April Fool! Caught you! Were you the prankster or the pranked? Even an institution as stuffy as the British Broadcasting Corporation isn’t above pranking the public on the first day of April. If a fool and his money are soon parted, then whatever the BBC was selling, they were having a jolly good time in their advertising department. You can watch their mini documentary on Flying Penguins below:
When I was at Perkins Seminary, we editors of the weekly newsletter had a tradition of an April Surprise. This followed the practice of the former Babylonian Schismatic, which was an alternative, satirical student newsletter published occasionally between 1981 and 1988.
One year, when I was coeditor, it was more of an April Debacle. My partner in crime and I were sure the beach ball bouncing off the usual chapel steeple logo would be enough to clue our community into the prank. However, we failed to realize how little sleep our fellow students actually got during school weeks, how seriously they took the printed word, and worst of all, that our newsletter also went to bishops’ widows in faraway places. This last was what got us into the real trouble.
Our faux reports of Perkins losing its accreditation due to shenanigans of prior graduates, who were in the news at the time, had graduate students storming the dean’s office. Even worse, the bishop’s widows were calling him to inquire what kind of school he was overseeing. The fact schools can only lose accreditation for their own failures (and not the trespasses of former students or faculty) never crossed anyone’s mind in the ensuing uproar. So of course, we criminals wrote handwritten letters of apology to the widows and printed retractions in the next newsletter for the students. I now understand why my mother said I sometimes take things too seriously. Still, I’ve have found others who make me look like a giggle queen.
Speaking of giggles, although the historical roots of April Fool’s Day are shrouded in mystery, the British, who are mostly known for their dry wit and stiff upper lip, seem to enjoy this holiday to excess. Especially at the BBC, which back in 1957, produced a fascinating prank documentary on the Swiss Artisanal Spaghetti Industry. They showed a Swiss family harvesting ripe spaghetti strands from their spaghetti bushes. At the time because of rationing, spaghetti wasn’t widely available. After 1956 in the British Isles, Italian companies opened spaghetti factories and Italian immigrants opened restaurants. The British developed a taste for this food. As a result, some British families were so enthusiastic, they wanted to purchase their own spaghetti bushes for a home garden. Others were unhappy to be pranked. This may be one of the first times the medium of television was used to stage an April Fool’s Day hoax.
Moveable Feasts: Passover and Easter
Israel was an ancient agricultural culture and followed a lunar calendar, so sighting the full moon was important. Passover is always pegged to the Hebrew calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle. It starts in the middle of the month of Nisan, when the moon is full, typically falling in March or April of the modern Gregorian calendar. As a result, Passover typically begins very close to Easter. Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. However, due to the shorter Hebrew calendar, sometimes it gets a leap month to keep it in tune with the seasons. In 2024, when the leap month plays a part, we’ll have an early Easter on March 21st, but Passover won’t start until April 22nd.
These religious holidays are forever entertwined because of the historical events of the Last Supper, which we assume was a ritual meal or Seder, and the crucifixion on a Friday, which required Christ’s body to be taken down from the cross due to the beginning of Passover at sunset.The Last Supper took place on a Thursday night, even though the actual Passover didn’t begin until Friday night.
As Wesley’s Notes on The New Testament observe, “Jesus took the bread—the bread or cake, which the master of the family used to divide among them, after they had eaten the passover. The custom our Lord now transferred to a nobler use. This bread is, that is, signifies or represents my body, according to the style of the sacred writers.”
We know this because Jesus was arrested in Gesthemane after this meal and then taken to the Roman Governor Pilate on Friday morning, the day of Preparation for the Passover. John 18:28 reminds us how the temple priests “…took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.”
The Jews in the first century kept faithfulness according to laws of separation and purity, so they kept away from unbelievers on holy days. This was the biblical practice of the time. Early Christians continued this practice until Paul began his outreach to the Greek and Roman citizens of the world. When in the later gospel of John (14:15) Christ says, “if ye love me, keep my commandments, Wesley’s commentary understands this to mean: “Immediately after faith he exhorts to love and good works.” This is why we United Methodists practice an open table at Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, for all who love the Lord and desire to be in love and fellowship with their neighbors are welcome at his table. We don’t exclude anyone, for God includes all people into the circle of God’s love.
Since Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, this makes Easter a “moveable feast.” Unlike a picnic, for which we tote our fixings from our kitchen to a park or to the countryside, or unlike a house to house “progressive dinner,” Easter is called “moveable” because it’s not on a fixed date like Christmas or New Year’s Day.
My family’s Easter feast always centered about a baked ham, often covered with canned pineapple rings and studded with cloves. We were a modern American 1950-60’s family and Betty Crocker reigned in my mother’s kitchen. Just this week I saw a tv advertisement of a family feast with this very same baked ham. I suppose when the economy gets dicey, people pull out old familiar recipes from the great-great-grandmother’s kitchen. Since I have a new great-grandchild on the way, and a knitting project started, I can safely say, this isn’t an April Fool’s joke. I’ve seen the sonogram images!
“April showers bring May flowers” is an ancient rhyme. Unfortunately, these showers also bring pollens of every kind, since trees and flowers both acquire crowns of glory. The Old Farmer’s’ Almanac notes while November has a bit more rain in store for Arkansas than April usually brings, this month’s warmer weather favors conditions for flowers to bloom and trees to bud. While we might tire of the storms and the havoc they wrack upon the populace, we’re always thankful if they only cause damage to property and don’t take human lives.
Across North America, the pollen season has lengthened by 20 days since 1990. Pollen concentrations have also increased by 21 percent over the past three decades. This means some of us have been doctoring ourselves or visiting the RD—real doctor—since February. The stubbornest of us waited until almost April because we were convinced we could heal ourselves. If you still have no energy and are grumpy to boot after a month, you too need a RD. Better living through chemistry with put a perk back into your bunny hop.
Speaking of the weather, I have seen many years now of Easter sunrise services, and even more later noontime Easter feasts. One thing ties them all together: no matter how cute my spring outfit is, no one ever sees it because I’m always wearing a raincoat or a winter coat over it. My guess is rain and cool weather will come and our egg hunts will likely be inside. As long as there’s a dark chocolate Easter rabbit for my personal gratification, I’ll be happy. I discovered last year’s version stored in the cabinet, so I’d better make some chocolate chip cookies soon.
There’s plenty of silly or merchandising holidays in April, but you can read about them at the link below my name. Until May, I remain your April Fool…
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
One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons was Rocky and Bullwinkle. I loved Mr. Peabody and Sherman, who would climb into the WABAC machine after setting the controls to a time and place of historical importance. That a bow tie wearing dog had adopted a human boy never crossed my mind as being strange. It was a cartoon, after all. In the 1960’s we didn’t take cartoons as real life. We knew they were fantasy.
In times of change we always want to hold on to traditions: our rituals, our places of worship, our routines. I think the newly minted Christians in the first century, who had friendships and business relationships tied up in the pagan temple sacrificial banquets, most likely had this problem too. The temples were where they ate food sacrificed to the pagan gods, drank to celebrate new deals or cement old relationships, and soon one thing would lead to another. It was the “another” that Paul had words about, for In sharing these meals, Christians were also indulging in the sexual activities that resulted from the feast. (1 Corinthians 8)
If Christians were to live a new life and their lifestyles were to reflect this newness, they needed to make an outward change to reflect the inward transformation of their hearts. We don’t keep the old but take on a newness of heart that transforms our outer life. Consider the caterpillar. It only knows how to be a caterpillar, but it has an inner drive to spin a cocoon. Once inside, it rests, reflects, and directs its energy to becoming a new creation. Then it breaks free to become what its new and true self is meant to be. If it remains bound in a cocoon, it won’t fulfill the wonderful design of God’s best hopes and dreams for its life.
We too have to reimagine and revision our spiritual lives. I’ve always based my vision for ministry on John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection: “A heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else can exist.” Like the lawyer in the parable, many of us ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus and Wesley say “Everybody is our neighbor.” I’d add, even those we’re most upset with, even if they’ve part of our family and we have disagreements with them.
