirit and made evident by good works. We can’t do good works to earn sanctification, but our faith is deepened both by the spirit and by our experience in doing the works. If we’re still imperfect when we pass from this world, God’s mercy completes the work of sanctification to make us fit for life in God’s presence. If God is abounding in love for all and we love because God first loved us, God will refine us into the same love for all to fit us for the eternal life with God.
In my state, some folks called the Black Lives Matter events a riot, while others called them a demonstration. I imagine the British of 1773 had an alternative view of the events of the Boston Tea Party from those who tossed the imported monopoly tea into the harbor. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry reads about the same as the History Channel’s entry on the internet. I call this event to mind so we Americans don’t forget our country was born in demonstrations, riots, and rebellion, not in picnics and parades.
The years of dusty history tend to cloud our memories and we weave a narrative to suit our own modern purposes. Pull up a glass of iced tea and find some shade. We have a whole pandemic ahead of us to get reacquainted with the moldering moments of our nation’s nascence.
Even before the Boston Tea Party, a violent incident escalated out of hand on March 5, 1770. Private Hugh White, a British soldier, heightened a verbal altercation to a physical one. White used his bayonet against a patriot at the Custom House on King Street. Then the angry mob countered with a volley of snowballs, rocks, oyster shells, and ice. Bells rang signaling a disturbance, and loyalists and patriots entered the street to see the commotion. As the riot ensued, the British fired their muskets, killing five colonists in what is today known as the Boston Massacre. Today we’d call this “police brutality.” The representatives of the Crown claimed a right to defend the King’s treasury.
The British soldiers, brought to trial and defended by Samuel Adams, had been in jail for seven months. The captain of the guard was found not guilty, six soldiers were also not guilty, and two were guilty of manslaughter. These last individuals escaped punishment by claiming “benefit of the clergy,” a holdover from early English law. This provision held secular courts had no jurisdiction over clergymen and had become a loop-hole for first-time offenders. After “praying the clergy,” the soldiers were branded on the right hand where the thumb meets the palm with the letter “M” for manslaughter. This insured they could only receive the commutation once, and the mark would be clearly visible during a handshake or while raising their palm on any future oath. This was the 18th century’s “get out of jail free card.”
Undue force is always unjust. Escalating a verbal situation into a brawl and then to a massacre is the worst sort of police brutality. Unfortunately, bringing bayonets and rifles to the location was their first mistake. But “hind sight is always 20/20,” as my daddy used to say. “I hope you learn from this experience, young lady.” I’ve always found the school of hard knocks to be an expensive degree.
When the Tea Act was passed in 1773, it required the colonists to purchase only British East India Tea Company products, whereas they preferred to buy from Holland, since it wouldn’t profit the King. When their smuggling routes shut down, the Americans produced their own herbal teas, rather than purchase the Crown Tea. By December, the colonists were fed up with paying taxes without representation in parliament. They gathered in costume, armed with hatchets, and boarded the boats loaded with British Tea. Tossing it all into the sea, with a whoop and a holler, they had to jump down into the water to hack up the bales so they would sink. Our forefathers forgot to check the tides. At low tide they could waded out to the ships.
Most likely the British of the era thought the colonists engaged in a destructive riot, whereas the patriotic participants were hailed as heroes at home. Things bubbled and simmered along for three more years until the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The top portion of the original draft document was written by Thomas Jefferson, with additions and deletions by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson presented the finished Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, at which time the Declaration was signed. Then copies of the text were transported to key cities, such as New York and Boston, to be read aloud. The initial sentence speaks to the heart of every freedom loving person:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence contains noble and aspirational thoughts. Yet these words were written by a group of men, all white, all free, and all educated as far as their privilege and status had brought them to that day. Women weren’t included in this equality and neither were the slaves the signers owned, since they were mere “property.” In this case “All” didn’t mean ALL PERSONS.
Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. The delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early summer of 1776 debated its inclusion with fervor. Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document. It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.” His original language is below:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
Not until 1870 and the passage of the 15th Amendment did African Americans get the right to vote. Women got the right to vote in 1920, Asian Americans got citizenship and voting rights in 1952, and even though Native Americans have had citizenship and voting rights since 1924, many states still disenfranchise them. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to remove the barriers keeping persons of color from exercising their tight to vote, yet disenfranchisement still happens in subtle and not so subtle ways.
The Voting Rights Act came 189 years after the grand words of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two people to walk on the surface of the moon They set an American flag on the surface in recognition of our country’s achievement. While we might be amazed we as a nation could come together in this great challenge, nevertheless we might wonder why the majority population has yet to fully appreciate the minority as an equal partner in this land.
