This week as I recovered from cataract surgery, a memory from my childhood finally surfaced. In the late 1950’s in my hometown, I had met an artist who could barely see to paint anymore because of her vision loss due to cataracts. Doctors hadn’t yet invented the modern replacement lenses and use of small incisions for implantation. Complications back then were common, rather than rare. I can still remember my dad’s response to my desire for contact lens, “What? Put a foreign object in your eye? You’re asking for an infection!” Perhaps this was why I worried myself to exhaustion while waiting for my first surgery.
As it turns out, I can now see my television set without my glasses and I read my iPad with my untreated eye. I’ve always had my glasses within arm’s reach of my bed or my chair for over sixty years. It feels strange not to put them on first thing in the morning.
If there were things I could not see before, I could always feel them if I were still enough to notice their subtle movements. Most of the time I, as many others do, stress over what “might happen,” instead of being present to the moment in which the important stuff is actually happening.
After I worried myself into an exhausted heap on my couch, I woke up in a different mood. I realized I’d been going “from house to house” to borrow a cup of trouble for a cake I didn’t need to bake or eat. It was going to be a decadent cake with multiple layers and a. rich icing. If it were autumn, I’d probably get first prize in the cake competition at the state fair.
But no one needs a Trouble Cake. I saw all my ingredients were as nothing, for I had a great doctor, people who would care for me, and this was a new age in medicine. Moreover, the Spirit of God would sustain me in my recovery and remind me my wellbeing depends on following my doctor’s instructions. As we read in John 3:5-8 NRSV—
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Sometimes we need to feel the wind and not try to know from whence it comes or why it goes, but merely thank it for arriving to be with us in this present moment.
Who Has Seen the Wind? by Christina Rossetti
Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you: But when the leaves hang trembling, The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I: But when the trees bow down their heads, The wind is passing by.
Sometimes we need a fresh wind blowing through our hearts and minds to get a new outlook on life. We can’t be wedded to the past like the old farmer who said of the new fangled plow he saw at the farm supply store, “My daddy plowed with a two pronged plow, so a two pronged plow is good enough for me.” He never bought the new and improved three pronged plow.
Much like the church that can’t recognize the fresh movement of the Spirit moving through the world today, if we can’t feel that wind, maybe cataract surgery would help us see the movement in the leaves.
Joy and Peace,
NOTE: The Greek word for Spirit and wind are the same: πνεῦμά. Strong’s Greek Concordance 4151 pneúma – properly, spirit (Spirit), wind, or breath. The most frequent meaning (translation) of 4151 (pneúma) in the NT is “spirit” (“Spirit”). Only the context determines which sense(s) is meant. When used with Holy, the word is Holy Spirit, not holy breath!
Utagawa Hiroshige: Yokkaichi: Mie River (Yokkaichi, Miegawa), from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi),” also known as the Hoeido Tokaido, wood block print, 1833-34, Art Institute of Chicago.
Luke Howard: Graph detailing prevailing wind directions, rain depth, and mean temperature over a period of eighteen years, 1815-1832, in London. The Royal Society.
Bernard Evans: Cannock Chase – ‘When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees, and they did make no noise’, circa 1885, watercolor. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sidney, Australia.
Unknown Artist: Inlay in the Form of an Eye, Glass and gypsum, Egypt, (9/16 × 1 13/16 × 3/8 in.), 1540–1070 BCE, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963, National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C.
Aristotle said in his Poetics, “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality.”
He spoke mainly about poetry, which was the highest art of his age, but his words also apply to the fine arts. Today, many people are still mesmerized by artists who practice various styles of realism, but they overlook the artists who show us the realities of emotion and inner vision.
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time,” said the spiritual writer, Thomas Merton. Some people use art as a cathartic exercise, and pour out their inner emotions on the canvas or their chosen media. Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings and Van Gogh’s late works are good examples of emotional expression. We all know folks who have a project going in their garage. They go work on “that worthless piece of junk” to focus their attention and energy on fixing something on which they can make a difference, instead of getting tied up in knots about things they can’t change and must accept. Gardening and knitting are also good hobbies for focusing this energy.
We know our nervous system grows to the modes in which it has been exercised. This is what we call building a habit over time. Just as a child doesn’t walk straight out of the womb, they have preparatory skills that must be acquired by stages as they grow. Exercising their muscles by rolling over also helps to strengthen their necks to hold their heads up. Crawling leads to pulling up, and that leads to letting go to learn balance.
Each time a child repeats these movements, he or she will simplify the movements required to achieve the needed result, make them more accurate, and diminish fatigue. In this, they’re building habits that bring them closer to walking. Rushing them to achieve “early” walking actually puts them behind cognitively.
Not only are there twenty five body parts in a baby’s body that are used in the crawl movement, but crawling also strengthens the hip sockets, so the baby will have a strong platform on which to stand. Crawling helps the corpus callosum, which is a band of nerve fibers between the hemispheres of the brain. Criss-cross crawling on the knees and hands stimulates the corpus callosum to develop in a balanced way, facilitating the hemispheres of the brain to communicate. These cross lateral movements work both sides of the body evenly and involve coordinated movements of the eyes, ears, hands, feet, and core muscles. This helps support cognitive function, problem solving, and ease of learning. Exploring the floor in a baby proofed home allows your baby to achieve his or her optimal potential.
“Practice makes perfect” is only as true as the practice is directed in a true direction. This is where a teacher, a parent, a coach, or a spiritual guide comes into play. Only one who’s been led well can lead others with grace. We don’t tear down the learner, but ask questions, give guidance, help them see alternative paths, and allow them a safe place to explore their choices.
Art class isn’t brain surgery. No one will die if the painting isn’t successful, and no one’s salvation is at risk if the painting doesn’t come out the way we hoped it might. Art class is a safe place to take risks, unlike jumping from a tall tower without a parachute. Learning to accept failure on our canvases and coming back next time to try again is a mark of resilience and courage. Every time we fail closer to our target, we realize we’re gaining on it! We never say I CAN’T in art class.
The sad reality is we can teach and expand the horizons of young people up til the age of 25 or 30. After that, they seem to lose energy and desire to learn more or to change. They “habitually” repeat their previous acts, for good or for ill. We’ve all heard the old saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Those of us who are no longer young have sometimes been accused of being set in our ways. Some of us are afraid we won’t excel at a new challenge, for we’ve always been held to a high standard of achievement. Since none of us will be the next Georgia O’Keefe or Leonardo da Vinci, we can set that worry aside. They both had more years to practice than we have left in front of us. Instead, we should give our remaining time our most focused attention, so we can get the most from our experience.
My high school chemistry book had the same information in it which my daddy’s college chemistry book covered. He was amazed I was learning “advanced” ideas at my young age. In 1982 R. Buckminister Fuller introduced the idea of the “knowledge doubling curve.” Up until 1900, knowledge doubled every century. By 1945, knowledge doubled every 25 years and by 1982, it doubled every year. Some say it’s now doubling twice a day! The newest computer we buy off the shelf today is already obsolete.
We can’t train our students for the jobs of today because these jobs likely won’t exist tomorrow. We need to train people to be lifetime learners instead. Luckily, we don’t have to know all things, but we do need the skills to find the knowledge and sort through the best sources for the best possible information.
Today, knowledge we acquire in high school, college, graduate school, and our last job may already be obsolete. (I’m one who still grieves the loss of Pluto as a planet; it exists but is a dwarf planet in the Kuiper Belt). This is especially true in fast moving fields like technology. As futurist Alvin Toffler wrote, “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”
This means all of us will need to become lifelong learners or we’ll risk losing touch with an ever evolving world. Maybe we think our brains can’t handle something new, for we’ve heard about the effect of aging. Cognitive process studies with older brains show learning, memory, and problem-solving in humans are often less efficient in these areas.
However, it has recently been established that dogs show many of the same kind of age related changes that humans do. A study in Vienna showed that older dogs learned new tasks just as well as younger dogs, although they took longer to do so and required more repetitive corrections. This aptitude is also known as “resilience training.”
I think it’s also important to know why we want to keep our brains agile as we move into our later years. John Wesley was fond of repeating William Law’s summary from the Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection,
“Do all the good you can, to all you can, by any means you can, as long as you can.”
Because Wesley was better known than William Law, this quote is now attributed to Wesley alone. We Methodists have made it our own, however, and have carried its banner around the globe in our world wide mission efforts made possible by our Connectional ministries. Wesley thought enough of Law’s writing to reprint 19 editions of his work.
My late mother, at the age of eighty, learned how to use a laptop computer. She was motivated because she wanted to see emailed photos of her grandchildren, but then she realized she also could find recipes. When a child in her hometown needed a Mercy Flight, she used her new skills to get him transportation to an out of state hospital for treatment. I occasionally had to reteach her on how to double click quickly on her icons, rather than slowly, but she finally caught on.
If we want to keep our brains agile throughout our middle, silver, and golden years, we always need to try new things. Doing art challenges makes our brain build new neural pathways. Every time we look at a still life or a landscape, we have to make multiple decisions: what shapes do I see—circles, squares, triangles, or rectangles; how do these shapes relate to one another on the plane of our canvas; what is most important; what colors will I use; what emotions do I want to express; and where will I begin?
