Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.
Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
My family has a tradition of handcrafts and needle working skills, passed down from generation to generation, as do many Southern families. I admit I didn’t care much for the sitting still part when I was young, but I really liked the bright sequins and beads of the tree skirts we embellished with the symbols of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first six days were overloaded, while the last few had only a sprinkle of sparkle stitched to the colored felt, but then we were coming in under the wire by Christmas eve and Santa wouldn’t visit our house if we didn’t get into bed as soon as possible. We just barely made it.
Most of our projects didn’t have such a time limit, however. I remember learning to make doll clothes on a toy sewing machine before my mother trusted me on the electric machine. I made tiny tucks across the bodice of these outfits from the scraps of the materials my mother used to make my school clothes. My Nannie had an old foot powered sewing machine on her back porch. It was often hidden under piles of newspapers or canning jars resting on their journey to the garage out back. From her I learned to sew straight seams, unbeknownst to my mom. My small foot wasn’t able to power the treadle of the old machine very fast and I’d been warned within an inch of my life to keep my fingers a good distance from the needle. I was doing this sub rosa, and that added to my excitement, but my mother probably knew. I only thought I was doing something forbidden.
Soon after this, my mother decided I needed to learn to make simple clothes from a pattern. Not that I would do it unsupervised, but she did have a degree in home economics and a lifetime teaching certificate. I made one of those easy patterns with only a front, a back and a neck binding. Of course, I was too young to need to worry about darts yet, so this wasn’t the most difficult project in the sewing room. I did learn how to pin, cut, and sew with the right sides together so the seam would be on the inside.
Later I’d learn to hem my clothes. My mom always thought I sewed backwards. I suppose since she sewed in the opposite direction, I was backwards. I’ll blame this on my being a breech birth, for if I came into the world backwards, I can do things in an opposite manner if I want to. Sometimes it takes a person who sees the world from a different viewpoint than everyone else to help others make sense of the world, especially when the world isn’t in the order we’ve come to expect it to be.
July is the season of the year when active Methodist clergy move to new churches. I’d hear my friends say, “I’m going to hit the ground running and show them I’m ready!”
I’d nod my head, and reply, “I’m going to take my time, get to know folks, find out where they are, and what they need. Then we’ll figure out where we need to go together.” I was past the age of running anywhere, since ministry was my fifth career.
This pandemic has changed many of our rituals and routines. Gone are our potlucks and coffees, our get togethers and small group sessions. We now meet from afar and we’ve learned to like it, or else we live in isolation, and we’ve learned to endure it. I told a friend, “I’m blessed to be single, because if I get on my nerves, I’ve got no one to blame but me! If I get that upset with myself, I go down to the exercise room for a walk.”
As this pandemic has stretched out, I’ve come to realize treating it like a new appointment might be the best practice. Ministry is more of a marathon than a sprint, for we need to keep a steady pace for a long distance, rather than run fast for a short initial spurt. Throwing all our energies at it in the first few months, especially now when everyone is socially distanced, isn’t going to be the most effective use of our potency.
This is where quilt making comes into play. Quilts can have a structured pattern or they can be various strips of cloth sewn together until they make a square or an entire top. Right now, we’re in crazy quilt land, while we wish we were in structured pattern quilt land. We have to make do with the materials we have at hand and make the most beautiful work with what we have. This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit, which binds the people together, no mater how separated and isolated the community is.
I pulled out some fabric from one of my boxes to make a patchwork pillow. I had no plan, for mostly I was distressed at the brokenness and sickness of our world. I thought if I stitched some strips of fabric together, I would find some order, and perhaps some beauty. Of course, I kept stitching and realized I had more than enough for a pillow, but not enough for another project. I looked at my plain jean jacket and thought it could be improved. I kept stitching, so soon I had enough for the jacket and yet another pillow! This is enough. I’m going to put up my machine and go back to my easel for a while.
I know I miss my friends and family, for they’re like the strips of cloth I’ve sewn together. I try to connect with them by writing my blogs and sharing my spiritual pages, so I can give a voice to the emotions others perhaps are feeling. I write because I’ve never been accused of saying too little, but more often of not knowing when to quit. That’s ok, for someone needs to put into words the feelings this pandemic is putting many of us through.
I hope you’re finding some creative project to do during this pandemic time. I suggest a journal, to write out your memories of your life before this strange time. We don’t know what our future will bring us, and the generations who follow us will wonder what an ordinary life was like back in the day. If we write about the pandemic itself, we may fail to touch the grief of what we’ve lost, and only write about our grievances of today. If we can find an opportunity to note the small blessings of each day, perhaps we can access our memories of our past lives also.
My granddaddy hung his dress jacket in the old wood chifforobe on that back porch where the antique sewing machine resided. The cabinet retained the aroma of his favorite chewing gum, even when he was gone from the house. I can still smell today the juicy fruit chewing gum my granddaddy always carried in his coat pocket.
I hope you’re finding moments of joy and peace amidst this time of pandemic and uncertainty. I’ve attached a poem at the end I think you might enjoy.
Memories are worthy treasures, as this poem reminds us. This is a true story, for the author finished the quilt in 2017. Her husband’s mother had started it and was about a third done with the quilting when she passed away in 1986.
Thirty Years By Ruth Poteet
My closet’s free of a strange parolee, coldly imprisoned for thirty long years; gone with the rest of my walk-in’s debris, I’d marked it “Goodwill” with cynical cheers.
Rescuing the box, my mind shifted gears. And ready to face fair verdict instead, a quilt, yet unquilted, moved me to tears. At seventy-three I finished this spread.
It took just three weeks, while my fingers bled, now “thirty years” rests proudly on my bed.
Life for extroverts in the Age of Social Distancing is difficult. They need people to bounce their ideas off of, friends to hear their tales of daily struggles or victories, and most of all, the transfer of energy between the parties to feel alive. For introverts, most of whom need space and quiet to restore their energies, the “stay at home unless absolutely necessary” directives are more welcome than not. A good book, some quiet music, and a calming drink of herbal tea is a balm for the body and the soul.
