Ready or not, the creative juices must be stirred. If the brain has lain fallow all summer, or it’s been overworked keeping the youngsters occupied, now you can find your own groove again. Yes, it’s time for Adult Art Class at Oaklawn UMC.
Our first meeting will be Friday, September 9, at 10 am in the old fellowship hall. Bring your own acrylic paints, brushes, and a canvas or canvas panel to paint on. We begin with a short visual inspiration from some great art works, I’ll give some direction on the skill we’ll work on in the session, and then everyone is free to bring their own unique expression to their paintings. We don’t copy my work and judge how well a person can match it. We learn from the great masters and stretch our own skills to create something new.
Of course, making great art isn’t our first purpose. As we age, we will lose our ability to learn new skills until we lose our memory of what we just ate for breakfast. Challenging our brains is one of the best ways to keep our brain cells firing and “chatting with one another.” Our brains have the immensely powerful ability to remodel themselves because each of us have 1,000 trillion synapses, which are constantly being modified every second of every day. Socialization and encouragement also helps to keep our brains young.
Of course, we have to give up our desire to be perfect. Perfection comes from practice, or working at it. Every baby stumbles and falls when they learn to walk, but dotting adults encourage every trembling step. This is what art teachers also do. I’ve always had a rule in my classes, especially when I taught in middle school: No Negative Talking about People or Art. This included a student’s own art works. They always had to give at least three positive comments about their work before they spoke about the negative. “My work needs improvement” became the replacement phrase for “My work stinks!”
Of course, we’ve all grown up and worked in environments where negativity is the rule. Art class is a place of grace because this is how life should be. If we can transform a blank canvas into a field of color, why can’t we transform our communities and our world into fields of hope, joy, and love? Perhaps because we try to make everyone copy/fit into our idea of the proper end product, rather than allow everyone discover their own creative response to the given subject of the day. The museums of our world are richer and more vibrant because artists have listened to the Spirit of the Creating God. We might do well to realize God’s creative energies are varied and vibrant also, just as Isaiah wrote about his vision of God’s Glorious New Creation:
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” (65:17-18)
I hope to see you there. I don’t charge for the class sessions, since this is one of my ministries as a retired elder in the United Methodist Church. As John Wesley once said, “The World is my Parish.”
Joy and Peace,
Wes Ely: How long covid reshapes the brain — and how we might treat it
The Body of Christ represents the perfection of all humanity as the image of God. The body of Christ we know as the church is made of many individuals, just as a mosaic design is constructed of many pieces to make a whole. I think of these as the “two bodies of Christ,” even though the literalists among us might think Jesus has only one body. The mysterious body of Christ is what Paul speaks about in his letter to the Romans:
“For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another” (12:4-5).
Since each one of us is made in the image of God, but of ordinary materials, together we become a mosaic of the whole Body of Christ, going onto his perfection as we encounter and encourage one another within and without the church. After all, the body of Christ isn’t limited to the walls of our buildings, for Christ said in Matthew 25:40—
“And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’”
I have a penchant for recycling canvases and paintings which no longer please me. I’m willing to destroy them and make something new. They die and are reborn into a new life. I learned something from that former experience, but now it’s time to move on. When I read my Bible, I’m always getting new inspiration and ideas from the same verses. I have texts I’ve preached on at least a dozen times, but I always came at it from a different angle. This is how we know the Bible is a living document and the Holy Spirit is always at work in us to reveal what we need to hear for our time and place.
We Christians in the Western world have tended to limit God’s self revelation to the spoken word and, to a lesser degree, to the Eucharistic elements in the Institution of the Lord’s Supper:
“While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” (Mark 14:22).
Unfortunately, when we emptied the world of images of God, we also emptied the created world of God. This is why art is so important and necessary to bring us back to appreciate not only creativity, but also the creating God.
Likewise, images in art are beautiful and inspiring. Some which I’ve had the privilege to see in person over the years have made a difference in my artistic and spiritual journeys. These are a few which have inspired me: Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Pompeiian artifacts buried by Vesuvius, and the sacred treasures of the Vatican.
I’ll focus only on the mosaics in Ravenna, which is the site of the Mausoleum of Theoderic (c.520) and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinaire Nuovo (500-514), both built by Theodoric the Great (454-526). Here too is the Basilica of San Vitale (c.527-546), begun by Queen Amalasuntha (495-535), Theodoric’s daughter; and the Basilica of Sant’ Apollinare in Classe (c.535-549), built by the Greek banker Julianus Argentarius, who also financed the church of San Vitale. These were all very important people of their time.
Although many of Ravenna’s surviving structures have been heavily restored, the city remains the most important site of Byzantine art outside Constantinople, notably for its exquisite decorative art, including mosaics, relief sculpture, mural pictures, ceramic art, maiolica, ivory carving, marble inlays, goldsmithing, ornamented sarcophagi and much more. This treasure house of art objects made Ravenna a must see on our itinerary during my summer in Italy.
My parents gave me the choice of a car or a trip to Italy with the University Systems of Georgia for my college graduation present. Of course, I took the trip. Cars are everywhere and I could get my own one day or ride the bus if I needed to get somewhere. Italy was a trip of a lifetime, for we’d spend a whole summer in the studios in Cortona, and travel about the countryside on day trips during the session. I even got good enough with my Italian to hold small conversations with native speakers. People even invited into their homes for lunch, where I got my first taste of rabbit. These animals were sold live in the farmer’s market in Cortona’s town square on Saturdays.
At every site we visited, I stood amazed in the presence of some ancient and inspiring work of art. In the historic churches, the best artists and craftspeople of the era had the opportunity to put their skills to good use, for they were not only working for notable patrons, but also for God. Money wasn’t an object either, for extravagance for God was considered a good work worthy of a heavenly reward.
Of course, seeing the art works and experiencing the spiritual impact of the works in their setting are two entirely different things. On a tour, when huge groups of people are tramping in and out of the sanctuary, tour leaders raise their flags, signs, or ubiquitous water bottles to quiet their group before they give a lecture, and then they turn en mass like a flock of ducks, everyone exiting together to clamber onto the bus or to walk to the next place to view some sacred site.
As a person on a spiritual pilgrimage, this experience can be quite jarring unless you prepare yourself in advance. Even though in that period of my life I wasn’t a believer in a personal god, nevertheless I was still seeking the mysterious experience of the presence of God. I found if I took a few moments of personal quiet to put my spirit in a receptive mode before I entered the holy spaces, I was able to ignore the chaos around me. No longer did I focus on the comings and goings of the people around me, but I looked up instead at the beautiful artworks and the glory the ancient artists wanted to give to God as they rendered the images on the walls or sculpted the images.
These mosaics are fantastic works of art, with each image made of thousands of tiny pieces of stone and glass. In the early morning light, the golden tesserae shimmer and reflect the sunlight streaming inside. When viewed in this light, the figures would see to float in a heavenly light.
The icons of Christ always have an other worldly look about them, as Jesus said,
“My kingdom is not from this world.” (John 18:36).
We always see in the icon the resurrected body of Christ, the heavenly body of Christ, not merely the physical body of Christ. As Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 15:44—
“It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body.”
This is why the icons have elongated faces, small mouths, and large eyes. Their facial proportions are not “realistic “according to “actual proportions.” In western art, representation of physical reality with perspective, foreshortening, and shading gives us a sense of earthly realism. Icon “writers” reject perspective, and other cues of reality to give their works a sense of “other worldliness.”
In other words, we see what we are going on to be, rather than what we are now. The icons are a window into the spiritual or heavenly world. If we have an icon in our home, it is a conduit to that heavenly world, much like a wormhole is a conduit to another point in space. Christ’s eyes have a far away look, as if he sees beyond this moment of now, in which we so firmly fix ourselves, to see the future hope of which the prophet Jeremiah speaks in 29:11—
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
This Mosaic Christ woven canvas art work has a light coat of gold acrylic paint over the multi colored background, so the colors show through. Because the brushstrokes don’t cover the whole square, the grid colors show up as colored mortar. The shape of the face and the hair aren’t treated subtly as in a painting, but take on the look of a mosaic.