Perhaps it’s as Frederick Douglas once said, “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.” (From the speech, “The Race Problem In America, 1890.”)
When we search for images of Patriotism or Independence Day, almost all of these are white, for America has been to date a majority white nation. After 2045, however, non-Hispanic whites will likely make up less than half of all Americans. Already whites under age 18 are in the minority. Among all the young people now in the U.S., there are more minority young people than there are white young people. This is a sea change. The attitudes of our youth are different from our older generations.
Among old people age 65 and over, whites are still in the majority. Indeed white old people, compared to minority old people, will continue to be in the majority until some years after 2060. What does this mean for our country, for our world, and for our future? How can we as a people live up to the aspirations of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?”
First we need to agree “Truths can be self-evident.” Not just my truth is true, and your opposite truth is also true for you, so whatever works is cool, as some would say, but certain known absolute true facts are real and sure. For the 18th century mind, truth could be known, and a new and better truth could be discovered in time to replace it through wisdom and knowledge, but “alternative facts” or “fantasy figments of our delusions” aren’t truth, but lies we tell ourselves. (As an aside, if the love of your life ever asks, “Honey, does this outfit make me look fat?” your answer should be “No.” and kiss her before she can ask anymore questions. Life will be happier for you.)
Back in the stone ages, “all men” was read as an all inclusive group, but I questioned that understanding back in the 1960’s in high school.
“Why don’t we just say ALL or EVERYONE instead?” “That’s not how people wrote back then,” my teacher would reply.
“Maybe because they thought it meant ALL MEN and not EVERYBODY?”
Then I would get the LOOK from my teacher, by which I knew I’d pushed the limit and it was time to ask no more questions, even though I had more.
After the Civil War, Northern Reconstructionists attempted to educate whites and blacks equally, but ran into resistance from the Lost Cause proponents. When school institutes were formed to continue teacher education, the summer school term was twenty days long until 1906 when one of the Baton Rouge schools started a thirty-six-day summer school program. In 1909, the length of the summer school program was lengthened to fifty-four days for white teachers and thirty-six days for Negro teachers. Someone with two years at the State Normal teacher’s school could teach in the black schools, but to teach in a white school required a four year degree. This is an example of systemic injustice in the educational community.
What does it mean to be created EQUAL, but not be given equal access to an equal education, housing, food, or medical care? Where I grew up, the white schools got new textbooks. When these were worn out, they were passed down to the black schools. It wasn’t right, but this was the way it was. My state had a practice of historic and systemic racism.
My high school was integrated in 1965 with one young black person. He ate his lunch alone the entire year. He struggled because his schools weren’t on the same level as ours, but he persisted. Equal access is all he wanted. Arthur Burton is a hero in my hometown and my high school now has a scholarship named in his honor.
This lack of equal access was far reaching. Restaurants back in the day wouldn’t serve nonwhite diners, but required them to pick up food at a to go window out back. There were two water fountains, two waiting rooms, and two of everything, just so the races never mixed. I never saw the sense of it, but it was a strict rule my parents carried forth from the past generation. As they often reminded me, “As long as you live under our roof, you abide by our rules.”
This was probably why they wanted me to live at home and go to college in town, but I wanted to go up north. They weren’t having that, so we compromised on a fine girls’ school in Georgia. At least it was below the Mason-Dixon Line. There I participated in marches for peace and justice, or as my parents called it, “Mixing with a bad crowd that was up to no good, just a bunch of hippies and commies, every last one of them.”
One thing about our family, we say what’s on our mind. At least my education was doing me some good, for my friends and I chose not to be on the front lines in case the police or the marchers began to get angry. The middle of the crowd was safer, especially after the 1968 assassination of Dr. King and angry demonstrations which broke out in some cities. Curfews and the termination of liquor sales finally dampened everyone’s energy, but the same cause for equal access still remains today.
Dr. King has been dead over fifty years, but his dream hasn’t yet died. He spoke in Washington D.C. of the Declaration of Independence as the “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Unfortunately, as Dr. King went on to say, the founders wrote a check they couldn’t cash for all people, and certainly not for persons of color.
King then offered hope, for God is the author of hope to the hopeless, the lifeline to the drowning, food for the hungry, and the defender of the weak:
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
While this document is yet imperfectly fulfilled today, we are called to work toward perfecting it, so we also may truly say with Dr. King:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…(and)
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”
So with St. Francis of Assisi I offer this prayer for each of us at this half way point of 2020:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is error, truth; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in self-forgetting that we find; And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Boston Massacre” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870. Boston Tea Party https://coffeeordie.com/boston-tea-party-history/
Charly Palmer: “Good American,” giclee print on paper, 38×28 inches, 2016. A limited edition work of art depicting a an African American solider walking with his wife as the celebrate the United States of American on July 4th. The print is meant to convey the message that African Americans have helped build this country, are a part of this country and celebrate this country like any other Good American citizen . We are America!
