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!
Hamlet’s famous soliloquy begins with these very words,”To be, or not to be: that is the question.” In seminary I learned one of those big fifty cent words I often had to check my dictionary for its meaning. Ontological is a word we don’t throw around in ordinary conversations. I never used it in a sermon, for its strangeness would have been a stumbling block to folks without similar training. Who am I kidding? It was often a stumbling block when I tripped over it in my reading. I finally understood it after my first year of Greek. I needed to know its meaning fully and completely to comprehend it.
Current events, however, make an auspicious teaching moment for this weird word. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. Ontology is the the branch of philosophy which deals with abstract entities. It’s concerned with the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence, but are outside objective experience. It deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space. Our word essence carries the meaning well, for it means “the permanent as contrasted with the accidental elements of being.”
An example of an ontological statement in scripture is the discussion Jesus has in John 8:56-58 with some of the Jews who opposed him:
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
In Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Hamlet’s whole soliloquy is about his existence, and whether he should live or die:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
Ontology comes from the Greek root ontos, ōn, which is the present participle of einai, of the verb to be. As I’ve watched the unfolding horror of this “Russian special exercise” on Ukrainian soil, I’m struck by the sense of Hamlet’s description of the struggles of life:
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?
“To be” is the ontological insistence for the Ukrainians, for they desire to exist as a free people in a free nation. They resist occupation and occupiers. Dictatorship isn’t in their five year plan, or in their distant future, if they can help it. The surrounding nations have suddenly come alive in their recognition of Russia’s unfortunate foray into this breadbasket of Europe.
Yet even as the Ukrainian people are being killed in their streets, for no reason other than their citizenship; and their homes, hospitals, museums, and public buildings are reduced to smithereens by cluster bombs and artillery fire; they fight for their land and their freedom. I watch for one hour on the evening news, for I believe our world must stand witness to this horror.
Yes, some will turn away, for they have too much trauma in their own lives to bear the pain of others. Others will watch and say this isn’t our problem. If we remember our scripture, the chosen disciples abandoned Jesus in his hour of pain and need, but the women stayed by his side until his last breath. Then they came to dress his dead body’s wounds, but found an empty grave, while the men were holed up in a locked room for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).
Humanity is always our concern and when inhumane acts or conditions prevail, the human responsibility is to bear witness and to share the burden. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:2—
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Hamlet muses on, dithering as contemplates taking his own life, but he takes no action for fear of what awaits him in the world beyond.
who would fardels (burdens) bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover’d country from whose bourn (boundary) No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.
While none of us know with certainty what lies beyond this world, for no one has ever returned with souvenirs, people of faith have trusted God to be always with them, even in the worst of times. As Paul writes in Romans 8:35, 37-39—
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Artists across the centuries have responded to the horrors of war, if they aren’t held in thrall to the purveyors of such deeds. Those who exist to magnify the glories of battle are there as servants of powerful leaders, not as representatives of the fragility of the human condition. Think of Alexander the Great and his route to deification, first as a glorious leader, then as a god.
The Alexander Mosaic depicts a moment of victory in Battle of Issus in which Alexander has broken through to Darius of Persia, whom he defeated and shocked, before Darius was at the verge of fleeing. The mosaic is as great as Alexander himself, for it’s about 9 feet by 17 feet in size and contains over 1.5 million individual blocks of color, or tesserae. This Roman copy of an original Greek fourth century BCE painting dates from the second century BCE and is in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy.
Here we see Goya painting the horrors of war and its impact on humanity. His inspiration comes from the French army’s assassination of a group of Spanish patriots during the 1808 rebellion. The Spanish heroes are illuminated by the intense light, but their faceless enemies aren’t easily visible in the darkness from which they operate. Not only does the design make plain Goya’s feelings, but his psychological understanding of the scene as well.
As Matthew writes in Jesus’ teaching kernel known as “The Sound Eye,”
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (6:22-23)
Probably the best known war painting of our modern era is Picasso’s Guernica. He painted it in response to the Nazi bombing of Guernica, a Spanish town in the Basque region during the Spanish Civil War. At about 16:30 on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. Germany, at this time led by Hitler, had lent material support to the Nationalists and were using the war as an opportunity to test out new weapons and tactics. Later, intense aerial bombardment became a crucial preliminary step in the Blitzkrieg tactic.
Guernica, Picasso’s most important political painting, has remained relevant as a work of art and as a symbol of protest. It has kept the memory of the Basque town’s nightmare alive. While Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”
Lest we forget, while wars are often started by those in power, it’s the mothers who suffer when young soldiers are killed in action. Some are fortunate enough to have the body of their loved one to hold, but it’s a sad consolation prize. How heart rending it must be for the families whose children were left behind as casualties of war. As the old Cold War era 1985 Sting song about nuclear war reminds us—
There’s no such thing as a winnable war It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore… We share the same biology, regardless of ideology But what might save us, me and you Is if the Russians love their children too.
The great sadness of this brutal war foisted on the Ukrainian people is while we’re free to see and own the pain inflicted on others, too many of us will turn away. Then again, we often have difficulty acknowledging our own pain and weakness, for we prefer to see ourselves as whole, strong, and unconquerable. All of us have a weak place and we all have an emptiness that needs to be filled. Some of us fill this emptiness by seeking power and control, while others choose various substances or activities to overuse. A few will let God’s Spirit fill us, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7—
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
When I see the satellite imagery of the obliterated Ukrainian towns, I recall my childhood memories of the old ones in my family repeating their ancestors’ stories of the troubled times during the Civil War. I can easily imagine in Ukraine, for several generations to come, all the stories of pain, survival, and resilience that will be told as they rebuild their nation from the ground up. In the midst of this ongoing disaster, they’re already thinking “How can we build back better?”
This is a great lesson for all of us. If our life hits a major roadblock, we can either give up, scale the wall, or find a way around the wall. Another option is to make peace with the wall and find a way to be happy there. Since Putin is tearing down all the walls for the Ukrainian people, they’ve decided to double down on being Ukrainian. “To be me” is “to be free” and that means “to be Ukrainian.” As their land lies in ashes about them, those who once also spoke Russian, a similar language to Ukrainian, now find that language dead as ashes in their mouths.
To win friends and influence people requires a gentle hand, not the ham-fist of a dictator. I only wonder if the Russian people will ever understand this. But they may have been slaves of their state for so long, they don’t know the sweet taste of freedom. Perhaps only those who believe in a forgiving God, who allows God’s people the freedom to make mistakes and gives them through the reconciling grace of renewed fellowship, are able to come through such disasters. Those who are “sinners in the hands of an angry god” must think their fate is destiny and accept it.
So the questions remain:
What IS the nature of YOUR God?
How does God’s nature affect your understanding of human nature?
Does your view of humanity reflect your image of God or do you see humanity through “God’s eyes?”
Read the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-30 and answer the questions again
Are we our works? Are we valued by our works? Is work a noun or a verb? The child in me asks these questions until the parent in me wants to answer, “I don’t know. Go ask Alexa!”
We’ve all been there with the rug rats of our families and kinfolks. Children are curious and for this we’re grateful. This incessant questioning is their way of learning about the world. It’s altogether better than a puppy’s chewing on every new object it comes across. If families are to encourage their child’s interest, they get them a library card so they can have internet access and books to read, and they answer as many questions as possible. If they don’t know the answer, “Go look it up in Google or the encyclopedia.”
