In my family, we didn’t break out the seasonal decorations or fashions until Thanksgiving Day. My mother put her knitting hobby to good use one year and made Christmas sweaters for all of us. She practiced on mine, so I got the baggy sleeves and an oversized middle. At least she got her stitch gauge down pat on my “ugly sweater.”
I wore it every Thanksgiving, while she still lived, just for her, for without my mother I wouldn’t be the person I am today. If there were a sweater made for her, it would be this one I found at my local Wally World: “Gonna Lay Under The Tree To Remind My Family I Am A Gift.”
We all have holiday traditions, whether these belong to Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Christmas. These bind us together, as a family and as a community. This year I decided to buy my holiday stamps with Kwanzaa illustrations on them. I admit, my cataracts are bad enough now I thought I was looking at a black Angel with lighted candles. I wondered why the postal clerk was questioning my choice. Why can’t I have Kwanzaa stamps? Maybe I need to go back in and buy the blue and silver stamps also.
This might be a year to make some new traditions, especially if during the past few years some of us have lost someone near and dear to us. Also, the economy has had a big impact, so focusing on togetherness rather than on materialism is a good choice. In the Great Depression, my dad asked only for a book for himself and his brother, and a fresh orange, if possible.
My mother, crafty lady that she was, made me this cross stitch one year for my birthday. All of us are gifted, even if not all of us have the same gifts or in the same amount. What we do with our gifts is the more important matter. A very gifted person who wastes their gift will benefit the world less than an average gifted person who works hard and has good people skills. Sometimes these are called under achievers and over achievers. As a former teacher, I don’t believe in the concept of “over achieving.” I do believe most of us underperform because we are afraid to fail.
Failing is how we discover what doesn’t work. Unless we’re playing with dynamite, failure won’t kill us. In sales, every time someone says NO to a presentation, the salesperson is another step closer to a YES. We think we’re too young, too old, or too something else to do what we really want to do in life. Sometimes the people around us tell us we can’t do the greater things we dream about. That was not my mother, or my dad. Daddy might have had reservations, but mother always said, “Honey, you should go for it.”
I drove alone to California last month without an advance plan for where I’d spend each night. I made reservations around lunchtime when I knew how far I’d journey that day. I have all the apps, just like the young people. I hiked in national parks, saw volcanoes, got caught in a snow storm, and paid through the nose for gasoline in the Nevada desert. I saw sea otters in the Pacific Ocean, hugged my grand kids, and learned I can do this. Yes, I wanted to go now, for driving nearly 7,000 miles is hard on the body. Full disclosure: I took a week to recuperate! Or maybe it was getting a month’s worth laundry done which finally did me in. I was glad to do it, and especially glad I didn’t let anyone talk me out of it.
I hope you choose to be a gift to others. If you don’t have a parent who encourages you to be more than others think you are, I offer my mother as a gift to you. I can share her with the world, for I keep sharing her wisdom here and there. Whatever you choose, l hope you choose to be a gift that gives to others.
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
Springtime is the season of youth, growth, and promise. It’s full of hope and anticipation for the future. It’s the season of our youth, for we identify with the vigor of nature’s growing and fertile surroundings. Winter isn’t the season for most of us, for it’s cold, dark, and the world is buried under ice, snow, or an interminable rain. It reminds us of our own mortality, our own aging and weakness, and our lack of power over our circumstances. No wonder people have searched for the fountain of eternal youth in many cultures across the ages.
As a pastor, I know people die in every season of the year, but somehow the deaths in winter seemed to strike me as more difficult to deal with than those of summer. In recent years, U.S. death rates in winter months have been 8 to 12 percent higher than in non-winter months. Much of this increase relates to seasonal changes in behavior and the human body, as well as our increased exposure to seasonal respiratory diseases. Cold temperatures exacerbate preexisting diseases, plus this weather brings on strenuous activities we don’t do at any other time of the year. Some people work outside all year round, so they’re always subjected to extreme weather conditions. I’m not sure which is worse: extreme heat or extreme cold. I’ve always used the premise, “We can always put on more clothes; taking them off is risky business.”
Of course, summer heat now is more extreme than it used to be. The dinosaurs among us keep saying, “When I was a kid, we played outside all day long and drank from the garden hose. We came inside for lunch, rested during the hottest part of the afternoon, and went back outside to play until it was almost sunset. Then we had a late, light supper, took our baths, and we were in bed by the time the stars came out.”
Weather records back from 1954 tell a different story. It was actually so hot, the extreme heat caused a Kansas City weather beacon to malfunction and forecast snow (St. Louis Post Dispatch, 12 July 1954). The Dinosaurs’ memories of their childhoods aren’t fossilized in stone. They remember what they want to remember. Most of us forget the difficult times and remember the times of joy instead. I remember this era as so hot and humid, my daddy would stand in the back yard with the water hose on full blast as he cooled down the west facing brick wall of our house. The overflow water nurtured the orange day lilies in the flowerbeds below.
I think some of our Dinosaur generation’s memories might have moderated over the years, just as the extremes of any pain—childbirth, war, or cultural changes—have been moderated by the joys of survival and bringing a new generation to adulthood. Also, we tend to remember the better parts of our lives if we have an optimistic outlook.
I wasn’t around for the “The Great Heat Wave of 1936,” which affected around 15 states during its three-week run that brought temperatures above 100 degrees. During the summer of 1936, The United States endured its worst heat wave on record. Ozark, Arkansas exceeded 100F every day from August 3 – 23 and reached a chart topping record 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Also known as the “1936 North American Heat Wave,” it exacerbated the levels of human suffering during the ongoing Great Depression. During this time, the all-time highest temperature in Arkansas was 120° F (Ozark on Aug.10, 1936). For comparison, in 2010 Little Rock, Arkansas had to endure its hottest summer between June and August when the temperature went above 90 degrees for two months. The Western states, currently under a mega drought that’s the worst the area has seen since 800 AD, hope to see rain and cooler temperatures soon.
It’s not just the weather I connect with the cycles of life, but also the changes in my body. Gone are the days when I could stay up all night talking or frolicking and then go to work without missing a beat. Of course, I was once an energizer bunny, or maybe I didn’t get all that much done when I was “working.” It was a mark of hubris for me that I could still work, no matter how foolish I was the night before. My friends and I thought of ourselves as heroic.
Arthur C. Clarke speaks of youthful infatuation with heroes, who in their minds should benefit from the eternal bloom of everlasting youth. Age and decrepitude shouldn’t affect heroes, for they’re either blessed by god or nature has given them have supernatural bodies. As Clarke describes the movie star walking on the low gravity space dock in his science fiction novel Islands in the Sky,
“Tex Duncan followed close behind. He was trying to manage without an escort and not succeeding very well. He was a good deal older than I’d guessed from his films, probably at least thirty-five. And you could see through his hair in any direction you cared to look. I glanced at Norman, wondering how he’d reacted to the appearance of his hero. He looked just a shade disappointed.”
