THE SEASON OF LIGHT

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Hand painted Ceramic Christmas Tree

As the days grow short, some of us yearn for the light. This week I put up a few Christmas decorations, including my ceramic Christmas tree with the plastic bulbs from the 1960’s and my door wreath with ornaments from the 1950’s. I have a copper and paper manger scene I set before a small lamp, as well as an extremely gaudy, glitter filled candle nightlight to complete the mood. I keep out all year round my mom’s ceramic Holy Family group, since it’s too good to put away.

I remember living in Denver, Colorado, in the cold, dark days of December. They know how to do winter there. I would hang the big, bulging colored bulbs on the upstairs patio of our Victorian duplex, since these had the brightest light. In Louisiana, I used the tiny white lights to discretely outline the entire shape of my little stucco home. They both put out the same amount of light, but some were loud and others were quiet.

Stonehenge

Winter Solstice
Here at the tail end of the old year, the winter solstice comes on December 21, followed by Hanukkah beginning after sunset on December 22, and Christmas on December 25. All of these events have a focus on light.

The solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. In 2019, the December solstice comes on December 21 at 10:19 p.m. CST.

That’s on December 22 at 04:19 Universal Time (UTC). It’s when the sun on our sky’s dome reaches its farthest southward point for the year. At this solstice, the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest day and longest night of the year.

The World Heritage Site at Stonehenge, England, built about 5,000 years ago, is a site specifically built to mark the winter and summer solstices. For agricultural societies, this was important. It may also have been a religious site, connecting the living with the spiritual powers for healing and also with those who are dead to this world, but remembered by the living. We don’t know if the Stonehenge people believed in an afterlife, but they did bury in the gravesites important articles the person found useful in this world, such as bone needles and mace heads.

Repurposed Jewel Menorah for Hanukkah

Hanukkah
Hanukkah, a celebration to mark the miracle of the unfailing oil in the temple lamps, has taken on greater importance in recent years. It recalls the victory of the Maccabees and their resistance against foreign domination. The word Maccabee is an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean “Who is like You among all powers, G‑d.” The Greek army had defiled the Temple by setting up an image of Zeus and sacrificing a pig upon the altar of God. Those Jews who were fine with this were “sold out” in today’s terms, but not the Maccabees, who were joined by a ragtag group who ran a fifteen year resistance effort against the skilled fighters of the Greek army.

Once the resisters reclaimed the Temple, they rededicated it, set up a new altar, and made a new menorah, for the old one had been taken. They found only enough sacred oil for one day, but the light burned for eight days. The message of Hanukkah is a little bit of light can overcome the darkness of the world, so we should never cower in the face of tyranny, do our part, trust in God, and success is sure to come.

Illuminated Manuscript of Menorah

Perhaps this is why we have an enduring fascination with superheroes, characters who overcome challenges in life, such as Harry Potter and the Star Wars pantheon, as well as everyday people who do extraordinary deeds when dire situations present themselves. Those who don’t shirk from the opportunity to do good for others, even at great cost to their own good, are selfless heroes. What doesn’t make sense to us, may be the most sensible and best choice for the greater good. This is the heart of the servant mentality, which is recognized by the central candle of the Hanukkah menorah, which has eight lights, instead of the seven which was used in the Temple.

Christmas
Christmas is the time to celebrate the coming of the light into the dark world, and the joy that the darkness cannot overcome the light. Every Christmas Eve, we hear the old story ever new in our hearts again.

Nativity of Christ with Angels and Shepherds

When my daughter was about ten years old, she looked over the church bulletin one Christmas Eve and said, “John, John, John, who is this John that has such a big part in tonight’s service?”
I whispered, “That’s the gospel of John, and the Mathew and Luke are also gospels in the Bible.”

“Oh, I missed that,” she smiled.
I chuckled.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ~~ John 1:1-5

Today we know dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the universe, and all solid matter makes up the other 5%. In the ancient days, people thought God had made them the center of the world, but now science can make us feel small. Yet God still calls us into the dark spaces to shine like lights in the world.

We can look around and see, just as in the time of Christ’s birth, authoritarian leaders oppressing the minority members of their countries, and we see the rich and powerful controlling the economies of the world for their own profit, but not for the health of the planet or its population.

We see some of our leaders in the church unwilling to open their hearts to all of God’s children because the leaders live in fear rather than in the power of God’s love for all persons. We also see people of faith unwilling to take on the claims of a life lived in Christ, and so accept a mere testimony to the offer of the fullest life in Christ. A faith without works is a dead faith, or no faith at all, for there’s no evidence to convince the world we have a living faith. If we have the light of Christ in us, we will make our world a brighter and better place, and shine like stars in the world.