In ancient Greece, Socrates taught by asking his students questions, a technique we call the Socratic Method. Some of us teach art in this way also. When we see the student at a stopping point, we teachers ask, “Are you having a problem and not figuring out a solution?”
The student can usually point out what they want to change on their work, but they don’t have the experience or prior learning to drawn upon to solve it. For instance, if the flower petals all look flat because they’re painted in one color, the beginning student knows this doesn’t look right, but they need a trained eye to point out the variety of values in the petals. Once they see the gradation of light to dark, it’s never again unseen. We know it’s there.
Teachers can point out the range of values from dark to light that make up the visual vocabulary of shading a two dimensional image so it looks like a three dimensional shape. Students can learn this technique and master it over time. Mastery then becomes a matter of hand and eye coordination. In a sense, we have to lose ourselves in the subject matter so we can let its energies enter into our hearts and minds, and quicken our hands. The rest is a matter of practice and learning how our egos can quit controlling the outcome.
The spiritual writer and Jesuit priest Richard Rohr speaks of the three eyes in his book, The Naked Now. The first eye grasps what the senses can understand, the second eye understands the science and poetry, while the third eye is aware of all of the above, but especially how all things connect as part of God’s great mystery. When we enter into this “now,” we’re present not only to God, but to all creation, as well as our own selves. This is the contemplative spirit for which the artist strives, and not just for the mastery of the materials or for the rendering of the subject matter.
If we allow this energy to move our hands, does that mean our work also becomes part of us? If we baked a simple yellow cake out of a box, we might not ask that question. When we start decorating a cake made from scratch and adding frillies of frosting, then we start identifying with the cake. Should someone smash the cake enroute to the soirée, there’ll be hockey sticks to pay.
I remember almost fainting in Italy when I saw a glue blob on one of my delicate watercolor paintings, which had just been framed for an exhibition there. A stiff shot of some unknown alcohol brought me back to life. The framer made it good, for the glue was water soluble, so we could gently lift it up. I was more of a drama Queen in my 20’s also. I take things as they come these days. I also was more immature, for I didn’t separate my work from my identity.
Some say we are what we eat, so then are we what we create? Jesus had an answer in Mark 7:18-19 for those who thought certain foods were unclean, or forbidden to eat:
“He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
That fancy dinner we ate two nights ago leaves us after a few cups of coffee in the morning. We don’t recognize it and most of us don’t even inspect it as we flush it down the toilet on its way out the sewage pipes to the sanitation station. Of course, only parents can get excited about their two year olds who manage to do their “business” in the toilet instead of in their diapers. I know I was one of those. If Facebook had been invented back in the day, I’m sure I’d have posted an update.
As we grow older, we enjoy making and crafting for the experience of the textures and the command of the materials. Children have fun pushing the paints, papers, and glue all around the surface of their artwork. Parents often look askance at the grey, scribbled messes their children excitedly present to them for the honored place on the refrigerator display, but these muddy creations are the result of a dramatic story of their child’s imagination. “Interesting, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Is an adult’s best response in this situation.
I’ve had kindergarten children meltdown because they had difficulty cutting a snowman on the fold. It’s hard to be five years old and live in a home in which the parents don’t want their children to make a mess. These children, as a result, have poor fine motor skills, have difficulty writing, and handling scissors. Even folding a piece of paper is tough. Then they miss the important information: hold the fold, and cut on the flaps. If they hold the flaps instead, they end up with two halves of a snowman. And a meltdown into tears.
“I’ll never be able to make a snowman! My snowman is cut in two pieces. Why can you make a perfect snowman and I can’t?”
This lesson always called for me to wear my therapy hat, and remind my five year old students I’d been making folded snowmen for a very long time and my first ones looked just like theirs did. There was hope for them. We just needed to go over the directions again and make one together. Sometimes we miss a step, and that’s ok. It’s just a piece of paper. It’s not like we took away recess from everyone forever.
Usually when we went over the directions again, I could remind them of the way to hold the fold and cut the flaps. Then they’d all be amazed at how easy the project was. “Everything is easier when you follow the directions.” They’d laugh and start decorating their snowman, all their meltdowns forgotten.
Most of us aren’t successful the first time we attempt a new experience. If we were all extraordinary artists right off the mark, none of us ever would get excited about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Picasso. If we could all pick up a musical instrument and play it well right off the bat, who’d have the need for civic symphonies or even bar bands? We’d all be happy making our own music. The truth is some of us not only have the interest and inclination, but also the will to spend not just hours, but years, honing our craft, until we sing our notes purely or paint with a master’s hand.
If we all aren’t masters, we all can enjoy the journey if we learn to detach our egos from our products. When I wrote papers in seminary, before I opened up my graded work, I’d repeat the mantra, “I am not my grade. I am a daughter of the living God, chosen for God’s work.” Then I’d look at the markings on the inside. This helped me to remember who I was, whose I was, and what my purpose was. I was also two decades older than that fainting child in Italy.
As I would tell visitors to Perkins, “If your well-being is wrapped up in your grade average, you might want to rethink either that notion or choose another school.” “Oh, really?”
“Yes, if you’re going on for a PhD, you’ll get over a 90 in your classes. The top grade for the Mdiv is 89. If you get any grade higher than that, the professor thinks you could do PhD level work.” “That doesn’t seem right,” they said.
“It’s a curve. If you go elsewhere for a DMin, those schools know Perkins’ grading system. Think of it as an A at 89 and don’t worry about it.”
Some people can’t restructure their world so their 89 is an A, but if that’s the system they’re in, that’s how it is. If they have in their mind nothing less than a 95 will validate their worthiness, then if they do their degree work at Perkins, they’ll always be up against the immovable wall. When they go out into ministry, they’ll discover everyone they meet has a grading system. That can drive a person crazy, unless he or she decides the ultimate approval they seek comes from the one who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Likewise, if we’re beginners in art, we have to suspend our criticism of our imperfections in our work. Instead, we reframe our critiques into “areas which need improvement.” Even now, after decades of working in my studio, I’ll let a canvas rest near me in my living room. I’ll eye it in different lights, until I hear it call my name. I’ve totally repainted some of these, and others I’ve destroyed. A few I leave alone. All of us will keep learning something new, both from our “good paintings “ and our “need improvement works.” Most likely, artists quit painting when they they think they have nothing left to learn, or when they lose the courage to risk moving into the unknown mystery, as it’s written in 1 Corinthians 2:9—
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Paul also writes in Romans 8:27-28,
“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
So we too ask the Spirit to work more in us and free us from attachment to our need to be loved and affirmed by our works, since God is already working for good for those who love God and who are called according to God’s purpose. As we drop our old ideas and preconceived notions of the good, we become open to God’s good and God’s purposes. Releasing control to God is an act of humbleness and faithfulness, both of which are contrary to our modern belief in self-actualization and autonomy. This is the way of the mystic, or the contemplative, and the inspired artist.
February is a cold month here in the northern hemisphere. Maybe that’s why we rabbits yearn for the warmth of love, since those emotions kindle a fire in our hearts. It’s a cold, dead heart of a bunny that can’t quicken with love. I find those who have difficulty loving others often are struggling with an inner pain or grief, which often expresses itself in depression. Depression closes a person off from others. As we used to say when we were young, “Been down so long, it looks like up to me.” That phrase was originally used by bluesman Furry Lewis in his 1928 song “I Will Turn Your Money Green.” Both Jim Morrison of the Doors in 1966 and Bob Dylan in 1978 incorporated a lyric from the old bluesman’s song.
