April Fool! Caught you! Were you the prankster or the pranked? Even an institution as stuffy as the British Broadcasting Corporation isn’t above pranking the public on the first day of April. If a fool and his money are soon parted, then whatever the BBC was selling, they were having a jolly good time in their advertising department. You can watch their mini documentary on Flying Penguins below:
When I was at Perkins Seminary, we editors of the weekly newsletter had a tradition of an April Surprise. This followed the practice of the former Babylonian Schismatic, which was an alternative, satirical student newsletter published occasionally between 1981 and 1988.
One year, when I was coeditor, it was more of an April Debacle. My partner in crime and I were sure the beach ball bouncing off the usual chapel steeple logo would be enough to clue our community into the prank. However, we failed to realize how little sleep our fellow students actually got during school weeks, how seriously they took the printed word, and worst of all, that our newsletter also went to bishops’ widows in faraway places. This last was what got us into the real trouble.
Our faux reports of Perkins losing its accreditation due to shenanigans of prior graduates, who were in the news at the time, had graduate students storming the dean’s office. Even worse, the bishop’s widows were calling him to inquire what kind of school he was overseeing. The fact schools can only lose accreditation for their own failures (and not the trespasses of former students or faculty) never crossed anyone’s mind in the ensuing uproar. So of course, we criminals wrote handwritten letters of apology to the widows and printed retractions in the next newsletter for the students. I now understand why my mother said I sometimes take things too seriously. Still, I’ve have found others who make me look like a giggle queen.
Speaking of giggles, although the historical roots of April Fool’s Day are shrouded in mystery, the British, who are mostly known for their dry wit and stiff upper lip, seem to enjoy this holiday to excess. Especially at the BBC, which back in 1957, produced a fascinating prank documentary on the Swiss Artisanal Spaghetti Industry. They showed a Swiss family harvesting ripe spaghetti strands from their spaghetti bushes. At the time because of rationing, spaghetti wasn’t widely available. After 1956 in the British Isles, Italian companies opened spaghetti factories and Italian immigrants opened restaurants. The British developed a taste for this food. As a result, some British families were so enthusiastic, they wanted to purchase their own spaghetti bushes for a home garden. Others were unhappy to be pranked. This may be one of the first times the medium of television was used to stage an April Fool’s Day hoax.
Moveable Feasts: Passover and Easter
Israel was an ancient agricultural culture and followed a lunar calendar, so sighting the full moon was important. Passover is always pegged to the Hebrew calendar, which is based on the lunar cycle. It starts in the middle of the month of Nisan, when the moon is full, typically falling in March or April of the modern Gregorian calendar. As a result, Passover typically begins very close to Easter. Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox. However, due to the shorter Hebrew calendar, sometimes it gets a leap month to keep it in tune with the seasons. In 2024, when the leap month plays a part, we’ll have an early Easter on March 21st, but Passover won’t start until April 22nd.
These religious holidays are forever entertwined because of the historical events of the Last Supper, which we assume was a ritual meal or Seder, and the crucifixion on a Friday, which required Christ’s body to be taken down from the cross due to the beginning of Passover at sunset.The Last Supper took place on a Thursday night, even though the actual Passover didn’t begin until Friday night.
As Wesley’s Notes on The New Testament observe, “Jesus took the bread—the bread or cake, which the master of the family used to divide among them, after they had eaten the passover. The custom our Lord now transferred to a nobler use. This bread is, that is, signifies or represents my body, according to the style of the sacred writers.”
We know this because Jesus was arrested in Gesthemane after this meal and then taken to the Roman Governor Pilate on Friday morning, the day of Preparation for the Passover. John 18:28 reminds us how the temple priests “…took Jesus from Caiaphas to Pilate’s headquarters. It was early in the morning. They themselves did not enter the headquarters, so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover.”
The Jews in the first century kept faithfulness according to laws of separation and purity, so they kept away from unbelievers on holy days. This was the biblical practice of the time. Early Christians continued this practice until Paul began his outreach to the Greek and Roman citizens of the world. When in the later gospel of John (14:15) Christ says, “if ye love me, keep my commandments, Wesley’s commentary understands this to mean: “Immediately after faith he exhorts to love and good works.” This is why we United Methodists practice an open table at Holy Communion, or the Lord’s Supper, for all who love the Lord and desire to be in love and fellowship with their neighbors are welcome at his table. We don’t exclude anyone, for God includes all people into the circle of God’s love.
Since Easter Sunday is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, this makes Easter a “moveable feast.” Unlike a picnic, for which we tote our fixings from our kitchen to a park or to the countryside, or unlike a house to house “progressive dinner,” Easter is called “moveable” because it’s not on a fixed date like Christmas or New Year’s Day.
My family’s Easter feast always centered about a baked ham, often covered with canned pineapple rings and studded with cloves. We were a modern American 1950-60’s family and Betty Crocker reigned in my mother’s kitchen. Just this week I saw a tv advertisement of a family feast with this very same baked ham. I suppose when the economy gets dicey, people pull out old familiar recipes from the great-great-grandmother’s kitchen. Since I have a new great-grandchild on the way, and a knitting project started, I can safely say, this isn’t an April Fool’s joke. I’ve seen the sonogram images!
“April showers bring May flowers” is an ancient rhyme. Unfortunately, these showers also bring pollens of every kind, since trees and flowers both acquire crowns of glory. The Old Farmer’s’ Almanac notes while November has a bit more rain in store for Arkansas than April usually brings, this month’s warmer weather favors conditions for flowers to bloom and trees to bud. While we might tire of the storms and the havoc they wrack upon the populace, we’re always thankful if they only cause damage to property and don’t take human lives.
Across North America, the pollen season has lengthened by 20 days since 1990. Pollen concentrations have also increased by 21 percent over the past three decades. This means some of us have been doctoring ourselves or visiting the RD—real doctor—since February. The stubbornest of us waited until almost April because we were convinced we could heal ourselves. If you still have no energy and are grumpy to boot after a month, you too need a RD. Better living through chemistry with put a perk back into your bunny hop.
Speaking of the weather, I have seen many years now of Easter sunrise services, and even more later noontime Easter feasts. One thing ties them all together: no matter how cute my spring outfit is, no one ever sees it because I’m always wearing a raincoat or a winter coat over it. My guess is rain and cool weather will come and our egg hunts will likely be inside. As long as there’s a dark chocolate Easter rabbit for my personal gratification, I’ll be happy. I discovered last year’s version stored in the cabinet, so I’d better make some chocolate chip cookies soon.
There’s plenty of silly or merchandising holidays in April, but you can read about them at the link below my name. Until May, I remain your April Fool…
Oscar Wilde famously said, “Life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” This is because the self-conscious aim of life is to find expression and art offers it certain beautiful forms, through which it may realize that energy. Yet most people who look at artworks judge them for the degree to which they represent “three dimensional reality,” in either two or three dimensions (painting, draw,or sculpture and assemblage).
Often I’ve been asked about my colorful landscapes, “Don’t you ever paint these in normal colors?”
My answer is usually, “How do we know the colors we see today are the original colors of Creation? After all, we now live in a fallen and broken world. Perhaps these bright colors were God’s original palette.” I’m not painting just what I see, but what was and what is yet to come. These are visions of a better world, where the leaves clap their hands for joy.
In art class, we not only struggle to master drawing shapes “as they are,” but also to challenge our minds to break free of our need to exactly reproduce the shapes before us. We always have the tension to make only a “copy of the image before us,” rather than to meet the image on a spiritual plane and portray an intimate portrait of its inner truth.
When we meet a stranger, we can hide behind our masks and keep our distance. Likewise, we can fail to become intimate with our painting’s subject matter. The resulting work is cold and dead, like a limp handshake. It’s a risky business to bare your heart to the canvas and paint. The brush will tell if your heart and soul is in it or not.
We get more comfortable with this risky business by practicing risk taking. It’s not like we’re facing tigers in a circus cage or jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. We can’t lose our salvation in Christ if we make a bad painting. We only have a new level from which to start afresh. All growth requires risk and failure. We discover what works, keep that, and eliminate the unuseful.
