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 love the springtime, for all the colors of green are in abundance. I live on the lake on a property originally developed to be a high rise hotel and casino, until the city derailed that plan. Then it became vacation condos and retirement homes. Since it’s located on a large plot of timbered land, I even see my rabbit neighbors on occasion. My bunny friends usually move about at dawn and dusk. I’m not an early bird, and since Covid, my “out and abouts” have been seriously curtailed, so I’ve yet to see my four legged furry neighbors this year. Maybe I’ll have a better chance to see the Easter Bunny. I did purchase his dark chocolate cousin from Dove, who’s been reduced to a single ounce and will be gone by Easter Sunday. The ears went first, of course.
Our parents found ways in the old days to keep us active and entertained in the weeks leading up to Easter. One of my favorite experiences was egg dying and decorating. Back in Mom’s kitchen, boiling water, vinegar and colored pellets went into the coffee cups before we wrangled the wire holder and lowered the hard boiled egg into the dye. If we dipped the egg all the way in or held it for a longer time, we could get deeper colors. One year I even attempted to use only natural dyes, such as beets, cabbage, and onions. My “science-anthropology” experiment didn’t turn out as pretty as the PAAS collection, but I learned a lot. Crayon resist worked with both dye types, however. Perhaps I never appreciated how fortunate I was my mom taught school and my dad encouraged us kids to learn everything about our world. Almost anything was a science project in his mind.
As a child, I knew I’d arrived when I graduated to the big crayola box with sixty four colors in it. Suddenly I had a year round wealth of shades and hues at my command, plus I could combine them for even more variety: Here are the colors that ended up being in the 64 count box in 1958: orchid, lavender, carnation pink, thistle, red violet, violet red, brick red, magenta, maroon, mulberry, Indian red, red, melon, salmon, orange red, red orange, orange, flesh, maize, goldenrod, yellow orange, apricot, orange yellow, yellow, lemon yellow, green yellow, spring green, yellow green, sea green, olive green, green, pine green, aquamarine, forest green, turquoise blue, green blue, sky blue, blue green, periwinkle, blue, navy blue, midnight blue, cornflower, blue gray, cadet blue, violet, blue, blue violet, violet, plum, tan, burnt orange, mahogany, burnt sienna, brown, raw sienna, bittersweet, raw umber, sepia, black, silver, gray, gold, copper, white. I could make any landscape sing with whatever color my young imagination called forth. My birthday month always calls forth all the colors nature has on her palette.
Of course, not every tree sports a shade of green as its primary dress in the springtime. Some bud out all in white, others in dark red violet, while still others bloom out in light pinks. If I squint my aging eyes today, I can see a haphazard lace design across the landscape before me in multicolored threads, with a few embroidered trunks to give it a semblance of stability. Those trunks might be Indian red (an iron red) mixed with the old Prussian blue (now known as midnight blue) to make a warm black. Using the straight carbon black crayon made the black too stark, or so my portrait painting grandmother told me. The old “flesh color” has been renamed “peach,” in recognition of the diversity of skin color in our world today. Many other colors in the box can be combined to get the perfect shade of a person’s facial tone, no matter how light, dark, yellow, white, red, or brown. The 64 box has enough colors to capture any facial tone, for sure.
When I see the ever changing beauty of the natural world about me, I can’t help but have hope. I look back not only to simpler times, but also forward in hope to a time when once again I will feel the joy of breaking the seal of a brand new box of crayons and when I can revel in the fresh, unsullied scent of pure wax and touch with reverence the clean paper wrappers. Easter dresses always show up in the pastel colors, even if we have to toss our dark winter coats over them when the weather turns cool, as it often does.
Maybe you don’t have such a strong attachment to art supplies as I do, but surely this April is a holy season for many people, and not just for the rabbits who live among us. Some how we people of faith across the centuries and around the world respond to the annual renewal of life and the promise of hope when life seems most precarious. While my faith experience is deeply rooted in Christianity, the worldwide communities of faith respond to springtime with some common traditions.