Yet February is also known as a month for love. In the middle of the month, for this one has only 28 days, we celebrate Valentine’s Day. Of course, history gives us not one, but three men by the name of Valentinus, Latin for strong or powerful. It was a common name in the Roman Empire back in the early years of the Christian church. One Valentinus was a general stationed in North Africa, who died on February 14th with his men in battle. The other two, who also died on the same date, have a better claim to the sainthood. One was the bishop of Terni, who healed a crippled boy and converted his whole family to Christianity.
The Roman senate heard of this heresy, arrested Valentinus, and decapitated him. The boy’s family arranged to take his body back to Terni, but all of the funeral procession was killed by the Romans. Chopping up bodies doesn’t just belong to Zombie movies. This is how pieces of the saints’ bones were distributed to various churches. Of course, sometimes this results in multiple skulls, but the saints didn’t have double heads.
The third Valentinus had a similar story about healing and conversion. He came to the attention of the emperor because he was preaching Christianity. Then he was sent to house arrest, where the owner was promised a bounty if he could dissuade Valentinus from his faith. Instead, the faithful man healed his jailer’s daughter. Then he baptized the householder and all who lived there, more than forty in all. Of course, everyone went to jail and did not pass go. No one collected $200. There was no get out of jail free card. This is how one becomes a red martyr, which is why our Valentine hearts are red, not white or blue.
What’s interesting is none of the historic Valentines were ever connected to love and affection. They were known instead for healing and faith, especially epilepsy. There are almost 40 saints associated with epilepsy, a number only surpassed by those related to the black plague. In France they were called “saints convulsionnaires” (convulsion saints). During the middle ages the difference between epilepsy and chorea (neurodegenerative diseases affecting movements) wasn’t well known yet. This is how St. Vitus became one of the saints to which patients with epilepsy prayed more often for help. Epileptic people also sought the help of St. Willibrord, St. John the Baptist and St. Matthew.
Undoubtedly, the most renowned was Valentine. The cult began in several European countries, up to the point that this condition became linked with the saint’s name. In France epilepsy was called “maladie de Saint Valentin,” in Germany the “plague of Saint Valentine” and in Dutch the word sintvelten was a synonym of the type of epilepsy with falling seizures. In German, Valentine is pronounced “fallentin” and is connected with one of the symptoms of epilepsy, the falling sickness or the falling-down disease.
How did we get to cute cupids with tiny bows and heart shaped arrows aimed at our sweetie pie’s love center? We can thank Chaucer, who wrote The Parliament of Fowls in 1380, and mentioned “seynt Volantynys day/ Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. [Saint Valentine’s day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate.]” Bird love apparently occurred on Valentine’s feast day at the start of the English spring. If birds can do it, maybe we rabbits and humans should take the hint. After all, it’s been a long cold winter.
February 2nd is Ground Hog Day, and if Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow on Groundhog Day, then that means there are six more weeks of winter. If not, then we’ll have an early spring. Or so the legend goes. Of course, any time Phil’s prediction has turned out to be wrong, it’s always been a result of a “mistranslation” by his handlers. Of course, we’ll have what we have. We rabbits take the good with the bad. An early spring means fresh greens in Mr. McGregor’s garden, while more winter means more warm soup and cuddling by the fireplace.
Everybody needs somebody to love. We can love another person, we can love our country, we can love our neighbors, we can love god, and we can’t forget to love ourselves. Love is one of the most popular themes in music, as the lion’s share of pop music lyrics in every decade contained references to relationships and love (67.3%) and/or sex and sexual desire (29.9%). In my own music library, I found 117 songs for 8 hours and 43 minutes worth of “love” playlist.
When I think of love, I remember the many texts I’ve preached to various congregations over my time in ministry. The most important is 1 John 4:19-20—
“We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”
Gods love for God’s creation is the source of all other love, for if we’ve known God’s unconditional love for us, then we can share that same love for others. Our lack of forgiveness for others and our need to control them “so they deserve our love,” only shows how little most of the rabbit population understands the steadfast love of God, which persists, even when our love fails and turns away.
Popular music reminds us over and over, “Everybody needs somebody to love.” Jerry Wexler signed Solomon Burke to Atlantic Records in the early ’60s. Together, with producer Bert Berns, they turned that song for the offering into Burke’s most famous 1964 song: “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love.” You can hear him preach and sing it here:
We probably know this same song better from The Blues Brothers movie. The Blues Brothers’ version of “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” not only included Burke’s introductory spoken words, it modified those words to adapt to the plot. It was the climactic performance of the movie, and as such, it became one of the more memorable renditions of the song. In 1989, The Blues Brothers’ “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” was released as a single in the UK, peaking at Number 12. Here’s the movie clip:
“Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” has been covered by groups as famous as The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, as well as Wilson Pickett, not to mention psychedelic garage rock bands. Those rabbits are still having flashbacks, and there’s no accounting for taste if they’re still listening to that in garages today.
February 20th is Love your Pet day. I know you want to give your pet the love and attention it deserves as one of God’s creatures, for it didn’t ask to be born into this world and it depends on us, just as a child does. Pets give us unconditional love and appreciation, something we can learn from them. Too often we love only if someone reciprocates tit for tat for us. This is called conditional love. It’s transactional, a give and get, or a mutual backscratching. This is the lowest form of rabbit love: “I’ll give you a carrot if you don’t interrupt me for fifteen minutes.” I confess I’ve stooped to this in my life with my own small daughter bun.
The third Monday is always Presidents’ Day, which is a three day holiday for many people. This is a day to love your country. It celebrates George Washington, our first President, who led our ragtag armies, but was a man of deep thought: “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality, and the preeminence of free government be exemplified by all the attributes which can win the affections of its citizens, and command the respect of the world.”
The other President we honor is Abraham Lincoln, who steered our nation through its most divisive period, the Civil War. In his first Inaugural Address to Congress on March 4, 1861, he closed with these fateful words, only to have the Confederate States fire on Fort Sumpter in the early morning hours of April 12, 1861.
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict, without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to “preserve, protect and defend” it.
I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
So much for the “war of northern aggression,” for some rabbits have been dispensing “alternative facts” for over a century and a half. But, we yearn always to make the broken whole, for like the Saints Valentinus of old, love is a healing balm. The love of God flows through these miracle workers and it’s God’s power, not the human beings, that heals the afflicted. Indeed, even today, when we have modern medicine, we faithful rabbits say, God called people into healing ministries, God provided the resources of intelligence and inspiration, and also the generosity of funding.
Some rabbits want to restrict God’s miracles to those which happen without medical assistance (extraordinary means), but some of us recognize God most often works in and through ordinary means. This isn’t an alternative fact, but healing miracles happen all the time. At the time of the Civil War, life expectancy in the USA was only 40 years. Today, it’s almost twice that! We have 40 more years to live, love, and laugh. We now have 40 years to be “over the hill,” so I think for every rabbit’s sake, we need to banish this ridiculous rite of passage, or at least move it to age 50.
If today’s rabbits would take better care of their bodies than my generation, they might extend the life expectancy and enjoyment by some years. Love your body and care for it with nutritious food, adequate sleep each night, and appropriate exercise at least three to five days a week. Also think of activity minutes, and move about a bit every hour, rather than just sitting all day.