For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and God is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~~ 2 Corinthians 4:6

No matter how you’re celebrating the return of the light this season, may you find at this year’s end more light than darkness and may you shine more brightly in a world which needs so desperately the light of pure and unconditional love willing to risk its own self for the greater good of others. This is the reason Christ came into the world, to serve the Father’s purpose and redeem the fallen and broken world, for all who believed.

MEDITATION ON THE LIGHT
Proverbs 20:27
“A person’s soul is the Lord’s lamp, which searches out all the innermost parts.”

First century oil lamp

Focus the mind on the multiple images of the lamp, the oil, the wick and the different hues of the flame, in order to understand the profound guidance in the divine service of every individual.

Flames demonstrate that while spiritual endeavors such as contemplative prayer and inner personal transformation are important, nonetheless the actual performance of mitzvot (the 613 commandments) is what is most essential. It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body, acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.

Takeaway: It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body—acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.

Questions for the eight candles of Hanukkah:

  1. For You, G‑d, are my Lamp; and G‑d will illuminate my darkness. The first question is: Why is G‑d’s Name invoked twice, seemingly bisecting the verse into two separate statements?
  2. What part do the lighter and darker colors of the flame play in our spiritual lives?
  3. What is the quality of our own light?
  4. Contemplate the divine radiance which fills all worlds, as well as the radiance which surrounds all worlds. Consider how we have both matter and dark matter/energy in our physical world, as a complement to the divine’s dual filling and surrounding of space. (Psalm 145)
  5. As the lights grow brighter in this season of light, is God’s love growing greater in our hearts?
  6. Is God’s love transforming our lives from the inside out, so God’s love can shine through us?
  7. The Hanukkah lamp has eight lights, plus one for the “servant” light. Is the energy of God’s love moving us to shed the light of God abroad in service of the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely?
  8. Where will we shine in the days to come, to be a light to the world and for the sake of God’s name?

NOTES AND LINKS FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Stonehenge: World Heritage Site:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stonehenge/history-and-stories/history/

Dates for Hanukkah:

https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/103929/jewish/The-Eight-Days-of-Chanukah.htm

Everything you want to know about Hanukkah:

https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/default_cdo/jewish/Hanukkah.htm

NASA discussion on Dark Matter:

https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy

Part of this comes from:
A Chanukah Discourse by Rabbi DovBer of Lubavitch
“THE SOUL OF MAN IS THE LAMP OF G-D.”

https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/63273/jewish/Flames.htm

ICONS OF THE NATIVITY

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Icon of the Nativity

What is the most important image of the birthplace of Christ? For some of us, it’s a stable filled with hay and animals, in which the Holy Family fill with divine light. For others, the essence is the Holy Family alone. For others, those who brought various gifts take prominence. The early icons describe a dark cave, similar to the tomb in which Christ was laid after his crucifixion. This shouldn’t surprise us, for his birth made him at-one-with-us, just as his death and resurrection made at-one-ment for us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the icons are worth a million words, or a whole theological thesis.

The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis (emptying) of the Godhead, His abasement, and the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, became visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, was born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and thus foreshadowed His death and burial, in the sepulcher and the burial clothes.

Icon of the Burial of Christ

The icons are a window into the holy spaces, into the heavenly realm, or the spiritual world, whereas western paintings from the renaissance onward are representations of our three dimensional world on a flat surface. Icons have their own vocabulary and forms, so a wonder working icon from the 4th century would be copied over and over again into the present age. Modern icon painters would reinterpret the themes of the ancient icons, but until these images prove themselves to be “spiritual windows,” they’ll be mere paintings, but they won’t be true icons.

In the western world, we’re more likely to consider the narrative in traditional art, so the story details are as important as the design and color elements. Over the centuries the style changes with the artists,, but the main elements tend to stay the same.

Durer, Perspective Nativity

With the Renaissance, artists and their patrons were more interested in the humanity of Christ, as well as the human figure itself. The landscape gets rendered in all its glory, and the architecture of the towns calls us to take a walking tour through it. By the baroque period, artists create a full scale Broadway production scene on their canvases. A “cast of thousands” seem to heighten the importance of the event portrayed.

Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin

Our class worked these past two weeks on The Nativity. Gail’s memory of her family incubating a premature baby in a dresser drawer became her Jesus in the Manger. While this may sound strange to some folks, my great grandparents also nursed a premie in this same manner in rural Louisiana. Adding layers of color to her ground, as Rothko did in his color field paintings, was her goal. I failed to get another photo. She’s still working on it.

