Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
Some say, “Art is never finished, but only abandoned.” I left my latest acrylic painting for a day, knowing I’d need to adjust some of the sky values, but I was beyond Monday’s melancholy mood. I remembered the sunset of my original experience, and wondered, “Is the end of one day merely the beginning of another? If so, sunrises and sunsets are just markers for us until we participate in eternity with god.” In age of coronavirus, I now think more about time and how we experience it. For me, the now and the present moment take on more importance than either the future or the past. As J. R. R. Tolkien, in The Fellowship of the Ring said:
“I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
Not that my cloistered coronavirus days are slowly melting together like Easter Peeps in a microwave, or becoming desperate Survivor Island fare, as the young parents thought who once called me during the pink eye school closures. These always seemed to follow directly on the heels of spring break, and parents would cry into the telephone, “How do you stand this All. Year. Long?”
I’d laugh and remind them, “I always have a plan for the day, and a back up plan too.” Art classes depend on teaching basic skills at the start, so you can teach more difficult skills later. Hand and eye coordination is one skill, but the other more important achievement is the ability to trust one’s self. As an artist pushes forward, he or she can get comfortable and begin to repeat only what they know and what is safe. Of course, this is common to all of life, for we frequently eat the same foods at the same restaurants, take the same routes to work, and drink our favored brews.
Finding a way to break through the wall of the routine is challenging. If we’re always progressing, we may move more quickly than our audience can appreciate us. Then we need to ask ourselves, what is the purpose of art and by extension, what is the purpose of our life? This is why having a pattern of work balanced with reflection is helpful, not only in the art life, but also in the spiritual life. When I speak of the art life, I mean any life engaged in production, industry, sales, or the economy. All could benefit from spending time in reflection, instead of hitting the ground running and always hustling. If we asked ourselves WHY more, and WHAT WILL THE CONSEQUENCES BE, we might be more socially responsible with our practices and care more for the earth which we’ll leave to our descendants. It’s their inheritance and we shouldn’t exhaust it as if we were prodigal sons.
These two paintings are the latest off my easel. The first is an empty lot across from the Transportation Depot in Hot Springs. From the depot side, all you can see is the line of trees on the horizon, but if you drive up Olive Street, you find the vacant lot parallel to the side of the historic 1914 Hot Springs High School. This building was renovated into lofts and apartments, both for government subsidized and market paying rentals. President Clinton attended this school and the property is currently for sale. The vacant lot once had a building of some sort on it, perhaps an elementary school, for I found concrete steps and the remnant of a flagpole. Today it’s gone to seed, and the wild grasses grow as they choose, until the city or some private party mows them down.
I was there on a cool afternoon with a breeze blowing fair. The sun was over my back and I couldn’t see the depot for the tree barrier. Although I was “smack dab in the middle of the city,” I might as well have been out in the countryside. It may be a field of weeds to you or an eyesore awaiting development, but this city block serves a purpose in its ragged glory. These green places act as sinks to cleanse the air and regulate the water runoff. In more developed areas, neighborhood parks and people’s yards store very high amounts of carbon, which help reduce carbon emission levels in cities. This is a benefit of living in a smaller city, for the largest ones have sucked up all the green spaces and filled them in with concrete and steel.
Not only is keeping our yards green important, but instead of paving over an area, keeping green space and plants in a yard makes a difference because a property is part of a much bigger ecosystem and is part of that proven fabric of the city. By keeping your yard green, you provide your city with the ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide. Here are four little known ecosystem services that urban green spaces provide to cities:
Urban Heat Island—the urban heat island effect has negative impacts on the health and efficiency of cities, including increased energy consumption, increased air pollutants and greenhouse gases, impaired water quality and compromised human health and comfort.
Carbon Storage— backyard soils can capture even more harmful carbon emissions than soils in native forests or grasslands. Urban backyards and green spaces contribute to reducing carbon emission levels in cities, which makes air cleaner and healthier for its residents.
Water Regulation—green spaces keep untreated water out of lakes and rivers, and let sewers work without backing up
Economic Savings—green areas increase property values
The cluster of trees isolated in the ocean of grass are much like a family in the pandemic: tense, taught, tightly tucked together, and removed from all others to survive. We might all have days like this in our quarantine, and then we’ll have days when we want to reach out to others, in real life or virtually. Social distancing can quickly devolve into isolation and then into fear of going out of our homes. This has a name: agoraphobia or fear of open places. It’s a type of anxiety disorder in which you fear and avoid places or situations that might cause you to panic and make you feel trapped, helpless or embarrassed. You fear an actual or anticipated situation, such as using public transportation, being in open or enclosed spaces, standing in line, or being in a crowd. Just going on a Kroger run today can feel like a mission behind enemy lines. If our days take more energy from us than they used to, we need to adjust our expectations of how much we can get done, just as we slow down when it’s a 110 F in the shade during the summer.
This is possibly the reason after all these years, I’m still in the beginner class of the Pacer Clinics, but walking isn’t the skill I’m actually trying to improve. Becoming more aware of the present moment is an achievement level worth unlocking, so I’m practicing “opening myself to the holy.” We can find the holy in any moment of time, not just in those times set aside or designated as sacred. We all have different goals, and getting from one place to another in record time might not be the most important end result or best use of our time.
Perhaps this pandemic has caused us to reassess our arbitrary borders between work, home, and worship, since many of us have been doing all three from one place. Can we say that only one time or one place or one day is more sacred than any other? Or should we look again and see all of our days and all of our ways are a sacred endeavor? If this is so, we have to check if our faith undergirds and empowers our daily acts, and not just once a week. Another way to express this is, “Do we live our Bible, or does it gather dust on the coffee table?”
And what of those essential workers who daily face the contagion? Can they still find any holy moments in these dread times? Or are they so busy throwing themselves into the breach, they have no time to notice the still, small voice of god? When life is overwhelming, we often can’t hear God’s voice because the press of our problems pushes out all other inputs, even the hopeful spirit of god. We then have to trust if we take care of business, then god will take care of the outcomes. As the ancient voice of wisdom in Proverbs 21:31 says, “The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the LORD.” When our day is done, we can rest in god and restore our souls and health.
This pandemic has ripped the curtain off the hidden division in our culture. Those workers considered “essential” may be high or low wage earners, but the difference in resources they have to meet the difficulties of their new lives is eye opening. Nearly 60% of adult Americans live paycheck to paycheck, and what’s even more amazing is about 1 in 5 people earning over $100,000 annually also live paycheck to paycheck! If you owe your soul to Visa or MasterCard, you have an existential need to earn a living, and not just a calling to fulfill. It’s not because folks are squandering their resources, but the cost of living is high in many places, plus many have student debt, mortgages and car loans. In truth, some of us owe our soul to a plastic god because we have chosen to live too high, rather than to live a simple life.
Now the pandemic has caused the greatest job dislocation since the Great Depression when 25% of the workforce lost their jobs. The latest unemployment rate is almost 15%, which is roughly double what the nation experienced during the entire financial crisis from 2007 to 2009. The most telling tale is 40% of the workers making less than $40,000 per year lost their jobs during this pandemic, according to the Federal Reserve. The lowest paid workers in the leisure and hospitality industry suffered the most. If we are looking at our lives and grumbling at our inconveniencies or loss of “freedoms to come and go at will,” perhaps we need to recover the simple joys of life: reverence in the silent moments when we’re in a cool and shady spot, joy for the sunlight dappling on autumn leaves, or the ever-changing reflections in a running brook.
I was in a better frame of mind when I painted the sunset beyond the trees. The colors are lighter, and the spaces are more open. I can always tell when I’ve been sick, for even a sinus infection turns my energy and vision inward. In this work the trees bend toward one another and their leaf crowns unite in a yellow communal mass. They may be separate life forms, but they all are rooted in the same earth and nourished by the same water. As the prophet Jeremiah says in 17:8—
“He is like a tree planted by water,that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
May we all be like the trees planted by the refreshing streams of water, even during these drought times.
“Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.” ~~ Ecclesiastes 10:20
“A little bird told me,” my nanny often said, when I asked her how she knew about my doings. “The walls have eyes, honey, and the wind has ears. Nothing done in secret stays hidden very long. You’d best mind your P’s and Q’s.”
If I had been a more fearful child, I might have been afraid to sleep in a dark bedroom. As it was, I was only afraid of what was under the bed and what might come out of the closet, both of which are normal childhood “monster” fears. I kept these imaginary monsters from harming me by closing the closet door at night and by approaching my bed at a dead run, and launching my small body a full six feet through the air until I landed in the middle of my bed. My parents were thankful I forgot about these monsters by the time I was big enough to have done damage to the furniture.
How do we handle fears as adults? Some of us put our heads down into the sands, as if we were ostriches rolling our eggs in our nests. What we don’t see won’t bother us. Some of us self medicate with substances to the point of abuse. We can even use goods in a bad way: overeating, over exercising, overwork, and orthorexia (concern for a good diet) are a few we could mention. A better way is to seek a balanced life, and not to go off the deep end in any one direction.
When everyone else is losing their heads around you, someone has to remain calm. For a long time my motto was “Leave me alone, I’m having a crisis.” Then I went into ministry and I became the caregiver to people in crisis. Folks need a non-anxious presence to be with them, for even if we can’t change or fix their present circumstances, we can be a reassuring companion. While the present moment may be distressing, often the underlying reason is because our applecart has been upset. When our plans and schemes get upended, we have to monitor the new situation, and adjust accordingly. We may not like what we have to take care of, but this is our now, and not some hypothetical game plan.
As one of my clergy pals used to say, “I keep my calendar in pencil because I have to change it so often.” I just use that tape whiteout and write mine in ink anyway. I like the pretty colors, but I know life happens and when it does, i make the changes and write in a new plan in ink. Life is often messier than I’d like it to be.
I just found out all our public spaces in our county will close for April due to the coronavirus mitigation protocols. We have an establishment called The Ohio Club, which has been serving food and drink since 1905. It’s made it through the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two Great World Wars, and many smaller ups and downs in between. If we have an eye to the better future, and not just to the problems of the present moment, we can plan and work to get through this part of the cycle.
While closing down is a good choice for our community to contain the coronavirus, it means the exhibition I planned won’t go up. I’ll be checking to see if it’s rescheduled or if it will be a virtual display. With everyone on home confinement, we’ll make the best of the situation. There has to be a silver lining in the clouds somewhere. At least we should be looking for the bluebird of happiness to visit us in the coming days.
Here is the poem by the American 20th Century writer, George J. Carroll, that first used the phrase “bluebird of happiness:”
“And in the valley beneath the mountains of my youth, lies the river of my tears. As it wends its way to the ocean of my dreams, so long ago they have gone. And yet, if I were but to think anew, would these dreams evaporate in my mind and become the morning dew upon a supple rose whose beauty is enhanced with these glistening drops, as the sun of life peeks o’er the mountains when youth was full. Then I must not supply this endless fountain that creates the river of my tears but look beyond those mountains where the bluebird of happiness flies.”
Folks tells us to stay in the present moment and to honor our feelings. If we’re in a state of anxiety, however, we need to ask if feeding our fears is the best choice we can make. “What if’s” and “How are we going to’s” are useful fuel for the flames of our imaginations. If we feed that flame, we’ll either take to day drinking or need to be heavily medicated for the public safety. Neither are our best choice. Sometimes we make lists, and then add lists to the lists, as if we could organize the chaos unfolding about us.
In truth, Chaos is confused, unordered, unorganized, and has no distinct form. It’s what existed before Creation. As such, unpredictability is its inherent nature. If we were in one of the closed casinos, the metaphor would be “shooting craps with loaded dice,” since the odds would be stacked against the player in favor of the House.
The best way to keep our wits about us when everyone else is going crazy is to breathe deeply in and out. If we focus on the breath, and remember the source of this life giving breath, we can connect our selves to a greater power.
“Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” ~~ Genesis 2:7
If we remember whose we are, and who we are, we’ll get through this together. Take care of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, and the sick. We are stronger together than we are alone.
John Wesley wrote extensively to teach the Methodists of his day the tenets of the faith. We teach seminarians the historic doctrines, but many think these are “dead ideas of a long ago world.” Wesley gave us 52 Standard Sermons and the Notes on the New Testament, both of which are part of our doctrinal standards. Today many believe as long as they can justify an idea by scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, they can believe anything they want regardless of our standards. Of course, Wesley himself believed scripture, reason, and tradition led to the experience of being a child of God, but that’s another story for another day.
The first tract I ever wrote expressly on this subject was published in the latter end of this year. That none might be prejudiced before they read it, I gave it the indifferent title of “The Character of a Methodist.” In this I described a perfect Christian, placing in the front, “Not as though I had already attained.” Part of it I subjoin without any alteration: —
Loves the Lord with All the Heart “A Methodist is one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth whom I desire besides thee.’ My God and my all! ‘Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.’ He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy, as having in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life, and over-flowing his soul with peace and joy. Perfect love living now cast out fear, he rejoices evermore. Yea, his joy is full, and all his bones cry out, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten me again unto a living hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, reserved in heaven for me.’
Good is the Will of the Lord “And he, who hath this hope, thus full of immortality, in everything giveth thanks, as knowing this (whatsoever it is) is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning him. From him therefore he cheerfully receives all, saying, ‘Good is the will of the Lord;’ and whether he giveth or taketh away, equally blessing the name of the Lord. Whether in ease or pain, whether in sickness or health, whether in life or death, he giveth thanks from the ground of the heart to Him who orders it for good; into whose hands he hath wholly committed his body and soul, ‘as into the hands of a faithful Creator.’ He is therefore anxiously ‘careful for nothing,’ as having ‘cast all his care on Him that careth for him;’ and ‘in all things’ resting on him, after ‘making’ his ‘request known to him with thanksgiving.’
Prays Without Ceasing “For indeed he ‘prays without ceasing;’ at all times the language of his heart is this, ‘Unto thee is my mouth, though without a voice; and my silence speaketh unto thee.’ His heart is lifted up to God at all times, and in all places. In this he is never hindered, much less interrupted, by any person or thing. In retirement or company, in leisure, business, or conversation, his heart is ever with the Lord. Whether he lie down, or rise up, ‘God is in all his thoughts:’ He walks with God continually; having the loving eye of his soul fixed on him, and everywhere ‘seeing Him that is invisible.’
Loves the Neighbor as the Self “And loving God, he ‘loves his neighbour as himself;’ he loves every man as his own soul. He loves his enemies, yea, and the enemies of God. And if it be not in his power to ‘do good to them that hate’ him, yet he ceases not to ‘pray for them,’ though they spurn his love, and still ‘despite. fully use him, and persecute him.’
Pure in Heart “For he is ‘pure in heart.’ Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper. It has cleansed him from pride, whereof ‘only cometh contention;’ and he hath now ‘put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.’ And indeed all possible ground for contention, on his part, is cut off. For none can take from him what he desires, seeing he ‘loves not the world, nor any of the things of the world;’ but ‘all his desire is unto God, and to the remembrance of his name.’
Does the Will of God “Agreeable to this his one desire, is this one design of his life; namely, ‘to do, not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him.’ His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a single eye; and because his ‘eye is single, his whole body is full of light. The whole is light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.’ God reigns alone; all that is in the soul is ‘holiness to the Lord.’ There is not a motion in his heart but is according to his will. Every thought that arises points to him, and is in ‘obedience to the law of Christ.’
Tree Known by Fruits “And the tree is known by its fruits. For, as he loves God, so he ‘keeps his commandments;’ not only some, or most of them, but all, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to ‘keep the whole law and offend in one point,’ but has in all points ‘a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards man.’ Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God has enjoined, he does. ‘He runs the way of God’s commandments,’ now He bath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory and joy so to do; it is his daily crown of rejoicing, to ‘do the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven.’
Keeping the Commandments “All the commandments of God he accordingly keeps, and that with all his might; for his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows. And therefore, loving God with all his heart, he serves him with all his strength; he continually presents his soul and ‘body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God;’ entirely and without reserve devoting himself, all he has, all he is, to his glory. All the talents he has, he constantly employs according to his Master’s will; every power and faculty of his soul, every member of his body.
Doing All to the Glory of God “By consequence, ‘whatsoever he doeth, it is all to the glory of God.’ In all his employments of every kind, he not only aims at this, which is implied in having a single eye, but actually attains it; his business and his refreshments, as well as his prayers, all serve to this great end. Whether he ‘sit in the house, or walk by the way,’ whether he lie down, or rise up, he is promoting, in all he speaks or does, the one business of his life. Whether he put on his apparel, or labour, or eat and drink, or divert himself from too wasting labour, it all tends to advance the glory of God, by peace and good-will among men. His one invariable rule is this: ‘Whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God, even the Father, through him.’
Running the Race, Not as the World Runs “Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his ‘ running the race which is set before him.’ He cannot therefore ‘lay up treasures upon earth,’ no more than he can take fire into his bosom. He cannot speak evil of his neighbour, any more than he can lie either for God or man. He cannot utter an unkind word of any one; for love keeps the door of his lips. He cannot ‘speak idle words; no corrupt conversation’ ever ‘comes out of his mouth;’ as is all that is not ‘good to the use of edifying,’ not fit to ‘minister grace to the hearers.’ But ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are’ justly ‘of good report,’ he thinks, speaks, and acts, ‘adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.'”
Christian Perfection is Wesley’s Theme These are the very words wherein I largely declared, for the first time, my sentiments of Christian perfection. And is it not easy to see, (1.) That this is the very point at which I aimed all along from the year 1725; and more determinately from the year 1730, when I began to be +homo unius libri,+ “a man of one book,” regarding none, comparatively, but the Bible? Is it not easy to see, (2.) That this is the very same doctrine which I believe and teach at this day; not adding one point, either to that inward or outward holiness which I maintained eight-and- thirty years ago? And it is the same which, by the grace of God, I have continued to teach from that time till now; as will appear to every impartial person from the extracts subjoined below.
Wesley goes on for some length, in his 18th century fondness for expositions. He’s not a modern blogger, but wrote for people who had time and leisure to read extensively. What I find most important for us Methodists today is his teaching about sin in believers, which is one of the points he makes strongly in the following sections.
Christian Perfection Explained 1.) In what sense Christians are not, (2.) In what sense they are, perfect.
“(1.) In what sense they are not. They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one- might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect till then to be wholly freed from temptation; for ‘the servant is not above his master.’ But neither in this sense is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, none which does not admit of a continual increase.
Christian Perfection means Sins Are Not Committed “(2.) In what sense then are they perfect? Observe, we are not now speaking of babes in Christ, but adult Christians But even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin. This St. John affirms expressly; and it cannot be disproved by the examples of the Old Testament. For what, if the holiest of the ancient Jews did sometimes commit sin? We cannot infer from hence, that ‘all Christians do and must commit sin as long as they live.’
Christians have the Holy Spirit “The privileges of Christians are in nowise to be measured by what the Old Testament records concerning those who were under the Jewish dispensation; seeing the fulness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is now brought to men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth, concerning which the Spirit of God declared of old time, (so far is David from being the pattern or standard of Christian perfection,) ‘He that is feeble among them, at that day, shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as the angel of the Lord before them.’ (Zech. 12:8.)
Christ Cleanses Us from Unrighteousness But St. John himself says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves;’ and, ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.’
1.) The tenth verse fixes the sense of the eighth: ‘If we say we have no sin,’ in the former, being explained by, ‘If we say we have not sinned,’ in the latter, verse.
2.) The point under consideration is not, whether we have or have not sinned heretofore; and neither of these verses asserts that we do sin, or commit sin now.
3.) The ninth verse explains both the eighth and tenth: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ As if he had said, ‘I have before affirmed, The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ And no man can say, ‘I need it not; I have 110 sin to be cleansed, from.’ ‘If we say, we have no sin, that ‘we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves,’ and make God a liar: But ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just,’ not only ‘to forgive us our sins,’ but also ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ that we may ‘go and sin no more.’ In conformity, therefore, both to the doctrine of St. John, and the whole tenor of the New Testament, we fix this conclusion: A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin.
Good Trees don’t Produce Evil Fruits “This is the glorious privilege of every Christian, yea, though he be but a babe in Christ. But it is only of grown Christians it can be affirmed, they are in such a sense perfect, as, Secondly, to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. First, from evil or sinful thoughts. Indeed, whence should they spring? ‘Out of the heart of man,’ if at all, ‘proceed evil thoughts.’ If, therefore, the heart be no longer evil, then evil thoughts no longer proceed out of it: For ‘a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.’
Christ Lives in the Heart “And as they are freed from evil thoughts, so likewise from evil tempers. 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;’ – – words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin. This is expressed both negatively, ‘I live not,’ my evil nature, the body of sin, is destroyed; and positively, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and therefore all that is holy, and just, and good. Indeed, both these, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and, ‘I live not,’ are inseparably connected. For what communion hath light with darkness, or Christ with Belial?
Wesley was fond of quoting his brother Charles’ hymns in his writings: “He walks in glorious liberty, To sin entirely dead:
The Truth, the Son hath made him free, And he is free indeed.”
Lessons for Methodists Today Do we Methodists today understand this classic teaching on Christian Perfection overriding the ancient concept of justification over and over again? That idea implied we’re always in a state of corruption, so we constantly needed a sacrifice to make us right with God. Wesley taught justification by Christ, followed by the Spirit helping to refine us until we were entirely sanctified to be as Christ. This could happen in this life if we expected it and cooperated with the Spirit, but more likely the state came at the moment of death.
If we Methodists actually agreed on living out the “heart so full of love of God and neighbor that nothing else exists” motto, we’d not be listing the sins of others we find distasteful, but looking instead to shed God’s love abroad in the world.
Instead, we still attempt to keep the old laws, rather than the law of Christ’s faith, which proceeds from God’s love for the world. As Wesley writes,
Christ is the End of the Old Laws “For Christ is the end of the Adamic, as well as the Mosaic, law. By his death, he hath put an end to both; he hath abolished both the one and the other, with regard to man; and the obligation to observe either the one or the other is vanished away. Nor is any man living bound to observe the Adamic more than the Mosaic law. [I mean, it is not the condition either of present or future salvation.]
“In the room of this, Christ hath established another, namely, the law of faith. Not every one that doeth, but every one that believeth, now receiveth righteousness, in the full sense of the word; that is, he is justified, sanctified, and glorified.”
Love is the Fulfillment of the Law Q. 4. Is love the fulfilling of this law?
“A. Unquestionably it is. The whole law under which we now are, is fulfilled by love. (Rom. 13:9, 10.) Faith working or animated by love is all that God now requires of man. He has substituted (not sincerity, but) love, in the room of angelic perfection.
“Q. 5. How is ‘love the end of the commandment?’ (1 Tim. 1:5.)
“A. It is the end of every commandment of God. It is the point aimed at by the whole and every part of the Christian institution. The foundation is faith, purifying the heart; the end love, preserving a good conscience.
“Q. 6. What love is this?
“A. The loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and the loving our neighbour, every man, as ourselves, as our own souls.
Thoughts on the Future The question for me is, how do we as Methodists retain our classical teachings and interpret them for our modern world? While some in fear want to move toward the exclusionary teachings of other faiths, Methodists have never lived in fear, for “perfect love drives out fear.” Yet some persist in excluding some for the sake of “the law,” as if the breaking of one law were more heinous than all the others.
Today in our congregations we have persons who’ve had serial divorces or cohabitate, plus those who gamble, drink excessively, mismanage personal funds, have babies out of wedlock, and are a public nuisance. You know who I’m talking about, but we love these folks and pray for them just the same. This isn’t right to include folks whose infirmities are in the straight world, but to exclude those who have the same problems just because they have a different sexual orientation. It’s not a choice for anyone who they love. It’s not a disease to be straight or gay. It is a problem if our hearts are closed and the love of God for all our neighbors isn’t filling our hearts to overflowing.
Wesley once said, “if your heart be as my heart, then give me your hand.” In a manner of speaking, we’re saying, if your experience is the same as my experience, let’s be partners. We think too much separates us, or there’s a rat between or among us, so no one extends their hand in fellowship. We distrust what we fear, for we don’t live in perfect love, but live instead according to the ways of the world.
The QuadrilateralDoesn’t Exist
But Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter. (24)
Scripture Alone is Not Enough
When challenged for his authority, on any question, his first appeal was to the Holy Bible… Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine… Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that…
Doctrine of Assurance This is Methodism’s gift to the world and the reason we can live in perfect love, which casts out all fear. We have the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and our adoption as sons and daughters of God, so that we are the joint heirs with Christ to all the innumerable riches of God’s inheritance. This isn’t just for a few, but for all who give themselves to Christ.
We humans aren’t allowed to say whom God forgives or who is worthy to be forgiven. That would put us smack onto the throne of god and make us a god. Then we would be worshipping our own selves, an act which would be the highest form of idolatry and worshipping the creature. God forbid we Methodists fall into this trap!
I read a wonderful journal, Psychiatric Times, which has a free subscription online. I began reading it because it helped me to understand the diseases of the mind, which cause people to be at dis-ease in their lives and to cause dis-ease in whatever community in which they belonged. In today’s modern world, our first choice to treat dis-ease is medication. However, the ancient practice of meditation is another choice, either as an adjunct treatment or as a stand alone, depending on the person’s need.
I recently read of some tech entrepreneurs who decided to shut off their phones, computers, and all other electronic devices for one day in every seven because they were over stimulated and never rested. Their creativity and original thinking were diminishing, and this was “hurting their brand.” Those of us in the spiritual world would say they needed to practice sabbath rest, and also to take time away on a daily basis also. If you feel “always on, 24/7/365,” you’ll wear down or burn down sooner or later. Even the Lord Jesus was given to finding secluded places to withdraw and restore his physical body and his spiritual energy. We often overlook these texts, in our rush to read the miracles and action of the salvation story.
Dr. John J. Miller, editor in chief of Psychiatric Times and founder of Brain Health, wrote this wonderful piece, which follows:
In our western culture, which values intellectual knowledge and material rewards, the concept of mindfulness is often initially difficult to grasp. Busy schedules, lengthy “to do” lists, commuting, work, family time, and group activities leave little time for self-reflection and inquiry into the nature of our minds.
In fact, all of these activities serve to keep us running on automatic pilot, and strengthen behavioral patterns previously learned that create efficiency when automatically enacted. An analogy I often use to explore the question of the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness is to ask which of the following two individuals is truly an expert on the experience of what a strawberry tastes like:
An individual who has studied the science of strawberries to the degree that he or she is considered to be the world’s expert—agriculture, botany, genetics, human taste receptors that send gustatory information that is decoded in the brain, digestion, visual responses to seeing a strawberry, and the author of over 100 books on all aspects of strawberries—but, has NEVER eaten a strawberry?
An individual who is uneducated but has just paid close attention to all of the sensations and experiences of taking a fresh strawberry, looking at it, smelling it, placing it in his or her mouth, observing the taste and texture as he or she bites into it, and mindful of the plethora of the “here and now” strawberry experiences?
The answer is usually self-evident and conjures an image or feeling of the warm juice of a strawberry sloshing around in your mouth. Mindfulness is the practice of experiencing each moment like the strawberry.
Common mindfulness adventure Broadly speaking, there are two subtypes of meditation: concentration and mindfulness. As a general principle, it is important to become proficient in concentration meditation before expanding into mindfulness. Concentration practice involves choosing an object, like the breath, a phrase, or a word that becomes an anchor for the mind’s attention.
The instructions are simple: watch the breath as it moves in and out of the body, choosing a spot to watch it that feels natural (the nose, mouth, lungs or movement of the abdomen). Inevitably, the mind’s attention will be distracted by some thought, feeling, sound, or emotion, and the mind starts to drift down an endless path of mind content. As soon as you are aware of having left the breath, without judging yourself, the task is simply to return to the breath. The same basic steps are followed if you are using a phrase or a word.
Here’s a common example: awareness of the inbreath and the outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . you hear a car driving down your street, and your mind drifts to the thought of the car . . . my car . . . my car payment . . . bills to pay . . . do I have enough money saved to buy that new iPhone . . . images of the cool new camera on the iPhone 11 pro . . . wait a minute, I left my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . the muscle in my left calf is starting to cramp up . . . I need to start stretching my muscles again . . . why did I stop stretching regularly . . . I should rejoin the gym . . . the last time I was at the gym I saw Tom . . . Tom was a great college roommate . . . college was such a great experience . . . maybe I’ll drive out there and take a walk on campus . . . college is so expensive these days . . . how will I pay for my child’s college tuition in a few years? . . . oh yeah, my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . .
This is how much of the time practicing meditation is initially spent, and usually is so frustrating that most people stop meditating long before their attention is strengthened. With perseverance and practice the mind slowly develops the capacity to stay with the breath for extended periods of time. This commonly results in calmness, relaxation, mental clarity as well as an anti-fight or flight physiology.
Once the mind’s concentration has stability, that focused awareness can be intentionally refocused on the mind’s activity itself, and this is the beginning of mindfulness. A holding environment of sorts is created whereby impersonal and non-judgmental attention is watching the many mind states that come and go, the only task being to stay present and learn from what is observed with open acceptance. As mindfulness strengthens, the underlying themes and patterns that fill our mind automatically are seen clearer, and it becomes easier to disengage from them, remaining in the present moment with pure mindfulness. Like exercise, continued practice sustains the ability to be mindful, while lack of practice allows a regression to automatic patterns.
The practice of mindfulness In our roles as clergy and clinicians, we recognize we always have more to learn, and more experience to be gained. Such is the case with mindfulness—it’s always patiently waiting for us to resume that selfless non-judgmental awareness of the present moment—with more to learn about the patterns and themes of our own mind, and continued opportunity to choose a different thought or behavior. As 2019 draws to an end, the practice of mindfulness is but a breath away, and is a worthy companion.
The Light of the Body: meditate on this verse
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” ~~ Luke 11:33-36
As the days grow short, some of us yearn for the light. This week I put up a few Christmas decorations, including my ceramic Christmas tree with the plastic bulbs from the 1960’s and my door wreath with ornaments from the 1950’s. I have a copper and paper manger scene I set before a small lamp, as well as an extremely gaudy, glitter filled candle nightlight to complete the mood. I keep out all year round my mom’s ceramic Holy Family group, since it’s too good to put away.
I remember living in Denver, Colorado, in the cold, dark days of December. They know how to do winter there. I would hang the big, bulging colored bulbs on the upstairs patio of our Victorian duplex, since these had the brightest light. In Louisiana, I used the tiny white lights to discretely outline the entire shape of my little stucco home. They both put out the same amount of light, but some were loud and others were quiet.
Winter Solstice Here at the tail end of the old year, the winter solstice comes on December 21, followed by Hanukkah beginning after sunset on December 22, and Christmas on December 25. All of these events have a focus on light.
The solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. In 2019, the December solstice comes on December 21 at 10:19 p.m. CST.
That’s on December 22 at 04:19 Universal Time (UTC). It’s when the sun on our sky’s dome reaches its farthest southward point for the year. At this solstice, the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest day and longest night of the year.
The World Heritage Site at Stonehenge, England, built about 5,000 years ago, is a site specifically built to mark the winter and summer solstices. For agricultural societies, this was important. It may also have been a religious site, connecting the living with the spiritual powers for healing and also with those who are dead to this world, but remembered by the living. We don’t know if the Stonehenge people believed in an afterlife, but they did bury in the gravesites important articles the person found useful in this world, such as bone needles and mace heads.
Hanukkah Hanukkah, a celebration to mark the miracle of the unfailing oil in the temple lamps, has taken on greater importance in recent years. It recalls the victory of the Maccabees and their resistance against foreign domination. The word Maccabee is an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean “Who is like You among all powers, G‑d.” The Greek army had defiled the Temple by setting up an image of Zeus and sacrificing a pig upon the altar of God. Those Jews who were fine with this were “sold out” in today’s terms, but not the Maccabees, who were joined by a ragtag group who ran a fifteen year resistance effort against the skilled fighters of the Greek army.
Once the resisters reclaimed the Temple, they rededicated it, set up a new altar, and made a new menorah, for the old one had been taken. They found only enough sacred oil for one day, but the light burned for eight days. The message of Hanukkah is a little bit of light can overcome the darkness of the world, so we should never cower in the face of tyranny, do our part, trust in God, and success is sure to come.
Perhaps this is why we have an enduring fascination with superheroes, characters who overcome challenges in life, such as Harry Potter and the Star Wars pantheon, as well as everyday people who do extraordinary deeds when dire situations present themselves. Those who don’t shirk from the opportunity to do good for others, even at great cost to their own good, are selfless heroes. What doesn’t make sense to us, may be the most sensible and best choice for the greater good. This is the heart of the servant mentality, which is recognized by the central candle of the Hanukkah menorah, which has eight lights, instead of the seven which was used in the Temple.
Christmas Christmas is the time to celebrate the coming of the light into the dark world, and the joy that the darkness cannot overcome the light. Every Christmas Eve, we hear the old story ever new in our hearts again.
When my daughter was about ten years old, she looked over the church bulletin one Christmas Eve and said, “John, John, John, who is this John that has such a big part in tonight’s service?” I whispered, “That’s the gospel of John, and the Mathew and Luke are also gospels in the Bible.”
“Oh, I missed that,” she smiled. I chuckled.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ~~ John 1:1-5
Today we know dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the universe, and all solid matter makes up the other 5%. In the ancient days, people thought God had made them the center of the world, but now science can make us feel small. Yet God still calls us into the dark spaces to shine like lights in the world.
We can look around and see, just as in the time of Christ’s birth, authoritarian leaders oppressing the minority members of their countries, and we see the rich and powerful controlling the economies of the world for their own profit, but not for the health of the planet or its population.
We see some of our leaders in the church unwilling to open their hearts to all of God’s children because the leaders live in fear rather than in the power of God’s love for all persons. We also see people of faith unwilling to take on the claims of a life lived in Christ, and so accept a mere testimony to the offer of the fullest life in Christ. A faith without works is a dead faith, or no faith at all, for there’s no evidence to convince the world we have a living faith. If we have the light of Christ in us, we will make our world a brighter and better place, and shine like stars in the world.
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and God is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~~ 2 Corinthians 4:6
No matter how you’re celebrating the return of the light this season, may you find at this year’s end more light than darkness and may you shine more brightly in a world which needs so desperately the light of pure and unconditional love willing to risk its own self for the greater good of others. This is the reason Christ came into the world, to serve the Father’s purpose and redeem the fallen and broken world, for all who believed.
MEDITATION ON THE LIGHT Proverbs 20:27 “A person’s soul is the Lord’s lamp, which searches out all the innermost parts.”
Focus the mind on the multiple images of the lamp, the oil, the wick and the different hues of the flame, in order to understand the profound guidance in the divine service of every individual.
Flames demonstrate that while spiritual endeavors such as contemplative prayer and inner personal transformation are important, nonetheless the actual performance of mitzvot (the 613 commandments) is what is most essential. It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body, acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.
Takeaway: It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body—acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.
Questions for the eight candles of Hanukkah:
For You, G‑d, are my Lamp; and G‑d will illuminate my darkness. The first question is: Why is G‑d’s Name invoked twice, seemingly bisecting the verse into two separate statements?
What part do the lighter and darker colors of the flame play in our spiritual lives?
What is the quality of our own light?
Contemplate the divine radiance which fills all worlds, as well as the radiance which surrounds all worlds. Consider how we have both matter and dark matter/energy in our physical world, as a complement to the divine’s dual filling and surrounding of space. (Psalm 145)
As the lights grow brighter in this season of light, is God’s love growing greater in our hearts?
Is God’s love transforming our lives from the inside out, so God’s love can shine through us?
The Hanukkah lamp has eight lights, plus one for the “servant” light. Is the energy of God’s love moving us to shed the light of God abroad in service of the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely?
Where will we shine in the days to come, to be a light to the world and for the sake of God’s name?
What is the most important image of the birthplace of Christ? For some of us, it’s a stable filled with hay and animals, in which the Holy Family fill with divine light. For others, the essence is the Holy Family alone. For others, those who brought various gifts take prominence. The early icons describe a dark cave, similar to the tomb in which Christ was laid after his crucifixion. This shouldn’t surprise us, for his birth made him at-one-with-us, just as his death and resurrection made at-one-ment for us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the icons are worth a million words, or a whole theological thesis.
The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis (emptying) of the Godhead, His abasement, and the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, became visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, was born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and thus foreshadowed His death and burial, in the sepulcher and the burial clothes.
The icons are a window into the holy spaces, into the heavenly realm, or the spiritual world, whereas western paintings from the renaissance onward are representations of our three dimensional world on a flat surface. Icons have their own vocabulary and forms, so a wonder working icon from the 4th century would be copied over and over again into the present age. Modern icon painters would reinterpret the themes of the ancient icons, but until these images prove themselves to be “spiritual windows,” they’ll be mere paintings, but they won’t be true icons.
In the western world, we’re more likely to consider the narrative in traditional art, so the story details are as important as the design and color elements. Over the centuries the style changes with the artists,, but the main elements tend to stay the same.
With the Renaissance, artists and their patrons were more interested in the humanity of Christ, as well as the human figure itself. The landscape gets rendered in all its glory, and the architecture of the towns calls us to take a walking tour through it. By the baroque period, artists create a full scale Broadway production scene on their canvases. A “cast of thousands” seem to heighten the importance of the event portrayed.
Our class worked these past two weeks on The Nativity. Gail’s memory of her family incubating a premature baby in a dresser drawer became her Jesus in the Manger. While this may sound strange to some folks, my great grandparents also nursed a premie in this same manner in rural Louisiana. Adding layers of color to her ground, as Rothko did in his color field paintings, was her goal. I failed to get another photo. She’s still working on it.
Mike was working on a shed and the sky. This was more exciting to him than anything else. The figures came later. I also failed to photo them.
He had a coworker pass away during this time. If his mind wasn’t in this work completely, I could understand. His vacation painting of the beach chair at sunset was more of what he can do when his mind is free and his heart is at peace.
When I’m sick, I have limited artistic ability. By this, I mean I have no spiritual sensitivity to the world. I can’t feel connected to the shapes, colors, or forms. I’m “dead to this world” as well to the world beyond this one. My hand feels like lead, and my one brain cell which hasn’t gone to Pluto is only working at 20% power. I don’t do sick well, for I take it as a great inconvenience, if not an insult to my nature. I have people to see and paintings to make. I may destroy this little work, but it does have the traditional icon themes of the cave and the swaddling clothes of the birth and death of Christ.
When we go back and sit before an icon, we’re struck by the silent voice of the image. We have a choice: we can dismiss this still, small voice, or we can pause and listen to the voice of God speaking to our heart. I hope we don’t race off to do yet one more of the many “got to do lists” of the Christmas season, but sit for a moment, with a hot cup of our favorite beverage and a little cookie, and mingle with the mystical voices from heaven. We will be choosing the better part, just as Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Best source for Icons: Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons
Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin, center panel of the Middleburg (Bladelin) Altarpiece, ca. 1445, oil on panel, 91 x 89 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, inv. no. Nr. 535 (artwork in the public domain)
I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.
Winter Lake Reflections
Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.
The Cloud Rising
This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?”
Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.
Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.
Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.
Christ Overcomes the World
The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.
Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.
Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!
When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.
If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.
Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.
My latest icon of the face of Christ is based on the Napkin of Christ or The Image Not Made by Human Hands. The tradition tells us the Lord washed his face on a cloth and the image of his face transferred directly to it. King Abgar took the image bearing cloth to Edessa and hung it above the city’s entrance, where the people venerated it.
For many years afterwards, the inhabitants kept a pious custom to bow down before the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, when they went forth from the gates. When one of the great-grandsons of Abgar, who later ruled Edessa, fell into idolatry, he decided to take down the icon from the city wall. In a vision the Lord ordered the Bishop of Edessa to hide His icon. The bishop, coming by night with his clergy, lit a lamp before it and walled it up with a board and with bricks.
Years later, when the city was under siege, the Virgin Mary appeared to the presiding bishop with the instruction to reveal the old icon. Not only was it found, but also the lamp, and a copy etched into the wall itself! This miracle saved the city.
We know “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21), for Christ came not to save only humankind, but to redeem all creation. Sometimes when hurricanes, floods, fires, and other natural disasters make the news, we might think nature is disordered, dysfunctional, and we can despair for any harmonious sensitivity to the only planet we can call our home.
For some people of faith, because their “citizenship is not of this world,” they see no reason to care for our world, yet God created this place for us and our children and their children. We don’t own it, we merely care for it, as good stewards for the generations to come and as servants of our creator. If our world is to be lush and green, as well as clean and blue, we must love it as if it were the body of Christ, even though the world isn’t divine.
God is still going to “make a new heaven and a new earth,” but we don’t have to destroy the one we already have just to get God to prove God’s powers over our stupidity. We could choose to participate in the recreation of the new earth and let God finish the task at the right time. Then we’d enjoy the fruits of this better world and share it with all our neighbors around the earth.
As Paul reminds us, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:22-24)