Of course, if you have children, activity is your middle name, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of extroversion or introversion. Taking walks in the neighborhood of your city is an opportunity to learn about architecture. How is it built, what are the forms called, and how many styles can you identify as you walk about? You can make an art project from this walk about, by building a shoebox city, a collage from magazines or scrap paper, or making a map.
When my daughter was young, we lived in south Texas, so our walks meant we might stumble upon a limestone fossil creature. She was always amazed some animal from the prehistoric times would find its way into our modern age, even if it were a lifeless stone. To find a treasure from 100,000,000 years ago always added excitement to our jaunts about the home place.
If you live in the countryside, you might have access to the woods or a forest, or you can go there. We haven’t decided to lock down everyone in their home yet. However, it’s my “Dr. Cornie” opinion we all should limit our goings and doings to the utmost necessities of grocery, health, and essential services. While I’m not a “real doctor,” those of us who are “Coronavirus Cathys and Chucks” can spread this disease to others, even if we don’t feel sick or have symptoms.
In this Age of Coronavirus, staying put at home means we “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease. While many will have a mild disease, too many will have a difficult outcome, especially when they face a lack of hospital beds and equipment to treat them. Let’s think of these others, and not just of ourselves alone.
With this admonition in mind, I invite you to travel virtually in solitude to the woods. Many of my paintings are of nature, for I feel close to God in nature. My parents may have been getting a vacation from me when I went to summer church camp at the old Works Project Administration site at Caney Lake, but I connected with the God who meets us in nature while I was there.
The Germans have a constructed word Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude. The Grimm Brothers wrote many fairy tales, which were also set in the famed German Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.
I don’t know if children read these stories today, since they’re a tad scary, but my parents grew up in the Great Depression and fought the Great War in Europe against the Nazis. They helped us through the imaginary, scary events so we could take on the actual, distressing situations. Practicing the easy operations in a safe space helped us confront our fears in real life.
Sometimes I’ll walk in the woods and hear a voice calling me to turn around. It’s not an audible voice, as if an outside agent were speaking to me. It’s also not my own inner sense, as “I should turn around.” Instead, I perceive a stillness from beyond, and the word I hear is “Turn around and look.”
If nature speaks to us, it’s because “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20). Does this mean all persons see God’s hand in creation? Of course not, for some can’t even see the image of God in their own faces when they look in the mirror as they brush their teeth in the morning. Perhaps this is why the city streets are littered, the country roads are trashed, and violence to humanity is a sad trouble in every zip code. If we are God’s people, we’ll care for one another and for God’s world.
Even in the Age of Coronavirus, when our solid underpinnings have been cut down from under us and we have crashed to the ground with the noise of a giant sequoia tearing through its smaller companions, we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Walk in the woods, in silence, and renew your soul, with Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Waldeinsamkeit I do not count the hours I spend In wandering by the sea; The forest is my loyal friend, Like God it useth me.
In plains that room for shadows make Of skirting hills to lie, Bound in by streams which give and take Their colors from the sky;
Or on the mountain-crest sublime, Or down the oaken glade, O what have I to do with time? For this the day was made.
Cities of mortals woe-begone Fantastic care derides, But in the serious landscape lone Stern benefit abides.
Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy, And merry is only a mask of sad, But, sober on a fund of joy, The woods at heart are glad.
There the great Planter plants Of fruitful worlds the grain, And with a million spells enchants The souls that walk in pain.
Still on the seeds of all he made The rose of beauty burns; Through times that wear and forms that fade, Immortal youth returns.
The black ducks mounting from the lake, The pigeon in the pines, The bittern’s boom, a desert make Which no false art refines.
Down in yon watery nook, Where bearded mists divide, The gray old gods whom Chaos knew, The sires of Nature, hide.
Aloft, in secret veins of air, Blows the sweet breath of song, O, few to scale those uplands dare, Though they to all belong!
See thou bring not to field or stone The fancies found in books; Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own, To brave the landscape’s looks.
Oblivion here thy wisdom is, Thy thrift, the sleep of cares; For a proud idleness like this Crowns all thy mean affairs.
“Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts, or curse the rich, even in your bedroom; for a bird of the air may carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the matter.” ~~ Ecclesiastes 10:20
“A little bird told me,” my nanny often said, when I asked her how she knew about my doings. “The walls have eyes, honey, and the wind has ears. Nothing done in secret stays hidden very long. You’d best mind your P’s and Q’s.”
If I had been a more fearful child, I might have been afraid to sleep in a dark bedroom. As it was, I was only afraid of what was under the bed and what might come out of the closet, both of which are normal childhood “monster” fears. I kept these imaginary monsters from harming me by closing the closet door at night and by approaching my bed at a dead run, and launching my small body a full six feet through the air until I landed in the middle of my bed. My parents were thankful I forgot about these monsters by the time I was big enough to have done damage to the furniture.
How do we handle fears as adults? Some of us put our heads down into the sands, as if we were ostriches rolling our eggs in our nests. What we don’t see won’t bother us. Some of us self medicate with substances to the point of abuse. We can even use goods in a bad way: overeating, over exercising, overwork, and orthorexia (concern for a good diet) are a few we could mention. A better way is to seek a balanced life, and not to go off the deep end in any one direction.
When everyone else is losing their heads around you, someone has to remain calm. For a long time my motto was “Leave me alone, I’m having a crisis.” Then I went into ministry and I became the caregiver to people in crisis. Folks need a non-anxious presence to be with them, for even if we can’t change or fix their present circumstances, we can be a reassuring companion. While the present moment may be distressing, often the underlying reason is because our applecart has been upset. When our plans and schemes get upended, we have to monitor the new situation, and adjust accordingly. We may not like what we have to take care of, but this is our now, and not some hypothetical game plan.