And they laid him in a dresser drawer, for he was too small for a crib

Mike was working on a shed and the sky. This was more exciting to him than anything else. The figures came later. I also failed to photo them.

First stage of the Nativity shed

He had a coworker pass away during this time. If his mind wasn’t in this work completely, I could understand. His vacation painting of the beach chair at sunset was more of what he can do when his mind is free and his heart is at peace.

Vacation is really great

When I’m sick, I have limited artistic ability. By this, I mean I have no spiritual sensitivity to the world. I can’t feel connected to the shapes, colors, or forms. I’m “dead to this world” as well to the world beyond this one. My hand feels like lead, and my one brain cell which hasn’t gone to Pluto is only working at 20% power. I don’t do sick well, for I take it as a great inconvenience, if not an insult to my nature. I have people to see and paintings to make. I may destroy this little work, but it does have the traditional icon themes of the cave and the swaddling clothes of the birth and death of Christ.

Nativity in a Nimbus

When we go back and sit before an icon, we’re struck by the silent voice of the image. We have a choice: we can dismiss this still, small voice, or we can pause and listen to the voice of God speaking to our heart. I hope we don’t race off to do yet one more of the many “got to do lists” of the Christmas season, but sit for a moment, with a hot cup of our favorite beverage and a little cookie, and mingle with the mystical voices from heaven. We will be choosing the better part, just as Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

NOTES:

Best source for Icons: Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons

Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin, center panel of the Middleburg (Bladelin) Altarpiece, ca. 1445, oil on panel, 91 x 89 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, inv. no. Nr. 535 (artwork in the public domain)

ICONS: A Moment of Mystery

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Making Found Object Icons is an art project that evolved out of the Great Macaroni Multimedia Traveling Artandicon Show. In seminary during Art Week our fellow students were horrified we were making sacred images out of edible products, such as macaroni, lentils, peas, and beans.

Jesus is the Bread of Life

“That’s sacrilegious!”

“Jesus is the bread of life, and macaroni is just another form of wheat,” we replied.

“But it’s so ordinary!”

“Clay is ordinary, and so is stone. Can an object only be worthy of God if it’s made of expensive materials?”

“Well….”

“The value of all the chemicals in a human body is about $5.18, but we’re worth far more than that in the eyes of God. Some say God doesn’t make junk, yet too many people of faith despise and debase the body. I’ve always wondered why this was so, since the Son of God came to earth in human form, and as the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV) says—

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

Jeweled Cross

When we meet Christ at Christmas, we can get all warm and fuzzy because who doesn’t like a warm, cuddly baby? Maybe I have a soft spot for babies, but I really don’t trust people who don’t get a little ga-ga when the little ones coo and smile. I can understand folks getting squeamish at Good Friday and the cross. Most of us avoid as much pain as possible. Humility and obedience to God are not high priorities these days for many people. 

Flight into Egypt

Many tend to ignore this wonderful call to the Christ-like life, preferring instead the cop out of “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14:38, NRSV). “Forgive us,” we say, but we hold others up to high standards. 
We make a distinction between our dual natures of the flesh and the spirit, a concept inherited from the Greco-Roman culture. It’s notable that the often quoted verse, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit,” is found in Galatians 6:8 (NRSV), for this was a Roman province. 
The ancient Mediterranean area had a knowledge/mystery tradition. The Greeks had their cult of Bacchus, the Egyptians the cult of Isis, and the Jewish had their mystical Kabbalah. The Romans had their dying and rising god cult of Mithras, the bull. Entry into all of these groups was by word of mouth only, given to a special few, and all had secret rites known to the members only.  Most promised salvation through secret knowledge, and the true world for them was spiritual rather than the physical world in which we live today. Ecstatic worship separated the believer from the body and the ordinary world. 
You might recognize these traits in your own church or worship community today, except for the ecstatic and enthusiastic worship brought about by mood altering substances. That’s not my church anyway! How do we come close to God? Across the centuries, the tradition has discovered contemplative prayer, singing, searching the scriptures, serving the poor, attending the sacraments, and creating art for God or the Holy Icons.
Making an object for the glory of God, to enhance the worship experience, and to honor God is a gift of the artist’s time and talent. No artist is ever paid what their training and talent is worth, for it’s a treasure from God to begin with—it can’t be valued. Artists have learned over the centuries to live simply, accept fame if it comes, and put a fair price on their work. 