Young folks think 35 is ancient. They never met George Blanda, the oldest NFL quarterback. Blanda played for 26 NFL seasons, the most seasons played by a single player in NFL history. During that time, he broke numerous other records as well. He held the record of most pass attempts in a single game, 68, until Drew Bledsoe broke his record in 1994 with 70 attempts. Blanda also was the first player to score more than 2,000 points, and he’s one of only two players to play in four different decades before he retired at age 48, one month shy of his 49th birthday.
Tom Brady, age 45, is the oldest quarterback to ever start an NFL game, but to break George Blanda’s age record for playing, Brady would have to play for four more seasons to break the age record and play until age 50 to break Blanda’s record of 26 seasons. Brady also has yet to throw seven touchdown passes in one game, a record Blanda and seven other NFL quarterbacks hold.
My old daddy often watched in agony while many young quarterback desperately tried to move a team downfield until the coach sent in Blanda, who somehow snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.
“Finally!” he’d shout at the tv. “How ‘bout that old man?” he’d exclaim to the rest of us. Agonizing over a football game was a family affair.
We humored my daddy, who was just past his mid century mark. As young and vigorous twenty something’s, we kids knew mortality’s chill breath was on his neck, while we were still able to outrun any shade creeping up on us in the night. As young people, we were still at the age when we began to see our parents less as heroes, and more as the flesh and blood realities of their true selves.
Not everyone survives this transition gracefully. Some need to see their parents as “forever heroes,” and are disappointed when the folks don’t measure up to this lofty standard. Likewise, we can transfer these same “forever hero” desires to God, and want God to be our superhero to rescue us from dangers and keep us from harm. We don’t take responsibility for our own lives, but wait for the external power to fix our lives in a dramatic way. We’re forever dependent on the superpower for every thing good.
There came a time in my daddy’s life when Parkinson’s disease and dementia weakened both his body and his mind. This wasn’t all at once, but a slow progression. He once had a strong handwriting, firm and legible. As his fine motor skill diminished, this beautiful signature became cramped and small, but it had the same stroke pattern as his original. My mom would fuss when he could no longer open jar lids for her, but I reminded her, “He wants to do this for you, but his hands can’t manage it. It’s a case of the spirit is willing and the flesh is weak.”
She wasn’t used to hearing this verse quoted in this context. I did get her piercing look, like I’d stabbed her to the heart, but she stopped fussing at him for what he couldn’t do and began to enjoy what he could still do. She too had always thought of him as a Superman type because he’d always been there for her. She now understood she would have to be there for him as he began to lose his powers.
We all have our own personal kryptonite, the mineral from our home planet that can drain our super powers the way it does for Superman. For some of us, it’s toxic substances, toxic environments, or toxic people. Some of us make poor choices about the people or places we hang about in, some of us think we need to please everyone, and some of us work too much to avoid emotional involvement.
At an advanced age, after multiple attacks from criminal types, and the burden of saving the planet over the years, even Superman gets tired. We Christians take the verse, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” as a Superman quote, forgetting all the other verses which reflect the humanity of Jesus: he was tired and hungry, so he rested at a well in Samaria; he was moved by the death of a friend, and wept at the news. We might need to recover the superhuman courage of the disabled and the aged instead. These find their strength in their weakness, as Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 1:25—
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
The older people I know all believe, “If I get out of bed, I’m going to have a good day. It’s my choice and I’m going to make it a good one. At my age, I don’t have time to waste on bad days!”
If I roll out of bed singing and wondering where my coffee cup is, I know it’s a good day. Then again, I always have a daily plan to do something creative: paint, write, quilt, cook, and if I must, make the condo more beautiful by cleaning it. I share my spiritual thoughts over several media platforms. It’s good to do ministry this way, since I have to keep a low profile due to my seizure disorder.
When we get to a certain age, people begin to ask, “Can he or she still do the job?” We make several assumptions when we ask this question:
The way we imagine the work of ministry requires lots of energy.
We prefer a young person to do this work because of our preconceived ideas about the nature of the work.
We want a fresh face to represent us in the community because a young person reflects well on us.
We think like attracts like, so a young pastor will attract young families.
However, we sometimes get more than we bargained for when our Wonder Woman or Superman “young hero” pastor prayers are answered:
We don’t want to move as fast as the energetic young leader.
Young leaders have novel ideas, but we’ve never done it that way.
Young leaders often believe everyone should be in ministry.
Young leaders remind us the congregation is the best representative in the community because they continue, while clergy come and go.
The leader doesn’t change us, for we can only change ourselves.
While a leader may attract new people, those who are part of the ongoing system will keep them by integrating them into the faith community.
One of the interesting aspects of working with the differently abled is an employer’s willingness to restructure the workplace setting or requirements to mesh with the employee’s abilities. We still have a notion of ministry that hasn’t been seriously reimagined since the 1950’s, when married clergy men were the norm and non working clergy wives were taking care of the children, house, and volunteering in the church and community.
One thing never changes, however: clergy bear the existential burdens of ministry—they carry the weight of others’ emotional and spiritual burdens, they’re overwhelmed by others’ needs and the importance of ministerial issues, and they’re expected to solve unsolvable mysteries of life in relationships.
This would age any Superman or Wonder Woman, but they persist in their callings to love and serve others. As Paul would say of his own people, “the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29). We are all called to serve by virtue of our baptism into the life, death, resurrection, and ministry of Jesus Chris. Therefore we each have gifts, and these we must use for God’s glory as long as we have breath and strength.
Maybe we won’t be the starting quarterback anymore, but we’ll wait our turn on the bench to take on the last ditch two minute drill, or comfort the grieving when they come off the field in whatever loss they suffer. God will use us as long as we have breath, and God will put us in the right place, at the right time, to be the hands and heart of Christ for those who need us at that opportune moment.
Henri Nouwen, the great spiritual writer, wrote about aging in this way, basing his commentary on Job 12:12 (NIV), “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?“ He said,
“Much violence in our society is based on the illusion of immortality, which is the illusion that life is a property to be defended and not a gift to be shared. When the elderly no longer can bring us in contact with our own aging, we quickly start playing dangerous power games to uphold the illusion of being ageless and immortal. Then, not only will the wisdom of the elderly remain hidden from us, but the elderly themselves will lose their own deepest understanding of life. For who can remain a teacher when there are no students willing to learn?”
Joy, peace, and May you find your inner superhero,
Unknown Artist: Alexander the Great, from Alexandria, Egypt, 3rd cent. BCE, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen (5), CC BY 2.0,
Michelangelo: David, 1501-1504, marble, Academia Galleries, Florence, Italy.
Are we the United States of America or the Un-Tied States of America? One of the apocryphal sayings misattributed to the great Benjamin Franklin is “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Many are the words of wisdom from those who can’t speak up for themselves anymore, but especially numerous are the aphorisms of those we hold in high esteem, the founders of our nation.