Willingness to learn is related to the “growth mind-set.” This is the belief your abilities aren’t fixed but can improve. This willingness is a belief not primarily about the self, but about the world. It’s a belief every class or learning experience offers something worthwhile, even if we don’t know in advance what that something is. Every teacher or parent worth their salt has to believe their students or children can learn and grow, or they need to give up their profession so another can grow. The first lesson even the most recalcitrant student needs to learn is to believe growth and progress is possible.
The Christian life has a parallel to the growth mindset. The whole of the Christian life is wrapped up in this faith: with God’s help, we can go on to perfection. This is a basic Methodist belief known as sanctification. We also call it going on to perfection in love of God and neighbor. Some of us think because we’re not able to change on our own, we don’t need to grow in our love. God has done all the work for us in Christ. The Holy Spirit was sent to be a truthful guide:
“When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.” (John 16:13)
Paul speaks of this truth in Philippians 3:20-21, when he reminds the people of their present state as sojourners in this world, while their citizenship is elsewhere:
“But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
If life is a journey, the Christian life is even more of a pilgrimage. We all go through stages of faith if we seriously reflect and consider our beliefs when our life experiences intersect with our faith. Our earliest stage of faith begins with our parents or caregivers. Here we learn to trust or distrust, as we experience an embodied faith. The next stage is early childhood (age 3-7). Faith at this stage is experiential and develops through encounters with stories, images, the influence of others, a deeper intuitive sense of what is right and wrong, and innocent perceptions of how God causes the universe to function.
The next stage has been labeled “Mythic-Literal Faith” (Ages 7-12). Children at this stage have a belief in justice and fairness in religious matters, a sense of reciprocity in the workings of the universe (e.g. doing good will result in a good result, doing bad will cause a bad thing to happen) and an anthropomorphic image of God (e.g. a man with a long white beard who lives in the clouds). Religious metaphors are often taken literally, thus leading to misunderstandings. If God’s rewards or punishments don’t apply in proper retribution, in the believer’s mind, their faith in God’s system becomes fragile.
“The Conventional Faith” stage (12-adult) arises when individuals join a religious institution, belief system, or authority, and begin the growth of a personal religious or spiritual identity. Conflicts occur when one’s beliefs are challenged are often ignored because they represent too much of a threat to one’s faith-based identity.
Théodore Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa,”painted in 1818–19, is nearly 17 by 23 feet large. It commands its space as any proper historic painting of the past ever did. Rather than present a moral lesson from the past, the artist instead chose to paint an event from his present time: the rescue of the abandoned sailors and slaves from a wrecked ship. The French nation had sent the new governor of the Senegal colony, his family, and some other government officials and others on the Medusa. The government officials went to secure French possession of the colony and to assure the continuation of the covert slave trade, even though France had officially abolished the practice. Another group aboard the Medusa was composed of reformers and abolitionists who hoped to eliminate the practice of slavery in Senegal by engaging the local Senegalese and the French colonists in the development of an agricultural cooperative that would make the colony self-sustaining.
On the way, the ship ran aground and broke up. The officials and their families were put in lifeboats, but the 150 others on board got a makeshift raft, which was tied to the lifeboats. When the raft impeded the lifeboats, the officials cut the raft loose and all the lives with it. Only 15 were rescued after days at sea, and only ten lived to tell their tales. It was a scandal of the times. Géricault read all the newspapers, interviewed survivors, and made studies from ancient sculptures to inform his design. When younger artists saw his inspirational work in the Paris Salon, they knew a sea change had happened. Conservative critics and writers were appalled and accused Géricault of creating a disgusting, repulsive mistake. They were not yet ready to leave the past behind.
William Faulkner once said, “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore” (The Mansion , 1959). When we meet that initial storm, our first thought is to bring our fragile bark into port. In life, we batten down the hatches and book it for a safe harbor. In art class, we want to fall back on what we’ve always done before, what we know we can do, and what we’ve been successful with in the past. This is our “safe harbor.”
“Individuative-Reflective Faith” (Mid-Twenties to Late Thirties). The individual takes personal responsibility for her beliefs or feelings, often by angst and struggle. Religious or spiritual beliefs can take on greater complexity and shades of nuance, and a greater sense of open-mindedness. These can also open up the individual to potential conflicts as the different beliefs or traditions collide.
To progress and grow in our art skills, or to move through the “dark night of the soul” when we question our formerly held spiritual truths, is a crucial time. Crucial is a word sharing the same root as crucifix. The crux of both of these situations results in a life and death situation. Not that the person quits breathing or their heart stops beating, but will their old life die and their faith be reborn anew? Also, will they trust a power greater than themselves to bring them back from the depths? Many of us aren’t willing to give up control to anyone, and certainly not to a God we can’t see. We’re two year olds in our spiritual lives too often, for “I can do it myself!” Is our answer to everything and everyone. (Test it out—how many of you read the directions after you start putting a project together?)
“Conjunctive” Faith (Mid-Life Crisis). A person at this stage acknowledges paradoxes and the mysteries attendant on transcendent values. This causes the person to move beyond the conventional religious traditions or beliefs he may have inherited from previous stages of development. A resolution of the conflicts of this stage occurs when the person is able to hold a multi-dimensional perspective that acknowledges ”truth’ as something that cannot be articulated through any particular statement of faith. This is where the Holy Awe begins to fill all the nooks and crannies from which it was once forbidden.
“Universalizing” Faith (or ”Enlightenment”). (Later Adulthood). This stage is only rarely achieved by individuals. A person at this stage is not hemmed in by differences in religious or spiritual beliefs among people in the world, but regards all beings as worthy of compassion and deep understanding. Here, individuals ”walk the talk” of the great religious traditions (e.g. ”the kingdom of God is within you”).
In 1999 Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected winner of the National Catholic Reporter’s competition for a new image of Jesus by judge Sister Wendy Beckett, host of the PBS show “Sister Wendy’s Story of Painting.” In the words of Sister Wendy, “This is a haunting image of a peasant Jesus—dark, thick-lipped, looking out on us with ineffable dignity, with sadness but with confidence. Over His white robe He draws the darkness of our lack of love, holding it to Himself, prepared to transform all sorrows if we will let Him.” The model was an African-American woman and the painting includes a yin-yang symbol of Eastern traditions and feather of Native American traditions. (Photo courtesy of Paul Smith)
Next week, we’ll still be working on order and chaos. We got started on this at our first meeting, and the concept is a challenge. I’ll write about our class work then. We’re always open to anyone joining us, for you come as you are and begin where you are. Our art group is a “one room schoolhouse” with all levels of students mixed together. We may all be doing the “same project,” but everyone does it at their own skill level. I give you special attention according to your needs.
Remember, “The only way you can be behind is if you never start.”
One of my favorite Saturday morning cartoons was Rocky and Bullwinkle. I loved Mr. Peabody and Sherman, who would climb into the WABAC machine after setting the controls to a time and place of historical importance. That a bow tie wearing dog had adopted a human boy never crossed my mind as being strange. It was a cartoon, after all. In the 1960’s we didn’t take cartoons as real life. We knew they were fantasy.
In times of change we always want to hold on to traditions: our rituals, our places of worship, our routines. I think the newly minted Christians in the first century, who had friendships and business relationships tied up in the pagan temple sacrificial banquets, most likely had this problem too. The temples were where they ate food sacrificed to the pagan gods, drank to celebrate new deals or cement old relationships, and soon one thing would lead to another. It was the “another” that Paul had words about, for In sharing these meals, Christians were also indulging in the sexual activities that resulted from the feast. (1 Corinthians 8)
If Christians were to live a new life and their lifestyles were to reflect this newness, they needed to make an outward change to reflect the inward transformation of their hearts. We don’t keep the old but take on a newness of heart that transforms our outer life. Consider the caterpillar. It only knows how to be a caterpillar, but it has an inner drive to spin a cocoon. Once inside, it rests, reflects, and directs its energy to becoming a new creation. Then it breaks free to become what its new and true self is meant to be. If it remains bound in a cocoon, it won’t fulfill the wonderful design of God’s best hopes and dreams for its life.
We too have to reimagine and revision our spiritual lives. I’ve always based my vision for ministry on John Wesley’s doctrine of Christian Perfection: “A heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else can exist.” Like the lawyer in the parable, many of us ask, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus and Wesley say “Everybody is our neighbor.” I’d add, even those we’re most upset with, even if they’ve part of our family and we have disagreements with them.
