Valentine’s Day is all about love. Television advertisements push candies, dipped gold “eternal” roses, gaudy jewelry—a price for every pocketbook—and the dating apps have been in full swing since the new year.
“Everybody needs somebody to love,” the old song goes. The Blues Brothers sing this oldie before their mad escape from the Illinois Law Enforcement Community. Solomon Burkes treats it with his indigenous soul blues from his lived experience and The Rolling Stones give it their percussive upbeat treatment. Wilson Picket has a good cover, but I don’t recommend the explicit version of Rod Wave’s Sneaky Links. Fitz and the Tantrums was interesting. My “old person “ is probably showing about the edges here.
We all can love our friends or sweethearts, especially in mid February. After all, February is “for lovers.” The bigger question is, How do we love our enemies? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book, A Gift of Love, writes:
“First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. (The one) who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us.”
Well, how can I forgive the person who hurt me, my child, my family, my tribe, or my community? We all want that person to come crawling to us and ask for forgiveness, but that’s not how radical love works. We want the wrong doer to show remorse and ask us for mercy and forgiveness. This puts them in a subordinate position and us in a position of power. But that’s not how radical love works. Radical love initiates forgiveness, even if the wrongdoer never shows contrition.
Dr. King goes on to say:
“It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression.”
Why must the wronged take on the indignity of offering forgiveness to unrepentant wrongdoers? In this act, we become most like Christ on the cross, who in his final moments, forgave not only the thief who asked for forgiveness, but also all those who crucified him, who had no intention of repenting. Our problem is we enjoy being like the risen Christ, the one with the “name above all names,” but most of us don’t want to “pick up our cross and follow” Jesus, especially if it leads to an ignominious death on that very cross.
As Dr. King wrote,
“The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.”
The injured one, whose heart has been broken and wounded by someone else’s words or deeds, is the only one who can heal the broken rift between them. This is why the deepest lovers of Christ are most often the wounded ones who’ve been healed by God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. The woman with the alabaster jar of ointment anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of the Pharisee, but the host had failed at the minimum hospitality for his guest, so Jesus reminded him (Luke 7:47):
“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
If we would be healers in our broken and fragmented world, we need to first address our own woundedness. Each of us has a hidden pain or suffering, for this is the human condition. If we give this to God, our healing makes us into vessels where our cracks are filled with precious gold. We can offer more love, more forgiveness, and more hope to people who have been sitting in darkness and despair. People are waiting for joy and love to flow out in abundance from God’s heart into our hearts and into their world. Then we can be the light in the darkness for them, the holy fire that lights the embers of hope in their hearts, not just on St. Valentine’s Day, but every day.
Joy, Peace, and Love,
Excerpt from A Gift of Love | Penguin Random House Canada By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapter 5, Loving Your Enemies
Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This is because the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression and art offers it certain beautiful forms, through which it may realize that energy. Yet most people who look at artworks judge them for the degree to which they represent “three dimensional reality,” in either two or three dimensions (painting, draw,or sculpture and assemblage).
Often I’ve been asked about my colorful landscapes, “Don’t you ever paint these in normal colors?”
My answer is usually, “How do we know the colors we see today are the original colors of Creation? After all, we now live in a fallen and broken world. Perhaps these bright colors were God’s original palette.” I’m not painting just what I see, but what was and what is yet to come. These are visions of a better world, where the leaves clap their hands for joy.
In art class, we not only struggle to master drawing shapes “as they are,” but also to challenge our minds to break free of our need to exactly reproduce the shapes before us. We always have the tension to make only a “copy of the image before us,” rather than to meet the image on a spiritual plane and portray an intimate portrait of its inner truth.
When we meet a stranger, we can hide behind our masks and keep our distance. Likewise, we can fail to become intimate with our painting’s subject matter. The resulting work is cold and dead, like a limp handshake. It’s a risky business to bare your heart to the canvas and paint. The brush will tell if your heart and soul is in it or not.
We get more comfortable with this risky business by practicing risk taking. It’s not like we’re facing tigers in a circus cage or jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. We can’t lose our salvation in Christ if we make a bad painting. We only have a new level from which to start afresh. All growth requires risk and failure. We discover what works, keep that, and eliminate the unuseful.
Willingness to learn is related to the “growth mind-set.” This is the belief your abilities aren’t fixed but can improve. This willingness is a belief not primarily about the self, but about the world. It’s a belief every class or learning experience offers something worthwhile, even if we don’t know in advance what that something is. Every teacher or parent worth their salt has to believe their students or children can learn and grow, or they need to give up their profession so another can grow. The first lesson even the most recalcitrant student needs to learn is to believe growth and progress is possible.
The Christian life has a parallel to the growth mindset. The whole of the Christian life is wrapped up in this faith: with God’s help, we can go on to perfection. This is a basic Methodist belief known as sanctification. We also call it going on to perfection in love of God and neighbor. Some of us think because we’re not able to change on our own, we don’t need to grow in our love. God has done all the work for us in Christ. The Holy Spirit was sent to be a truthful guide:
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)
Paul speaks of this truth in Philippians 3:20-21, when he reminds the people of their present state as sojourners in this world, while their citizenship is elsewhere:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
If life is a journey, the Christian life is even more of a pilgrimage. We all go through stages of faith if we seriously reflect and consider our beliefs when our life experiences intersect with our faith. Our earliest stage of faith begins with our parents or caregivers. Here we learn to trust or distrust, as we experience an embodied faith. The next stage is early childhood (age 3-7). Faith at this stage is experiential and develops through encounters with stories, images, the influence of others, a deeper intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, and innocent perceptions of how God causes the universe to function.
The next stage has been labeled “Mythic-Literal Faith” (Ages 7-12). Children at this stage have a belief in justice and fairness in religious matters, a sense of reciprocity in the workings of the universe (e.g. doing good will result in a good result, doing bad will cause a bad thing to happen) and an anthropomorphic image of God (e.g. a man with a long white beard who lives in the clouds). Religious metaphors are often taken literally, thus leading to misunderstandings. If God’s rewards or punishments don’t apply in proper retribution, in the believer’s mind, their faith in God’s system becomes fragile.
“The Conventional Faith” stage (12-adult) arises when individuals join a religious institution, belief system, or authority, and begin the growth of a personal religious or spiritual identity. Conflicts occur when one’s beliefs are challenged are often ignored because they represent too much of a threat to one’s faith-based identity.
Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,”painted in 1818–19, is nearly 17 by 23 feet large. It commands its space as any proper historic painting of the past ever did. Rather than present a moral lesson from the past, the artist instead chose to paint an event from his present time: the rescue of the abandoned sailors and slaves from a wrecked ship. The French nation had sent the new governor of the Senegal colony, his family, and some other government officials and others on the Medusa. The government officials went to secure French possession of the colony and to assure the continuation of the covert slave trade, even though France had officially abolished the practice. Another group aboard the Medusa was composed of reformers and abolitionists who hoped to eliminate the practice of slavery in Senegal by engaging the local Senegalese and the French colonists in the development of an agricultural cooperative that would make the colony self-sustaining.
On the way, the ship ran aground and broke up. The officials and their families were put in lifeboats, but the 150 others on board got a makeshift raft, which was tied to the lifeboats. When the raft impeded the lifeboats, the officials cut the raft loose and all the lives with it. Only 15 were rescued after days at sea, and only ten lived to tell their tales. It was a scandal of the times. Géricault read all the newspapers, interviewed survivors, and made studies from ancient sculptures to inform his design. When younger artists saw his inspirational work in the Paris Salon, they knew a sea change had happened. Conservative critics and writers were appalled and accused Géricault of creating a disgusting, repulsive mistake. They were not yet ready to leave the past behind.