How many of us get to admire the great creative exuberance of the divine palette strewn across the sky twice a day in our ordinary days? Most of us are too busy breakfast grabbing, caffeine swilling, clothes donning, and storming the door in a mad dash for the morning rush to work. Then we join the misnomered evening rush hour, which actually moves at a snail’s pace. We’re too busy watching the bumper in front of us on a highway to pay attention to the sky above us. If we’re guarding our goods on a subway, we can’t even see the light of day until we exit the bowels of the earth, but then we’ve got our eyes set on home, not on the sky above us.
I wonder if this Age of Coronavirus has changed us in any way, since January 30, when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. It’s been about one hundred days since the World Health Organization and our everyday world has known about this pandemic plague, but cancelled sporting events and music festivals, working from home, and closed schools are now part of our daily life. The opening day for Major League Baseball heard no crack of bat against the ball and no hawkers in the stands shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack!” Even though the 2020 Olympic flame burns brightly in japan, the games won’t be held this summer due to the virulent virus and athletes won’t earn shining metals.
If today we haven’t these rituals of community as celebrations of our common humanity, we might feel a sense of loss, even grief. Yet we can find a daily reminder of hope, for the sun continues to rise in the morning and set in the evening. When the moon rises and the stars come out at night, we can see the rotation of the constellations according to the seasons of the year. Of course, we have to look up, and not down. We also have to look out beyond ourselves, and not just inside always. When we’re cooped up inside, doing #StayHomeStaySafe for our own good as well as for others, sometimes it’s difficult to look outward.
When I was a child, my family didn’t have many art works in our home, but we always had a colorful nature calendar. My parents were always willing to hang my art in their home, an act I found encouraging. We also made weekend trips to hike in nature, ostensibly to “search for arrowheads,” but more often just to be outside. When I was in active ministry, I would go to nature when I was drained and needed to find the quiet place to restore my soul. There were times when I felt the demands of my superiors for more productivity and the nagging from my congregation about why I couldn’t be available all the time in the office as well as out visiting the home bound were more than I could handle, so I would close up shop and take a drive. I thought I might kill the next person who came in my office, but that’s not evidence of “going on to perfection,” so leaving was a better choice on my part.
I very often served in county seat towns, so I was never far from nature, but even in the city, I knew the location of the best parks. In art school, I even lived next to a park and in seminary I lived next to a creek. Now I live in a national park. I feel like I’ve achieved a life goal. My neighbor at the condo has cultivated quite an interior and patio garden in this Age of Coronavirus. I bought an orchid plant for my birthday, rather than cut flowers, since nursing a living plant seems more hopeful in this time of loss for so many people. My Christmas cactus even bloomed again for Holy Week, another sign of optimism amidst the panic shopping and empty shelves. If there’s enough life in my little plant to bloom out of season, then I trust God’s gift of providence to feed the hungry and care for us all, if we share with one another.
Some people only see the sunsets on their vacations, but never any other time of the year. The sunset lasts less than five minutes, and the best colors are only momentarily part of this time. If we’re addicted to busyness, or filling every available moment of our time with productive activity, then we’ll be checking off our to do list and miss the magic of this moment. We could reframe our attitudes, however, and see our pause for the sunset as a time of blessing for the day. We can break for beauty, awe, and magnificence, and thank God for the whole of our day, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. After all, we’ve made it through another day, and the cycle will begin again, so we can entrust our night to God’s Care also. This is the meaning of providence.
I sometimes wonder if some are closed to creation and therefore closed to God’s love and grace. When I see the damage humanity has done to the earth and the creatures which live upon it, I wonder how much hate or ignorance can exist in people. This virus has exposed structural inequities and inequalities both in the victims and in their previous care. Two groups which are dying from covid-19 in greater proportions than normal are African Americans and men. For the first group, persons of color more often live in neighborhoods with higher pollution and less access to healthy food, plus they have more disease burden with less medical access. Men of all races and economic status have higher incidence of heart disease and smoking, plus they don’t fight inflammation as well due to their gene structure.
Perhaps this disease will take the blinders from our eyes, so we’ll begin to provide better medical care for our whole population, rather than think the coronavirus is just a means of “culling the herd.” That’s a hard hearted way to view a child of God’s creation, made from the dust of the earth, and breathed into life with the very Spirit of God. When I look at creation, the landscape or a sunset, I see the creating hand shaping me and you, and even these hard hearted yahoos, who have the survival of the fittest and wealthiest as their goal. I think somewhere within them is the image of God, even if they’re doing a great job of hiding it. Maybe they need to go in search of more sunsets or a forest. I know I was always a better person after a quiet time in the shade of a forest.