As one of my clergy pals used to say, “I keep my calendar in pencil because I have to change it so often.” I just use that tape whiteout and write mine in ink anyway. I like the pretty colors, but I know life happens and when it does, i make the changes and write in a new plan in ink. Life is often messier than I’d like it to be.
I just found out all our public spaces in our county will close for April due to the coronavirus mitigation protocols. We have an establishment called The Ohio Club, which has been serving food and drink since 1905. It’s made it through the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two Great World Wars, and many smaller ups and downs in between. If we have an eye to the better future, and not just to the problems of the present moment, we can plan and work to get through this part of the cycle.
While closing down is a good choice for our community to contain the coronavirus, it means the exhibition I planned won’t go up. I’ll be checking to see if it’s rescheduled or if it will be a virtual display. With everyone on home confinement, we’ll make the best of the situation. There has to be a silver lining in the clouds somewhere. At least we should be looking for the bluebird of happiness to visit us in the coming days.
Here is the poem by the American 20th Century writer, George J. Carroll, that first used the phrase “bluebird of happiness:”
“And in the valley beneath the mountains of my youth, lies the river of my tears. As it wends its way to the ocean of my dreams, so long ago they have gone. And yet, if I were but to think anew, would these dreams evaporate in my mind and become the morning dew upon a supple rose whose beauty is enhanced with these glistening drops, as the sun of life peeks o’er the mountains when youth was full. Then I must not supply this endless fountain that creates the river of my tears but look beyond those mountains where the bluebird of happiness flies.”
Folks tells us to stay in the present moment and to honor our feelings. If we’re in a state of anxiety, however, we need to ask if feeding our fears is the best choice we can make. “What if’s” and “How are we going to’s” are useful fuel for the flames of our imaginations. If we feed that flame, we’ll either take to day drinking or need to be heavily medicated for the public safety. Neither are our best choice. Sometimes we make lists, and then add lists to the lists, as if we could organize the chaos unfolding about us.
In truth, Chaos is confused, unordered, unorganized, and has no distinct form. It’s what existed before Creation. As such, unpredictability is its inherent nature. If we were in one of the closed casinos, the metaphor would be “shooting craps with loaded dice,” since the odds would be stacked against the player in favor of the House.
The best way to keep our wits about us when everyone else is going crazy is to breathe deeply in and out. If we focus on the breath, and remember the source of this life giving breath, we can connect our selves to a greater power.
“Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” ~~ Genesis 2:7
If we remember whose we are, and who we are, we’ll get through this together. Take care of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, and the sick. We are stronger together than we are alone.
Some people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer in this germ conscious age of Coronavirus, but we who practice the art life are also stocking up on Liquitex heavy body acrylic paint and canvases plus coffee, so we can make the best of a bad situation. We’re also giving encouragement to all we meet or greet, for we know we’re all in this together. When our local officials call for “social distancing,” some think this means individuals have to take care of their own needs only, but this isn’t so. This “social distance” only refers to the space between us, not to our ignorance of the needs of others.
Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome (2nd CE), wrote in one his Meditations, “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee,” (Book VI, 54). If we don’t work for the good of all, we aren’t doing good for ourselves. I met our condo maintenance man the other day as I was returning from our last art class before spring break. (Our return date is flexible, depending on the coronavirus situation.)
“Did you hear when Walmart runs out of food, they’re going to close it down and not reopen it till all this virus blows over?” “What? That’s crazy. They’ll be selling food till the end of time. Money, honey, they wants it and food, we needs it.”
“That’s what I hear. We’re all gonna starve.” “No, we won’t starve. I have enough dried beans, pasta, canned tuna, and the like to last us a month. It might not be appetizing, but we won’t starve. If you get hungry, you just come to my place and I’ll feed you. Do not worry about food.” “There you go,” he said as he drove away. Maybe he just needed to hear reassurance from someone who wasn’t wearing crazy pants for a change.
Sometimes we get caught up in everyone else’s crazy and forget the words of faith:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27).
Worry is a topic in every age. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd CE, who favored the Stoic philosophy. For a Stoic, the vagaries of life didn’t produce happiness or any other emotional experiences, but virtue alone was the source of true happiness. Stoicism was an ethical way of life, in which order and the good of the community were more important than personal indulgence.
“Does the sun pretend to perform the work of the rain, or Aesculapius that of Ceres? What of the several stars? Are they not different, yet all jointly working for the same end? (Book VI, 43).”
In that ancient age, the Romans thought the sun, moon, and stars were all divine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and a mortal woman, but he was raised by a centaur, a half horse-half man, who taught him healing powers. Ceres was the goddess of grain and of life itself. Famine, fertility, and the harvest were all under her power. Indeed, for the Romans, the entire cosmos was divine, and was organized in favour of providence. Marcus mentions “the whole cosmos is organised like a city, that is to say, each part is so organized as to serve the good of the whole.”
“Consider frequently the connexion of all things in the Universe, and their relation to each other. All things are in a manner intermingled with one another, and are, therefore, mutually friendly. For one thing comes in due order after another, by virtue of local movements, and of the harmony and unity of the whole (Book VI, 38).”
In the age of coronavirus, we sometimes think if we aren’t at risk, or if the harm is negligible for us or our families, we aren’t obligated to practice the same healthy practices recommended for other risk based groups. We would be thinking wrong, however. If low-risk people don’t socially distance, then the entire containment process is ineffective. Generally, there are fewer high-risk individuals — the sick and the elderly — and they don’t tend to move around as much as lower-risk individuals. Therefore, it’s more likely that a low-risk individual will expose a high-risk individual to the virus.
When we paint a still life of flowers in art class, we have to pay attention to the “harmony and unity of the whole.” Often I show several famous artists’ works before we begin, partly to expose my class to great art, but also to comment on certain design elements that they can incorporate to make their works more interesting. The Cezanne vase of flowers has an off center or asymmetrical subject balanced by the strong linear shapes dividing the background. Sometimes our own lives are off kilter, but we can stay balanced if we make sure to keep the weights on either side of the fulcrum point proportional according to their distance from the balance point. A large mass near the center point will balance out a lesser weight more distant from the pivot point.