There’s many a holiday in February, but Fat Tuesday will be March 1 with Ash Wednesday on the following day. So let’s practice LOVE all month long to prepare our hearts for the greatest gift of love of all (John 3:16-17):
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”
Remember, Every bunny needs some bunny to love!
Joy, peace, and love,
Percentage of top-40 songs referring to 19 content categories by decade. | Download Table
I was an art major before I attended seminary at Perkins, where I had the great privilege to take Philosophy from Dr. Billy Abraham. Of course this privilege was extended to me because I failed my one and only philosophy class in undergraduate school. I had taken it pass fail, but hit a terrible depression after my art teacher died. I had no energy to even hand in a paper with my name on it, even though the professor offered this as an act of grace to pass me.
“I’ve not done the work, I’m in over my head, and I haven’t understood any of these concepts in this class,” I said. “I don’t deserve to pass.”
“It’s a pass fail class. It doesn’t count toward a grade average, but it can count against you. Just turn in the paper,” he pleaded.
It didn’t seem appropriate to me, or honorable to take this option, but that could have been my depression coloring my decision making process. Still, I wasn’t raised to take credit for haphazard efforts, and providence ensured my F didn’t count against me when I transferred to art school the next semester, so that F didn’t affect my ultimate grade average after all.
I speak about this because in seminary, Billy Abraham daily stretched the brains of every one of us first year students. First we heard one Greek philosopher say this was “true and real.” Then the philosopher who was his student came along and directly contradicted his old master, saying, “No, instead, something else is true and real.”
We all were in hair pulling mode, not to mention Dr. Abraham’s favorite description, “getting our underwear tied into knots.” I’ve always heard there’s a Rosetta Stone, which can unlock the meaning of an unknown language for those who have the eyes to see it. Perhaps only the creative ones, those who can see the patterns and the similarities, or what the mathematicians call the “sets” and the biologists call the “modules,” can suddenly see the key in plain sight.
I admit I too was floundering until I had the eye opening realization I already held the key in my hand. I’d met this same question before in my art studio and history classes: “What is beautiful and what is truly art?” This definition had changed over the centuries, so why should the ideas of what is “reality and truth” remain fixed? This is a great example of “transfer of learning,” a well known educational concept, which resulted in my “lightbulb moment.”
As I explained to a fellow student, “Think of these as distinct historical ideas, not as your individual truth. It’s like looking at a fashion show from the ancient times to the present: no one expects those clothes to look like what we wear today. Just memorize what each of these styles look like. You don’t have to wear a toga to know what these Greeks thought. We just have to know how these old ideas influence later trends of thought fashions.” This is teaching by analogy, which is familiar to Bible readers as “parables.”
Most people can get over that intellectual hump. Seminary is designed so persons who aren’t agile thinkers will reconsider their educational choices. Philosophy and theology will winnow those who need to be told what to think, rather that learning how to think and understand deeply. Biblical studies will sort out those who aren’t able to interact with more than one voice of biblical interpretation. Then the internships and clinical pastoral settings will further sort those who don’t play well in groups. Finally the supervisory process we all go through toward our ordination into one of the orders of the annual conference is a long period of discernment, for all concerned.
The good news we can all do ministry, for we’re ordained by our baptism into the priesthood of all believers, not only reflect the Christ who lives in us, but to be the Christ in service to our neighbors. As we read 1 Peter 2:9—
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
This is why it’s important we consider such concepts as truth, beauty, and the good. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates English for “beautiful.” Kalon has more of an ethical tone, but doesn’t mean the same thing as agathon or the “good, ” but rather is a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” or “admirable.”
What was true for Plato were the forms, and everything here on earth were mere reflections or imitations of these ultimate truths. The true beauty and the good existed beyond this world, but everything and everyone could aspire to that ideal. Plato thought art and poetry were the arenas of greatest beauty, as Simonides, the Greek poet, drew an explicit analogy: “Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks.”
While some say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for Plato imitation is found in the appearance of things, rather than in reality (the forms, which exist in an ideal world elsewhere), so judged on its own terms, the product of imitation has an ignoble pedigree (Republic 603b). Therefore, the imitative arts direct a soul toward appearances and away from proper objects of inquiry, which are the forms. While a mirror reflection might prompt you to turn around and look at the thing being reflected, an imitation keeps your eyes on the copy alone. Imitation has a base cause and baser effects.
Plato also believed poets created their works under irrational conditions, with inspiration arriving sometimes spontaneously, as if it were from the gods, a “divine madness,” as it were. Even today, people think creative types are more likely to be mentally ill, but science doesn’t bear out this romantic notion. Illness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity, even though many artists have suffering in their life histories.
Creativity of any kind—making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine—tends to make individuals more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those who score high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to those who engage less in everyday creative behaviors. Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases our immune system functioning, and the emerging field of post traumatic growth is evidence we can turn adversity into growth.
Realism was the primary purpose of painting until the 19th century, when the invention of photography took over this task. This freed painters to engage in the higher search for what is beautiful and what is true, rather than to limit a painting to reproducing a likenesses or the mere imitation of nature. Yet many people still judge a work of art by how close it resembles the natural world. Of course, we also say the say the same about the embalmer’s art as we view the deceased in the casket: “My, doesn’t so and so look natural! So lifelike, as if they were asleep.”
For our first lesson back in art class, we worked on seeing the familiar in a fresh way. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re so used to recognizing faces in the ordinary way, to see them in a different way is a struggle. Take the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s an icon or representative image of the renaissance portrait. No matter what an artist does to it, we still recognize it as the Mona Lisa. Our goal was to take a photo of of someone we know, and push the limits of the facial expression and shapes so it wasn’t like the image we worked from originally.
Mike copied the cover of the Bad Girls of The Bible, and made a good likeness. In between calls from work, he focused on replicating an image he could see. After several years of sincere efforts to paint what he sees, it’s hard to break this habit and paint something beyond his vision.
We’ll take a shot at this again. I a similar lesson early in the group’s existence and I remember it was distressing to them to draw without seeing. We were feeling the objects inside bags, and they didn’t like not looking. Bring out of control was disconcerting.
Gail took her grandchild’s photo and stretched it into another dimension by treating the image as if it were a Night of the Living Dead character or the Scream from the German artist Munch. She had the most success of any of us in terms of breaking the norms of “portrait.”
Sally, new to our group, began a lyrical study of a woman’s head. I confess I never saw the image from which she drew her inspiration. It’s her first try, and we’re glad she got paint on the canvas. We’ll keep working on it together. All art, as is life, a work in progress.
I worked from an icon of Jesus, which I knew would test me to break the form I saw before me. As it turned out, I too couldn’t break it on this first day. When the Platonic Ideal Form exerts its pull on the mind and hand, the artist keeps making the reflection of that form as a work, which exists as an imitation or a window into the true reality where the Holy is found.
After a long summer break with all the Covid isolation a person could stand, I quite forgot how much energy teachers expend in explaining new concepts and in the excitement of the first day back. I noticed about 11 am I was struggling for words and not making good choices with my brush, but I ignored it in the thrill of being back with people. After cleaning up, I always check my blood sugar before I drive home. It was 45. I’d never seen it that low, but I was paying attention to other people, not to my body. I ate the crackers I always carry for just such an emergency.
