More Sunsets

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How many of us get to admire the great creative exuberance of the divine palette strewn across the sky twice a day in our ordinary days? Most of us are too busy breakfast grabbing, caffeine swilling, clothes donning, and storming the door in a mad dash for the morning rush to work. Then we join the misnomered evening rush hour, which actually moves at a snail’s pace. We’re too busy watching the bumper in front of us on a highway to pay attention to the sky above us. If we’re guarding our goods on a subway, we can’t even see the light of day until we exit the bowels of the earth, but then we’ve got our eyes set on home, not on the sky above us.

Autumn Sunset

I wonder if this Age of Coronavirus has changed us in any way, since January 30, when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. It’s been about one hundred days since the World Health Organization and our everyday world has known about this pandemic plague, but cancelled sporting events and music festivals, working from home, and closed schools are now part of our daily life. The opening day for Major League Baseball heard no crack of bat against the ball and no hawkers in the stands shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack!” Even though the 2020 Olympic flame burns brightly in japan, the games won’t be held this summer due to the virulent virus and athletes won’t earn shining metals.

If today we haven’t these rituals of community as celebrations of our common humanity, we might feel a sense of loss, even grief. Yet we can find a daily reminder of hope, for the sun continues to rise in the morning and set in the evening. When the moon rises and the stars come out at night, we can see the rotation of the constellations according to the seasons of the year. Of course, we have to look up, and not down. We also have to look out beyond ourselves, and not just inside always. When we’re cooped up inside, doing #StayHomeStaySafe for our own good as well as for others, sometimes it’s difficult to look outward.

The Cup

When I was a child, my family didn’t have many art works in our home, but we always had a colorful nature calendar. My parents were always willing to hang my art in their home, an act I found encouraging. We also made weekend trips to hike in nature, ostensibly to “search for arrowheads,” but more often just to be outside. When I was in active ministry, I would go to nature when I was drained and needed to find the quiet place to restore my soul. There were times when I felt the demands of my superiors for more productivity and the nagging from my congregation about why I couldn’t be available all the time in the office as well as out visiting the home bound were more than I could handle, so I would close up shop and take a drive. I thought I might kill the next person who came in my office, but that’s not evidence of “going on to perfection,” so leaving was a better choice on my part.

I very often served in county seat towns, so I was never far from nature, but even in the city, I knew the location of the best parks. In art school, I even lived next to a park and in seminary I lived next to a creek. Now I live in a national park. I feel like I’ve achieved a life goal. My neighbor at the condo has cultivated quite an interior and patio garden in this Age of Coronavirus. I bought an orchid plant for my birthday, rather than cut flowers, since nursing a living plant seems more hopeful in this time of loss for so many people. My Christmas cactus even bloomed again for Holy Week, another sign of optimism amidst the panic shopping and empty shelves. If there’s enough life in my little plant to bloom out of season, then I trust God’s gift of providence to feed the hungry and care for us all, if we share with one another.

My Easter Blooming Christmas Cactus

Some people only see the sunsets on their vacations, but never any other time of the year. The sunset lasts less than five minutes, and the best colors are only momentarily part of this time. If we’re addicted to busyness, or filling every available moment of our time with productive activity, then we’ll be checking off our to do list and miss the magic of this moment. We could reframe our attitudes, however, and see our pause for the sunset as a time of blessing for the day. We can break for beauty, awe, and magnificence, and thank God for the whole of our day, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. After all, we’ve made it through another day, and the cycle will begin again, so we can entrust our night to God’s Care also. This is the meaning of providence.

Lake Sunset

I sometimes wonder if some are closed to creation and therefore closed to God’s love and grace. When I see the damage humanity has done to the earth and the creatures which live upon it, I wonder how much hate or ignorance can exist in people. This virus has exposed structural inequities and inequalities both in the victims and in their previous care. Two groups which are dying from covid-19 in greater proportions than normal are African Americans and men. For the first group, persons of color more often live in neighborhoods with higher pollution and less access to healthy food, plus they have more disease burden with less medical access. Men of all races and economic status have higher incidence of heart disease and smoking, plus they don’t fight inflammation as well due to their gene structure.