We’re talking about the different types of balance in art: symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic (or all over) balance. When our lives become unbalanced, we need to institute order. Some of us house clean, others do home repairs or work on our golf games. Others of us cook up a storm and ignore our normal routines. Lately in this age of coronavirus, folks have taken to panic grocery shopping. I went to Sam’s for some usual bulk items and thought we were going to be hit by a freak one two punch of a spring blizzard and hurricane over the weekend. All the bread, chicken, paper goods, and cleaning products were gone. The next day I went to Kroger and saw the same thing, plus all the vegetables and fresh fruits were wiped out.
I paused to chat with a produce clerk. “I guess I picked a bad day to shop. Has it been like this all day?” She paused her straightening of the half dozen shallots remaining in the empty produce display case. Rolling her eyes, she sighed, “It’s been like this since we opened. Forty people were waiting at the door at 7 this morning.”
“Oh no! That’s too early to be out and about!” “Agreed! They’ve cleaned us out. Buying all that toilet paper, like we wouldn’t get a truck tomorrow.” “You get delivery every day?” “Oh, yeah, this is a big store and everything turns over quick. We’ll always get more tomorrow. “
I wished her luck. She looked tired and overwhelmed, but ten hours of an apocalyptic panic filled crowd had to have been unnerving. If we can’t see the danger beyond us, we often do whatever we can to help us feel like we’re taking charge of the situation. In reality, washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. After this, limiting personal interaction or social distancing, is the next good we can do for one another. My old mother had a prescription for trying times: “If you want to feel better during hard times, take care of someone less fortunate than you. Quit worrying about yourself.”
In art class we took some time to share how our lives would be impacted by the closings and postponements of upcoming various events. Some have new babies to celebrate, children to care for when schools close, and I have a 50th college reunion that got cancelled. I have an upcoming art show, which I anticipate will get cancelled also. These things happen, and while I won’t see my girlfriends from long ago, we can possibly make an alternative plan for the art show. If not, there’s next year, and we press on, knowing the year of coronavirus isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but a distraction that will bring out either the best or the worst in us.
Will general conference be postponed or annual conference? We don’t know as yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. While we can want our lives to run on our time and our schedules, there is a time and an order that belongs to God alone. Some people of faith can’t allow their minds to include the natural process of death and disease in the workings of God’s providence, while others see these as God’s just punishment for sin.
If God is at work for good in our illness and death, then it’s because God quickens the human heart to help and give care to others, rather than to lead us to care only for ourselves. If the poor and the vulnerable are most at risk in a pandemic, then the pervasive providence of God’s mercy is poured out for them through the hands of those who love and serve God. As people of faith, we believe “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Fresh flowers are fragile and not long lived. As such, artists choose to paint them in place of human subjects, who also have limited life spans. Flowers have the extra benefit of never complaining, “I’m tired. When can I get up and walk around?” They also don’t fuss if you paint them blue, if their actual color is pink, or say, “Well, I don’t think it looks very much like me.” I vote for flowers any day.
Gail rendered a fine asymmetrical design and paid close attention to the details of the flowers. Mike had an exuberant design with emotional use of color and texture. I asked both of them to try a new technique for mixing colors: pick up several colors on the brush and mix them on the canvas itself, rather than mix up one flat color, as if they were buying a bucket of paint at Lowe’s. I painted over an old canvas from last year. The bright colors of springtime give my spirits a lift, even if I know the skies are gray and drab.
Our art class Tuesday was much diminished by the threat of the coronavirus, but since many of us in the group are older, I’d rather they stay home and stay healthy, so we can meet to paint another day. Many things are changing now, so we need to adjust our minds to the new normal of life in the age of coronavirus. Just as schools are now doing distant teaching via the internet, churches will be live-streaming preaching and using small choral groups or soloists as their musicians. My favorite Starbucks will likely become a drive through, and restaurants will become get and go food distribution sites. Public places, such as movie theaters, museums, and bars will also close their doors. Prepare for the internet to slow down, with everyone streaming entertainment, school lessons, and shopping at home.
Since we don’t know how long this contagion will continue, our art class will not meet together in person until we know we can do no harm to one another by our gatherings. Our usual rule is if the schools are closed, we don’t meet. This more often applies to a weather emergency, but a health emergency is just as dangerous. When we’re cooped up at home for inclement weather, we can keep our spirits up, for we know the days will be temperate or tolerable soon enough. We find a way to keep our hands and minds busy as we mark our time of confinement. It always helps if we keep a sense of calm about us.
The ancient International Wisdom Tradition prized order not only in nature, but also in the community. Those who practiced this way of thinking in the Hebrew world could relate to Ben Sira’s words:
“In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord.” (Sirach 18:25-26)
The solid Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Do you dread change? What can come without it? What can be pleasanter or more proper to universal nature? Can you heat your bath unless wood undergoes a change? Can you be fed unless a change is wrought upon your food? Can any useful thing be done without changes? Do you not see, then, that this change also which is working in you is even such as these, and alike necessary to the nature of the Universe? (Book VII, 18)”
Just remember, as an artist, you are a change agent. This is your nature, your being, and your purpose. You bring beauty to the empty canvas, you make sense of a lump of clay or a slab of rock. You can take cast off objects found on the roadside and recreate them into a new object full of meaning. You can change the fears and anxieties of your community by encouraging others to have hope and optimism. If we find the small ounces of courage within us, and share the teaspoons of it with others, we’ll find more courage welling up within us to flow out to others. By being willing to change our own lives, we can change others, and together we change the world.
I will keep you posted with my plans and projects, for I don’t plan to waste this time of seclusion. It’s a great time to catch up on reading, make some new paintings, try new recipes, and maybe even finish some chores about the home place. We won’t lose connection with each other, for if you keep me in mind and I keep you in mind, we will all keep the same mind 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 (Philippians 2:6-8).
Keep one another safe until we meet again. Joy and Peace, Cornelia
Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.