Most of us have a Bible, but we don’t all read the same translation and we also have major disagreements on how to interpret this holy book. A particularly fraught scripture is 1 Corinthians 6:9-11:
“Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God. And this is what some of you used to be. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (NRSV)
Wesley wrote in his Notes on the New Testament on 1 Corinthians 6:9—
“Idolatry is here placed between fornication and adultery, because they generally accompanied it. Nor the effeminate—Who live in an easy, indolent way; taking up no cross, enduring no hardship. But how is this? These good-natured, harmless people are ranked with idolaters and sodomites! We may learn hence, that we are never secure from the greatest sins, till we guard against those which are thought the least; nor, indeed, till we think no sin is little, since every one is a step toward hell.”
In Wesley’s Notes on The Entire Bible, of which his Notes on the New Testament is part of our United Methodist Doctrinal standards, he also reminds us, “ Fornication—The original word implies criminal conversation of any kind whatever.” (1 Corinthians 6:9)
That was Wesley in 1754, or the mid 18th century, but most modern Wesleyans today would be shocked at that interpretation of this text. Interestingly, Wesley departed from the KJV in over 12,000 instances in his Notes on the NT. Wesley valued the Authorised Version of the Bible (KJV), but he always preferred to study the Scriptures in their original languages over any and all translations. If we’re traditionalists, we need to remember Wesley was a radical in his time. As Albert Outler was always keen to remind Methodists, Wesley looked better without his halo.
A later day hero was my dear friend and mentor, Dr. Billy Abraham. As his research assistant at Perkins, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn from his thought and appreciate the early church fathers and mothers. Through him I was privileged to meet and learn from Dr. Roberta Bondi, a noted expert on early church history. I learned from Billy about differing views of scriptural authority and from Roberta how a heart of love and mercy helps us live in community.
I decided I’d go with Wesley’s view: “The Bible contains everything necessary for salvation.” This meant I didn’t have to get into creationist arguments because that’s not going to interfere with anyone’s salvation. Of course, that was the big issue a quarter century ago. Even our disagreements change over time. I learned to pray from Dr. Bondi, “Help us to love one another as God loves us.”
When we read scripture in translation, we read from the vantage point of our times and our context. We don’t have a 1960’s Rocky and Bullwinkle WABAC machine to visit the historical people who wrote the Bible. (If only we could time travel!) Only by studying the life and times of that era can we read with a clearer mind what the original authors meant. Even then, we’re caught up in the translation, for we don’t have many full copies of the holy books from the earliest times. Our earliest complete New Testament dates from the 4th century, long after Christ and the first apostles walked these rocks and clods we call earth.
Then too, we have concepts today which ancient people hadn’t yet conceived. In Roman times, which is the time of the earliest New Testament writings, the day was divided into watches or hours. We think of those hours as having 60 minutes each, but they had no mechanical clocks for precision time keeping. The sundial kept the hour count, so a summer day had long watch hours, while a winter day had shorter ones. Since everyone was on the same system, everyone was on time, or they were late if they were my ancestors.
We all read the same Bible, but we have different translations in our hands. I choose the NRSV because it’s a modern translation that’s as literal as possible and as free as necessary, unlike the NIV, which is a dynamic translation or one that seeks to make the best readable sense of the text. Those translators have to make decisions on how to render rare words in the text. For instance, the word “arsenokoitai,” which shows up in two different verses in the bible, wasn’t translated to mean “homosexual” until 1946. It appears in the RSV, whereas in the KJV, the word gets translated as “nor abusers of themselves with mankind” (or to put it less delicately—trigger warning—masturbation).
How was the word translated previously? It referred to the common Greek practice of pederasty: adult male love for younger boys, which everyone today would be opposed to and disgusted by this cultural practice once common in Greek society. Abuse of youths by adults is something all of us can dislike because that experience isn’t a relationship of equals. One has too much power, authority, and dominance over the other. For the same reason we object to other unequal sexual relationships: clergy and laity, counselors and campers, teachers and students, bosses and employees, and so on.
This particular word shows up exactly two times in the whole Bible. It’s now translated as “sodomites.” This too is an unfortunate translation, since the sin of Sodom wasn’t homosexuality, but the townspeople’s failure to respect the laws of hospitality. When the visitors came under Lot’s protection in his home, the townies gathered outside his door and begged to have their sport with his guests. We’re horrified Lot would offer up his own daughters, but in that day and time, protecting the honor of the patriarch’s offer of hospitality to strangers was more important than anything that happened to the women of the household. We don’t have to like the culture as it was back then to get the lesson of “entertaining angels unawares.” This is an instance we’re glad fathers today have respect both for their guests and their daughters. Cultures change and we’re very glad for that.
The word “μαλακός” or Malakos refers to something soft and effeminate. It could refer to silk clothing or to an adult man who shaved his beard or grew long hair. In the Ancient Greek society, once a boy grew a beard, he was no longer subjected to pederastic abuse. Instead, he passed “the gift on” to the next generation. We’re well aware today how child abuse is generational. This is what Paul railed about in this text.
When the holidays crank up, the greedy, drunkards, and maybe a few adulterers and fornicators will go to town. The angry criticizers will probably be driving the bus and the swindlers (robbers: ἅρπαγες) will be grifting the unsuspecting flock as they barrel along. We don’t have any temples with male prostitutes as the ancient Greek cities once had. There were also women prostitutes serving at these temples, so everyone had their pick when visiting with a celebrant for an intercession with the gods. I’m really glad our current clergy orders don’t include this ritual as part of “pastoral care.” Culture changes. Maybe today’s clergy body is glad this duty isn’t added to their holiday activities.
It’s good the culture has changed from that of Rome and Athens of the first century. In fact, culture keeps on changing all the time. This is why Jesus spoke of “new wine in new wine skins.” We’re no longer a first century church, but some principles still apply. We can’t pour the new wine into an old skin, or the fermentation will burst open the weak old skin. This is why we are a new and changing church, for just as butterflies break out of their cocoons, we too have to break free from what has bound us in a past time. The Holy Spirit keeps refreshing and invigorating a living community, whether it worships in a tent, a rented room, or in a set place.
Now we look forward, to a new land, a new existence, and new possibilities. If we hear the voice of God, we hear the calling: “Go to the land I will show you.” God has always led God’s people in every place and in every time. God has brought God’s people through good times and bad, through war and peace, and in exile to the promised land. We can trust God to be faithful once again.
Joy, peace, and hope,
Drinking cup (kylix) depicting an erotic scene of Eros and a youth Signed by: Douris: clay, Greek, made in Attica, Athens, Late Archaic Period, about 490–485 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
Two-handled storage jar (pelike) depicting young athletes jumping Circle of Euthymides (Greek), Archaic Period, about 520–515 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
Drinking cup (kylix) depicting pentathletes Onesimos: Greek, Late Archaic Period, about 500–490 B.C., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA.
STRONGS NT 3120: μαλακός μαλακός, μαλακή, μαλακον, soft; soft to the touch: ἱμάτια, Matthew 11:8 R G L brackets; Luke 7:25 (ἱματίων πολυτελῶν καί μαλακων, Artemidorus Daldianus, oneir. 1, 78; ἐσθής, Homer, Odyssey 23, 290; Artemidorus Daldianus, oneir. 2, 3; χιτών, Homer, Iliad 2, 42); and simply τά μαλακά, soft raiment (see λευκός, 1): Matthew 11:8 T Tr WH.
Like the Latin mollis, metaphorically, and in a bad sense: effeminate, of a catamite, a male who submits his body to unnatural lewdness, 1 Corinthians 6:9 (Dionysius Halicarnassus, Antiquities 7, 2 under the end; ((Diogenes Laërtius 7, 173 at the end)).
Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance: effeminate, soft. Of uncertain affinity; soft, i.e. Fine (clothing); figuratively, a catamite — effeminate, soft.
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, STRONGS NT 733: ἀρσενοκοίτης 733 arsenokoítēs (from 730 /árrhēn, “a male” and 2845 /koítē, “a mat, bed”) – properly, a man in bed with another man; a homosexual. ἀρσενοκοίτης, ἀρσενοκοιτου, ὁ (ἄρσην a male; κοίτη a bed), one who lies with a male as with a female, a sodomite: 1 Corinthians 6:9; 1 Timothy 1:10. (Anthol. 9, 686, 5; ecclesiastical writings.)
