The point of view determines the perspective of a work of art. One’s point of view, or preconceived bias, can determine how one sees the world and the decisions they make about the information that comes to them. If we think the world is a scary place, resources are few and won’t be enough for everyone, then, we’ll operate from fear and hoarding. If we believe God’s promises are faithful and God will indeed provide for our needs, then we’ll live in trust and hope, even as we order our lives to want less and enjoy simpler pleasures.
I always find it strange how the people in the Bible who have the greatest riches also have the most difficulty following Jesus. Matthew in 16:24-26 speaks to this topic in the section on “The Cross and Self-Denial:”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Of course, even in the 1st century AD, people wanted to have material possessions, a good income, and wealth stored up for the future. When Jesus said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38), he invited his followers to enter a despicable journey.
The Via Dolorosa isn’t named the Way of Grief for nothing. People walked it, bearing a heavy cross beam, on the way to an undignified death, a punishment reserved for criminals.
Yet Jesus transformed this ancient punishment into a means of redemption. He took a symbol of death and made it into a hope for new life. Because of this , the author of Hebrews 12:2 could write, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now we can live the Easter promise written in Ephesians 2:12-18:
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
So we who live on this side of the resurrection have a joy to celebrate every day. For us the cross is a sign of victory over sin and death, and the evidence of new life and love God has for God’s world and God’s peoples. As we read in Colossians 1:19-20—
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
I was cleaning up my condo Sunday afternoon because the Pandemic restrictions have caused my housekeeping to need some intensive care. Between all the various projects I’ve done and my new paintings, plus the seasonal change requiring my closet revamp, I realized I haven’t seen the top of my table in months. Since I’m not receiving visitors, I really don’t have to worry about this, but even I can only live with so much disorder and clutter.
When I was in seminary, my roommate and I would make a pact: no cleaning during exam week and ice cream runs every night. Amazingly, some compacts are easily kept, and studying for finals was less stressful because of our sweet rewards. A little chaos for a short period of time isn’t a problem, but months or years of confusion and neglect can bring about disaster.
I realize chaos is the norm for many people during the holidays, even if we’re not attending parties at work, or visiting with relatives or friends. We still have other rituals to indulge, especially if we have children. One year I stopped to list out all the experiences I remember which make up an ideal Christmas. I never imagined the list would be so long, or that my parents worked so hard to make the season wonderful for us children. As you read this list, feel free to add your own traditions to the list.
Writing Santa a letter
Traveling to Natchitoches to see the Christmas lights
Pizza and Car trip to see the Christmas lights in town
Hanging Christmas lights on the house
Finding the perfect Christmas tree
Decorating the Christmas tree
Making Christmas decorations
Making popcorn and cranberry strings for the tree
Watching the bubble lights
Hanging the Christmas stockings
The brass Angel chimes
Finding a thorn bush for a gumdrop tree
Eating ribbon candy from the jar at my nanny’s home
Candy lifesavers in a book
Special foods, such as Ham and yam, and the green bean thing
Christmas breakfast of biscuits and strawberry jam
Drinking from the Santa mug
Christmas plates and mugs
Making fruitcake cookies and cakes
Wrapping and hiding presents
Dreaming while reading the Sears catalog
Visit to Santa Claus
Gifts from Santa, rather than from the parents
Christmas candlelight service at church
Children’s Christmas pageant and choir concert
Staying up late to assemble toys
Never enough batteries
New red robe or pajamas
Christmas letters from all our friends
A vain hope for snow
Wreath on the door
Wrapping paper everywhere
Handing out presents
Making a Christmas list
Candles in the window to guide the wise men
Advent wreath candles
Caroling from house to house, mostly off key
Christmas clothes and Sox
Garish Christmas sweaters
At this rate, I’d have to accomplish 1.7 per day to get all 50 done in between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Like any big project, no one does it all at once. We always divided it up into smaller, achievable experiences, some of which extended over the whole season, and others we did once a week. How we managed to cram a dozen of these into each one of the four weeks before Christmas is beyond me. These days my work ethic is on furlough and if it ever returns, I’ll probably send it on vacation rather than let it clock back into work. I do lead a simpler life now.
Any month of 30 days can be converted to one of these units:
4 weeks and 2 days or
8.20% of a standard year
These past nine months of COVID, with its quarantines, terrible toilet paper, and bad haircuts have been exacerbated by the illnesses and deaths of friends and family we’ve known and loved. With over 3,000 Americans dying from this disease daily, celebrating a real Christmas as we once did, seems unconscionable. Those of us who’ve lost a loved one look for any light in these dark days. Like Frodo, we might say, “I wish it need not have happened in my time.”
“So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring).
When I think of my life of seven decades plus, I remember when I was a child, every one of those two and a half million seconds before Christmas seemed to stretch out to eternity. Just as the three months of summer flew by like an icicle on a hot stovetop, the one month between Thanksgiving and Christmas moved slowly, as if I were watching a stalactite grow imperceptibly across the centuries. Maybe this is why my parents organized this magnificent list of projects to keep us children from whining over and over, “Is it Christmas yet?”
I’ve never understood how they managed to teach us deferred gratification. After all, every single day in the month prior to Christmas had some sort of activity, and some of those projects extended over the whole season. One year mother decided to bead a skirt for the tree. She bought a “Twelve Days of Christmas” kit, which contained the white felt skirt, a green fringe, and multi colored felt squares imprinted with the patterns. As we worked each night, we filled each design with brightly colored sequins. Some of these early days were so heavy they had no fabric showing. As Christmas came closer and our project was as yet unfinished, we began to limit our decorating. We also were running out of colored beads and sequins by this time.
Another year mother made new stockings for us kids, with our names on them. She also sewed a small bell on these so our early arising would wake her up. For the first grandchild, she had more time on her hands. That stocking was fully embroidered and had no warning bell. Of course, it hung at my home, so mother and daddy didn’t have to worry about any early bird interrupting their beauty sleep.
My parents did have a rule that we kids needed to wait until the crack of dawn before we entered the room where the tree was. If we got up earlier, and we almost always did, we took our pillows and covers into the dining room. Our old house had French doors separating the dining room from the living room. We’d pile our bedding down close to these doors and look through the bottom window into the magic darkness of the corner where the Christmas tree stood guard over mysterious packages wrapped in seasonal colors.
“What do you think that big one is?” My brother would whisper. “It’s probably clothes,” I’d reply, “you know those rectangular packages are usually pajamas or pants.” “Gross!” I’d giggle and he’d elbow me in the ribs.