Most of us have a Bible, but we don’t all read the same translation and we also have major disagreements on how to interpret this holy book. A particularly fraught scripture is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (NRSV)
Wesley wrote in his Notes on the New Testament on 1 Corinthians 6:9—
“Idolatry is here placed between fornication and adultery, because they generally accompanied it. Nor the effeminate—Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship. But how is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites! We may learn hence, that we are never secure from the greatest sins, till we guard against those which are thought the least; nor, indeed, till we think no sin is little, since every one is a step toward hell.”
In Wesley’s Notes on The Entire Bible, of which his Notes on the New Testament is part of our United Methodist Doctrinal standards, he also reminds us, “ Fornication—The original word implies criminal conversation of any kind whatever.” (1 Corinthians 6:9)
That was Wesley in 1754, or the mid 18th century, but most modern Wesleyans today would be shocked at that interpretation of this text. Interestingly, Wesley departed from the KJV in over 12,000 instances in his Notes on the NT. Wesley valued the Authorised Version of the Bible (KJV), but he always preferred to study the Scriptures in their original languages over any and all translations. If we’re traditionalists, we need to remember Wesley was a radical in his time. As Albert Outler was always keen to remind Methodists, Wesley looked better without his halo.
A later day hero was my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Billy Abraham. As his research assistant at Perkins, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn from his thought and appreciate the early church fathers and mothers. Through him I was privileged to meet and learn from Dr. Roberta Bondi, a noted expert on early church history. I learned from Billy about differing views of scriptural authority and from Roberta how a heart of love and mercy helps us live in community.
I decided I’d go with Wesley’s view: “The Bible contains everything necessary for salvation.” This meant I didn’t have to get into creationist arguments because that’s not going to interfere with anyone’s salvation. Of course, that was the big issue a quarter century ago. Even our disagreements change over time. I learned to pray from Dr. Bondi, “Help us to love one another as God loves us.”
When we read scripture in translation, we read from the vantage point of our times and our context. We don’t have a 1960’s Rocky and Bullwinkle WABAC machine to visit the historical people who wrote the Bible. (If only we could time travel!) Only by studying the life and times of that era can we read with a clearer mind what the original authors meant. Even then, we’re caught up in the translation, for we don’t have many full copies of the holy books from the earliest times. Our earliest complete New Testament dates from the 4th century, long after Christ and the first apostles walked these rocks and clods we call earth.
Then too, we have concepts today which ancient people hadn’t yet conceived. In Roman times, which is the time of the earliest New Testament writings, the day was divided into watches or hours. We think of those hours as having 60 minutes each, but they had no mechanical clocks for precision time keeping. The sundial kept the hour count, so a summer day had long watch hours, while a winter day had shorter ones. Since everyone was on the same system, everyone was on time, or they were late if they were my ancestors.
We all read the same Bible, but we have different translations in our hands. I choose the NRSV because it’s a modern translation that’s as literal as possible and as free as necessary, unlike the NIV, which is a dynamic translation or one that seeks to make the best readable sense of the text. Those translators have to make decisions on how to render rare words in the text. For instance, the word “arsenokoitai,” which shows up in two different verses in the bible, wasn’t translated to mean “homosexual” until 1946. It appears in the RSV, whereas in the KJV, the word gets translated as “nor abusers of themselves with mankind” (or to put it less delicately—trigger warning—masturbation).
How was the word translated previously? It referred to the common Greek practice of pederasty: adult male love for younger boys, which everyone today would be opposed to and disgusted by this cultural practice once common in Greek society. Abuse of youths by adults is something all of us can dislike because that experience isn’t a relationship of equals. One has too much power, authority, and dominance over the other. For the same reason we object to other unequal sexual relationships: clergy and laity, counselors and campers, teachers and students, bosses and employees, and so on.
This particular word shows up exactly two times in the whole Bible. It’s now translated as “sodomites.” This too is an unfortunate translation, since the sin of Sodom wasn’t homosexuality, but the townspeople’s failure to respect the laws of hospitality. When the visitors came under Lot’s protection in his home, the townies gathered outside his door and begged to have their sport with his guests. We’re horrified Lot would offer up his own daughters, but in that day and time, protecting the honor of the patriarch’s offer of hospitality to strangers was more important than anything that happened to the women of the household. We don’t have to like the culture as it was back then to get the lesson of “entertaining angels unawares.” This is an instance we’re glad fathers today have respect both for their guests and their daughters. Cultures change and we’re very glad for that.
The word “μαλακός” or Malakos refers to something soft and effeminate. It could refer to silk clothing or to an adult man who shaved his beard or grew long hair. In the Ancient Greek society, once a boy grew a beard, he was no longer subjected to pederastic abuse. Instead, he passed “the gift on” to the next generation. We’re well aware today how child abuse is generational. This is what Paul railed about in this text.
When the holidays crank up, the greedy, drunkards, and maybe a few adulterers and fornicators will go to town. The angry criticizers will probably be driving the bus and the swindlers (robbers: ἅρπαγες) will be grifting the unsuspecting flock as they barrel along. We don’t have any temples with male prostitutes as the ancient Greek cities once had. There were also women prostitutes serving at these temples, so everyone had their pick when visiting with a celebrant for an intercession with the gods. I’m really glad our current clergy orders don’t include this ritual as part of “pastoral care.” Culture changes. Maybe today’s clergy body is glad this duty isn’t added to their holiday activities.
It’s good the culture has changed from that of Rome and Athens of the first century. In fact, culture keeps on changing all the time. This is why Jesus spoke of “new wine in new wine skins.” We’re no longer a first century church, but some principles still apply. We can’t pour the new wine into an old skin, or the fermentation will burst open the weak old skin. This is why we are a new and changing church, for just as butterflies break out of their cocoons, we too have to break free from what has bound us in a past time. The Holy Spirit keeps refreshing and invigorating a living community, whether it worships in a tent, a rented room, or in a set place.
Now we look forward, to a new land, a new existence, and new possibilities. If we hear the voice of God, we hear the calling: “Go to the land I will show you.” God has always led God’s people in every place and in every time. God has brought God’s people through good times and bad, through war and peace, and in exile to the promised land. We can trust God to be faithful once again.
Joy, peace, and hope,
Drinking cup (kylix) depicting an erotic scene of Eros and a youth Signed by: Douris: clay, Greek, made in Attica, Athens, Late Archaic Period, about 490–485 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
Two-handled storage jar (pelike) depicting young athletes jumping Circle of Euthymides (Greek), Archaic Period, about 520–515 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
Drinking cup (kylix) depicting pentathletes Onesimos: Greek, Late Archaic Period, about 500–490 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
STRONGS NT 3120: μαλακός μαλακός, μαλακή, μαλακον, soft; soft to the touch: ἱμάτια, Matthew 11:8 R G L brackets; Luke 7:25 (ἱματίων πολυτελῶν καί μαλακων, Artemidorus Daldianus, oneir. 1, 78; ἐσθής, Homer, Odyssey 23, 290; Artemidorus Daldianus, oneir. 2, 3; χιτών, Homer, Iliad 2, 42); and simply τά μαλακά, soft raiment (see λευκός, 1): Matthew 11:8 T Tr WH.
Like the Latin mollis, metaphorically, and in a bad sense: effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, 1 Corinthians 6:9 (Dionysius Halicarnassus, Antiquities 7, 2 under the end; ((Diogenes Laërtius 7, 173 at the end)).
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance: effeminate, soft. Of uncertain affinity; soft, i.e. Fine (clothing); figuratively, a catamite — effeminate, soft.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, STRONGS NT 733: ἀρσενοκοίτης 733 arsenokoítēs (from 730 /árrhēn, “a male” and 2845 /koítē, “a mat, bed”) – properly, a man in bed with another man; a homosexual. ἀρσενοκοίτης, ἀρσενοκοιτου, ὁ (ἄρσην a male; κοίτη a bed), one who lies with a male as with a female, a sodomite: 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10. (Anthol. 9, 686, 5; ecclesiastical writings.)