Life for extroverts in the Age of Social Distancing is difficult. They need people to bounce their ideas off of, friends to hear their tales of daily struggles or victories, and most of all, the transfer of energy between the parties to feel alive. For introverts, most of whom need space and quiet to restore their energies, the “stay at home unless absolutely necessary” directives are more welcome than not. A good book, some quiet music, and a calming drink of herbal tea is a balm for the body and the soul.
Of course, if you have children, activity is your middle name, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of extroversion or introversion. Taking walks in the neighborhood of your city is an opportunity to learn about architecture. How is it built, what are the forms called, and how many styles can you identify as you walk about? You can make an art project from this walk about, by building a shoebox city, a collage from magazines or scrap paper, or making a map.
When my daughter was young, we lived in south Texas, so our walks meant we might stumble upon a limestone fossil creature. She was always amazed some animal from the prehistoric times would find its way into our modern age, even if it were a lifeless stone. To find a treasure from 100,000,000 years ago always added excitement to our jaunts about the home place.
If you live in the countryside, you might have access to the woods or a forest, or you can go there. We haven’t decided to lock down everyone in their home yet. However, it’s my “Dr. Cornie” opinion we all should limit our goings and doings to the utmost necessities of grocery, health, and essential services. While I’m not a “real doctor,” those of us who are “Coronavirus Cathys and Chucks” can spread this disease to others, even if we don’t feel sick or have symptoms.
In this Age of Coronavirus, staying put at home means we “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease. While many will have a mild disease, too many will have a difficult outcome, especially when they face a lack of hospital beds and equipment to treat them. Let’s think of these others, and not just of ourselves alone.
With this admonition in mind, I invite you to travel virtually in solitude to the woods. Many of my paintings are of nature, for I feel close to God in nature. My parents may have been getting a vacation from me when I went to summer church camp at the old Works Project Administration site at Caney Lake, but I connected with the God who meets us in nature while I was there.
The Germans have a constructed word Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude. The Grimm Brothers wrote many fairy tales, which were also set in the famed German Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.
I don’t know if children read these stories today, since they’re a tad scary, but my parents grew up in the Great Depression and fought the Great War in Europe against the Nazis. They helped us through the imaginary, scary events so we could take on the actual, distressing situations. Practicing the easy operations in a safe space helped us confront our fears in real life.
Sometimes I’ll walk in the woods and hear a voice calling me to turn around. It’s not an audible voice, as if an outside agent were speaking to me. It’s also not my own inner sense, as “I should turn around.” Instead, I perceive a stillness from beyond, and the word I hear is “Turn around and look.”
If nature speaks to us, it’s because “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20). Does this mean all persons see God’s hand in creation? Of course not, for some can’t even see the image of God in their own faces when they look in the mirror as they brush their teeth in the morning. Perhaps this is why the city streets are littered, the country roads are trashed, and violence to humanity is a sad trouble in every zip code. If we are God’s people, we’ll care for one another and for God’s world.
Even in the Age of Coronavirus, when our solid underpinnings have been cut down from under us and we have crashed to the ground with the noise of a giant sequoia tearing through its smaller companions, we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Walk in the woods, in silence, and renew your soul, with Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Waldeinsamkeit I do not count the hours I spend In wandering by the sea; The forest is my loyal friend, Like God it useth me.
In plains that room for shadows make Of skirting hills to lie, Bound in by streams which give and take Their colors from the sky;
Or on the mountain-crest sublime, Or down the oaken glade, O what have I to do with time? For this the day was made.
Cities of mortals woe-begone Fantastic care derides, But in the serious landscape lone Stern benefit abides.
Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy, And merry is only a mask of sad, But, sober on a fund of joy, The woods at heart are glad.
There the great Planter plants Of fruitful worlds the grain, And with a million spells enchants The souls that walk in pain.
Still on the seeds of all he made The rose of beauty burns; Through times that wear and forms that fade, Immortal youth returns.
The black ducks mounting from the lake, The pigeon in the pines, The bittern’s boom, a desert make Which no false art refines.
Down in yon watery nook, Where bearded mists divide, The gray old gods whom Chaos knew, The sires of Nature, hide.
Aloft, in secret veins of air, Blows the sweet breath of song, O, few to scale those uplands dare, Though they to all belong!
See thou bring not to field or stone The fancies found in books; Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own, To brave the landscape’s looks.
Oblivion here thy wisdom is, Thy thrift, the sleep of cares; For a proud idleness like this Crowns all thy mean affairs.