All three of us would strain and crain to see the indistinct shapes back under the lower branches of the fir tree. Until the first light came into the window beside the tree, we could only imagine the treasure hidden there. In our eager efforts and earnest desire to meet the rising sun, we often fell back asleep dreaming of Christmas morning. We’d awaken when our parents began their morning coffee ritual, which usually happened in bed, but on Christmas, they drank their caffeine on the couch and watched our joy, as we unwrapped the presents from Santa Claus.
None of us children were ever hungry on Christmas morning, at least not until we’d discovered the answer to all the questions we’d asked in the dark of night. Once those were revealed and our curiosity satisfied, we could turn our appetites to breakfast. Someone always gave daddy a good jam and biscuit gift in a wooden tub, so it was our go to meal for breakfast. We didn’t eat biscuits often, so they were a treat with huge dripping globs of melting butter. We’d go to one of the grandparents’ homes for lunch soon afterwards, so we didn’t need a big meal.
As I think back on these 1950’s Christmas memories, I was too young to know about the hunger and poverty of others. I do remember the poliovirus and the vaccine in my arm. There was the nuclear threat of the Cold War era and I lived in the time of the McCarthy Hearings and the John Birch Society. This is also the time of Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Movement. My parents may have instituted all these seasonal home grown activities not only for us children, but also for themselves. If they were busy with “Christmas,” then they were focused on a spiritual journey and not on the chaos of the world.
When my daughter was small, I began buying her Christmas in August, because that’s when I got my first paycheck as a schoolteacher. I bought one little thing at a time, and put aside a little more money on a couple of larger gifts in layaway. I wasn’t going to buy anything for myself, but the choir at my church gave me a ham and a little love offering so I could have a bright red blouse for Christmas. I recalled the year after my marriage, my husband gave away some of our wedding gifts as Christmas presents “to keep up appearances.” We shouldn’t have to lie to the ones we love, especially at Christmas, but not everyone can live with the truth. Christmas isn’t about the gifts we give to one another, but about the gift God gave to humankind.
Sometimes it seems like our world has gone mad, and folks can’t tell a truth from a lie. My daddy used to say there were folks who’d say the sun was shining even when it was pitch black outside. I’d shake my head in disbelief, but I hadn’t been out in the world as much as he had. Even if we now live in a world gone crazy, we can take comfort in these true words from the gospel of John (1:1-5)—
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
April showers bring May flowers and Coronavirus containment orders. Everything we once knew about our worlds has been upended by the advent of this novel virus. Once we were proud of our abilities to master our planet and to wrest its unruly ways to our wills. Now we meet an invisible, but infinitely small agent that can weigh lay us from some hidden corner or passing person. I have friends who say they don’t want to go to the grocery store without their spouse or partner, for they don’t feel safe anymore. Then there’s the folks who run pell mell into the jaws of death, daring the virus to take them on.
From my rabbit hole, I wonder if the virus doesn’t affect the nervous system and cause some of us to act more fearful and others to act more foolhardy. I think the stress of looking at our four walls of our various hutches, being cooped up with our rabbit families, and dealing with teaching our bunny children their lessons is getting to us all. Maybe raises for those teachers are due in the next go round, now that we understand what they go through every day. The stress is getting to all of us, and even to this rabbit, who’s used to organizing my own time.
People laughed at me back in my seminary days when I brought my appointment book to school, but I blocked off all my classes, set aside time for study, time for meals, and I only worked a half day on Saturday. Sunday I did church and watched the Cowboys, back when they really were America’s Team. I’m retired now, but I still keep a calendar of projects. Since my two art shows got cancelled, I started making masks for those who’ll be opening up shop again soon. I keep up on my pages, my sci-fi spiritual blog, and I started a new painting series, “Postcards from the Pandemic.” I’m down to working about 30 hours a week now, but I’m almost as old as the dinosaurs. The young rabbits can work the long hours and they’re welcome to them.
This May won’t be like any May we’ve ever had before. Whatever model or image you have of the “merry month of May,” you should toss it out the window and let it smash to smithereens like a precious crystal vase dropped from the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We won’t be traveling there any time soon, but if you can find a high up window, your fantasies about May will crash with a resounding clash. Then you can have a good cry about it or a stiff drink, whatever suits your fancy.
Just get your rabbit mind wrapped around this idea: San Antonio has cancelled its Cinco de Mayo celebrations and the Kentucky Derby won’t run on May 4, but has deferred this premier horse race to September 5, 2020. The Indianapolis 500, a Memorial Day tradition for 104 years, has been rescheduled for Sunday, Aug. 23. These events haven’t been cancelled forevermore. They’ve merely been postponed to a future date. We can bury the small grief of our delayed gratification, and look forward to a better time in the future.
NASCAR will be the first major sport to return to television, but without fans in the stands. NASCAR will resume its season without fans starting May 17, at Darlington Raceway in South Carolina with the premier Cup Series racing four times in an 11-day span. The revised schedule for now will only race at tracks within driving distance of the Charlotte-based race teams and in states that have started reopening.
Charlotte Motor Speedway will then host the Coca-Cola 600 on May 24 to mark 60 consecutive years of the longest race on the NASCAR schedule being held on Memorial Day weekend. The track in Concord, outside NASCAR’s home base of Charlotte, will then host a Wednesday race three days later. The teams won’t travel far, they won’t practice, they won’t qualify, they’ll wear face masks, practice social distancing, and the rules might be adjusted for pit stops, but when the green flag drops, those drivers will forget about these minor things because they have a race to win. Racing rabbits always go for the trophy, as in “Wreckers or Checkers! Baby, I’m using the chrome horn if you don’t get out of my way!”
Some holidays and celebrations won’t change, and we rabbits can be glad for this. I’ve often listed all the commercial holidays ginned up to advertise some food stuff or group, but not this May. My bunny nose sniffs a different wind in the air. In the interest of not working too hard, I’ve picked five good holidays and celebrations for May:
May 1—May Day—love and hope May 4—Star Wars Day—May the force be with you May 10—Mother’s Day—remember your mama! May 25—Memorial Day—honor those who died serving the USA May 25—Carry a Towel Day—homage to Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Our age is seeking a new spring of life. May Day once marked the halfway point between darkness and light. It’s half way between the spring equinox and the summer solstice. In Ireland, the pre-Christian Celtic peoples divided the year into two main seasons: Winter and the beginning of the year, which fell on November 1, and the Midyear/Summer, which began on May 1. These two junctures were thought to be critical periods when the bounds between the human and supernatural worlds were temporarily erased.