When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”
Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.
For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.
I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.
Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.
This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.
What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.
I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”
I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”
In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.
Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:
“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.
Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.
The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.
I’m one of the world’s worst worriers. I can make a mountain out of a molehill. This doesn’t bode well for living life to the fullest, for none of us know for certain what’s coming up around the corner, much less further down the road. This knowledge paralyses some of us, so that some of us cannot make choices until we have more information.
The fear of making a poor choice keeps some of us confined to our beds, for what happens if we get out on the wrong side of the bed? Our whole day might be ruined. We’ll choose to stay in bed, rather than risk making this first bad choice of many. After all, there’s no sense of starting a day that will only go downhill from the gitgo.
In times of stress, I have repeated this sentence as if it were a mantra: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” ~~ 1 John 4:18
When faced with a blank canvas, we all have choices. If we use a pencil to draw the shapes, then we try to fill in the exact lines, even though we may not have yet found the perfection of form of the object we are representing. I always recommend drawing the general shape of the subject matter with a brush dipped in a wash of yellow paint. This helps the artist do two things: set the general composition and forms on the canvas, and provide an opportunity to correct any first misperceptions, since the pale yellow is easily over painted.
Of course, most of us have not lived in a world of unconditional love, even in the church. We Methodists are traditionally called to go “onto perfection in love of God and neighbor until our hearts are so full of love, nothing else exists.” Judgement causes fear, so people are afraid to give what they have or to serve with their gifts, if others tell them how poorly they are doing.
In art class, we have a rule of positive critiques. First we find three constructive statements to make about a student’s work. Then we talk about what can be improved. It takes time to move people’s minds from thinking negatively about their own work, to believing positively in their capabilities to learn. In this aspect, I confess to a belief in “works righteousness,” for persistence will pay off. While we may not become Matisse or Michelangelo, we can enjoy the pleasures of color and the creative act of making art in our own way.
We had a full class last Friday when I brought a small still life. The objects were a small clay lamp from the Holy Land, a white stone scraper I found on an arrowhead hunt with my family, my grandmother’s darning egg, a stone fossil from my San Antonio neighborhood, and a leaf I picked up in the parking lot. Artists can make anything interesting, for we don’t need to have luxurious items for our subjects. Each person brought elements of their own personality to the subject at hand.
Mike is one of my repeat students, who loves texture and mixing colors. You can see he favored the lamp, the scraper, and the fossil, for these have these best rendering. The rest are suggested just enough to balance the others.
Erma is new to the class and comes from a mosaic background. Her shapes are true and carefully drawn. Working to get the dimensional qualities is a challenge for everyone. This comes from learning to see the light and darks. Last year the class had traditional perspective drawing classes. I may have to do this again for this group, now that I see where they are.
Tatiana has a fine drawing of the leaf and the fossil. Her colors are natural. Getting shapes down is the first goal. Later we’ll work on highlights and shadows.
I was glad to see Glenn back after his health issue. Can’t keep a good man down. He was in good humor the whole class and was a blessing to all of us. He got the basic shapes of the still life on the canvas. Next time, we’ll work on filling more of the canvas, so it won’t feel so lonely.
Gail is on her second year of art classes. She’s either a glutton for punishment or she’s getting some pleasure from them. She is an example of persistence leading to improvement. Her objects are to scale, relative to each other. We see highlights from the light source, as well as the cast shadows, both of which emphasize the sense of solidity of the objects represented. She has marked off a front plane from the blue background.
Some say artists never use logic, or the left side of their brains, but I’d disagree with this. Back in the 1970’s, the commonly held theory was creativity’s location was in the right side of the brain, but today neuroscientists believe both logic and creativity use both sides of the brain at once. While speech and sight are located in certain areas, which if damaged, can affect these abilities, logic and creativity are spread out across many areas of the brain, says Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s also affiliated with the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
As we age, older adults tend to learn better how to be both logical AND creative. This may occur because this kind of a shift is helpful to bring extra processing resources to bear on a task to compensate for age-related declines in function. Or it might be a sign that the brain is simply less good at maintaining its youthful division of labor. Understanding hemispheric specialization is thus also important for discovering ways to help us all maintain better cognitive functioning with age.
Those folks who say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” haven’t been to an art class. We don’t teach, we give opportunities to learn. Every day in my own studio, I learn something new about myself, the paint, my world, my calling, and my vision for the future. I never reach perfection, but at least I’m going on to perfection. My little still life has a mosaic quality, because I took an old canvas, which didn’t meet my expectations, and I sliced it up into evenly spaced vertical cuts. I took another poorly done old work, cut it up into horizontal strips and wove it into the first canvas. Then I painted over what was underneath. Yes, I had to pile the paint on thickly, but that gives it a rich effect, as opposed to a thinned out, watercolor feeling. While I made no clear line of demarcation, the color change denotes the difference between the table and the background.
I do not know what tomorrow will will bring, or what will come to life on the blank canvas before me. If we will trust the one who lived, died, and rose for us, we can live and work in perfect love every moment of our whole lives. I know I trust the word of our Lord who always will be there for us in our futures to make our mountains into molehills.
“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” ~~ Mark 14:28
I was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday. Two evenly matched teams kept the score tight until the last quarter, when an interception by Kansas City put the game into the hands of Patrick Mahomes. This young quarterback proceeded to shred the 49ers with 21 unanswered points for a comeback win. If San Francisco came away feeling shell shocked, they had every reason for their disbelief. They were ahead by 10 points going into the last quarter and KC hadn’t won a Super Bowl in 50 years.
When I was in art school, the most difficult task was learning how to see the world in a new way. Our art history classes tried to prepare us for this undertaking by teaching us the changing styles of beauty across the ages. Some of us never got it, however, as we persisted in thinking the ancient works were just “ugly and deformed” or the modern works were “lacking in realism or talent.” We students weren’t asked to have preformed ideas already, but to learn new ways of looking at the world and the ways of representing it.