As a young rabbit, my summers were often spent in the game of “School,” as the days lengthened beyond the end of actual school. My mother rabbit, a school teacher in real life, would find me underneath the shade tree in our backyard where I’d be instructing my younger neighbor rabbits sitting in neat rows. Since old school teachers never lose their calling to teach, the upcoming anniversary of the birth of our nation is an opportunity for all of us to remember our national struggle for independence and liberty was a cause both difficult and hard won.
As we rabbits pull out our flags, bunting, firecrackers, and ice cream churns, we might want to take a moment to remember the danger and risk our ancestors took to become an independent nation, rather than colonies subservient to the English crown. For many great reasons we can thank our ancestors for their refusal to endure the insults of taxation without representation and the indignities of having all their judicial decisions subject to revision by a foreign party. Indeed, the colonists lived as second class citizens, a fact which grated upon their very souls. Many were their entreaties to the King of England for redress of these wrongs, but to no avail.
Redress is the righting of a wrong. Some wrongs are more wrong than others, to be sure. As a young rabbit in the first year of junior high school, I discovered all my classmates had later bedtimes than I did. In fact, I was still turning in at 7 pm along with my baby brother, who was a mere 8 years old. I made an extensive survey of my different class groups and discovered the average bedtime was 8 pm. I knew my old fashioned rabbit parents would never let me stay up until 10 pm at my tender age.
My daddy was always saying, “Young rabbits need their sleep to grow up big, strong, healthy, smart, and good looking.” I never had a good argument against these reasons, so I’d go to bed, even if I might sneak a flashlight and read a book under the covers. I did get permission to stay up to the late hour of 8 pm, however. Perhaps rebellion is part of the American DNA.
Birthing the American Union wasn’t easy. The collection of individual colonies operated separately and had their own interests. Joining them together into one whole wasn’t an easy task, for each would have to put the common good ahead of their own individual needs and desires. Benjamin Franklin proposed The Albany Plan In July 21, 1754, for a union of the American provinces, which he proposed to a conference of provincial delegates at Albany, New York, to better battle the French and their Indian allies. We remember this era as the French and Indian Wars.
The Albany Plan called for proportional representation in a national legislature and a president general appointed by the King of Great Britain. It served as a model for Franklin’s revolutionary Plan of Confederation in 1775. His original idea germinated in people’s minds, along with other writings which Franklin “lay upon the table.” Not everyone was ready to approve these proposals, but his proposed Draft Articles of Confederation helped the committee when they finally began to focus their action in July, 1775 to write what became our constitution.
In November, 1755, Governor Morris of Pennsylvania pressed for a Militia Act in order to recruit persons for defense of the area from Indian and French attacks. The military units contemplated were purely voluntary and the officers, though commissioned by the governor, were to be elected from below, not appointed from above. The most important difference was that in 1747 the Association was a completely extra-legal body created by the volunteers themselves, while in 1755 the military units were, for the first time in Pennsylvania history, to be established by formal legislative act. And during the eleven months before news of its disallowance by the King reached the colony, the act did serve, in spite of its limitations, as a basis for raising reserve forces for provincial defense.
The Virginia delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1774 went with this charge in hand:
“It cannot admit of a Doubt but that British Subjects in America are entitled to the same Rights and Privileges as their Fellow Subjects possess in Britain; and therefore, that the Power assumed by the British Parliament to bind America by their Statutes, in all Cases whatsoever, is unconstitutional, and the Source of these unhappy Differences.”
The crown had placed an embargo on the colonists and had forbidden them to import any manufactured goods, books, and while they might trade with other parts of the realm, those countries didn’t have to reciprocate. Economic sanctions were used for political purposes even in the 18th century.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, was sold by the thousands. By the middle of May 1776, eight colonies had decided that they would support independence. When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia Hall on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia read his resolution beginning: “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
After 21 years of planning, priming, and planting of the seeds for the fragile fruit of a New Democratic nation, it would finally come to life in the July 1776 Declaration of Independence and the 1789 Constitution of the United States of America. Yet not everyone was on board, not everyone wanted to leave the established relationship, even if it wasn’t the best situation.
Jefferson modeled the Declaration of Independence on the Virginia Bill of Rights, which became the basis for the Bill of Rights of the new Constitution of the United States of America. Notice the sections on 3: Governance by the Majority, 5: Separation of Governmental Powers, with Executive and Legislative members returned to private service, 12: Freedom of the Press, and 13: Armed State Militias.
“That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”
Section 13 of the Virginia Bill of Rights is one of the founding documents of our nation. Many today talk about “what the founders wanted.” One way we can know in part is to look at the historic records, although they are few and far between. We can find these in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and at the Smithsonian Museum, among others. We don’t have to be mind readers or seek some medium to channel the spirits of their ancestral vision. We’re fortunate they and their descendants recognized their importance to history. Today we throw away records at a fast pace, not knowing what will be important for the future.
While today nearly every young rabbit instagrams their lunch or their night out with a comment, which lasts in perpetuity on the internet, sometimes to a more mature rabbit’s shame and embarrassment, people nearly 250 years ago had to sit down, collect their thoughts, sharpen a quill pen, dip it frequently into the ink well, and write on precious sheets of paper.
Scholars think the Declaration of Independence was not signed by any of the delegates of the Continental Congress on July 4. The huge canvas painting by John Trumbull hanging in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol depicting the signing of the Declaration is a work of imagination. In his biography of John Adams, historian David McCullough wrote: “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.” We do have Jefferson’s draft copy as well as several printed copies that are “originals,” plus the clean, handwritten copy we treasure as a founding document.
If we had been members of the Second Continental Congress in 1776, we would have been rebels and considered traitors by the King. He would have posted a reward for the capture of each of us, since we were the most prominent rebel leaders. Soon enough the largest British armada ever assembled would anchor just outside New York harbor. By affixing our names to the document,we pledged our life,our fortune, and our sacred honor to the cause of freedom. Perhaps this would causes us today to pause. Then again, we might dip the quill into the ink well and take our first breath as a free American. We’d sign our name with pride. We would be part of history now.
As we prepare our menus for our backyard barbecues and make our plans for block parties, let’s remember in most urban areas firecrackers and explosive devices are banned, except for professional light and sound experiences. Be safe in large crowds, especially at night and in entertainment districts. Be safe, be smart, keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
The last day of our art class we had a “free for all.” Not exactly a “food fight” or “slug fest” free for all, but a finish up or start a personal project type of day. Our class never disappoints me. Mike brought in his patio parrots, some of which have seen better days. These are papier-mâché sculptures that have been brightly painted and covered with shellac. He hopes to paint over them and repair them so they will look respectable once again in the poolside area. If that’s not possible, I see a vacation south of the border in his future.