When I paint an icon, I lose all sense of time. I enter into that holy time in which God IS, and where Jesus is when he says, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I AM.” (John 8:58) In other words, I lose all concept of chronological time and enter into the kairos time of God: the right and opportune time, which is known only to God. I stop painting when I sense I’m taking back control of the brush, for then I’ve left kairos time and reentered chronological time.
I look at the clock and think, “Snack time.” It’s time to stop, take care of my physical body, until I’m once again able to renter that spiritual space where time has no meaning, for I’m at home with God. Painting a holy icon is a truly spiritual experience, for those who make their hearts open to the opportunity to experience the holy encroaching into this world. I hope your eyes now are more opened to seeing the holy image of God in-breaking into this earthly realm.
Are we the United States of America or the Un-Tied States of America? One of the apocryphal sayings misattributed to the great Benjamin Franklin is “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Many are the words of wisdom from those who can’t speak up for themselves anymore, but especially numerous are the aphorisms of those we hold in high esteem, the founders of our nation.
As a young rabbit, my summers were often spent in the game of “School,” as the days lengthened beyond the end of actual school. My mother rabbit, a school teacher in real life, would find me underneath the shade tree in our backyard where I’d be instructing my younger neighbor rabbits sitting in neat rows. Since old school teachers never lose their calling to teach, the upcoming anniversary of the birth of our nation is an opportunity for all of us to remember our national struggle for independence and liberty was a cause both difficult and hard won.
As we rabbits pull out our flags, bunting, firecrackers, and ice cream churns, we might want to take a moment to remember the danger and risk our ancestors took to become an independent nation, rather than colonies subservient to the English crown. For many great reasons we can thank our ancestors for their refusal to endure the insults of taxation without representation and the indignities of having all their judicial decisions subject to revision by a foreign party. Indeed, the colonists lived as second class citizens, a fact which grated upon their very souls. Many were their entreaties to the King of England for redress of these wrongs, but to no avail.
Redress is the righting of a wrong. Some wrongs are more wrong than others, to be sure. As a young rabbit in the first year of junior high school, I discovered all my classmates had later bedtimes than I did. In fact, I was still turning in at 7 pm along with my baby brother, who was a mere 8 years old. I made an extensive survey of my different class groups and discovered the average bedtime was 8 pm. I knew my old fashioned rabbit parents would never let me stay up until 10 pm at my tender age.
My daddy was always saying, “Young rabbits need their sleep to grow up big, strong, healthy, smart, and good looking.” I never had a good argument against these reasons, so I’d go to bed, even if I might sneak a flashlight and read a book under the covers. I did get permission to stay up to the late hour of 8 pm, however. Perhaps rebellion is part of the American DNA.
Birthing the American Union wasn’t easy. The collection of individual colonies operated separately and had their own interests. Joining them together into one whole wasn’t an easy task, for each would have to put the common good ahead of their own individual needs and desires. Benjamin Franklin proposed The Albany Plan In July 21, 1754, for a union of the American provinces, which he proposed to a conference of provincial delegates at Albany, New York, to better battle the French and their Indian allies. We remember this era as the French and Indian Wars.
The Albany Plan called for proportional representation in a national legislature and a president general appointed by the King of Great Britain. It served as a model for Franklin’s revolutionary Plan of Confederation in 1775. His original idea germinated in people’s minds, along with other writings which Franklin “lay upon the table.” Not everyone was ready to approve these proposals, but his proposed Draft Articles of Confederation helped the committee when they finally began to focus their action in July, 1775 to write what became our constitution.
In November, 1755, Governor Morris of Pennsylvania pressed for a Militia Act in order to recruit persons for defense of the area from Indian and French attacks. The military units contemplated were purely voluntary and the officers, though commissioned by the governor, were to be elected from below, not appointed from above. The most important difference was that in 1747 the Association was a completely extra-legal body created by the volunteers themselves, while in 1755 the military units were, for the first time in Pennsylvania history, to be established by formal legislative act. And during the eleven months before news of its disallowance by the King reached the colony, the act did serve, in spite of its limitations, as a basis for raising reserve forces for provincial defense.
The Virginia delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1774 went with this charge in hand:
“It cannot admit of a Doubt but that British Subjects in America are entitled to the same Rights and Privileges as their Fellow Subjects possess in Britain; and therefore, that the Power assumed by the British Parliament to bind America by their Statutes, in all Cases whatsoever, is unconstitutional, and the Source of these unhappy Differences.”
The crown had placed an embargo on the colonists and had forbidden them to import any manufactured goods, books, and while they might trade with other parts of the realm, those countries didn’t have to reciprocate. Economic sanctions were used for political purposes even in the 18th century.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, was sold by the thousands. By the middle of May 1776, eight colonies had decided that they would support independence. When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia Hall on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia read his resolution beginning: “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
After 21 years of planning, priming, and planting of the seeds for the fragile fruit of a New Democratic nation, it would finally come to life in the July 1776 Declaration of Independence and the 1789 Constitution of the United States of America. Yet not everyone was on board, not everyone wanted to leave the established relationship, even if it wasn’t the best situation.
Jefferson modeled the Declaration of Independence on the Virginia Bill of Rights, which became the basis for the Bill of Rights of the new Constitution of the United States of America. Notice the sections on 3: Governance by the Majority, 5: Separation of Governmental Powers, with Executive and Legislative members returned to private service, 12: Freedom of the Press, and 13: Armed State Militias.
“That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”
Section 13 of the Virginia Bill of Rights is one of the founding documents of our nation. Many today talk about “what the founders wanted.” One way we can know in part is to look at the historic records, although they are few and far between. We can find these in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and at the Smithsonian Museum, among others. We don’t have to be mind readers or seek some medium to channel the spirits of their ancestral vision. We’re fortunate they and their descendants recognized their importance to history. Today we throw away records at a fast pace, not knowing what will be important for the future.
While today nearly every young rabbit instagrams their lunch or their night out with a comment, which lasts in perpetuity on the internet, sometimes to a more mature rabbit’s shame and embarrassment, people nearly 250 years ago had to sit down, collect their thoughts, sharpen a quill pen, dip it frequently into the ink well, and write on precious sheets of paper.
Scholars think the Declaration of Independence was not signed by any of the delegates of the Continental Congress on July 4. The huge canvas painting by John Trumbull hanging in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol depicting the signing of the Declaration is a work of imagination. In his biography of John Adams, historian David McCullough wrote: “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.” We do have Jefferson’s draft copy as well as several printed copies that are “originals,” plus the clean, handwritten copy we treasure as a founding document.
If we had been members of the Second Continental Congress in 1776, we would have been rebels and considered traitors by the King. He would have posted a reward for the capture of each of us, since we were the most prominent rebel leaders. Soon enough the largest British armada ever assembled would anchor just outside New York harbor. By affixing our names to the document,we pledged our life,our fortune, and our sacred honor to the cause of freedom. Perhaps this would causes us today to pause. Then again, we might dip the quill into the ink well and take our first breath as a free American. We’d sign our name with pride. We would be part of history now.
As we prepare our menus for our backyard barbecues and make our plans for block parties, let’s remember in most urban areas firecrackers and explosive devices are banned, except for professional light and sound experiences. Be safe in large crowds, especially at night and in entertainment districts. Be safe, be smart, keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
In the “late unpleasantness” which has some of our Methodist congregations in turmoil, many have their reasons for going or staying. As one born into the Methodist Church, who spent a portion of my life looking for a “better god” before God called me back home, I have some experience with faith. I’ve had it, lost it, and received it once again. My privilege in seminary to work along side the Wesley librarian allowed me to touch authentic Wesley letters. I also had the blessing of being the late Dr. Billy Abraham’s assistant for the Evangelism Chair. When I think of faith, Romans 12:3 comes to mind:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Here Paul’s word for faith is the Greek word pistis, which is always a gift from God, never something that can be produced by people. In short, faith for the believer is always “God’s divine persuasion” and therefore distinct from confidence or human belief. The Spirit continuously births faith in the yielded believer so they can know God’s will (1 Jn 5:4).
