“The most serious charge, which can be brought against New England, is not Puritanism, but February,” said Joseph Wood Krutch, a 20th century American critic and naturalist. If he were alive today, he’d charge this February with felonies!
Winter has come with an exceptional vengeance in some parts of the country, causing us to ask, “What global warming? If boiling water freezes before it hits the ground, how can we have global warming?”
Extreme weather events, such as those which can freeze the ears off a rabbit, are common to global warming or climate change. This is why we have the polar vortex in winter and drenching, slow moving rains during hurricane season. While rabbits don’t hibernate during the winter, the groundhog does take a peek out of the burrow on February 2nd to check the weather. According to the tradition, if it emerged and the sun was out, there would be six more weeks of winter. Remember, winter means “weather,” not “climate.”
The rabbits get a workout the next day with the Super Bowl, America’s all day long food festival. Many gather only for the commercials, the community, and the calories. This day marks the end of many people’s Rabbit Food Diets, Restrictive Eating Plans, and New Year’s Resolutions. This is a blessing in disguise, for Valentine candy is about to go on sale. Don’t wait for someone to give it to you—buy a box for your own beloved self! And yes, you can share with any other rabbit you love in this world.
Speaking of love, the Duke of Orléans sent the first Valentine’s Day card to his wife while he was he was a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1415. In the United States, Valentine’s Day cards didn’t gain popularity until the Revolutionary War, when people took up the habit of writing handwritten notes to their sweethearts. In the early 1900s, mass produced cards for the holiday became popular. Today about 144 million Valentine cards are exchanged, second only to Christmas.
February 2019 is only 28 days long because it’s not a leap year, so the good news is, no matter whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not, the spring equinox will be here on March 20th. Too bad we won’t know what the weather will be! Rabbit wisdom always claims those who love never worry about the outer temperature, since their hearts and minds are fixed on the ones they love.
Haiku: Love, Love, Love By M. As I’m Nehal
keeper of my heart love me as long as i live show me the bright light
I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.
Winter Lake Reflections
Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.
The Cloud Rising
This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?”
Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.
Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.
Leonardo da Vinci said, “There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” The task of the teacher is to help the student to see more clearly, not just in art, but also in life.
When I was in seminary, I realized the search for beauty was similar to the search for truth, and each generation had its own notions of what was beautiful and true. When I made this connection, a light came on in my mind and I could see what my professors were showing me. Before this, I was stumbling about in a dark room, banging my toes against unseen couches and table legs. I had the sense of the objects, but not the full understanding of them. Once the light came on, I could see these pieces of furniture for what they were–the color, design, embellishments, and placement in the space were easy to define. They were no longer obstacles, but resting points on the way to the next room on an historic journey.
PAINTING FASTER ALL THE TIME
Some of my compatriots struggled because one philosopher would define truth a certain way and his famous student then would describe it differently. These modern day students didn’t have art backgrounds, but thought of truth as what we know only as true today. Perhaps they also didn’t have much of an historic worldview either.
When Leonardo speaks of those categories of people who see, I think first of children, who seem naturally to see. If we give a child some art tools and a jumping off idea, they’ll run with it. Children love the experience of the materials and get excited when they can use their imagination. They feel empowered when they bring an image to life with their own hands.
SUN, MOON, AND SEASHELL
Older teens and adults are more concerned about what other people think of their work, so they often won’t even begin. Other times they start and can’t deal with the disconcert between their conception and execution. Every artist who aspires to do quality work is always unsatisfied with either the concept or execution! As Leonardo once remarked, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
I brought seashells to class for our painting experience, but before we began our work, I had the students experience a guided meditation. The seashells were hidden underneath a cloth. This is an opportunity to know the shell personally, rather than to see it as a mere form. This “seeing” involves the inner emotions, which affect the energy and spirit with which we create our art. As the master says, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.”