Gail’s Cross

They get value in the spiritual real from the work they do, for the icon opens a window into heaven. As they arrange the jewels and found objects, and move them to a better position, the icon comes alive under their hands and begins to breathe. Only the person, who will be still long enough to hear the silence from beyond the open window, can hear the voice of God in this world. For this person, the icon is a treasure, and a place of holy focus, no matter how small or how simple the materials. 
This is the reason the artist makes an icon—to have a moment of mystery, a time of intersection, and a communion with the holy. In today’s hurried world, each of us wants a place in which we can experience for a moment the timelessness of heaven. 
When we return in the New Year, we’ll begin painting our own holy icons. The process is a spiritual journey, more than a destination or the attempt to reach perfection. We only need to “go toward perfection” each day!

TIME AND THE TWO CLOCKS

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On The Death of Stephen Hawking: March 14, 2018

With the death of the esteemed scientist Stephen Hawking on Pi Day, I wondered what do The Corpus Clock and the Banksy Rat Clock say about these artists’ concepts of time? All musings about chronological time lead me to ask, Does God experience time in the same way we mortals experience time? Is time the same for all persons? Do all people in the same event experience time in the same manner? What do we humans do with our time? Moreover, do people of faith have a particular calling from God to use time in a certain way?

We might fill a book with the fully fleshed out answers to all these questions, but let’s just sketch out a few points on each.

THE BANKSY RAT

The Banksy rat running in a 14th Street clock face, as if in a hamster wheel, is believed to be his first work in New York since 2013. One of Banksy’s trademark rats was found painted on the face of a clock adorning a building façade, on Pi Day, 2018, with the distinctive silhouette of the Empire State Building looming in the background. The clock in question adorns a former bank and post office at the northwest corner of Sixth Avenue and 14th Street in Greenwich Village. This building is currently slated for demolition.

Banksy seems to think time is a circular and continuous event, ever repeating, and perhaps monotonous. If the wheel goes nowhere, we can be very busy, but gain nothing for our efforts. Therefore our lifespan, the time we have on earth, is an exercise in futility. Do we know this, however? If we’re rats in a cage, do we have the cognitive awareness to perceive this? The good news is, we are more than rats, and for this I’m grateful.

Of course, pi/π is an irrational number and irrational numbers don’t repeat forever. If you write out the decimal expansion of any irrational number (not just π) you’ll find that it never repeats. That means that π is irrational, and that means that π never repeats. It also never completes, or comes out even, as my old third grade teacher Mrs. Dickey used to say, under the old math I learned in elementary school. In November 2016, y-cruncher, a computer for large calculations, took the value of pi out to 22.4 Trillion digits. I was always doing well to remember “yes, I have a number,” for my math classes.

Since Banksy’s Rat appeared on Pi Day, his wry humor might be evident in the rat race is never ending for all time. If it’s on a building meant for destruction, however, it shows he has hope for a change in this world and a creation of a new world. We need to take care to create a better world, rather than the same old world which we destroyed.

THE CORPUS CLOCK

The Corpus Clock, created in 2008 by the inventor and horologist John C. Taylor, doesn’t look like a clock. Its shiny gold disk features 60 notches that radiate from its center. Lights race around the edges of the disc, and a spherical pendulum swings slowly beneath it. The Corpus Clock has no hands or digital numbers, but has three rings of LEDs, which reading from the innermost ring show the hours, minutes and seconds. When an hour is struck, no bells chime, but chains shake and a hammer hits a wooden coffin. Time passes and we all die, a fact further represented by the Latin inscription underneath the clock, mundus transit et concupiscentia eius, meaning ‘the world and its desires pass away’.

The most eye-catching detail is the fierce-looking grasshopper sitting atop the disc. Taylor called it a “chronophage,” from the Greek for time-eater. Like a locust devouring the harvest, the chronophage opens its mouth. Ordinary clocks emphasize the cyclical nature of time. The hands, moving in a circle, always make it back to the same place and suggest if we lose track of time today, we’ll always have tomorrow. This, of course, is only partly true. As the chronophage reminds us, we can never regain lost time.

Weirdly, the pendulum of the Corpus Clock slows down or speeds up. Sometimes it stops, the chronophage shakes a foot, and the pendulum moves again. Because of that, the time display may be as much as a minute off, although it swings back to the correct time every five minutes.

“There are so many expressions in everyday life about time going fast, time going slow and time standing still. Your life is not regular; it’s relative to what’s going on,” Taylor said.

He noted Albert Einstein’s observation: “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

“Time is a destroyer. Once a minute is gone you can’t get it back.”

As a note of irony, Prof. Stephen Hawking, cosmologist and author of the global bestseller, A Brief History of Time, was due to unveil the clock at 5.45 pm, but in the end the curtain covering it didn’t fall until 5.59.55 pm.

Two theories of time

Actually, philosophers have multiple theories on time. Scientists hold a few more yet. Two of the main ways of looking at time are movement and stasis.