Nothing springs full grown to life in an instant. Everything begins in a seed, which is planted, watered, and nourished into full growth. Only in myths or fantasies can an idea come into being instantly. Zeus had a very bad headache, a “splitting headache,” that birthed his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She leapt out in fully grown from his brow. We don’t take this myth to be scientifically true, but as a metaphor for the difficulty and struggles we undergo to obtain wisdom. As my daddy used to tell me after I’d learned some hard life lesson, “The school of experience is a rough master, and we all earn a costly degree in gaining its wisdom.”
Some of us will repeat the same lessons over and over, as if we expect to get a different result. The purpose of an education isn’t to regurgitate a right answer to pass a test, but to understand why the answer is right. That’s why math classes require showing the steps to the solution, rather than the “full blown adult answer” only. In matters of faith or ethics, many of us haven’t had the training to “set out the proof” for our final answer or deed. In fact, in one situation we may think or act one way, and quite differently in another.
The name for this behavior is “situational ethics.” Less kindly, it’s also known as spinelessness, shiftiness, being two faced, or dishonesty. Mostly it means people don’t have a true center or a plumb line by which they measure themselves. If we’re measuring our lives against other people, we’re measuring against other fallible human beings. Even our heroes have feet of clay, for none of us are gods. When I used to call my parents out on this character trait, they always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This sets up a moral conflict for most people, even those raised in the church or in religious homes.
We need to have a moral center based on a higher authority than our individual or cultural conventions, one that includes or exceeds the ethics of the group to which we belong, and not just our individual beliefs and actions. Professional groups—physicians, lawyers, clergy, educators, and others—all have ethical standards for caring for those they serve, even if they morally disagree with the behaviors that bring them into their care. Who decides the ethics of the group? At the risk of making my favorite seminary professor, Billy Abraham, roll about in his still fresh grave, we United Methodists do have the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to guide us. Often we assign our personal life experience to this latter quadrilateral edge, but Wesley meant our Experience of the Assurance of God’s All Embracing and Adopting Love. As Wesley once said, “God is able to save all to the uttermost.”
Ethics and morals are often used as synonyms, but ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Ethics is a a late 17th century word derived from the Greek ēthos (disposition, character), in contrast to pathos (suffering). In Latin it means ‘character, depiction of character’, or (plural) ‘customs’.
Then we have the words moral and morals. The first is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. The goodness or badness of human character is another concern. From these, people decide what behavior is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We often say a person has morals if they conform to standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We can speak of “the corruption of public morals, “ or you can hear people talking as if “they believe addicts have no morals and can’t be trusted,” rather than understanding the disease and abuse bases which often underlie addictions.
These distinctions don’t change the negative consequences of the addict’s behaviors, yet the addicted person still has the same image of God and the same potential for wholeness each of us have, but perhaps with more suffering, or pathos. If we judge the morality of a person’s choices, and then refer that moral state to the individual’s worthiness, we can end up losing compassion for the person as well as losing the will to help them better their lives. This leads to hard heartedness and a lack of love. We reject our neighbors and make them strangers, unwelcome to our world. We forget our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, wanderers without a home. How easily we forget our savior, who had no place to be born even in his ancestral home, and whose family fled religious persecution and certain death to live in Egypt, far from home. Strange how some Christians have no sympathy for others in the same fix today.
Moral is a word from the late Middle English by way of the Latin moralis, from mos, mor- ‘custom’, with the plural mores or ‘morals’. It refers to one having the property of being right or wrong, good or evil, or voluntary or deliberate, and therefore open to ethical appraisal. When we apply moral attributes to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.” Not until 1803 did moral come to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As a noun, we meet the word in the Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. Later it was applied to the works of various classical writers. All Methodists and the holiness denominations birthed from the seed of the great Methodist revival recognize the genius of John Wesley. We all quote him, but we also apply his wisdom through our own individual preconceived notions of what is “good, true, and noble.”
When John Wesley was asked, “What is that faith whereby we are sanctified?” he answered:
“First believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness; secondly, believe that He is able thus to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him; thirdly, believe that He is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe fourthly, that He is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to His Word.”
In the old days, we said we were “going on to perfection,” not that we were so bold as to claim that we’d already arrived there or been perfected. Oh no, we allowed God could complete this for us and had the power to do it, as well as the will, but our human nature was still fallible. If a word comes up more than once in a text, writers go to the thesaurus for an alternative, but in reading scripture, we learned repetition was a sign of importance, a marker especially meant for those of us who are slow learners in the school of life.
Oliver O’Donovan in “Scripture and Christian Ethics” writes, “Moral theologians have a secret knowledge, apparently concealed from other kinds of theologians, especially those devoted to hermeneutics. They know that the most mysterious and most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation we are facing mean?, where do we find ourselves existentially?”
We tend to speak as if our selves and our situations were known quantities, so that it only remains to choose out of Scripture whatever seems to fit our circumstances as we conceive them. Scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on our self and our situation, to overcome our preconceptions about them. We don’t read about our situation directly in the Scriptures, yet it’s from the Scriptures we gain categories of understanding, which re-frame our view of our situation and ourselves. We can’t look for individual texts to guide our actions, but need to consider the whole of the revealed Scripture and God’s nature as we discern our path forward.
In this sense, the Bible is a mirror which reflects our inner nature to us, convicting us of our failings and giving us grace and comfort in our times of need. We can learn much about ourselves from the verses we lean on, just as much as we can by the verses we ignore. There’s a reason we interpret texts by the whole of scripture, and not piecemeal. This is one way we understand the authority of scripture.
As an interesting aside, SWTX, my original conference, which approved my candidacy for the ministry, didn’t think I should attend seminary because I scored so low on the abstract reasoning tests I took. They didn’t think I would make 65, seminary’s passing grade, in my class work. It’s true I learn and process differently, but knowing this, I crammed a three year program into four years. If I’m slow to grasp the whole until I first understand the parts, this doesn’t reflect on my fitness for ministry or my intellectual ability. It merely reflects a different way of processing information. There’s more way to skin a cat, and many ways people learn.
When I taught art classes, I had to make sure I covered all the learning methods for all my students to have success. I talked about the project, I demonstrated the techniques, I had the steps written out, and for some few children, I had to place their hands in the optimum position to get them started. This covered ear and eye learning, visual reminders, and haptic or touch learning. Some students needed multiple types of learning throughout their working time on a project. Some needed reteaching every class period. Some just needed encouragement when they got stuck at a rough patch. Most all had to learn to talk in positive terms about themselves and their work, as well as about others and their creative process also.
I talk about this teaching method, for this is how we consciously or unconsciously teach those around us ethics and morals. As one youth asked me at a church I once served, “Why are you wearing your cross today? It’s not Sunday.”
“Because Jesus is important to me every day, not just on the day I lead church services.”
I realized even though her family was very active and faithful in our congregation, when they were out in the world of day to day folks, they didn’t stand out from the crowd. Maybe one day day this child will come to a time when wearing a cross becomes bearing a cross. Then again, how many people willingly choose suffering for the sake of the body of Christ? This suffering is often difficult for those of us who’ve committed our lives to Christ’s call, but we realize most laity won’t voluntarily submit to that kind of stress. Yet experience is a great teacher. We learn from others, even those who have differing opinions and choose different actions.
Wesley’s Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” has some advice for us: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.”
As a further reminder from his all time classic Sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1785: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin…by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin…”In modern terms, when we profess our faith, Christ saves us from the guilt of that first sin. Some say Adam and Eve were disobedient. They then emphasize rule keeping as their moral choice. There’s always a reason behind every behavior, however. Why were they disobedient? We hear the answer in the parable of the Tree of Wisdom:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The man and the woman both heard the half truth, saw the shiny fruit, believed the promises of a creature rather than their creator, and ate the fruit they hoped would make them like gods. Instead they only gained knowledge of their nakedness and vulnerability. This first lesson of the school of life came with cost: fig leaves ooze irritating sap. They won’t choose this solution again. God’s providence replaced their poor choice with animal skin clothing even as God sent them out into the world. We might say the attitude of pride or greed drove their bad behavior and was the cause of their negative consequences.
