Rabbit! Rabbit! Welcome to December!

arkansas, art, Children, Christmas, Civil War, coronavirus, Faith, Food, generosity, grief, Hanukkah, holidays, Israel, ministry, poverty, rabbits, righteousness, Travel

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

Autumn Study

art, Creativity, Faith, grief, Healing, Imagination, Mental Illness, nature, Painting, renewal, trees, Uncategorized

My newest painting is full of energy and colors, for it’s a study of autumn leaves and tree branches, which I saw in the forest surrounding my home. Nature doesn’t plan out how the pine needles fall from the trees, nor how the ornamental pear tree leaves blow up the hill into the shade. Tree branches fall down when they come to the end of their usefulness on the tree. The oaks and sycamores might not be as bright in color, but they too will add their bodies to make the soil richer for the surrounding trees.

This painting is more about my joy of having a brush in my hand and paint on the canvas than it is about any attempt at any realism or representation of my original photo. Layering the colors; changing the background blues; marching the pine straw lines; and even losing the big, bottom sycamore leaf (it became amorphous, overlapping leaf shapes) was a sunny morning’s delight.

It’s been a long time, for I haven’t felt good enough to do anything creative in my studio. What happens to the artist who can no longer feel? Sickness can dull the senses, so the hand can no longer feel the touch of the brush against the canvas or the weight of the paint on the brush. These are minuscule amounts, for sure! One needs to be well to tell the difference and know when to keep going or let go of the stroke. Also one can overwork an area or the whole painting. I have several of these disasters which I’ve decided not to share with you all. (Although I admit I might be my own worst critic. However I do have loads of experience and high expectations!)

Depression, a form of sickness, is worse than feeling sad for a few days. It is a loss of interest in the experiences which once gave you joy, and it’s isolation from the living world because you feel dead inside. When I lost my daughter, I began to crawl in a hole. Then I got physically sick, and my blood pressure medication was working too well. I was one of the walking dead. Once my doctors got the physical problems cleared up, I realized I was also depressed. Now my new “brain chemistry ” is making me feel like “my old self!” I’m thankful I’m able to do creative work again.

A verse which has steadied me through this difficult journey from Isaiah 57:18-19–

I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;

I will lead them and repay them with comfort,

creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips.

Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord;

and I will heal them.

Autumn Study, 12″ x 16″, acrylic on canvas, $100.

THE HOLY NODE AND THE FOUND BUTTERFLY

butterflies, Creativity, Health, Icons, Imagination, Meditation, Mental Illness, mystery, Physical Training, purpose, renewal, Strength, Travel, Uncategorized, vision

20140316-083445.jpg

I’m not a fast walker, for my first goal in walking isn’t to break any record for my usual 1.5 mile jaunt around Mercy Hospital here in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Neither do I stroll, for Bon Jovi and the Boss sing a strong striding cadence in my ear. I can manage the hills better in one direction than another, for at least one is nearly 45 degrees. I go up this hill once a week. It never gets less steep. The rest of the week I go down that hill. At my age, there’s no sense taking any more years off my life than necessary!

My goals as I walk are to be more conscious of my body, to care for it better, to build my body for endurance and health, to be outside in the sunlight (natural vitamin D), and to develop a better attitude (exercise releases endorphins that lift one’s mood). Walking also seems to clear my mind of worry and anxiety about others.

In that large hospital, I know that healing is going on. While some may be “losing the battle” against whatever dread disease has attacked them, they have “won the war” and received their final healing from God. We think our life is over when we close our eyes and breathe no more, but our life is just beginning in a newer and more wonderful way!

As I make my rounds about the hospital grounds, the wind blows through my hair, the sun falls on my face, and I see the sun shaped shadows of the pines and the pear trees. Even the ornamental lake reflects the colors of the sky and clouds. Heaven and earth are more connected here even though my path is just beside the eternally busy bypass of Highway 270.

There are nodes in space and time at which the intersection of heaven and earth seem to open up to one another. The Celtic tradition calls these “thin places.” All across the world we can find sites that were considered holy by one successive people & faith after another. When you walk into such a place, you can feel the years of prayers within the space.