1. Study all the surfaces under the cloth before you begin to put marks on your canvas.
2. Are the edges round, rough, sharp, jagged?
3. Do you recognize this object from experience?.
4. What memories or emotions does it evoke in you?
5. What colors do these experiences bring to mind?
6. Is there a person or place connected with this object?
7. What age were you? Would you want to visit this place again at your present age?
8. Remove the cover and look at the object.
9. Does it look different now from an ordinary object?
10. Does entering into an emotional give and take open your eyes to more of the possibilities of the object?
11. Choose a “pose” for your subject and compose a portrait of its personality.
The creative life and the faith life are not just about following a set of rules, although rules exist in both worlds. These two lives are more about what is good, beautiful, and true, and how we artists as people of faith can be a blessing in the world in which we live. As in art and philosophy, the good, beautiful, and the true may be different in different times and ages, but “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” ~~ Job 42:3-4
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
I can’t express to you how glad I am to be with people who understand the scriptures which underpin my art. Others appreciate the art itself, but not the faith walk behind it. Y’all get both.
Thank you again. As an extrovert, your affection and affirmation encourages me in my journey and in my spiritual practices. I would do my work anyway, but like everyone, I enjoy the sharing of our lives and our ministries across the years. This makes our annual conference a means of grace for me. I hope it does the same for you.
THE MOMENT BEFORE
I’m glad to report I’ve made two new patrons of the arts today. These paintings will go to new homes to bless those spaces and provide an island of peace or a place of spiritual focus for those who come into their presence. Also a former patron showed up to take home the silver PIETA.
The purpose of the icon is to open a window into the holy, so we can see the face of Christ more clearly and know the presence of God more nearly. If my art can do this for folks, then it is also a modern icon. Thank you for being part of ARTANDICON, my friends. I’ll be back at the arena Wednesday morning until noonish.
It takes a village to put on an art show, even for one person. My booth is at spot #58, just up from the University of Arkansas at Monticello Wesley Foundation’s booth. I can always count on Brother Kavan’s young people to help me get my setup put up!
The Hot Springs Convention Center is conveniently located downtown in the heart of the historic district. The Arkansas United Methodist Church is holding its annual conference here. I’ve brought my artworks to exhibit since they have spiritual themes and icons.
Cat, our conference liaison, helped me get my paintings inside. Then the two men from Thrivent Financial helped me build out the last two walls of my booth. Jason and Michael even brought me lunch back from town while I hung my art on the walls.
I could not do this by myself of course. I don’t let the lack of help lined up in advance stop me from setting out, however. Folks watch a production like this going on and have to help, like Tom Sawyer’s fence painting. We get it done in record time with all the helping hands.
Also, I’ve even sold two of my works already. I gave a discount for volume to my young patron of the arts. Let me do the same for you!
I have all the works with me which are on this 2017 album.
I’d like to have them bless your walls. Remember clergy can count these as “furnishings for housing expenses.” I will provide you with a receipt for your records.
If you can’t come to Hot Springs, you can see my work on Facebook at ARTANDICON. Look under photos for the 2017 album. All my current works for sale are there. Shipping and packing costs would be an extra fee, but you could pick them up in Hot Springs also.
old photographs, mostly unmarked, in decaying cigar box, found at grandmother’s house.
“The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” ~~ John 8:35-36
With all the Paula Deen jambalaya on the airwaves lately about her treatment of African-Americans and her misplaced desire to have a plantation themed wedding reception with “slaves attending their masters,” I thought I ought to spend some time researching my own Southern ancestors. Creeping age does that to one, as does the addition of yet another life to our family tree. I flew to Florida to celebrate becoming a grand aunt for the first time. Bringing gifts embellished with the family emblem, the fleur de lis, as well as handmade gifts that harken back to a simpler, earlier time when I was young, this child will know that he is a true DeLee.
I also brought a gift that has been another long-term project, my nephew’s family tree album. When my parents died, as the oldest child I inherited the photos and memorabilia of their lives. This is that detritus of accumulated treasure of the deceased that they didn’t organize, identify, or otherwise “get a round tuit,” but they also wouldn’t get rid of it because of the love and memories they had locked up in those old photos and letters. This is the debris that the rest of my family either didn’t have the patience to deal with, or their emotions were too raw at the time, so they said, “Just set a match to it and burn it all up.” I knew I might not have the time or emotional capability to handle this task in the days or months after our last parent died, but the day would come when I would have that desire and the gift of time.
First I did research on the generations of our family tree for a Family Systems Class. I learned that each family or organizational system is interconnected across the generations, and our own lives today can’t be understood outside of this generational legacy. Our history affects our present relationships: family, friends, and workplace.