The Wisdom of Solomon (7:26) speaks about God’s Wisdom personified: “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.”
In Hebrews (1:3), the writer describes The Christ: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
This long discussion on Plato, the true forms elsewhere and the imitations and reflections here help us to realize how much debt Christian spiritually and art history have to Greek thought. Art isn’t just “I know what I like and that’s all that counts.” We can all experience making art and enjoy it on any level. Having the depth of understanding to see how art connects us across the human community will give us a greater appreciation for our common spirit.
I promise I’ll bring a healthy snack to eat during class next Friday! I’ve learned my lesson on this, if nothing else! We’ll work on faces for two more weeks, then we’ll take a short break and come back in October and decorate cookies one week for Day of the Dead and paint an autumn themed subject for the other week.
Joy and Peace,
Simonides on poetry and painting—Plutarch: The Glory of the Athenians 3.1, 346f-347a.
Does God, who knows all things, also have a memory, or can God choose to forget?
I often wonder about such ideas, for when we ordinary folk experience horrific traumas, we often say, “This is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I’ll never get over it.” In some cases this may be true, especially if the person doesn’t seek long term counseling and faith support to deal with the soul damaging harm. With assistance, one can heal from the pain, even while remembering the injury, just as a broken bone can be mended over time.
Those who’ve been wounded and healed can go on to help others heal from their pain and brokenness. The memories of the wound remain, just like a scar on the skin, but they don’t interfere with living a positive and productive life. For those whom Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers,” and who find meaning in their suffering, their lives are a model for others to emulate, for their memories don’t destroy them.
If we look at the nature of God—the one who is, the one who will be, and the one always becoming—we can understand better the discussion between Jesus and the Temple authorities in John 8:56-59–
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Jesus made the claim to the I AM name and being of God, an act of blasphemy, which the devout Jews found outrageous, since it made him equal to God. Their memories of Moses meeting God in the burning bush are to this day a seminal recollection of their liberation story from their Egyptian captivity:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Can one who always lives in the present have a memory of the past, or envision the future? I met a lady at Sam’s Club in the days before the July 4th weekend. She was standing in the center of the entrance while folks were pushing baskets quickly past on either side of her. I thought she looked like the choose cone at a NASCAR restart. Bewildered and worried, she was looking for someone who wasn’t to be found. I asked her if she needed help, and she was even uncertain about this request. I suggested we walk over to customer service. On the way, I discovered her name and that her people had walked off to shop without waiting for her. She didn’t know their names, but she did know hers.
I thought about my own daddy, who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. He progressively lost the memory of our family members: first my younger brothers, then me, and finally my mother became “the lady who came to kiss him every afternoon at 4 o’clock.” However, he could remember every bit of his medical training, even when he slipped and fell. On entry to the ER, he began ordering the medical staff about as if he were in charge. They tried to shush him up, until they realized he was running the accustomed intake drill.
Memories are like this, for we keep some which we find necessary and yet lose some very important ones we’d really like to hold onto. We also keep painful memories longer than happy memories, perhaps as a survival instinct. We won’t touch that hot stove again! This doesn’t bode well for our overall optimism, however, if we end up seeing the world as a fraught and dangerous place. How we imprint the emotions on our memories is still debated, for we tend to assign positive or negative emotions to events of our past. Then these affect our future experiences. This is why some of us fear dogs, while others of us approach them with respect, allowing the animal to sniff us out and accept us before we interact with them. We can change our future reactions to old memories, but this is a work in process.
God never gets old, even though God is eternal. If God is always I AM, or I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, then God is a very present god and as well as a God of the future. If the past is also the present for God, then perhaps the past may be also as the future. In fact, for all we humans know time, as we understand it, may have no meaning for God, and what we think of as past, present, and future, God may experience as the eternal NOW. This may be how we understand Hebrews 13:8— “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Recently I’ve been finding old mementos, souvenirs of my youth. Some are faded newspaper clippings, others are letters from old boyfriends, and then there’s the strange and esoteric memorabilia that somehow survived over half a century in storage along the various stages of my journey. My people are genetically predisposed to collecting. Did I ever mention my grandmother’s ball of tinfoil she kept on the kitchen window sill next to the sweet potato plant she was growing in the old mason jar? I come by this habit through my maternal line.
As I’ve been going through these, I had no difficulty throwing away utility bills from the early 2000’s, but then I found the college freshman beanie from my childhood boyfriend. He lived thirteen houses down the street from me. We had a thing for each other all through junior high and high school. For some reason, he gifted it to me. That motive is lost to the fog of memory now. Perhaps as Isaiah 43:18 says:
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
When I picked up this ancient cap of shame, for that’s exactly what it is, since it marks its wearer out as the low man on the totem pole, I marveled at how small the hat was. I don’t remember my beloved having a pinhead! In fact, I mooned and pined over his handsome and athletic form. Then again, I was young. As I held it in my hands, I felt the need to recreate something new from it. I had a landscape painting which had gone poorly because I was ill. I decided to paint over it, using the hat as the central tree structure, and adding some cut fabric trees to balance it. I also found some printed butterflies I cut out for embellishment. Once I glued those shapes on the canvas, I could repaint the canvas.
As I destroyed the old canvas and remade it into a new creation, the words from the prophet Isaiah (43:25) came to mind:
“I, I am He, who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
God is a forgiving god, but more importantly, God is a forgetting god. How many times do we say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget?” We might as well say, “I’m not forgiving or forgetting, because I’m going to carry this wound or harm or slight FOREVER.” So much for our going onto perfection in love, or learning to love as God loves.
The cornerstone of all forgiveness is self-forgiveness. Too many of us believe the verse from John 3:16 only applies to the world, but not to themselves individually—
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
If we can’t forgive the darkness within us, or the mistakes we’ve made, or allow God to forgive us, how are we to forgive others? In fact, if we tell God our sins are too great for God to forgive, we’ve set ourselves above God’s authority to forgive sins. This is pride, authority, and idolatry all wrapped into one. We’ve made ourselves into a god, rejecting God. The Pharisees of old rejected Jesus for this very reason.
Who was the most forgiving person in all of scripture? Jesus, of course, for he claimed authority to forgive sins just as God did, as when Jesus healed the paralytic whose friends let him down through the roof (Luke 5:20-24). Those who were nearby wondered at his boldness, but he asked, “What’s easier, forgiving sins or saying stand up and walk?” If we’re going to claim the name of Christ, we too are going to be forgiving people. Forgiving is an act that heals not only the other, but also ourselves. If we can’t forgive, we’ll never be able to forget, or transform our painful memory into one which God can use for the healing of others.
In a sense, we make a new map in our minds and hearts of our old landscapes of pain and sorrow. What once were places of despair can become fertile fields, if not gardens of delight. Our wounds become the tender points which open us up to the suffering of others, and allow us to minister to their needs. Our healing is part of God’s steadfast love. As Jeremiah reminds us:
“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:34)
When I think of the faithfulness of God, I also believe in the timelessness of God. When Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee to give them the Great Commission in Matthew 28:20, he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” When this present age ends and God renews the heavens and the earth, how will we experience time in the new creation? Surely, if God is making all things new, we won’t be in this same world anymore and the rules it follows won’t be the same. We aren’t thinking boldly enough or big enough if we limit God to only recreating only the current fallen and broken world we have now.