Many of us have experienced thin times, when we feel the presence of God’s spirit with us more deeply than on other occasions. For me, this is more often when I’m in nature. The great dome of the sky, the clouds lit with the glow of the sun, and the liquid light overflowing and casting its glow on the land below. I can get lost in these thin moments and forget what I’m doing and where I am. If you meet a rabbit stopped for speeding on the highway, perhaps they were in a thin moment and not really a jerk.
There are also thin places, which are places of energy, or a place where the veil between this world and the eternal world is thin. A thin place is where one can walk in two worlds—the worlds are fused together, knitted loosely where the differences can be discerned or tightly where the two worlds become one. These are places which have been recognized over the ages as connected with the spiritual world. Often overlaid with the most recent god of the newest inhabitants, the place retains its spiritual energy. Many temples in the ancient world were built on the sites of even more ancient holy places, only to have churches built over them even later still.
In this era of Coronavirus, we might not be using our frequent travelers miles, so we could seek an alternative thin space. The holy icons are perfect for this, for since they’re a “window into heaven,” they’re by definition a “thin place.” They usually are given a designated place in the home, called the Red Corner, for the Russian word for red and beautiful are the same. Of course, we don’t pray to the icon, and the object isn’t worshipped, for that would be idolatry. We pray to the God of the saint represented, or to the Son of God, but not to the icon itself, which is merely an outward and visible reminder of the inward and invisible spirit which connects us all to what is good and holy and communal in our socially distancing world.
On May 4th, we can say, “May the Fourth be with you,” and remember the “Force is always with us,” for every time and place can be a thin place if only we rabbits would become aware the greater power beyond us is also operating within us, for “we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Corinthians 4:7).
We all have Mothers, who gave birth to us. Some of us also have adopted mothers, mothers who raised us, mothers who formed us in the faith, or mothers who took us under their wing and taught us how to get along in the world. Mothers today don’t have to be women, but they do have to nurture and shelter. The church has been a great mother for centuries, nurturing the poor and the marginalized through the ministries of outreach to the neighborhood and the world. These ministries haven’t stopped just because of the coronavirus, but are increasing because of job losses, homelessness, and hunger. If you have the means to share with your local food pantry, please do. Hungry rabbits depend on us.
Memorial Day weekend was for a long time a pause to honor the nation’s war dead. Then it became a three day weekend for backyard barbecues and sporting events. As the toll from the novel coronavirus pandemic in America marches past the total of Americans killed in the Vietnam War, our holidays may take on a more somber nature. For other rabbits, who have an overripe case of cabin fever, a need to break loose in a wild debacle may override their common sense. I know my rabbit friends have good sense, so even if your state flings the doors wide open to “life as usual,” common sense and expert wisdom will prevail instead. Let others test the waters on this idea, and let them be the guinea pigs to see if the curve has actually flattened.
May 25 is also Carry a Towel Day, so if we have a towel, we won’t panic. As explained in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, towels are “the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have.” A towel has both practical value, since it can be used for warmth, shelter, a weapon, and also strangely to dry one’s body. It also had psychological value, for if a non-Hitchhiker sees you with a towel, they’ll assume you’re fully stocked with other necessities as well. The lesson I take from this is while life is serious, I shouldn’t take myself too seriously. Humor will get a rabbit through the thickets and briars of this world better than struggling against the thorns and weeds. After all, angels fly because they take themselves lightly.
I will see you next month, when the June bugs fly. Until then,
Love, Joy and Peace,
Recipe for CLASSIC MINT JULEP for a delayed Kentucky Derby, best consumed while wearing a fancy hat or elegant jacket. This recipe is adapted from “The 12 Bottle Bar,” a fun, informative cocktail recipe book by David Solmonson and Lesley Jacobs Solmonson. To make simple syrup, pour one cup of granulated sugar or Splenda into one cup of water and slowly heat on the stove, stirring until the sugar/Splenda is dissolved. Plus a Handful of fresh mint leaves, 1 oz. simple syrup (2 tablespoons), and 2 oz. bourbon or rye, your choice (1/4 cup or 4 tablespoons).
Put the mint in a cup, preferably one made out of silver or some other metal that will keep things nice and cold, and muddle it by pressing it gently against the sides and bottom of the cup for a few seconds (use that muddler you got as a wedding present or the handle of a wooden spoon). This rabbit would use a spoon.
DO NOT MASH THE MINT. You just need to release the mint’s oils, which does not require a strenuous effort. Over-muddling will result in an overly bitter drink. Add the simple syrup. Fill the cup with crushed ice and add the bourbon. Stir gently for 30 seconds or so, until frost forms on the side of the drink. Add more ice if needed and garnish with another sprig of mint. If you don’t have metal cups, make it in any cup cup you have. The metal is traditional, however.
This is a stay at home beverage, or a split between two persons, since it exceeds the recommended one ounce per day consumption of alcoholic beverages. Enjoy responsibly.
For more information on some of the subjects mentioned above:
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!
Here at the beginning of the New Year of 2020, I’m taking time to reflect on the end of an age and the beginning of another. Some will begin the celebration of the new decade now since we’ve moved into the 20’s, but as the mathematicians will tell us, the numbering of years began with a 1, so the old decade ends in the zero year, and the new decade won’t begin for another year. I enjoy parties, so you can invite me to your party this year, and I’ll invite you to my party next year. Twice as much fun for everyone!
Each year brings new changes. We age, get married or divorced, or have children. My daughter, if she had lived, would now be as old as I was when I began my fifth career by answering the call and going to seminary. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it can plumb get away from you when your life is tipsy turvey. Yet, history tells us life has always been turbulent and we don’t live in extraordinary times. The world of the Bible, Shakespeare, and the poets remind us human nature has always been in conflict with God’s plans for peace.
THE SECOND COMING By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
This poem ends with the famous lines, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Yeats wrote it in 1919, after the end of World War I. This date is significant, for we’re at the centennial celebration of this Great War, but also at a watershed moment in our modern life. H. G. Wells, the sci-fi writer, called it the “war to end all wars,” but later he thought any war was waged with the hope to end war forever.