As we grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor, the Holy Spirit destroys any remaining root of sin. One of the important sins, Wesley noted, was pride. Pride is that feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction we get from our own achievements, or those of our family, tribe, nation, or other associated group. In matters of faith, we always have to remember Paul’s admonition to the Romans (10:9-13):
“because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul reminds us of the unity of the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the former masters and slaves, with the gulf now bridged between the former God worshippers and the idol worshiping strangers. Now there’s “no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we joined together into one annual conference in 2003, almost twenty years ago, we had good reasons to make one combined administrative body for our faith community. We had underfunded pension obligations, we were over heavy with administrators, and clergy didn’t have equity in retirement accumulation. Likewise, the conferences weren’t equally treated, since one didn’t fully fund pension needs, an act which caused clergy to seek appointments in the other conference, thus robbing the first of talents and gifts. These were the logical consequences of attitudes and behaviors, however.
The logical person thought, “Let’s make Arkansas One Faith, One Focus, One Fellowship,” and this will solve all our problems. It may have looked good on paper, but our congregations had been used to a personal touch to remind them at least once a year they belonged to a greater whole. Their pride in showing off their home church and being a good host for the Superintendent was taken from them if they were just attendees at another group meeting. The moral choice of what’s better for me, a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my family or a meeting elsewhere, gets weighed and measured.
So now here we are, nearly twenty years into this optimistic marriage of the two annual conferences. The seeds for dissent and discontent were planted long ago, even before this joining. When I inventoried the historic memorabilia of the dead bishops at the SMU Bridwell Library, I saw how the chaos of the Vietnam War era and the sea changes our society were experiencing then affected our church in many ways. Some wanted to hold onto tradition more tightly, while others were ready to experiment with new wine in fresh wine skins. These were just “outer trappings,” however, for the message of “saved by faith, sanctified by faith, and made perfect in love by faith” never changes. This is Christ’s work, enabled by the Holy Spirit.
The past sixty years, as the last two decades, haven’t always been smooth sailing. We often have had trials, storms, and tribulations on our shared journeys. Sometimes we’re so far out to sea, we don’t see the land, and the skies are occluded, so we can’t take a bearing off the stars. Yet God’s spirit will blow us along, for even detours are within God’s providence. As James reminds us:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)
Today we also have powerful economic and political forces that are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They purport to work for religion and democracy, but actually work against the stewardship of our earth ‘s resources and environment, fail to care for the poor and dispossessed, and support military interventions around the world. Moreover, some of them actively work to destabilize religious denominations with social justice callings, such as the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Some today think “things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
Two final words in summary: one is from the ancient wisdom tradition and the other from Paul’s paean of joy in the midst of suffering. Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” My dying grandfather spoke these words to me in his last hours. Ive always considered them a plumb line for my life.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” — Philippians 4:8-9
John Wesley: Repentance in Believers (Sermon 14), “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15. The Complete Works of John Wesley, vol. 1 of 3, Kindle ereader. Read on line here: http://www.godonthe.net/wesley/jws_014.html
Ready or not, the creative juices must be stirred. If the brain has lain fallow all summer, or it’s been overworked keeping the youngsters occupied, now you can find your own groove again. Yes, it’s time for Adult Art Class at Oaklawn UMC.
Our first meeting will be Friday, September 9, at 10 am in the old fellowship hall. Bring your own acrylic paints, brushes, and a canvas or canvas panel to paint on. We begin with a short visual inspiration from some great art works, I’ll give some direction on the skill we’ll work on in the session, and then everyone is free to bring their own unique expression to their paintings. We don’t copy my work and judge how well a person can match it. We learn from the great masters and stretch our own skills to create something new.
Of course, making great art isn’t our first purpose. As we age, we will lose our ability to learn new skills until we lose our memory of what we just ate for breakfast. Challenging our brains is one of the best ways to keep our brain cells firing and “chatting with one another.” Our brains have the immensely powerful ability to remodel themselves because each of us have 1,000 trillion synapses, which are constantly being modified every second of every day. Socialization and encouragement also helps to keep our brains young.
Of course, we have to give up our desire to be perfect. Perfection comes from practice, or working at it. Every baby stumbles and falls when they learn to walk, but dotting adults encourage every trembling step. This is what art teachers also do. I’ve always had a rule in my classes, especially when I taught in middle school: No Negative Talking about People or Art. This included a student’s own art works. They always had to give at least three positive comments about their work before they spoke about the negative. “My work needs improvement” became the replacement phrase for “My work stinks!”
Of course, we’ve all grown up and worked in environments where negativity is the rule. Art class is a place of grace because this is how life should be. If we can transform a blank canvas into a field of color, why can’t we transform our communities and our world into fields of hope, joy, and love? Perhaps because we try to make everyone copy/fit into our idea of the proper end product, rather than allow everyone discover their own creative response to the given subject of the day. The museums of our world are richer and more vibrant because artists have listened to the Spirit of the Creating God. We might do well to realize God’s creative energies are varied and vibrant also, just as Isaiah wrote about his vision of God’s Glorious New Creation:
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” (65:17-18)
I hope to see you there. I don’t charge for the class sessions, since this is one of my ministries as a retired elder in the United Methodist Church. As John Wesley once said, “The World is my Parish.”
Joy and Peace,
Wes Ely: How long covid reshapes the brain — and how we might treat it
In the “late unpleasantness” which has some of our Methodist congregations in turmoil, many have their reasons for going or staying. As one born into the Methodist Church, who spent a portion of my life looking for a “better god” before God called me back home, I have some experience with faith. I’ve had it, lost it, and received it once again. My privilege in seminary to work along side the Wesley librarian allowed me to touch authentic Wesley letters. I also had the blessing of being the late Dr. Billy Abraham’s assistant for the Evangelism Chair. When I think of faith, Romans 12:3 comes to mind:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Here Paul’s word for faith is the Greek word pistis, which is always a gift from God, never something that can be produced by people. In short, faith for the believer is always “God’s divine persuasion” and therefore distinct from confidence or human belief. The Spirit continuously births faith in the yielded believer so they can know God’s will (1 Jn 5:4).
The former UMC Bishop Mike Lowery wrote in his notice of withdrawal from the Council of Bishops as he surrendered his elder’s orders: “I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all.” (Jude 3, CEB).
I’m not picking on the former bishop. I knew him from my Emmaus community days in Southwest Texas. But his posted letter, which can be read at the link below, charges the United Methodist Church has lost her Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. This piqued my interest, so I decided to focus my own thoughts, as well as to inform others, on this matter of faith.
Faith as Doctrine of Assent vs Doctrine of Assurance:
Today we often think of faith as a set of beliefs, or the Doctrine of Assent. In Wesley’s time, he understood faith as the Doctrine of Assurance, a unique gift to the Christian church, whereby believers can know with certainty they are truly beloved of God with a steadfast love which endures forever.
This love is unconditional and saves us from the tragic consequences of the law of sin and death by bringing us into the law of life and love through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That descriptive mouthful is John Wesley’s heartwarming experience he had at Aldersgate in 1738 on the fateful evening when he attended a meeting very unwillingly, yet had the heart changing event that set his life on a different path.
Historic Wesleyan Faith is a Gift of Grace
We need to ask, “What is the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith, anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior?” Is it located in regeneration, aka the new birth, or is it located in human morality as proof of righteousness in Jesus Christ? This probably means nothing to people in the pews, but if we’re going to claim the mantle of John Wesley, or the argument from tradition, we must get Wesley’s understanding of faith down pat. We find Wesley’s thoughts in his Notes on the New Testament and in his StandardSermons, both of which are part of our Methodist teaching.
In the sermon OF EVIL ANGELS, Wesley reminds us faith is “our evidence of things unseen.”
“Faith is the life of the soul; and if ye have this life abiding in you, ye want no marks to evidence it to yourself: but [elencos pneumatos/Spirit control] that divine consciousness, that witness of God, which is more and greater than ten thousand human witnesses,” is Wesley’s explanation of faith in AWAKE, O SLEEPER.
Faith as the Spirit of Adoption
Another way of saying this is Romans 8:15-17,
“When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
For Wesley, faith is a gift of salvation, our trust in the saving work of Christ. As he says in the sermon AWAKE OH SLEEPER:
“Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is His gift, by the operation of His Spirit.”