Gail brought an icon she didn’t quite finish to add gold outlining to the figures. This detail gave her work an extra embellishment to bring it to life. Before, she’d left an edge of white canvas between the background and the figures. This had the same effect, but also gave her work an unfinished appearance.
I’ve been working on a series of Creation Icons from the first chapter of Genesis. Actually, they’re mandalas, but they serve the same purpose as an icon: to focus the viewer’s sight into the window of the world beyond this one and to contemplate the universal mysteries of the universe and the God who created it. The Creation inspired me because I’ve seen old icons with this theme painted both in figurative and abstract styles.
This one represents Day three and is from The Nuremberg Chronicles (1493). Written by Hartmann Schedel and illustrated with woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut, it represents a monumental place in the history of the printed page. One of the most beautifully illustrated texts of all time, the approximately 600 pages, in-folio, contain 1,804 woodcuts intended to communicate to the public a schedule of events predetermined by God, beginning with the Creation, and ending with the end of time.
My icon is a stylized flower against a blue sky with a cross in the center to remind us, as John 1:1-3 says,
“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.”
I chose a sunflower as my representative plant, for the young plants constantly track the sun’s transit across the sky each day. The older plants don’t make use of this mechanism of heliotropism, but always face east to wait for the sunrise. The ancient wisdom says when Christ comes in his final glory, he’ll first appear in the east at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem. However, the Bible says in Revelation 1:7,
“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.”
I think it best to be ready, day or night, for like the servants whose master has gone off on a trip, we don’t know when he’s coming back. We should be always ready, always eager to serve. We’re never too young or too old to be a servant for Christ. As we grow older, one of our best gifts is mentoring the next generation for leadership. Perhaps they’ll make mistakes, or maybe they’ll do things differently than we did, but mission and ministry will happen.
Most mistakes don’t matter in the great scheme of life, unless they’re breaking a moral or legal law. If they’re just doing a task in a different order, like my arrangement of the dishes in the dishwasher at my mother’s house, we should probably leave that alone. I went and sat in the den and let my mother load the next evening’s dirty dishes because “If you’re going to rearrange everything, you might as well put them in yourself.” She did that one night and sat in the den the next night. Training is everything. My mom spent years training me, so I learned from the best. When it’s time to let go, you step aside and let them do it on their own. Learning from mistakes is part of leadership.
In art class we also learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we find out our palettes are too small to mix up all the different colors we want. This can limit our color schemes, muddy our colors, or tempt us into putting more color over the old color in the same tiny space for mixing. Then we look at our painting and wonder why it’s grey and dull, but fail to notice how dark our glass of brush water is. When the water gets dark, we need to pour it out and get clean water, or we carry that wash water full of pigments into our painting with our brush. In a like manner, if we hold our grudges or anger over time, these soil and blemish our souls. Washing them clean through prayer to God makes a difference in our countenance and joy. We’re brighter people when we rid ourselves of these burdens.
I’m taking the summer off from teaching. I have an art show planned for August to September at the Garland County Library, so I’ll be finishing up some work for that event. I also have a couple of chores around my condo planned, and more of my SOULJOURNIES blog to put into shape. I’m excited about these creative renewal projects. I’ll see y’all on the flip side.
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.”
This is a time of year when we look to the night sky for a sign. It’s not for nothing the depths of darkness are the beginnings of hope and our desire for the return of the healing light. People around the world and over the generations of time have celebrations of feasting, family reunions, and honoring their culture’s gods on the darkest day, or the Winter Solstice. The term solstice derives from the Latin word “sōlstitium”, meaning “the Sun stands still”. On the Winter Solstice, the sun reaches its southern-most position, shines directly on the Tropic of Capricorn, and seems to stand still there.
We’re all familiar with Stonehenge, a Neolithic stone monument in England built about 4,500 years ago to track important moments in the solar year. A later custom is the blazing Yule Log, a Norse tradition. The family would drag a huge piece of wood into their house, set it into the main fireplace, and let it burn for several days. It was a type of sympathetic magic to encourage the distant and faint sun to return, reinvigorated. The family often wrote down their desires for the new year as an offering to the gods. These were then burned in the fire. Afterwards, the family scattered ashes from the fire in the corners of every room in the house for good luck.
The Chinese also have a Winter Solstice festival, which once was a new year’s festival. The family gathers to eat traditional foods, and they honor their ancestors, as well as the old ones still living among them. This poem by Ruan Yue, in the late Northern Song Dynasty speaks of this:
罗袜新成，更有何人继后尘。 The socks for elders are newly woven; the custom should be handed down.
A later poet of the Song Dynasty, Fan Chengda, had a more optimistic outlook on the dreary and dark days before the Winter Solstice, or perhaps he was using “positive pep talk to reframe his grumpy mind.”
休把心情关药裹，但逢节序添诗轴。 Don’t be thinking about medicines all the time; write a new poem at the solar term.
I can relate to Fan Chengda, for I find I have difficulty waking up without the sun streaming into my bedroom windows. I’m also more irritable and mopey on these dark days. It’s probably Seasonal Affective Disorder, which is a form of depression related to the lack of light in this season. I tend to think dark thoughts, feel more pain, and lose my appetite, except for medicinal chocolate, which I consume under the Tim Allen mantra, “If some is good, more should be better!”
When I get this type of mood on, the commercial Christmas we see on television and in the movies strikes a discordant note in my soul. I think about the ancient text, which reminds us when the parents of Jesus went to Bethlehem to be counted in the census: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)
What most of us glide right over is Joseph had kinfolks galore in this town, but none of them opened their home to Mary, for she was pregnant before he married her. The innkeepers in town weren’t going to risk their reputations for these two either. Only one innkeeper took pity on them and let them stay with the animals in the stable. This marks the birth of the Christ child as an outsider to his whole extended family, the House of David.
The Magi, or Wise Men, came from the East to visit King Herod, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”( Matthew 2:2)
Herod was worried he would be deposed, so he sent the Magi to find this child, then return and report to him. The Magi followed the star until it stopped over the place where the family was staying. They offered their gifts and returned home, without telling Herod where the baby was. Jesus was an outsider to the Roman occupation which propped up the local kings. He was a threat to the way governments rule the world.
Shepherds are the epitome of outsiders in the Bible, for they live outdoors among sheep and goats, neither of which are clean. In fact, anyone who’s gone camping knows how hard staying clean is. Glamping isn’t camping, and neither is RVing. My youthful experiences in Girl Scout camps of pitching tents and digging rain gutters is the closest I’ve ever been to living on the land. Even then, we had outhouses and cold water showers. The biblical city folk who could keep the ritual rules of cleanliness looked down on the shepherds as a lower class group, or outside of society.
Imagine a group of shepherds sitting around a nighttime fire, eating a simple meal, and chatting about their day or their families at home. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified (Luke 2:9). I’d be terrified also, as I imagine you would be too! There’s a good reason the first words out of angels’ mouths are “Do not be afraid!”