William Faulkner once said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore” (The Mansion , 1959). When we meet that initial storm, our first thought is to bring our fragile bark into port. In life, we batten down the hatches and book it for a safe harbor. In art class, we want to fall back on what we’ve always done before, what we know we can do, and what we’ve been successful with in the past. This is our “safe harbor.”
“Individuative-Reflective Faith” (Mid-Twenties to Late Thirties). The individual takes personal responsibility for her beliefs or feelings, often by angst and struggle. Religious or spiritual beliefs can take on greater complexity and shades of nuance, and a greater sense of open-mindedness. These can also open up the individual to potential conflicts as the different beliefs or traditions collide.
To progress and grow in our art skills, or to move through the “dark night of the soul” when we question our formerly held spiritual truths, is a crucial time. Crucial is a word sharing the same root as crucifix. The crux of both of these situations results in a life and death situation. Not that the person quits breathing or their heart stops beating, but will their old life die and their faith be reborn anew? Also, will they trust a power greater than themselves to bring them back from the depths? Many of us aren’t willing to give up control to anyone, and certainly not to a God we can’t see. We’re two year olds in our spiritual lives too often, for “I can do it myself!” Is our answer to everything and everyone. (Test it out—how many of you read the directions after you start putting a project together?)
“Conjunctive” Faith (Mid-Life Crisis). A person at this stage acknowledges paradoxes and the mysteries attendant on transcendent values. This causes the person to move beyond the conventional religious traditions or beliefs he may have inherited from previous stages of development. A resolution of the conflicts of this stage occurs when the person is able to hold a multi-dimensional perspective that acknowledges ”truth’ as something that cannot be articulated through any particular statement of faith. This is where the Holy Awe begins to fill all the nooks and crannies from which it was once forbidden.
“Universalizing” Faith (or ”Enlightenment”). (Later Adulthood). This stage is only rarely achieved by individuals. A person at this stage is not hemmed in by differences in religious or spiritual beliefs among people in the world, but regards all beings as worthy of compassion and deep understanding. Here, individuals ”walk the talk” of the great religious traditions (e.g. ”the kingdom of God is within you”).
In 1999 Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s competition for a new image of Jesus by judge Sister Wendy Beckett, host of the PBS show “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting.” In the words of Sister Wendy, “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus—dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.” The model was an African-American woman and the painting includes a yin-yang symbol of Eastern traditions and feather of Native American traditions. (Photo courtesy of Paul Smith)
Next week, we’ll still be working on order and chaos. We got started on this at our first meeting, and the concept is a challenge. I’ll write about our class work then. We’re always open to anyone joining us, for you come as you are and begin where you are. Our art group is a “one room schoolhouse” with all levels of students mixed together. We may all be doing the “same project,” but everyone does it at their own skill level. I give you special attention according to your needs.
Remember, “The only way you can be behind is if you never start.”
Rabbit! Rabbit! Welcome to 2023! This old bunny may not see the clock strike midnight, but I’m recovering from a bad cold. Rest is more important than ringing in the New Year. Every year has its own character.
Zeitgeist is a word that comes straight from German — zeit means “time” and geist means spirit, so the “spirit of the time” is what’s going on culturally, religiously, or intellectually during a certain period. When it comes to the turn of the New Year, we bunnies wonder if our new broom will sweep clean or if the old broom will leave the same mess as always in our cozy rabbit dens.
Are we filled with hope or with foreboding? Do these dark days and deep nights of winter fill us with a gloomy spirit? Or do the imperceptibly lengthening minutes of daytime give hope to the shadows the cold of winter has left in the depths of our souls? Or have the coastal grandmother bunnies among us learned to ignore all this stum and drang by blending their afternoon tea time into early evening wine tasting?
Everything a culture considers taboo, evil, or immoral typically ends up being proscribed or “consigned to the outer darkness.” From there it ends up inside us in what Carl Jung called “the Shadow,” or our inner “Satan,” as it were. Repressed and inhibited, it festers and rages in the darkness of our “unconscious.” Even in extreme cases, it takes on a quasi-autonomous existence of its own, occasionally intruding as the famous “voices in the head” or even as a multiple personality.
Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde is a famous light and dark shadow character from fiction, but too often in real life we rabbits point out our own dark shadows in the lives of those we so easily demonize. As my wise old granddaddy rabbit would reprimand me, “When you point out the faults of others, you have three fingers pointing back at you.”
I always find life more refreshing on the first day of the year, perhaps because I don’t over indulge in strong drink as I once did in my wayward bunny youth. We bunnies all have a wayward youth, for how else would we know what the immature among us are getting into? My old daddy rabbit believed, “Experience was the greatest teacher of all time, as well as its most costly tutor.” Indeed, we remember the costliest lessons best of all. The young ones today say, “Go big or go home.” My grannie would say, “If you’re in for a penny, you might as well be in for a pound.” After all, everyone who participated, either in a small or large way, would be held accountable.
As I look back on old 2022, grizzled and worn out by conflicts both at home and abroad, I can understand why the ancients thought of Janus, for whom January’s named, as a two faced god. One face, which looked backwards, was lined, bearded, and craggy featured, while the forward looking face of the new year was youthful, smooth, and clean shaven. Every new year is fresh and clean as a beardless youth’s face, as well as untroubled by any recollection of pains or past memories. Most of us bunnies also have short memories, for we tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over. Rabbits have short term memories of around 4 minutes, but can remember bad experiences for longer periods, just as humans can.
In Ancient Rome, as the poets Ovid and Horace recount, Janus was the god of war and peace. They differ as to whether the Temple of Janus was a prison for peace or war, but they both agree the prison was meant to maintain PAX ROMANA, or the great Roman Peace. If peace were impounded, peace would be guaranteed to the nation. If war were imprisoned, it wouldn’t rampage about to destroy the countryside. Just as Janus had two faces, Roman religion was open to multiple interpretations and meanings. Perhaps today, they’d be known as “freethinkers,” as opposed to “literalists” or “strict constructionists” in their interpretation of their ancient stories.
Maybe in 2023 we bunnies might want to look at different ways of thinking, instead of one fixed way. There’s a difference between a straight and narrow path and a rut. On the path we can still see other twists and turns, which might change the outcome of our experience and existence. In a rut we’re stuck for life, with no where out, until it becomes our grave. If the world is changing more quickly than is comfortable for us, I give the example of my old granddaddy again. He pushed a button to turn on one of the first electric lights in his home town and lived to see men walk on the moon. Be resilient, be adaptable, and embrace change. After all, we’re always changing, so the option of never changing is death.
Romans would celebrate January 1 by giving offerings to Janus in the hope of gaining good fortune for the new year. They believed their acts set the stage for the coming year, so it was a common practice to make a positive start to the year. Not only did they exchange well wishes and sweet gifts of figs and honey with one another, but according to the poet Ovid, most Romans also chose to work for at least part of New Year’s Day because they saw idleness as a bad omen for the rest of the year. If 1st century Romans were to drop into some of our 21st century celebrations by means of Dr. Who’s traveling blue Police Box, they would wonder how the barbarians, who sacked Rome in 455 CE, had managed to take over our modern New Year.
We toga wearing bunnies, who are long of tooth, know from experience the barbarians are always at the gate of our safe little gardens. Sometimes they’re even inside the gardens of delight, as Peter Rabbit and his Cottontail friends perpetually discover when Mr. McGregror chases them with a rake. If we cast a look back on 2022 with our rheumy eyes, we saw Russia attack Ukraine, an outrageous act which sent millions of people to emigrate from their the destroyed cities and ravaged countryside, with the hope of finding safe haven in another European country.