Perhaps this disease will take the blinders from our eyes, so we’ll begin to provide better medical care for our whole population, rather than think the coronavirus is just a means of “culling the herd.” That’s a hard hearted way to view a child of God’s creation, made from the dust of the earth, and breathed into life with the very Spirit of God. When I look at creation, the landscape or a sunset, I see the creating hand shaping me and you, and even these hard hearted yahoos, who have the survival of the fittest and wealthiest as their goal. I think somewhere within them is the image of God, even if they’re doing a great job of hiding it. Maybe they need to go in search of more sunsets or a forest. I know I was always a better person after a quiet time in the shade of a forest.

In N.Y.C., the Coronavirus Is Killing Men at Twice the Rate of Women
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/health/coronavirus-new-york-men.html?referringSource=articleShare

C.D.C. Releases Early Demographic Snapshot of Worst Coronavirus Cases
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/health/coronavirus-cdc-demographic-study-hospitalizations.html?referringSource=articleShare

Strawberry Mindfulness

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I read a wonderful journal, Psychiatric Times, which has a free subscription online. I began reading it because it helped me to understand the diseases of the mind, which cause people to be at dis-ease in their lives and to cause dis-ease in whatever community in which they belonged. In today’s modern world, our first choice to treat dis-ease is medication. However, the ancient practice of meditation is another choice, either as an adjunct treatment or as a stand alone, depending on the person’s need.

I recently read of some tech entrepreneurs who decided to shut off their phones, computers, and all other electronic devices for one day in every seven because they were over stimulated and never rested. Their creativity and original thinking were diminishing, and this was “hurting their brand.” Those of us in the spiritual world would say they needed to practice sabbath rest, and also to take time away on a daily basis also. If you feel “always on, 24/7/365,” you’ll wear down or burn down sooner or later. Even the Lord Jesus was given to finding secluded places to withdraw and restore his physical body and his spiritual energy. We often overlook these texts, in our rush to read the miracles and action of the salvation story.

Dr. John J. Miller, editor in chief of Psychiatric Times and founder of Brain Health, wrote this wonderful piece, which follows:

In our western culture, which values intellectual knowledge and material rewards, the concept of mindfulness is often initially difficult to grasp. Busy schedules, lengthy “to do” lists, commuting, work, family time, and group activities leave little time for self-reflection and inquiry into the nature of our minds.

In fact, all of these activities serve to keep us running on automatic pilot, and strengthen behavioral patterns previously learned that create efficiency when automatically enacted. An analogy I often use to explore the question of the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness is to ask which of the following two individuals is truly an expert on the experience of what a strawberry tastes like:

An individual who has studied the science of strawberries to the degree that he or she is considered to be the world’s expert—agriculture, botany, genetics, human taste receptors that send gustatory information that is decoded in the brain, digestion, visual responses to seeing a strawberry, and the author of over 100 books on all aspects of strawberries—but, has NEVER eaten a strawberry?

OR

An individual who is uneducated but has just paid close attention to all of the sensations and experiences of taking a fresh strawberry, looking at it, smelling it, placing it in his or her mouth, observing the taste and texture as he or she bites into it, and mindful of the plethora of the “here and now” strawberry experiences?

Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights

The answer is usually self-evident and conjures an image or feeling of the warm juice of a strawberry sloshing around in your mouth. Mindfulness is the practice of experiencing each moment like the strawberry.

Common mindfulness adventure
Broadly speaking, there are two subtypes of meditation: concentration and mindfulness. As a general principle, it is important to become proficient in concentration meditation before expanding into mindfulness. Concentration practice involves choosing an object, like the breath, a phrase, or a word that becomes an anchor for the mind’s attention.

The instructions are simple: watch the breath as it moves in and out of the body, choosing a spot to watch it that feels natural (the nose, mouth, lungs or movement of the abdomen). Inevitably, the mind’s attention will be distracted by some thought, feeling, sound, or emotion, and the mind starts to drift down an endless path of mind content. As soon as you are aware of having left the breath, without judging yourself, the task is simply to return to the breath. The same basic steps are followed if you are using a phrase or a word.