Then Wesley gives his altar call: “In what state is thy soul? Was God, while I am yet speaking to require it of thee, art thou ready to meet death and judgement? Canst thou stand in His sight, who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity’? Art thou ‘meet to be partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light’? Hast thou ‘fought a good fight, and kept the faith’? Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed upon with Christ?”
“Hast thou oil in thy lamp? grace in thy heart? Dost thou ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength’? Is that mind in thee, which was also in Christ Jesus? Art thou a Christian indeed that is, a new creature? Are old things passed away, and all things become new?”
Faith comes as a Gift. Our good works respond to Christ’s work.
Most of us are in agreement Wesley’s initial understanding of FAITH having to do with accepting Christ’s work for us as the only precondition for our salvation. There is no good deed or accumulation of good deeds needed to earn our salvation from God. What many of us have difficulty is accepting we also don’t earn our perfection in holiness by our own power.
Our Christian perfection is always a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit. As the Spirit works in us, we respond to work toward the complete renewal into the original image of God in which we were created. While it’s possible we might attain this perfect state in this lifetime, most Christians will attain completion in the purity of love of God and neighbor at the moment of death by God’s work, not by our own accomplishments.
Do the Born Again Christians Sin?
In Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” he quotes 1 John 3:9—
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.”
Wesley admits people who are born again can err or make mistakes, but they don’t sin. That’s a bridge too far for many to accept today, for many of us are prone to judging others. We have a dysfunctional understanding of “perfection.” We think it’s like a Martha Stewart design, forgetting she has a whole staff of helpers to carry out her ideas. As one of my professors once explained it, “Once you’ve been to Waxahachie, you’ve always been to Waxahachie.”
If you don’t know Waxahachie, it’s a midsized Texas town about the size of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was known for cotton in its hey day, and now hosts a crepe myrtle festival. Once you’ve been there, you can’t lose that experience. In the same way, you can’t lose your status of new birth. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, given by faith through Christ.
But some of us will try to throw it away anyhow. Wesley wrote in that same sermon, The Great Privilege, “Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.”
The Outward Appearance vs. The Inward Attributes
So, one who has faith doesn’t sin, since we have to lose faith in God to sin. In other words, we have to reject the gift freely given to us without price. As he also says in his great sermon on Christian Perfection, “Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” [Gal 2:20]— Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
For Wesley, the goal of Christian perfection, or the recovery of the image of God, was to love God and neighbor with one’s whole heart until nothing else could exist inside. No favoritism for a group, no exclusion for a group, no yearning to be better than others, no desiring a better place at the table, no hoarding of resources for selfish purposes, no fear of tomorrow, nor any other anxiety that strikes the human heart.
We give our resources away so we can have room for new blessings. God always provides for those who give with generous hearts. We open our doors to the least, the last, the lost, and the unloved, because Jesus and Wesley went out into the fields and met the people where they were. Those are our people out there, and they aren’t “living moral lives,” any more than the imperfect people within our churches are. But we all can and do live lives of faith. We all can learn to trust a savior who loves every sinew of our wounded and broken bodies. We can love a God who never gives up on us even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
We United Methodists might be messy, but we surely can love God and neighbor. Moreover, we’re all going on to perfection, even if some of us are moving more slowly than others. We’re still a community of faith, a people who trust God’s grace and one another to get through this thing called life together. We’ll bring each other along, for we’re not leaving anyone behind. We include in the great worldwide Body of Christ the body of Christ whom we meet outside our doors. After all, the race isn’t to the swift, but to the ones who help their brothers and sisters to the finish line, where we have a finishing medal for everyone, along with a big potluck dinner with enough food for folks to take home leftovers. That’s the never ending banquet table to which we invite all who hunger and thirst for community—both spiritual and personal.
Trusting Faith for a Risky Love in Unsettled Times
All we have to do is ask ourselves in this unsettled time: “Do I have Wesley’s trusting faith to live this risky love? Are these the people with whom I want to experience God’s steadfast love and share the grace of Christ? This is our heritage in the United Methodist Church, for we’re a people of faithfulness, who believe the “Bible has everything sufficient for salvation.”
I can only hope for those who leave, whether they become global Methodists, independents, or community congregations, that they will provide a large enough tent for our big God and big Christ, for the Spirit always is seeking people and places to fill completely with the gift of God’s extraordinary love and power.
My prayer is our United Methodist churches will receive a fresh rush of the Spirit to become even more of what we are today, for
“Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).” Theological Guidelines: Scripture https://www.umc.org/en/content/theological-guidelines-scripture
The everyday objects around us are like so much white noise: we know they’re present, but after a while, we tend to ignore them. A running joke among the clergy is “Never move anything at the new appointment for six months because you don’t know what objects are the sacred cows.” I learned this the hard way in my first full time appointment when I suggested we rid ourselves of an aging, olive green, velvet curtain hanging on the back wall of the fellowship hall stage, since “It was just hanging there for no purpose.” Oh, the outcries of rage! Little did I know this was the one and only curtain to survive the fire which destroyed the old church building. The people saw this ragged banner as a symbol of hope for the church they were rebuilding for the future. They had invested spiritual meaning into this curtain, even though it no longer served a spiritual purpose.
In the same way, we treat our Bibles as holy objects because they contain the inspired writings handed down over the centuries. We recognize they tell us important truths about God, humanity, and our relationship with the God whose steadfast love for God’s creation never wavers. In worship, we often say after reading from scripture, “The word of God for the people of God.” When many read John 1:1—
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
These same readers connect the “word of God” with the ”Word and the Word (who) was with God, and the Word was God.” The English translation of LOGOS to WORD derives from the Greek principle of Logos, or divine reason and creative order, which is identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ. This is how the early Christian writers argued for the preexistence of Christ and for the existence of the Holy Trinity. When we refer to the Logos/Word of God, we are speaking of Christ. If we read the Old Testament, we’re speaking of the one God who has spoken through the ages, but only revealed God’s Son to humanity during the New Testament era. The Spirit has been active always.
This reminds us to honor the Bible for revealing the Incarnate Christ through inspired words, but not to idolize the Bible as a object greater than the God it reveals. After all, over the centuries, the Bible has been interpreted differently by various schools of thought. This brings up the question of how do we know what we know. There’s a whole body of philosophy dedicated to how we know what we know, called epistemology. There are various kinds of knowing:
Sensory perception or observation of facts
Reason or logic
Authority of tradition or common wisdom
Intuition, revelation, or inspiration
Some of us use one way more than others, but each has both good and bad points. In the case of the authority of tradition or common wisdom, for instance, some have been time tested across the ages, but deference to authority without critical thinking can be a mark of intellectual laziness on our part.
John Wesley’s famous understanding of what we now call the Quadrilateral comes from Albert Cook Outler’s discussion on how Wesley understood authority. When challenged for Wesley’s authority on any question, Wesley’s first appeal was to the Holy Bible. Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controversial point of doctrine. Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian Tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that.
However, Scripture and Tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical Reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian Experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter.
In reality, Wesley’s diagram for how we know is really a triangle— consisting of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason—which leads to the Christian Experience of being a Child of God, forgiven for our sins. It’s based on the Anglican tripod of the faith: scripture, reason, and tradition. Wesley took the tripod and added the firm “seat of experience” of God’s loving mercy to forgive all our sins. This insight came out of Wesley’s life changing Aldersgate experience, which he recorded in his journal on May 24, 1738.
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley understood he could spend his whole life learning about God, reading about God, and even serving God to the best of his ability, but he was in his words, an “almost Christian” because he didn’t have the faith of a son or daughter who served God out of love, but had instead the faith of a slave or a servant, who served only from fear of punishment. One of Wesley’s Standard Sermons is the “Almost Christian,” which you can read in its 18th century glorious English at the link below. Most of us would be glad to be accounted in the “almost” category, but Wesley asks, why don’t we go farther and become “altogether Christian?”