Today our world seems to be falling apart once again. The center doesn’t seem to hold, but instead the voices of the extremes fill the sound waves and social media. Some of us want to escape under our covers, while others act out in rages. We in the middle keep praying, “Come Lord Jesus!”
Sea Changes are Inevitable If we today are in a sea change, we should look back on the times of historic tumult. We need first to give credit to Shakespeare for creating the word and its current meaning in his play The Tempest, from 1610, in which ARIEL sings:
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Change to a Heliocentric Universe During Shakespeare’s time, the most exciting sea change was the shift from the earth-centric universe to the heliocentric universe. Copernicus had proposed this earlier, but Galileo was able to prove it by direct observation once he had a working telescope. Galileo modified one of the early spyglasses used on ships and made a telescope from it. With it, he was able to see the mountains and craters of the moon, and study the planets as they crossed the sky.
Because the Catholic Church had taught for centuries the earth was the center of the universe, in 1616 Galileo was charged with the crime of heresy, or teaching false doctrines, because of his belief in a sun centered universe. When he published a book of proofs on Copernicus’ Theory in 1632, he was convicted again and sentenced to house arrest for his teachings.
New ideas are hard to accept by even the most learned persons in a generation. We have believed what we’ve known to be true for so long, our minds can’t even flex and bend to a new idea. Some say this is why we can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that’s not always true. While some think Shakespeare may have known of Galileo’s treatise, Starry Messenger, others disagree. Reputable astronomers, theologians and poets in England continued to cogently defend Ptolemy’s earth centric universe well into the late 17th century.
Still, Shakespeare has his Hamlet dream of infinite space: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” (2.2.55- 56).
Arabic Numerals “unwelcome” to a majority of Americans
Even today, we have difficulty accepting strange or foreign ideas. A recent poll asked, “Should Americans, as part of their school curriculum, learn Arabic numerals?” A Pittsburgh-based research firm CivicScience questioned 3,200 Americans recently in a poll seemingly about mathematics, but the outcome was a measure of students’ attitudes toward the Arab world. Some 56 percent of the respondents said, “No.” Fifteen percent had no opinion.
Those results, which quickly inspired more than 24,000 tweets, might have been sharply different had the pollsters explained what “Arabic numerals” are. There are 10 of them: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.
HOW HAVE OUR IDEAS ABOUT GOD CHANGED ACROSS THE CENTURIES? If Jesus is fully human and fully divine, can he be said to be male in the ordinary sense? When Jesus ascended into heaven, did his full human nature incorporate into the Holy Trinity? Also, does God the Father participate in the same human characteristics of earthly fathers, or is Father a title only which excludes the characteristics of Motherhood?
As we ask these engendered human questions about relationships in the spiritual realm, perhaps we are missing the mark entirely. If we project our human relationship experiences on the Holy Trinity, we attempt to make it in our own image. Instead, we’re called to look at the greater image and remake our own lives to conform with it.
A Closer Look at Engendered Language This means we need to take a closer look at the language used across the centuries of Christian tradition. It has changed with the times, as people of faith have worked out what the faith means. The earliest years involved many of our great doctrines, but that doesn’t mean they’re fixed in concrete. As we revisit them in new contexts and with new insights, we might find fresh expressions of older ideas.
Much has been made over the years of Christian tradition of God the Father and the maleness of the Holy Trinity. Some say this was to separate Christianity from pagan religions, which had both sexes in their pantheon. The doctrine of the trinity also has roots in Greek philosophy. Inspired by the Timaeus of Plato, Philo read the Jewish Bible as teaching that God created the cosmos by his Word (logos), the first-born son of God. By further emanation from this Word, God creates all that there is by means of his creative power and his royal power (conceived of both as his powers, and yet as agents distinct from him) giving him, as it were, metaphysical distance from the material world.
Arian Heresy (The Son is a Creature) Several hundred years later, in accordance with an earlier subordinationist theological tradition, Arius taught the Son of God was a creature, made by God from nothing a finite time ago. Some time around 318–21 CE, a controversy broke out, with Arius’ teaching opposed initially by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria (d. 326). Alexander examined and excommunicated Arius. Numerous churchmen, adhering to subordinationist traditions about the Son rallied to Arius’ side, while others who favored theologies holding to the eternal existence of the Son and his ontological equality (of the same substance and nature with the Father) joined his opponents. The dispute threatened to split the church, and a series of councils ensued, variously excommunicating and vindicating Arius and his defenders, or their opponents. Each side successively tried to win the favor of the then-current emperor, trying to manipulate imperial power to crush its opposition.
Council of Constantinople By the time of the council of Constantinople (381 CE), an anti-subordinationist reading, vigorously championed by Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (d. 373) had the upper hand; homoousios was understood as asserting the Father and Son to not merely be similar beings, but in some sense one being. While it stopped short of saying that the Holy Spirit was homoousios with the Father and Son, the council did say that the Holy Spirit “is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son”, and added in a letter accompanying their creed that the three share “a single Godhead and power and substance” (Leith 1982, 33; Tanner 1990, 24, 28). Over the ensuing period the same sorts of arguments used to promote the divinity of the Son, were reapplied to the Holy Spirit, and eventually inhibitions to applying homoousios to the Holy Spirit evaporated.
From the standpoint of later catholic orthodoxy, a key episode in this series occurred in 325, when the Emperor Constantine (ca. 280–337) convened a council of bishops and decreed the Father and Son were homoousios (of the same substance or essence). Arius and his party were excommunicated. The intended meaning of ousia here was far from clear, given the term’s complex history and use, and the failure of the council to disambiguate it (Stead 1994, 160–72). They most likely settled on the term because it was disagreeable to the party siding with Arius. This new and ambiguous formula fanned the flames of controversy, as subordinationists and anti-subordinationists understood the phrase differently when signing on to it, and later argued for conflicting interpretations of it.
Athanasius and others in the prevailing party argued the salvation of humans required the Son and Holy Spirit to be equally divine with the Father. This kind of argument depends on various controversial models of salvation, such as the one on which salvation involves the “deification” or “divinization” of humans, which can only be accomplished by one who is himself divine (Rusch 1980, 22–23).
Despite shifting convictions about what salvation is and how God accomplishes it, this basic sort of argument remains popular—that if Christ and/or the Holy Spirit were not in some sense “fully divine”, then humanity couldn’t be saved by their actions. One of the most currently popular arguments is our forgiveness by God, an infinitely valuable being, requires an atoning sacrifice of infinite value. Hence, Christ has to be fully divine, as only a fully divine being has infinite value. Also, Christ must be fully human in order to save all of our humanness. This is usually stated as “Christ became human that we might become divine.”