The former UMC Bishop Mike Lowery wrote in his notice of withdrawal from the Council of Bishops as he surrendered his elder’s orders: “I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all.” (Jude 3, CEB).
I’m not picking on the former bishop. I knew him from my Emmaus community days in Southwest Texas. But his posted letter, which can be read at the link below, charges the United Methodist Church has lost her Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. This piqued my interest, so I decided to focus my own thoughts, as well as to inform others, on this matter of faith.
Faith as Doctrine of Assent vs Doctrine of Assurance:
Today we often think of faith as a set of beliefs, or the Doctrine of Assent. In Wesley’s time, he understood faith as the Doctrine of Assurance, a unique gift to the Christian church, whereby believers can know with certainty they are truly beloved of God with a steadfast love which endures forever.
This love is unconditional and saves us from the tragic consequences of the law of sin and death by bringing us into the law of life and love through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That descriptive mouthful is John Wesley’s heartwarming experience he had at Aldersgate in 1738 on the fateful evening when he attended a meeting very unwillingly, yet had the heart changing event that set his life on a different path.
Historic Wesleyan Faith is a Gift of Grace
We need to ask, “What is the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith, anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior?” Is it located in regeneration, aka the new birth, or is it located in human morality as proof of righteousness in Jesus Christ? This probably means nothing to people in the pews, but if we’re going to claim the mantle of John Wesley, or the argument from tradition, we must get Wesley’s understanding of faith down pat. We find Wesley’s thoughts in his Notes on the New Testament and in his StandardSermons, both of which are part of our Methodist teaching.
In the sermon OF EVIL ANGELS, Wesley reminds us faith is “our evidence of things unseen.”
“Faith is the life of the soul; and if ye have this life abiding in you, ye want no marks to evidence it to yourself: but [elencos pneumatos/Spirit control] that divine consciousness, that witness of God, which is more and greater than ten thousand human witnesses,” is Wesley’s explanation of faith in AWAKE, O SLEEPER.
Faith as the Spirit of Adoption
Another way of saying this is Romans 8:15-17,
“When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
For Wesley, faith is a gift of salvation, our trust in the saving work of Christ. As he says in the sermon AWAKE OH SLEEPER:
“Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is His gift, by the operation of His Spirit.”
Then Wesley gives his altar call: “In what state is thy soul? Was God, while I am yet speaking to require it of thee, art thou ready to meet death and judgement? Canst thou stand in His sight, who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity’? Art thou ‘meet to be partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light’? Hast thou ‘fought a good fight, and kept the faith’? Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed upon with Christ?”
“Hast thou oil in thy lamp? grace in thy heart? Dost thou ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength’? Is that mind in thee, which was also in Christ Jesus? Art thou a Christian indeed that is, a new creature? Are old things passed away, and all things become new?”
Faith comes as a Gift. Our good works respond to Christ’s work.
Most of us are in agreement Wesley’s initial understanding of FAITH having to do with accepting Christ’s work for us as the only precondition for our salvation. There is no good deed or accumulation of good deeds needed to earn our salvation from God. What many of us have difficulty is accepting we also don’t earn our perfection in holiness by our own power.
Our Christian perfection is always a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit. As the Spirit works in us, we respond to work toward the complete renewal into the original image of God in which we were created. While it’s possible we might attain this perfect state in this lifetime, most Christians will attain completion in the purity of love of God and neighbor at the moment of death by God’s work, not by our own accomplishments.
Do the Born Again Christians Sin?
In Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” he quotes 1 John 3:9—
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.”
Wesley admits people who are born again can err or make mistakes, but they don’t sin. That’s a bridge too far for many to accept today, for many of us are prone to judging others. We have a dysfunctional understanding of “perfection.” We think it’s like a Martha Stewart design, forgetting she has a whole staff of helpers to carry out her ideas. As one of my professors once explained it, “Once you’ve been to Waxahachie, you’ve always been to Waxahachie.”
If you don’t know Waxahachie, it’s a midsized Texas town about the size of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was known for cotton in its hey day, and now hosts a crepe myrtle festival. Once you’ve been there, you can’t lose that experience. In the same way, you can’t lose your status of new birth. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, given by faith through Christ.
But some of us will try to throw it away anyhow. Wesley wrote in that same sermon, The Great Privilege, “Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.”
The Outward Appearance vs. The Inward Attributes
So, one who has faith doesn’t sin, since we have to lose faith in God to sin. In other words, we have to reject the gift freely given to us without price. As he also says in his great sermon on Christian Perfection, “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:” [Gal 2:20]— Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
For Wesley, the goal of Christian perfection, or the recovery of the image of God, was to love God and neighbor with one’s whole heart until nothing else could exist inside. No favoritism for a group, no exclusion for a group, no yearning to be better than others, no desiring a better place at the table, no hoarding of resources for selfish purposes, no fear of tomorrow, nor any other anxiety that strikes the human heart.
We give our resources away so we can have room for new blessings. God always provides for those who give with generous hearts. We open our doors to the least, the last, the lost, and the unloved, because Jesus and Wesley went out into the fields and met the people where they were. Those are our people out there, and they aren’t “living moral lives,” any more than the imperfect people within our churches are. But we all can and do live lives of faith. We all can learn to trust a savior who loves every sinew of our wounded and broken bodies. We can love a God who never gives up on us even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
We United Methodists might be messy, but we surely can love God and neighbor. Moreover, we’re all going on to perfection, even if some of us are moving more slowly than others. We’re still a community of faith, a people who trust God’s grace and one another to get through this thing called life together. We’ll bring each other along, for we’re not leaving anyone behind. We include in the great worldwide Body of Christ the body of Christ whom we meet outside our doors. After all, the race isn’t to the swift, but to the ones who help their brothers and sisters to the finish line, where we have a finishing medal for everyone, along with a big potluck dinner with enough food for folks to take home leftovers. That’s the never ending banquet table to which we invite all who hunger and thirst for community—both spiritual and personal.
Trusting Faith for a Risky Love in Unsettled Times
All we have to do is ask ourselves in this unsettled time: “Do I have Wesley’s trusting faith to live this risky love? Are these the people with whom I want to experience God’s steadfast love and share the grace of Christ? This is our heritage in the United Methodist Church, for we’re a people of faithfulness, who believe the “Bible has everything sufficient for salvation.”
I can only hope for those who leave, whether they become global Methodists, independents, or community congregations, that they will provide a large enough tent for our big God and big Christ, for the Spirit always is seeking people and places to fill completely with the gift of God’s extraordinary love and power.
My prayer is our United Methodist churches will receive a fresh rush of the Spirit to become even more of what we are today, for
“Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).” Theological Guidelines: Scripture https://www.umc.org/en/content/theological-guidelines-scripture
A sunflower follows the sun. Actually, only young sunflowers track the sun across the sky, while mature sunflowers face east. Why is this? Why do we care? As sunflowers fill our Facebook feeds and social media posts, most of us are looking at flowers so we can ignore the awful consequences of this unprovoked war. Right now, many of us are heartbroken because of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. I had only a passing knowledge of this country because of its well known naïve artist, Maria Primachenko and her paintings of fantastic imaginative animals in gardens. They have always been a delight to my soul and a joy to my spirit. Many of her works include the sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower. Sunflowers have been grown in Ukraine since the mid 1800’s, and are not only an important export crop, but also a symbol of peace. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, people planted sunflowers as a symbol of the peace they hoped would follow.
Sunflowers, when young, follow the sun on a 24 hour circadian cycle, just as our bodies have a similar cycle keyed to the light and dark. When the flowers are growing, they maximize their time facing the sun, but once they’re mature, they set their face toward the east, since this gives the head maximum warmth. Bees love warmth, so keeping the buzzing crowds near is in the sunflowers’ best interest for pollination and reproduction.