It’s no wonder one of the great myths of the ancient Greeks and Romans dealt with the changing seasons, but also with the hope of eternal life. Demeter was the goddess of agriculture and crops, whose daughter Persephone was taken into the underworld. Hades kept her there against her will, so while Demeter grieved, the crops failed, people starved, and the gods weren’t honored. Zeus, the king of the gods, forced Hades to release Persephone, but since she had eaten a few pomegranate seeds, she had to spend part of the year underground. This set up the seasons and was the impetus for the famed Elysian Mysteries.
The week long rituals were based on a symbolic reading of the story of Demeter and Persephone. It provided initiates with a vision of the afterlife so powerful, it forever changed the way they saw their world and their place in it. They no longer feared death, for they recognized they were immortal souls temporarily in mortal bodies. In the same way Persephone went down to the land of the dead and returned to that of the living each year, so would every human being die only to live again on another plane of existence or in another body.
The spring rite was the lesser mysteries, without which one couldn’t enter the greater mysteries of autumn. Anyone who was present in the city and spoke Greek could attend, unlike some of the closed gnostic mysteries, which were available only to a chosen few. The whole community participated, for the life of the family, as well as the earth, depended on the abundance of the earth. In fact, the only paved road in Greece in ancient times was from Athens to Eleusius, and a modern road now follows the same path.
Aristotle wrote about the contrast of the cathartic experience of watching a tragic drama whereby the spectator is purged of the negative emotions of fear and pity, while an initiate of the Mysteries would undergo physical, emotional, and spiritual cleansing in preparation for the main part of the ritual— a spiritual identification with the Mother and Daughter in their separation and suffering and then joyful reunion, a transformation from death to rebirth. Through her or his own inner spiritual desires and participation in the rites, the initiate then was prepared to receive a “seeing” into the deepest mysteries of life.
This communal ritual wasn’t just for the individual, but for the family, the city state, and even the world itself. Let’s keep that idea in mind as we consider the other rituals of faith, renewal, and restoration of this spring season.
Our Vice President’s husband Doug Emhoff, 56, is the first Jewish spouse of a vice president or president. “After a year of social distancing and mask wearing, it’s impossible not to feel isolated at times. So it’s events like this one, events that creatively bring family and friends and communities together, that keep us connected and remind us that we’re not alone,” Emhoff said at the Seder ceremony before noting he got to do one of his “favorite things” and introduce the vice president.
“Our family, like so many families in the United States, the state of Israel and around the world, will begin to celebrate the sacred holiday of Passover this weekend,” Vice President Kamala Harris said. “And the Passover story is powerful. It reminds us of the resilience of the human spirit in the face of injustice. It urges us to keep the faith in the face of uncertainty.”
“This year, as we dip our greens in salt water and pour out our ceremonial wine and eat our bitter herbs, let us commit, once again, to repairing the world,” she said.
This is the great witness of the Passover story, for it’s a story of hope and liberation. It’s a story of God keeping God’s promises and God’s faithfulness for those who suffer. If anyone needs to hear words of liberation, faithfulness, hope, and promises kept, it’s our whole world, which is suffering with covid, hate, nationalism, racism, and extremism.
Passover, like many holidays, combines the celebration of an event from Jewish memory with a recognition of the cycles of nature. As the Jewish people remember their ancestors’ liberation, they also recognize the stirrings of spring and rebirth happening in the world. The symbols on the table bring together elements of both kinds of celebration. In the ritual, families take a vegetable, representing joy at the dawning of spring after a long, cold winter. Most will use a green vegetable, such as parsley or celery, but some families from Eastern Europe have a tradition of using a boiled potato, since greens were hard to come by at Passover time. Whatever symbol of spring and sustenance used, it’s dipped it into salt water, a symbol of the tears the ancestors shed as slaves. Before eating it, a short blessing is said:
We praise God, Ruler of Everything, who creates the fruits of the earth.