Across the pond, on our southern border, thousands of migrants have fled disaster and violence in their homelands, but even though the US economy is hurting for workers in our entry level jobs, they have difficulty getting in. Are these people actually “barbarians at the gate?” Or have we projected our Shadow Fears upon them because they are foreigners? We did this with the Japanese, who m we placed into Internment Camps in World War II, much to our disgrace. This bunny asks us to search our hearts in 2023 to see if our three fingers are pointing back at our own selves.
Think about how Woodstock symbolized the 1960s: Woodstock was part of the Zeitgeist of the 1960s. Whatever seems particular to or symbolic of a certain time is likely part of its Zeitgeist. I came home from college one Christmas wearing a necklace of tiny black and white seed beads, only to be greeted by my old fashioned daddy, “Are you a hippy now?” For him, any one thing represented the whole, for he grew up with the ancient bunny wisdom, “One bad apple spoils the bushel.” We were only reconciled when he realized I hadn’t lost my fondness for his beloved Cowboys football team.
If we can find one common interest in this strange and fraught world with those with whom we would be at war, then we might be able to come to peace with them. If we insist on all or nothing, no bunny will get anything. We all want to have endless days of peace and joy, but the life of a bunny also has days of struggle and sorrow.
Carl Jung, the great psychologist once said, “There are as many nights as days, and the one is just as long as the other in the year’s course. Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.”
We also have this promise from 1 Corinthians 10:13—
“No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
Many of my southern bunny kinfolks will eat a variety of this New Year’s Day meal: black eyed peas, ham, greens, and cornbread. We think every pea consumed equals another day of good luck. Of course, we’re not the only superstitious clan.
Our cousins in Japan, celebrating Ōmisoka, or New Year’s Eve, gather together to eat long noodles to cross over from one year to the next. At midnight, many visit shrines or temples for Hatsumōde. Shinto shrines prepare amazake, a sweet low alcohol drink, to pass out to crowds and most Buddhist temples have large cast bells that are struck once for each of the 108 earthly desires believed to cause human suffering.
I found some interesting New Year’s good luck traditions, which are practiced around the world. In Greece, folks hang onions outside on their front doors to ward off evil. On New Year’s Eve, Colombian households have a tradition, called agüero, of placing three potatoes under each family member’s bed—one peeled, one not, and the last one only partially. At midnight each person, with eyes closed, grabs for one. Depending on the potato they select, they can either expect a year of good fortune, financial struggle, or a mix of both.
In Ireland, people bang Christmas bread against the walls of their house for good luck. If any of you bunnies have a Christmas fruitcake still lying around, please choose another loaf to prevent damage to your walls. Good contractors are backed up and hard to find, especially around the holidays.
The Danes chunk plates at their friends’ doorsteps for good luck on New Year’s Eve. Perhaps all that darkness from the winter solstice makes my northern relatives harebrained, but we love them just the same. I suppose every bunny has some weird relatives.
Old bunny weather lore says, “The first 12 days of January foretell the weather for each month of the year.” Another way to forecast the weather for the coming year depends on the wind. The old bunnies are at odds as to when this poem should be recited, with some advocating for sunset on New Year’s Eve and others at the break of dawn on New Year’s Day. This bunny notes the poem mentions New Year’s Eve, and since none of our ancient bunnies had time traveling abilities, I’d think we are safe to practice this on the Eve at sunset, then go out to do our responsible reveling.
If New Year’s Eve the wind blows south It betokens warmth and growth. If west, much milk and fish in the sea. If north, cold and storms there will be. If east, the trees will bear much fruit. If north east, then flee it, man and brute. Then throw your new year wishes to the wind!
My New Year’s wish for 2023 is for each and every one of my bunny friends to have a better year than last year. And especially to know deep in your hearts, each of you are God’s own beloved children. Remember this good word from Romans 8:28—
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
This shortest day of the year is the Winter Solstice, which is on Wednesday, December 21, at 4:48 P.M. EST, in the Northern Hemisphere. Some think of this as the Longest Night, but I’m a person of the light, not the darkness. I always prefer to look to the light, no matter how dim or feeble it may seem.
Yet darkness is a necessary experience in our lives. We do not yet live in the land of the “unclouded sky” or the heavenly realm:
“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” —Revelation 21:23
In the darkness, growth often happens: germination and rooting are two types of unseen activity that help produce the plant we see above ground. Without adequate light, the visible plant won’t thrive. So both darkness and light are at work to produce fruit in our lives.
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” —Romans 8:28
The Winter Solstice in Hot Springs is at 3:48 pm CST on Wednesday, December 21, 2022. In terms of daylight, this day is 4 hours, 37 minutes shorter than the June solstice. In most locations north of the equator, the shortest day of the year is around this date. The good news about the Winter Solstice is the days will begin to lengthen, although imperceptibly at first: one minute, four minutes, seven minutes, ten minutes, thirteen minutes, sixteen minutes, and so on.
In Scandinavia, the Norse celebrated Yule from December 21, the winter solstice, through January. In recognition of the sun’s return, fathers and sons would bring home large logs, which they would set on fire. The people would feast until the log burned out, which could take as many as 12 days. Today we recognize the source of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song in this festival. The Norse believed that each spark from the fire represented a new pig or calf that would be born during the coming year. Prosperity for all in the New Year!
In this time of stress and strain, grief and gripes, let’s look to the in-breaking light, and the renewal of life and love. Here’s a “Winter Solstice Chant” by Annie Finch, for your pleasure:
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing, now you are uncurled and cover our eyes with the edge of winter sky leaning over us in icy stars Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing, come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.
Of course, if you can’t get your travel plans together at the last minute to visit Stonehenge, England for the winter solstice celebration, you can always make Rice Krispies Bars in the shape of the ancient monument. The recipe link is at the bottom of the page. Hint: don’t turn the heat up high or your treats will be hard. Due to high carbohydrate count, one “pillar” of Stonehenge Krispies is actually two servings.
Welcome to December! While I was writing this blog, it was Black Friday in November, when many rabbit families were either shopping in person or online. I once did this with my dear rabbit mother, for she loved to shop. As a child of the Great Depression, the thrill of giving gifts, however small to all her friends, was a joy denied to her while growing up. Today we rabbits aren’t so much into giving gifts, but in sharing experiences. We’re making different choices. We aren’t rejecting our forebears’ decisions, but we have different values. As the writer of Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us, everything has its time:
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”
The holiday season begins earlier and earlier, or maybe I’m just an old rabbit having a fever dream. Last year the supply chain snafus were the Grinch that stole Christmas. Some of you rabbits may have been in a FIFA World Cup worthy soccer scrimmage last year at a big box discounter while trying to score one of the few PlayStations that managed to make its way from China to America on one of the large container ships that wasn’t lost at sea or stuck in the Suez Canal. The good news is the resulting logjam at the shipping docks has since been cleared and all the major retailers expect to get their holiday goods on time, compared to only 53% in 2021. We rabbits aren’t getting this news, however, so about half of us are pessimistic about being able to find our desired gifts in stock.
As a young rabbit, I learned about Murphy’s law from the “Rambling Wrecks from Georgia Tech, who were all one heck of an engineer.” If you’re not familiar with Murphy, his law states, “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong,” and the corollary law is “It’ll go wrong at the worst possible time and cause the most damage possible.” One would think these engineers were all chronic pessimists who saw the proverbial water glass half empty, but they would claim they’re just realists. Murphy’s Law simply reflects the natural fact we can’t control outcomes or people. Since the results of future actions can’t be avoided, you always should prepare for the worst and rejoice if the best happens instead.