When I went to seminary twenty years later, I hit the same wall in philosophy class. We were studying the ancient Greek philosophers, who each defined reality in a different way. I was confused for a moment, until I realized the great artists across history all sought a different form of beauty. When I explained this to my classmates, the “aha moment” also came alive for them. In our world, we often think a word means one thing and one thing only, but this isn’t so.
As Joni Mitchell says in “Both Sides Now,”
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.
We’re only looking at the clouds or illusions of what we think is beauty or reality, for we don’t know reality at all. A painting could be a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space or form, or it might be colors and shapes floating on a flat surface, meant only to evoke emotions in the viewer. Some paintings are sculptural in form, so they straddle the boundary between dimensions.
The challenge for beginning art students is to look beyond what we know and what we think we know. This also a challenge we have in our everyday lives. Do we keep repeating the same recipes because we KNOW how to make them and we KNOW our people enjoy them? Do we want to get “healthy,” but we want to keep eating the same food and keep our same lifestyle, even though these are the very things which have made us unhealthy? When our health care provider asks, “What is one small change you can make this week?” Will we answer, “eat cheese with only one meal per day instead of three?” This is a small change; next week we can add another one.
Artists also keep repeating forms and styles, sometimes because they love their subject matter and other times because they feel secure doing this. How can we stretch our creative minds and build our mastery beyond our current plateau? We do this because we’re human, and human beings like short cuts, and the easy way out. If it were really easy, everyone would be doing it. We can all do it, but only one in a million may earn a living from it. The rest of us are glad if we earn our art supplies from our work. Everyone can enjoy the benefits of the creative life, however.
This past week our class looked at two Mondrian paintings of the same subject: a ginger jar still life. In the earlier work, his attention to detail, the planes on which the apples rested, and the background are treated realistically. We know these are objects from his household and his kitchen. The later painting has the ginger jar, plus some food items, perhaps cheeses, but Mondrian has broken up the whole surface of the painting with intersecting lines, which touch the edges of the objects on the table. The painting as a whole is more important than the individual objects. We don’t ask which is “better,” for each one is a good example of the style of painting the artist was pursuing. Later Mondrian would leave the objective world all together and paint right angle lines in red, yellow, blue, black, and white.
Erma brought a photo of a fine mosaic shrine she made. I suggested she try working with that as her inspiration. Translating from a flat photo to a flat painted surface seems as if some of the problems would be solved, but colors and shapes which work in 3D don’t always work in a painting. These are things we learn by doing. There aren’t any mistakes in art, only opportunities to make changes for the better. If we artists had to do things perfectly, none of us would ever get out of bed, for one look at our bed heads would send us back to our comfortable cribs and we’d be pulling the cozy comforters over that mess. Our muffled voices would call out for coffee, but we’d only poke our heads out long enough to grab the proffered cup and back into hiding we’d go.
Mike had valentine’s day on his mind, since he plans on goose hunting on the holiday. I think I see the image of the sun in the background. NASA recently released some high-quality photos of the boiling surface of the sun. Mike has an affinity for the bodies in space. We bemoaned the loss of Pluto as a planet, it having been relegated to the category of “dwarf planet,” by @plutokiller, aka Mike Brown, of California Institute of Technology. We also talked about pointillism, the technique of using dots of paint to make an image and to mix the color in the eye.
Gail chose to do the landscape seen through the fellowship hall window. The background has the parking lot stripes, the tree, and the asphalt. The light stripes in the foreground are the vertical window shades. It’s unfinished, as are all the other class room works. It’s hard to get even a small work done in an hour and a half, but we get a start on it. I don’t get mine finished either. It’s a small landscape of the green spaces in Hot Springs, for an exhibition I have in the springtime.
I have works, which I live with for a certain time, to see if they stand up to my eye. If they pass muster, I let them loose upon the world. If not, I destroy them by cutting them up, reweaving them, and painting a new work on the recycled canvas. Sometimes I’m painting when I’m sick or distracted, so I’m not in the best of sorts. When I’m feeling fine, I have a flow. Of course, since one can’t plan for the flow to happen on a certain day or time, going ahead and painting is the surest way to catch it in the act!
Eventually, however, all art is never finished, but only abandoned, for whatever we have learned on this work is enough, and now we go onto the future with the knowledge we’ve gained. The new work we initiate is full of all our past successes and failures, and it contains the promises of the future breakthroughs. We always work in hope, for while we breathe, we always hope. If we come to the blank canvas full of hope and believing in the promises of the future, we are then open vessels for the holy spirit to fill and quicken. Then we can paint or make what ever beautiful work god moves our hand to create.
John Wesley wrote extensively to teach the Methodists of his day the tenets of the faith. We teach seminarians the historic doctrines, but many think these are “dead ideas of a long ago world.” Wesley gave us 52 Standard Sermons and the Notes on the New Testament, both of which are part of our doctrinal standards. Today many believe as long as they can justify an idea by scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, they can believe anything they want regardless of our standards. Of course, Wesley himself believed scripture, reason, and tradition led to the experience of being a child of God, but that’s another story for another day.
The first tract I ever wrote expressly on this subject was published in the latter end of this year. That none might be prejudiced before they read it, I gave it the indifferent title of “The Character of a Methodist.” In this I described a perfect Christian, placing in the front, “Not as though I had already attained.” Part of it I subjoin without any alteration: —
Loves the Lord with All the Heart “A Methodist is one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth whom I desire besides thee.’ My God and my all! ‘Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.’ He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy, as having in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life, and over-flowing his soul with peace and joy. Perfect love living now cast out fear, he rejoices evermore. Yea, his joy is full, and all his bones cry out, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten me again unto a living hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, reserved in heaven for me.’