1. Time moves. The A-theory (or the process theory) holds that time moves from one point to another in a unidirectional line.

2. Time stands still. The B-theory of time (or the stasis theory) holds that time essentially stands still. B-theorists holds that the process of time is an illusion and time itself is rather static, or unmovable.

Does God experience time in the same way we mortals experience time?

God is absolutely timeless and exists beyond the scope of space-time. Since God’s not mortal, and not a created being, the laws of creation don’t apply to God. God is the creator, the uncreated one. We, who are the created ones, can’t experience time in the same way as God. In a sense, all time is the same for God. The past, the present, and the future are all the same for God, since all things seem as “now” to the one who is. We never say “God was,” except in reference to our own experience. For God, all events are always happening concurrently, as it were, with the present, and with all the possible futures.

We too can experience time, somewhat like God, in those moments when memories flood into our present experience, such as when a certain smell reminds us of a loved one, or a melody brings to mind old friends and old haunts. Even unpleasant associations can bring the past into the present for us. While we’d rather only have positive feelings and thoughts, at least we can know we are in the same mysterious time stream with God when our time sense begins to meld the past and present together. If we’re in the same space and time with God, we’re sheltered from any harm. If we relax in these times, we can put our focus on the God who’s cared for us before we were born and will carry us through any storm.

For us, in an excruciating time, we might sense time stands still, or moves as slow as molasses. Slow motion is a description of the telescoping or expanding sensation some of us feel. Actually, Time happens at the same speed, but our sensation or experience of it is different. The expression “Time flies when you’re having fun,” is an example of the how fast moving time is when you’re enjoying yourself. Ask a child how long it is till Christmas, then ask the parents the same question. The child says”Forever!” Mother or Daddy swears they need another month at least. My well worn Advent calendar had many little doors, which I opened daily as a child to help me count down the days until Christmas. My parents had crafts for us to make for the holidays to help pass the time and give our eager hands an outlet for our energy.

Is time the same for all persons?

I think most of us count time linearly, for we begin at our birth and count our days and years until our death. We see this life unfolding along a single line. If we were to view our lives from beyond this world, we might perceive our lives as a circular spiral which orbits around our sun as the sun makes its route around the outer edge of our galaxy. The first seems to be a straight line like a ship crossing an ocean, while the latter is more of a spiraling circle on a larger circle.

Most of us are just trying to make it to the weekend or to payday, so our concepts of time aren’t vast at all. If we think about time, it’s about quitting time, lunch time, coffee break time, or time for bed. Thinking ahead to vacation time or retirement is a future too far, so wrapping our minds around infinity or eternity is too great a stretch. God can see all our possible futures, for we all have choices and there are always events beyond our control which will affect us. Nothing is preordained or fixed, except God’s generous love and grace. If we could stand out beyond our galaxy and see our small world, I wonder if we would see our lives in a different manner?

Do all people in the same event experience time in the same manner?

If we come from different places and upbringings, we won’t take from an event the same experiences. When one person sees the flickering candles of a worship center and feels fear and shame, while everyone else feels joy and serenity, the pastor has to ask what’s wrong. The association for this person was from a cult with ritual sexual abuse on the altar. Yes, things like this happen, and thank goodness this person came out of that environment. Yet the same setting was a trigger for old memories, and an opportunity for compassion, prayer, support, and the offering of healing.

For those who found the experience uplifting, the time passed quickly. For the suffering, Time was agony, for it united the ugly past with the present. The present ministry of those who sat with her eased her pain until she could return into the present once again, and begin to have hope for a better future.

What do we humans do with our time?

Too often we overvalue work and undervalue relationships. As a city person pastoring in a country church, I often felt they didn’t value the work of ministry among the people, since God calls all to be priests (priesthood of all believers). My people felt I didn’t value relationships very much. Maybe we should have met each other in the middle. What we do with our time is more than being honest in our business dealings, doing good in our community, and being faithful to our spouse. It has to be more than giving a tithe to our place of worship. Are we rats in a hamster wheel, or mere cogs in a great industrial production machine? When we spend our time at work, have we lost it, and only get to live on the weekends or when we retire?

Does God call people of faith to have a purpose for our time?

If our time at work is only a means to an end, but the time spent there has no meaning at all, we might want to consider a career change. One person I know said, “It just wasn’t fun anymore.” Another’s eyes only lit up when she spoke about her work with the hospice patients, but she gave the pat answers to “how’s your church doing?” I knew before she did her call had changed. I taught school and sold Insurance before I became a pastor. Now I cook, paint, and write in my retirement years. I get to study anything that suits my fancy, which is perfect for one who’s a professional student!