In Methodist terms, this is “entire sanctification,” or “going on to perfection.” We don’t talk much about this any more, but it’s the purpose of our Christian life to be conformed to the image of God. We aren’t trying to be like Beyoncé, JayZ, Taylor Swift, or Jake Owen. Instead we have the promise in Romans 8:29—
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”
We don’t do this on our own, but with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Spirit is called a helper, for it’s a coworker in the process of perfection or sanctification. This epistemology for knowing is useful for art classes also. Some of us believe we need to be perfect from the get go and can’t accept our raggedy messes we produce as we learn the techniques of color mixing and shading, much less the fine motor coordination required to connect our thoughts with our hand movements. If we aren’t able to endure the rough edges of imperfection as we “go on to perfection,” we won’t last long in art class. Just learning how to see the three dimensional world and translate it onto a two dimensional surface is a Mount Everest accomplishment in itself. Some days we have no energy to cope, and that’s when we need to come for support and encouragement.
Last Friday we painted chairs. Every artist’s work we viewed for inspiration had a different take on the chair. We no longer have to make a photographic rendering of an object because we have cameras for this purpose. We can use the chair as a reason to break up the picture plane and organize the spaces. I found a funny little poem called “The Chair,” by Theodore Roethke:
A Funny Thing about a Chair: You Hardly Ever Think it’s There. To Know a Chair is Really It, You Sometimes have to Go and Sit.
As the class went on, Sally decided she wanted to copy one of the inspiration images. She’s new, so she was practicing color mixing with her limited palette. When she couldn’t get the bright turquoise color, I brought my manganese blue over and mixed it with her titanium white. The color she wanted came popping out, much to her delight. “I’m going to buy me some of that color.” Sometimes all we need is the right materials.
Lauralei’s humor takes the cake with her shower chair. She can imagine the model chairs in a new environment. She doesn’t let the reality limit her options.
Gail divided up the canvas into various planes of colors, which sing for joy. I think she had fun. As the only one of our group who took the challenge of the entire scene, Mike took a bird’s eye view of the table and chairs. I hear he may be traveling again, or at least yearning to fly away from the day to day grind of full time work to something closer to retirement.
I can understand that feeling. After years of teaching school, I look forward to summer vacation. We’ll have art class on the last two Fridays of May, and then take the summer off. Our current plan is to return on September 9, the first Friday after Labor Day. In the meantime, if you want to know how God really is,
“Be still, and know that I am God!” ~~ Psalms 46:10
A fun summertime activity is building a chair fort or a chair cave. All you have to do is turn over a couple of chairs on the floor and throw a sheet or blanket over them. This provides a quiet place for a child of any age to have a “time out” alone during a long summer. I recommend a quiet place for children of all ages, even those who’re long of tooth.
In art class, I taught our group the time honored technique of using a cartoon to transfer an image to another surface. Of course, their first reaction was, “Are we watching Saturday morning cartoons today?”
“No, it’s Friday. We’re going to make our own carbon paper,” I said, as I showed them how artists of old would rub graphite on the back of their drawings and then outline the major lines onto the wall or the canvas to transfer the image. The J. Paul Getty Museum has a great video on YouTube explaining this process.
“You mean we’re going to paint by number?” “Not a chance. You still have to make your own color decisions and shading choices.” Really, by now you’d think they know my opinion on the easy way. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
I didn’t bring any complicated images of the holy icons. I brought only ones with simple outlines. I knew this project wasn’t going to be as easy as people first thought. It’s not as simple as coloring within the lines.
An icon is an image of a holy person, but it isn’t a mere representation of the individual. When we make photographs or even painted portraits, we seek to make “likenesses” of the individual, and capture their outward details and idiosyncrasies. If we can also capture their inner spirit, we take the image to a master level. Icons, however, are more concerned with representing the inner, spiritual nature of the person, rather than their outward nature. After all, we don’t have any images of how the holy ones from the earliest days of faith actually looked. We only have their acts and the symbols connected with them, so in the iconography we can identify them by these qualities. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikōn ‘likeness’ and -graphia ‘writing’, so when we paint, we’re actually “writing a likeness” of the holy image.
In the iconographic tradition, all of the faces are broad across the brow, to represent the holy wisdom of God residing in the saints, just as their elongated figures and extremities accent this holiness. The eyes, windows into the soul, are large compared to a natural face, while the mouth is small. The small mouth indicates the saint has conquered bodily passions. There’s always an ear open on an icon, for the icon needs to “hear our prayers.” Not that the icon is alive, but it’s more like an open window into heaven. Therefore, the saint’s ear is the open window through which our prayers flow into the golden light of the mysterious world beyond this material one in which we dwell both in shadows and light.
The color in icons also plays an important role. Red belongs to martyrs. Blue stands for wisdom. White symbolizes paradise and chastity. Green is the color of the Venerable Fathers. Gold symbolizes sanctity.
The icon painter and teacher of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Svetlana Vasyutina once described an experience before the iconostasis or screen of images of the saints in the church. “A while ago, I was tortured by the question why it is golden. Once I was standing at a church, looking at the iconostasis. Suddenly, they turned off the electric lights, and only candles before the icons were burning. The golden traces were shining, giving back the light. It was as if, not the candles, but the halos, were radiating light. I was amazed; the light seemed not material, not as comes from a candle or a lamp. The golden color shows the person painted in the icon was granted a different kind of light.”
According to St. Paul, glory (doxa) appears where the form and the idea of God, which inhabits it, become one. This is especially true where form becomes a place of theophany (a visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god), where the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. This glory is represented by the nimbus or halo of the saints. We hear Paul speak of this power in Philippians 3:21—
“He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
The disciples first saw this glory descending upon Christ on the Mount of the Transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17:2—
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
To become completely transformed by the Holy Spirit wasn’t only a special gift given only to the saints alone, but it was meant for all believers. As Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (American Standard Version)—
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.”
A famous story in the Eastern Orthodox Monastic tradition follows:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Many of us are barely alight with the fire of Christ, and we wonder why the glory of God doesn’t shine through us. Others of us hide our light under a bushel so we don’t stand out from the crowd. If we wonder why we aren’t going onto Christian Perfection in love of God and neighbor, or being a witness to Jesus Christ for others to follow, then we might need to read Abba Joseph’s recommendation once again: “If you will, you can become all flame.”
When we paint an icon, we participate in a spiritual endeavor in which we are coworkers with the Holy Spirit. We enter into a kairos time, or God’s creating time, and are no longer only working only in human, chronological time. This is a mystery, not to be understood in ordinary terms, even if we begin at 10:15 in the morning and stop to cleanup at 11:45. Like the golden background, time has no meaning while we paint the icon. Our cares and concerns of this world can be given to the icon, and thus to God.
We make our prayer gifts in two ways: we hope to become more conformed to the image of God and we hope our images conform better to the icon before us. We’re going on to perfection, one bit at a time. In faith, we expect to be made perfect in love in this life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, or at the moment of our death, as the classic Wesleyan teaching states. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, union with God, from which our Methodist teaching of sanctification derives, teaches we can have real union with God, just as Jesus had, being fully human and fully divine. We don’t become gods, but we participate in the full image of God, in which we were first created.
We can contemplate these beautiful words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (+373), in his treatise On The Incarnation, against the Arian heresy:
‘God became “sacrophore”—bearer of our flesh—so that mankind might become “pneumatophore—bearer of the Holy Spirit.’” (Michael Quenot, THE ICON, p 55)
When we keep our heart set on the image of Christ, we remember his undying love for all creation. Then we learn the meaning of the faith of a loving son or daughter, in comparison to that of an unwilling servant. This is how John Wesley saw his own conversion at Aldersgate:
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Once we realize the law of sin and death no longer holds us in chains, we can freely live in life and love, now and always, if we conform our image to Christ.
Here in this Common Era of 2021, we Americans are now 245 years into this project we call democracy, having declared our independence from the British crown on July 4, 1776. We didn’t effectively become an organized, constitutional nation until June 21, 1788, when nine out of the thirteen existing states ratified the United States Constitution, thus officially establishing the country’s independence and a new form of government. Based on the date of our constitution, which is still in place, the United States is the oldest continuous democracy in the world.
I realize some of y’all rabbits might disagree with my description of the USA as “organized,” but I may have a higher tolerance for disorder than some of you. Then again, I taught art in kindergarten, so that probably explains a lot. When we make a mess in art class, we always clean it up. That’s just part of the lesson plan. Art, as in life, isn’t always neat, but the end product is worthwhile. In art we learn from our failures as often as from our successes. This takes courage and resilience, two life skills any rabbit can use in this fast changing world.