I discovered some interesting “myths” about my Dad’s family that were told to “keep face,” for it seems not all my ancestors were such fine, upstanding citizens as my parents were trying to raise in their generation. I also discovered that my Mom’s people were all fairly straightforward folks. Maybe the fact that their history goes back much longer than my Dad’s people makes a difference, for my earliest ancestor I’ve found on his side is from the early 1800’s in South Louisiana, just after the Louisiana Purchase. Jonathan Livingston DeLee married Mary Day, a young widow with a child, after she lost her husband who died of the measles after helping Stonewall Jackson defend New Orleans in the Battle of 1812.
My ancestors in Louisiana were all slaveholders before the Civil War, or “The War Between The States,” as my unreconstructed Daddy was wont to call it. I discovered that I had great and grandparents in the KKK. I wondered how they could sleep soundly at night or keep their souls at peace by day. Their sons and daughters in my parent’s generation formed “private clubs” from public restaurants so that they wouldn’t have to integrate their dining establishments. This ruse didn’t last long, and now no one bats an eye, thankfully, because my generation marched with MLK in Atlanta and turned the world upside down for justice’s sake.
The question is today, how would any of us know the difference between the life of a slave and the life of the son/daughter in the family? If we are all “free people in these United States of America,” are some of us yet living in bondage, while some others have been set free? In the matter of faith, some of us are still slaves, while some of us have the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He also said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (same verse). To have this abundance is to live by faith in the work that Christ has done for us. The thief is our delusion that we must be good enough to earn God’s love or that we must work hard to be loved by the God that already loves us beyond measure (“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.” ~~ Ephesians 4:4-7)
Some of us have spent our lives trying our hardest to earn our parents’ approval, our loved one’s approval, our child’s approval, our boss’ approval, or our friend’s approval. We can’t turn around without trying to please someone else, only to discover that what pleases one displeases another! Now we are caught up in the anxiety circle, for we are stuck halfway and please no one, not even ourselves. There is the third party whom we can never please, The Contrarians, for this group isn’t happy with anything we do and will surely find fault in us!)
We think that God is also like this, only bigger and more difficult to please. We have heard the verse, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We pile rule upon rule for our lives and the lives of others to measure up as “good enough.” This is why we are not “free to love God as a son or daughter,” for we are like slaves always looking out under the corner of our eyes to see if we are going to be punished for doing the wrong thing. We can’t allow God to love us freely, for we are in bondage: slaves to the managed life, the life of rules and regulations, bound to the prison of punishments for failure to attain perfection. We cannot love a God who keeps us in chains, for we are slaves and slaves want to be free. If we only knew that “perfect” in Greek meant “complete,” then we might have a different take on how we live our lives.
The daughters and sons of God love their Father freely, for they will inherit all that their parent has. I may have received the house and the bric-a-brac along with all the photos from my earthly parents, but I will inherit the kingdom from my heavenly Father (Matt 25:34), as well as eternal life (Luke 18:18). If our goal as a person of faith is to live our life with a heart so full of the love of God and neighbor that nothing else exists, surely then we will be “perfect/complete in love” in this life. We live by faith knowing that God enables us to grow toward this goal of complete love day by day.
As you reflect in your journal on the faith of a son or a daughter versus that of a slave or a servant, consider: are you just a hired hand for God, showing up faithfully when God rewards you with a blessing, but being scarce or quitting on God when the “paycheck” seems short? Journal your feelings or use a stencil to make word art that sums up your feelings.
“When I looked for good, then evil came unto me; and when I waited for light, there came darkness.” ~~ Job 30:26
Easter morning may not be bright and sunny; at least the Weathermen aren’t predicting that this weekend. However, for Christians today, we can celebrate because we know the rest of the story. That first Easter morning, while it was still dark, the disciples were holed up in the Upper Room for fear of their lives and only Mary Magdalene was out in the darkness of the garden. Wandering in her grief and pain, she came upon an empty tomb. Thinking that Jesus had been stolen in the night, she raced to bring the disciples to confirm this. After they left, she stayed behind to mourn (John 20).