I’ve always been fond of Murphy’s Law, but never more so during the holidays. Holiday festivities always include people, activities done only once a year, and often larger, unsupervised groups (often including alcohol), which means Mr. Murphy is often an uninvited guest. How he manages to sneak in, I have no idea, but he’s shown up in my rabbit den or kitchen more than once. Maybe he has an affinity for my rabbit clan, or perhaps he’s drawn to chaos and confusion. I’m not saying my rabbit family is a rowdy bunch, but we’ve always been loud and active. There’s not much difference between a whirlwind, a tornado, and my two brothers.
I don’t remember Murphy appearing at my Grand Rabbits’ celebrations, but they were of the generation who believed “little rabbits should be seen and not heard.” I imagine they showed Murphy the door if he dropped by. Likewise, when my mother began hosting the holiday meals, the Murphy drama of “anything that can go wrong will go wrong at the worst possible time” also never happened. My mom took on a drill sergeant’s precision when she produced the roast beast feast.
When I bought a little house, Murphy made himself welcome. I invited friends over to decorate the Christmas tree. We stepped back to toast our creation, but the tree crashed forward to the floor, as if it were taking a bow in response. Our toast interrupted, we set the tree upright, tied it to the window handle, and resumed our toast in peace. One day I’ll tell you about my experiences of raking the roof on that little house before the rainy season set in each fall.
Murphy wouldn’t leave me alone. I moved to Texas, bought another little house, and my dear mom and dad invited themselves and my brother’s family over for a holiday feast. She pushed all the potato peels into my starter home’s basic garbage disposal and turned it on. If “Anything can go wrong at the worst possible time and cause the worst damage possible,” my dear bunny mom discovered it.
“I don’t understand; my disposal at home will handle all this.” “Yes, mother. You have a real, custom house, not a starter home. This is a baby disposal.”
Then we got the wastebasket, the pliers, and I put on my plumber’s hat. We pulled out the clog, drained the water, and put it all back together again. Mom was traumatized. Mom kept apologizing, but I reminded her, “It’s no big deal. It won’t happen again. And we have food to eat. We’ll laugh about this one day!”
Murphy still visits me on occasion. But I’ve learned to prepare for him to limit his damages. This thanksgiving I had a friend for dinner. They made a bathroom visit before they left. When I went there, I found the faucet still running and I wasn’t able to turn it off. Water was all over the floor and inside the original cabinet from 1965. I turned off the water under the sink, thinking I was glad I’d asked my plumber to give me new shutoffs when I put the new faucet in. The old ones had froze shut. I’m now brushing my teeth in the kitchen sink, but that’s all right. I’ll probably have to replace this whole thing, all for the demise of a $5 faucet washer. This is Murphy’s Law in a nutshell. Santa will have to visit Lowes or Home Depot for my Christmas gift this year. I hope I’ve been a good rabbit, as the saying goes. And my stocking is extra big.
Christmas isn’t the only holiday of December, although an estimated $942.6 billion in holiday retail sales in the United States might cause us rabbits to think otherwise. One study found that 60% of workers were more distracted and less motivated as the Christmas holidays approached, with some workers even saying this feeling started as early as November. Likewise, during the holiday time many employees will take off to spend time with family or just to enjoy the holiday. That cuts into productivity as well. We have our own Mr. Scrooge in our rabbit towns too. I have any number of rabbit buddies who need time off to hunt and be alone in the woods for a bit. I begrudge them not, as long as their spouses can take care of holidays uninterrupted.
The coming darkness of the Winter Solstice causes people all around the world to light fires and burn candles to overcome the gloom. We’ve done this for ages and in many places. In fact, humans may have observed the winter solstice as early as Neolithic period—the last part of the Stone Age—beginning about 10,200 BCE. The Romans celebrated Saturnalia, a winter solstice celebration dedicated to the Saturn, the god of agriculture, wealth, and time. While it began as a one-day celebration in early December, this pagan festival later expanded into a riotous weeklong party stretching from December 17 to 24.
The Temple of Saturn, the oldest temple recorded by the pontiffs, had been dedicated on the Saturnalia around 497 BCE on a site originally occupied by an altar to the god. Due to the link between Saturn and agriculture, the original source of Rome’s wealth, the temple was also the repository for the State Treasury, or the Aerarium Populi Romani, which was located beneath the stairs under the high podium. It also contained the bronze tablets on which Roman law was inscribed.
The woolen bonds, which fettered the feet of the ivory cult statue of Saturn within, were loosened on the festival day to symbolize the god’s liberation. On this festival day, after a sacrifice at the temple, the people held a public banquet attended by both slave and free persons. An image of the god was placed as if in attendance at this meal, or a lectisternium (reclining on a couch), a tradition which Livy says was introduced in 397 BCE. (Others date this to 399 BCE.) The practice was introduced as a specific emergency response to a natural crisis: extremes of temperature occurring in both summer and winter had given rise to a devastating plague that had proceeded to ravage the population. It was celebrated from December 17 to 23, ending on ending on the Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, or the birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.
Not only were public rites celebrated with all the splendour then available, but Livy goes on to describe the general tenor of the private celebration in the late 1st C BCE (around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ):
“They also celebrated the rites in their own homes. All through the city, it is said, doors stood wide open, all kinds of food were setout for universal consumption, all comers were welcomed, whether known or not, and men even exchanged kind and civil words with personal enemies; there was a truce to quarreling and legal action; even prisoners were released from their chains for those days, and they hesitated thereafter to imprison men whom the gods had befriended.”
This ritual meal was commonly shared by the worshippers, in contrast to normal sacrifice, which distinguished human from divine portions. In other words, in the Lectisternium the gods were not only present in spirit, but in form, and they shared in the ritual meal.
The question we have to ask is how did Saturnalia move from a feast of appeasement to reduce harm to the people, to the debauchery which most history books write about today? The powers that be tried over the years to limit the length and celebratory excesses of the season, whether they were civic or religious powers. I suppose they had no counselor rabbits to advise them of Murphy’s Law: “Very little work will get done in the holiday season, and what does manage to get done will most likely need redoing in the New Year.”
By the 1st CE, Pliny, the Roman historian, was holed up in his room during Saturnalia, while the rest of the family celebrated the feasts, hijinx, and tomfoolery. In the 4th CE, the Christian church decided Christ’s birthday should be celebrated in the winter near the solstice, instead of in the more likely time of spring. The first reference to December 25 as the Nativity of Jesus occurs in a section of the Chronography of AD 354 known as the Calendar of Philocalus, which, even by this late date, still identified December 17 as ludi Saturnalia. By this time, some of the traditions of Saturnalia had already transferred into the Christian era. These were the green decorations of holly, a plant sacred to Saturn, in people’s homes; the small gifts of affection for all comers; the feasts; and the welcoming of strangers with fruit treats and nuts. Upending social conventions for a while reminds us God has no favorites, unlike our stratified social structures of the past and present.
December 17 was recognized as the date of the Saturnalia as late as 448 CE, when the ecclesiastical calendar or laterculus (“list”) of Polemius Silvius noted it as feriae servorum (“festival of the slaves”), a festival now deprived of its pagan significance. By the eighth century CE, church authorities complained how even people in Rome were still celebrating the old pagan customs associated with the Saturnalia and other winter holidays. The Temple of Saturn was largely destroyed in the mid-fifteenth century, so all that remains today is six of its Ionic granite columns crowned with a frieze thought to date to approximately 30 BCE.
As we approach the solstice time and the season of the Lord’s birth, we give thanks along with the gospel writer of John 1:5—
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
Along with all my bunny friends and family, I hope you all remember what my little daughter said about that “Luke guy, who had such a big part in the Christmas Eve service” the year she learned to read:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” — Luke 1:78-79
Nothing springs full grown to life in an instant. Everything begins in a seed, which is planted, watered, and nourished into full growth. Only in myths or fantasies can an idea come into being instantly. Zeus had a very bad headache, a “splitting headache,” that birthed his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She leapt out in fully grown from his brow. We don’t take this myth to be scientifically true, but as a metaphor for the difficulty and struggles we undergo to obtain wisdom. As my daddy used to tell me after I’d learned some hard life lesson, “The school of experience is a rough master, and we all earn a costly degree in gaining its wisdom.”