The preamble of the Declaration boldly states:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness.”
In our modern era, this is the section of the Declaration of Independence which we rabbits so dearly cherish, for it suits our individualism to a T. The next statement which follows complicates life, as King George discovered in 1776:
“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, —That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Way back in the 18th century, the practice of slavery still allowed others to profit off the the lives of human beings as if they were livestock, women couldn’t vote or own property, and states often excluded from the voting rolls certain classes of men for religious reasons or lack of property. The American Revolution changed the landscape of voting rights to some degree. Once the constitution was enacted on September 17, 1787, it created a new, federal layer of government, in which there was absolute freedom of religion—and no religious test that might prevent a Jew from serving in Congress or even as president—without removing the religious tests that existed in many individual states.
The Freedom to Vote came by Stages
Most of the states wrote new state constitutions in the 1770s, and some softened or removed their existing religious tests, but some did not. The real work of abolishing religious tests for suffrage was done at the state level, largely in the half-century after the American Revolution. Not until 1870, when Congress passed the the 15th and last of the three of the so-called Reconstruction Amendments, which stated that voting rights could not be “denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,” did African Americans get the right to vote, if their local communities did not make it impossible due to Jim Crow laws.
Doctrine of Original Meaning
Today, voting rights are under attack once again, not against religious minorities, but against racial and economic minorities. It makes this old rabbit wonder why the “doctrine of original meaning” by the founders has any worth when our 21st century world of today is so drastically different from the 18th century times of yore. Also, if “original meaning” is seen only through the eyes of our white founders, how can we be a nation for all people “created equal(ly)… endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of happiness?”
Scholars agree the original framers actually were more intent on the Declaration’s first paragraph, for only the Declaration of Independence officially proclaims the new American nation’s assumption of a “separate and equal station “among the “powers of the earth:”
“The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”
As we rabbits know, if we plan to start a tussle, good manners suggest we tell why we’re fixing to throw the first punch. If there’s no honor among thieves, at least we rebellious rabbits have the good form to stand up in the pure light of day and list our grievances before we overthrow a bad king. Only the uncouth sucker punch the unwitting. The reason this American Democratic experiment has persisted for nearly two and a half centuries is the vast majority of us have freely chosen to change our leaders through the ballot box, rather than revolution.
Only the past unpleasantness of the Civil War in the 1860’s has marked this unbroken transfer of power by the vote, until the assault on the US Capitol and the Houses of Congress on January 6, 2021, by a motley crew of domestic terrorists, QAnon supporters, and admirers of the former President. Because they violently assaulted the police guarding the building and public servants inside, and interfered with the duties of duly elected government officials attempting to exercise their public duty to certify the electoral college vote, the Department of Justice has charged them and they’ll have their day in court. You can read all their names and cases at the link below. Maybe you’ll find a friend or neighbor there. As Mother rabbit always warned Peter Rabbit, “Don’t go into the garden; Farmer McGregor will get you!”
What exactly did the signers of the Declaration of Independence mean when when they wrote “all men are free and equal?” Abraham Lincoln said, “The men who signed the Declaration did not mean to say that men were “equal in all respects. They did not mean to say,” he said, that “all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal.”‘ Men were equal in having “‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ This they said, and this [they] meant.”
This quote comes from Lincoln’s 1857 argument on the Dred Scott case before the Supreme Court, which decided against him, with Head Justice Roger Taney, who became best known for writing the final majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sandford, which said “all people of African descent, free or enslaved, were not United States citizens” and therefore “had no right to sue in federal court.” In addition he wrote, “the Fifth Amendment protected slave owner rights because enslaved workers were their legal property.” Taney’s reputation was vilified for this decision during his lifetime, for it contributed to the growing divisions between the north and the south. The U. S. House of Representatives voted in 2021, to remove Taney’s statue and replace it with a statue in honor of the first African American Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall.
The big holiday in July is Independence Day. While we rabbits lounge about the waterside or in our backyards, eating our favored picnic and cookout foods at the nation’s birthday party, not many of us will be thinking on a biblical text. Instead, we’ll be eyeing our paper plates and hoping they’re substantial enough to make it to the table before they collapse from the excess helpings of foods we’ve piled on them. A special bunny secret: you can go back for seconds, and laugh at everyone when you say, “I just want to make sure all you little piggies get your fill—oink, oink!” Don’t let them bother you, since you made sure everyone who came late would have something to eat by not taking it all at once.
In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18, Paul writes: Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
In Essentials, Unity; In Non-Essentials, Liberty; In All Things, Love
Have you ever wondered why some groups are so strictly homogeneous, while others are a kaleidoscope of differences? Some rabbits feel safer when everyone is more like them and differences are kept to a minimum. Other rabbits seem to thrive in the creative intermixing of unusual and unique personalities. I know when I entered the ministry, my parents’ friends were amazed I went into the faith I’d been birthed into, rather than some new age, air fluff religion. Oddly enough, I related more to the historic beliefs of Wesleyan Methodism better than my contemporary generation. In that sense, I had faith in a “different religion” than my friends. Yet we all saw ourselves as “being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
This marked a freedom of thought, but it required an understanding we were all on the same journey and were progressing toward the same end. I admit I have the type of mind that wants the idea to lead to the behavior and then the consequences. In art class I called it Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If the first attitude was positive, the rest followed suit, but if a student had a bad attitude, they weren’t going to work, and then they had the negative outcomes of poor efforts, sad projects, and little improvement. While in life we’re saved by faith, in art we’re saved by works, for work will bring rewards.
One way for all good rabbits to be free is to have no regrets, or worries about what might have been. As my mother often said, “That’s water under the bridge.” The River of life has moved on and the choices we’ve made have gone downstream also. She believed in living in the now. The third Saturday in July recognizes Toss Away the “Could Haves” and “Should Haves” Day. In short, don’t go through life with regrets.
Created by author and motivational speaker Martha J. Ross-Rodgers, this day is intended for us rabbits to let go of our past and live for the present. The first step to participating in this day is to find a pen and paper. Then write down our “could haves” and “should haves” on the paper.
Finally, throw away the list and make the following resolution: “From this day forward, I choose not to live in the past. The past is history that I can not change. I can do something about the present; therefore, I choose to live in the present.”
As I’m going through boxes in my storage unit, I’m coming across souvenirs from my high school and college years. Some of us are sentimentally attached to the memories imbued within these objects, but they’re merely memories, not the actual people. My parents and grandparents saved things, for they experienced hard times. I make new art every week, so if a painting doesn’t hold up to my critique after six months, it goes into a pile to get destroyed and remade.
Now, take care of yourself and your health by living for now. Do your best and make the best of each and every day! Strike a power pose and smile when you do this. You’d be surprised how much energy flows through your body, I kid you not.
A final word for all rabbits who want to live in truth and freedom: we have only one God given life, so let’s live with joy and peace. We aren’t promised tomorrow, but only today. Now is the time to care for the broken, to right the wrongs of the world, and to make a difference, no matter how small.
Charles Derber, in Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Time, says: “Resistance can be symbolic, but at its core it must also be empowering and even shocking, in the sense of awakening the people to the evils of the system and the terrifying end-result if we allow business as usual to continue. Resistance is rage at injustice and at the insanity of institutions that kill and exploit for money and power. Melding that rage with love is the art of activism.”
Now that I walk more slowly in this world, this old rabbit has found I notice people whom everyone else hurries past, even if these folks are standing in the middle of a store entryway and are obviously lost. I stopped today at Sam’s to ask if this older woman needed help. Right away I realized she had trouble processing words, so she might have memory problems. I asked where her people were, but she didn’t know. We went over to customer service, since I knew they could use the announcement system to call for them to come get her. At least she knew her name. I was sad they had hurried off without her, especially in her condition, but I prayed with her before I left. The service staff got her a chair and made sure she was safely seated.
I hope as the holiday approaches, you don’t find yourselves so busy getting your celebration together that you overlook the ones in need who are right in front of you. Once we cared for one another in communities, but now we look after only ourselves. We wouldn’t have become a nation 245 years ago if every man had tried to take on the king’s men alone.
Be the spark that starts the fire of love and joy,
The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan: