What Makes a Real Christmas?

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I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.

When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.

I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.

Natchitoches Christmas Lights
  1. Writing Santa a letter
  2. Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
  3. Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
  4. Hanging Christmas lights on the house
  5. Finding the perfect Christmas tree
  6. Decorating the Christmas tree
  7. Making Christmas decorations
  8. Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
  9. Family ornaments
  10. Watching the bubble lights
  11. Hanging the Christmas stockings
  12. The brass Angel chimes
  13. Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
  14. Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
  15. Candy lifesavers in a book
  16. Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
  17. Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
  18. Drinking from the Santa mug
  19. Christmas plates and mugs
  20. Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
  21. Wrapping and hiding presents
  22. Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
  23. Holiday visits
  24. Visit to Santa Claus
  25. Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
  26. Christmas candlelight service at church
  27. Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
  28. Special music
  29. Nativity scenes
  30. Staying up late to assemble toys
  31. Never enough batteries
  32. Stocking stuffers
  33. New red robe or pajamas
  34. Christmas letters from all our friends
  35. A vain hope for snow
  36. Wreath on the door
  37. Wrapping paper everywhere
  38. Handing out presents
  39. Opening presents
  40. Teacher gifts
  41. Making a Christmas list
  42. Dropping hints
  43. Candles in the window to guide the wise men
  44. Advent wreath candles
  45. Advent calendars
  46. Pine cones
  47. Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
  48. Parties
  49. Christmas clothes and Sox
  50. Garish Christmas sweaters

At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.

My Christmas Tree Today

Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:

  • 2,592,000 seconds
  • 43,200 minutes
  • 720 hours
  • 4 weeks and 2 days or
  • 8.20% of a standard year

These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”

“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).

When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”

Christmas tree skirt from the 1950’s

I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.

Handmade Stockings on an Antique Sideboard

Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.

My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.

“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper.
“It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.”
“Gross!”
I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.

All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.

None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.

As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.

Icon of The Creation of the Stars

When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.

Creation of Light

Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—

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.

Icon of the Nativity with Visit of the Magi

Rabbit! Rabbit! Welcome to December!

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Bunnykins Christmas Plate

December has snuck up on me like a racoon stalking a rabbit. Perhaps I ate too much of the Thanksgiving Feast, or maybe it was the homemade Italian Cheesecake dressed with cranberry sauce and maple pecans that did me in. It thankfully wasn’t the covid, for I had an appropriately socially distanced meal via Zoom, thanks to my niece in New Orleans and her mother in Texarkana. I’ve driven to New Orleans before, and it’s a hard eight hour trip, so I’ve always done it in two legs and made it into an easy jaunt instead. I spent the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the great Civil War battlefield there, and pay homage to those who fought to preserve the unity of the nation, even if my ancestors fought to keep other human beings enslaved. I also saw some of the grand plantation homes, which were built by slave labor. We don’t think of this history much, and I wasn’t taught it growing up, but it’s time for all of us to acknowledge all the hands who built this nation we call home.

My Decembers as a child growing up in the South were a time of waiting. I couldn’t make the clock hurry up no matter how hard I stared at it. My mother would remind me, “A watched pot never boils.” I’d grind my teeth. Hurry used to be my middle name. Now I seem to putter all day and never worry about it. I may be an aging rabbit, or maybe just a great-grandmother rabbit. Or I may have learned the wisdom of waiting, which is the lesson of the Advent season.

All small children endure the waiting at the end of the year, for the end of the year is full of holidays for many faiths. Today we’re all waiting for more normal times to return, so we can hug one another, kiss each other on the lips, and drink from the same cup without worrying about a dread disease. Waiting was so difficult for me and my brothers, we’d beg and cajole our parents to “Please, pretty please, just let us open one gift before Christmas!” We were the fortunate ones, for when our parents were children in the era of the Great Depression, they knew better than to ask for much. My daddy asked Santa Clause for an orange, boxing gloves, and a book for his older brother. Most of us today think we’d be bad parents if we gave our children only two items, but in the era of covid, when nearly 30 million people are out of work, we might need to readjust our priorities. Keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table could take priority, unless angels bring the gifts instead.

Christmas Crepes and Coffee

Today, I’m listening to Mannheim Steamroller play Christmas music. Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter and the Winter Solstice will be December 21. It’s a quiet time in the condo, for I’m alone with my decaf coffee and the furnace is keeping me cozy. One small joy I always look forward to is the opportunity to use my Christmas themed mugs for a whole month. I’ve put up the ordinary dishware and pulled down my collection of red, green, gold, and white cups. When I was young, I looked forward to the gumdrop tree and the Christmas cookies. Decorating and baking every weekend kept mother busy in the kitchen and me helping or getting my fingers in the icing bowl. I learned to share by helping my mom. I never liked her candied fruitcake recipe, however, or the fruitcake cookies. You can keep that to yourself. I think some traditions may need to die, and fruitcake is one of them, but my tastebuds don’t cater to sugared fruit anymore. Her pecan sandies were to die for, however.

If we approach the coming holiday season with anticipation for the small joys it brings, rather than thinking of the losses we’ve suffered, this December will be better for us by far. By this I mean, the tree isn’t the most important thing, for if it were, we’d worship the tree. We don’t worship the lights shining brightly, but the light which shines in the darkness. The presents aren’t the most important part of Christmas, for we don’t worship the gifts, but the gift from God.

Christmas Lights, Hot Springs, Arkansas

While light has been central to many religions across the centuries, it becomes very important toward the end of the year when the days grow short. The Romans originally celebrated Saturnalia as a harvest festival, but then moved it to the middle of December, and changed its focus to a celebration of light, knowledge, and truth. They would gift dolls and treats of fruit, and light bonfires. It began as a home holiday, but became a public feast holiday in 217 BCE.

Another religious festival is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil and its burning for eight days, when only enough for one day was found. Jewish people celebrate their faith by lighting a menorah with nine candles: one is the helper or attendant, and the others represent the days of the ancient miracle of rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Families always place the menorah in a window, so everyone will see it. As a special treat, families eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and doughnuts.

Menorah

The tradition is one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights for, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” The flickering flames may be telling us the following:

1. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.

2. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.

3. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.

4. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.

5. Don’t be ashamed to perform mitzvahs (individual act of human kindness), even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.

My daddy died one year and my mother died the next. I didn’t much feel like Christmas in my heart. When the Salvation Army representative came calling to the church office, I really didn’t have the energy to help reorganize another messed up program. Then the words of my mother entered my mind: “If you want to feel better about your situation, you should do something for someone in more need than you are.” I can’t say I grieved any less, but I felt better about that Christmas, for I knew I was called to share my blessings with others. I could talk to all the service clubs in town and get them to ring the bells, including the high school service clubs. We made many people in that community able to pay their utilities and rent in hard times.

December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the saint who most people know as Santa Clause. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and endured the persecution of Emperor of Diocletian, who put so many priests, bishops, and deacons into prison, there wasn’t room for actual criminals. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, before his death in 343. His generosity was legend, as was his concern for children, the poor, and anyone in need. Europeans celebrated the saint’s day and reserved the day of Christ’s birth for more sober, religious experiences.

Saint Nicholas the Gift Giver

Many people consider Christmas to be quintessential American holiday. When my daughter and I hosted a French exchange student chaperone, she raved about the American Christmas. “The English do the season well, but the Americans are the very best of all. I only wish I could be here in December!”

I laughed. I had too many memories of being up all night assembling Strawberry Shortcake Doll Houses or putting together my daughter’s new bicycle. I’ve always been directionally challenged when it comes to maps, but also when it comes to reading set up plans. I’ve never understood it, since I seem to be able to follow a recipe just fine, but mechanical things are a stumbling block to me. My memories of Christmas are from participation, not from observation.

The first Colonists, who were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, didn’t bring the Nicholas traditions to the New World. As we celebrate the Christmas of today, we have a hard time thinking of the Puritan tradition which ignored Christmas altogether. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, once the work was done, people would drink and become rowdy. Drunken mobs would roam the streets and scare the genteel classes afterwards. Even in the mid 19th century, Christmas was a regular workday. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.

After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. In 1773, New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, was the first to promote St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city. 

In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, but rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; the first church was dedicated to him; and St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”

Another work of the American imagination is the “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem which still holds our interest. This poem centers around the family and the safe toys for the good little girls and boys, which Santa and his reindeer will bring to each snug and cozy house. This poem is in the public domain, so it’s available on the internet. 

Christmas for many of us in years past has been like the Bunny 500: racing about the countryside as fast as we can to get as many of our to-do lists done. This covid Christmas, we might exchange our tradition of mass consumption for hot chocolate and communication. I’ve always enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. After two decades of ministry and multiple Christmas Eve candlelight services, I’ve always appreciated the quiet of the parsonage afterwards and the descriptive words rolling off this poet’s tongue. If the poem harkens back to a simpler time, it also reminds us of our lives before we were isolated from one another. As one who rarely saw snow on Christmas, I always enjoyed reading about the snowball fight against Mr. Prothero’s fire, and the Uncles and the Aunts at the meal. After a big day, Thomas said some words to the close and holy darkness and then he slept. 