Mixed Media Icon of the Cross
On that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene might have been thinking, “No good deed goes unpunished. Why do the dogs bite the hand that feeds them? Why do the righteous suffer?” We aren’t unlike our first century cousin, for we ask the same question when bad things happen to good people. In fact, for most of us believers and non-believers alike, we aren’t thrilled when suffering comes into our lives! Most of us adults are like Job, the uber-Father: he offers sacrifices to God on behalf of his children just in case they fail to fulfill their responsibilities of faith (Job 1:5). We too try to keep our children free from suffering, and then when we or they suffer, we wonder why the righteous have to suffer when we too have been the protector of widows, orphans, and the weak (Job 4:5-6). Unfortunately, suffering is a fact of life, even of the blessed life, as Job was to discover. If we read the final chapters of the Gospels, the histories of the letters in the New Testament, and the stories of the lives of the Prophets, we will discover that those who are called to the God life are not immune to suffering.
Some strains of Christianity practice “Happy Face Theology,” but this is just the wearing of a mask to hide the inner struggles of our truly human suffering. “Jesus suffered on the cross to take away our suffering, their theology says, so have faith and be happy.” Unfortunately, this notion denies the believer the crucial struggle with reconciling contradictory ideas and emotions. It keeps the believer from building a rigorous faith that will stand up to the winds and turmoil that come from the storms of life. In the darkness we don’t need a shiny happy faith; we need a strong, deeply rooted faith, even if it can’t be seen above ground.
Another tradition of this Christian Feel Good Message is that those who do good will be rewarded and if we do wrong we are punished. Christ’s death on the cross gets complicated for this theology: here the good person gets punished, but then gets rewarded in the end. Suffering can have a purpose, if it’s for God. This opens up a whole bag of negative implications from permitting spousal abuse, sexual harassment, or accepting corporate child punishment “because the Bible has a text supporting it.” The Bible also has texts supporting slavery, eating only kosher foods, not wearing clothes made of two kinds of cloth, marrying more than one woman, and handling poisonous snakes during worship. Most of us ignore those things, much to our credit! Jesus said we aren’t punished for our misdeeds by God, but God wants us to repent and live a new life (Luke 13:1-5).
Riches and honor, long life and good health are also promised blessings of this tradition in Christianity that we know as Prosperity Theology. It’s belief is that salvation’s blessings are to be found today’s world, which is attractive to people who are attached to this world. Of course, the one who died on the cross and lay in the grave for three days said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). We are like King Solomon of old, and the Wisdom Tradition that was popular during his kingdom. We are in love with wisdom/reason, foreign gods/idols, power, and we care for ourselves rather than the poor of the land. The kingdom of Israel doesn’t survive this second king after David, but splits into a northern and southern territory. The Promised Land doesn’t hold together when humanity choses to place the love of earthly riches and power above the love of God.
When the dark days of despair come into our lives and we are wandering and grieving around in a garden, perhaps we even ask if God has abandoned us. We wonder if we lost the last coin in our pocket for the magic vending machine in the sky that has produced all the goodies we have been used to receiving just by dropping into church on a regular basis or by offering up prayers. Now these words go out to the emptiness and our coin drops back with a depressing clink. What we forget to do is to read the Bible for ourselves. Preaching is for encouragement, so it usually is upbeat. Reading the Bible will give us the whole story. In the Bible we discover that faithful people suffer as often as they have joy. The blessings of faith aren’t for our enrichment, but to glorify God and build his kingdom. We are meant to spend ourselves and be spent for God’s kingdom: to give the best of ourselves to the least, to the last, and to the lost.
Salmon swim upstream against all odds to spawn to create the next generation, even though for some this will be the last act of their lives. This is an act of suffering and sacrifice for the good of those who come after them. We want to have our faith and keep it for ourselves. We don’t want our young to suffer in any way possible, yet discipline is a mark of a faithful Christian. Are we different from the world, which chases profit, prosperity, security, social position and pleasure over pain? What marks you as one that swims upstream?
As a spiritual exercise, draw or photograph your idols: perfection, pure health, freedom from pain, wealth, security, or what ever you have made into your own little god. Next to this draw a rectangle: This is the void into which God will write the words and show you how God wants to use you. Use this as a meditation time this week. Don’t feel rushed to write on the first day. Write whatever comes into your mind, individual words or images day by day. May this be a New Day for you!
“The kiln tests the potter’s vessels…” ~~ Ecclesiasticus 27:5
I was baking cookies all day Friday, my oven never going higher than 375
Firca Master at Work
degrees Fahrenheit. This is a great test for butter, sugar and flour: leave it in that heated box too long and the smoke detector just outside the kitchen door will start its screeching. Pottery however, gets tested at much higher temperatures in the kiln. When I was in Turkey recently, I visited at the Firca Ceramic Shop in Avanos. The craftsmen there work in a cave that was carved out in the middle ages and have been plying their trade for over two hundred years. They make museum reproduction pieces as well as their own creative work done in the Turkish decorative style. Their artists learn their trade by producing first the trade or tourist goods, and then progress onto the craftsman’s level and then to the artist’s level at which they sign their work.
The quality of the ceramic ware may vary, but all the pieces are subjected to the same testing in the heat of the kiln: very high temperatures to turn the fragile clay into hard and durable pottery. In fact, the whole process of making a pot or dish is one of pressure and stress upon malleable clay. First the clay lumps are slammed upon a plaster slab to drive the bubbles of air out. If these stayed inside the clay during the firing, the air trapped inside would expand and explode the pot as the kiln heated up. Then the clay is slammed upon a wheel. The potter dips her hands into water, applies pressure to the sides and the top and begins to raise the cylinder to a certain height. Then holding the sides with one hand and pushing in with a thumb, the potter pulls the clay in a firm and even motion out to the desired width. Only then does she raise the pot to its final height. Once the clay dries out, it goes to the oven/kiln for the first firing; this makes it hard enough to work on for the glazing/painting so that it won’t break. The final firing at the highest temperature (2400 F) sets the glaze. Even here, the results aren’t predictable: the glazes can slip, they can give off gases that discolor other glazes on other pots, or the kiln can cool too quickly and break the pots when the cold air hits their hot skins. The stress of being made into a beautiful pot is sometimes too much to bear.
As I was baking sugar cookies, I was cutting the next batch into stars, snowflakes, and bells. I would pull out the cooked batch and let them cool on the pan for a minute. Then as I took them up with a spatula, some of them would break. Since I was giving these away, I was forced to eat the broken ones. It is a rule in Cornie’s Kitchen: “only the best goes out for others.” I know that no one forced me to do this, but someone had to do it, and I wasn’t waiting for volunteers. Even a sweet cookie breaks under the stress of the heat of the oven. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is the old saw that gets repeated during times of stress.
I have noticed that this holiday season has been a time of stress for many people. I remember that when I was in active ministry, I used to clear my calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas because I would be handling a lot more counseling for people having seasonal meltdowns than at any other time of the year. I have felt the stress in the air even though I don’t have a church of my own now. The Kroger clerk told me how she really felt about the guy in produce who didn’t mark all three of the brands of blueberries that were on sale that week. I have friends that I had to recommend to a “real counselor” because they were using me as a therapist and weren’t ever talking to me about anything else anymore. They no longer were “friends” for I never heard about their lives, but only about their sickness. It was stressing me out to the point that it was impacting my health, for I was starting to have the auras that warn a seizure might be imminent. At least I have an early warning system, and can take counter measures in defense.
But what about the people who are tied into the news 24/7? Their stress levels are off the wall, for every event is part of their immediate pain and suffering. And what of the people who are mentally unstable, who feed off the constant attention given to the intense interest and glorification of the victims of mass shootings? There have been 62 mass shootings in the last three decades, and 24 in the last seven years alone. Mass shootings are those in which four or more people have died. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/why-are-mass-shootings-becoming-more-frequent/)
These people may not be able to set boundaries on their obsessions and then they finally give into them. The fact that they have a gun is what makes the carnage so devastating. The sad thing is most of these mass shootings were done with legal guns. Perhaps the only answer is to have armed guards at every public gathering place, but then we would be living in a police state. I don’t think most Americans want that to happen.
Perhaps I am lucky in having a physical condition such as a seizure disorder that can send the “flashing yellow light” that warns me to slow down. Stress lowers the seizure threshold, so too much of a good thing or too much of a bad thing can cause my brain’s electrons to misfire. I don’t know what sets off a mass murderer, but I do know what stresses out the average person: things that are out of control. I remind everyone I meet, we are not in control of how anyone else receives our words, our actions, or our intentions. We are only in control of what we do, think, say, act, and intend. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make it drink.