The Athanasian Creed By the sixth century the Athanasian Creed, written by an anonymous author, announced this image of the Trinity:
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.
St. John Chrysostom St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the 5th century CE, called Christ our “friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother”.
St. Anselm St. Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to “Christ, my mother” and called God “the great mother”.
Julian of Norwich Julian of Norwich, an English recluse, in her 14th-Century Revelations of Divine Love says: “Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother”. She talks about “our precious mother, Jesus”. She speaks of the Trinity, usually described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in these terms: “Our Father desires, our Mother operates, and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms”.
Modern Worship As for the language of church services, some British denominations have gone ahead of the Church of England into inclusivity. The Methodist Church introduced a new service book in 1999 which uses both male and female language for God, “our Father and our Mother”. The United Reformed Church agreed in 1984 to use inclusive language in all its publications and last year its General Assembly called on all URC congregations to use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”.
Also some parts of Judaism are exploring more inclusive language for God. In 1975, in the US, Naomi Janowitz and Margaret Wenig produced a version of the prayer book Siddur Nashim, which used female pronouns and images for God. In 1996, Gates of Repentance, the High Holy Day prayer book of Reform Judaism, was published, calling God “sovereign” instead of “king”, and “source” or “parent” instead of father.
There has been no comparable movement in Islam, which is less open to this kind of reinterpretation. Christianity and Judaism, however, seem to be in the process of a major continuing realignment. This sea change is comparable to the shift a century ago when the familiar Newtonian world collapsed and Einstein shook the scientific foundations with his Theory of Relativity.
The shift from Newtonian to General Relativity The old empires and European houses which had thrived for centuries had collapsed into conflict, paving the way for a new world to emerge. Similarly, Einstein’s theories had set the world of science at each other’s throats. As The Observatory said: “Many eminent men of science had refused to accept Einstein’s theory; this was probably due in part to the upsetting of old and ingrained ideas that it caused.”
By the time Albert Einstein had corrected his mathematical mistakes and published the completed theory of general relativity, World War I was in full swing. Afterwards, Germany was in shambles, and too wrecked to mount expeditions to the distant parts of the world where an eclipse in 1919 would be visible. In the midst of war, with no peace plans in sight, Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir Frank Watson Dyson plunged ahead to prove Einstein’s theory. The war ended, and they brought back photographic evidence of the shift of light from the stars during the eclipse, which Einstein had predicted.
General relativity abandoned Newton’s idea that gravity is a force pulling objects together. It reimagined gravity as a warping of time and space — a distortion in the fabric of the universe. According to the mathematics of relativity, light traveling through this distortion will change its path, accommodating the universe’s warps and wefts. The more massive an object, the bigger the distortion, and the more its gravity can bend light.
Newton’s theory of gravity made a competing prediction, worked out in detail by a German astronomer in 1801. His math suggested a shift only half as large, based on the notion that the force of the sun’s gravity would pull on the distant stars’ light particles.
Still, general relativity itself wasn’t immediately accepted. Some scientists had trouble understanding it. “The complications of the theory of relativity are altogether too much for my comprehension,” American astronomer George Ellery Hale confessed in a letter, which also celebrated the results from the 1919 eclipse. Others looked for alternative explanations for the moving stars, clinging to Newton’s vision of the universe.
However, Lick astronomers confirmed relativity again during the 1922 and 1923 eclipse observations in Australia and Mexico. Meanwhile, observations of the star Sirius B seemed to support another prediction, that the gravity of stars stretches the light waves they emit. Quasars, which send out powerful radio waves, also confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity, for astronomers can measure how the sun bends those radio waves.
Read below an interesting poem, written by Sir Arthur Eddington, director of the Cambridge Observatory, who was a math prodigy and devout Quaker. Ready to be imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Eddington, like Einstein, believed in pacifism. He had acquired a copy of Einstein’s theory and was one of the few English-speaking scientists who had a thorough understanding of general relativity. He teamed up with Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Watson Dyson to persuade his nation in 1919 to put relativity to the test.
A Poem by Sir Arthur Eddington Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate One thing at least is certain, LIGHT has WEIGHT, One thing is certain, and the rest debate — Light-rays, when near the Sun, DO NOT GO STRAIGHT.
Discovery of The Dark Side Now scientists believe only 5% of the universe is matter, but the rest of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, both of which are hard to quantify. Yes, this is a sea change that rocks our fragile boats on the very large ocean of space. Once upon a time, we human creatures thought we had knowledge locked down, but now we’ve discovered once again, we know even less than Shakespeare did. We have the whole brave, new world before us, and may we be good enough to inherit it.
As the days grow short, some of us yearn for the light. This week I put up a few Christmas decorations, including my ceramic Christmas tree with the plastic bulbs from the 1960’s and my door wreath with ornaments from the 1950’s. I have a copper and paper manger scene I set before a small lamp, as well as an extremely gaudy, glitter filled candle nightlight to complete the mood. I keep out all year round my mom’s ceramic Holy Family group, since it’s too good to put away.
I remember living in Denver, Colorado, in the cold, dark days of December. They know how to do winter there. I would hang the big, bulging colored bulbs on the upstairs patio of our Victorian duplex, since these had the brightest light. In Louisiana, I used the tiny white lights to discretely outline the entire shape of my little stucco home. They both put out the same amount of light, but some were loud and others were quiet.
Winter Solstice Here at the tail end of the old year, the winter solstice comes on December 21, followed by Hanukkah beginning after sunset on December 22, and Christmas on December 25. All of these events have a focus on light.
The solstice happens at the same instant for all of us, everywhere on Earth. In 2019, the December solstice comes on December 21 at 10:19 p.m. CST.
That’s on December 22 at 04:19 Universal Time (UTC). It’s when the sun on our sky’s dome reaches its farthest southward point for the year. At this solstice, the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest day and longest night of the year.
The World Heritage Site at Stonehenge, England, built about 5,000 years ago, is a site specifically built to mark the winter and summer solstices. For agricultural societies, this was important. It may also have been a religious site, connecting the living with the spiritual powers for healing and also with those who are dead to this world, but remembered by the living. We don’t know if the Stonehenge people believed in an afterlife, but they did bury in the gravesites important articles the person found useful in this world, such as bone needles and mace heads.