Most of us prefer the sunny days. Clouds, storms, and distress aren’t our first choices. After the last few years of pandemic stresses, we’re unprepared for yet another crisis, even if it seems to be on a distant continent. Our own supply chain for reserves of caring and concern have been stretched thin by the nearly million deaths from COVID in our nation alone, not to mention the worldwide death toll of over 6 million. On Friday in Sam’s Club, I met a lady who complimented me on my flowered pants, which I was wearing in honor of the Ukrainian folk painter, whose museum had been bombed by the Russian army.
“I can’t bear to even listen to the news any more. It’s all so awful,” she said.
“I know. It reminds me too much of domestic violence cases, where the man decides he’ll punish the ex by killing all the children and taking himself out also.”
My blood sugar usually drops low on Friday after art class, before I eat lunch, so I don’t have my usual, civilized filter on my mouth. The look of awareness on her face was the sudden recognition of a truth she had refused to see before. Sometimes we need to face our fears and deal with them. This is the hero journey. None of us can travel it alone, but far too many fail to ever set out on it at all, even with a spiritual companion or guide. My failure to snack at art class upset her comfortable apple cart and caused her distress. She ran out of Sam’s in a heartbeat. I was able to chat with a baby and her mom later on, who was amazed her child wasn’t at all afraid of this stranger. Food is a medicine for my mood and a bridle for my mouth.
On a sunny day, we can see our shadow. Most of us are afraid of our own flickering shadows. We don’t want to see the darkness within us, even though we’re ever ready to see the sinister images of others. Like a sunflower, we’ll turn instead to the light and only see the good, the beautiful, and the true.
A story I remember from my classical art studies regards Alexander the Great and the shadows. His father Phillip II, the ancient king of Macedon, had a difficult, high strung horse, which no one had been able to ride. In fact, it was downright vicious and unmanageable, which made it less of a “gift” to the ruler. Alexander, even though a youth, noticed the handsome horse was disturbed by his own shadow, so he turned the animal’s head into the sun, attached the bridle, and was able to mount him. Alexander rode Bucephalus until the horse’s death at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C.E. In his honor, Alexander named a local city, Bucephala (sometimes identified with the modern Jhelum, in the Punjab province of Pakistan), after him.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes,” Carl Jung wrote to one Fanny Bowditch, on the eve of his entry into military service during the First World War. Jung believed as long as you looked at other people and projected your own psychology into them, you could never reach harmony with yourself. Jung taught all persons had a shadow side to their personality, or those aspects of ourselves which we’ve repressed. These may be both bad or good aspects, for some of us have yet to realize our own brutal natures, as well as the heroic figures which we’ve also buried inside.
My old granddaddy was fond of saying, “When you point out another’s failings, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.” I came to learn I couldn’t recognize the fault in others unless I could claim it also in my own self. This keeps one humble for sure, but it also keeps a person from thinking he or she has any godlike or dictator qualities.
This brings me to another famous shadow story involving Alexander the Great. After his father’s death, he visited Corinth, where Diogenes the Cynic lived in 326 BCE. Diogenes was famous for carrying a lamp in the middle of the day in his “search for an honest man.” In the most famous exchange of this meeting, Alexander asked Diogenes whether there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes, who was enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun, answered, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.”
This abrupt response, showing Diogenes’ utter contempt for the power and prestige craved by Alexander, inspired many artists over the years. Although Alexander’s attendants took offense at Diogenes’ rudeness to their king, Alexander himself wasn’t displeased. Leaving, Alexander was said to reply, “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”
When I brought these delightful images from Maria Primachenko to class, Gail and Mike were amazed at how bright, flat, and clean her designs were. Partly this is due to her use of gouache, an opaque water based color paint. She also uses repeated motifs, symmetry, and clean lines with sharp color contrasts to make her images “pop,” as the decorators say. Mike, who favors textures, was thrilled to see another artist who paints like he does. Gail was glad to process the distressing news through flowers and the yellow and blue of the national flag of Ukraine.
Often we don’t feel “safe” speaking about dark or upsetting experiences, preferring instead to bury them deep inside. This is maybe the worst decision we can make, for like a poison or an infection, what we refuse to bring to the light will fester and grow. Then it further sickens the body or the mind until it becomes unrecognizable and unhealthy. Perhaps this is when we move from being rational to irrational. As I always tell folks, “Just because you think the world operates on reason and order, doesn’t make it so.” By this I mean, we live in a world with accidents, change, disease, sociopaths, and greed. In biblical terms, we live in a broken and fallen world, one in which even those of us who are “saved by the blood of Christ” from the wages of sin are “not yet perfected in the love of God and neighbor.”
This is what it means as a Christian to carry the Jungian shadow within us. If we believe keeping a law is the best evidence of our faithfulness, we can overlook the moral quality of the law itself and find ourselves carrying out harm, rather than doing good. As the writer of Hebrews explains in the platonic argument of Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All:
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.” (10:1)
If we want to be law keepers, we can’t be picking and choosing which laws we want to keep, as if the law were a cafeteria or buffet table. Jesus certainly knew what potholes lay ahead of him after his baptism in the Jordan River. A forty day fast in the wilderness is great for getting your head together and dealing with our human nature’s dark side of desire for security, power, and equality with god.
I post my Artandicon blog on LinkedIn as well as on my various spiritual formation Facebook pages which I manage. I sometimes get a message from folks there. One was from a friend, who mentioned she really wanted to get back into her art, “for it brings her peace.” I tell people, “the process of making art brings satisfaction, but we’re not ever satisfied with the work itself.” If we were ever to be satisfied with the work, if we thought we could reach no higher, or if we thought so highly of ourselves that we’d made the last best artwork for all times, then we’d have to quit and make pancakes, until we’d perfected those. And then we’d find a new obsession.
My favorite monsters are those from the Japanese nuclear monster movies of the 1950’s. They are both kitschy and scary. The sunflowers destroyed by these monsters of war will fall to earth and be reborn once again in ever increasing numbers. If hope is the last to die, it’s also the first to rise again. As long as one has breath, one can hope. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome long ago,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:13)
Making art is a metaphor for the hero’s journey. Jung believed art was important because often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. We don’t know what battle or monster awaits, but we also don’t know what divine spirit will come to our aid. Along the fantastic inward journey, we’ll meet the very same creatures who are outside of us. They arise in our dreams, but they were planted in our awakening moments. We may have been turning our faces towards the sun, like the baby sunflowers or the horse Bucephalus, but soon enough we’ll trust the one who guides us and we’ll go wherever it’s necessary.
The journey toward Christian perfection in love is a heroic journey, one which we can only undertake with the help of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, we also travel with others on same road: mystics, saints, and holy persons from yesterday and today. As the old camp song refrain goes,
“And they’ll know we’re Christians by our love, by our love, They’ll know we’re Christians by our love.”
The following prayer, Psalm 23, has comforted people for thousands of years in times of trouble and grief. Here in the English Standard Version, if you have fears, trepidations, or trembles, it might help you to calm your spirit. As you speak it aloud to the rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation of breath, remember those who have given up their lives rather than reject their faith: Christian martyrs in the Roman coliseum, Jewish martyrs in the holocaust, and democratic freedom fighters around the world. Let your voice be heard, even as their voice is being silenced:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
As an itinerant Methodist pastor I, along with my sisters and brothers, have had the privilege of answering God’s call to minister in different cities and towns. Sometimes I questioned the wisdom of the Holy Spirit working through my district superintendents and bishop, but I wasn’t alone in this. Other clergy have wondered why they were sent to “exile cities, ” just as our congregations often wondered why the bishop sent them the very last person at the bottom of the clergy bucket.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people taken from their homeland into exile in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE:
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:7)
God has a way of putting us where we need to be, just as God has a way of providing the leaders we need. Maybe not the leader we want, but the leader we need. Also maybe not the location we’d put at the top of our bucket list, but the place where God needs us to be in this present moment.
Making a painting has some of this same expectation and disappointment. In class we had the inspiration of “The City.” We don’t paint just the shapes, but also the emotions we feel about the subject matter. If we like the city, we’ll respond well, but if the idea of the city is distressing to us, we might not even be able to work at all. If I don’t have sufficient caffeine by 10 am, my creative juices don’t flow swiftly.