Eventually, we will find our “style.” We don’t find a style by copying another’s work, but we create enough works until our hand becomes one with our spirit. Since God has placed a special spark of God’s own creative Spirit within each of us, eventually we’ll experience the joy of being one with God when we are in our painting moments. As Paul said to the Romans (8:16):
“The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
Last Friday we had a simple still life as our inspiration. Half our class was out sick with spring pollen troubles, but it was good to see those who could come after a two week hiatus. After a brief show and tell to get us inspired by other artists’ takes on the subject for the day, we got started. I reminded everyone not to make the fruit too tiny, so it wouldn’t get lost on the canvas. I believe everyone succeeded with this goal!
Mike painted his whole canvas with one brush. This gave the fruit a certain texture with contrasting colors, and the background, which was in a close value, didn’t show much brush strokes or texture. I like the perspective he chose, which brings the viewer in close to these fruit.
Gail tried a larger canvas with bolder colors than she normally uses. It was more dramatic and stronger in contrast than usual, while she kept her smooth strokes of paint as usual. She also took a view from above.
I stuck to a traditional rendering of the still life, since I do many abstract paintings in my own studio. I’d call these two Day and Night, for the Apple is quite awake and the Pear seems to need a little nap. It’s a study in contrasts: red and green, blue violet and yellow orange—a color wheel study masquerading as a still life.
Next week we’re in the season of Lent. As Christ turns his face towards Jerusalem, we’ll begin a study on the icons. This will be accessible and interesting. You’ll end up with your own icon for your personal worship center also.
Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This is because the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression and art offers it certain beautiful forms, through which it may realize that energy. Yet most people who look at artworks judge them for the degree to which they represent “three dimensional reality,” in either two or three dimensions (painting, draw,or sculpture and assemblage).
Often I’ve been asked about my colorful landscapes, “Don’t you ever paint these in normal colors?”
My answer is usually, “How do we know the colors we see today are the original colors of Creation? After all, we now live in a fallen and broken world. Perhaps these bright colors were God’s original palette.” I’m not painting just what I see, but what was and what is yet to come. These are visions of a better world, where the leaves clap their hands for joy.
In art class, we not only struggle to master drawing shapes “as they are,” but also to challenge our minds to break free of our need to exactly reproduce the shapes before us. We always have the tension to make only a “copy of the image before us,” rather than to meet the image on a spiritual plane and portray an intimate portrait of its inner truth.
When we meet a stranger, we can hide behind our masks and keep our distance. Likewise, we can fail to become intimate with our painting’s subject matter. The resulting work is cold and dead, like a limp handshake. It’s a risky business to bare your heart to the canvas and paint. The brush will tell if your heart and soul is in it or not.
We get more comfortable with this risky business by practicing risk taking. It’s not like we’re facing tigers in a circus cage or jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. We can’t lose our salvation in Christ if we make a bad painting. We only have a new level from which to start afresh. All growth requires risk and failure. We discover what works, keep that, and eliminate the unuseful.
Willingness to learn is related to the “growth mind-set.” This is the belief your abilities aren’t fixed but can improve. This willingness is a belief not primarily about the self, but about the world. It’s a belief every class or learning experience offers something worthwhile, even if we don’t know in advance what that something is. Every teacher or parent worth their salt has to believe their students or children can learn and grow, or they need to give up their profession so another can grow. The first lesson even the most recalcitrant student needs to learn is to believe growth and progress is possible.
The Christian life has a parallel to the growth mindset. The whole of the Christian life is wrapped up in this faith: with God’s help, we can go on to perfection. This is a basic Methodist belief known as sanctification. We also call it going on to perfection in love of God and neighbor. Some of us think because we’re not able to change on our own, we don’t need to grow in our love. God has done all the work for us in Christ. The Holy Spirit was sent to be a truthful guide:
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)
Paul speaks of this truth in Philippians 3:20-21, when he reminds the people of their present state as sojourners in this world, while their citizenship is elsewhere:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
If life is a journey, the Christian life is even more of a pilgrimage. We all go through stages of faith if we seriously reflect and consider our beliefs when our life experiences intersect with our faith. Our earliest stage of faith begins with our parents or caregivers. Here we learn to trust or distrust, as we experience an embodied faith. The next stage is early childhood (age 3-7). Faith at this stage is experiential and develops through encounters with stories, images, the influence of others, a deeper intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, and innocent perceptions of how God causes the universe to function.
The next stage has been labeled “Mythic-Literal Faith” (Ages 7-12). Children at this stage have a belief in justice and fairness in religious matters, a sense of reciprocity in the workings of the universe (e.g. doing good will result in a good result, doing bad will cause a bad thing to happen) and an anthropomorphic image of God (e.g. a man with a long white beard who lives in the clouds). Religious metaphors are often taken literally, thus leading to misunderstandings. If God’s rewards or punishments don’t apply in proper retribution, in the believer’s mind, their faith in God’s system becomes fragile.
“The Conventional Faith” stage (12-adult) arises when individuals join a religious institution, belief system, or authority, and begin the growth of a personal religious or spiritual identity. Conflicts occur when one’s beliefs are challenged are often ignored because they represent too much of a threat to one’s faith-based identity.
Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,”painted in 1818–19, is nearly 17 by 23 feet large. It commands its space as any proper historic painting of the past ever did. Rather than present a moral lesson from the past, the artist instead chose to paint an event from his present time: the rescue of the abandoned sailors and slaves from a wrecked ship. The French nation had sent the new governor of the Senegal colony, his family, and some other government officials and others on the Medusa. The government officials went to secure French possession of the colony and to assure the continuation of the covert slave trade, even though France had officially abolished the practice. Another group aboard the Medusa was composed of reformers and abolitionists who hoped to eliminate the practice of slavery in Senegal by engaging the local Senegalese and the French colonists in the development of an agricultural cooperative that would make the colony self-sustaining.
On the way, the ship ran aground and broke up. The officials and their families were put in lifeboats, but the 150 others on board got a makeshift raft, which was tied to the lifeboats. When the raft impeded the lifeboats, the officials cut the raft loose and all the lives with it. Only 15 were rescued after days at sea, and only ten lived to tell their tales. It was a scandal of the times. Géricault read all the newspapers, interviewed survivors, and made studies from ancient sculptures to inform his design. When younger artists saw his inspirational work in the Paris Salon, they knew a sea change had happened. Conservative critics and writers were appalled and accused Géricault of creating a disgusting, repulsive mistake. They were not yet ready to leave the past behind.
William Faulkner once said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore” (The Mansion , 1959). When we meet that initial storm, our first thought is to bring our fragile bark into port. In life, we batten down the hatches and book it for a safe harbor. In art class, we want to fall back on what we’ve always done before, what we know we can do, and what we’ve been successful with in the past. This is our “safe harbor.”
“Individuative-Reflective Faith” (Mid-Twenties to Late Thirties). The individual takes personal responsibility for her beliefs or feelings, often by angst and struggle. Religious or spiritual beliefs can take on greater complexity and shades of nuance, and a greater sense of open-mindedness. These can also open up the individual to potential conflicts as the different beliefs or traditions collide.
To progress and grow in our art skills, or to move through the “dark night of the soul” when we question our formerly held spiritual truths, is a crucial time. Crucial is a word sharing the same root as crucifix. The crux of both of these situations results in a life and death situation. Not that the person quits breathing or their heart stops beating, but will their old life die and their faith be reborn anew? Also, will they trust a power greater than themselves to bring them back from the depths? Many of us aren’t willing to give up control to anyone, and certainly not to a God we can’t see. We’re two year olds in our spiritual lives too often, for “I can do it myself!” Is our answer to everything and everyone. (Test it out—how many of you read the directions after you start putting a project together?)
“Conjunctive” Faith (Mid-Life Crisis). A person at this stage acknowledges paradoxes and the mysteries attendant on transcendent values. This causes the person to move beyond the conventional religious traditions or beliefs he may have inherited from previous stages of development. A resolution of the conflicts of this stage occurs when the person is able to hold a multi-dimensional perspective that acknowledges ”truth’ as something that cannot be articulated through any particular statement of faith. This is where the Holy Awe begins to fill all the nooks and crannies from which it was once forbidden.
“Universalizing” Faith (or ”Enlightenment”). (Later Adulthood). This stage is only rarely achieved by individuals. A person at this stage is not hemmed in by differences in religious or spiritual beliefs among people in the world, but regards all beings as worthy of compassion and deep understanding. Here, individuals ”walk the talk” of the great religious traditions (e.g. ”the kingdom of God is within you”).
In 1999 Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s competition for a new image of Jesus by judge Sister Wendy Beckett, host of the PBS show “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting.” In the words of Sister Wendy, “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus—dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.” The model was an African-American woman and the painting includes a yin-yang symbol of Eastern traditions and feather of Native American traditions. (Photo courtesy of Paul Smith)
Next week, we’ll still be working on order and chaos. We got started on this at our first meeting, and the concept is a challenge. I’ll write about our class work then. We’re always open to anyone joining us, for you come as you are and begin where you are. Our art group is a “one room schoolhouse” with all levels of students mixed together. We may all be doing the “same project,” but everyone does it at their own skill level. I give you special attention according to your needs.
Remember, “The only way you can be behind is if you never start.”