Hanukkah Hanukkah, a celebration to mark the miracle of the unfailing oil in the temple lamps, has taken on greater importance in recent years. It recalls the victory of the Maccabees and their resistance against foreign domination. The word Maccabee is an acronym for the Hebrew words that mean “Who is like You among all powers, G‑d.” The Greek army had defiled the Temple by setting up an image of Zeus and sacrificing a pig upon the altar of God. Those Jews who were fine with this were “sold out” in today’s terms, but not the Maccabees, who were joined by a ragtag group who ran a fifteen year resistance effort against the skilled fighters of the Greek army.
Once the resisters reclaimed the Temple, they rededicated it, set up a new altar, and made a new menorah, for the old one had been taken. They found only enough sacred oil for one day, but the light burned for eight days. The message of Hanukkah is a little bit of light can overcome the darkness of the world, so we should never cower in the face of tyranny, do our part, trust in God, and success is sure to come.
Perhaps this is why we have an enduring fascination with superheroes, characters who overcome challenges in life, such as Harry Potter and the Star Wars pantheon, as well as everyday people who do extraordinary deeds when dire situations present themselves. Those who don’t shirk from the opportunity to do good for others, even at great cost to their own good, are selfless heroes. What doesn’t make sense to us, may be the most sensible and best choice for the greater good. This is the heart of the servant mentality, which is recognized by the central candle of the Hanukkah menorah, which has eight lights, instead of the seven which was used in the Temple.
Christmas Christmas is the time to celebrate the coming of the light into the dark world, and the joy that the darkness cannot overcome the light. Every Christmas Eve, we hear the old story ever new in our hearts again.
When my daughter was about ten years old, she looked over the church bulletin one Christmas Eve and said, “John, John, John, who is this John that has such a big part in tonight’s service?” I whispered, “That’s the gospel of John, and the Mathew and Luke are also gospels in the Bible.”
“Oh, I missed that,” she smiled. I chuckled.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. ~~ John 1:1-5
Today we know dark energy and dark matter make up 95% of the universe, and all solid matter makes up the other 5%. In the ancient days, people thought God had made them the center of the world, but now science can make us feel small. Yet God still calls us into the dark spaces to shine like lights in the world.
We can look around and see, just as in the time of Christ’s birth, authoritarian leaders oppressing the minority members of their countries, and we see the rich and powerful controlling the economies of the world for their own profit, but not for the health of the planet or its population.
We see some of our leaders in the church unwilling to open their hearts to all of God’s children because the leaders live in fear rather than in the power of God’s love for all persons. We also see people of faith unwilling to take on the claims of a life lived in Christ, and so accept a mere testimony to the offer of the fullest life in Christ. A faith without works is a dead faith, or no faith at all, for there’s no evidence to convince the world we have a living faith. If we have the light of Christ in us, we will make our world a brighter and better place, and shine like stars in the world.
For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and God is the one who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. ~~ 2 Corinthians 4:6
No matter how you’re celebrating the return of the light this season, may you find at this year’s end more light than darkness and may you shine more brightly in a world which needs so desperately the light of pure and unconditional love willing to risk its own self for the greater good of others. This is the reason Christ came into the world, to serve the Father’s purpose and redeem the fallen and broken world, for all who believed.
MEDITATION ON THE LIGHT Proverbs 20:27 “A person’s soul is the Lord’s lamp, which searches out all the innermost parts.”
Focus the mind on the multiple images of the lamp, the oil, the wick and the different hues of the flame, in order to understand the profound guidance in the divine service of every individual.
Flames demonstrate that while spiritual endeavors such as contemplative prayer and inner personal transformation are important, nonetheless the actual performance of mitzvot (the 613 commandments) is what is most essential. It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body, acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.
Takeaway: It’s practical deeds that keep the radiance of the soul kindled upon the body—acting much like the oil that fuses flame and wick.
Questions for the eight candles of Hanukkah:
For You, G‑d, are my Lamp; and G‑d will illuminate my darkness. The first question is: Why is G‑d’s Name invoked twice, seemingly bisecting the verse into two separate statements?
What part do the lighter and darker colors of the flame play in our spiritual lives?
What is the quality of our own light?
Contemplate the divine radiance which fills all worlds, as well as the radiance which surrounds all worlds. Consider how we have both matter and dark matter/energy in our physical world, as a complement to the divine’s dual filling and surrounding of space. (Psalm 145)
As the lights grow brighter in this season of light, is God’s love growing greater in our hearts?
Is God’s love transforming our lives from the inside out, so God’s love can shine through us?
The Hanukkah lamp has eight lights, plus one for the “servant” light. Is the energy of God’s love moving us to shed the light of God abroad in service of the least, the last, the lost, and the lonely?
Where will we shine in the days to come, to be a light to the world and for the sake of God’s name?
What is the most important image of the birthplace of Christ? For some of us, it’s a stable filled with hay and animals, in which the Holy Family fill with divine light. For others, the essence is the Holy Family alone. For others, those who brought various gifts take prominence. The early icons describe a dark cave, similar to the tomb in which Christ was laid after his crucifixion. This shouldn’t surprise us, for his birth made him at-one-with-us, just as his death and resurrection made at-one-ment for us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the icons are worth a million words, or a whole theological thesis.
The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis (emptying) of the Godhead, His abasement, and the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, became visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, was born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and thus foreshadowed His death and burial, in the sepulcher and the burial clothes.
The icons are a window into the holy spaces, into the heavenly realm, or the spiritual world, whereas western paintings from the renaissance onward are representations of our three dimensional world on a flat surface. Icons have their own vocabulary and forms, so a wonder working icon from the 4th century would be copied over and over again into the present age. Modern icon painters would reinterpret the themes of the ancient icons, but until these images prove themselves to be “spiritual windows,” they’ll be mere paintings, but they won’t be true icons.
In the western world, we’re more likely to consider the narrative in traditional art, so the story details are as important as the design and color elements. Over the centuries the style changes with the artists,, but the main elements tend to stay the same.
With the Renaissance, artists and their patrons were more interested in the humanity of Christ, as well as the human figure itself. The landscape gets rendered in all its glory, and the architecture of the towns calls us to take a walking tour through it. By the baroque period, artists create a full scale Broadway production scene on their canvases. A “cast of thousands” seem to heighten the importance of the event portrayed.