Nothing springs full grown to life in an instant. Everything begins in a seed, which is planted, watered, and nourished into full growth. Only in myths or fantasies can an idea come into being instantly. Zeus had a very bad headache, a “splitting headache,” that birthed his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She leapt out in fully grown from his brow. We don’t take this myth to be scientifically true, but as a metaphor for the difficulty and struggles we undergo to obtain wisdom. As my daddy used to tell me after I’d learned some hard life lesson, “The school of experience is a rough master, and we all earn a costly degree in gaining its wisdom.”
Some of us will repeat the same lessons over and over, as if we expect to get a different result. The purpose of an education isn’t to regurgitate a right answer to pass a test, but to understand why the answer is right. That’s why math classes require showing the steps to the solution, rather than the “full blown adult answer” only. In matters of faith or ethics, many of us haven’t had the training to “set out the proof” for our final answer or deed. In fact, in one situation we may think or act one way, and quite differently in another.
The name for this behavior is “situational ethics.” Less kindly, it’s also known as spinelessness, shiftiness, being two faced, or dishonesty. Mostly it means people don’t have a true center or a plumb line by which they measure themselves. If we’re measuring our lives against other people, we’re measuring against other fallible human beings. Even our heroes have feet of clay, for none of us are gods. When I used to call my parents out on this character trait, they always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This sets up a moral conflict for most people, even those raised in the church or in religious homes.
We need to have a moral center based on a higher authority than our individual or cultural conventions, one that includes or exceeds the ethics of the group to which we belong, and not just our individual beliefs and actions. Professional groups—physicians, lawyers, clergy, educators, and others—all have ethical standards for caring for those they serve, even if they morally disagree with the behaviors that bring them into their care. Who decides the ethics of the group? At the risk of making my favorite seminary professor, Billy Abraham, roll about in his still fresh grave, we United Methodists do have the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to guide us. Often we assign our personal life experience to this latter quadrilateral edge, but Wesley meant our Experience of the Assurance of God’s All Embracing and Adopting Love. As Wesley once said, “God is able to save all to the uttermost.”
Ethics and morals are often used as synonyms, but ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Ethics is a a late 17th century word derived from the Greek ēthos (disposition, character), in contrast to pathos (suffering). In Latin it means ‘character, depiction of character’, or (plural) ‘customs’.
Then we have the words moral and morals. The first is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. The goodness or badness of human character is another concern. From these, people decide what behavior is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We often say a person has morals if they conform to standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We can speak of “the corruption of public morals, “ or you can hear people talking as if “they believe addicts have no morals and can’t be trusted,” rather than understanding the disease and abuse bases which often underlie addictions.
These distinctions don’t change the negative consequences of the addict’s behaviors, yet the addicted person still has the same image of God and the same potential for wholeness each of us have, but perhaps with more suffering, or pathos. If we judge the morality of a person’s choices, and then refer that moral state to the individual’s worthiness, we can end up losing compassion for the person as well as losing the will to help them better their lives. This leads to hard heartedness and a lack of love. We reject our neighbors and make them strangers, unwelcome to our world. We forget our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, wanderers without a home. How easily we forget our savior, who had no place to be born even in his ancestral home, and whose family fled religious persecution and certain death to live in Egypt, far from home. Strange how some Christians have no sympathy for others in the same fix today.
Moral is a word from the late Middle English by way of the Latin moralis, from mos, mor- ‘custom’, with the plural mores or ‘morals’. It refers to one having the property of being right or wrong, good or evil, or voluntary or deliberate, and therefore open to ethical appraisal. When we apply moral attributes to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.” Not until 1803 did moral come to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As a noun, we meet the word in the Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. Later it was applied to the works of various classical writers. All Methodists and the holiness denominations birthed from the seed of the great Methodist revival recognize the genius of John Wesley. We all quote him, but we also apply his wisdom through our own individual preconceived notions of what is “good, true, and noble.”
When John Wesley was asked, “What is that faith whereby we are sanctified?” he answered:
“First believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness; secondly, believe that He is able thus to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him; thirdly, believe that He is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe fourthly, that He is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to His Word.”
In the old days, we said we were “going on to perfection,” not that we were so bold as to claim that we’d already arrived there or been perfected. Oh no, we allowed God could complete this for us and had the power to do it, as well as the will, but our human nature was still fallible. If a word comes up more than once in a text, writers go to the thesaurus for an alternative, but in reading scripture, we learned repetition was a sign of importance, a marker especially meant for those of us who are slow learners in the school of life.
Oliver O’Donovan in “Scripture and Christian Ethics” writes, “Moral theologians have a secret knowledge, apparently concealed from other kinds of theologians, especially those devoted to hermeneutics. They know that the most mysterious and most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation we are facing mean?, where do we find ourselves existentially?”
We tend to speak as if our selves and our situations were known quantities, so that it only remains to choose out of Scripture whatever seems to fit our circumstances as we conceive them. Scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on our self and our situation, to overcome our preconceptions about them. We don’t read about our situation directly in the Scriptures, yet it’s from the Scriptures we gain categories of understanding, which re-frame our view of our situation and ourselves. We can’t look for individual texts to guide our actions, but need to consider the whole of the revealed Scripture and God’s nature as we discern our path forward.
In this sense, the Bible is a mirror which reflects our inner nature to us, convicting us of our failings and giving us grace and comfort in our times of need. We can learn much about ourselves from the verses we lean on, just as much as we can by the verses we ignore. There’s a reason we interpret texts by the whole of scripture, and not piecemeal. This is one way we understand the authority of scripture.
As an interesting aside, SWTX, my original conference, which approved my candidacy for the ministry, didn’t think I should attend seminary because I scored so low on the abstract reasoning tests I took. They didn’t think I would make 65, seminary’s passing grade, in my class work. It’s true I learn and process differently, but knowing this, I crammed a three year program into four years. If I’m slow to grasp the whole until I first understand the parts, this doesn’t reflect on my fitness for ministry or my intellectual ability. It merely reflects a different way of processing information. There’s more way to skin a cat, and many ways people learn.
When I taught art classes, I had to make sure I covered all the learning methods for all my students to have success. I talked about the project, I demonstrated the techniques, I had the steps written out, and for some few children, I had to place their hands in the optimum position to get them started. This covered ear and eye learning, visual reminders, and haptic or touch learning. Some students needed multiple types of learning throughout their working time on a project. Some needed reteaching every class period. Some just needed encouragement when they got stuck at a rough patch. Most all had to learn to talk in positive terms about themselves and their work, as well as about others and their creative process also.
I talk about this teaching method, for this is how we consciously or unconsciously teach those around us ethics and morals. As one youth asked me at a church I once served, “Why are you wearing your cross today? It’s not Sunday.”
“Because Jesus is important to me every day, not just on the day I lead church services.”
I realized even though her family was very active and faithful in our congregation, when they were out in the world of day to day folks, they didn’t stand out from the crowd. Maybe one day day this child will come to a time when wearing a cross becomes bearing a cross. Then again, how many people willingly choose suffering for the sake of the body of Christ? This suffering is often difficult for those of us who’ve committed our lives to Christ’s call, but we realize most laity won’t voluntarily submit to that kind of stress. Yet experience is a great teacher. We learn from others, even those who have differing opinions and choose different actions.
Wesley’s Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” has some advice for us: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.”
As a further reminder from his all time classic Sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1785: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin…by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin…”In modern terms, when we profess our faith, Christ saves us from the guilt of that first sin. Some say Adam and Eve were disobedient. They then emphasize rule keeping as their moral choice. There’s always a reason behind every behavior, however. Why were they disobedient? We hear the answer in the parable of the Tree of Wisdom:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The man and the woman both heard the half truth, saw the shiny fruit, believed the promises of a creature rather than their creator, and ate the fruit they hoped would make them like gods. Instead they only gained knowledge of their nakedness and vulnerability. This first lesson of the school of life came with cost: fig leaves ooze irritating sap. They won’t choose this solution again. God’s providence replaced their poor choice with animal skin clothing even as God sent them out into the world. We might say the attitude of pride or greed drove their bad behavior and was the cause of their negative consequences.