At the end of the meal, celebrants bless the final cup of wine according to Jewish tradition and law. As the faithful have had the pleasure to gather (virtually) for a seder this year, they hope to once again have the opportunity of gather in person in the years to come. The prayer is God brings health and healing to Israel and all the people of the world, especially those impacted by natural tragedy and war. As folks say every year, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Yet another spring festival is the Hindu celebration of Holi, which has been observed all over India since ancient times. Holi’s precise form and purpose displays great variety. Originally, Holi was an agricultural festival celebrating the arrival of spring. This aspect still plays a significant part in the festival in the form of the colored powders: Holi is a time when man and nature alike throw off the gloom of winter and rejoice in the colors and liveliness of spring.
Holi also commemorates various events in Hindu mythology, but for most Hindus it provides a temporary opportunity for Hindus to disregard social norms, indulge in merrymaking and generally “let loose.” The central ritual of Holi is the throwing and applying of colored water and powders on friends and family, which gives the holiday its common name “Festival of Colors.” Holi is spread out over two days (it used to be five, and in some places it is longer). A large communal bonfire burns in the town center to light the evening festivities.
The entire holiday is associated with a loosening of social restrictions normally associated with caste, sex, status and age. Holi thus bridges social gaps and brings people together: employees and employers, men and women, rich and poor, young and old. Holi is also characterized by the loosening of social norms governing polite behavior and the resulting general atmosphere of licentious merrymaking and ribald language and behavior. A common saying heard during Holi is bura na mano, Holi hai (“don’t feel offended, it’s Holi”).
This festival has transferred into western culture as part of the celebrations at the end of races and other communal bonding events, a fact which leads some to charge the west with cultural appropriation, but the followers of Holi aren’t offended if the intention is good.
While Easter in the western world has become a cultural celebration of cleaning house, redecorating, wearing new and brighter clothes, and doing brunch with lighter foods, in the Christian church, Easter still retains its central place of honor. As Henri Nouwen writes, “When Jesus was anticipating his own death he kept repeating the same theme to his disciples: “My death is good for you, because my death will bear many fruits beyond my death. When I die I will not leave you alone, but I will send you my Spirit, the Paraclete, the Counselor. And my Spirit will reveal to you who I am, what I am teaching you. My Spirit will lead you into the truth and will allow you to have a relationship with me that was not possible before my death. My Spirit will help you to form community and grow in strength.” Jesus sees that the real fruits of his life will mature after his death. That is why he adds, “It is good for you that I go.”
While Jesus did reach out to those ignored by the traditional faith community of his day, he was also concerned for the whole community over and above the individual alone. While the church, who are the “ones called out,” is composed of individuals, we’re called to gather together for worship, prayer, instruction, and to be sent out to do ministries in the name of Jesus. Some today put their personal relationship with Jesus above their relationship with the beloved community or with the suffering body of Christ, which is found in the marginalized people beyond the church door.
So along with Nouwen, we have to ask, “If that is true, then the real question for me as I consider my own death is not: how much can I still accomplish before I die, or will I be a burden to others? No, the real question is: how can I live so that my death will be fruitful for others? In other words, how can my death be a gift for my loved ones so that they can reap the fruits of my life after I have died? This question can be answered only if I am first willing to admit Jesus’ vision of death, as a valid possibility for me.”
Since Easter is the celebration of the great resurrection story, it’s the story of the renewal, not only of life, but the renewal of hope and faith. When our world looks its most bleak, we can still hope for a better future. When our God seems to have abandoned us, we can still trust in God’s unfailing promise to fulfill God’s commitments to God’s well loved people. When Mary Magdalene runs to meet the risen Christ in the garden, he tells her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
We don’t keep good news for ourselves, but spread it to others. This is the best argument for the communal nature of resurrection faith. It should change us, so we should want to change God’s world and God’s people for the better. If we’re transformed by love, we also should transform the world with love. If we’ve been justified by the grace of God’s mercy, we should want to bring justice to marginalized communities who’ve experienced systemic injustice.