Maybe if more of us began to think on the world a forgiving and loving God could create, we could begin to remake this present world into the new creation. If we were to make acts of love and forgiveness more prominent in our daily lives, we might restore our neighbor to fellowship and community. We can forgive even those who don’t seek it, for they’re the ones who’re most in need of forgiveness. With a forgiving and loving God’s help, we can do this.
The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
The word labyrinth comes from the Greek labyrinthos and describes any maze-like structure with a single path through it. It’s different from an actual maze, which may have multiple paths intricately linked. Etymologically the word is linked to the Minoan labrys or ‘double axe’, which is the symbol of the Minoan mother goddess of Crete. The actual word is Lydian in origin and most likely came to Crete from Anatolia (Asia Minor) through trade. Labyrinths and labyrinthine symbols have been dated to the Neolithic Age in regions as diverse as modern-day Turkey, Ireland, Greece, and India among others.
Labyrinths or mazes may have served to help the ones who walked them to find their spiritual path by purposefully removing them from their common understanding of linear time and direction between two points. As one traveled through the labyrinth, one would become increasingly lost in reference to the world outside and, in doing so, might unexpectedly discover one’s true path in life.
On New Year’s Day, I was reading my Twitter feed and came across this image of a seaside labyrinth. The comment was, “My #oneword for 2021 is downwind. After walking the labyrinth today with turns both against & with strong wind, I realized how limitless 2021 can be with the help of those who push me forward and not the wind pushing against me. This year, I’ll ride the momentum downwind.”
The theme of the labyrinth leading to one’s destiny is intricately linked to the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Minotaur lived at the heart of the labyrinth on the island of Crete, whose king required the people of Athens to send a tribute of fourteen youths annually. Once they entered the Minotaur ‘s labyrinth, they never returned. Theseus defeats the beast and saves his people, but loses his father to suicide because he fails to remember to change the color of his sails on his return trip as a sign of his victory. There’s even more dysfunctional family relationships, but that’s a story for another day. Suffice it to say, the ancient gods were wont to interfere with the lives of arrogant humans who failed to defer to the gods and instead acted as if they were masters of their own destiny.
Greek tragedy deals with the sweeping themes of love, loss, pride, the abuse of power and the fraught relationships between humanity and the gods. Typically the main protagonist of a tragedy committed some terrible crime without realizing how foolish and arrogant she or he had been. After slowly realizing the error, the world crumbles around the hero. The tragic hero must be essentially admirable and good. The fall of a scoundrel or villain evokes applause rather than pity. Audiences cheer when the bad guy goes down. We feel compassion for someone we admire when that character is in a difficult situation. The nobler and more admirable the person is, the greater our anxiety or grief at his or her downfall.
This idea survives to this day in the proverb, “The bigger they come, the harder they fall.” In the 5th C BCE, in the founding work of history known as the Histories of Herodotus, we find the statement: “It is the gods’ custom to bring low all things of surpassing greatness.” An earlier expression, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,” is found in the Proverbs (16:18). These date from 700 BCE to the fourth century BCE (1:1-9:18).
In a true tragedy, the hero’s demise must come as a result of some personal error or decision. The tragic or fatal error, or fatal flaw of the protagonist that eventually leads to the final catastrophe is known as hamartia, or missing the mark. It’s a metaphor from archery, and literally refers to a shot that misses the bullseye. There’s no such thing as an innocent victim in a tragedy, nor can a genuinely tragic downfall ever be purely a matter of blind accident or bad luck. The tragic hero must always bear at least some responsibility for his or her own doom. In Greek tragedy, the gods may interfere, but they don’t determine our destiny. Likewise, human events and actors may put detours across our path, but though the gods may intervene on our behalf, we can still snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in a true Greek tragedy.
The labyrinth is a symbol for change, for it’s the place of transformation. In the myth, Theseus must enter a maze no one knows how to navigate, slay a flesh eating monster, and return to the world above. Theseus accomplishes this, but still retains his youthful flaws until he is changed by his father’s death and he’s forced to grow up and assume adult responsibility. His experience in the labyrinth offered him an opportunity to change and grow but, like many people, Theseus resisted until change was forced upon him.
The medieval labyrinth is a unicursal labyrinth, with a single, circuitous but clearly delineated path. It’s an image encompassing both shared and individual experience, for we don’t walk the path alone, but we share it with fellow travelers. The unicursal labyrinth is distinguished from a multicursal labyrinth (or maze) by having only a single (though winding) path to its center. While a maze may have little or no symmetry and may not even have a center, a medieval labyrinth usually has both. The great medieval labyrinth on the floor of France’s Chartres Cathedral is one of the most famous unicursal labyrinths.
Carl Jung, the famous Swiss psychologist, saw the similarity between medieval, Christ-centered mandalas in manuscripts and rose windows, the mandalas of his patients, and the mandalas he created. Jung believed his own mandalas “helped him maintain his psychic equilibrium” and believed “everything points toward the center,”so that he found “stability” and “inner peace” even during the war era.
Medieval labyrinths, and all their variations, including the classical design of which the medieval style is an outgrowth, now appear across the United States in settings ranging from churches and parks to hospitals and museums; they may be painted, tiled, paved, woven into a carpet, constructed of canvas, or cut into a lawn. They’re usually designed to be walked on. Over the last quarter century, the medieval labyrinth has entered public consciousness as a “blueprint for transformation” rather than “an oddity,” as it was at one time. I can remember at least one of my fellow clergy asking if “this wasn’t so kind of new age hooey I was getting into.” Moreover, labyrinths aren’t limited to meditative and ritual use; they also appear in secular and recreational settings and are often noteworthy for their ornamental or artistic value.
While each one of us walks the same path, no one has the same experience on the labyrinth. We’re all on the same journey, but we’re traveling on a different part of the path. We entered at a different time, or we came to the labyrinthine journey at a different period of our spiritual journey. Some of us will move slowly, while others will hustle along the way. If we came with troubles and worries, we may have been looking for THE ANSWER. The labyrinth isn’t a one armed bandit. We don’t put our money in, pull the handle, and get a payout. The walking is instead an opportunity for reflection, a time to give our selves to the service of God, and set aside our pride.
I’ve walked on the labyrinth on different occasions and had different experiences, since I’ve been “residing in different inns along my spiritual journey” during the years as I make my rounds about the sun while I live on this planet earth. I’ve been to the holy land twice, and been to Greece and Turkey to walk in the footsteps of Paul to see the churches he planted across the Mediterranean. I spent a summer in Italy during art school, while living in a small town and taking field trips to see the historic sites nearby. I took an interterm during graduate school to visit London and visit all the museums I could devour in that short time, along with some excursions to the seaside. Still, I’ve yet to see Stonehenge, and I’ve not seen Paris.
The question is, do we walk the labyrinth as a tourist going to a destination, expecting to stamp our passports, bring back photos, and buy souvenirs, or do we go expecting to meet Christ along the way? On the tour groups, folks sort themselves fairly soon into subgroups. The ones who want to go quickly to the site, give it a once over, take a few photos, and hit the souvenir shops before they have a coffee or a drink, will find each other and share their daily haul as they relax and wait for the stragglers to roll in. The stragglers come in two groups: the ones who took their time, and the ones who took the wrong turn and got lost. Thankfully, I didn’t get lost as I often do here at home! My notorious ability to take the wrong turn and my poor map reading skills are legend. The virtue of group travel is we leave no one behind.