What is God’s call for your life? It doesn’t matter what age you are, the time to answer it is now, at the present moment. Tomorrow you’ll be a day older, and this day will be long gone. It will be only a memory, but not for taking action. Like the chronophage, the monster which eats time, each moment is precious and worthy. Seize the Day! Do the work God’s got for you!

LINKS

Pi calculation records link: http://www.numberworld.org/y-cruncher/

Discussion on theories of time link: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/time/

The Man of Sorrows

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Most of us try to put our best foot forward every day. If we have the means, we want to wear nice clothes for work and put on our “game face.” In private, we might “let it all hang out” and put on our sloppy clothes, but only if we’re staying inside. This is why the pajamas at Walmart memes persist as the walk of shame from sea to shining sea.

We like our art “pretty” also. Indeed, if it doesn’t match our current decorating theme, we don’t buy it. We want our art to fade into the wall and not interact with us. If this is our attitude, we aren’t candidates for an icon in our space. The icon is meant to open up a conversation with the viewer and with the Holy Spirit. The icon opens a window into the world beyond this reality, into eternity, in which the Holy Trinity and the communion of saints live forever. While the image itself isn’t Holy, what it represents is Holy. Therefore the icon is venerated, but not worshipped. Only God is worshipped.

Because most of us like our images beautiful, we prefer gold and silver over fading and flaking. We also like polished and pleasant more than brutal and broken. This is why most of us like Christmas more than Good Friday, even though both are necessary to understand at-one-ment and atonement.

The oldest icons often show the ravages of age. Centuries of use, with smoking candle soot and oils from many hands, have worn their surfaces raw. Many of us also show the scars of Time, but we also are the image of God, just as Christ is the living image of God. We are like the ancient icons, worn and weathered. If we were given an ancient holy icon, damaged by circumstances or desecrated by human hands, we would treat it with tenderness, reverence, and compassion. We wouldn’t pay attention to the damaged parts, or to the tragedy of the act of damage, but we’d focus on what is left of its beauty, not what was lost.

Only those who are rapidly aging may be able to understand this concept, or those who’ve suffered. Yet, the Man of Sorrows icon exists for those who know life isn’t always a bowl of cherries and even the best people will suffer. The suffering servant contradicts the promises of prosperity gospel, but the icon reminds us we aren’t alone when hard times strike.

The Virgin Hodegetria and the Man of Sorrows

This double-sided icon in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D. C., depicts two of the most influential images in Byzantine art. On the front, the Virgin Hodegetria (“she who points the way”) gestures toward the Christ child as the path to salvation.

The image derives from a venerated model, which was legendary. Saint Luke was the purported artist who painted the original from life in Jerusalem and others brought it to Constantinople in the fifth century. Pilgrims flocked to the Monastery of the Hodegon to revere the original icon, which was paraded weekly through the streets of the capital. Widely copied, it’s one of the most common types of images of the Virgin.

On the other side is the icon of Christ after the Crucifixion, laid out for burial with his arms at his sides. This is the earliest known panel painting of the Man of Sorrows, a name taken from an Old Testament description of the Messiah:He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).”

Called Akra Tapaneiosis (Ultimate Humiliation) in the Greek Orthodox Church, the subject originated in Byzantium in the 11th century in response to liturgical changes and became widespread in the medieval West. This icon dates from the last quarter of the 12th century.

The Kastoria icon imbues the traditional Virgin Hodegetria with heightened emotion found also in hymns and sermons, especially after Iconoclasm. Her sorrowful expression and furrowed brow suggest that she foresees her son’s death. On Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion, the ninth-century bishop George of Nicomedia wrote,Who will enumerate the arrows that penetrated her heart? Who will recount in words her pains that are beyond words?” His sermon served as the lesson on Good Friday when this icon was displayed during the church service commemorating Christ’s Crucifixion.

https://www.nga.gov/features/byzantine/virginmanofsorrows.html

PROMISE OF HOPE

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Today is an official snow day here in our town. While other parts of our state got up to 5 inches of the fluffy white stuff, we got a mere dusting. However, our temperatures fell into the low teens with wind chills in the single digits. Those of you from our northern states might think we’re silly, but our schools don’t have heating systems adequate for these temperatures and our school buses don’t have special tires for icy back roads. I’m not leaving for nothing!

Today is a good studio day, since the sunshine is bright here in my sixth floor home overlooking the lake. I’m working on a new icon of the entombed Christ. These take a common form of the figure in repose, with the eyes closed as if in sleep, but the viewer reads the image as the sleep of death. The compact body lacks all physical power, so the truth of death is real. Christ doesn’t pretend to die, but suffers death for all creation.