Some of us will repeat the same lessons over and over, as if we expect to get a different result. The purpose of an education isn’t to regurgitate a right answer to pass a test, but to understand why the answer is right. That’s why math classes require showing the steps to the solution, rather than the “full blown adult answer” only. In matters of faith or ethics, many of us haven’t had the training to “set out the proof” for our final answer or deed. In fact, in one situation we may think or act one way, and quite differently in another.
The name for this behavior is “situational ethics.” Less kindly, it’s also known as spinelessness, shiftiness, being two faced, or dishonesty. Mostly it means people don’t have a true center or a plumb line by which they measure themselves. If we’re measuring our lives against other people, we’re measuring against other fallible human beings. Even our heroes have feet of clay, for none of us are gods. When I used to call my parents out on this character trait, they always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This sets up a moral conflict for most people, even those raised in the church or in religious homes.
We need to have a moral center based on a higher authority than our individual or cultural conventions, one that includes or exceeds the ethics of the group to which we belong, and not just our individual beliefs and actions. Professional groups—physicians, lawyers, clergy, educators, and others—all have ethical standards for caring for those they serve, even if they morally disagree with the behaviors that bring them into their care. Who decides the ethics of the group? At the risk of making my favorite seminary professor, Billy Abraham, roll about in his still fresh grave, we United Methodists do have the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to guide us. Often we assign our personal life experience to this latter quadrilateral edge, but Wesley meant our Experience of the Assurance of God’s All Embracing and Adopting Love. As Wesley once said, “God is able to save all to the uttermost.”
Ethics and morals are often used as synonyms, but ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Ethics is a a late 17th century word derived from the Greek ēthos (disposition, character), in contrast to pathos (suffering). In Latin it means ‘character, depiction of character’, or (plural) ‘customs’.
Then we have the words moral and morals. The first is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. The goodness or badness of human character is another concern. From these, people decide what behavior is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We often say a person has morals if they conform to standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We can speak of “the corruption of public morals, “ or you can hear people talking as if “they believe addicts have no morals and can’t be trusted,” rather than understanding the disease and abuse bases which often underlie addictions.
These distinctions don’t change the negative consequences of the addict’s behaviors, yet the addicted person still has the same image of God and the same potential for wholeness each of us have, but perhaps with more suffering, or pathos. If we judge the morality of a person’s choices, and then refer that moral state to the individual’s worthiness, we can end up losing compassion for the person as well as losing the will to help them better their lives. This leads to hard heartedness and a lack of love. We reject our neighbors and make them strangers, unwelcome to our world. We forget our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, wanderers without a home. How easily we forget our savior, who had no place to be born even in his ancestral home, and whose family fled religious persecution and certain death to live in Egypt, far from home. Strange how some Christians have no sympathy for others in the same fix today.
Moral is a word from the late Middle English by way of the Latin moralis, from mos, mor- ‘custom’, with the plural mores or ‘morals’. It refers to one having the property of being right or wrong, good or evil, or voluntary or deliberate, and therefore open to ethical appraisal. When we apply moral attributes to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.” Not until 1803 did moral come to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As a noun, we meet the word in the Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. Later it was applied to the works of various classical writers. All Methodists and the holiness denominations birthed from the seed of the great Methodist revival recognize the genius of John Wesley. We all quote him, but we also apply his wisdom through our own individual preconceived notions of what is “good, true, and noble.”
When John Wesley was asked, “What is that faith whereby we are sanctified?” he answered:
“First believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness; secondly, believe that He is able thus to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him; thirdly, believe that He is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe fourthly, that He is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to His Word.”
In the old days, we said we were “going on to perfection,” not that we were so bold as to claim that we’d already arrived there or been perfected. Oh no, we allowed God could complete this for us and had the power to do it, as well as the will, but our human nature was still fallible. If a word comes up more than once in a text, writers go to the thesaurus for an alternative, but in reading scripture, we learned repetition was a sign of importance, a marker especially meant for those of us who are slow learners in the school of life.
Oliver O’Donovan in “Scripture and Christian Ethics” writes, “Moral theologians have a secret knowledge, apparently concealed from other kinds of theologians, especially those devoted to hermeneutics. They know that the most mysterious and most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation we are facing mean?, where do we find ourselves existentially?”
We tend to speak as if our selves and our situations were known quantities, so that it only remains to choose out of Scripture whatever seems to fit our circumstances as we conceive them. Scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on our self and our situation, to overcome our preconceptions about them. We don’t read about our situation directly in the Scriptures, yet it’s from the Scriptures we gain categories of understanding, which re-frame our view of our situation and ourselves. We can’t look for individual texts to guide our actions, but need to consider the whole of the revealed Scripture and God’s nature as we discern our path forward.
In this sense, the Bible is a mirror which reflects our inner nature to us, convicting us of our failings and giving us grace and comfort in our times of need. We can learn much about ourselves from the verses we lean on, just as much as we can by the verses we ignore. There’s a reason we interpret texts by the whole of scripture, and not piecemeal. This is one way we understand the authority of scripture.
As an interesting aside, SWTX, my original conference, which approved my candidacy for the ministry, didn’t think I should attend seminary because I scored so low on the abstract reasoning tests I took. They didn’t think I would make 65, seminary’s passing grade, in my class work. It’s true I learn and process differently, but knowing this, I crammed a three year program into four years. If I’m slow to grasp the whole until I first understand the parts, this doesn’t reflect on my fitness for ministry or my intellectual ability. It merely reflects a different way of processing information. There’s more way to skin a cat, and many ways people learn.
When I taught art classes, I had to make sure I covered all the learning methods for all my students to have success. I talked about the project, I demonstrated the techniques, I had the steps written out, and for some few children, I had to place their hands in the optimum position to get them started. This covered ear and eye learning, visual reminders, and haptic or touch learning. Some students needed multiple types of learning throughout their working time on a project. Some needed reteaching every class period. Some just needed encouragement when they got stuck at a rough patch. Most all had to learn to talk in positive terms about themselves and their work, as well as about others and their creative process also.
I talk about this teaching method, for this is how we consciously or unconsciously teach those around us ethics and morals. As one youth asked me at a church I once served, “Why are you wearing your cross today? It’s not Sunday.”
“Because Jesus is important to me every day, not just on the day I lead church services.”
I realized even though her family was very active and faithful in our congregation, when they were out in the world of day to day folks, they didn’t stand out from the crowd. Maybe one day day this child will come to a time when wearing a cross becomes bearing a cross. Then again, how many people willingly choose suffering for the sake of the body of Christ? This suffering is often difficult for those of us who’ve committed our lives to Christ’s call, but we realize most laity won’t voluntarily submit to that kind of stress. Yet experience is a great teacher. We learn from others, even those who have differing opinions and choose different actions.
Wesley’s Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” has some advice for us: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.”
As a further reminder from his all time classic Sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1785: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin…by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin…”In modern terms, when we profess our faith, Christ saves us from the guilt of that first sin. Some say Adam and Eve were disobedient. They then emphasize rule keeping as their moral choice. There’s always a reason behind every behavior, however. Why were they disobedient? We hear the answer in the parable of the Tree of Wisdom:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The man and the woman both heard the half truth, saw the shiny fruit, believed the promises of a creature rather than their creator, and ate the fruit they hoped would make them like gods. Instead they only gained knowledge of their nakedness and vulnerability. This first lesson of the school of life came with cost: fig leaves ooze irritating sap. They won’t choose this solution again. God’s providence replaced their poor choice with animal skin clothing even as God sent them out into the world. We might say the attitude of pride or greed drove their bad behavior and was the cause of their negative consequences.