While each person enters the labyrinth alone, others may also be on the path also. When we meet another, we perform a silent dance of giving way, first one to another, then the other to the one. Two can’t be in the same lane at the same time, but we can “dosie do” to let one another pass on by. This is life in community, where we share the spaces and the journey. When we walk the path of the Labyrinth, we enter a space/time/continuum. This is where up/down, left/right, and forward/backward all exist in one time dimension. Time passes differently inside the Labyrinth, for the twisting path appears to take us first directly toward the center, but just as we approach it, we are forced to follow the path directly away from the center instead. Then we wander around the outer edges of the labyrinth until suddenly, we arrive at the center. If we think we’ll never reach the promised land, we’ll find ourselves suddenly cast upon its shores as a Jonah spewed from the belly of a big fish. What seems like three days of darkness in a labyrinth may only be thirty minutes. Clock time gives way to God time on the journey.
Thus we enter into the timeless paths of all the pilgrims walking before us, those who never made their way to the holy land, but found the holy in the land in which they lived. The labyrinth has a way of uniting all the time of the past, the future, and the now into one dimension. In this way, when we walk the labyrinth, we enter into the kairos time of God, as opposed to the chronos time of humanity. No longer are “on the clock,” but we walk in the appointed and opportune time for us to experience the holy.
If we’re surprised, and emotionally disconcerted as we walk these twisting paths, it’s because we discovered we had no control over how soon we could get to our destination. We can stay in the center and be humbled by this awareness, but often we act like tourists instead. We get our passports stamped after an appropriate rest, and head back home. As heroes who’ve been to the center, we journey back to the outer world as changed people, ready to bring new truths and understanding back to the world. If we are like the Greek heroes of old, however, our tragic flaw will be living for ourselves only and forgetting to do good to all.
The energies of the labyrinth aren’t self-contained to the paths or to those who walk it. It is a holy space, so like the energies of space time, in which space and time are relative, observations depend on the viewer’s speed. If we rush through the labyrinth, we don’t have the same opportunity to meet Christ on the road to Damascus, as Paul did, and have an opportunity to change our lives. We need to drag our feet a bit, as the grieving disciples did on the road to Emmaus, so we might have the privilege of recognizing Christ in the central act of blessing the bread when they invited him to stay with them at the end of the journey.
The hurried life isn’t for the contemplative person, so even those whose lives are given over to getting many things done can benefit from a quiet time now and then. Otherwise, we can become the heroic Theseus who depends upon his own power, rather than giving credit to the powers of the gods, for all his great deeds. This is why his arrogance and pride is his undoing, even though he had a transformative experience in the labyrinth. Not until much later did he process this experience and grow from it.
When I began my painting, I started out with the actual forms, in homage to the many walks I’d participated in over the years. Soon I thought of burying the image, and uncovering parts of it, as if it were an archeological dig in process, but I only buried the outer edges. Then the idea of energies of the innumerable pilgrim walks percolated up into my consciousness and I began to paint the intersecting colored arcs. While I lost the paths, I was painting my emotional experience of the walking. I’ve been on quite a journey this past year, even though I’ve gone nowhere, due to the covid pandemic. Confined to home, I’ve longed to journey elsewhere, but the labyrinth is a journey anyone can take safely without fear of a monster who devours human tributes. I’m looking forward to the new year and new works, and perhaps some actual journeys. God bless everyone. Thanks for reading this.
Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.
July celebrations kickoff with the Independence Day holiday. In this Age of Coronavirus and social distancing, we rabbits might not be at a company or church sponsored picnic, and we might not seek out a crowded beach for a vacation since Florida and Texas are currently experiencing peaks from this new disease. I’m still hanging close to home, choosing to enjoy a variety of foods, and starting some sewing projects in addition to my art and writing interests. Due to a past brush with heat exhaustion, I don’t tempt these hot temperatures with my presence. “Stay cool and stay hydrated” is my motto for the next few months. Rabbits and humans both have the same need for water, fresh fruits and veggies, plus lots of shade in this heat. An ice bottle might be a treat for them on a hot day too. I find myself craving frozen fruit for a snack.
While I staycation, which is what I actually do all year long, except for my occasional road trips to visit museums or the grandchildren, I’ve had time to reflect on my past life and the events of today. I began writing this in June, near Fathers Day and after the weeks of protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. One of my family members mentioned, “Your daddy would be rolling over in his grave at all of this mess.” I answered, “If he’s with God, God has cleansed him of all his old prejudices and now he’s rejoicing people are asking for justice and equality.” We got into it after a bit, so we had to take a break for a while. Arguing might not change people’s minds, but I don’t have to affirm antebellum thinking. There’s a reason it’s called a “Lost Cause.” Denying the equality of human beings in the sight of God is to deny God’s love for all God’s people. Not being able to walk in another’s shoes is to deny injustice persists for many people.
The life in God is based in change. If we aren’t able to change our attitudes, we can’t change our behaviors. If we can’t see we were wrong, we can’t turn toward the right. If we turn from God, we also have to be able to return to God. Our love may fail, but God’s love never fails. Some folks think people never change, perhaps because they have no intention of changing. Change is difficult, but necessary. We’re changing from the moment we’re conceived to the moment we leave this world.
We call change in the spiritual life sanctification, or holiness. It’s a process, which is led by the spirit and made evident by good works. We can’t do good works to earn sanctification, but our faith is deepened both by the spirit and by our experience in doing the works. If we’re still imperfect when we pass from this world, God’s mercy completes the work of sanctification to make us fit for life in God’s presence. If God is abounding in love for all and we love because God first loved us, God will refine us into the same love for all to fit us for the eternal life with God.
In my state, some folks called the Black Lives Matter events a riot, while others called them a demonstration. I imagine the British of 1773 had an alternative view of the events of the Boston Tea Party from those who tossed the imported monopoly tea into the harbor. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry reads about the same as the History Channel’s entry on the internet. I call this event to mind so we Americans don’t forget our country was born in demonstrations, riots, and rebellion, not in picnics and parades.
The years of dusty history tend to cloud our memories and we weave a narrative to suit our own modern purposes. Pull up a glass of iced tea and find some shade. We have a whole pandemic ahead of us to get reacquainted with the moldering moments of our nation’s nascence.
Even before the Boston Tea Party, a violent incident escalated out of hand on March 5, 1770. Private Hugh White, a British soldier, heightened a verbal altercation to a physical one. White used his bayonet against a patriot at the Custom House on King Street. Then the angry mob countered with a volley of snowballs, rocks, oyster shells, and ice. Bells rang signaling a disturbance, and loyalists and patriots entered the street to see the commotion. As the riot ensued, the British fired their muskets, killing five colonists in what is today known as the Boston Massacre. Today we’d call this “police brutality.” The representatives of the Crown claimed a right to defend the King’s treasury.
The British soldiers, brought to trial and defended by Samuel Adams, had been in jail for seven months. The captain of the guard was found not guilty, six soldiers were also not guilty, and two were guilty of manslaughter. These last individuals escaped punishment by claiming “benefit of the clergy,” a holdover from early English law. This provision held secular courts had no jurisdiction over clergymen and had become a loop-hole for first-time offenders. After “praying the clergy,” the soldiers were branded on the right hand where the thumb meets the palm with the letter “M” for manslaughter. This insured they could only receive the commutation once, and the mark would be clearly visible during a handshake or while raising their palm on any future oath. This was the 18th century’s “get out of jail free card.”