Here’s a common example:
awareness of the inbreath and the outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . you hear a car driving down your street, and your mind drifts to the thought of the car . . . my car . . . my car payment . . . bills to pay . . . do I have enough money saved to buy that new iPhone . . . images of the cool new camera on the iPhone 11 pro . . . wait a minute, I left my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . the muscle in my left calf is starting to cramp up . . . I need to start stretching my muscles again . . . why did I stop stretching regularly . . . I should rejoin the gym . . . the last time I was at the gym I saw Tom . . . Tom was a great college roommate . . . college was such a great experience . . . maybe I’ll drive out there and take a walk on campus . . . college is so expensive these days . . . how will I pay for my child’s college tuition in a few years? . . . oh yeah, my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . .

This is how much of the time practicing meditation is initially spent, and usually is so frustrating that most people stop meditating long before their attention is strengthened. With perseverance and practice the mind slowly develops the capacity to stay with the breath for extended periods of time. This commonly results in calmness, relaxation, mental clarity as well as an anti-fight or flight physiology.

Once the mind’s concentration has stability, that focused awareness can be intentionally refocused on the mind’s activity itself, and this is the beginning of mindfulness. A holding environment of sorts is created whereby impersonal and non-judgmental attention is watching the many mind states that come and go, the only task being to stay present and learn from what is observed with open acceptance. As mindfulness strengthens, the underlying themes and patterns that fill our mind automatically are seen clearer, and it becomes easier to disengage from them, remaining in the present moment with pure mindfulness. Like exercise, continued practice sustains the ability to be mindful, while lack of practice allows a regression to automatic patterns.

The practice of mindfulness
In our roles as clergy and clinicians, we recognize we always have more to learn, and more experience to be gained. Such is the case with mindfulness—it’s always patiently waiting for us to resume that selfless non-judgmental awareness of the present moment—with more to learn about the patterns and themes of our own mind, and continued opportunity to choose a different thought or behavior. As 2019 draws to an end, the practice of mindfulness is but a breath away, and is a worthy companion.

The Light of the Body: meditate on this verse

First century oil lamp

“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” ~~ Luke 11:33-36

https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/depression/mindfulness/page/0/1?rememberme=1&elq_mid=10101&elq_cid=1656322&GUID=95C4A97A-F3DF-48E9-82F6-955AEEB9B62B

Crossroads and Callings

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Road to Damascus

Nine years ago…how time flies when you’re having fun! I was at a crossroads in my life, however, with a preexisting health condition I’d managed to live with successfully through three high stress careers since 1977. Accumulated stress isn’t good for the body, so my seizure disorder began to make itself visible.

When my neurologist told me I’d never be able to do the work of a full time church pastor again, I had to revision and rehear my calling from God. If we define a role so strictly it’s a one way highway, it can become “my way or the highway.” This extreme dividing drives clergy and laity into producers and consumers, instead of encouraging shared ministry experiences.

If being a “source of all blessings for everyone” is a short term good for a pastor’s ego, it can also lead to a long term harm in health costs or emotional burnout. For the laity, losing the opportunity to live out their shared witness to the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ means they don’t fulfill their roles as the priesthood of all believers.

ARTANDICON in 2009: Bravely Smiling

The basic teaching of “make disciples of all nations” doesn’t have much effectiveness if we first are not disciples ourselves. So the old saw is true, we may be saved by the grace of God, and not by our good works, but if we want to become learners or disciples, our spiritual life takes some work, just as doing good for others is a hands on job.

I count myself fortunate to have a creative and curious mind, for I’ve always been the child who asked, “Why,” or went, ”Oh, I need to look that up and learn more about it!” Learning for the test, only to forget it later, has never been my strong suit.