In summary, what ties all these spring festivals together is a hope for a new creation and a better life, either in this world or in the world beyond. Sometimes we need to have assurances of the life to come to live well in this life, while other times we need a hope for this world in order to live for tomorrow. Likely our faith practices speak to our deep human need for freedom and also to the need for our suffering to have meaning. Only if we change our suffering into a catalyst for relieving the suffering of others can we being these faith promises of spring renewal into reality. Then the ancient hopes of slaves, who were liberated, can come true today also. When the fears of death and life of everyday people are healed, their hopes and dreams are made possible by the power of god working through them. Then we too can sing the songs of freedom, put our energy into freeing others who are in bondage, and bring about God’s new creation, even as God’s spirit is renewing the face of the earth.
True Colors: Creating Natural Food Dyes at Home — Edible LA
I’ve always been a weather watcher, even as a small child. One of my first memories of the weather was my Dad putting the finishing touches on cutting the front lawn just as the first raindrops would fall from the sky. When I grew up and had my own home, the scent of an impending thunderstorm would send me outside frantically to mow my own lawn. I finally asked Daddy why he always mowed just before the storm.
He replied, “It’s too hard to mow when the grass is wet and the ground is soggy.” I thought to myself, “Why don’t we just pick a sunny day, but that might be too easy, or we’re off doing fun things on that time.”
In Arkansas, our farm communities pay close attention to the weather, for the crops which are their livelihoods depend on it. In ancient times, keeping track of the seasons and knowing weather lore was important. Today we depend on weather forecasters for this arcane knowledge, but if we follow basic science, we learn about global patterns which affect our weather: El Niño, La Niña, the Polar Vortex, as well as the extremes brought on by climate change, such as more active hurricane seasons and intense temperatures, both hot and cold.
My parents grew up during the Great Depression. Their grandparents were the first generation off the farm, working either in town or on the railroad. When mom and dad first started out in a one room garage apartment, they practiced frugality. Later on, they always bought an extra can of whatever was on sale at the grocery store. They were always prepared for the emergency of another mouth at the table or a sudden ice storm, not that one often happened. Since I was following the national news, I had stocked up ahead of time on rice, beans, mixed veggies, chicken, and coffee. If snowmageddon were to arrive, I would meet it on a full stomach. It was only after the streets thawed several days later and I ventured out that I saw the stark emptiness of the grocery store shelves. Starbucks was out of many products also, since their suppliers are based in Texas.
Gary Joiner of the Texas Farm Bureau estimated damages to the agriculture sector alone could exceed $500,000,000 statewide. “The bulk of that will be in the Rio Grande Valley where the fruits and vegetables grown there really took a hit. Consumers will see an absence of some Texas products for a period of time because of the freeze.”
Texas cattle ranchers were in the midst of calving season, so to protect the newborns, they built hot boxes with heat lamps or brought the animals into their homes. Extreme weather calls for extreme acts of compassion.
Let’s contrast our modern views of Nature with the views presented in the Wisdom book of Job. In the book of Job, we hear one of his friends tell him, “God thunders wondrously with his voice; he does great things that we cannot comprehend. For to the snow he says, ‘Fall on the earth’; and the shower of rain, his heavy shower of rain, serves as a sign on everyone’s hand, so that all whom he has made may know it” (37:5-7). This friend wants Job to understand God’s ways are inscrutable to mere human beings and neither Job, nor any of us, should question why bad things happen to good people.
Of course, Job won’t have any truck with this argument, and must have given his pals the look that says, “You boys take me for some kind of fool?” This sends his friends into a tizzy, so they keep piling on:
“From its chamber comes the whirlwind,
and cold from the scattering winds.
By the breath of God ice is given,
and the broad waters are frozen fast.
He loads the thick cloud with moisture;
the clouds scatter his lightning.
They turn round and round by his guidance,
to accomplish all that he commands them
on the face of the habitable world.