This was one of the inspiration images. It may be best understood as, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Also a poem, “The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, says “what the Shadow knows:”
We live in secret cities And we travel unmapped roads.
We speak words between us that we recognize But which cannot be looked up.
They are our words. They come from very far inside our mouths.
You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city Inside us, and inside us
There go all the cars we have driven And seen, there are all the people
We know and have known, there Are all the places that are
But which used to be as well. This is where They went. They did not disappear.
We each take a piece Through the eye and through the ear.
It’s loud inside us, in there, and when we speak In the outside world
We have to hope that some of that sound Does not come out, that an arm
Not reach out In place of the tongue.
These brightly colored houses are the last layer of a heavily overpainted canvas. Underneath the house shapes with their gabled roofs, we can still see the faint images of rectangular buildings. The artist also scratched through the paint in places for texture and stumbled colors on top of other colors. This technique takes more time than two hours, since the bottom layers need to dry before the upper layers are added. The quality of paint is different also, since thin paint isn’t able to handle this type of work. It yields a much livelier and more optimistic image than the dark one above.
This image has not only the brightly colored houses of a seaside city, but also their reflections in the water below. The sky is broken up into planes of various tints of blue. There’s three distinct sections: foreground, middle ground, and background. It’s located in a real space, even though it’s rendered in flat and decorative colors.
Dusty painted his buildings on a green lawn for a nice landscape setting. While he didn’t have time to render any details in our short class time, I could tell he was thoughtful about the placement of his colors and shapes.
I asked Mike what his Myers Briggs Type was, since he has no trouble making a plan and executing it. My guess his first and last letters are E and J, and most likely S and T in the middle. Not everyone can make a plan right away, but some have to work on the canvas and let the painting begin to call itself into being. It becomes more of a conversation between the artist and the artwork.
Mike enjoyed bringing to life the night sky with its clouds and full moon. The mystery of a city and its buildings’ windows blazing with light in the night must be a memory he holds dear.
Lauralei’s city had some moody, overhanging clouds. The buildings underneath were transparent and fragile. It was as if they were a glass city, and a threatening storm cloud hung over the city. Worry and stress can wear a person down. I know anxiety is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life. “You can’t cross the bridge until you get to it,” my mother always said. My Nannie would chime in, “Today’s trouble is enough. Don’t go borrowing trouble from tomorrow!” It’s best sometimes to put the work down and try again after giving our concerns over to God:
“The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal; it will not desist until the Most High responds.” ~~ Sirach 35:21
Sally would have liked to work some more on last week’s painting, but tried this project instead. She’s still learning the limits of her paints, so this is why the building on the left has one green dot darker than the others. It was painted into the wet ground, so it picked up that color and dulled it. I saw that move out of the corner of my eye and suggested she let the building dry first. If we work all over the surface, or “do the big before the small,” we have a good chance our colors will stay clean and fresh. If we want grayed colors, we go ahead and paint into wet areas. The orange and blue complementary colors contrast nicely with the grays and violets.
Gail used a photo to do her painting at home while under quarantine. She made a good rendering. I’d suggested to the group the week before we would do a city scene, so if they had a photo on their phone, or a postcard from a vacation, they were welcome to bring it. I guess the dog ate everyone’s homework! Except for Gail.
My work went through several stages, rather like our continuing COVID pandemic. The map covers the area between our two city hospitals, National Park Medical Center and CHI St. Vincent. The former is at 100% occupancy in its ICU beds and the latter is at half capacity. National Park’s regular beds are almost 80% full, while CHI’s are about 55% full. In class time, I laid down some base colors according to a pattern from Google maps. Then it was time to pick up, clean our tools, and go home.
At home, after I recovered from a weekend of four exciting football games, I took several of my oldest fabric face masks, which are inadequate for our latest highly transmissible omicron variant. Abandoned masks are a common sight, joining the rest of the urban detritus that sully our city sidewalks now. I also added some of my grandmother’s crocheted rickrack for one of the main streets. I overpainted the bright colors with dark blue colors. Somehow rolling into the third year of this pandemic has sucked some of the energy out of me.
The dark night of COVID couldn’t last long for me, for I always have hope. I picked up my iridescent colors: silver, gold, and bronze. Mixing these, as I scumbled them over the base colors, I thought of the Psalmist (104:30):
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
I wasn’t truly satisfied until I pulled the gold, silver, and bronze mix over all the whole surface. Only a few of the bright colors from the original under painting remained as key notes to bring the eye around the canvas. I think I might have to make more three dimensional areas in another work. This one doesn’t have quite enough.
When I taught young children, I used to remind their parents children have a different purpose in art than adults do. Children are excited about the process, while adults want a finished image. Kids will push a work beyond its “boundary” just to experience the activity of making art, while adults often hold themselves back for fear they might go over the edge. We grownups need to have more of that childlike abandon, since going over the edge in art isn’t going to threaten life or limb.
This week we’ll paint from wildflowers. Drawing from our imagination is difficult if we haven’t practiced this skill. Drawing from an object we can see is much easier. We can look at it and sort out the basic shapes and lines. We can check the proportions to see if they relate to one another correctly. Sometimes we discover drawing from real life is actually just as hard as making something up out of our own creative ideas. Actually, everything about art is equally easy and difficult at one and the same time. We just have to relax and make the colors and shapes appear on the surface.
Remember the words of hope from Jeremiah to the captives in Babylon:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (29:11-14).”
Cezanne once said, “We live in a rainbow of chaos.” Perhaps he meant we’re surrounded by colors, in various and sundry shades, and through art, we try to find some order to this chaos, even if our resulting work seems outwardly disorderly. In his own lifetime, Cezanne was accused of being a madman, “afflicted while painting with delirium tremens.” His response was to shrug off the guardians of the Academy: “With an apple I want to astonish Paris.” He worked in isolation for a very long time, only gaining financial success in the last ten years of his life.
Another artist who broke ground is Jackson Pollock. When we view a Pollock action painting, we realize there’s actually an order to this chaos. The drips and pours are more like calligraphy and live in tension with one another. They vary in color, size, and energy, not unlike a song. The action paintings are not just “drip paintings,” but energies expressing emotions by means of fluid dynamics. This is why we don’t say, “My grandkid could do this.” People try to forge Pollocks and fail. Even Pollock had difficulty creating these unique works, the best of which belong primarily to a two year period when he refrained from his alcohol habit, which affected his depressive disorder.
As compositions, each of Pollock’s drip pictures simultaneously dissolves into a chaotic jumble of individual lines, while also coming together as a structurally uniform, whole field. We’re mostly used to works best viewed from a single fixed point, such as a High Renaissance painting. Instead, to view a Pollock, we must move across the whole surface, and look deep into the layers. His works draw their audience in to inspect the details closely, passage by passage, and at the same time overwhelm the viewer with their monumental size. Their coloristic and textural richness emphasizes the expansive surface, yet the elaborate and totally visible overlay of multiple layers of paint (and sand, cigarette butts, glass, and other materials) create a very real depth and space. It’s definitely not your grandchild’s artwork.
Hans Hofmann, a 20th C American abstract expressionist, once said, “Colors must fit together as pieces in a puzzle or cogs in a wheel.” Often we use the colors straight out of the tube, or we flail around trying to figure out which yellow and which blue will give us the shade of green we want to use. Experience is the best teacher, for learning how to see the colors of life is like solving a puzzle that doesn’t have a photo for a guide. Once we begin to recognize their composite colors, we begin to see the order in the midst of chaos. Then we have the cogs to the wheel and it will turn the next wheel in good order. Experience becomes our Rosetta Stone for decoding the other mysterious languages of color we hear around us every day.
One of the cues we’ve come to recognize in our painting class is the color of our brush wash water. If it’s a lovely neutral gray, like the center circle in the wheel above, we’ve balanced the warm and cool colors on our canvas. Most of our group in attendance chose colors from this wheel.
We saw a number of color theory examples from history, including Paul Klee’s geometric watercolors, which vary from color blocks, landscapes, and written images.