One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons was Rocky and Bullwinkle. I loved Mr. Peabody and Sherman, who would climb into the WABAC machine after setting the controls to a time and place of historical importance. That a bow tie wearing dog had adopted a human boy never crossed my mind as being strange. It was a cartoon, after all. In the 1960’s we didn’t take cartoons as real life. We knew they were fantasy.
In times of change we always want to hold on to traditions: our rituals, our places of worship, our routines. I think the newly minted Christians in the first century, who had friendships and business relationships tied up in the pagan temple sacrificial banquets, most likely had this problem too. The temples were where they ate food sacrificed to the pagan gods, drank to celebrate new deals or cement old relationships, and soon one thing would lead to another. It was the “another” that Paul had words about, for In sharing these meals, Christians were also indulging in the sexual activities that resulted from the feast. (1 Corinthians 8)
If Christians were to live a new life and their lifestyles were to reflect this newness, they needed to make an outward change to reflect the inward transformation of their hearts. We don’t keep the old but take on a newness of heart that transforms our outer life. Consider the caterpillar. It only knows how to be a caterpillar, but it has an inner drive to spin a cocoon. Once inside, it rests, reflects, and directs its energy to becoming a new creation. Then it breaks free to become what its new and true self is meant to be. If it remains bound in a cocoon, it won’t fulfill the wonderful design of God’s best hopes and dreams for its life.
We too have to reimagine and revision our spiritual lives. I’ve always based my vision for ministry on John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection: “A heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else can exist.” Like the lawyer in the parable, many of us ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus and Wesley say “Everybody is our neighbor.” I’d add, even those we’re most upset with, even if they’ve part of our family and we have disagreements with them.
Most of us have a Bible, but we don’t all read the same translation and we also have major disagreements on how to interpret this holy book. A particularly fraught scripture is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (NRSV)
Wesley wrote in his Notes on the New Testament on 1 Corinthians 6:9—
“Idolatry is here placed between fornication and adultery, because they generally accompanied it. Nor the effeminate—Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship. But how is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites! We may learn hence, that we are never secure from the greatest sins, till we guard against those which are thought the least; nor, indeed, till we think no sin is little, since every one is a step toward hell.”
In Wesley’s Notes on The Entire Bible, of which his Notes on the New Testament is part of our United Methodist Doctrinal standards, he also reminds us, “ Fornication—The original word implies criminal conversation of any kind whatever.” (1 Corinthians 6:9)
That was Wesley in 1754, or the mid 18th century, but most modern Wesleyans today would be shocked at that interpretation of this text. Interestingly, Wesley departed from the KJV in over 12,000 instances in his Notes on the NT. Wesley valued the Authorised Version of the Bible (KJV), but he always preferred to study the Scriptures in their original languages over any and all translations. If we’re traditionalists, we need to remember Wesley was a radical in his time. As Albert Outler was always keen to remind Methodists, Wesley looked better without his halo.
A later day hero was my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Billy Abraham. As his research assistant at Perkins, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn from his thought and appreciate the early church fathers and mothers. Through him I was privileged to meet and learn from Dr. Roberta Bondi, a noted expert on early church history. I learned from Billy about differing views of scriptural authority and from Roberta how a heart of love and mercy helps us live in community.
I decided I’d go with Wesley’s view: “The Bible contains everything necessary for salvation.” This meant I didn’t have to get into creationist arguments because that’s not going to interfere with anyone’s salvation. Of course, that was the big issue a quarter century ago. Even our disagreements change over time. I learned to pray from Dr. Bondi, “Help us to love one another as God loves us.”
When we read scripture in translation, we read from the vantage point of our times and our context. We don’t have a 1960’s Rocky and Bullwinkle WABAC machine to visit the historical people who wrote the Bible. (If only we could time travel!) Only by studying the life and times of that era can we read with a clearer mind what the original authors meant. Even then, we’re caught up in the translation, for we don’t have many full copies of the holy books from the earliest times. Our earliest complete New Testament dates from the 4th century, long after Christ and the first apostles walked these rocks and clods we call earth.
Then too, we have concepts today which ancient people hadn’t yet conceived. In Roman times, which is the time of the earliest New Testament writings, the day was divided into watches or hours. We think of those hours as having 60 minutes each, but they had no mechanical clocks for precision time keeping. The sundial kept the hour count, so a summer day had long watch hours, while a winter day had shorter ones. Since everyone was on the same system, everyone was on time, or they were late if they were my ancestors.
We all read the same Bible, but we have different translations in our hands. I choose the NRSV because it’s a modern translation that’s as literal as possible and as free as necessary, unlike the NIV, which is a dynamic translation or one that seeks to make the best readable sense of the text. Those translators have to make decisions on how to render rare words in the text. For instance, the word “arsenokoitai,” which shows up in two different verses in the bible, wasn’t translated to mean “homosexual” until 1946. It appears in the RSV, whereas in the KJV, the word gets translated as “nor abusers of themselves with mankind” (or to put it less delicately—trigger warning—masturbation).
How was the word translated previously? It referred to the common Greek practice of pederasty: adult male love for younger boys, which everyone today would be opposed to and disgusted by this cultural practice once common in Greek society. Abuse of youths by adults is something all of us can dislike because that experience isn’t a relationship of equals. One has too much power, authority, and dominance over the other. For the same reason we object to other unequal sexual relationships: clergy and laity, counselors and campers, teachers and students, bosses and employees, and so on.
This particular word shows up exactly two times in the whole Bible. It’s now translated as “sodomites.” This too is an unfortunate translation, since the sin of Sodom wasn’t homosexuality, but the townspeople’s failure to respect the laws of hospitality. When the visitors came under Lot’s protection in his home, the townies gathered outside his door and begged to have their sport with his guests. We’re horrified Lot would offer up his own daughters, but in that day and time, protecting the honor of the patriarch’s offer of hospitality to strangers was more important than anything that happened to the women of the household. We don’t have to like the culture as it was back then to get the lesson of “entertaining angels unawares.” This is an instance we’re glad fathers today have respect both for their guests and their daughters. Cultures change and we’re very glad for that.
The word “μαλακός” or Malakos refers to something soft and effeminate. It could refer to silk clothing or to an adult man who shaved his beard or grew long hair. In the Ancient Greek society, once a boy grew a beard, he was no longer subjected to pederastic abuse. Instead, he passed “the gift on” to the next generation. We’re well aware today how child abuse is generational. This is what Paul railed about in this text.
When the holidays crank up, the greedy, drunkards, and maybe a few adulterers and fornicators will go to town. The angry criticizers will probably be driving the bus and the swindlers (robbers: ἅρπαγες) will be grifting the unsuspecting flock as they barrel along. We don’t have any temples with male prostitutes as the ancient Greek cities once had. There were also women prostitutes serving at these temples, so everyone had their pick when visiting with a celebrant for an intercession with the gods. I’m really glad our current clergy orders don’t include this ritual as part of “pastoral care.” Culture changes. Maybe today’s clergy body is glad this duty isn’t added to their holiday activities.
It’s good the culture has changed from that of Rome and Athens of the first century. In fact, culture keeps on changing all the time. This is why Jesus spoke of “new wine in new wine skins.” We’re no longer a first century church, but some principles still apply. We can’t pour the new wine into an old skin, or the fermentation will burst open the weak old skin. This is why we are a new and changing church, for just as butterflies break out of their cocoons, we too have to break free from what has bound us in a past time. The Holy Spirit keeps refreshing and invigorating a living community, whether it worships in a tent, a rented room, or in a set place.
Now we look forward, to a new land, a new existence, and new possibilities. If we hear the voice of God, we hear the calling: “Go to the land I will show you.” God has always led God’s people in every place and in every time. God has brought God’s people through good times and bad, through war and peace, and in exile to the promised land. We can trust God to be faithful once again.
Joy, peace, and hope,
Drinking cup (kylix) depicting an erotic scene of Eros and a youth Signed by: Douris: clay, Greek, made in Attica, Athens, Late Archaic Period, about 490–485 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
Two-handled storage jar (pelike) depicting young athletes jumping Circle of Euthymides (Greek), Archaic Period, about 520–515 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
Drinking cup (kylix) depicting pentathletes Onesimos: Greek, Late Archaic Period, about 500–490 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
STRONGS NT 3120: μαλακός μαλακός, μαλακή, μαλακον, soft; soft to the touch: ἱμάτια, Matthew 11:8 R G L brackets; Luke 7:25 (ἱματίων πολυτελῶν καί μαλακων, Artemidorus Daldianus, oneir. 1, 78; ἐσθής, Homer, Odyssey 23, 290; Artemidorus Daldianus, oneir. 2, 3; χιτών, Homer, Iliad 2, 42); and simply τά μαλακά, soft raiment (see λευκός, 1): Matthew 11:8 T Tr WH.
Like the Latin mollis, metaphorically, and in a bad sense: effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, 1 Corinthians 6:9 (Dionysius Halicarnassus, Antiquities 7, 2 under the end; ((Diogenes Laërtius 7, 173 at the end)).