Our class worked these past two weeks on The Nativity. Gail’s memory of her family incubating a premature baby in a dresser drawer became her Jesus in the Manger. While this may sound strange to some folks, my great grandparents also nursed a premie in this same manner in rural Louisiana. Adding layers of color to her ground, as Rothko did in his color field paintings, was her goal. I failed to get another photo. She’s still working on it.
Mike was working on a shed and the sky. This was more exciting to him than anything else. The figures came later. I also failed to photo them.
He had a coworker pass away during this time. If his mind wasn’t in this work completely, I could understand. His vacation painting of the beach chair at sunset was more of what he can do when his mind is free and his heart is at peace.
When I’m sick, I have limited artistic ability. By this, I mean I have no spiritual sensitivity to the world. I can’t feel connected to the shapes, colors, or forms. I’m “dead to this world” as well to the world beyond this one. My hand feels like lead, and my one brain cell which hasn’t gone to Pluto is only working at 20% power. I don’t do sick well, for I take it as a great inconvenience, if not an insult to my nature. I have people to see and paintings to make. I may destroy this little work, but it does have the traditional icon themes of the cave and the swaddling clothes of the birth and death of Christ.
When we go back and sit before an icon, we’re struck by the silent voice of the image. We have a choice: we can dismiss this still, small voice, or we can pause and listen to the voice of God speaking to our heart. I hope we don’t race off to do yet one more of the many “got to do lists” of the Christmas season, but sit for a moment, with a hot cup of our favorite beverage and a little cookie, and mingle with the mystical voices from heaven. We will be choosing the better part, just as Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Best source for Icons: Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons
Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin, center panel of the Middleburg (Bladelin) Altarpiece, ca. 1445, oil on panel, 91 x 89 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, inv. no. Nr. 535 (artwork in the public domain)
“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing, does the painter do good things.”
Edgar Degas, the French artist known for his ballerina paintings, is a good teacher from whom to learn. A true artist learns something new every day and isn’t afraid of failure. Failure is just another word for discovering what won’t work. As artists and as Christian believers, we are a people of hope. In fact, one might say we’re afflicted with chronic optimism. Even when our work fails to satisfy us, we can say, “Look at what I learned on this, and what I can carry over to my next work.”
North Carolina Sunlit Path
This little landscape is the second stage of a previous painting, one which I began while I was ill with a sinus infection. If I wasn’t at my best, I also wasn’t at my worst, so I was painting at my easel. I knew I wasn’t happy with it, but I thought I’d live with the painting until I heard it tell me what was needed.
The trees of the finished work are more slender, more shaped by the wind of the Carolina coastline. The bush masses are larger and have more contrast, while the sky is more evenly colored. Even the path has more sunlight and less shade.
Artistic license is the ticket to drive we all got as children with crayons and poster paint. We could paint the sky red if we took a notion to do so, give our dogs blue tongues, or paint the grass orange. Only the grownups among us squelched our creative spirits. Sometimes we have to learn to forget ourselves on purpose to learn art, faith, love, compassion, or joy.
I’m going to teach Friday morning art classes again at Oaklawn UMC. You bring your materials, I volunteer my years of experience teaching K-12 and adults. You get to learn real art:
Shading in Value & Color
Drawing & Painting from Life
One thing you’ll never do is copy anything I’ve already done or come home with a work that looks similar to one of your classmates. Art is about expression of your inner truth. You get to do you, and have a safe place to grow and struggle.
As G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy:
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
We artists will not go mad, but we will stretch our minds, deepen our souls, and gain a greater appreciation for the creative struggle.
The first class will begin Friday, September 6 at 10 am, and meet on Fridays afterwards. We’ll break for thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll get a material list to the church office soon.
When I was a child, my mother’s friends were sure I was the spitting image of little Martha. Likewise, my daddy’s friends thought I was a chip off the old block of Stew-boy. I suppose I had enough of the parental DNA to be claimed by both sides of the family, as long as I wasn’t in the dog house for some juvenile infraction. Even today, folks are just gaga over who the newest royal baby favors, whether it’s our beautiful American Megan’s face or the handsome English Prince Harry’s mug. Since baby Andrew is a boy, hopefully he inherits Harry’s beard and the good health of both parents.
This odd phrase, the “spitting image,” was known in its earliest form in the 17th century, and has come down in its modern meaning today through literature and the theater. I heard it growing up from all the old folks in town and from all my out of town relatives when they pinched my cheeks at the summer camp meetings and family reunions. If you read some internet sites, they’ll even claim it has a biblical source, since God used spit and mud to create the first human beings. Of course, these sites don’t bother to attach the texts, but just repeat the claim. Let’s see if you can spot which text is the “proof” for this “spitting image” claim.
The first chapter of Genesis is the most recent biblical account of creation, known as the Priestly account: “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” ~~ Genesis 1.26-27
We don’t see the mud and spit claim here, so we turn to the older account of creation, found in Genesis 2:4-7—
“In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 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.”
Here we have water from streams or mists rising from the face of the earth and dust from the ground, which God used to form the first human person. However, God doesn’t use spit.
Where do people get the idea God uses spit and mud to create human beings? They must be thinking of Jesus, who cured the blind beggar with a poultice of dust and saliva, as recorded in the book of John:
As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent).
Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
~~ John 9:1-7
If some folks confuse Jesus with God, we can forgive them, since Colossians 1:15 reminds us, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.”
As the ancient creeds remind us, God has One nature, but Three Persons; and is one in unity of work, wisdom, energy, and love. We who were created in this divine image “and have clothed (ourselves) with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator,” are daily recovering the image of God. Colossians 3:10 is one of the most precious promises of the faith, for it testifies to God’s work in us, as the passive voice in scripture so often denotes.
So, what exactly is this divine image? If we look around us, we see a variety of faces and bodies, if we count the physical types of human beings. While some have tried to claim a perfect racial image in the past, or to eliminate all but their own tribal relations, today we have difficulty holding this thought together with “firstborn of all creation.” If we believe God created all things, all people, and all of us humans share in the divine image, then we’re all part of God’s family and we all share the DNA of the image.
Is that image physical? It’s not the DNA of genetics, although we all share 99.9% of our DNA if we have common ancestry from any of the great continents. For those of European ancestry, everyone has a common ancestor from 3,400 years ago. Yet we still have enough variety in our DNA to make us unique persons. Because God’s creation of human beings in God’s image isn’t a physical imitation of God’s spiritual body, we have to understand the IMAGE as an incorporeal form more than a bodily form.