A little known colorist is the Swedish artist, Hilma af Klint, who was one of the earliest abstract painters. She developed a language, or visual imagery, to share the spiritual experiences she received during her participation in automatic drawing. As with many others of her era at the turn of the 20th century, she and her friends, in the group called The Five, mixed elements of traditional Christianity with seances and beliefs in a mystical guiding higher spirit. If she lived today, we’d likely call her beliefs “new age.” She also incorporated new advances in science for her time in her explorations.
Her work for The Temple was heroic in size, with each of the 193 paintings measuring about 7 x 9 feet.These were completed between 1906 and 1915. The whole sequence can perhaps be understood as af Klint’s pursuit of an original “oneness,”or the basic unity which she believed existed at the world’s creation. She believed this integrity had since been lost, giving way instead to a world of polarities: good and evil, woman and man, matter and spirit. In her work after 1912, af Klint seemed to move stylistically away from techniques related to spirit channeling, such as the fluid lines of The Five’s automatic drawings. Her use of Christian iconography and geometric forms increased. By 1917, af Klint stopped producing art through a spirit altogether. Her 2,000 plus works are owned and administered by The Hilma af Klint Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden.
Dusty used a plastic plate to draw his circle. This plate served a secondary purpose as well: it was also his palette to mix his colors. “Art imitates life, even in abstraction.” He used the ruler to measure out equal pie shaped segments, and divided the background planes. I almost stopped him in the midst of his planning, but I wasn’t about to stop that train of thought. I could only admire it for its balance and symmetry. He mixed the shades of the colors, and filled in the spaces. Then he added a few “motion” marks to indicate the movement of the disc in the atmosphere.
Gail pulled a plastic French curve drawing shape out of her toolbox to make the unique shapes in her painting. The blue and green curves are the waves of the sea and the central oranges of the resulting negative shape is the sun above the water. I always appreciate her paintings, which connect to her love of nature and have a sense of order to them.
I think I have this painting right side up. I followed the path of the brush strokes. Lauralei wins the prize for most different number of colors mixed on the palette. So often we get accustomed to using the same familiar colors over and over. Everyone had a café au lait colored interior two decades ago, then we all went white, and gray predominated for a while. Maybe soon we’ll paint our homes actual colors instead of following the crowd.
Mike had this idea percolating in his mind before he came to class, but didn’t have time to work on it at home. As soon as he saw our inspiration works, he decided to follow his inner guide, which had opened this image to him. He took the ruler to mark off some guide lines, then focused on bringing this idea to life. The radiating energy bolts of dynamic rainbow colors coming from the cross remind us of God’s love in Jesus Christ for all things and all people. We’re also one in Christ and belong to the one family of God, no matter how we worship, or what our understanding of God is.
I began my little painting as a homage to Klee, but I didn’t get far in the 90 minutes we have for painting. I attempted to leave the negative space for the letters, but my brush was either too large or my painting surface was too small for the text I chose. I brought it home and worked another six or seven hours on it in the following week.
In the quiet of my studio, I realized I wasn’t paying attention to the emotions of the words, but only to the technical aspects of mixing the colors. I reread again my text from Luke 1:78-79:
“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
At this time, I saw the upper half needed to be light, while the lower part of the painting needed to be in darkness, since the two verses broke in this direction. This also gave my painting a landscape feel, as if the dark earth hadn’t yet seen the dawn of God’s light. As I painted, I began to lose the sense of the letters and the words, and the patches of color became more important than trying to keep the sentence legible.
I’m very impressed with this group, who’ve taken to heart my teaching mantra: Everyone will find their own voice if they engage in creative thinking and do the work. In the spiritual life, we’re saved by faith, but in art, we do find “works righteousness.” Amazingly, we get better the more we practice, especially if we have positive critiques and goal oriented lessons designed to help us grow. This provides fertile ground to awaken the spirit living within each of us, so that we can become co-creators in God’s renewal of the world. Maybe Hilma af Klimt was on to something special after all.
Our next class will be The City. We can either treat this as a lesson in perspective, poster design, abstraction, or a close up view of a building. Vacation photos are a good resource to bring, if you have a special place you want to remember. Antique photos are good too. Till next time, keep your hearts full of
As the days grow shorter, the pile of leaves grows larger. This is Einstein’s equation for autumn. I know “Energy equals Mass times the speed of Light squared” isn’t really congruent with all those bags of leaves accumulating on the edge of the streets of the front yards in your neighborhood. It just seems that way. When I bought my first little stucco, flat roofed house back in my hometown, the former owners reminded me at closing, “Be sure and rake the roof every autumn.”
Of course I forgot about this, until the twenty something major trees around my little flat roofed house dumped all their leaves on my roof. How did I know? When it rained, those leaves blocked the drainage holes, so water came inside the ceiling light fixtures of my kitchen in the back of the house. As soon as the rain quit, I had the ladder out and was filling the big, black garbage bags with soggy leaves. If you only fill them half way, they’ll stay intact when tossing them over the parapet. I was younger then, and trainable. I didn’t forget when autumn came the next year.
I’ve always thought leaves “fell” off the trees or the wind blew them off, but I asked Mr. Google, “Why do leaves fall?” Turns out, the trees cut them off with scissor cells. The leaves are only useful for making food for the tree. They are the seasonal kitchen staff, so the tree lets them go for the winter and brings in a new crew in the spring. The changing light and cooler temperatures triggers a hormone that makes this happen.
If the leaves stayed on the tree, they’d wake up during a winter warm spell, start their food production work, and then get frozen when the cold inevitably returns. The tree knows the lifespan of the leaf, and this is the natural course of the life cycle. New growth will come in the spring, after a period of rest and recovery.
Our holiday season coincides with darkening days and marketing excess. Most of the commercials show happy families with lots of presents in heavily decorated holiday environments. Statistics show 25% of people are estranged from their families, and one out of every 463 Americans alive at the beginning of 2020 has since died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. About 1 in 8 Americans say that a member of their family died of the virus; another fifth say that they lost a close friend, according to YouGov polling. These are staggering numbers, for in the US alone, 779,293 people have lost their lives as of November 30, 2021. One too many Thanksgiving tables had an empty place setting for a loved one no longer among us, and this will be a blue Christmas for many families.
If this were a war, maybe folks would get all excited and consider good health practices such as mask wearing , hand washing, and vaccinations their patriotic duty. Instead, they throw themselves into the breach of a thousand tiny viruses as if they were seeking the congressional gold medal for valor, and end up leaving their families with nothing but medical bills, grief, and the loss of their presence. Into this weary season comes Omicron, yet another variant, but an expected event due to the lack of worldwide access to vaccines and the virus’s ability to mutate in immunocompromised individuals. The enemy keeps evolving and the battles continue, whether we’re weary of the struggle or not.
“The Falling Leaves,” by Margaret Postgate Cole of England, is one of the first anti-war poems from a woman’s perspective. It was written in November 1915, during the First World War, when from 1914 to 1918, Flanders Fields was a major battle theatre on the Western Front. A million soldiers from more than 50 different countries were wounded, missing or killed in action there. Entire cities and villages were destroyed, their population scattered across Europe and beyond. The tradition of poppies on Veterans Day came from the red flowers given life from the blood spilled on this battlefield. COVID today is exacting it’s own cruel battle toll, with children left orphaned and spouses left without their mates. The adverse affects on this generation may be equal to those who went through the great flu pandemic of 1918 or the Great Depression.
War may be necessary in some instances, but it’s never to be glorified. There’s always a sadness related to the loss of life, regret over the great expense poured out that might have been used to build rather than destroy, and the cruelties that attend actions when we make others into evil enemies and refuse to see them as human as we are. Her poem speaks poignantly to this human loss:
Today, as I rode by, I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree In a still afternoon, When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky, But thickly, silently, They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon; And wandered slowly thence For thinking of a gallant multitude Which now all withering lay, Slain by no wind of age or pestilence, But in their beauty strewed Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.