The system as a whole also interests me more than the individual parts (I confess this is my shortcoming in relationships, since I have a few deep friendships, many good friends, and lots of friendly folks I like, and many people I know. Not enough people to count on one hand to say I totally dislike, although some I’ve set boundaries for their presence in my life because of their addiction issues).

When I set my preconceived notions of my ordination aside, I listened for a new calling from God. If I couldn’t serve IN the church BUILDING , perhaps I could still serve in the church as the BODY OF CHRIST. The body of Christ exists everywhere, both within and without the edifice we call the sanctuary, for we come and go.

In fact, we have people without churches, people who believe in god, or who are merely spiritual, all around us. Most of us are too busy dealing with our own congregations to reach out to these people. They don’t need traditional stories or sermons. I started a science fiction journal on faith.

Why not? Who else is doing it? Will it make money? Who cares? Do I get feedback? Not often. If we’re in this for the affirmation from human beings, we’re worshiping a false god. Idolatry. I can say things like this and not worry about ruffling the big givers. The taste of freedom is sweet.

Of course, I said this type of thing anyhow my entire ministry career, so I moved a lot, but the churches had good stewardship while I was there and repaired all their unmet facility needs. I left it better than I found it because the people came together to make it happen.

In the solitude of your own studio, writing room, or hangout, there’s no people to gather together to make it happen. A person only has the thoughts of what once was, what has been lost, and what will never be again. It’s the first stage of grief, a shock. It can turn into despair or depression, for everything is overwhelming.

Medication, or “better living through chemistry” can help lift the brain fog so a person can get their ducks in a row. This is no easy task, if you’ve ever tried to herd ducks. Worse than herding cats. Ducks will turn around and peck you. Trust me on this. Childhood memory.

Some people think a prescription is a faith cop out, since they should trust God’s grace alone to sustain them in a difficult time. I think God’s providing grace gave us the knowledge to create the medicine to help us heal our bodies. God can heal by ordinary means, such as health providers or medicines; or extraordinary means, such as miracles. More often God’s working in the ordinary, or we wouldn’t use the exclamation point after miracle!

I also returned to my art, for I find painting the holy icons and natural landscapes both bring me closer to God. As I got more used to being on the computer, I taught myself how to set up WordPress blogs and Facebook Pages for my special interests in health, spirituality, and art. Actually all of these get combined together, because of “systems thinking,” since we can’t lop off art from spirituality, or health from cooking, or any other combination thereabouts.

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Antique Aluminum Jello Mold

Now nine years later, I’m in a good place, enjoying my new callings, and in much better health. I will always have my condition, but my condition does not have me. Of course, I have to maintain a disciplined lifestyle, unlike the rest of the world, which runs at pellmell pace until it runs out of gas and crashes. But of course, you wouldn’t do that—you have too much good sense for that, I’m sure.

Joy and Peace, Cornelia

A FATAL DISEASE 

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“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor…” 
~~ St. Theresa (Mother Theresa)

The biggest disease today isn’t covered by any medical plan–it is the lack of concern for the weak and vulnerable among us. The only medicine for this is a change of heart, so we begin to consider the needs of the poor, the disabled, and the ill as equal to the healthy, the rich, and those who can work. 

This medicine is a living faith, not a dead assent to beliefs! Can we look on the face of our brothers and sisters and see the face of God!?! Can we see the wounds of Christ needing to be healed!?! If we see only the money and the tax ramifications of the plans currently proposed by congress, we have a dead faith, for we aren’t working to care for the “least of these, my brothers and sisters, who are the Christ” we meet daily as we go about our journey. 

If our Sunday words are only for ourselves and not for the world also, if our Sunday words are only for our lives and not for the lives of others, and if our Sunday words are only for our lives, but don’t translate to our politics, we cannot say that we are living a fully Christian life. 

What is the medicine for this? Repentance and restitution. We must make a change in the way we live, the way we think, and in all the ways we act: our uses of money, our treatment of people, and our lifestyle choices. All must be governed by God’s all encompassing love. If God’s love flows into our hearts, let this same generous love flow out unimpeded. 

“Love one another, as I have loved you.” –John 15:12