Good is the Will of the Lord “And he, who hath this hope, thus full of immortality, in everything giveth thanks, as knowing this (whatsoever it is) is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning him. From him therefore he cheerfully receives all, saying, ‘Good is the will of the Lord;’ and whether he giveth or taketh away, equally blessing the name of the Lord. Whether in ease or pain, whether in sickness or health, whether in life or death, he giveth thanks from the ground of the heart to Him who orders it for good; into whose hands he hath wholly committed his body and soul, ‘as into the hands of a faithful Creator.’ He is therefore anxiously ‘careful for nothing,’ as having ‘cast all his care on Him that careth for him;’ and ‘in all things’ resting on him, after ‘making’ his ‘request known to him with thanksgiving.’
Prays Without Ceasing “For indeed he ‘prays without ceasing;’ at all times the language of his heart is this, ‘Unto thee is my mouth, though without a voice; and my silence speaketh unto thee.’ His heart is lifted up to God at all times, and in all places. In this he is never hindered, much less interrupted, by any person or thing. In retirement or company, in leisure, business, or conversation, his heart is ever with the Lord. Whether he lie down, or rise up, ‘God is in all his thoughts:’ He walks with God continually; having the loving eye of his soul fixed on him, and everywhere ‘seeing Him that is invisible.’
Loves the Neighbor as the Self “And loving God, he ‘loves his neighbour as himself;’ he loves every man as his own soul. He loves his enemies, yea, and the enemies of God. And if it be not in his power to ‘do good to them that hate’ him, yet he ceases not to ‘pray for them,’ though they spurn his love, and still ‘despite. fully use him, and persecute him.’
Pure in Heart “For he is ‘pure in heart.’ Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper. It has cleansed him from pride, whereof ‘only cometh contention;’ and he hath now ‘put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.’ And indeed all possible ground for contention, on his part, is cut off. For none can take from him what he desires, seeing he ‘loves not the world, nor any of the things of the world;’ but ‘all his desire is unto God, and to the remembrance of his name.’
Does the Will of God “Agreeable to this his one desire, is this one design of his life; namely, ‘to do, not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him.’ His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a single eye; and because his ‘eye is single, his whole body is full of light. The whole is light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.’ God reigns alone; all that is in the soul is ‘holiness to the Lord.’ There is not a motion in his heart but is according to his will. Every thought that arises points to him, and is in ‘obedience to the law of Christ.’
Tree Known by Fruits “And the tree is known by its fruits. For, as he loves God, so he ‘keeps his commandments;’ not only some, or most of them, but all, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to ‘keep the whole law and offend in one point,’ but has in all points ‘a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards man.’ Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God has enjoined, he does. ‘He runs the way of God’s commandments,’ now He bath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory and joy so to do; it is his daily crown of rejoicing, to ‘do the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven.’
Keeping the Commandments “All the commandments of God he accordingly keeps, and that with all his might; for his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows. And therefore, loving God with all his heart, he serves him with all his strength; he continually presents his soul and ‘body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God;’ entirely and without reserve devoting himself, all he has, all he is, to his glory. All the talents he has, he constantly employs according to his Master’s will; every power and faculty of his soul, every member of his body.
Doing All to the Glory of God “By consequence, ‘whatsoever he doeth, it is all to the glory of God.’ In all his employments of every kind, he not only aims at this, which is implied in having a single eye, but actually attains it; his business and his refreshments, as well as his prayers, all serve to this great end. Whether he ‘sit in the house, or walk by the way,’ whether he lie down, or rise up, he is promoting, in all he speaks or does, the one business of his life. Whether he put on his apparel, or labour, or eat and drink, or divert himself from too wasting labour, it all tends to advance the glory of God, by peace and good-will among men. His one invariable rule is this: ‘Whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God, even the Father, through him.’
Running the Race, Not as the World Runs “Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his ‘ running the race which is set before him.’ He cannot therefore ‘lay up treasures upon earth,’ no more than he can take fire into his bosom. He cannot speak evil of his neighbour, any more than he can lie either for God or man. He cannot utter an unkind word of any one; for love keeps the door of his lips. He cannot ‘speak idle words; no corrupt conversation’ ever ‘comes out of his mouth;’ as is all that is not ‘good to the use of edifying,’ not fit to ‘minister grace to the hearers.’ But ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are’ justly ‘of good report,’ he thinks, speaks, and acts, ‘adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.'”
Christian Perfection is Wesley’s Theme These are the very words wherein I largely declared, for the first time, my sentiments of Christian perfection. And is it not easy to see, (1.) That this is the very point at which I aimed all along from the year 1725; and more determinately from the year 1730, when I began to be +homo unius libri,+ “a man of one book,” regarding none, comparatively, but the Bible? Is it not easy to see, (2.) That this is the very same doctrine which I believe and teach at this day; not adding one point, either to that inward or outward holiness which I maintained eight-and- thirty years ago? And it is the same which, by the grace of God, I have continued to teach from that time till now; as will appear to every impartial person from the extracts subjoined below.
Wesley goes on for some length, in his 18th century fondness for expositions. He’s not a modern blogger, but wrote for people who had time and leisure to read extensively. What I find most important for us Methodists today is his teaching about sin in believers, which is one of the points he makes strongly in the following sections.
Christian Perfection Explained 1.) In what sense Christians are not, (2.) In what sense they are, perfect.
“(1.) In what sense they are not. They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one- might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect till then to be wholly freed from temptation; for ‘the servant is not above his master.’ But neither in this sense is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, none which does not admit of a continual increase.
Christian Perfection means Sins Are Not Committed “(2.) In what sense then are they perfect? Observe, we are not now speaking of babes in Christ, but adult Christians But even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin. This St. John affirms expressly; and it cannot be disproved by the examples of the Old Testament. For what, if the holiest of the ancient Jews did sometimes commit sin? We cannot infer from hence, that ‘all Christians do and must commit sin as long as they live.’
Christians have the Holy Spirit “The privileges of Christians are in nowise to be measured by what the Old Testament records concerning those who were under the Jewish dispensation; seeing the fulness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is now brought to men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth, concerning which the Spirit of God declared of old time, (so far is David from being the pattern or standard of Christian perfection,) ‘He that is feeble among them, at that day, shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as the angel of the Lord before them.’ (Zech. 12:8.)