Whether for correction, or for his land,
or for love, he causes it to happen.” (Job 37:9-13)
His friends remind Job how God uses even natural events for God’s purposes. God can cause a snow storm to humble us (correction), to refresh the water supply (for the land), or to bring a community together (for love). We saw evidence of this during our recent snowstorm, which impacted not only Texas, but also the Lower 48 states, where by the morning of February 16, 73% of the continental USA was blanketed by snow. This was the most widespread snow cover in the contiguous U.S. since 2011. If we say “Mother Nature hit us with a whammy,” I wonder why we weren’t also blaming Old Man Winter. This is International Women’s Month after all, and we ought not to blame only the women for bad things!
Lots of bad things did happen, just from the back to back winter storms named Uri and Viola. In Texas alone, estimated losses from the extended freeze and power outages in Texas could reach $90 billion, with around $20 billion of those losses covered by insurance. Compare that to the entire 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. According to a new report from AccuWeather, the 2020 hurricane season was responsible for $60-65 billion in economic damages. This figure includes property damage as well as wage losses, business losses and bankruptcies, contamination of drinking water, municipal and state costs, federal assistance, cleanup costs and health costs.
One of the local electric providers, Just Energy, has sought bankruptcy protection due to unexpected costs. “The weather event caused the ERCOT wholesale market to incur charges of $55 billion over a seven day period, an amount they ordinarily incur over four years.” Brazos Electric Power Company has filed for Chapter 11 and Griddy is out of business, since its 10,000 customers have been given to other companies due to its violating the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The Texas Attorney General is seeking refunds for customers. Other utility companies are considering bankruptcy, or perhaps amortizing the high bill across ten years and letting their customers pay for it on time. Since these same companies failed to make the suggested winterizing changes to their physical plants a decade ago, I wonder why their problem is now their customers’ problem?
In this instance, everyone points a finger at everyone else. People died due to the cold weather and the utilities failure to prepare for it. Insurance rates are going up, not just in Texas, given that some of these companies have a national portfolio. Food costs are going up, due to scarce supplies and longer distances for delivery. Citrus will cost more for years until the orchards recover. So it’s an object lesson for the rest of us. As my old nannie used to say, “A stitching time saves nine,” while my daddy took the Texas plan of “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.” Unfortunately, his plan could leave me stranded on the side of the highway in a broke down car. I tend to take better care of my vehicle. He also never realized my brothers were fixing his car on the sly because he had that ornery streak.
Of course, current temperatures are now in the mid 70’s and low 80’s, so everyone is using the air conditioning. They went from the dead of winter into springtime. For parts of California and Arizona, this spring leaf out was the earliest in the 39-year record. Every one to four years, Texas has an early spring, whereas central Arkansas has a late spring every five to ten years. The further south you go toward the equator, the more pronounced the seasonal extremes become.
Of course back in biblical times, folks had weather lore, but no satellites to observe the land from on high. They could keep oral and written accounts of the past weather events, so the memories of the elders were treasured. Job’s friends try to make the events of nature the result of God’s actions, but then God answers Job out of the whirlwind:
“Have you entered the storehouses of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?” (38:22-23)
I’d never accuse God of mansplaining to his creatures, but maybe “Godsplaining” is a better term: “Are you competent to answer this question? How do you know for certain? What experience have you had that allows you to speak of things you can’t possibly know?” We human beings haven’t been privileged to walk among the clouds or to know the hidden halls where the frozen treasures are stored. Yet we persist in talking about the hidden wisdom of God as if we were initiates to privileged information. We can’t know God fully as yet, for God is fully spirit and we are both body and spirit. As Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12).
The amazing climax of this book is God’s appearance to Job and his affirmation of Job’s understanding of God’s nature. Job tells God:
“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:5-6).
Job might have said today: My bad. I’m just saying words. Many words. The best words. Now I know it’s all just a word salad. Don’t listen to my friends. They mean well. Just trying to help. What do they know? Like me—not much.