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance: effeminate, soft. Of uncertain affinity; soft, i.e. Fine (clothing); figuratively, a catamite — effeminate, soft.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, STRONGS NT 733: ἀρσενοκοίτης 733 arsenokoítēs (from 730 /árrhēn, “a male” and 2845 /koítē, “a mat, bed”) – properly, a man in bed with another man; a homosexual. ἀρσενοκοίτης, ἀρσενοκοιτου, ὁ (ἄρσην a male; κοίτη a bed), one who lies with a male as with a female, a sodomite: 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10. (Anthol. 9, 686, 5; ecclesiastical writings.)
Nothing springs full grown to life in an instant. Everything begins in a seed, which is planted, watered, and nourished into full growth. Only in myths or fantasies can an idea come into being instantly. Zeus had a very bad headache, a “splitting headache,” that birthed his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She leapt out in fully grown from his brow. We don’t take this myth to be scientifically true, but as a metaphor for the difficulty and struggles we undergo to obtain wisdom. As my daddy used to tell me after I’d learned some hard life lesson, “The school of experience is a rough master, and we all earn a costly degree in gaining its wisdom.”
Some of us will repeat the same lessons over and over, as if we expect to get a different result. The purpose of an education isn’t to regurgitate a right answer to pass a test, but to understand why the answer is right. That’s why math classes require showing the steps to the solution, rather than the “full blown adult answer” only. In matters of faith or ethics, many of us haven’t had the training to “set out the proof” for our final answer or deed. In fact, in one situation we may think or act one way, and quite differently in another.
The name for this behavior is “situational ethics.” Less kindly, it’s also known as spinelessness, shiftiness, being two faced, or dishonesty. Mostly it means people don’t have a true center or a plumb line by which they measure themselves. If we’re measuring our lives against other people, we’re measuring against other fallible human beings. Even our heroes have feet of clay, for none of us are gods. When I used to call my parents out on this character trait, they always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This sets up a moral conflict for most people, even those raised in the church or in religious homes.
We need to have a moral center based on a higher authority than our individual or cultural conventions, one that includes or exceeds the ethics of the group to which we belong, and not just our individual beliefs and actions. Professional groups—physicians, lawyers, clergy, educators, and others—all have ethical standards for caring for those they serve, even if they morally disagree with the behaviors that bring them into their care. Who decides the ethics of the group? At the risk of making my favorite seminary professor, Billy Abraham, roll about in his still fresh grave, we United Methodists do have the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to guide us. Often we assign our personal life experience to this latter quadrilateral edge, but Wesley meant our Experience of the Assurance of God’s All Embracing and Adopting Love. As Wesley once said, “God is able to save all to the uttermost.”
Ethics and morals are often used as synonyms, but ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Ethics is a a late 17th century word derived from the Greek ēthos (disposition, character), in contrast to pathos (suffering). In Latin it means ‘character, depiction of character’, or (plural) ‘customs’.
Then we have the words moral and morals. The first is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. The goodness or badness of human character is another concern. From these, people decide what behavior is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We often say a person has morals if they conform to standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We can speak of “the corruption of public morals, “ or you can hear people talking as if “they believe addicts have no morals and can’t be trusted,” rather than understanding the disease and abuse bases which often underlie addictions.
These distinctions don’t change the negative consequences of the addict’s behaviors, yet the addicted person still has the same image of God and the same potential for wholeness each of us have, but perhaps with more suffering, or pathos. If we judge the morality of a person’s choices, and then refer that moral state to the individual’s worthiness, we can end up losing compassion for the person as well as losing the will to help them better their lives. This leads to hard heartedness and a lack of love. We reject our neighbors and make them strangers, unwelcome to our world. We forget our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, wanderers without a home. How easily we forget our savior, who had no place to be born even in his ancestral home, and whose family fled religious persecution and certain death to live in Egypt, far from home. Strange how some Christians have no sympathy for others in the same fix today.
Moral is a word from the late Middle English by way of the Latin moralis, from mos, mor- ‘custom’, with the plural mores or ‘morals’. It refers to one having the property of being right or wrong, good or evil, or voluntary or deliberate, and therefore open to ethical appraisal. When we apply moral attributes to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.” Not until 1803 did moral come to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As a noun, we meet the word in the Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. Later it was applied to the works of various classical writers. All Methodists and the holiness denominations birthed from the seed of the great Methodist revival recognize the genius of John Wesley. We all quote him, but we also apply his wisdom through our own individual preconceived notions of what is “good, true, and noble.”
When John Wesley was asked, “What is that faith whereby we are sanctified?” he answered:
“First believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness; secondly, believe that He is able thus to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him; thirdly, believe that He is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe fourthly, that He is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to His Word.”
In the old days, we said we were “going on to perfection,” not that we were so bold as to claim that we’d already arrived there or been perfected. Oh no, we allowed God could complete this for us and had the power to do it, as well as the will, but our human nature was still fallible. If a word comes up more than once in a text, writers go to the thesaurus for an alternative, but in reading scripture, we learned repetition was a sign of importance, a marker especially meant for those of us who are slow learners in the school of life.
Oliver O’Donovan in “Scripture and Christian Ethics” writes, “Moral theologians have a secret knowledge, apparently concealed from other kinds of theologians, especially those devoted to hermeneutics. They know that the most mysterious and most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation we are facing mean?, where do we find ourselves existentially?”
We tend to speak as if our selves and our situations were known quantities, so that it only remains to choose out of Scripture whatever seems to fit our circumstances as we conceive them. Scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on our self and our situation, to overcome our preconceptions about them. We don’t read about our situation directly in the Scriptures, yet it’s from the Scriptures we gain categories of understanding, which re-frame our view of our situation and ourselves. We can’t look for individual texts to guide our actions, but need to consider the whole of the revealed Scripture and God’s nature as we discern our path forward.
In this sense, the Bible is a mirror which reflects our inner nature to us, convicting us of our failings and giving us grace and comfort in our times of need. We can learn much about ourselves from the verses we lean on, just as much as we can by the verses we ignore. There’s a reason we interpret texts by the whole of scripture, and not piecemeal. This is one way we understand the authority of scripture.
As an interesting aside, SWTX, my original conference, which approved my candidacy for the ministry, didn’t think I should attend seminary because I scored so low on the abstract reasoning tests I took. They didn’t think I would make 65, seminary’s passing grade, in my class work. It’s true I learn and process differently, but knowing this, I crammed a three year program into four years. If I’m slow to grasp the whole until I first understand the parts, this doesn’t reflect on my fitness for ministry or my intellectual ability. It merely reflects a different way of processing information. There’s more way to skin a cat, and many ways people learn.
When I taught art classes, I had to make sure I covered all the learning methods for all my students to have success. I talked about the project, I demonstrated the techniques, I had the steps written out, and for some few children, I had to place their hands in the optimum position to get them started. This covered ear and eye learning, visual reminders, and haptic or touch learning. Some students needed multiple types of learning throughout their working time on a project. Some needed reteaching every class period. Some just needed encouragement when they got stuck at a rough patch. Most all had to learn to talk in positive terms about themselves and their work, as well as about others and their creative process also.
I talk about this teaching method, for this is how we consciously or unconsciously teach those around us ethics and morals. As one youth asked me at a church I once served, “Why are you wearing your cross today? It’s not Sunday.”
“Because Jesus is important to me every day, not just on the day I lead church services.”
I realized even though her family was very active and faithful in our congregation, when they were out in the world of day to day folks, they didn’t stand out from the crowd. Maybe one day day this child will come to a time when wearing a cross becomes bearing a cross. Then again, how many people willingly choose suffering for the sake of the body of Christ? This suffering is often difficult for those of us who’ve committed our lives to Christ’s call, but we realize most laity won’t voluntarily submit to that kind of stress. Yet experience is a great teacher. We learn from others, even those who have differing opinions and choose different actions.
Wesley’s Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” has some advice for us: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.”
As a further reminder from his all time classic Sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1785: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin…by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin…”In modern terms, when we profess our faith, Christ saves us from the guilt of that first sin. Some say Adam and Eve were disobedient. They then emphasize rule keeping as their moral choice. There’s always a reason behind every behavior, however. Why were they disobedient? We hear the answer in the parable of the Tree of Wisdom:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The man and the woman both heard the half truth, saw the shiny fruit, believed the promises of a creature rather than their creator, and ate the fruit they hoped would make them like gods. Instead they only gained knowledge of their nakedness and vulnerability. This first lesson of the school of life came with cost: fig leaves ooze irritating sap. They won’t choose this solution again. God’s providence replaced their poor choice with animal skin clothing even as God sent them out into the world. We might say the attitude of pride or greed drove their bad behavior and was the cause of their negative consequences.
As we grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor, the Holy Spirit destroys any remaining root of sin. One of the important sins, Wesley noted, was pride. Pride is that feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction we get from our own achievements, or those of our family, tribe, nation, or other associated group. In matters of faith, we always have to remember Paul’s admonition to the Romans (10:9-13):
“because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul reminds us of the unity of the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the former masters and slaves, with the gulf now bridged between the former God worshippers and the idol worshiping strangers. Now there’s “no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we joined together into one annual conference in 2003, almost twenty years ago, we had good reasons to make one combined administrative body for our faith community. We had underfunded pension obligations, we were over heavy with administrators, and clergy didn’t have equity in retirement accumulation. Likewise, the conferences weren’t equally treated, since one didn’t fully fund pension needs, an act which caused clergy to seek appointments in the other conference, thus robbing the first of talents and gifts. These were the logical consequences of attitudes and behaviors, however.