As we grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor, the Holy Spirit destroys any remaining root of sin. One of the important sins, Wesley noted, was pride. Pride is that feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction we get from our own achievements, or those of our family, tribe, nation, or other associated group. In matters of faith, we always have to remember Paul’s admonition to the Romans (10:9-13):
“because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul reminds us of the unity of the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the former masters and slaves, with the gulf now bridged between the former God worshippers and the idol worshiping strangers. Now there’s “no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we joined together into one annual conference in 2003, almost twenty years ago, we had good reasons to make one combined administrative body for our faith community. We had underfunded pension obligations, we were over heavy with administrators, and clergy didn’t have equity in retirement accumulation. Likewise, the conferences weren’t equally treated, since one didn’t fully fund pension needs, an act which caused clergy to seek appointments in the other conference, thus robbing the first of talents and gifts. These were the logical consequences of attitudes and behaviors, however.
The logical person thought, “Let’s make Arkansas One Faith, One Focus, One Fellowship,” and this will solve all our problems. It may have looked good on paper, but our congregations had been used to a personal touch to remind them at least once a year they belonged to a greater whole. Their pride in showing off their home church and being a good host for the Superintendent was taken from them if they were just attendees at another group meeting. The moral choice of what’s better for me, a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my family or a meeting elsewhere, gets weighed and measured.
So now here we are, nearly twenty years into this optimistic marriage of the two annual conferences. The seeds for dissent and discontent were planted long ago, even before this joining. When I inventoried the historic memorabilia of the dead bishops at the SMU Bridwell Library, I saw how the chaos of the Vietnam War era and the sea changes our society were experiencing then affected our church in many ways. Some wanted to hold onto tradition more tightly, while others were ready to experiment with new wine in fresh wine skins. These were just “outer trappings,” however, for the message of “saved by faith, sanctified by faith, and made perfect in love by faith” never changes. This is Christ’s work, enabled by the Holy Spirit.
The past sixty years, as the last two decades, haven’t always been smooth sailing. We often have had trials, storms, and tribulations on our shared journeys. Sometimes we’re so far out to sea, we don’t see the land, and the skies are occluded, so we can’t take a bearing off the stars. Yet God’s spirit will blow us along, for even detours are within God’s providence. As James reminds us:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)
Today we also have powerful economic and political forces that are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They purport to work for religion and democracy, but actually work against the stewardship of our earth ‘s resources and environment, fail to care for the poor and dispossessed, and support military interventions around the world. Moreover, some of them actively work to destabilize religious denominations with social justice callings, such as the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Some today think “things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
Two final words in summary: one is from the ancient wisdom tradition and the other from Paul’s paean of joy in the midst of suffering. Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” My dying grandfather spoke these words to me in his last hours. Ive always considered them a plumb line for my life.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” — Philippians 4:8-9
John Wesley: Repentance in Believers (Sermon 14), “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15. The Complete Works of John Wesley, vol. 1 of 3, Kindle ereader. Read on line here: http://www.godonthe.net/wesley/jws_014.html
The Body of Christ represents the perfection of all humanity as the image of God. The body of Christ we know as the church is made of many individuals, just as a mosaic design is constructed of many pieces to make a whole. I think of these as the “two bodies of Christ,” even though the literalists among us might think Jesus has only one body. The mysterious body of Christ is what Paul speaks about in his letter to the Romans:
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (12:4-5).
Since each one of us is made in the image of God, but of ordinary materials, together we become a mosaic of the whole Body of Christ, going onto his perfection as we encounter and encourage one another within and without the church. After all, the body of Christ isn’t limited to the walls of our buildings, for Christ said in Matthew 25:40—
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
I have a penchant for recycling canvases and paintings which no longer please me. I’m willing to destroy them and make something new. They die and are reborn into a new life. I learned something from that former experience, but now it’s time to move on. When I read my Bible, I’m always getting new inspiration and ideas from the same verses. I have texts I’ve preached on at least a dozen times, but I always came at it from a different angle. This is how we know the Bible is a living document and the Holy Spirit is always at work in us to reveal what we need to hear for our time and place.
We Christians in the Western world have tended to limit God’s self revelation to the spoken word and, to a lesser degree, to the Eucharistic elements in the Institution of the Lord’s Supper:
“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22).
Unfortunately, when we emptied the world of images of God, we also emptied the created world of God. This is why art is so important and necessary to bring us back to appreciate not only creativity, but also the creating God.
Likewise, images in art are beautiful and inspiring. Some which I’ve had the privilege to see in person over the years have made a difference in my artistic and spiritual journeys. These are a few which have inspired me: Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Pompeiian artifacts buried by Vesuvius, and the sacred treasures of the Vatican.
I’ll focus only on the mosaics in Ravenna, which is the site of the Mausoleum of Theoderic (c.520) and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo (500-514), both built by Theodoric the Great (454-526). Here too is the Basilica of San Vitale (c.527-546), begun by Queen Amalasuntha (495-535), Theodoric’s daughter; and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe (c.535-549), built by the Greek banker Julianus Argentarius, who also financed the church of San Vitale. These were all very important people of their time.
Although many of Ravenna’s surviving structures have been heavily restored, the city remains the most important site of Byzantine art outside Constantinople, notably for its exquisite decorative art, including mosaics, relief sculpture, mural pictures, ceramic art, maiolica, ivory carving, marble inlays, goldsmithing, ornamented sarcophagi and much more. This treasure house of art objects made Ravenna a must see on our itinerary during my summer in Italy.
My parents gave me the choice of a car or a trip to Italy with the University Systems of Georgia for my college graduation present. Of course, I took the trip. Cars are everywhere and I could get my own one day or ride the bus if I needed to get somewhere. Italy was a trip of a lifetime, for we’d spend a whole summer in the studios in Cortona, and travel about the countryside on day trips during the session. I even got good enough with my Italian to hold small conversations with native speakers. People even invited into their homes for lunch, where I got my first taste of rabbit. These animals were sold live in the farmer’s market in Cortona’s town square on Saturdays.
At every site we visited, I stood amazed in the presence of some ancient and inspiring work of art. In the historic churches, the best artists and craftspeople of the era had the opportunity to put their skills to good use, for they were not only working for notable patrons, but also for God. Money wasn’t an object either, for extravagance for God was considered a good work worthy of a heavenly reward.
Of course, seeing the art works and experiencing the spiritual impact of the works in their setting are two entirely different things. On a tour, when huge groups of people are tramping in and out of the sanctuary, tour leaders raise their flags, signs, or ubiquitous water bottles to quiet their group before they give a lecture, and then they turn en mass like a flock of ducks, everyone exiting together to clamber onto the bus or to walk to the next place to view some sacred site.
As a person on a spiritual pilgrimage, this experience can be quite jarring unless you prepare yourself in advance. Even though in that period of my life I wasn’t a believer in a personal god, nevertheless I was still seeking the mysterious experience of the presence of God. I found if I took a few moments of personal quiet to put my spirit in a receptive mode before I entered the holy spaces, I was able to ignore the chaos around me. No longer did I focus on the comings and goings of the people around me, but I looked up instead at the beautiful artworks and the glory the ancient artists wanted to give to God as they rendered the images on the walls or sculpted the images.
These mosaics are fantastic works of art, with each image made of thousands of tiny pieces of stone and glass. In the early morning light, the golden tesserae shimmer and reflect the sunlight streaming inside. When viewed in this light, the figures would see to float in a heavenly light.
The icons of Christ always have an other worldly look about them, as Jesus said,
“My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18:36).