This route I take, while short, has become a holy node for me. It was the reason for two found object works: The No Room Inn and The Healing Christ. I also did a landscape of that decorative pond. Now I am painting the various butterflies I have collected on my journeys. These are symbols of the new life to come because they wrap themselves in a cocoon (grave cloths). I think of them as an icon of the new life we live when we see the light of what is possible in Jesus Christ himself:

“I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in the darkness.” — John 12:46

When It’s Too Dark To See

at risk kids, Creativity, Family, Health, Ministry, poverty, Secrets, shame, Spirituality, Uncategorized, vision, Work

The Light overcomes the Darkness

The Light overcomes the Darkness

“The light shineth in the darkness and the darkness comprehended it not.”  ~~ John 1:5 KJV

As a young woman, I spent time in England visiting the great museums and learning to appreciate their custom of afternoon tea after a long day of tromping through visual pleasures and historic treasures contained in the various public and private galleries of our parent land. I saw the Elgin marbles, better known as the sculpture frieze from the Greek Parthenon. The great Turner paintings, which are full of colors and imagery, were worth several days of visits, for they have their own gallery.

As I stood sketching one of Turner’s works, “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus,” I made sure to maintain proper museum decorum for artists wielding sharp objects: no swift moves, stay beyond arm’s reach of the priceless object, and never mutter out loud even in wonder or awe. Into this open space came another visitor who took a look at the painting, read out loud the title on the gilded frame, stepped back to give the canvas rendering of the one-eyed giant on a high cliff raising a mighty rock to crush the tiny single sailed ship that cruised below on which the hero Ulysses was on its prow shaking his fist at the giant above and daring Polyphemus to cast down the rock and sink his tiny barge.  All of this detail was set in a beautiful land and seascape.

As the visitor studied the painting, I was watching him out of the corner of my eye. This bit of drama was proving more interesting than the sketch that I was rendering. At that moment, he shook his head and said, “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus: I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all!”

Just as a match struck in a dark cave will light up a broad area, the light that comes into the dark world brings illumination to those who have eyes to see it. Some people will look at this light and never comprehend or understand it. They will never see it, never choose it, never attain it and never come into their inheritance.  This doesn’t seem like an optimistic or “light filled” statement, but the difficult truth is that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness didn’t comprehend it” (NRSV). We ask then, why do some people thrive, enduring dark periods of their lives, while others let the darkness over come them? Why do some claim victory over the darkness or depression, but others suffer defeat and despair?

Perhaps some people have been in darkness so long, that when the light of God comes to them, they don’t recognize it as light. They only know darkness and the light is a stranger or an interloper. They are afraid to open their life to a new friend. Maybe they have been hiding in the darkness of our world for so long that they are afraid to risk showing their true selves in the light. They are afraid of showing themselves to other people, but even more afraid of revealing themselves to the God who already knows their true selves. Most of us however, are concerned more with the validation of our peers than about God’s praise, and that is why we cannot comprehend the light, but continue to live in the darkness of this world.

Not only individuals, but also communities and whole systems are caught up in darkness. There were times in my ministry that I wanted to add anti-depressants to the local/regional/national/continental water supply, but mass medication isn’t the solution. People need to care for one another, not just for their own color, or class, or neighborhood, or tribe, or party. We have to work together for the good of all and make sure the weakest have their basic needs met. Then we can work to bring the living standards up for all by focusing on what does work: education, mentoring youths and families at risk, and providing jobs and living wages with benefits.

Yet none of these will mean anything without a strong faith community, for we again will be reduced to “each one for him/herself.” Without the light to guide them, people don’t persevere in dark times. None of the improvements in our own lives, our family, our community, our country, or our world will come easily or quickly. We may not see the “new creation” in our lifetime, but we will always see the light of justice, hope peace, love and truth on the horizon. This light shines in our present darkness and if the darkness comprehends it not, we who have the light within us must share this light with others!

How can you be a light in the darkness? In a world full of negativity, can you be a positive force for good, for change, or a defender of the weak/wounded/weary? Can you shine your light before others that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven? (Matthew 5:16)  As a spiritual exercise, keep a daily list/journal of the opportunities you found and/or missed to be a light for Christ in the world.  At the end of the week, read these over. Notice your impact. A little rain over many years wears down the mighty mountain to tiny grains of sand.