The light will come into the darkness and the darkness won’t overcome it. Two thousand years ago, even the parents of the holy child could find no place to spend the night but in a cave with animals. They had no crib for their child, but placed him instead in the manger. Their families in town didn’t come to visit, but angels announced his birth to shepherds in a field nearby. Strangers brought gifts from far away, but no one from his family was around to celebrate.

Banksy: Manger, Bethlehem’s Walled Off Hotel

Maybe this is Christmas at its best, when we recognize the one who lives on the margin and isn’t included in the center of the social experiences. If your Christmas today isn’t what it’s always been, perhaps the gift of this Christmas present is the one you need.

May you and your bunnies celebrate this season of light and be a light in the darkness for those who think the dawn can’t come soon enough.

Joy and Peace,

Cornelia

Audio Blessings and Latkes Recipe Link

https://www.chabad.org/holidays/chanukah/article_cdo/aid/103874/jewish/Blessings-on-the-Menorah.htm

How the Pandemic is Affecting Supply Chains

https://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2020/11/24/coronavirus-supply-chains

Dylan Thomas: A Child’s Christmas in Wales

http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks07/0701261h.html

Charlie Brown Clay Stars

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“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.

The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.

Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.

Bowl with Ingredients

Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.

I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.

Natural Decorations

When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.

Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.

Broken Stars

I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).

Painted Star and Bells

I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.

Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.

This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.

Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.

Christmas Tree Star

Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”

These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:

Thus says the LORD,
who gives the sun for light by day
and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night,
who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar—
the LORD of hosts is his name:
If this fixed order were ever to cease
from my presence, says the LORD,
then also the offspring of Israel would cease
to be a nation before me forever.
(Jeremiah 31:35-36)

Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):

Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.

Multiple Layers of Gold and Silver Acrylic Paint on the Ornaments

Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.

Joy and Peace,
Cornelia

Air Dry Clay Recipe Using More Baking Soda (better recipe)
https://mamapapabubba.com/2016/02/16/homemade-air-dry-modelling-clay-aka-baking-soda-clay/

Reasons to Preheat the Oven
https://www.epicurious.com/expert-advice/do-i-really-need-to-preheat-the-oven-article

More Sunsets

art, Christmas, coronavirus, Creativity, Easter, Easter, Faith, grief, Healing, Health, Holy Spirit, incarnation, Medical care, Ministry, nature, Painting, poverty, Racism, renewal, risk, Stress, trees, vision, vision


How many of us get to admire the great creative exuberance of the divine palette strewn across the sky twice a day in our ordinary days? Most of us are too busy breakfast grabbing, caffeine swilling, clothes donning, and storming the door in a mad dash for the morning rush to work. Then we join the misnomered evening rush hour, which actually moves at a snail’s pace. We’re too busy watching the bumper in front of us on a highway to pay attention to the sky above us. If we’re guarding our goods on a subway, we can’t even see the light of day until we exit the bowels of the earth, but then we’ve got our eyes set on home, not on the sky above us.

Autumn Sunset

I wonder if this Age of Coronavirus has changed us in any way, since January 30, when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. It’s been about one hundred days since the World Health Organization and our everyday world has known about this pandemic plague, but cancelled sporting events and music festivals, working from home, and closed schools are now part of our daily life. The opening day for Major League Baseball heard no crack of bat against the ball and no hawkers in the stands shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack!” Even though the 2020 Olympic flame burns brightly in japan, the games won’t be held this summer due to the virulent virus and athletes won’t earn shining metals.

If today we haven’t these rituals of community as celebrations of our common humanity, we might feel a sense of loss, even grief. Yet we can find a daily reminder of hope, for the sun continues to rise in the morning and set in the evening. When the moon rises and the stars come out at night, we can see the rotation of the constellations according to the seasons of the year. Of course, we have to look up, and not down. We also have to look out beyond ourselves, and not just inside always. When we’re cooped up inside, doing #StayHomeStaySafe for our own good as well as for others, sometimes it’s difficult to look outward.