If we’re made in the spiritual image of God, then we must be more aligned to the wisdom of God, the energy, work, love of God, and look to our need to acquire the divine nature, as we put off our human nature bit by bit. If we keep yearning for the human nature, or the mortal flesh, then we’ll never grow into the higher and finer image. We often make the excuse, “I only human,” but fail to ask for God’s help to grow beyond our human nature into the divine nature of love for all creation.
Moreover, if we’re made in the spiritual image of God, our physical attributes mean less than our spiritual attributes. This isn’t to discount our humanity, but it’s to say our human differences mean less to God than they do to us. We look for reasons to separate us into tribes, but God looks for reasons to include us into incorporate us into God’s family, “for those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.” ~~ Romans 8.29
Then it matters not who we are, what we look like, or where we’ve been on our journey to our faith in the Christ who saves us. Just as the Son has the image of God, and all persons have the image of God, all can be saved by the faith of the Son who trusted in the Father for his life, death, and resurrection. Too often people of faith focus wrongly on the requirements for a good life in order to be saved, but the only true necessity for salvation is unconditional faith in the one whose faith rested in the God who both creates and saves God’s people and world. This is why his family called him Jesus, or “God Saves.”
This is why the most unlikely people can claim the faith of Christ, and why their faith drives “good people” to distraction. But as it was even in the days of the Lord himself, as he reminded those who wanted to keep the smallest of laws, but ignore the greater meaning and spirit of the whole law. The whole of the law was summed up in two commandments: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” ~~ Matthew 22:37-39
I admit it’s hard to love my neighbors, since it’s sometimes difficult to love even some of the members of my extended family. If I’m honest, I often need a little breathing room from some of my immediate family, but I admit I have stress issues after a lifetime of ministry and helping people with their myriad family crises.
If we can learn to include in our lives and in our worship places more people who have hearts full of love of God and neighbor, we might find ourselves enriched by their joy and talents, as well as their fresh outlooks on life. The more alike we all are, the fewer creative ideas are lifted for the unknown future. We need a variety of viewpoints and visions to meet the challenges of the future, which by definition will not be a repeat of yesterday. We cannot pour new wine into old wineskins, or the vessel won’t hold. We are a people inspired by the Holy Spirit and meant to change.
As the scripture tells us in 2 Corinthians 3:17-18—
“Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
I’ve included various paintings from my studio of the icons of Christ. Many people have their own image of Jesus which appeals to them, and it’s usually one that is created in a human image. By this I mean, the Jesus is sympathetic, prayerful, strong, otherworldly, calm, friendly, or some other attribute common to the relevant age. The Japanese Jesus has Orientalized features, the Native American Jesus looks like one of the people, the African Jesus is black, and the European American Jesus favors Mediterranean origins more than the Holy Land. The Icons of the early church have their own imagery, which is as much theological as artistic. I hope you enjoy the post, and focus on one question per day to consider:
Do you see the image of God in others?
How is your own image of God is recovering?
Do the acts or behaviors of others diminish the image of God in them?
How can you find common cause with people you disagree with?
Spend a day looking for the good in others.
Use today to reflect in words, art, or music on your experience with the image of God.
INTERNET REFERENCES TO SPITTING IMAGE IN THE BIBLE
“You totally (should) become his nature, deny his being apart from you; you should be he himself, not Christians, but Christ, otherwise you will be no use to the coming god.”
—C. G. Jung, The Red Book, p. 137.
“No one can be spared the way of Christ, since this way leads to what is to come. You should all become Christs, says C. G. Jung, in his Answer to Job. He goes on to explain in the divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit in humanity, “a christification of the many arises.” One of the great and simple prayers is “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them in them the fire of your love.” When we ask for the indwelling third person of the Trinity, we also ask for the rest of the “family,” for the three are fellow travelers. The Father and the Son aren’t separate entities, even when the Spirit proceeds from the two, just as the Father and the Spirit aren’t off somewhere distant when the Son is suffering on the cross.
In the season of Lent, many people begin with ashes on their forehead as a sign of repentance and fasting for the forty days before Easter. Some give up bacon, others give up alcohol, and some give up social media. Perhaps this is our idea of suffering today, since most of us have our needs for shelter, food, and security met. Modern people tend to suffer emotionally instead, so this may be why we fast from social media. Unfortunately, we don’t have much deep Christian teaching around suffering, mostly because it’s not a happy subject. Nobody likes a downer sermon. Bible studies on Job and the prophets are unpopular too. We don’t like seeing our faces in a BCE Mirror.
I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
Who wants to suffer today? No one! Most of the Christian teaching around the cross concerns a variation on the substitution theory, or Jesus takes on our suffering so we no longer have to endure the agony ourselves. Of course, when we meet trouble in our daily life, we then call into question either the effectiveness of this work on the cross or our faith in his work on our behalf. Did Christ die for everyone else, but not for me? Are there other works besides my faith in Christ necessary for my salvation? Do I need to be a better person to earn my freedom from suffering?
If we understood the nature of the earthbound Christ life, rather than the resurrected Christ life, we’d grasp the essential nature of suffering bound up into this life of flesh and spirit. Christ knew hunger, thirst, loneliness, temptation, disappointments, weariness, rejection, and pain. Worst of all, he tasted the emptiness of death before he knew the fullness of the resurrection.
Should we protect our children from suffering? If we mean, should we do our best to feed, clothe, and shelter them, the answer is yes, of course! If we mean, do we protect them from the logical consequences of their acts, I’d say, most likely no. If a child won’t do their own homework, they should get the logical results for their refusal. Physical punishment isn’t a logical result. Poor grades, limits on sports or activities, or staying after school are consequences in line with the poor behavior. Small sufferings now will avoid larger sufferings later. (If they want to jump out of a third story window, that’s another matter. Put some locks on that, parents!)
Of course, to even call these “suffering” shows how far our modern world has moved from the ancient world. Sufferings once were the lot of slaves, who had no authority over their own lives, and could be bought and sold like cattle. They had no agency or control over their fortunes or lots in life. We modern folk are different, unless we buy into the idea we’re rudderless ships upon a stormy ocean. Then we’re merely chaff tossed about by external forces, so we might as well be slaves to our environment.
If we held the whole nature of Christ within us, we’d know both the Christ of suffering and the resurrected Christ of glory. While we ourselves have not yet ascended, we do hold fast to his promise,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)
If we live with hope, we can rejoice, and be patient in suffering, while we persevere in prayer.
~~ Romans 12:12