Source: Margaret Postgate’s Poems (1918)
If we want to treat these end of year days as “days of denial” of all that’s grim in the world to focus only on the good and the light, we’s be like people who claim we have no shadow. Carl Jung believed the shadow included everything in the unconscious mind, good or bad. Also, the shadow might include only the part of the personality that you don’t want to identify as self, but still is a part of your unconscious mind. This dark side of your personality contains everything your conscious mind can’t admit about itself.
When we read the birth story of Jesus, we often focus on the angels and the gifts of the magi. We forget these heavenly hosts are God’s armies and the magi came to meet the new king. These were revolutionary acts that caused King Herod to feel insecure and threatened, so he slaughtered the innocent babies born at this time. The Bible never forgets this shadow side of life, for this is why Christ came into our world:
“to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” ~ Luke 1:79
The saying is true: “If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.” Yet how hard do we humans hold to the past, even if we need to move on into the future? As an artist, I’ve always been caught between my desire to honor the traditions of the past, but also to move into the the unknown realms of the future. Artists already have a vocabulary and boundaries to describe the works of the past, so we can tell if our current works “meet the criteria for excellence.”
When we go beyond this known world into the uncharted territories, we’re like Columbus, who landed in the Caribbean islands, but thought he was on the continent of North America. I wonder if the monarch butterfly, just emerging from the cocoon, has any idea it soon will begin a 3,000 mile migration to its ancestral winter home in Mexico. The butterfly has the innate ability to navigate this path, whereas we humans are like Abram, for we’re going to a land our God will show us. We have no idea where we’ll end up, but we do know we’ll travel by stages and God’s guiding inspiration will always be with us.
During this current protracted COVID pandemic, with cases beginning in mid December 2019, we’ve now lost over 766,206 persons in the US alone and over 47,390,239 individuals have had COVID. Worldwide, the numbers are far greater: over 5 million have died and nearly 255 million have contracted COVID, mostly because vaccines and health care services aren’t available to the extent they are in America and the European Community. Not only has our world as a whole suffered a great grief, but each of us individually have lost friends, neighbors, or loved ones. This adds to our collective grief.
When we see the rest of our world changing around us, we feel another loss, and this becomes the grief leading to the death of a thousand tiny cuts. Just as in our workplaces, when the ideas of the young, the female, and the ethnic individuals aren’t valued, their dismissal leads to devaluation of their perspectives as well as their personhood. When we devalue nature and treat creation as an arena for humanity to restructure for our purposes alone, we can fall into the trap of thinking only for our immediate future, but not for the generations to follow. This is why building lots inside the city get cleaned off and offered as a blank slate, since this makes them valuable to the greatest number of buyers.
Death by a thousand cuts was supposedly a form of torture in ancient China. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes, such as matricide, patricide, treason, and the like. From all the tiny slices, the accused finally bled to death. It was a cruel and unusual punishment, rather like flogging the back of a law breaker until the flesh was raw, but this punishment was intended to cause death because the executioner kept at it until he succeeded.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of the loss of a few trees here and there in our neighborhoods. Sometimes we even want to cut down the trees on our own property because we’re tired of raking leaves every fall, or if we have a magnolia tree, we’re tired of our year round duty of leap reaping. Of course, if you want a high strung, classy tree to show off in your front yard, you also need to sign onto the high maintenance these trees require. “Those that wears the fancy pants has to take care of those fancy pants,” my mother always reminded me.
Yard work is a type of infrastructure most of us can understand. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, those of us hosting the feast are also getting the house and yard ready for family and friends to visit. Infrastructure has been in the news lately also, with politicians debating whether soft or hard infrastructure deserves the most funding.
In Hot Springs, we have “Green Infrastructure,” which includes all the natural assets that make the city livable and healthy: trees, parks, streams, springs, lakes and other open spaces. These assets are ‘infrastructure’ because they support peoples’ existence. For example, tree canopy keeps the city cooler while also absorbing air pollutants and mitigating flooding. The Hot Springs National Park forest area is also an important resource for a variety of reasons. The mountain area is in the recharge zone for the hot springs and the forest provides other important ecosystem services.
In urban areas, we can evaluate the landscape on a smaller scale, so even small patches of green space become important, since together they can make a greater large cumulative impact. Smaller urban spaces, such as linear stream valleys, or even pocket parks, can add up to a connected green landscape. When evaluating the ecological health of an urban area, urban tree canopy is a key green asset. For instance, Hot Springs has 57% tree canopy coverage and an additional 12% green space coverage. This adds to our quality of life, for this isn’t only pleasing to the eye, but the trees and grass convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, thus improving the air we breathe.
Cities are beginning to recognize the importance of their urban trees because they provide tremendous dividends. For example, city trees are a strategic way to reduce excess stormwater runoff and flooding. Even one tree can play an important role in stormwater management. For example, estimates for the amount of water a typical street tree can intercept in its crown range from 760 gallons to 4000 gallons per tree per year, depending on the species and age. Taken city-wide, the trees within the city provide an annual stormwater interception of 1.2 to 1.5 million gallons which equates to 7 to 9 million dollars in benefits. The loss of one tree is worth so much money, replanting our tree cover is an investment in our future wellbeing.
I often heard an old proverbial poem growing up, which may not be repeated much today:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
My nanny would remind me of the same principle in other words, “A stitch in time saves nine.” My daddy was from the school of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While those two schools of thought still persist today, I think making a small, inexpensive repair, rather than a costly replacement, is a better choice, but too many of us live in a throwaway society.
When we lose one small thing, we brush it off as no matter, but after a thousand small losses, we just can’t take it any longer. We look around and wonder what happened to our world, why didn’t we take action sooner, and now we might be in a hole so deep we can’t see the top. When I first painted the trees on this vacant lot, the little coffee kiosk had closed shop and moved on. It was springtime and the violet wisteria vines were bright against a sunlit cerulean sky.
As I was taking a few photos with my iPhone last spring, the local policeman pulled into the circular drive to check on me. We chatted a bit, but he wanted to make sure I was OK. I’m at that age when silver alerts go out for others, but I’m not there yet. I guess “old gal taking photographs of trees” still looks suspicious in my small town. I’m thankful my town is this quiet.
When I told the officer, “These trees called to me,” he might have had second thoughts about my state of mind. Then he realized he was talking to an artist. I was rescued when his radio called him off to take care of some real trouble. I find I do my best work when I feel called to a subject, for I have a spiritual connection with it.
That was this past April, and here at year’s end, this lot is up for auction, with a commercial use zoning. It has easy access to the bypass and would be good for a food place or a fuel stop. Things change and we can’t hold back progress. I know people who buy a vacation home to visit while they still work, but as soon as they retire to this same place, they grouse about all the weekenders who come and spoil their solitude. They put up with it a year or so, griping daily, and then sell and move on. Life changed for them and they didn’t adjust to their new normal. I wonder why they never realized Hot Springs was a vacation destination. We think we need an infrastructure just for the 38,500 people who live here year round, but we actually need an infrastructure to support the over two million visitors to whom we offer the hospitality of our hot springs, our hotels, our fine dining, our attractions, and our natural beauty.
When I saw the trees were gone and the lots had been plowed level, I wondered if the trees had a swift death, or if they had brief dreams and fantasies while the saws pierced their outer skins. I thought of the butterflies encased in their cocoons, and the deep sleep of their transformation. Do butterflies dream in this stage, or do they even dream like we do? I wondered if next April I would see wisteria growing near the ground, for as a weed, it’s hard to kill. I always hope, for I’ve learned over time, if I’m a prisoner of hope, this is better than seeing only the loss.
After traveling and recovering from an autumn sinus infection, I decided to destroy an old mobile sculpture of a butterfly made from found materials and attach it to a canvas. I took some scraps of cloth from some mask projects, and glued the whole to the canvas. Maybe I crammed more than I should have onto the small surface, but I was going with it. This work might be more catharsis than art, or more process and possibility than success. It doesn’t matter, for sometimes art is more therapeutic than anything else.