As someone living with epilepsy, I know that if I smell things that no one else can smell, I need to cut back on anything that causes stress in my life. In ancient times, folks would have screamed “demon possession!” Today, we modern people are beyond that, and realize that the kiln of life is just “testing this cracked pot.” I can either keep on going and ignore the warning signs and explode into a seizure, or I can back away and stay seizure free. I choose the latter.
Our lives “explode” sometimes, though most of us don’t become mass murderers. We have fights, fusses, dramas, and all the other distresses of the human condition. It seems all the worse at Christmas because we have the expectation of an idealized and serene family experiencing a blessed birth.
Most of us don’t realize that the reason “there was no room for them at the inn” was because no one wanted Mary and Joseph and their “inconvenient truth” which was “conceived out of wedlock” to be born at their hotel. People were cruel then too. They stayed in a stable because one innkeeper wasn’t so hardhearted. God gave the message of the Christ child to the shepherds and to the foreigners, but not to the Israelite priests or the middle class merchants, for God’s love for human kind includes the poor outcasts and the aliens. The king and the priests conspired to kill all the baby boys, but the Holy Family had already fled into Egypt. Does the early life of Jesus sound like a sweet innocent Hallmark or Lifetime movie now? (Luke 2, Matthew 2).
Jesus’ life was more like ours: full of stress and pain, not all sweetness and light. Remember that the baby in the manger doesn’t bring the faith you need to get through the days like these, but the Christ who endures the trials of the kiln, the Savior who tests his love for you on the cross.
As an artwork to process your pain in the midst of darkness, consider Christ as the Light that comes into the World. Chiaroscuro is the term we use for strong contrasts of light and darkness. Set your subject in a strong light, so that the shadows are equally intense. Have only part of your image appear against the darkness. Use paint, crayon, pastel, pencil or photography. Consider how goodness in this world is sometimes obscured by evil, and how we have to find the silver lining in every cloud.
Meditate upon this verse: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” ~~ Romans 8:28
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” ~~ 1 Corinthians 12:7
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” President Obama lit up the ratio and TV talk shows a while back with this statement because 60% of Americans believe that hard work brings success more than lucky breaks, inheritance, or connections (2012—What Americans Believe: American Values Survey by the Atlantic/Aspen Institute). Not even a prolonged and hobbling “recovery” that still seems like a recession to those of us used to fatter times seems to shake this idea that the virtue of individual hard work will prevail.
Yet I am noticing a culture change among athletes, especially those who play team sports, but even among those who are individual “players” but have a support team of coaches, trainers, nutritionists, equipment handlers, bus drivers and press people or agents. In these lean times, when sponsors are most appreciated and not taken for granted, the athletes are thanking them for their support, and not just for the financial gifts, but also for the emotional assistance a name brand brings to their effort. When they begin to look beyond themselves, they realize how many people give their time and energy to help make their individual achievement a success. This is a humbling moment for sure. Neil Armstrong, who passed away this week and was the first man to walk on the moon, said as he touched that alien soil, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!” Yet he never took the sole credit for his efforts, for he knew he only went as part of a giant team representing a great nation that willed him forward by adding its corporate strength to the thousands of gallons of rocket fuel that powered his tiny capsule into the highest heavens.
Indeed, an athlete, an artist, a writer, an engineer, an astronaut, or a mechanic doesn’t get to the top of his or her field without dedicating their heart, mind, soul and body to the perfection of their craft. We each have a calling to our work, a desire to be the best or to give our best every day, and this attitude gets recognized by the masters of the generation before us. They share their knowledge with us, like Obiwan shared his with young Skywalker. If we are given to wisdom, we will remember our old masters and give them credit when we surpass them, for if we say, “I did it all by myself,” we are showing our two year old brain to the world.
The culture change of which I speak is the value of the community over the individual. When I was young, boys were expected to work and girls were expected to marry. It’s no wonder that 61% of Americans aged 65+believe our “free enterprise system contributes to America’s having stronger values than other places in the world.” Only 36% of our 18-29 year olds think this way, for freedom of speech ranks highest with them (64%) (2012—What Americans Believe, p. 15).