We in the western world have limited the new creation to humanity, but scripture speaks of a renewal of this world at the Great Day of the Lord:

“But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.” ~~ 2 Peter 3:13

Too many today are waiting for God’s destruction of this world so they can get on to the better world beyond. Instead, the icon of the entombment calls us to grieve over this world and hear the Easter call to make it new and fresh again.

When Good Friday’s sadness leads us to the joy of Easter’s resurrection, we discover the same cycle works out in our own life also. Most of us want only to go from joy to joy, but we forget the power of suffering. The prophets saw suffering as an opportunity for change and transformation, as well as hope. If we meditate on the entombment icon, we’ll hear the call to bring hope to the poor, justice to the marginalized, and joy to the suffering.

If we go from Christmas to Easter, we’ll always celebrate the festivities and parades. If we never look at the flight into Egypt, we miss the refugee holy family bearing the gifts from the three kings. If we only eat the hot cross buns, we dismiss the suffering servants of every age and every continent. If we only celebrate our success and prosperity in Christ, we are complicit in the suffering of our world and our failure to be God’s co-creators in the New and better world.

As an artist, I’m always creating a “new thing,” so perhaps this is why God’s message about humanity’s role in caring for the world and our neighbors, no matter where they are, is important to me. This painting will look different when I put the blues and greens on it, but right now it looks like a blaze of sunshine! I hope you will be a ray of sunshine in your corner of the world today.

HOW DID A SAINT BECOME A SANTA?

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Once upon a time, Bishop Nicholas of the Greek Orthodox Church was known for his charity to the poor and other good deeds. After his death, enough miracles in his name elevated him to sainthood. People began to give gifts to others in his name to celebrate his feast day, December 6th.

Later on, the gift giving at Christmas became more important. After Clement Moore’s 1823 Poem, A Night Before Christmas, the visit of “Old Saint Nick” came alive in children’s imagination. With Thomas Nast’s Illustrations during the Civil War era, Old Saint Nick transformed into Santa Claus.

Of course, even though the two were once one person, their personalities are different. Everybody loves Santa Claus. He embodies holiday cheer, happiness, fun, and gifts—warm happy aspects of the Christmas season. How do Santa Claus and St. Nicholas differ?

Santa Claus belongs to childhood;

St. Nicholas models for all of life.

Santa Claus, as we know him, developed to boost Christmas sales—the commercial Christmas message;

St. Nicholas told the story of Christ and peace, goodwill toward all—the hope-filled Christmas message.

Lorenzetti—Saint Nicholas giving gold to a poor family

Santa Claus encourages consumption;

St. Nicholas encourages compassion.

Santa Claus appears each year to be seen and heard for a short time;

St. Nicholas is part of the communion of saints, surrounding us always with prayer and example.

Santa Claus flies through the air—from the North Pole;

St. Nicholas walked the earth—caring for those in need.

Santa Claus, for some, replaces the Babe of Bethlehem;

St. Nicholas, for all, points to the Babe of Bethlehem.

Santa Claus isn’t bad;

St. Nicholas is just better.

We can actually keep the spirit of both Santa and the Saint all year long if we keep the joy of giving and receiving gifts to all, especially by giving to those who have less than we have.

If we keep the love of all persons in our hearts, then we’re loving as God loves us, for this is how the saints love the world. Even Santa loves all the world like this—really! Does any child ever get coal in their stocking? No! This is only a grownup threat to make the child behave. All children get a Santa gift, for the “Santas” in the community will make it happen, for they are the Saints who walk among us.

I want to thank the folks at the St. Nicholas Center for this idea. They have good resources for teachers for downloading. Check them out. I found the images on google search.

http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/compare-santa-st-nicholas/

The Fairy Nativity: A Simple Christmas

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“There are winds created for vengeance and in their anger they can dislodge mountains. On the day of reckoning they will pour out their strength and calm the anger of their Maker.” ~~ Ecclesiasticus 39: 28 

Seventeen days and counting to Christmas: Grey Thursday, Black Friday holy family and the Great Christmas Sales are upon us. Wal-Mart is covered up with people like the great ski slopes in the mountains should be covered with snow at this time of year. The Salvation Army bell ringers are out, but their friendly jingles and smiles aren’t making much of a dent into the general mood with Fiscal Cliffadedron, Egyptian Meltdown, Iranian Idiots, or Syrian Chemical Weapon threats weighing heavy in the air.