The logical person thought, “Let’s make Arkansas One Faith, One Focus, One Fellowship,” and this will solve all our problems. It may have looked good on paper, but our congregations had been used to a personal touch to remind them at least once a year they belonged to a greater whole. Their pride in showing off their home church and being a good host for the Superintendent was taken from them if they were just attendees at another group meeting. The moral choice of what’s better for me, a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my family or a meeting elsewhere, gets weighed and measured.
So now here we are, nearly twenty years into this optimistic marriage of the two annual conferences. The seeds for dissent and discontent were planted long ago, even before this joining. When I inventoried the historic memorabilia of the dead bishops at the SMU Bridwell Library, I saw how the chaos of the Vietnam War era and the sea changes our society were experiencing then affected our church in many ways. Some wanted to hold onto tradition more tightly, while others were ready to experiment with new wine in fresh wine skins. These were just “outer trappings,” however, for the message of “saved by faith, sanctified by faith, and made perfect in love by faith” never changes. This is Christ’s work, enabled by the Holy Spirit.
The past sixty years, as the last two decades, haven’t always been smooth sailing. We often have had trials, storms, and tribulations on our shared journeys. Sometimes we’re so far out to sea, we don’t see the land, and the skies are occluded, so we can’t take a bearing off the stars. Yet God’s spirit will blow us along, for even detours are within God’s providence. As James reminds us:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)
Today we also have powerful economic and political forces that are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They purport to work for religion and democracy, but actually work against the stewardship of our earth ‘s resources and environment, fail to care for the poor and dispossessed, and support military interventions around the world. Moreover, some of them actively work to destabilize religious denominations with social justice callings, such as the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Some today think “things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
Two final words in summary: one is from the ancient wisdom tradition and the other from Paul’s paean of joy in the midst of suffering. Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” My dying grandfather spoke these words to me in his last hours. Ive always considered them a plumb line for my life.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” — Philippians 4:8-9
John Wesley: Repentance in Believers (Sermon 14), “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15. The Complete Works of John Wesley, vol. 1 of 3, Kindle ereader. Read on line here: http://www.godonthe.net/wesley/jws_014.html
The Body of Christ represents the perfection of all humanity as the image of God. The body of Christ we know as the church is made of many individuals, just as a mosaic design is constructed of many pieces to make a whole. I think of these as the “two bodies of Christ,” even though the literalists among us might think Jesus has only one body. The mysterious body of Christ is what Paul speaks about in his letter to the Romans:
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (12:4-5).
Since each one of us is made in the image of God, but of ordinary materials, together we become a mosaic of the whole Body of Christ, going onto his perfection as we encounter and encourage one another within and without the church. After all, the body of Christ isn’t limited to the walls of our buildings, for Christ said in Matthew 25:40—
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
I have a penchant for recycling canvases and paintings which no longer please me. I’m willing to destroy them and make something new. They die and are reborn into a new life. I learned something from that former experience, but now it’s time to move on. When I read my Bible, I’m always getting new inspiration and ideas from the same verses. I have texts I’ve preached on at least a dozen times, but I always came at it from a different angle. This is how we know the Bible is a living document and the Holy Spirit is always at work in us to reveal what we need to hear for our time and place.
We Christians in the Western world have tended to limit God’s self revelation to the spoken word and, to a lesser degree, to the Eucharistic elements in the Institution of the Lord’s Supper:
“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22).
Unfortunately, when we emptied the world of images of God, we also emptied the created world of God. This is why art is so important and necessary to bring us back to appreciate not only creativity, but also the creating God.
Likewise, images in art are beautiful and inspiring. Some which I’ve had the privilege to see in person over the years have made a difference in my artistic and spiritual journeys. These are a few which have inspired me: Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Pompeiian artifacts buried by Vesuvius, and the sacred treasures of the Vatican.
I’ll focus only on the mosaics in Ravenna, which is the site of the Mausoleum of Theoderic (c.520) and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo (500-514), both built by Theodoric the Great (454-526). Here too is the Basilica of San Vitale (c.527-546), begun by Queen Amalasuntha (495-535), Theodoric’s daughter; and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe (c.535-549), built by the Greek banker Julianus Argentarius, who also financed the church of San Vitale. These were all very important people of their time.
Although many of Ravenna’s surviving structures have been heavily restored, the city remains the most important site of Byzantine art outside Constantinople, notably for its exquisite decorative art, including mosaics, relief sculpture, mural pictures, ceramic art, maiolica, ivory carving, marble inlays, goldsmithing, ornamented sarcophagi and much more. This treasure house of art objects made Ravenna a must see on our itinerary during my summer in Italy.
My parents gave me the choice of a car or a trip to Italy with the University Systems of Georgia for my college graduation present. Of course, I took the trip. Cars are everywhere and I could get my own one day or ride the bus if I needed to get somewhere. Italy was a trip of a lifetime, for we’d spend a whole summer in the studios in Cortona, and travel about the countryside on day trips during the session. I even got good enough with my Italian to hold small conversations with native speakers. People even invited into their homes for lunch, where I got my first taste of rabbit. These animals were sold live in the farmer’s market in Cortona’s town square on Saturdays.
At every site we visited, I stood amazed in the presence of some ancient and inspiring work of art. In the historic churches, the best artists and craftspeople of the era had the opportunity to put their skills to good use, for they were not only working for notable patrons, but also for God. Money wasn’t an object either, for extravagance for God was considered a good work worthy of a heavenly reward.
Of course, seeing the art works and experiencing the spiritual impact of the works in their setting are two entirely different things. On a tour, when huge groups of people are tramping in and out of the sanctuary, tour leaders raise their flags, signs, or ubiquitous water bottles to quiet their group before they give a lecture, and then they turn en mass like a flock of ducks, everyone exiting together to clamber onto the bus or to walk to the next place to view some sacred site.
As a person on a spiritual pilgrimage, this experience can be quite jarring unless you prepare yourself in advance. Even though in that period of my life I wasn’t a believer in a personal god, nevertheless I was still seeking the mysterious experience of the presence of God. I found if I took a few moments of personal quiet to put my spirit in a receptive mode before I entered the holy spaces, I was able to ignore the chaos around me. No longer did I focus on the comings and goings of the people around me, but I looked up instead at the beautiful artworks and the glory the ancient artists wanted to give to God as they rendered the images on the walls or sculpted the images.
These mosaics are fantastic works of art, with each image made of thousands of tiny pieces of stone and glass. In the early morning light, the golden tesserae shimmer and reflect the sunlight streaming inside. When viewed in this light, the figures would see to float in a heavenly light.
The icons of Christ always have an other worldly look about them, as Jesus said,
“My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18:36).
We always see in the icon the resurrected body of Christ, the heavenly body of Christ, not merely the physical body of Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:44—
“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”
This is why the icons have elongated faces, small mouths, and large eyes. Their facial proportions are not “realistic “according to “actual proportions.” In western art, representation of physical reality with perspective, foreshortening, and shading gives us a sense of earthly realism. Icon “writers” reject perspective, and other cues of reality to give their works a sense of “other worldliness.”
In other words, we see what we are going on to be, rather than what we are now. The icons are a window into the spiritual or heavenly world. If we have an icon in our home, it is a conduit to that heavenly world, much like a wormhole is a conduit to another point in space. Christ’s eyes have a far away look, as if he sees beyond this moment of now, in which we so firmly fix ourselves, to see the future hope of which the prophet Jeremiah speaks in 29:11—
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
This Mosaic Christ woven canvas art work has a light coat of gold acrylic paint over the multi colored background, so the colors show through. Because the brushstrokes don’t cover the whole square, the grid colors show up as colored mortar. The shape of the face and the hair aren’t treated subtly as in a painting, but take on the look of a mosaic.
When I paint an icon, I lose all sense of time. I enter into that holy time in which God IS, and where Jesus is when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) In other words, I lose all concept of chronological time and enter into the kairos time of God: the right and opportune time, which is known only to God. I stop painting when I sense I’m taking back control of the brush, for then I’ve left kairos time and reentered chronological time.
I look at the clock and think, “Snack time.” It’s time to stop, take care of my physical body, until I’m once again able to renter that spiritual space where time has no meaning, for I’m at home with God. Painting a holy icon is a truly spiritual experience, for those who make their hearts open to the opportunity to experience the holy encroaching into this world. I hope your eyes now are more opened to seeing the holy image of God in-breaking into this earthly realm.
In the “late unpleasantness” which has some of our Methodist congregations in turmoil, many have their reasons for going or staying. As one born into the Methodist Church, who spent a portion of my life looking for a “better god” before God called me back home, I have some experience with faith. I’ve had it, lost it, and received it once again. My privilege in seminary to work along side the Wesley librarian allowed me to touch authentic Wesley letters. I also had the blessing of being the late Dr. Billy Abraham’s assistant for the Evangelism Chair. When I think of faith, Romans 12:3 comes to mind:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Here Paul’s word for faith is the Greek word pistis, which is always a gift from God, never something that can be produced by people. In short, faith for the believer is always “God’s divine persuasion” and therefore distinct from confidence or human belief. The Spirit continuously births faith in the yielded believer so they can know God’s will (1 Jn 5:4).