The Cup

When I was a child, my family didn’t have many art works in our home, but we always had a colorful nature calendar. My parents were always willing to hang my art in their home, an act I found encouraging. We also made weekend trips to hike in nature, ostensibly to “search for arrowheads,” but more often just to be outside. When I was in active ministry, I would go to nature when I was drained and needed to find the quiet place to restore my soul. There were times when I felt the demands of my superiors for more productivity and the nagging from my congregation about why I couldn’t be available all the time in the office as well as out visiting the home bound were more than I could handle, so I would close up shop and take a drive. I thought I might kill the next person who came in my office, but that’s not evidence of “going on to perfection,” so leaving was a better choice on my part.

I very often served in county seat towns, so I was never far from nature, but even in the city, I knew the location of the best parks. In art school, I even lived next to a park and in seminary I lived next to a creek. Now I live in a national park. I feel like I’ve achieved a life goal. My neighbor at the condo has cultivated quite an interior and patio garden in this Age of Coronavirus. I bought an orchid plant for my birthday, rather than cut flowers, since nursing a living plant seems more hopeful in this time of loss for so many people. My Christmas cactus even bloomed again for Holy Week, another sign of optimism amidst the panic shopping and empty shelves. If there’s enough life in my little plant to bloom out of season, then I trust God’s gift of providence to feed the hungry and care for us all, if we share with one another.

My Easter Blooming Christmas Cactus

Some people only see the sunsets on their vacations, but never any other time of the year. The sunset lasts less than five minutes, and the best colors are only momentarily part of this time. If we’re addicted to busyness, or filling every available moment of our time with productive activity, then we’ll be checking off our to do list and miss the magic of this moment. We could reframe our attitudes, however, and see our pause for the sunset as a time of blessing for the day. We can break for beauty, awe, and magnificence, and thank God for the whole of our day, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. After all, we’ve made it through another day, and the cycle will begin again, so we can entrust our night to God’s Care also. This is the meaning of providence.

Lake Sunset

I sometimes wonder if some are closed to creation and therefore closed to God’s love and grace. When I see the damage humanity has done to the earth and the creatures which live upon it, I wonder how much hate or ignorance can exist in people. This virus has exposed structural inequities and inequalities both in the victims and in their previous care. Two groups which are dying from covid-19 in greater proportions than normal are African Americans and men. For the first group, persons of color more often live in neighborhoods with higher pollution and less access to healthy food, plus they have more disease burden with less medical access. Men of all races and economic status have higher incidence of heart disease and smoking, plus they don’t fight inflammation as well due to their gene structure.

Perhaps this disease will take the blinders from our eyes, so we’ll begin to provide better medical care for our whole population, rather than think the coronavirus is just a means of “culling the herd.” That’s a hard hearted way to view a child of God’s creation, made from the dust of the earth, and breathed into life with the very Spirit of God. When I look at creation, the landscape or a sunset, I see the creating hand shaping me and you, and even these hard hearted yahoos, who have the survival of the fittest and wealthiest as their goal. I think somewhere within them is the image of God, even if they’re doing a great job of hiding it. Maybe they need to go in search of more sunsets or a forest. I know I was always a better person after a quiet time in the shade of a forest.

In N.Y.C., the Coronavirus Is Killing Men at Twice the Rate of Women
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/health/coronavirus-new-york-men.html?referringSource=articleShare

C.D.C. Releases Early Demographic Snapshot of Worst Coronavirus Cases
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/08/health/coronavirus-cdc-demographic-study-hospitalizations.html?referringSource=articleShare

THE SEASON OF LIGHT

art, Christmas, dark matter, Faith, Fear, Hanukkah, Healing, holidays, Icons, Imagination, Meditation, Ministry, mystery, nature, New Year, renewal, salvation, Spirituality, Stonehenge

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

adult learning, art, Christmas, Creativity, Faith, grief, Health, holidays, Icons, Meditation, Ministry, mystery, Reflection, Spirituality, vision, Work

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

adult learning, Altars, Christmas, Creativity, Faith, Food, Forgiveness, Holy Spirit, Icons, Imagination, incarnation, Ministry, mystery, New Year, Prayer, purpose, Reflection, renewal, salvation, Secrets, Spirituality, vision

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

art, Christmas, Faith, Family, Healing, Imagination, Love, Meditation, Ministry, Philosophy, Pi Day, purpose, Retirement, Spirituality, Uncategorized, Work

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

art, Creativity, Faith, Healing, Holy Spirit, Icons, incarnation, Love, Man of Sorrows, Meditation, Painting, Reflection, salvation, shame, Spirituality, Strength

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

arkansas, art, Christmas, Creativity, Faith, Icons, Painting, poverty, purpose, Spirituality, Stations of the Cross, Uncategorized

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.