We always see in the icon the resurrected body of Christ, the heavenly body of Christ, not merely the physical body of Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:44—
“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”
This is why the icons have elongated faces, small mouths, and large eyes. Their facial proportions are not “realistic “according to “actual proportions.” In western art, representation of physical reality with perspective, foreshortening, and shading gives us a sense of earthly realism. Icon “writers” reject perspective, and other cues of reality to give their works a sense of “other worldliness.”
In other words, we see what we are going on to be, rather than what we are now. The icons are a window into the spiritual or heavenly world. If we have an icon in our home, it is a conduit to that heavenly world, much like a wormhole is a conduit to another point in space. Christ’s eyes have a far away look, as if he sees beyond this moment of now, in which we so firmly fix ourselves, to see the future hope of which the prophet Jeremiah speaks in 29:11—
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
This Mosaic Christ woven canvas art work has a light coat of gold acrylic paint over the multi colored background, so the colors show through. Because the brushstrokes don’t cover the whole square, the grid colors show up as colored mortar. The shape of the face and the hair aren’t treated subtly as in a painting, but take on the look of a mosaic.
When I paint an icon, I lose all sense of time. I enter into that holy time in which God IS, and where Jesus is when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) In other words, I lose all concept of chronological time and enter into the kairos time of God: the right and opportune time, which is known only to God. I stop painting when I sense I’m taking back control of the brush, for then I’ve left kairos time and reentered chronological time.
I look at the clock and think, “Snack time.” It’s time to stop, take care of my physical body, until I’m once again able to renter that spiritual space where time has no meaning, for I’m at home with God. Painting a holy icon is a truly spiritual experience, for those who make their hearts open to the opportunity to experience the holy encroaching into this world. I hope your eyes now are more opened to seeing the holy image of God in-breaking into this earthly realm.
In the “late unpleasantness” which has some of our Methodist congregations in turmoil, many have their reasons for going or staying. As one born into the Methodist Church, who spent a portion of my life looking for a “better god” before God called me back home, I have some experience with faith. I’ve had it, lost it, and received it once again. My privilege in seminary to work along side the Wesley librarian allowed me to touch authentic Wesley letters. I also had the blessing of being the late Dr. Billy Abraham’s assistant for the Evangelism Chair. When I think of faith, Romans 12:3 comes to mind:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Here Paul’s word for faith is the Greek word pistis, which is always a gift from God, never something that can be produced by people. In short, faith for the believer is always “God’s divine persuasion” and therefore distinct from confidence or human belief. The Spirit continuously births faith in the yielded believer so they can know God’s will (1 Jn 5:4).
The former UMC Bishop Mike Lowery wrote in his notice of withdrawal from the Council of Bishops as he surrendered his elder’s orders: “I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all.” (Jude 3, CEB).
I’m not picking on the former bishop. I knew him from my Emmaus community days in Southwest Texas. But his posted letter, which can be read at the link below, charges the United Methodist Church has lost her Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. This piqued my interest, so I decided to focus my own thoughts, as well as to inform others, on this matter of faith.
Faith as Doctrine of Assent vs Doctrine of Assurance:
Today we often think of faith as a set of beliefs, or the Doctrine of Assent. In Wesley’s time, he understood faith as the Doctrine of Assurance, a unique gift to the Christian church, whereby believers can know with certainty they are truly beloved of God with a steadfast love which endures forever.
This love is unconditional and saves us from the tragic consequences of the law of sin and death by bringing us into the law of life and love through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That descriptive mouthful is John Wesley’s heartwarming experience he had at Aldersgate in 1738 on the fateful evening when he attended a meeting very unwillingly, yet had the heart changing event that set his life on a different path.
Historic Wesleyan Faith is a Gift of Grace
We need to ask, “What is the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith, anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior?” Is it located in regeneration, aka the new birth, or is it located in human morality as proof of righteousness in Jesus Christ? This probably means nothing to people in the pews, but if we’re going to claim the mantle of John Wesley, or the argument from tradition, we must get Wesley’s understanding of faith down pat. We find Wesley’s thoughts in his Notes on the New Testament and in his StandardSermons, both of which are part of our Methodist teaching.
In the sermon OF EVIL ANGELS, Wesley reminds us faith is “our evidence of things unseen.”
“Faith is the life of the soul; and if ye have this life abiding in you, ye want no marks to evidence it to yourself: but [elencos pneumatos/Spirit control] that divine consciousness, that witness of God, which is more and greater than ten thousand human witnesses,” is Wesley’s explanation of faith in AWAKE, O SLEEPER.
Faith as the Spirit of Adoption
Another way of saying this is Romans 8:15-17,
“When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
For Wesley, faith is a gift of salvation, our trust in the saving work of Christ. As he says in the sermon AWAKE OH SLEEPER:
“Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is His gift, by the operation of His Spirit.”
Then Wesley gives his altar call: “In what state is thy soul? Was God, while I am yet speaking to require it of thee, art thou ready to meet death and judgement? Canst thou stand in His sight, who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity’? Art thou ‘meet to be partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light’? Hast thou ‘fought a good fight, and kept the faith’? Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed upon with Christ?”
“Hast thou oil in thy lamp? grace in thy heart? Dost thou ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength’? Is that mind in thee, which was also in Christ Jesus? Art thou a Christian indeed that is, a new creature? Are old things passed away, and all things become new?”
Faith comes as a Gift. Our good works respond to Christ’s work.
Most of us are in agreement Wesley’s initial understanding of FAITH having to do with accepting Christ’s work for us as the only precondition for our salvation. There is no good deed or accumulation of good deeds needed to earn our salvation from God. What many of us have difficulty is accepting we also don’t earn our perfection in holiness by our own power.
Our Christian perfection is always a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit. As the Spirit works in us, we respond to work toward the complete renewal into the original image of God in which we were created. While it’s possible we might attain this perfect state in this lifetime, most Christians will attain completion in the purity of love of God and neighbor at the moment of death by God’s work, not by our own accomplishments.
Do the Born Again Christians Sin?
In Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” he quotes 1 John 3:9—
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.”
Wesley admits people who are born again can err or make mistakes, but they don’t sin. That’s a bridge too far for many to accept today, for many of us are prone to judging others. We have a dysfunctional understanding of “perfection.” We think it’s like a Martha Stewart design, forgetting she has a whole staff of helpers to carry out her ideas. As one of my professors once explained it, “Once you’ve been to Waxahachie, you’ve always been to Waxahachie.”
If you don’t know Waxahachie, it’s a midsized Texas town about the size of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was known for cotton in its hey day, and now hosts a crepe myrtle festival. Once you’ve been there, you can’t lose that experience. In the same way, you can’t lose your status of new birth. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, given by faith through Christ.
But some of us will try to throw it away anyhow. Wesley wrote in that same sermon, The Great Privilege, “Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.”
The Outward Appearance vs. The Inward Attributes
So, one who has faith doesn’t sin, since we have to lose faith in God to sin. In other words, we have to reject the gift freely given to us without price. As he also says in his great sermon on Christian Perfection, “Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” [Gal 2:20]— Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
For Wesley, the goal of Christian perfection, or the recovery of the image of God, was to love God and neighbor with one’s whole heart until nothing else could exist inside. No favoritism for a group, no exclusion for a group, no yearning to be better than others, no desiring a better place at the table, no hoarding of resources for selfish purposes, no fear of tomorrow, nor any other anxiety that strikes the human heart.