Christ Cleanses Us from Unrighteousness But St. John himself says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves;’ and, ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.’
1.) The tenth verse fixes the sense of the eighth: ‘If we say we have no sin,’ in the former, being explained by, ‘If we say we have not sinned,’ in the latter, verse.
2.) The point under consideration is not, whether we have or have not sinned heretofore; and neither of these verses asserts that we do sin, or commit sin now.
3.) The ninth verse explains both the eighth and tenth: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ As if he had said, ‘I have before affirmed, The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ And no man can say, ‘I need it not; I have 110 sin to be cleansed, from.’ ‘If we say, we have no sin, that ‘we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves,’ and make God a liar: But ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just,’ not only ‘to forgive us our sins,’ but also ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ that we may ‘go and sin no more.’ In conformity, therefore, both to the doctrine of St. John, and the whole tenor of the New Testament, we fix this conclusion: A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin.
Good Trees don’t Produce Evil Fruits “This is the glorious privilege of every Christian, yea, though he be but a babe in Christ. But it is only of grown Christians it can be affirmed, they are in such a sense perfect, as, Secondly, to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. First, from evil or sinful thoughts. Indeed, whence should they spring? ‘Out of the heart of man,’ if at all, ‘proceed evil thoughts.’ If, therefore, the heart be no longer evil, then evil thoughts no longer proceed out of it: For ‘a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.’
Christ Lives in the Heart “And as they are freed from evil thoughts, so likewise from evil tempers. Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, ‘I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me;’ – – words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin. This is expressed both negatively, ‘I live not,’ my evil nature, the body of sin, is destroyed; and positively, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and therefore all that is holy, and just, and good. Indeed, both these, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and, ‘I live not,’ are inseparably connected. For what communion hath light with darkness, or Christ with Belial?
Wesley was fond of quoting his brother Charles’ hymns in his writings: “He walks in glorious liberty, To sin entirely dead:
The Truth, the Son hath made him free, And he is free indeed.”
Lessons for Methodists Today Do we Methodists today understand this classic teaching on Christian Perfection overriding the ancient concept of justification over and over again? That idea implied we’re always in a state of corruption, so we constantly needed a sacrifice to make us right with God. Wesley taught justification by Christ, followed by the Spirit helping to refine us until we were entirely sanctified to be as Christ. This could happen in this life if we expected it and cooperated with the Spirit, but more likely the state came at the moment of death.
If we Methodists actually agreed on living out the “heart so full of love of God and neighbor that nothing else exists” motto, we’d not be listing the sins of others we find distasteful, but looking instead to shed God’s love abroad in the world.
Instead, we still attempt to keep the old laws, rather than the law of Christ’s faith, which proceeds from God’s love for the world. As Wesley writes,
Christ is the End of the Old Laws “For Christ is the end of the Adamic, as well as the Mosaic, law. By his death, he hath put an end to both; he hath abolished both the one and the other, with regard to man; and the obligation to observe either the one or the other is vanished away. Nor is any man living bound to observe the Adamic more than the Mosaic law. [I mean, it is not the condition either of present or future salvation.]
“In the room of this, Christ hath established another, namely, the law of faith. Not every one that doeth, but every one that believeth, now receiveth righteousness, in the full sense of the word; that is, he is justified, sanctified, and glorified.”
Love is the Fulfillment of the Law Q. 4. Is love the fulfilling of this law?
“A. Unquestionably it is. The whole law under which we now are, is fulfilled by love. (Rom. 13:9, 10.) Faith working or animated by love is all that God now requires of man. He has substituted (not sincerity, but) love, in the room of angelic perfection.
“Q. 5. How is ‘love the end of the commandment?’ (1 Tim. 1:5.)
“A. It is the end of every commandment of God. It is the point aimed at by the whole and every part of the Christian institution. The foundation is faith, purifying the heart; the end love, preserving a good conscience.
“Q. 6. What love is this?
“A. The loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and the loving our neighbour, every man, as ourselves, as our own souls.
Thoughts on the Future The question for me is, how do we as Methodists retain our classical teachings and interpret them for our modern world? While some in fear want to move toward the exclusionary teachings of other faiths, Methodists have never lived in fear, for “perfect love drives out fear.” Yet some persist in excluding some for the sake of “the law,” as if the breaking of one law were more heinous than all the others.
Today in our congregations we have persons who’ve had serial divorces or cohabitate, plus those who gamble, drink excessively, mismanage personal funds, have babies out of wedlock, and are a public nuisance. You know who I’m talking about, but we love these folks and pray for them just the same. This isn’t right to include folks whose infirmities are in the straight world, but to exclude those who have the same problems just because they have a different sexual orientation. It’s not a choice for anyone who they love. It’s not a disease to be straight or gay. It is a problem if our hearts are closed and the love of God for all our neighbors isn’t filling our hearts to overflowing.
Wesley once said, “if your heart be as my heart, then give me your hand.” In a manner of speaking, we’re saying, if your experience is the same as my experience, let’s be partners. We think too much separates us, or there’s a rat between or among us, so no one extends their hand in fellowship. We distrust what we fear, for we don’t live in perfect love, but live instead according to the ways of the world.
The QuadrilateralDoesn’t Exist
But Scripture and tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter. (24)
Scripture Alone is Not Enough
When challenged for his authority, on any question, his first appeal was to the Holy Bible… Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted point of doctrine… Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that…
Doctrine of Assurance This is Methodism’s gift to the world and the reason we can live in perfect love, which casts out all fear. We have the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and our adoption as sons and daughters of God, so that we are the joint heirs with Christ to all the innumerable riches of God’s inheritance. This isn’t just for a few, but for all who give themselves to Christ.
We humans aren’t allowed to say whom God forgives or who is worthy to be forgiven. That would put us smack onto the throne of god and make us a god. Then we would be worshipping our own selves, an act which would be the highest form of idolatry and worshipping the creature. God forbid we Methodists fall into this trap!