As we grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor, the Holy Spirit destroys any remaining root of sin. One of the important sins, Wesley noted, was pride. Pride is that feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction we get from our own achievements, or those of our family, tribe, nation, or other associated group. In matters of faith, we always have to remember Paul’s admonition to the Romans (10:9-13):
“because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul reminds us of the unity of the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the former masters and slaves, with the gulf now bridged between the former God worshippers and the idol worshiping strangers. Now there’s “no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we joined together into one annual conference in 2003, almost twenty years ago, we had good reasons to make one combined administrative body for our faith community. We had underfunded pension obligations, we were over heavy with administrators, and clergy didn’t have equity in retirement accumulation. Likewise, the conferences weren’t equally treated, since one didn’t fully fund pension needs, an act which caused clergy to seek appointments in the other conference, thus robbing the first of talents and gifts. These were the logical consequences of attitudes and behaviors, however.
The logical person thought, “Let’s make Arkansas One Faith, One Focus, One Fellowship,” and this will solve all our problems. It may have looked good on paper, but our congregations had been used to a personal touch to remind them at least once a year they belonged to a greater whole. Their pride in showing off their home church and being a good host for the Superintendent was taken from them if they were just attendees at another group meeting. The moral choice of what’s better for me, a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my family or a meeting elsewhere, gets weighed and measured.
So now here we are, nearly twenty years into this optimistic marriage of the two annual conferences. The seeds for dissent and discontent were planted long ago, even before this joining. When I inventoried the historic memorabilia of the dead bishops at the SMU Bridwell Library, I saw how the chaos of the Vietnam War era and the sea changes our society were experiencing then affected our church in many ways. Some wanted to hold onto tradition more tightly, while others were ready to experiment with new wine in fresh wine skins. These were just “outer trappings,” however, for the message of “saved by faith, sanctified by faith, and made perfect in love by faith” never changes. This is Christ’s work, enabled by the Holy Spirit.
The past sixty years, as the last two decades, haven’t always been smooth sailing. We often have had trials, storms, and tribulations on our shared journeys. Sometimes we’re so far out to sea, we don’t see the land, and the skies are occluded, so we can’t take a bearing off the stars. Yet God’s spirit will blow us along, for even detours are within God’s providence. As James reminds us:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)
Today we also have powerful economic and political forces that are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They purport to work for religion and democracy, but actually work against the stewardship of our earth ‘s resources and environment, fail to care for the poor and dispossessed, and support military interventions around the world. Moreover, some of them actively work to destabilize religious denominations with social justice callings, such as the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Some today think “things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
Two final words in summary: one is from the ancient wisdom tradition and the other from Paul’s paean of joy in the midst of suffering. Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” My dying grandfather spoke these words to me in his last hours. Ive always considered them a plumb line for my life.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” — Philippians 4:8-9
John Wesley: Repentance in Believers (Sermon 14), “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15. The Complete Works of John Wesley, vol. 1 of 3, Kindle ereader. Read on line here: http://www.godonthe.net/wesley/jws_014.html
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
Welcome to June! I’ve found my sunshades and my flip flops, so this rabbit is ready for a summer vacation. Old school teachers never die, they just take the summer off. And teachers, as well as students, will need a summer off, along with some intensive counseling, to get them ready to return in a healthy frame of mind next fall.
In my early years in ministry, I served in a certain county where many people were caught up in despair. I often complained to my district superintendent of my desire to pour mood elevators into the public water supply.
“You do know drugging the water supply isn’t exactly an acceptable activity for a Methodist minister?”
“Oh, yeah, but it sure would make my job easier.”
Remember, June 3 is Love Conquerors All Day. I need to remind myself of this on occasion when I want to take the easy road. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
Taking the easy way out isn’t always the best choice, but it’s the one we rabbits most often choose. We rabbits don’t like to rock the boat, and we like to make all the other rabbits happy if at all possible. The only problem is if we please A, B gets upset. If we please B, A gets upset. We don’t even try to please C, since C is so cranky, even the good Lord Jesus couldn’t fry an egg to please them. We set our hearts and minds on pleasing God, as best we can, and hope to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Chocolate ice cream brings me joy any day of the year, but June 7 is a day dedicated to this frozen delight. Don’t worry about frying eggs, but keep it frozen. I like mine plain, but fresh strawberries or peaches are a nice addition, plus some chopped nuts. Always go for complex, unless you just can’t wait. Then grab a spoon and eat it straight from the pint. (Mark it with your name, since you ate from it.)
Often we cut the Gordian Knot and go for the shortcut to our complex problems. Sometimes this is a good solution, for the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. My daughter used to call my vacation navigation shortcuts “the long cuts,” since I’m directionally challenged. Most of the time, that straight line went through swamp land and alligators. I can hear her voice now, “NOOOOO!!!” I’m known for taking the scenic route, so I often see America’s less known sights, which are off the beaten path.
In the gospel of Luke (14:34), Jesus quotes a proverbial saying:
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Another translation of the latter portion of this verse is “how can it be used for seasoning?”
When I think of loss, I think of a life snuffed out. Some people are burned out, so we can say they’ve lost their seasoning ability. There’s no vim or vigor in them. Other lives are cut short and aren’t able to fulfill their purpose to season the great soup of our community. Our past month was marked by 47 mass shooting incidents in May alone. A mass shooting incident is defined as one in which at least four people are injured or killed, not including the shooter. Suicides aren’t included.
Suicides are also a public health problem. They are the “deaths of despair” that leave ripples of grief and hopelessness in the survivors. They’re the ultimate shortcut solution to a problem, the placing of a period where life has placed a comma or a semicolon. My daughter once attempted suicide by downing half a bottle of aspirin. I noticed the open bottle and pills scattered across the floor. She said the “dog ate it.”
“That’s too bad, I’m going to miss that dog. She won’t be long for this world. We’ll need to make burial plans for her.”
“Well, actually, I’m the one who ate the aspirin.”
“Then we’re going to the hospital. You aren’t going to like getting your stomach pumped, but it’s better than being dead. You want to have a chance to grow up and have a good life. A dog we can replace. You—not so much.”
It was a rough time in her life, and mine too. But God was with us. And we had support from counselors, friends, family, and our church family. My work family and my clients supported me too. I must be the most extroverted rabbit in the patch, because I asked everyone for help. It turned out my problem was shared by everyone else. I discovered I wasn’t alone, but was the most ordinary of rabbits around.
This is a humbling experience, especially when you’re a first child and the only girl. I admit to being spoiled, but don’t let my brother rabbits hear me say this. I’ll deny it to my last breath: I’m like every other rabbit I know. I want to think I’m someone special, even when I’m just as fluffy as every other bunny out there on Gods green earth.
Unfortunately, half the suicides today are committed with a gun, not aspirins. When looking at overall gun deaths, roughly two-thirds are attributed to suicides—a proportion that is consistent across most states. Gun suicides are on the rise and data also indicates men, white Americans, older people, and individuals living in rural areas present higher rates of gun suicides. Another group presenting a unique risk for suicide is current and former members of the armed forces, especially those with PTSD.
Compared with the general population, current and former military members have significantly higher rates of gun ownership. According to a 2015 study, nearly 50% of U.S. veterans own a gun. In contrast, studies suggest that only about 22% of the general U.S. population owns firearms. Similarly, the age groups of 50 to 64 years old and 65 and older have the highest rates of gun ownership, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. This can further explain the high rates of suicide among older veterans.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in 2019, close to 4,332 veterans died by gun suicide in the United States, representing close to 18 percent of the total number of gun suicides reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during that year. Perhaps more alarming is the fact this figure shows a veteran is killed by gun suicide every two hours. In 2019, active duty military members committed suicide by gun 64% of the 498 total (318), almost one gun suicide per day.
Why isn’t anyone speaking about this? For all the lip service our politicians give to the flag and to the armed service members, they seem to forget them once they’re no longer useful to fight their wars or march in their parades. Perhaps because Congress won’t devote any money to study the effects of gun violence on the citizens of our Beautiful America, so we have to fund private studies here and there to piece together a patchwork of facts of this scourge on the peace of our people.
My young neighbor, only 8 years old, was in a panic as he knocked on my door the other day. His parents hadn’t come straight up the elevator, as they’d said they would. He was crying to beat the band and was sure something bad had happened to them. I invited him inside and left the door open so we could see them come past. He was so worked up, he couldn’t sit down. I suggested a call to his daddy, but they came walking past just at that moment.
We don’t realize what terror these school shootings put our children through. There’s no safe place for them any more, no matter how “hardened” we make the buildings. Some person always breaks the shell at the most inopportune moment.
Some rabbits will have empty seats at their family reunion tables because someone decided to act impulsively. Father’s Day (June 19) won’t be a celebration without the son or daughter to give Dad the tie, the golf balls, or breakfast in bed.
I think back to my own childhood. We worried in the 1950’s more about the urban legends of Halloween candy poisoning, when we were more likely to get killed crossing Highway 1, a four lane highway running through our town. My mother rabbit would wait for me to ride the trolley home from school. She would wait until the near lane of traffic cleared before she walked out to the center median and time this so the far lane’s cars would finish passing so she could walk across the newly empty lanes to meet me on the other side. We held hands and crossed in the same manner on the way back to our home.
This was our routine from the start of school until sometime in the autumn. Mother was delayed one day, so I sat down to wait for her and opened my book to read. I was wearing a brown jacket against the early cool spell, and my dirty blonde hair blended in with the pile of dry leaves on the ground. Intent on my book, I failed to see her come outside. She overlooked me and went inside thinking I’d missed my ride.
A bit later, I decided if she wasn’t coming for me, I’d come to her. Gathering up my possessions, I stood on the curbside. I watched the comings and goings of the quickly moving traffic. Once I saw the break in the pattern, I walked out into the clearing, waited at the median, and crossed behind the trailing traffic of the second lane. When I walked inside, my mother had a conniption fit. After this, I began riding my bicycle to school, and my brother got to come with me.
Not everyone is mature enough to cross a four lane busy highway by themselves when they’re in the fourth grade, which is the same age as the children who lost their lives at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. . Some people still need to be supervised at work even in their 20’s. The brain keeps maturing past age 21, as the frontal lobes, which are home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” (such as planning, working memory, and impulse control) are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life. Although neuroscience has been called upon to determine adulthood, there is little empirical evidence to support age 18, the current legal age of majority, as an accurate marker of adult capacities.
Since May 24, the date of this tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, the gunviolencearchive.org has recorded 16 mass shootings in six days, with 79 killed or wounded. Some of these are high school graduation parties where uninvited guests arrived and gunfire broke out, others are the result of young people wandering about in the late hours and getting into trouble with guns. During my time of ministry, youth, alcohol, and firearms were usually a recipe for trouble. Maybe parental rabbits’ brains are still developing too, if they aren’t able to put their rabbit foot down and tell the junior rabbits to leave their weapons at home. Visiting Jack Rabbit in jail for accidental death or intentional use of a firearm will throw a curve into your best laid plans for your progeny.
Instead, cities may have to reinstitute curfews after dark to curtail the opportunities for gun violence. Or they could raise the age to buy a weapon and require a longer waiting time and a more thorough background check. I wouldn’t be opposed to a training class and a test to see if the owner knows how to use the weapon safely. After all, we do this for the 2 ton weapon of mass destruction known as the family automobile. So what if the founding fathers never had autos; they also never had automatic pistols or large magazine weapons, modeled on the ones used in combat.
Did I mention June is National Safety Month? Its emphasis is workplace safety, but as a former teacher, this old rabbit reminds you, between 2009 and 2020, teachers’ workplaces are in schools, which is where 30% of mass shootings occurred in public places (schools, malls, or bars), while 61% of mass shootings occurred entirely in the home and another 9% occurred partially in a home and partially in a public location. The common factor in these is the gun and the presence of domestic violence. In at least 53 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2020, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member during the rampage.
I know y’all usually expect a bright and cheery note from me at the beginning of the month, but my heart is broken. Thoughts and prayers are nice, but they don’t stop the carnage. We need to make some changes. At least one man has turned in his assault weapon to his local police station, so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. He couldn’t bear the thought of it being used to perpetrate a similar crime if he were to sell it. If we parents don’t say no to our children, if we keep voting for politicians who are doing nothing, then we get to keep the distinction of having the highest rate of violent gun deaths for any of the developed countries.
That’s not the American Exceptionalism I believe in. We can do better. These are crimes against the common good and against the innocent. The shooter shares the primary blame, but everyone who does nothing to change our society for the better also shares the blame and shame for the next group of victims. At the rate we’re going, we’re having about one mass shooting per day. Eventually this scourge will come to YourTown, USA, and your small town police force will be just as flabbergasted as poor Uvalde’s. How could this happen in our little corner of the world?
I cry along with Jeremiah ( 8:21-22):
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
Sometimes we go along with the attributes of cultural Christianity, rather than practicing the Christianity of Jesus Christ. Romans 12:2 reminds us
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
My spiritual journey always has a late start, but I suppose my lateness is irrelevant in the realm of the God whose time is eternal and everlasting. God’s time is always kairos time, or the time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action. God always works at the opportune and decisive moment, never before or after. As Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings, “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”
I don’t claim to be a wizard, and I’d never accuse God of being a mere wizard, but I didn’t get the appellation, “the usually late, but sometimes great” Cornelia DeLee for nothing. Am I time challenged as well as directionally challenged? Or do I take on too many tasks, as well as push some of these too close together as I near the starting line for my journeys? Maybe some of both. At one time before the pandemic, I could get a car care appointment in Little Rock in two days, but now it takes three. There goes my Friday. Saturday night I spoke for three hours with my oldest granddaughter and turned into bed early in the morning after taking my medicine.
On Sunday, I was packing in zombie mode at ultra slow speed and was on the road by 3:30 pm. My intentions had been to leave by 10 am and arrive at 4 pm. At best, I now would arrive by 8 pm, but with my need for pit stops, I knew my arrival would be later still. I got to see the sunset change the light on the rolling Grant Wood hills of north Louisiana and later I watched the land turn lavender as the early evening turned to dusk. As I drove further south, the road itself became a dark blue-violet velvet ribbon, until the last rays of light left the sky and only shades of grays and blacks remained.
As I made my way past Natchitoches, Louisiana, the colorful lights of this historic city reminded me of the Christmases of my childhood and the many times my family traveled to the waterfront to see their seasonal lights and fireworks display. As I recall, my family was big on loud explosions of color at holiday times, for we also visited our riverfront’s Fourth of July festivities in the summertime. My dad believed fireworks were best left to the professionals, for he never wanted his own children to lose a precious digit or an eye in an accident with gunpowder.
I arrived safely at my destination, even though I drove in the dark. I usually malign Mapquest for its errant choices, but this time, it didn’t send me by the scenic route. While I’ve discovered many unusual places because of Mapquest, this was one trip in which I made a point to point journey. I missed the whole first day, even though I’d planned to get there by 4 pm at the latest. I’ve never met a Plan A I couldn’t transform into a Plan B. This excursion was no exception.
In the darkness at the retreat center, I met a young man who directed me to the office. I thought I said, “Thank you, honey,” but he heard me say, “Thank you, sonny.” I guess I’ve crossed into old lady land, or my trip aged me. It didn’t help I tried to drive over the concrete curbing, which I thought was where the shortcut to the central building should have been. They didn’t consult me when they first laid out the streets here, or they would have included a logical road at this place. There’s a wisdom in not pouring the walks or streets until folks make the way, since commuters will find the shortest distance from place to place.
Monday was a good day in that I started well, but I missed the afternoon teaching session due to napping. I did have the best intentions, but forgot to return my phone’s ringer to loud. The small chirping sound didn’t arouse me from my much needed slumber. I noticed the crepe myrtles along the pathways to the conference room have shed their outer bark. These scraps have settled in the crooks of the trees, as if the crepe myrtles were loath to give them up. Only mature crepe myrtles lose their bark by peeling, not the immature trees. As I thought about this, the image of the circumcised heart from Deuteronomy 10:16-18 came to my mind:
“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”
When the crepe myrtles mature, they’re able to reveal the beauty of their trunks only if they shed their bark. If we humans would take a lesson from these trees, we’d shed our false fronts and show off our inner beauty to the world around us. Instead, we hide behind our “protective barks” or “facades of competence, strength, or knows it all,” so we can show our false selves to other people’s false selves. Then we wonder why we’re all so immature and fake.
Sometimes we gardeners try to “treat the bark shedding” as a problem by fumigation or poisoning the unseen fungus causing the bark drop. We don’t realize this is a natural state of this tree, rather than a disease to cure. “Too old to care what you think anymore,” is the mature crepe myrtle’s motto, just as the old lady wears purple with a red hat and doesn’t care what you think about that! The world wants us to keep our bark on, to stay spiritually immature, but if we’re to grow in grace, the bark has to come off.
When the bark comes off the mature crepe myrtles, we can see the many colors of their trunks. They’re a delight to behold, and even more beautiful when the rain brings out their subtle coloration. Most of us think our inner selves need to be always hidden, for “if people only knew who we really were, they might not like us.” We also try to hide from God, even though Jesus reminds us in Luke 8:17—
“For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.”
This is because of God’s nature, as described in Sirach 42:18—
“He searches out the abyss and the human heart; he understands their innermost secrets. For the Most High knows all that may be known; he sees from of old the things that are to come.”
Once we realize God knows our hidden nature or our inner truth, we want to hide our nakedness with clothes made of sticky fig leaves. The ancient story tellers had a sense of humor, for this choice of clothing was only one step above a garment made of poison ivy. No one ever said our ancestors or their progeny were smart. But we have a gracious God, who gave humanity clothes made of skins to wear when they were sent out from their first home.
Ever since the garden, humanity has tried to hide their true selves from an all knowing God. As my daddy used to say, “Darling, I don’t think you’re getting smarter with age. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them.” Some of us mature slower than others, but the race isn’t to the swift. It’s to the ones who persist, for God has a time for each of us. We will always arrive at the crux of time when God’s time for us is prepared, just as it was for Queen Esther in Esther 4:14—
“For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Like the wizards of old, God is preparing each of us to be in the right place at the right time. Our only question is, Are we willing to answer God’s call to act for the good of God’s people when that time comes? As Gandalf reminds us in The Lord of the Rings, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I was attending a 5 day academy for spiritual formation last week, sponsored by the Upper Room of the United Methodist Church. We were blessed to have support from the Arkansas United Methodist Foundation. Our leadership group had Methodists from Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as Cooperative Baptists from Mississippi. Ours was an inclusive group of young, old, black, and white Christian folks who share a love for God and neighbor. It’s very interesting, for the Cooperative Baptists split from their more conservative crowd to give women in ministry a voice as the Holy Spirit called them.
Today, we Methodists are approaching a split because some conservatives want to leave. I won’t be leaving because I did my dropping out when I was younger. I rejected everything and everyone that was the establishment. I came back because God had faith in me, even when I’d lost faith in God. If God was willing to be steadfast in love for me, who was I, the prodigal daughter, to say no to God? And so this is the opportune time, this present moment, when we learn God is always with us, God will always be with us , and God will be with us until the end of the age.
I’m back home now, full of Lea’s pie from LeCompte, Louisiana, and happy to continue the meditations and insights I learned from our speakers. If we listen more, speak less, and spend more time in God’s holy silence, we might discover the gifts of communication and compassion. The traits of winning at all costs as we take no prisoners is very warlike, and not the way of peace. Of course, this is the way of our media personalities, not our saints. We ought to be forming our personalities after Christ and the saints, rather than media personalities, but now I’ve gone to meddling again.
Perhaps I should have a bite of the delightful yam loaf I brought back from Lea’s Pie Place. That might sweeten me up!
This rabbit isn’t ready for May. Even as I say “Rabbit, Rabbit,” on this prime morning, I realize time already is too quickly flying past. I knew this day would eventually come, but surely I thought, not yet. When my rabbit parents were long of tooth—I think they were over forty—they said they had a longer “to do list” than their day was long. I think this was the time they were sending me the golden “round tuit” so I would get my own to do list done. Parental units in every generation have always projected their problems onto their offspring, or perhaps their offspring inherit or imitate the adults’ tendencies.
May is a good time for spring cleaning. Every rabbit hutch or den can use a bit of freshening up after a long winter and a cold spring. May 17th is Pack Rat Day, an opportunity to touch those items once and for all as you decide whether they belong in a Distribute, Donate, or Dump Box. If you just touch and can’t decide, you may be one of the 15 million hoarders in the United States. The days are getting warmer with more daylight and global warming adding to the elevated temperatures. We can’t do anything about the length of days, as these are determined by our planet’s oribit and inclination toward the sun. As we move toward summer, the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun and gets warmer. In the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite happens and their Christmas is warmer than their springtime.
May marks the end of Ramadan, the month long Islamic fast recognizing the gift of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. In most communities in the United States, Eid begins at sundown on Monday, May 2, and lasts one to three days, depending on cultural tradition. Eid al-Fitr, which means “festival of breaking the fast,” comes after a month of abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset in observance of Ramadan. This is a time of renewal, wearing a new outfit, giving charity to the poor, and resuming the everyday rhythms of life.
Some of us finally get our gardens planted, in honor of the Ancient Greek and Roman goddesses of May. The word May entered the English language in the 1050’s, developing from the Old English Maius, which was borrowed directly from the Latin Maius, short for Maius mēnsis, “Maia’s month.” The Greek goddess Maia was one of the Pleiades, who were the companions of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. This Maia was the mother of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. But the Romans had yet another goddess named Maia, who just happened to share her name with the Greek goddess. When later generations conflated the Greek Maia with the Roman Maia, a goddess of fertility and spring, we now celebrate May for growth and increase in the natural world.
If we want to “go green,” in our gardens, we can practice composting our lawn clippings along with any brand of manure. This will enrich our earth with earthworms and organic materials. We can also practice “crop rotation.” This means we plant our tomatoes ina different plot every year so we don’t deplete the soil of certain nutrients or invite nematodes to eat the roots. As a spiritual practice, gardening calms the mind, for it connects us to the earth and the source of our food. Our forebears supplemented their menus in the hard times in days of old with fresh food from home gardens. Community gardens serve the public in urban areas.
Spring reminds us the seasons of the year are balanced, for we have a cold winter and a hot summer, just as we have a middling spring and autumn. I say “middling,” but I might have said “muddling,” for these two seasons in my corner of Rabbitville are marked by rain and mud. Torrents of rain, drenches of rain, and sometimes mere drizzles of rain. Some of us rabbits may have bad hair days, but I hear all this moisture is good for the face and the skin.
In our world, the great powers also attempt to maintain balance and influence. Two world wars will push nations into this choice, but nations rise and fall. Once Great Britain was the world’s great super power, but after these great wars, it was greatly diminished, while the United States, which was the source of Britain’s war materials, prospered. Germany, was cut off from international trade due to its war mongering, became dependent on itself. American industries prospered, so that by the end of the first world war, America became the creditor nation to these former belligerents.
Moreover, we began to feed the world. This rabbit would like to think our government is more generous than Mr. McGregregor, who is always chasing us hungry bunnies out of his precious garden, but poverty and hunger lead to unrest among the world’s people, and that destabilizes governments. Stable governments, which don’t oppress their people, are more welcome on the world stage than dictatorships that exist to serve only a small group of privileged individuals.
As the United States and the Soviet Union struggled to reach a balance of power during the Cold War that followed World War II, President Harry S. Truman outlined what became known as the Truman Doctrine in a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. He emphasized the broader consequences of a failure to protect the democracies in Greece and Turkey by saying:
“The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.”
Seventy-five years later, some of us rabbits have abandoned our national vision of democratic ideals, and have turned our back on our historic uniqueness among the nations of the world. While we may have aspired to grand ideals, but haven’t yet achieved them, this shouldn’t stop us from helping others continue their own difficult journey toward perfection. Once again, we have a bellicose dictatorship attempting to overthrow the will of Ukraine, a democratic nation, with the potential to continue such destabilizing activities in neighboring countries. What’s worse, Ukrainian agricultural products feed the world’s poorest countries, so without their harvests being replaced by American grain, people might go hungry. Hungry people are at risk for strong men with bad intentions.
Journeys aren’t ever easy. Any rabbit who tells you the road is easy, wide, and well marked on the way to their destination, has never heard the call of God saying, “Go to a land I will show you.” Those who think their path is sure, certain, and easy might want to remember this word from Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
This is why we admire heroes, for their journeys aren’t ever easy, but usually require some difficult and demanding task, which transforms them into a new person. They become more than they ever were before. Yet, perhaps, they were always a hero, and they only needed the auspicious moment to bring forth their true character.
I remember the young man I met at a NASCAR event at Texas Motor Speedway. I asked him what he did under the stands while the race was going on.
He shrugged, “I just stand here and make sure nobody takes the other worker’s things.”
“Oh, like you’re the guardian of stuff!” “I never thought of it like that.”
“Strike a hero pose. I’m going to take your picture .”
Everyone has a hero within, but not everyone has someone who affirms that hero. We all need to discover the hero within us, just as Jesus heard at his own baptism (Luke 3:22)—
“and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We rabbits can’t fail to recognize the heroes who gave us life and brought us into this world. I speak of our mothers, of course. My own dear mother was ready to move mountains and call in every personal favor to come be by my side when I was in an Italian hospital while I was on a summer student art program. My dear daddy had to calm her jets and remind her, “Honey, it’s just a bit of food poisoning. It’s not like major surgery.” Our mothers will do anything to protect their offspring, and that makes them heroes in my eyes. I was released in three days, so it would have been a futile trip for my sweet mother. Make sure you recognize your hero mom on May 8, for without her, you wouldn’t be here.
Speaking of hospitals, May 12th is the birthday of Florence Nightingale, whose service as a volunteer nurse during the 1854 British war against Russia in Crimera. Because of her service, dedication to her call, and the innovations she brought to her vocation, we now celebrate the women and men who follow her in the nursing profession. Back in Victorian times, nursing wasn’t a respectable job, and women of the upper classes were expected to remain at home to care for the family’s affairs. Those who hear God’s call don’t worry about cultural expectations, but follow the solitary path of the heroes who went before them. Remember the nurses of today who’ve had to put themselves into harm’s way to care for people with a disease that now can be prevented from the worst complications and death in most people with immunizations and ordinary remedies like masks, hand washing, and avoiding crowds.
All us rabbits can celebrate Sally Ride Day on May 26, which was the birthday of the first American woman in space. While our national space program seems to have lost its energy and will as we’ve outsourced its efforts to the private sector, we have to ask if giving millionaires the ride of their lifetimes benefits a democratic society more than when we funded the space program by a community of citizens who sent the most highly trained and vetted astronauts into space. But then, I’m only one rabbit and I can remember the thrill, excitement, and joy when I saw our first astronauts exiting from their bobbing capsules. I saw these events on a small screen, black and white television in my school room. Afterwards, all we could talk about in our classrooms was the heroic journey of these brave individuals and the team that helped them circumnavigate our planet at such heights.
Finally, all rabbits of every stripe can celebrate Memorial Day Weekend. For some of us, this holiday has been reduced to a three day picnic at the lake or the racetrack. Others will decorate the graves of fallen soldiers from one of our many wars, participate in a patriotic parade, or watch a plethora of auto racing events around the world. Memorial Day weekend is the busiest weekend in motorsports, with Formula 1 racing in Monoco, NASCAR at Charlotte, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, and Lucus Oil Pro Motocross Championship from California. This rabbit will be in heaven. You could spend your tax refund on a new Television, many of which will go on sale over the weekend, or you could open a savings account for emergencies. A wise rabbit always has a little something extra stashed away for lean times. One never knows when Mr. McGregor will lock down his garden, since he doesn’t practice the ethics of Isaiah 58:10—
“if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
My old mother rabbit always reminded me if I was feeling down, all I needed to do was help someone less fortunate than me. It would get me out of my funk by focusing on helping another, as well as reminding me my problems were shared by others. Her message was a key to unlock the hero within me, without which I wouldn’t have done half the good I visited upon this world. My hope for each of you rabbits is to find the hero within you. If you allow God to accomplish deeds of courage through you, whether they be great or small, you’ll be transformed.
In art class, I taught our group the time honored technique of using a cartoon to transfer an image to another surface. Of course, their first reaction was, “Are we watching Saturday morning cartoons today?”
“No, it’s Friday. We’re going to make our own carbon paper,” I said, as I showed them how artists of old would rub graphite on the back of their drawings and then outline the major lines onto the wall or the canvas to transfer the image. The J. Paul Getty Museum has a great video on YouTube explaining this process.
“You mean we’re going to paint by number?” “Not a chance. You still have to make your own color decisions and shading choices.” Really, by now you’d think they know my opinion on the easy way. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
I didn’t bring any complicated images of the holy icons. I brought only ones with simple outlines. I knew this project wasn’t going to be as easy as people first thought. It’s not as simple as coloring within the lines.
An icon is an image of a holy person, but it isn’t a mere representation of the individual. When we make photographs or even painted portraits, we seek to make “likenesses” of the individual, and capture their outward details and idiosyncrasies. If we can also capture their inner spirit, we take the image to a master level. Icons, however, are more concerned with representing the inner, spiritual nature of the person, rather than their outward nature. After all, we don’t have any images of how the holy ones from the earliest days of faith actually looked. We only have their acts and the symbols connected with them, so in the iconography we can identify them by these qualities. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikōn ‘likeness’ and -graphia ‘writing’, so when we paint, we’re actually “writing a likeness” of the holy image.
In the iconographic tradition, all of the faces are broad across the brow, to represent the holy wisdom of God residing in the saints, just as their elongated figures and extremities accent this holiness. The eyes, windows into the soul, are large compared to a natural face, while the mouth is small. The small mouth indicates the saint has conquered bodily passions. There’s always an ear open on an icon, for the icon needs to “hear our prayers.” Not that the icon is alive, but it’s more like an open window into heaven. Therefore, the saint’s ear is the open window through which our prayers flow into the golden light of the mysterious world beyond this material one in which we dwell both in shadows and light.
The color in icons also plays an important role. Red belongs to martyrs. Blue stands for wisdom. White symbolizes paradise and chastity. Green is the color of the Venerable Fathers. Gold symbolizes sanctity.
The icon painter and teacher of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Svetlana Vasyutina once described an experience before the iconostasis or screen of images of the saints in the church. “A while ago, I was tortured by the question why it is golden. Once I was standing at a church, looking at the iconostasis. Suddenly, they turned off the electric lights, and only candles before the icons were burning. The golden traces were shining, giving back the light. It was as if, not the candles, but the halos, were radiating light. I was amazed; the light seemed not material, not as comes from a candle or a lamp. The golden color shows the person painted in the icon was granted a different kind of light.”
According to St. Paul, glory (doxa) appears where the form and the idea of God, which inhabits it, become one. This is especially true where form becomes a place of theophany (a visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god), where the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. This glory is represented by the nimbus or halo of the saints. We hear Paul speak of this power in Philippians 3:21—
“He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
The disciples first saw this glory descending upon Christ on the Mount of the Transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17:2—
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
To become completely transformed by the Holy Spirit wasn’t only a special gift given only to the saints alone, but it was meant for all believers. As Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (American Standard Version)—
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.”
A famous story in the Eastern Orthodox Monastic tradition follows:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Many of us are barely alight with the fire of Christ, and we wonder why the glory of God doesn’t shine through us. Others of us hide our light under a bushel so we don’t stand out from the crowd. If we wonder why we aren’t going onto Christian Perfection in love of God and neighbor, or being a witness to Jesus Christ for others to follow, then we might need to read Abba Joseph’s recommendation once again: “If you will, you can become all flame.”
When we paint an icon, we participate in a spiritual endeavor in which we are coworkers with the Holy Spirit. We enter into a kairos time, or God’s creating time, and are no longer only working only in human, chronological time. This is a mystery, not to be understood in ordinary terms, even if we begin at 10:15 in the morning and stop to cleanup at 11:45. Like the golden background, time has no meaning while we paint the icon. Our cares and concerns of this world can be given to the icon, and thus to God.
We make our prayer gifts in two ways: we hope to become more conformed to the image of God and we hope our images conform better to the icon before us. We’re going on to perfection, one bit at a time. In faith, we expect to be made perfect in love in this life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, or at the moment of our death, as the classic Wesleyan teaching states. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, union with God, from which our Methodist teaching of sanctification derives, teaches we can have real union with God, just as Jesus had, being fully human and fully divine. We don’t become gods, but we participate in the full image of God, in which we were first created.
We can contemplate these beautiful words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (+373), in his treatise On The Incarnation, against the Arian heresy:
‘God became “sacrophore”—bearer of our flesh—so that mankind might become “pneumatophore—bearer of the Holy Spirit.’” (Michael Quenot, THE ICON, p 55)
When we keep our heart set on the image of Christ, we remember his undying love for all creation. Then we learn the meaning of the faith of a loving son or daughter, in comparison to that of an unwilling servant. This is how John Wesley saw his own conversion at Aldersgate:
“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.”
Once we realize the law of sin and death no longer holds us in chains, we can freely live in life and love, now and always, if we conform our image to Christ.
Does anyone else find it unusual that Lincoln’s Birthday, the Super Bowl, and Valentine’s Day all fall within a single three day period? When I was young, we celebrated every holiday possible in public school, since these were teaching opportunities. I always loved them for the art periods and the story telling events. Not that I was deeply invested in the facts of history, but I cared about the personalities and the principles of their lives’ work.
This meant February focused on Lincoln and Washington both. Of the two, I always preferred Lincoln, perhaps because my teacher had our class memorize the Gettysburg Address. I was entranced by the thought Lincoln wrote this speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride out to that fateful battle field. It wasn’t true, but that’s just one of the hallowed myths of history we’ve spun about the giants of the past.
Of course, we always celebrated Valentine’s Day in the classroom with decorated boxes or bags for exchanging cards. The rule in class was to bring a card for everyone and leave no one out. No one meant no one. The cards didn’t have to be fancy, but everyone needed to get a card, handmade or bought. Of course, we always had some parental snack provided. I think we overdosed on sugar back in those days.
When we’re young, we don’t really have a sense of history, so we don’t see the connections from one act to the later consequence of another. It takes time for young people to mature, process, and grasp the connections between past, present, and future in order to navigate their place in time. When someone says the past is meaningless to them, they’ve built their house on a foundation of sand. The first lesson I always taught in art class was “Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences.” The second lesson was “Clean up after yourself and leave the art room good for the next group.” That first lesson was about how individual actions affected their own work and grades. The second was about community responsibility. And some folks thought I was just letting the kiddos have fun with colors, scissors, and glue.
But back to this Trifecta weekend. The very first Super Bowl was January 15, 1967. I’ve slept several decades since then, so I don’t remember if I watched it. Super Bowl XXXVI, was the first one held in February, but all of the prior February games have been held in the first week until this LVI event. That’s 56, for the non Romans among us. This is quite a streak, but all streaks are meant to be broken. This is how we get the great Trifecta of Lincoln, Super Bowl, and Valentine’s all in a row.
Back during the Civil War, supplies were scarce. The supply chain nightmare isn’t a recent issue, for during the war, the South lacked supplies due to the Union embargo for imports and their crops were confiscated by both armies as they marched through the areas near the battlefields. One of the touching homemade valentines of the era was made in 1862 from scrounged paper by the Confederate soldier Robert King for his wife. The basket weave folded card, when opened up, showed two crying lovers, a particularly sad foretelling of his death.
Our class brought scrapbook papers, doilies, craft store items, and leftover crafting materials from past projects. All crafters seem to be packrats, but we also share our largess with others. None of us can say NO to the offer of free stuff. Our materials filled one whole table, so settling on a few items was our first choice. Sometimes we get overwhelmed with too many choices, but our group has learned to go with what strikes their fancy first. Digging through everything to look for a better option often is just a waste of time in a short class. Go with what calls your name. As my daddy would say, “Decide to fish or cut bait, honey. The day’s not getting any longer.”
As Lauralei was working on her Valentine, Jerry came into the room. Immediately she called out, “Don’t look—go away!” He laughed, and took a wide berth around our work tables. If you want to surprise someone, it’s hard if they’re also working at the church. I like the energy of the patterns on her Valentine. Love is never a static thing, even if it is steadfast and forever, but it’s constantly reaching out and pulling us toward one another.
Gail added another dimension to her work by bending the central heart image so it would stand up. This gave it depth and made the heart into a basket from which the butterflies could exit into the open space around it. That took an extra level of thought.
The birds and butterflies on the outer cover of Gail’s card are another variation on the theme.
I can always count on Mike to fill the surface with texture and color. He has no fear whatsoever. Exuberance is his middle name. He claims sarcasm is his love language, but that’s just his outward personality speaking. The inner messages on his card to his lovely wife tell her how wonderful she is and how glad he is to be with her.
I made mine as a landscape, rather than a card. The message, “Live, Laugh, Love” is a variation on a message my grandmother often wrote. I’ve always liked both butterflies and flowers, for they remind me both of the beauty and the transient nature of life. My Valentine is for those of blessed memory, as well as for those I love today, and maybe even for those I’ll love in the days to come.
“Love never fails, But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
The verse above is an example of historical consciousness in the arena of faith. All religions “take up the past by telling stories and making visible the arches that span over all times and join them together into a unified whole,” just as writers observe the facts of history and draw conclusions about the streams of history and the direction in which they flow. Yet we humans are also capable of forgetting, sometimes because we don’t want to remember and other times because we can’t recall events due to illness, lack of sleep, or inattention. We depend on trusted others to build the narrative for us, so we need to take care from whom we receive our instruction.
On this Super Bowl weekend, much will be made of the heroic efforts of the athletes on the field. There’ll be hype galore, costly commercials, illustrious and notorious folks in attendance for sure, and excessive eating and drinking across America. It may be a different game day than what we’ve been accustomed to, but then as Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a-changing.” If the NFL is writing a different narrative, it’s only because they’re finally including voices once suppressed. We can know the facts of history, yet fail to have an historical consciousness, just as we can identify the different styles of art and put them in historical order, but fail to have an aesthetic appreciation of the art itself.
President Lincoln delivered the 272 word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the occasion of the dedication of the national cemetery for the war dead. Overall, casualties in that three day battle were enormous. At least 25,000 Confederates fell, representing nearly one-third of its army. One-third (12 out of 53) of Robert E. Lee’s generals were killed, wounded, or captured. More than 20,000 Union soldiers fell; General Meade’s subordinate command also suffered heavy losses. Lincoln helped to reframe citizens’ thinking about the cost and nature of this war.
The Super Bowl extravaganza will last nearly four hours and play $500 million in advertisements (about 70 in all),not to mention a preface of more than three hours of entertainment. Compare that to Lincoln’s speech, which lasted three minutes at most:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”