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12)
If ever the outcasts of the world needed good news, if ever the hopeless needed a savior, if ever the least of all needed one just like them, it was these lowly shepherds, who went to find a newborn child lying in an animal’s feeding stall. No fancy crib for the newborn king, no royal robes or golden crown, just ordinary swaddling clothes. He looked just like any other child, except his birth was proclaimed by angels, honored by Magi from afar, and given a place through the grace of a kind innkeeper.
Those of us who will celebrate Christmas with our families, our extended friends, and our relations in a wild, chaotic buzz of coming and going, feasting and drinking, and perhaps exchanging of gifts, don’t know the quiet and holy night when the light of the world entered “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (Luke 1:79)
We keep our homes lit inside and out with megawatts of electric lights, both colored and white. Some of us even cue our lights to blink to seasonal music. Those of us who live beyond the great urban areas, can better see the stars at night, since there’s no light pollution. This is one reason we need to keep our national parks as close to nature as possible, for one day, these may be the only places people can marvel at the bright stars against the dark canopy of the sky above.
Gail brings her love of the outdoors and her experience as a park ranger to her work. Over the trees, a floating band of stars become a pathway across the night sky.
Even if our assignment was stars, that never means “only stars.” After all, the sun is a star, which is very close to us, astronomically speaking. If you’re going to have the sun and stars, you might as well have the moon also. I always say, “Why not?” The Tim Allen rule sometimes applies in art class: “More power!” When you go too far on the Tim Allen scale, that’s when his sidekick Al reminds him, “Sometimes less is more.” Mike certainly captures the energy and joy of the celestial bodies in this painting through the bold colors and strong brush strokes.
Sally had an idea in her mind, but no image to look at. She wanted to show the cosmos in motion, as if God were looking down upon it. In her mind’s eye, she imagined this from memory. As she worked on the small canvas, she’d add more paint into the areas which weren’t quite dry and got somewhat frustrated at the paint not bending to her will. As a matter of technique, painting into a dry area is better than continuing to add color to a wet area, since the wet brush picks up the wet layers below that. Mike and Gail, having many sessions under their belts, have already crossed this particular bridge. She also learned something significant. It’s easier to paint something when you can look at it. I think it’s a good start and it holds promise: “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; indeed, star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:41).
I’m not a fast walker, nor do I get down the road quickly. I’m too busy noting the color of the sky, thinking what colors to mix to get the grey trees of a late December day, or how to paint the towering cumulus clouds of summer. I file these thoughts away in the treasure house of my mind, for one day I’ll need them. I look at the shadows of the leaf clumps on trees, but not at each leaf alone. The tree leaves are communities, not individuals. They exist as groups, so the artist treats them as such.
I’m not sure about others, but many walkers are fixed on their personal best speed, or going a half mile longer. Some people drive to the grocery store and make their list in their head as they go. In the store, they make a new to do list for the home, and once that’s done, they make another list for the next day. The cycle starts all over again. They never once raise their eyes to greet the stars, to note the cycles of the moon, to enjoy the sunset colors, or the sunrise either. They’re probably more productive than I am, but I take time to reflect deeply on the “why of things” rather than repeating the same rhythms over and over. Most people like the familiar rhythms, however, while I question if they still have meaning in today’s world.
In ancient times, the Greeks and Romans thought the stars had a power and energy to determine the fates of human beings. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and stoic philosopher of the 2nd century, wrote in his Meditations: “Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” From his privileged location, he could identify with the heroic persons in the astrological figures of mythology.
Some people are “born under a bad sign,” or are unlucky in life. Of course, some say we make our own luck, but people born into harsh circumstances lack the same resources to make choices for good. The deck is stacked against them, from living in trauma filled neighborhoods to a lack of quality foods due to a paucity of grocery stores. As Albert King, the great blues artist once sang, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I wouldn’t have no luck at all.”
The good news is the bright light of the Christmas star points to the new light, which has come into the world. We hear, amidst the cacophony of commercials and piped in musical carols, the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you” (60:1).
Our art class returns Friday, January 4, 2022, at 10 am. I hope to bring pomegranates, if I can still find them in the store. We’ll make a fresh start in the New Year, so if you want to join, you’ll start where you are. We are a “one room schoolhouse,” so there’s no grade levels with us. We’re all learning and improving from where we are at the moment.
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” my daddy was fond of saying. We often long for the “way things used to be,” as if the Golden Age of the past was the best of all times. Yet, that past often exists only in our memories, but not in the lived reality of all persons. This is the classic story of the young prince, who while sheltered within the confines of his sumptuous palace never knew want, but once he walked among his people, he saw suffering and need everywhere. Today we know him as the Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama. Many over the centuries have wondered why suffering exists in the world, or why they themselves must suffer. The Buddha saw all life as suffering, or rather our inability to accept the impermanence, change, and dissatisfaction with the present moment.
The Golden Age is a myth and poetic concept, as well as a political and philosophical construct. It began in Greece and was fixed in people’s minds by the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The Golden Age is a dream of an “earlier time when people lived peaceful, untroubled lives, and the earth supplied all their wants.” Those who read the Bible can easily find a parallel story in the first humans, who lived in the Garden of Eden. Of all the high and holy days in our cultural calendar, Christmas rates number one for nostalgia, both the personal kind and the universal type.
Nostalgia is the state of being homesick, or a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning, either for the return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. It can be a salve for those who suffer, or it can be more salt poured into an open wound. It just depends on how one frames the experience. We feel “homesick “ in the worst possible way, for we yearn for the security of the familiar and the safe. Mostly we yearn for the people we love and are kin to us.
I remember the year I divorced my husband. It was necessary, for I couldn’t trust him to care for our daughter due to his alcoholism. The first Christmas was hard, for his family chose him and shut me out, as did all his friends. Decorating the Christmas tree was always a family affair in the Golden Age of my memories of Christmas. If this year I had no family, I would bring friends to decorate my tree. Just because I’d always celebrated one way before, I wouldn’t let my circumstances keep me from finding joy this Christmas. I called my young mother friends, invited their families to my home, and we decorated my tree within an inch of its life. It was my best tree ever! And then we ate and drank a toast to our creation. My friends were salve for my suffering, and helped me create a good memory, which still gives me pleasure to this day, four decades later.
Christmas brings families together, but this is a double edged sword. While we all want to be with our families, we also know oil and water don’t mix. After both my parents died, I often ate with some of my clergy pals’ families. I was glad to know they had relatives who also wore their crazy pants to dinner. If I ate with congregation members, they were often on their best behavior, as if I were some sort of god on earth. You’d think after six months at a charge, I’d already have disabused them of that notion, but some people never see your true nature, but only the image of every pastor they’ve ever known before. More often, I’d get pastoral calls of family crises during holiday seasons, so after years of this recurrence, I finally learned to plan for it. I eventually realized we all have a Golden Age of Christmas in our minds, but in real life, we live in the Age of Iron. When reality hits our delusions, the disconnect is palpable. We feel it in our very bones.