People aren’t much in the mood for Christmas this year, perhaps because our expectations are too high. We wanted a “Good Thanksgiving” with a happy family all gathered around the table, but the drunk uncle made his appearance once again and the kids all wanted to text the entire meal, while Dad wanted the food served in the “media room” so he wouldn’t miss any of the game.  This didn’t make any of the lady folks happy after baking and cooking for two days for the thirty-minute meal. So the gals took the credit cards and maxed them out on the early deals Thursday afternoon.

Now we have the incessant commercials of increasing expectations berating us on the TV: moving up to a bigger car, a bigger diamond, or giving your stepchild a diamond just like the one you gave her Mom (this is outrageous, children shouldn’t get diamonds until they are grownups! They need to have something to look forward to!). But most of our lives today aren’t like this, for we are more like the 99% and less like the 1%.

I was recently in Turkey in the region of Cappadocia. There is an area called the Fairy Mountains that has unusual stone pillars and shapes that have been worn away by the wind, rain, and blowing sand.  One such

fairy mountains cappadocia

fairy mountains Cappadocia

shape is a camel, and another grouping of three is known as the “holy family.” This Nativity Scene makes me think of all the precious sculptures I’ve seen. Most of them are highly sophisticated, brightly colored, and “clean” for that is truly how we view holiness.  This isn’t the world the Christ Child was brought into by his parents, however.

Mary was a young teenager when the angel came to tell her she would bring the Christ into the world without benefit of a husband, that is, it would be a virgin birth. Folks in the village soon began to talk, and Joseph was going to break off their engagement, but an angel told him in a dream it would all work out ok.  When Mary began to show, however, she needed to leave town, so she went to see her older cousin Elizabeth who was also with child.  These two were alike in that they were “outsiders:” Elizabeth was alone because her husband wasn’t able to speak because he doubted the Lord was at work in his wife’s pregnancy and Mary was alone because her family and town doubted her story.

When the census time came, everyone had to go to their ancestral hometown. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of David, but no one would let them stay in their inn. The text says there was no room for them in the inn, but Joseph wasn’t a stupid or slow man.  He didn’t wait until the last minute to take his very pregnant wife on this trip, so that all the hotels and motels were already full. People back then are just like people now: they talk, they make judgments, and folks decide that out of wedlock babies are unwelcome in their nice establishments.  One innkeeper did take pity upon them and gave the family a place in the stable among the animals. The baby was born there; the king of the world had a manger for his throne, and the animals for his court.  Angels proclaimed the Savior’s birth to shepherds, outcast persons on the margins of society because they were not clean. They were the first to honor him. Strangers from the east came to worship him and give him gifts, aliens and nonbelievers rather than the Jews themselves.  His mother  “…treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

The King and the priests heard the strangers from the east ask: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage” (Matthew 2:2).  They conspired among themselves to murder all the newborn baby boys when they didn’t find out the one name. Joseph took Mary and Jesus in the middle of the night out into Egypt, for he was warned in a dream that the child was in danger.

This Christ Child knows the pains of the world from the very beginning of conception, for he knows the loneliness of the poor and the isolated, the rejected and the misunderstood. He knows that if the king of the world will be rejected and despised, so will all we lesser human beings. If we are persecuted in this world, we are in good company, since he was singled out from birth and many innocents died on his behalf (Matt 2:13-33). His family fled with the clothes on their backs, but they carried the gold, frankincense and myrrh gifts he received as gifts for his ministry and burial.

Most people don’t read the Nativity Story this way, but when I look at the way the wind wears away the stone, I have to think that these figures are the strength that is left after the winds have torn away the soft parts. The hard parts, that core that remains, is the true part that is the inner strength that comes from the inner spirit of a person.  The winds may move mountains and reveal a new shape, but that is just God’s recreating power at work.

The biblical word for wind and spirit are the same, so the Holy Spirit can be the rushing wind that changes our hearts and minds into the new shape God has in mind for us.  The American Bible Society says that each American home has 4.3 bibles in it in 2012. However, most people aren’t reading it, for 46% couldn’t tell the difference between the Koran, the Bible, or the Book of Mormon.  What’s worse, 50% of Americans, including Christians, couldn’t name ANY of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John). The Bible’s oral traditions have been around for 6,000 years, and it’s been written down for 4,000 years.  Surely that is a testimony to its robustness: the winds of other ideas may blow against it, but its inner strength stands firm against all the storms.

As a spiritual art project, make your own nativity from found objects, the more humble the better.  If you go on a nature walk, find rocks or pine cones and paint them with minimal decoration so that they are recognizable as “figure” or “animal”. If you make them from toilet paper rolls, use construction paper and simplify the figure drapery.  These should be fun because you need to quit thinking “perfect” and allow yourself to “enjoy Christmas for a change!”  Have yourself a Merry Simple Christmas!