When older people say, “Kids don’t know how to put in a full day’s work anymore,” I wonder if we taught them the meaning of hard work or if we wanted to spare them the pain of our struggling. We no longer teach cursive writing in schools anymore because almost everyone uses the computer. I’ve noticed that some seven year olds can barely write their names legibly in print, so they aren’t teaching basic writing skills in schools either. When I came home with my puny first grade letters, I asked my mother how I could make them better. She said, show me how your teacher told you to make the letter. I said, “The form of b is a stick with a ball.” Yes, so got to your desk and fill a whole page of paper with b until you can make a good straight stick and a nice round ball. My mom knew that practice makes perfect and training my little hands was training me to have a work ethic.
In the same manner, when cursive came to town, I already knew my task. If I wanted pretty handwriting, I needed to fill my pages with theses newfound shapes until my hand automatically produced perfectly formed script. I was developing my small motor movements and my hand eye coordination both. I thrive on details, but I’m not good at yanking heavy weights up and down. We all have our callings!
When seven-year-old “Alberto” says he can’t write his name on his artwork, I look at him and say, now is the time to learn! What letter does Alberto start with? “B?” Al? Does Al sound like B? “A?” he says. Yes, so write A. Now what? “L?” Yes. And so on we go, sounding out his name letter by letter. I am sad that his parents and teachers and the many people in his community haven’t taken the time to make him successful in the one place that has real meaning: his unique name that identifies him. The struggle to learn and to achieve is something each of us must undergo if we want to be the best, for we will all hit a wall of defeat or failure to improve at some point in our lives. All learning involves a certain amount of failure, for we have to discover what we don’t know so that we can reteach/relearn that area. In this sense, learning is just a “going onto perfection” or a smoothing out of the imperfections/failures along the way to our destiny of greatness! We all need to use our gifts of hard work and our Spirits of courage to fail over and over until we succeed. For people like us, we will climb over, tunnel through, or redefine (Kobayashi Maru maneuver) all the obstacles in our paths.
We all would do well to understand what this scripture means: “To each is given the Spirit for the common good.” We each receive spiritual gifts from God, but not because we are hard working and have earned them. We each receive unique gifts from God, but not because we are already born into a spiritually wealthy family and therefore we too participate in our family’s blessings. God chooses freely to whom God will give the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues and the interpretations of tongues (vs. 8-10). These gifts aren’t for the purpose of an individual’s success (one doesn’t make a living by healing or divining the spirits), but the gifts are for the common good of the body of Christ, the church that gathers in his name. Some of the gifts are more exuberant and “flashy” so they brought more attention to the recipient, who began to claim more status and success in the body. However all these gifts are equal and all are useful. We need them all to succeed as a whole, so we need to not only credit one another, but also the give of all good things, our God who activates these gifts in us by his Holy Spirit.
As creative people, we have many people to whom we owe our lives. As I list mine, you should think about listing yours in your journal this week. My grandmother DeLee was a portrait and still life painter, so I wanted “to be an artist when I grew up.” I don’t remember my teacher’s name at the Shreveport Parks and Recreation Saturday Art Classes, but as soon as I could write my name in cursive, I could enter her class and learn the secrets of light and shared, color and value, and begin not only to draw but to paint in various media. I’m thankful for my parents who encouraged me and paid for my art lessons all those years. I give credit to my crazy college professors who pushed me and the agents who worked with me in the first stage of my art career. The twenty years I spent in ministry prepared me spiritually for the work I’m doing now: how many lives, deaths, joys and griefs are there in those 7,300 days? Words will not express these feelings, but the power of the visual image will unpack the potency of the unspoken cries of the heart.
As I think about a visual image to express this image of the community supporting the individual’s success and the individual’s gifts supporting the community, I think that if God’s light didn’t shine into the world long ago, we might still be looking for a savior. If the sun didn’t rise each day, we would know the beauty of God’s world. If we didn’t paint or draw this world as God gives us the gift to see it, then the world would be a duller place indeed. Bring to life with God’s gift to you, your vision of God’s light breaking into the world. This may be a sunrise or a sunset, or a scene with light and shadows. Share it with someone who has helped you along the way.