For many Americans, images of Victorian Christmases include memories of “children all snug in their beds with their visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads,” which we recognize as one of the opening lines of Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” These sugar plums aren’t sugared fruits, but are more like candy covered peanuts or almonds. Jelly beans also are made by this same process. Whatever these treats were, the children dreamed of a world of happiness, sweetness, and delight.
As my Depression Era mother would say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would be kings.” That outlook never stopped me or my brothers from wanting everything in the Sears Christmas catalog, even though we knew these were just suggestions for Santa. Yet we never felt deprived, for whatever we received was a gift, plus it was more than we had before. On Thanksgiving day this year, consumers spent at a pace of at least $3.5 million per minute on line due to stores being closed for the holiday. This year, the average household is pegged to spend $924 for online shopping, more than double the $440 expected for in-store.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects November/December retail sales of $843.4 billion to $859 billion, up 8.5% to 10.5% from 2020 results. NRF said its forecast — excluding automobile dealers, gas stations, and restaurants, and covering Nov. 1 to Dec. 31— tops the previous high of $777.3 billion. This total is up 8.2% over 2020, as well as the average gain of 4.4% over the past five years. This increase is in spite of supply chain hiccups, rising gas prices, and the pockets of as yet unvaccinated individuals, who continue to be the greatest number of COVID admissions to our hospitals. It’s as if we’re trying to replace the suffering of our present with presents for those we love. This also accounts for our desire to donate to charities at this season.
Yet the Scrooge of Christmas continues to be COVID, for as an Augusta University Medical analysis released in May of 2021 revealed, which looked at COVID-19 related deaths in vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals—only .8% (150) of vaccinated people accounted for the 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May. If you want to give someone the gift of life this Christmas, take them to the local pharmacy and get them started on their vaccinations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found both infection-induced and vaccine-induced immunity are durable for at least six months — but vaccines are more consistent in their protection and offer a huge boost in antibodies for people previously infected. Unfortunately, unvaccinated persons are also the prime hosts in which the virus can mutate, so the Grinch has already brought us the latest variant of concern, Omicron.
This variant was first identified in the South African peninsula, due to their excellent testing facilities. Of course, now the nations of the world have isolated the countries there, so they now feel punished by these bans. Travelers arriving in major world airports already have tested positive for for this variant, so we can expect disruptions and quarantines worldwide to follow. During this holiday season of restoring relationships, COVID keeps breaking our ties instead of rebuilding them.
We can long for the Golden Age of light from our younger days, when our parents took on the big worries so we could have the pleasant memories of an untroubled childhood, or we can fix our sight on the lights of our faith. The great star of the east which announced the birth of Jesus was a pale light compared to “The true light, which enlightens everyone, (which) was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) His was “The light (which) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5).
Our Jewish friends meet the darkness of this Hanukkah season with prayers and menorahs, nightly lighting candles to disperse the darkness of hopelessness against great foes. They remember doing battle against spiritual powers, with God empowering their weakness. God never comes for the strong, but has a special kindness for the poor and weak. This is why we should feel blessed, no matter our personal experience, but especially during the holidays. The ceremony begins on November 28 and ends December 6, since it’s set by the lunar calendar.
So also are these December celebrations light filled: Burning the Yule Log on the 4th, St. Lucia on the 13th, the Winter Solstice on the 21st, Kwanzaa on the 26th, and finally, New Year’s Eve. Our good earth will bring its tilt back towards the sun gradually in the days following the winter solstice. This darkness too shall pass, whether it’s our personal grief or our universal suffering.
We’ll keep walking until we meet the better land beyond the horizon. If this isn’t yet the Golden Age of our memories or the Golden Age of our sugar plumb dreams, let’s work together as we walk to build a better world for all people, “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10)
May you have a mindful holiday, full of joy and peace,
Reckford, Kenneth J. “Some Appearances of the Golden Age.” The Classical Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1958, pp. 79–87, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294223.
After the initial burst of summer excitement, my community is not only sweltering in a heat wave, but we’re also smack dab in the midst of the third wave of this Covid-19 pandemic. We might be more than halfway through 2021, but at the rate my home state of Arkansas is pursuing vaccinations, it’ll be years before we reach the holy grail of herd immunity, estimated to be at 80% immunity. Only 37% of our people are fully immunized, with Alabama and Mississippi pulling up the rear nationally with 35% and the states of Louisiana and Wyoming tied with us at 37%.
Like the old gal who’s always worn a certain size shoe or dress, my state now tries to fit an increasing number of Covid patients into a fixed set of ICU beds in our state. My days of a size seven shoe or skirt are a dim memory, as are the days of empty medical facilities.
“We have nowhere to send COVID-19 patients within the State of Arkansas. There is limited bed capacity at trauma centers increasing pressure on the time-sensitive healthcare system,” said Jeff Tabor, program director for the COVIDComm system, which helps match covid-19 patients with hospitals.
Tabor said the one COVID ICU bed which is available is located in southern Arkansas. There are five hospitals, also in southern Arkansas, showing limited COVID bed space. Tabor said some COVID-19 patients are so critical at rural Arkansas hospitals that they cannot be transferred to other hospitals because the patient is too critical and because of bed space.
Recently our state legislature adjourned a special session without amending their misguided law mandating no masks ever in public schools or government agencies. Act 1002, by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, prohibits state and local governments, including public schools, from requiring people to wear masks. Act 1002 became effective on July 28.
The state’s largest school district, joined by a small district already suffering from Covid quarantine attendance problems in its early opening days, filed suit in court to stop this law from going into effect. The judge issued a temporary restraining order. The reasons for this aren’t political, but are found in the Arkansas constitution.
LRSD and MSD are likely to succeed on the merits. Act 1002 violates the Education Article of the Arkansas Constitution, Article 14, § 1, which requires that “the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” A suitable and efficient system of public education would not require students to risk their health and their lives to get the education promised to them in the Arkansas Constitution, especially when the State is required to “adopt all suitable means” to provide them “the advantages and opportunities of education”.
An affidavit provided by Dr. Glen Fenter, the superintendent of the Marion School District, said that incentives, including gift certificates, groceries, and even big-screen televisions, didn’t entice many local citizens to take the vaccine. Only one out of every three students in the district has acceptable home internet service, making remote learning difficult; even then, “very few” students who did “participate in the virtual education option last year achieved an acceptable level of academic progress,” the affidavit said.
The Marion superintendent said that his district was forced to “quarantine over 500 students and employees” based on CDC and state health department guidance after the second week of school. The school year in Marion began July 27, 2021. This rural system has only 3,325 students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year. Their math proficiency score averages 22% and reading averages 31%, compared to the statewide averages of 47% and 45%.
The broader lawsuit argues that the Act violates an education clause of the state constitution, the equal protection clause of the state constitution, and that certain federal laws preempt the state from enforcing the Act. It also argues that the Act violates separation of powers principles, conflicts with a subsequent state law, and violates the premise of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Mass., the 1905 U.S. Supreme court case during the smallpox scourge, which allowed mandatory vaccination policies — and penalties for those who refused to comply — to stand.
On another front, the mayor of Little Rock, Frank Scott, Jr., said the capitol city’s covid-19 task force had recommended to him that “masks be worn again in public spaces for which the city is responsible.” He strongly exhorted businesses to follow suit. Scott made note of the many children who visit city parks and community centers and who will be returning to school later this month, adding that “right now, they don’t have the ability to mask up.”
In the middle of all this stress, I ponder these questions: “What inspires a work of art? In our search for beauty in this world, do we have to forget our pain and become as the lotus eaters of the ancient myths?”
Worn out from the years of the Trojan war fought in a foreign land and tired from an unending journey full of trials and tribulations on the way home, Odysseus found his men succumbing to the hypnotic lure of the magic flower. When eaten, it caused people to forget both their troubles and also their future plans. In the words of the hippies of yore, they were content to “get high and get by.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lotus Eaters, inspired Robert S. Duncanson, an African American landscape painter, prior to the Civil War:
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Odysseus had to bodily carry his men back to the ship and tie them to their seats to keep them rowing on a straight course for home. Today we’re treated to videos of airline passengers taped to their seats because of their unruly behaviors. Rage flying has taken the place of rage driving. Neither the roads, the post offices, nor the skies are friendly anymore. “Going postal” has almost lost its meaning when no workplace is safe these days.
In the midst of the record deaths of despair, come now the increasing deaths of our most precious inheritance—our children. The number of children contracting Covid-19 has increased fivefold since the end of June, with a “substantial” 84% jump in the last week alone, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. This number comes as numerous states report upticks in child hospitalizations amid the ongoing delta surge. In Arkansas, we’ve had three children die from Covid.
Some would say this is an “acceptable loss or trade off to allow others to have freedom.” I find this line of reasoning heartless at best and cruel in reality. I wonder what these folks would say if their child had lost their life instead. It seems not too long ago some of these same persons were advocating for the elderly to accept a shortened lifespan, since their productive lifetimes were expended. They seem to value people only for their economic ability, rather than for their humanness or for their lived experience. Allowing the “weak” to die in this part of the pandemic also devalues those who aren’t yet ready to produce economic gain for the big machine. (Yet, they fail to recognize the loss of future gain of these young “production units.”)
I would rage blog at the inhumanity of our legislators, who couldn’t find an giant acorn in the midst of an empty football field, even if they had the scales removed from their eyes, but then there’s always the hope they might learn the lesson of Job, for whom suffering brought new understanding of God. Then they’d call themselves back into session and amend their own misbegotten law so it’s flexible enough to meet our current, extreme circumstances. Who knows, they might even rescind this unconscionable law, for persons who truly have the capacity to lead with courage also have the ability to change their minds. Some say it’ll never happen, but I’ve always been afflicted with incurable optimism.
In the meantime, I paint and pray. Even this dire event can inspire a work of art. One of our local hospitals has already canceled elective surgeries in order to concentrate on Covid care. The other hospital has very limited intensive care unit availability. Right now, no one in our tourist town needs to get sick and we certainly don’t need a mass casualty incident. Of course, I could live in a rural county and my nearest medical facility with a trauma unit could be hours away. I remember my early years of ministry when I reminded people, “If I’m ever unconscious, please just have them stabilize me and send me off to the big hospital in Little Rock or Memphis.”
Today I blog about another painting based on a Google map of my adopted city, so it’s another “cognitive map.” I used scraps of an old preaching stole. I made the stole from odd pieces of fabric, plus an old pair of overalls, and a garden glove. I deconstructed the stole, since I’m no longer preaching in my retirement years, and added a few worn out face masks, in which I sewed small pleats. I took some of my grandmother’s old crochet and rickrack trim to mark some of the roads, but let the three dimensional shapes mark the other directional lines. My mother made Belgian lace collars for my young daughter’s dresses, so I’d used these for masks.
I too wore these masks until I was tired of them. I was hopeful when those who know more than I do believed the virus had subsided and we were safe to shed our face coverings. One day in early July at Kroger I had an hour long conversation with a young man who was also glad to be shed of the mask, just to see people’s smiles. We talked for a while and I learned he was just a few weeks past a suicide attempt. This pandemic has been hard on him. We talked some more, for I’ve been in the dark place before too.
I don’t need a preaching stole anymore, for preaching isn’t what I do best in this season of my life. God sets people in my path who need an encouraging or healing word. The world, in its beauty or its sadness, inspires me to paint a new vision of the world as it could be, for I don’t think I’ve ever painted what was ever “real.”
People ask, “Why don’t you make a painting that looks like real life?”
I answer, “We have cameras today for this. In any event, how do we know this ordinary world we see today is what God intended? This could be the fallen world, and not the original world of colors and joy, which God originally created.”
Perhaps we need to rethink our cognitive maps or how we view our world. If we consider all persons to be made in the image of God, then caring for them becomes important also. We can’t separate the Spirit of God from the body in which it resides. We also have to recognize God works through extraordinary events as well as through ordinary events. If we are to reject the inspiration and special providence of God in the matter of scientific discovery, then we’re going to go back to living in caves for a long time.
I remember when my daddy came home from his medical office with a small vial and a special double pronged needle. The windows were open, so it wasn’t yet the heat of summer. He stood next to the light, as he always did in his office when he worked, and gave us children the smallpox vaccine.
“Let’s put a little light on the subject, shall we?” I laughed as I proffered my left arm. He washed it with a cotton swab and alcohol, in his usual calm way. I went first because I was the oldest. Also, I was a role model for my brothers, but I was used to this because of my birth order. I knew to trust my daddy and to show my brothers the way forward. A few tiny pin pricks later, a bandaid, and I was good to go. My brothers followed suit, and we were all told, “Hands off.” We were restricted from playing with our friends because of our parents’ fear we’d end up with a limp or in an iron lung. Polio was eradicated in the USA in 1979, but it still occurs in war torn and poverty areas worldwide.
Finally, while some will write off as heartless idiots the ones using the tired canard of freedom of choice (the ones who fail to protect our vulnerable children), I remind them we require measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to enter schools because medical professionals deem it important for the children’s health and welfare. Of course this same group throws back to us the name “liberal whackdoodles” in return. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought less of our own egos and territory, and cared more about the welfare of our future generations.
We could then fulfill the promise of God in Isaiah 57:19—
“Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD;
and I will heal them.”
God is full of grace and love, given to offering gifts of healing to those who are both close to us—our neighbors—and those who are far from us—the strangers. If only we humans could love one another as God loves us all.
Changing the way we see our world, one map at a time, brings
Does God, who knows all things, also have a memory, or can God choose to forget?
I often wonder about such ideas, for when we ordinary folk experience horrific traumas, we often say, “This is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I’ll never get over it.” In some cases this may be true, especially if the person doesn’t seek long term counseling and faith support to deal with the soul damaging harm. With assistance, one can heal from the pain, even while remembering the injury, just as a broken bone can be mended over time.
Those who’ve been wounded and healed can go on to help others heal from their pain and brokenness. The memories of the wound remain, just like a scar on the skin, but they don’t interfere with living a positive and productive life. For those whom Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers,” and who find meaning in their suffering, their lives are a model for others to emulate, for their memories don’t destroy them.
If we look at the nature of God—the one who is, the one who will be, and the one always becoming—we can understand better the discussion between Jesus and the Temple authorities in John 8:56-59–
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Jesus made the claim to the I AM name and being of God, an act of blasphemy, which the devout Jews found outrageous, since it made him equal to God. Their memories of Moses meeting God in the burning bush are to this day a seminal recollection of their liberation story from their Egyptian captivity:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Can one who always lives in the present have a memory of the past, or envision the future? I met a lady at Sam’s Club in the days before the July 4th weekend. She was standing in the center of the entrance while folks were pushing baskets quickly past on either side of her. I thought she looked like the choose cone at a NASCAR restart. Bewildered and worried, she was looking for someone who wasn’t to be found. I asked her if she needed help, and she was even uncertain about this request. I suggested we walk over to customer service. On the way, I discovered her name and that her people had walked off to shop without waiting for her. She didn’t know their names, but she did know hers.
I thought about my own daddy, who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. He progressively lost the memory of our family members: first my younger brothers, then me, and finally my mother became “the lady who came to kiss him every afternoon at 4 o’clock.” However, he could remember every bit of his medical training, even when he slipped and fell. On entry to the ER, he began ordering the medical staff about as if he were in charge. They tried to shush him up, until they realized he was running the accustomed intake drill.
Memories are like this, for we keep some which we find necessary and yet lose some very important ones we’d really like to hold onto. We also keep painful memories longer than happy memories, perhaps as a survival instinct. We won’t touch that hot stove again! This doesn’t bode well for our overall optimism, however, if we end up seeing the world as a fraught and dangerous place. How we imprint the emotions on our memories is still debated, for we tend to assign positive or negative emotions to events of our past. Then these affect our future experiences. This is why some of us fear dogs, while others of us approach them with respect, allowing the animal to sniff us out and accept us before we interact with them. We can change our future reactions to old memories, but this is a work in process.
God never gets old, even though God is eternal. If God is always I AM, or I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, then God is a very present god and as well as a God of the future. If the past is also the present for God, then perhaps the past may be also as the future. In fact, for all we humans know time, as we understand it, may have no meaning for God, and what we think of as past, present, and future, God may experience as the eternal NOW. This may be how we understand Hebrews 13:8— “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Recently I’ve been finding old mementos, souvenirs of my youth. Some are faded newspaper clippings, others are letters from old boyfriends, and then there’s the strange and esoteric memorabilia that somehow survived over half a century in storage along the various stages of my journey. My people are genetically predisposed to collecting. Did I ever mention my grandmother’s ball of tinfoil she kept on the kitchen window sill next to the sweet potato plant she was growing in the old mason jar? I come by this habit through my maternal line.
As I’ve been going through these, I had no difficulty throwing away utility bills from the early 2000’s, but then I found the college freshman beanie from my childhood boyfriend. He lived thirteen houses down the street from me. We had a thing for each other all through junior high and high school. For some reason, he gifted it to me. That motive is lost to the fog of memory now. Perhaps as Isaiah 43:18 says:
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
When I picked up this ancient cap of shame, for that’s exactly what it is, since it marks its wearer out as the low man on the totem pole, I marveled at how small the hat was. I don’t remember my beloved having a pinhead! In fact, I mooned and pined over his handsome and athletic form. Then again, I was young. As I held it in my hands, I felt the need to recreate something new from it. I had a landscape painting which had gone poorly because I was ill. I decided to paint over it, using the hat as the central tree structure, and adding some cut fabric trees to balance it. I also found some printed butterflies I cut out for embellishment. Once I glued those shapes on the canvas, I could repaint the canvas.
As I destroyed the old canvas and remade it into a new creation, the words from the prophet Isaiah (43:25) came to mind:
“I, I am He, who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
God is a forgiving god, but more importantly, God is a forgetting god. How many times do we say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget?” We might as well say, “I’m not forgiving or forgetting, because I’m going to carry this wound or harm or slight FOREVER.” So much for our going onto perfection in love, or learning to love as God loves.
The cornerstone of all forgiveness is self-forgiveness. Too many of us believe the verse from John 3:16 only applies to the world, but not to themselves individually—
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
If we can’t forgive the darkness within us, or the mistakes we’ve made, or allow God to forgive us, how are we to forgive others? In fact, if we tell God our sins are too great for God to forgive, we’ve set ourselves above God’s authority to forgive sins. This is pride, authority, and idolatry all wrapped into one. We’ve made ourselves into a god, rejecting God. The Pharisees of old rejected Jesus for this very reason.
Who was the most forgiving person in all of scripture? Jesus, of course, for he claimed authority to forgive sins just as God did, as when Jesus healed the paralytic whose friends let him down through the roof (Luke 5:20-24). Those who were nearby wondered at his boldness, but he asked, “What’s easier, forgiving sins or saying stand up and walk?” If we’re going to claim the name of Christ, we too are going to be forgiving people. Forgiving is an act that heals not only the other, but also ourselves. If we can’t forgive, we’ll never be able to forget, or transform our painful memory into one which God can use for the healing of others.
In a sense, we make a new map in our minds and hearts of our old landscapes of pain and sorrow. What once were places of despair can become fertile fields, if not gardens of delight. Our wounds become the tender points which open us up to the suffering of others, and allow us to minister to their needs. Our healing is part of God’s steadfast love. As Jeremiah reminds us:
“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:34)
When I think of the faithfulness of God, I also believe in the timelessness of God. When Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee to give them the Great Commission in Matthew 28:20, he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” When this present age ends and God renews the heavens and the earth, how will we experience time in the new creation? Surely, if God is making all things new, we won’t be in this same world anymore and the rules it follows won’t be the same. We aren’t thinking boldly enough or big enough if we limit God to only recreating only the current fallen and broken world we have now.
Maybe if more of us began to think on the world a forgiving and loving God could create, we could begin to remake this present world into the new creation. If we were to make acts of love and forgiveness more prominent in our daily lives, we might restore our neighbor to fellowship and community. We can forgive even those who don’t seek it, for they’re the ones who’re most in need of forgiveness. With a forgiving and loving God’s help, we can do this.