The former UMC Bishop Mike Lowery wrote in his notice of withdrawal from the Council of Bishops as he surrendered his elder’s orders: “I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all.” (Jude 3, CEB).
I’m not picking on the former bishop. I knew him from my Emmaus community days in Southwest Texas. But his posted letter, which can be read at the link below, charges the United Methodist Church has lost her Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. This piqued my interest, so I decided to focus my own thoughts, as well as to inform others, on this matter of faith.
Faith as Doctrine of Assent vs Doctrine of Assurance:
Today we often think of faith as a set of beliefs, or the Doctrine of Assent. In Wesley’s time, he understood faith as the Doctrine of Assurance, a unique gift to the Christian church, whereby believers can know with certainty they are truly beloved of God with a steadfast love which endures forever.
This love is unconditional and saves us from the tragic consequences of the law of sin and death by bringing us into the law of life and love through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That descriptive mouthful is John Wesley’s heartwarming experience he had at Aldersgate in 1738 on the fateful evening when he attended a meeting very unwillingly, yet had the heart changing event that set his life on a different path.
Historic Wesleyan Faith is a Gift of Grace
We need to ask, “What is the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith, anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior?” Is it located in regeneration, aka the new birth, or is it located in human morality as proof of righteousness in Jesus Christ? This probably means nothing to people in the pews, but if we’re going to claim the mantle of John Wesley, or the argument from tradition, we must get Wesley’s understanding of faith down pat. We find Wesley’s thoughts in his Notes on the New Testament and in his StandardSermons, both of which are part of our Methodist teaching.
In the sermon OF EVIL ANGELS, Wesley reminds us faith is “our evidence of things unseen.”
“Faith is the life of the soul; and if ye have this life abiding in you, ye want no marks to evidence it to yourself: but [elencos pneumatos/Spirit control] that divine consciousness, that witness of God, which is more and greater than ten thousand human witnesses,” is Wesley’s explanation of faith in AWAKE, O SLEEPER.
Faith as the Spirit of Adoption
Another way of saying this is Romans 8:15-17,
“When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
For Wesley, faith is a gift of salvation, our trust in the saving work of Christ. As he says in the sermon AWAKE OH SLEEPER:
“Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is His gift, by the operation of His Spirit.”
Then Wesley gives his altar call: “In what state is thy soul? Was God, while I am yet speaking to require it of thee, art thou ready to meet death and judgement? Canst thou stand in His sight, who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity’? Art thou ‘meet to be partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light’? Hast thou ‘fought a good fight, and kept the faith’? Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed upon with Christ?”
“Hast thou oil in thy lamp? grace in thy heart? Dost thou ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength’? Is that mind in thee, which was also in Christ Jesus? Art thou a Christian indeed that is, a new creature? Are old things passed away, and all things become new?”
Faith comes as a Gift. Our good works respond to Christ’s work.
Most of us are in agreement Wesley’s initial understanding of FAITH having to do with accepting Christ’s work for us as the only precondition for our salvation. There is no good deed or accumulation of good deeds needed to earn our salvation from God. What many of us have difficulty is accepting we also don’t earn our perfection in holiness by our own power.
Our Christian perfection is always a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit. As the Spirit works in us, we respond to work toward the complete renewal into the original image of God in which we were created. While it’s possible we might attain this perfect state in this lifetime, most Christians will attain completion in the purity of love of God and neighbor at the moment of death by God’s work, not by our own accomplishments.
Do the Born Again Christians Sin?
In Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” he quotes 1 John 3:9—
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.”
Wesley admits people who are born again can err or make mistakes, but they don’t sin. That’s a bridge too far for many to accept today, for many of us are prone to judging others. We have a dysfunctional understanding of “perfection.” We think it’s like a Martha Stewart design, forgetting she has a whole staff of helpers to carry out her ideas. As one of my professors once explained it, “Once you’ve been to Waxahachie, you’ve always been to Waxahachie.”
If you don’t know Waxahachie, it’s a midsized Texas town about the size of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was known for cotton in its hey day, and now hosts a crepe myrtle festival. Once you’ve been there, you can’t lose that experience. In the same way, you can’t lose your status of new birth. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, given by faith through Christ.
But some of us will try to throw it away anyhow. Wesley wrote in that same sermon, The Great Privilege, “Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.”
The Outward Appearance vs. The Inward Attributes
So, one who has faith doesn’t sin, since we have to lose faith in God to sin. In other words, we have to reject the gift freely given to us without price. As he also says in his great sermon on Christian Perfection, “Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” [Gal 2:20]— Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
For Wesley, the goal of Christian perfection, or the recovery of the image of God, was to love God and neighbor with one’s whole heart until nothing else could exist inside. No favoritism for a group, no exclusion for a group, no yearning to be better than others, no desiring a better place at the table, no hoarding of resources for selfish purposes, no fear of tomorrow, nor any other anxiety that strikes the human heart.
We give our resources away so we can have room for new blessings. God always provides for those who give with generous hearts. We open our doors to the least, the last, the lost, and the unloved, because Jesus and Wesley went out into the fields and met the people where they were. Those are our people out there, and they aren’t “living moral lives,” any more than the imperfect people within our churches are. But we all can and do live lives of faith. We all can learn to trust a savior who loves every sinew of our wounded and broken bodies. We can love a God who never gives up on us even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
We United Methodists might be messy, but we surely can love God and neighbor. Moreover, we’re all going on to perfection, even if some of us are moving more slowly than others. We’re still a community of faith, a people who trust God’s grace and one another to get through this thing called life together. We’ll bring each other along, for we’re not leaving anyone behind. We include in the great worldwide Body of Christ the body of Christ whom we meet outside our doors. After all, the race isn’t to the swift, but to the ones who help their brothers and sisters to the finish line, where we have a finishing medal for everyone, along with a big potluck dinner with enough food for folks to take home leftovers. That’s the never ending banquet table to which we invite all who hunger and thirst for community—both spiritual and personal.
Trusting Faith for a Risky Love in Unsettled Times
All we have to do is ask ourselves in this unsettled time: “Do I have Wesley’s trusting faith to live this risky love? Are these the people with whom I want to experience God’s steadfast love and share the grace of Christ? This is our heritage in the United Methodist Church, for we’re a people of faithfulness, who believe the “Bible has everything sufficient for salvation.”
I can only hope for those who leave, whether they become global Methodists, independents, or community congregations, that they will provide a large enough tent for our big God and big Christ, for the Spirit always is seeking people and places to fill completely with the gift of God’s extraordinary love and power.
My prayer is our United Methodist churches will receive a fresh rush of the Spirit to become even more of what we are today, for
“Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).” Theological Guidelines: Scripture https://www.umc.org/en/content/theological-guidelines-scripture
The mandala is a geometric design representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. It generally has a circular form and can be varied in any number of ways, but it’s always balanced. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, mandalas are objects of meditation to aid in one’s spiritual development. The imagery depicts the universe and the symbols represent one’s spiritual journey, the cycles of birth-life-death, and the interconnectedness of all living things.
The Hindu tradition focuses on the realization of the self as one with the divine. Whereas in the Buddhist tradition, the emphasis is on the potential for enlightenment (Buddha-nature) and the pictures within the mandalas illustrate the obstacles that one has to overcome in order to cultivate compassion and wisdom. Drawing mandalas in this tradition follows strict rules.
Carl J. Jung was the Swiss psychiatrist who introduced to the West the practice of creating mandalas for self-expression, discovery, and healing. He discovered the shapes, colors, and symbols of his mandalas reflected his mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being at the time that he created them. He noticed his mandala drawings changed as his mental and emotional states changed. Reflecting on these mandala drawings, Jung concluded our subconscious and conscious selves are always seeking balance. When Jung worked with his clients, he would have them draw mandalas. He observed through creating mandalas, his patients experiencing chaotic psychological states could regain balance and calm. Jung also identified universal patterns and archetypes that reoccurred in his and his clients’ mandalas.
As in other cultures, the round shape in Christianity represents the universe, and therefore, is seen as a way to connect the earthly and spiritual realms. Whether in the form of windows in a church or as a rosary, mandalas are used to take the time to contemplate the self and the divine. Perhaps the most iconic representation of the Christian mandala is in the majestic stained glass windows that decorate many churches and cathedrals. While some of these are on a far grander scale than others, the stained glass window is often made up of a central point – often the figure or scene being depicted – which is surrounded by a design that is inherently geometric due to the fact that it’s made up of hard-edge pieces of glass.
Some of the world’s oldest cathedrals are home to rose windows. The rose window is one of the most classic examples of the mandala in Christianity, and their origins trace back to the Roman oculi. These windows are created using geometric segments, and can contain extremely intricate patterns made from different colors of glass, all of which extend out from a central starting point in the middle of the circle.
Aside from its famous French Gothic architecture, this venerable cathedral contains some of the most iconic stained glass in the world. Pictured here is the South Rose Window—a gift from King Louis IX of France—which was designed by Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil. Installed in 1260, the window is 42 feet in diameter and contains 84 panes divided into four circles. It serves as a counterpoint to the window on the north side, which was completed a decade prior.
Of course, we can also see balance and symmetry in architectural designs around and above us, even if they weren’t meant meant to be “symbols of the universe or creation.” We have to ask ourselves, “How do we feel when we enter a space of a particular design?” The architect uses forms, voids, lines, and heights to imbue in us certain emotions, as well as to make the building practical for its intended use. I always know I’ve found my home when I’m house hunting because the place will “call me by name.” I’ll feel at ease when I walk in. It won’t matter how badly the current owners have decorated it, the place will call to me.
This 1899 upmarket department store with a soaring Tiffany-stained-glass ceiling in the lobby was transformed into a luxury hotel in anticipation of the 1968 Olympic Games. The ceiling, which evokes the country’s Mesoamerican heritage with a lively palette of turquoise and gold, was designed by French artisan Jacques Gruber and also features a Louis XV–style chandelier. The domes in the center have a geometric, mandala design.
The Louis Comfort Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center measures 38 feet in diameter, making it one of the largest stained-glass domes in the world. Held together by an ornate cast-iron frame that features some 30,000 pieces of glass shaped like fish scales, the dome was finished in 1897, the same year the building opened as the city’s first public library. The dome underwent a meticulous restoration in 2008 and is now lighted electrically. Tiffany pushed the art of stained glass to the extreme, but this dome certainly has the wow factor the citizens of that era expected, for Chicago was a world class city experiencing tremendous growth, while attracting such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright and hosting the World’s Colombian Exhibition in 1893.
Completed by Catalan Art Nouveau architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1908, this steel-framed concert hall boasts a stained-glass skylight featuring a three-dimensional depiction of the sun. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the music hall contains countless other artworks, including the busts of Anselm Clavé and Beethoven flanking the stage. It’s also the only European concert hall to be illuminated only by natural light. The impressive stained-glass ceiling and the way it’s designed allows the Palau de la Música to use only natural light to illuminate the main concert hall during the day.
Designed by Italian architect, Santino Solari, the Salzburg Cathedral in Austria stands out in a city already filled with stunning architecture. Built in the 17th century, the cathedral was the site of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s baptism. In the center of the dome is a sunburst behind a descending dove of the Holy Spirit. The hexagonal shape repeats down through the dome, with window openings ending at the four trapezoid shapes at the column junctions, which contain paintings of the four gospel authors. It is peaceful and serene, ordered and mathematically precise, much like a Mozart composition. It’s said Mozart wrote his pieces almost without correction, as if they came to life fully born, like Athena, who sprang to life in full adult form from Zeus’ forehead when he had a terrible headache.
Our class has painted mandalas before, but this was before Sally had joined us, so it was a novel idea to her. Still, she decided to go for it, using her new favorite color, Manganese blue. The growing and expanding flower shapes show her love and connection to the natural world. She can paint faster than her decision making can override her energy. This takes time to learn the discipline to hold back the hand, or one can choose to paint on a larger canvas to spread that energy around. Sometimes we have to get our tools fitted to our personalities so we can make the art best suited to our energy and creative imagination. Then our work will begin to “speak to others and call to them with the unique artistic voice of the creator.”
Mike’s mandala balances dark and light, circles and squares, and various sizes of triangles. I get a sense it’s a representation of the creation of earth, but I didn’t get a chance to confirm this with him. Mike typically sits down to paint and doesn’t talk much during class. This is his quiet place, his meditation place, and his medicine for his very busy life. The only thing that will get him talking is “Did you hear about those SEC coaches calling each other out? That’s gonna be some kind of hoodoo when they get together.”
I got started on another creation mandala: the plants and vegetation. I’m basing it on the sunflower, but I’ve only just begun. I have the graphite underdrawing, and part of the central image painted. I’m just a bit irritated at the graphite, since it mixes into the paint and grays it out. This is why I usually sketch my initial image in a pale yellow wash, which I can easily paint over.
Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams and Reflections, “The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the Self. This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man” ( Pages 334-33). As Philippians 3:21 promises,
“He will transform our humble bodies so that they may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
Those of us who spend time in meditation don’t do this practice merely to feel better or to relieve stress, but to become one with the creator of the universe. As we come closer to God and Christ, we also become closer to the people for whom Christ gave his birth, life, death, and resurrection. As he said,
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” ~~ John 12:32
The unity of those for whom Christ lived, died, and was resurrected, is all encompassing. It’s not for a selected few, or for some who look like us or believe like us, but for “all people.” It’s a common fault among human beings to ask, like the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus led him to understand the one who showed mercy to the hurt one was the true neighbor, even if Samaritans normally were shunned.
If drawing mandalas brings us to understand our Bible, our faith, and our God in a deeper way, I’m all for it. If all we’re doing is making pretty patterns on a blank surface, without contemplating the generous Providence of the God who created and sustains our universe, we might as well be mumbling the Apostles Creed on a Sunday morning without giving a thought to any of the words we say. Both of these can be time fillers, mere mind numbing activities, that keep us from having the inner form of Christ, while we give the outward appearance of Christianity. This would be a waste of time, and as the ancient word concerning the law says,
“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” ~~ Deuteronomy 10:16-19
Next week is our last class for the spring, to let this old teacher have a summer break. We’ll start up again in the fall after Labor Day. If you’ve never painted before, this a one room Art School. Everyone proceeds at their own pace. You only have to give up your competitive spirit and your desire for immediate gratification and perfection. It’s art, not microwave pop tarts. You won’t be Michelangelo and that’s a good thing. He’s dead. We want you to be alive and growing in Christ.
The everyday objects around us are like so much white noise: we know they’re present, but after a while, we tend to ignore them. A running joke among the clergy is “Never move anything at the new appointment for six months because you don’t know what objects are the sacred cows.” I learned this the hard way in my first full time appointment when I suggested we rid ourselves of an aging, olive green, velvet curtain hanging on the back wall of the fellowship hall stage, since “It was just hanging there for no purpose.” Oh, the outcries of rage! Little did I know this was the one and only curtain to survive the fire which destroyed the old church building. The people saw this ragged banner as a symbol of hope for the church they were rebuilding for the future. They had invested spiritual meaning into this curtain, even though it no longer served a spiritual purpose.
In the same way, we treat our Bibles as holy objects because they contain the inspired writings handed down over the centuries. We recognize they tell us important truths about God, humanity, and our relationship with the God whose steadfast love for God’s creation never wavers. In worship, we often say after reading from scripture, “The word of God for the people of God.” When many read John 1:1—
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
These same readers connect the “word of God” with the ”Word and the Word (who) was with God, and the Word was God.” The English translation of LOGOS to WORD derives from the Greek principle of Logos, or divine reason and creative order, which is identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ. This is how the early Christian writers argued for the preexistence of Christ and for the existence of the Holy Trinity. When we refer to the Logos/Word of God, we are speaking of Christ. If we read the Old Testament, we’re speaking of the one God who has spoken through the ages, but only revealed God’s Son to humanity during the New Testament era. The Spirit has been active always.
This reminds us to honor the Bible for revealing the Incarnate Christ through inspired words, but not to idolize the Bible as a object greater than the God it reveals. After all, over the centuries, the Bible has been interpreted differently by various schools of thought. This brings up the question of how do we know what we know. There’s a whole body of philosophy dedicated to how we know what we know, called epistemology. There are various kinds of knowing:
Sensory perception or observation of facts
Reason or logic
Authority of tradition or common wisdom
Intuition, revelation, or inspiration
Some of us use one way more than others, but each has both good and bad points. In the case of the authority of tradition or common wisdom, for instance, some have been time tested across the ages, but deference to authority without critical thinking can be a mark of intellectual laziness on our part.
John Wesley’s famous understanding of what we now call the Quadrilateral comes from Albert Cook Outler’s discussion on how Wesley understood authority. When challenged for Wesley’s authority on any question, Wesley’s first appeal was to the Holy Bible. Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controversial point of doctrine. Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian Tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that.
However, Scripture and Tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical Reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian Experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter.
In reality, Wesley’s diagram for how we know is really a triangle— consisting of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason—which leads to the Christian Experience of being a Child of God, forgiven for our sins. It’s based on the Anglican tripod of the faith: scripture, reason, and tradition. Wesley took the tripod and added the firm “seat of experience” of God’s loving mercy to forgive all our sins. This insight came out of Wesley’s life changing Aldersgate experience, which he recorded in his journal on May 24, 1738.
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley understood he could spend his whole life learning about God, reading about God, and even serving God to the best of his ability, but he was in his words, an “almost Christian” because he didn’t have the faith of a son or daughter who served God out of love, but had instead the faith of a slave or a servant, who served only from fear of punishment. One of Wesley’s Standard Sermons is the “Almost Christian,” which you can read in its 18th century glorious English at the link below. Most of us would be glad to be accounted in the “almost” category, but Wesley asks, why don’t we go farther and become “altogether Christian?”