The first layer held all the colors and shapes of the original Google map. The second layer began to make sense of the shapes and textures, for I started to pull together the small areas into larger spaces. By the third layer, I’d lost most of the color areas and turned them instead into linear shapes. The primary colors of the background I subdued beneath an overall gold tone. The lines now are like an automatic writing or glyphic writing, which might be the language spoken either by the trees or the butterflies, or by all natural living beings.
When we confront suffering in nature, in our lives, or in the world, we often ask, “Where is God in all of this?” In the days past when I suffered, I held on to the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (8:18-21)
Often we suffer because we can’t change our past, or we think we can’t affect our future. At some point in our lives, we come to accept our suffering. We don’t have to continue to suffer, of course, but we need to accept that what happened to us is over. We can forgive ourselves for not leaving a bad relationship earlier, or being too young to know we were being harmed. Some of us may have survivor guilt from our nation’s wars, and suffer moral injuries from acts of war. Only good and decent human beings would feel this guilt, and they can heal with Christ’s forgiveness. We can be changed and then begin to change the world, even if we begin only with our own selves.
After all, the Psalms promise us God is faithful both to us and to the creation also: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)
“ Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Pablo Picasso once said. If we’re going to learn art, we should learn from the masters, and not from ordinary purveyors of paint. In art school, we often copied the old master paintings and drawings to learn their techniques and develop those traditional styles of execution so we could “break the rules” later on if we so chose.
Learning to paint and draw is a process. In ancient times, young people were apprenticed out to a master. In this workshop, they would learn their trade from the ground up, from cleaning brushes and sweeping the workshop floors, to later mixing colors, and then painting backgrounds. Later on they’d be drawing figures, so when they were competent, they would fill in the lesser people in the painting. By the time they achieved master status and were able to leave and establish a studio of their own, they could paint faces, hands, and the complete figure with appropriately draped clothing. This was about five to ten years of full time work in their master’s workshop and included the journeyman designation by the local guild.
When I taught art in the kindergarten through eighth grades at a private school, I always reminded the high achieving parents, “Your children’s art is an exploratory and experimental exercise. It may not look like a beautiful finished product, although it might have gone through that stage at some point in the process. If it’s a picture of daddy cutting the lawn, but all you see is black circles covering the page, that’s the sound of the lawnmower engine and the smoke it makes as it crisscrossed the yard.” For children that age, the story is more important than the image. For the parents, the image is more important, but parents have to learn where their children are in their development.
We can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can we judge a painting done in a weekly art class the same way we look at a painting in a museum. Still, we look to the better image for our inspiration, rather than to a lesser image, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 reminds us:
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.
Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” The past two weeks our group has been working with faces and master artists. We looked at Picasso in his multiple styles, along with Matisse and his more decorative style. We also painted portraits from our own photos in the styles of these two masters. Both Picasso and Matisse transitioned through several different styles during their artistic lifetimes, so we weren’t limited in our inspiration.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep,” said Scott Adams, the American cartoonist who created Dilbert. Or as the late Bob Ross would say, “There’re no mistakes, only happy little accidents.” Most of us can’t bring ourselves to make mistakes, however, even though mistakes are how we learn. Falling off the bicycle is part of learning how to find the proper balance to stay upright. We take tests in school to discover what we need to restudy. Tests aren’t a measure of our worth, but a measure of our learning. This desire to “appear faultless” often keeps us from trying something new, for fear we might not be good right out of the gate. Mature people know life isn’t a horse race, but everyone has their own gifts and graces to hone and embellish. If we don’t try, we might always be a diamond in the rough. We’ll never rise to our best if we don’t extend ourselves beyond our safe places.
Mike took a look at an image and went to work on his painting. He worked mostly from memory, adding designs and colors as he felt moved to place them on the canvas. “Likeness” wasn’t his goal, but the joy of playing with color and shape instead.
Matisse’s portrait of his wife caused a scandal at the 1905 Salon Exhibition. Matisse’s studio colleagues asked the painter, “What kind of hat and what kind of dress were they that this woman had been wearing which were so incredibly loud in color?” Matisse, exasperated, answered, “Black, obviously”.
“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense,” is another Picasso quote. After all, those who always stay within the lines and always color the sky blue won’t be able to imagine sunsets or sunrises. This is why James Whistler said, “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
What is vision in the world of art? We’re familiar with visions from God, or the lack thereof in certain times, as when Samuel was called:
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. (1 Samuel 3:1)
In God given visions, the prophet is open to God’s word, hears God’s voice, speaks for God, calls God’s people back to God, and reminds people of the consequences of their actions, both good and bad. Like a prophet, an artist needs to be open to the same move of the Spirit in the natural world, for the light calls and the trees speak, and the waters whisper of the deep mysteries of God’s Providence for God’s creation. Perhaps we need still hearts and quiet minds to receive these messages, but thankfully nature has a way of renewing the life of the human soul.
As we become more our true selves before God, we begin to find our artistic vision. Cezanne called Monet, who was famous for his Waterlilies, “only an eye, but what an eye!” If the eye is the window into the soul, we also reflect outwards what we are inside. We keep working on both our inner selves and our outer talents, with the thought one day the two might intersect. As Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” He could learn all the art techniques in a short time, but to become his true self, without pretense before others, took him a lifetime.
We Methodists should have a good jump on this goal, since we have the spiritual tradition of “going onto perfection.” This is one of our classic grace teachings. Prevenient grace brings us to know the saving grace of God before we’re even aware of God’s working in our lives. Justifying grace is the work that lets us understand Christ’s gift on the cross for our salvation, and Sanctifying grace empowers our works to renew us in the image of God.
If God’s grace is available for our spiritual development, it’s also there for our personal development. Is art a frill, or a necessity? Those of us who make art, find our lives are enriched by our creative endeavors. Neuroaesthethics is the emerging field in the science of how art affects the brain. These scientists define creativity as “the generation of something new,” and art as “the most homogenous form of total creativity.” However, we still have no understanding of how the brain generates new ideas, despite a tidal wave of neuroscientific research. This is why my art classes have always had learning environments with projects with no one right answer, but rather multiple possible solutions. All art comes from a true self, not from a stockpile of manufactured and multiplied standardized reproductions.
Recent thinking suggests art should be regarded as a cognitive process in which artists engage the most perplexing issues in their present experience and try to find a way of symbolizing them visually so they can bring coherence to their experience. As a result, the definition of art is constantly changing. Understanding how we symbolize our experience, how we use symbolic form to organize our thinking processes, and what are the neuroanatomical corollaries to these processes will have obvious implications for future learning. Additional neuroscience research supports the idea of enhancing transfer of learning abilities from the arts to other cognitive domains. More importantly, as Yayoi Kusama, the painter of polka dotted pumpkins says, “I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”
One of the best reasons to pursue art is for our spiritual and mental health, rather than to make salable products. Improvement is a goal in itself, as is persistence. Also, concentrating on creating an object that has no real purpose, but to allow the artist to express their inner emotions and solve the challenges of a three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface. “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one,” said Stella Adler, the American actress. In the studio, we find our true self, not who others think we are or what we do for a living. We can be children once again and paint because we want to.
In art class we lift up “studio habits of mind” or the skills we teach in painting class. For every painting or project, we always first
Observe—to see with acuity
Envision—to generate mental images and imagine
Express—to find their personal voice
Reflect—to think meta-cognitively about our decisions, make critical and evaluative judgments, and justify them
Engage & persist—to work through frustration
Stretch & explore—to take risks, “muck around,” and profit from mistakes
Develop craft skills and
Understand the history of art.
These are thinking or reasoning skills anyone can apply to any area of their lives, even if they’re improvising or “working in the Spirit.” We all can build resilience for our lives through our experiences in art. For some of my former students I taught in the classroom, art class was the only place they were well behaved, for they didn’t have to come up with one right answer, but had the opportunity to discover their own answer within certain boundaries. Also, they were graded on improvement, as well as their work ethic. “Practice makes perfect, or at least improvement, so keep working.”
Just remember what Salvador Dalí said: “The reason some portraits don’t look true to life is that some people make no effort to resemble their pictures.”