Undue force is always unjust. Escalating a verbal situation into a brawl and then to a massacre is the worst sort of police brutality. Unfortunately, bringing bayonets and rifles to the location was their first mistake. But “hind sight is always 20/20,” as my daddy used to say. “I hope you learn from this experience, young lady.” I’ve always found the school of hard knocks to be an expensive degree.
When the Tea Act was passed in 1773, it required the colonists to purchase only British East India Tea Company products, whereas they preferred to buy from Holland, since it wouldn’t profit the King. When their smuggling routes shut down, the Americans produced their own herbal teas, rather than purchase the Crown Tea. By December, the colonists were fed up with paying taxes without representation in parliament. They gathered in costume, armed with hatchets, and boarded the boats loaded with British Tea. Tossing it all into the sea, with a whoop and a holler, they had to jump down into the water to hack up the bales so they would sink. Our forefathers forgot to check the tides. At low tide they could waded out to the ships.
Most likely the British of the era thought the colonists engaged in a destructive riot, whereas the patriotic participants were hailed as heroes at home. Things bubbled and simmered along for three more years until the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The top portion of the original draft document was written by Thomas Jefferson, with additions and deletions by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson presented the finished Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, at which time the Declaration was signed. Then copies of the text were transported to key cities, such as New York and Boston, to be read aloud. The initial sentence speaks to the heart of every freedom loving person:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence contains noble and aspirational thoughts. Yet these words were written by a group of men, all white, all free, and all educated as far as their privilege and status had brought them to that day. Women weren’t included in this equality and neither were the slaves the signers owned, since they were mere “property.” In this case “All” didn’t mean ALL PERSONS.
Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. The delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early summer of 1776 debated its inclusion with fervor. Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document. It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.” His original language is below:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
Not until 1870 and the passage of the 15th Amendment did African Americans get the right to vote. Women got the right to vote in 1920, Asian Americans got citizenship and voting rights in 1952, and even though Native Americans have had citizenship and voting rights since 1924, many states still disenfranchise them. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to remove the barriers keeping persons of color from exercising their tight to vote, yet disenfranchisement still happens in subtle and not so subtle ways.
The Voting Rights Act came 189 years after the grand words of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two people to walk on the surface of the moon They set an American flag on the surface in recognition of our country’s achievement. While we might be amazed we as a nation could come together in this great challenge, nevertheless we might wonder why the majority population has yet to fully appreciate the minority as an equal partner in this land.
Perhaps it’s as Frederick Douglas once said, “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.” (From the speech, “The Race Problem In America, 1890.”)
When we search for images of Patriotism or Independence Day, almost all of these are white, for America has been to date a majority white nation. After 2045, however, non-Hispanic whites will likely make up less than half of all Americans. Already whites under age 18 are in the minority. Among all the young people now in the U.S., there are more minority young people than there are white young people. This is a sea change. The attitudes of our youth are different from our older generations.
Among old people age 65 and over, whites are still in the majority. Indeed white old people, compared to minority old people, will continue to be in the majority until some years after 2060. What does this mean for our country, for our world, and for our future? How can we as a people live up to the aspirations of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?”
First we need to agree “Truths can be self-evident.” Not just my truth is true, and your opposite truth is also true for you, so whatever works is cool, as some would say, but certain known absolute true facts are real and sure. For the 18th century mind, truth could be known, and a new and better truth could be discovered in time to replace it through wisdom and knowledge, but “alternative facts” or “fantasy figments of our delusions” aren’t truth, but lies we tell ourselves. (As an aside, if the love of your life ever asks, “Honey, does this outfit make me look fat?” your answer should be “No.” and kiss her before she can ask anymore questions. Life will be happier for you.)
Back in the stone ages, “all men” was read as an all inclusive group, but I questioned that understanding back in the 1960’s in high school.
“Why don’t we just say ALL or EVERYONE instead?” “That’s not how people wrote back then,” my teacher would reply.
“Maybe because they thought it meant ALL MEN and not EVERYBODY?”
Then I would get the LOOK from my teacher, by which I knew I’d pushed the limit and it was time to ask no more questions, even though I had more.
After the Civil War, Northern Reconstructionists attempted to educate whites and blacks equally, but ran into resistance from the Lost Cause proponents. When school institutes were formed to continue teacher education, the summer school term was twenty days long until 1906 when one of the Baton Rouge schools started a thirty-six-day summer school program. In 1909, the length of the summer school program was lengthened to fifty-four days for white teachers and thirty-six days for Negro teachers. Someone with two years at the State Normal teacher’s school could teach in the black schools, but to teach in a white school required a four year degree. This is an example of systemic injustice in the educational community.
What does it mean to be created EQUAL, but not be given equal access to an equal education, housing, food, or medical care? Where I grew up, the white schools got new textbooks. When these were worn out, they were passed down to the black schools. It wasn’t right, but this was the way it was. My state had a practice of historic and systemic racism.
My high school was integrated in 1965 with one young black person. He ate his lunch alone the entire year. He struggled because his schools weren’t on the same level as ours, but he persisted. Equal access is all he wanted. Arthur Burton is a hero in my hometown and my high school now has a scholarship named in his honor.
This lack of equal access was far reaching. Restaurants back in the day wouldn’t serve nonwhite diners, but required them to pick up food at a to go window out back. There were two water fountains, two waiting rooms, and two of everything, just so the races never mixed. I never saw the sense of it, but it was a strict rule my parents carried forth from the past generation. As they often reminded me, “As long as you live under our roof, you abide by our rules.”
This was probably why they wanted me to live at home and go to college in town, but I wanted to go up north. They weren’t having that, so we compromised on a fine girls’ school in Georgia. At least it was below the Mason-Dixon Line. There I participated in marches for peace and justice, or as my parents called it, “Mixing with a bad crowd that was up to no good, just a bunch of hippies and commies, every last one of them.”
One thing about our family, we say what’s on our mind. At least my education was doing me some good, for my friends and I chose not to be on the front lines in case the police or the marchers began to get angry. The middle of the crowd was safer, especially after the 1968 assassination of Dr. King and angry demonstrations which broke out in some cities. Curfews and the termination of liquor sales finally dampened everyone’s energy, but the same cause for equal access still remains today.
Dr. King has been dead over fifty years, but his dream hasn’t yet died. He spoke in Washington D.C. of the Declaration of Independence as the “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Unfortunately, as Dr. King went on to say, the founders wrote a check they couldn’t cash for all people, and certainly not for persons of color.
King then offered hope, for God is the author of hope to the hopeless, the lifeline to the drowning, food for the hungry, and the defender of the weak:
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
While this document is yet imperfectly fulfilled today, we are called to work toward perfecting it, so we also may truly say with Dr. King:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…(and)
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”
So with St. Francis of Assisi I offer this prayer for each of us at this half way point of 2020:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is error, truth; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in self-forgetting that we find; And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Boston Massacre” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870. Boston Tea Party https://coffeeordie.com/boston-tea-party-history/
Charly Palmer: “Good American,” giclee print on paper, 38×28 inches, 2016. A limited edition work of art depicting a an African American solider walking with his wife as the celebrate the United States of American on July 4th. The print is meant to convey the message that African Americans have helped build this country, are a part of this country and celebrate this country like any other Good American citizen . We are America!