In Methodist terms, this is “entire sanctification,” or “going on to perfection.” We don’t talk much about this any more, but it’s the purpose of our Christian life to be conformed to the image of God. We aren’t trying to be like Beyoncé, JayZ, Taylor Swift, or Jake Owen. Instead we have the promise in Romans 8:29—
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”
We don’t do this on our own, but with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Spirit is called a helper, for it’s a coworker in the process of perfection or sanctification. This epistemology for knowing is useful for art classes also. Some of us believe we need to be perfect from the get go and can’t accept our raggedy messes we produce as we learn the techniques of color mixing and shading, much less the fine motor coordination required to connect our thoughts with our hand movements. If we aren’t able to endure the rough edges of imperfection as we “go on to perfection,” we won’t last long in art class. Just learning how to see the three dimensional world and translate it onto a two dimensional surface is a Mount Everest accomplishment in itself. Some days we have no energy to cope, and that’s when we need to come for support and encouragement.
Last Friday we painted chairs. Every artist’s work we viewed for inspiration had a different take on the chair. We no longer have to make a photographic rendering of an object because we have cameras for this purpose. We can use the chair as a reason to break up the picture plane and organize the spaces. I found a funny little poem called “The Chair,” by Theodore Roethke:
A Funny Thing about a Chair: You Hardly Ever Think it’s There. To Know a Chair is Really It, You Sometimes have to Go and Sit.
As the class went on, Sally decided she wanted to copy one of the inspiration images. She’s new, so she was practicing color mixing with her limited palette. When she couldn’t get the bright turquoise color, I brought my manganese blue over and mixed it with her titanium white. The color she wanted came popping out, much to her delight. “I’m going to buy me some of that color.” Sometimes all we need is the right materials.
Lauralei’s humor takes the cake with her shower chair. She can imagine the model chairs in a new environment. She doesn’t let the reality limit her options.
Gail divided up the canvas into various planes of colors, which sing for joy. I think she had fun. As the only one of our group who took the challenge of the entire scene, Mike took a bird’s eye view of the table and chairs. I hear he may be traveling again, or at least yearning to fly away from the day to day grind of full time work to something closer to retirement.
I can understand that feeling. After years of teaching school, I look forward to summer vacation. We’ll have art class on the last two Fridays of May, and then take the summer off. Our current plan is to return on September 9, the first Friday after Labor Day. In the meantime, if you want to know how God really is,
“Be still, and know that I am God!” ~~ Psalms 46:10
A fun summertime activity is building a chair fort or a chair cave. All you have to do is turn over a couple of chairs on the floor and throw a sheet or blanket over them. This provides a quiet place for a child of any age to have a “time out” alone during a long summer. I recommend a quiet place for children of all ages, even those who’re long of tooth.
My spiritual journey always has a late start, but I suppose my lateness is irrelevant in the realm of the God whose time is eternal and everlasting. God’s time is always kairos time, or the time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action. God always works at the opportune and decisive moment, never before or after. As Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings, “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”
I don’t claim to be a wizard, and I’d never accuse God of being a mere wizard, but I didn’t get the appellation, “the usually late, but sometimes great” Cornelia DeLee for nothing. Am I time challenged as well as directionally challenged? Or do I take on too many tasks, as well as push some of these too close together as I near the starting line for my journeys? Maybe some of both. At one time before the pandemic, I could get a car care appointment in Little Rock in two days, but now it takes three. There goes my Friday. Saturday night I spoke for three hours with my oldest granddaughter and turned into bed early in the morning after taking my medicine.
On Sunday, I was packing in zombie mode at ultra slow speed and was on the road by 3:30 pm. My intentions had been to leave by 10 am and arrive at 4 pm. At best, I now would arrive by 8 pm, but with my need for pit stops, I knew my arrival would be later still. I got to see the sunset change the light on the rolling Grant Wood hills of north Louisiana and later I watched the land turn lavender as the early evening turned to dusk. As I drove further south, the road itself became a dark blue-violet velvet ribbon, until the last rays of light left the sky and only shades of grays and blacks remained.
As I made my way past Natchitoches, Louisiana, the colorful lights of this historic city reminded me of the Christmases of my childhood and the many times my family traveled to the waterfront to see their seasonal lights and fireworks display. As I recall, my family was big on loud explosions of color at holiday times, for we also visited our riverfront’s Fourth of July festivities in the summertime. My dad believed fireworks were best left to the professionals, for he never wanted his own children to lose a precious digit or an eye in an accident with gunpowder.
I arrived safely at my destination, even though I drove in the dark. I usually malign Mapquest for its errant choices, but this time, it didn’t send me by the scenic route. While I’ve discovered many unusual places because of Mapquest, this was one trip in which I made a point to point journey. I missed the whole first day, even though I’d planned to get there by 4 pm at the latest. I’ve never met a Plan A I couldn’t transform into a Plan B. This excursion was no exception.
In the darkness at the retreat center, I met a young man who directed me to the office. I thought I said, “Thank you, honey,” but he heard me say, “Thank you, sonny.” I guess I’ve crossed into old lady land, or my trip aged me. It didn’t help I tried to drive over the concrete curbing, which I thought was where the shortcut to the central building should have been. They didn’t consult me when they first laid out the streets here, or they would have included a logical road at this place. There’s a wisdom in not pouring the walks or streets until folks make the way, since commuters will find the shortest distance from place to place.
Monday was a good day in that I started well, but I missed the afternoon teaching session due to napping. I did have the best intentions, but forgot to return my phone’s ringer to loud. The small chirping sound didn’t arouse me from my much needed slumber. I noticed the crepe myrtles along the pathways to the conference room have shed their outer bark. These scraps have settled in the crooks of the trees, as if the crepe myrtles were loath to give them up. Only mature crepe myrtles lose their bark by peeling, not the immature trees. As I thought about this, the image of the circumcised heart from Deuteronomy 10:16-18 came to my mind:
“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”
When the crepe myrtles mature, they’re able to reveal the beauty of their trunks only if they shed their bark. If we humans would take a lesson from these trees, we’d shed our false fronts and show off our inner beauty to the world around us. Instead, we hide behind our “protective barks” or “facades of competence, strength, or knows it all,” so we can show our false selves to other people’s false selves. Then we wonder why we’re all so immature and fake.
Sometimes we gardeners try to “treat the bark shedding” as a problem by fumigation or poisoning the unseen fungus causing the bark drop. We don’t realize this is a natural state of this tree, rather than a disease to cure. “Too old to care what you think anymore,” is the mature crepe myrtle’s motto, just as the old lady wears purple with a red hat and doesn’t care what you think about that! The world wants us to keep our bark on, to stay spiritually immature, but if we’re to grow in grace, the bark has to come off.
When the bark comes off the mature crepe myrtles, we can see the many colors of their trunks. They’re a delight to behold, and even more beautiful when the rain brings out their subtle coloration. Most of us think our inner selves need to be always hidden, for “if people only knew who we really were, they might not like us.” We also try to hide from God, even though Jesus reminds us in Luke 8:17—
“For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.”
This is because of God’s nature, as described in Sirach 42:18—
“He searches out the abyss and the human heart; he understands their innermost secrets. For the Most High knows all that may be known; he sees from of old the things that are to come.”
Once we realize God knows our hidden nature or our inner truth, we want to hide our nakedness with clothes made of sticky fig leaves. The ancient story tellers had a sense of humor, for this choice of clothing was only one step above a garment made of poison ivy. No one ever said our ancestors or their progeny were smart. But we have a gracious God, who gave humanity clothes made of skins to wear when they were sent out from their first home.
Ever since the garden, humanity has tried to hide their true selves from an all knowing God. As my daddy used to say, “Darling, I don’t think you’re getting smarter with age. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them.” Some of us mature slower than others, but the race isn’t to the swift. It’s to the ones who persist, for God has a time for each of us. We will always arrive at the crux of time when God’s time for us is prepared, just as it was for Queen Esther in Esther 4:14—
“For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Like the wizards of old, God is preparing each of us to be in the right place at the right time. Our only question is, Are we willing to answer God’s call to act for the good of God’s people when that time comes? As Gandalf reminds us in The Lord of the Rings, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I was attending a 5 day academy for spiritual formation last week, sponsored by the Upper Room of the United Methodist Church. We were blessed to have support from the Arkansas United Methodist Foundation. Our leadership group had Methodists from Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as Cooperative Baptists from Mississippi. Ours was an inclusive group of young, old, black, and white Christian folks who share a love for God and neighbor. It’s very interesting, for the Cooperative Baptists split from their more conservative crowd to give women in ministry a voice as the Holy Spirit called them.
Today, we Methodists are approaching a split because some conservatives want to leave. I won’t be leaving because I did my dropping out when I was younger. I rejected everything and everyone that was the establishment. I came back because God had faith in me, even when I’d lost faith in God. If God was willing to be steadfast in love for me, who was I, the prodigal daughter, to say no to God? And so this is the opportune time, this present moment, when we learn God is always with us, God will always be with us , and God will be with us until the end of the age.
I’m back home now, full of Lea’s pie from LeCompte, Louisiana, and happy to continue the meditations and insights I learned from our speakers. If we listen more, speak less, and spend more time in God’s holy silence, we might discover the gifts of communication and compassion. The traits of winning at all costs as we take no prisoners is very warlike, and not the way of peace. Of course, this is the way of our media personalities, not our saints. We ought to be forming our personalities after Christ and the saints, rather than media personalities, but now I’ve gone to meddling again.
Perhaps I should have a bite of the delightful yam loaf I brought back from Lea’s Pie Place. That might sweeten me up!