We give our resources away so we can have room for new blessings. God always provides for those who give with generous hearts. We open our doors to the least, the last, the lost, and the unloved, because Jesus and Wesley went out into the fields and met the people where they were. Those are our people out there, and they aren’t “living moral lives,” any more than the imperfect people within our churches are. But we all can and do live lives of faith. We all can learn to trust a savior who loves every sinew of our wounded and broken bodies. We can love a God who never gives up on us even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
We United Methodists might be messy, but we surely can love God and neighbor. Moreover, we’re all going on to perfection, even if some of us are moving more slowly than others. We’re still a community of faith, a people who trust God’s grace and one another to get through this thing called life together. We’ll bring each other along, for we’re not leaving anyone behind. We include in the great worldwide Body of Christ the body of Christ whom we meet outside our doors. After all, the race isn’t to the swift, but to the ones who help their brothers and sisters to the finish line, where we have a finishing medal for everyone, along with a big potluck dinner with enough food for folks to take home leftovers. That’s the never ending banquet table to which we invite all who hunger and thirst for community—both spiritual and personal.
Trusting Faith for a Risky Love in Unsettled Times
All we have to do is ask ourselves in this unsettled time: “Do I have Wesley’s trusting faith to live this risky love? Are these the people with whom I want to experience God’s steadfast love and share the grace of Christ? This is our heritage in the United Methodist Church, for we’re a people of faithfulness, who believe the “Bible has everything sufficient for salvation.”
I can only hope for those who leave, whether they become global Methodists, independents, or community congregations, that they will provide a large enough tent for our big God and big Christ, for the Spirit always is seeking people and places to fill completely with the gift of God’s extraordinary love and power.
My prayer is our United Methodist churches will receive a fresh rush of the Spirit to become even more of what we are today, for
“Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).” Theological Guidelines: Scripture https://www.umc.org/en/content/theological-guidelines-scripture
The everyday objects around us are like so much white noise: we know they’re present, but after a while, we tend to ignore them. A running joke among the clergy is “Never move anything at the new appointment for six months because you don’t know what objects are the sacred cows.” I learned this the hard way in my first full time appointment when I suggested we rid ourselves of an aging, olive green, velvet curtain hanging on the back wall of the fellowship hall stage, since “It was just hanging there for no purpose.” Oh, the outcries of rage! Little did I know this was the one and only curtain to survive the fire which destroyed the old church building. The people saw this ragged banner as a symbol of hope for the church they were rebuilding for the future. They had invested spiritual meaning into this curtain, even though it no longer served a spiritual purpose.
In the same way, we treat our Bibles as holy objects because they contain the inspired writings handed down over the centuries. We recognize they tell us important truths about God, humanity, and our relationship with the God whose steadfast love for God’s creation never wavers. In worship, we often say after reading from scripture, “The word of God for the people of God.” When many read John 1:1—
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
These same readers connect the “word of God” with the ”Word and the Word (who) was with God, and the Word was God.” The English translation of LOGOS to WORD derives from the Greek principle of Logos, or divine reason and creative order, which is identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ. This is how the early Christian writers argued for the preexistence of Christ and for the existence of the Holy Trinity. When we refer to the Logos/Word of God, we are speaking of Christ. If we read the Old Testament, we’re speaking of the one God who has spoken through the ages, but only revealed God’s Son to humanity during the New Testament era. The Spirit has been active always.
This reminds us to honor the Bible for revealing the Incarnate Christ through inspired words, but not to idolize the Bible as a object greater than the God it reveals. After all, over the centuries, the Bible has been interpreted differently by various schools of thought. This brings up the question of how do we know what we know. There’s a whole body of philosophy dedicated to how we know what we know, called epistemology. There are various kinds of knowing:
Sensory perception or observation of facts
Reason or logic
Authority of tradition or common wisdom
Intuition, revelation, or inspiration
Some of us use one way more than others, but each has both good and bad points. In the case of the authority of tradition or common wisdom, for instance, some have been time tested across the ages, but deference to authority without critical thinking can be a mark of intellectual laziness on our part.
John Wesley’s famous understanding of what we now call the Quadrilateral comes from Albert Cook Outler’s discussion on how Wesley understood authority. When challenged for Wesley’s authority on any question, Wesley’s first appeal was to the Holy Bible. Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controversial point of doctrine. Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian Tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that.
However, Scripture and Tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical Reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian Experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter.
In reality, Wesley’s diagram for how we know is really a triangle— consisting of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason—which leads to the Christian Experience of being a Child of God, forgiven for our sins. It’s based on the Anglican tripod of the faith: scripture, reason, and tradition. Wesley took the tripod and added the firm “seat of experience” of God’s loving mercy to forgive all our sins. This insight came out of Wesley’s life changing Aldersgate experience, which he recorded in his journal on May 24, 1738.
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley understood he could spend his whole life learning about God, reading about God, and even serving God to the best of his ability, but he was in his words, an “almost Christian” because he didn’t have the faith of a son or daughter who served God out of love, but had instead the faith of a slave or a servant, who served only from fear of punishment. One of Wesley’s Standard Sermons is the “Almost Christian,” which you can read in its 18th century glorious English at the link below. Most of us would be glad to be accounted in the “almost” category, but Wesley asks, why don’t we go farther and become “altogether Christian?”
In Methodist terms, this is “entire sanctification,” or “going on to perfection.” We don’t talk much about this any more, but it’s the purpose of our Christian life to be conformed to the image of God. We aren’t trying to be like Beyoncé, JayZ, Taylor Swift, or Jake Owen. Instead we have the promise in Romans 8:29—
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”
We don’t do this on our own, but with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Spirit is called a helper, for it’s a coworker in the process of perfection or sanctification. This epistemology for knowing is useful for art classes also. Some of us believe we need to be perfect from the get go and can’t accept our raggedy messes we produce as we learn the techniques of color mixing and shading, much less the fine motor coordination required to connect our thoughts with our hand movements. If we aren’t able to endure the rough edges of imperfection as we “go on to perfection,” we won’t last long in art class. Just learning how to see the three dimensional world and translate it onto a two dimensional surface is a Mount Everest accomplishment in itself. Some days we have no energy to cope, and that’s when we need to come for support and encouragement.
Last Friday we painted chairs. Every artist’s work we viewed for inspiration had a different take on the chair. We no longer have to make a photographic rendering of an object because we have cameras for this purpose. We can use the chair as a reason to break up the picture plane and organize the spaces. I found a funny little poem called “The Chair,” by Theodore Roethke:
A Funny Thing about a Chair: You Hardly Ever Think it’s There. To Know a Chair is Really It, You Sometimes have to Go and Sit.
As the class went on, Sally decided she wanted to copy one of the inspiration images. She’s new, so she was practicing color mixing with her limited palette. When she couldn’t get the bright turquoise color, I brought my manganese blue over and mixed it with her titanium white. The color she wanted came popping out, much to her delight. “I’m going to buy me some of that color.” Sometimes all we need is the right materials.
Lauralei’s humor takes the cake with her shower chair. She can imagine the model chairs in a new environment. She doesn’t let the reality limit her options.
Gail divided up the canvas into various planes of colors, which sing for joy. I think she had fun. As the only one of our group who took the challenge of the entire scene, Mike took a bird’s eye view of the table and chairs. I hear he may be traveling again, or at least yearning to fly away from the day to day grind of full time work to something closer to retirement.
I can understand that feeling. After years of teaching school, I look forward to summer vacation. We’ll have art class on the last two Fridays of May, and then take the summer off. Our current plan is to return on September 9, the first Friday after Labor Day. In the meantime, if you want to know how God really is,
“Be still, and know that I am God!” ~~ Psalms 46:10
A fun summertime activity is building a chair fort or a chair cave. All you have to do is turn over a couple of chairs on the floor and throw a sheet or blanket over them. This provides a quiet place for a child of any age to have a “time out” alone during a long summer. I recommend a quiet place for children of all ages, even those who’re long of tooth.
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