Since we in Arkansas didn’t get the brunt of this storm, our emotional reaction to it wasn’t strong or deep. This might have been different if we had gone through an extended period of time without power. Many of us noted only the closings of local businesses or the lack of certain products on the shelves. My utility bill wasn’t much higher than last month. Our paintings of the recent snowstorm reflected this experience. I asked our group to bring a photograph of the snow from their home life. Mike brought his backyard deck and Gail brought her tree filled landscape. I worked on a traditional landscape as seen from my window high above the lake, looking out over the bridge. Our snowscapes were calm, quiet, and serene. There wasn’t a sign of trauma anywhere, unlike the ongoing mass trauma event still affecting the state of Texas.
However, the extreme weather changes aren’t just limited to Texas, for currently about 1% of the world’s population lives in a hot zone that scientists expect to expand to affect about 19% of the world’s people. Already people in Guatemala are leaving land that is getting too hot and too unpredictable for rainfall to grow enough to feed their families. Climate change is bringing them northwards. We can expect our crop plantings to move northward as the temperatures warm, even though this may take decades. We can prepare to welcome climate migrants or we can help restore and renew the face of the earth so they can live in their homelands and be able to raise and feed their families in peace.
In the map above, we can see the temperature difference between summer and winter months (per decade) from 1979-2016. Red shows a large temperature difference between the seasons, while blue shows a small temperature difference.
God’s promise in Genesis 8:22 after the destructive flood still holds true: “As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease.” God doesn’t promise us the world will always stay the same, for we have the freedom to change our world for good or ill. We can work in cooperation with God, or against God’s desires. As the Psalmist reminds us:
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)
The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
“Heraclitus, I believe, says that all things pass and nothing stays, and comparing existing things to the flow of a river, he says you could not step twice into the same river.” Plato quoted an older Greek thinker about life’s being constantly in a state of flux or change. We can’t dive into our rabbit holes at every quivering leaf or shadow of every cloud passing over the sun. We rabbits know the world is changing all the time, even if we don’t like it, but we still have to venture outside of our den and hutches to find tasty carrots and spinach leaves.
Fear of Change—
Yet some rabbits have a fear of change or fear of changing the order of things. This goes by another Greek word, Metathesiophobia. This is a new word for this old rabbit, so I guess I’ve modified a few brain cells in learning this. In fact, when we learn new words, we actually get happier! There’s even science behind this. In a study, “increased subjective pleasantness ratings were also related to new-words remembered after seven days. These results suggest that intrinsic—potentially reward-related—signals, triggered by self-monitoring of correct performance, can promote the storage of new information into long-term memory through the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop, possibly via dopaminergic modulation of the midbrain.”
Even if we don’t understand the scientific jargon of that sentence, we know learning new things gives us a feeling of pride and accomplishment. We feel good about ourselves when we accomplish a new trick or master a new skill. Repeating the same experiences over and over leads to dullness,even if we find safety in the predictably.
If we were small bunnies, we’d never find the refrigerators in our homes, since they’d be covered up in our latest glorious art project. Every rabbit parent raves about their genius offspring, if they’re raising them right. We always want to catch our small ones doing something right and praise them for it. We’ll get more cooperation than if we’re always telling them NO, and GO TO YOUR ROOM.
I ask you, which rabbit among us doesn’t want to be happier in this world? Currently we’re in the midst of the worst crisis most of us have ever experienced. We rabbits need to name it and face it, rather than deny it, for this pandemic isn’t not going away anytime soon. This causes some of our bunny friends to find a “boogeyman lurking in every dark corner.” When I was young, my parents scared me, or scarred my memories, over my messy closet.
“You’d better clean up that pile of clothes in there, young lady! If you don’t, a rat might come crawling out of those clothes piled up on the floor!”
EEEK! I was so frightened, I untwisted an old metal coat hanger and stood outside my closet while I fished out my dress up play clothes, one article at a time. If a rat were to come out with them, I wanted a running head start. I was on my own in art school over a decade later before I could sleep with the bedroom closet open. This was a long standing fear to shake. Not everyone can put aside their fears and coping mechanisms, however.
I’ve had rabbit friends who get up in the middle of the night to make sure their closets are neatly arranged, with all the shoes in the right boxes and all the clothes facing the same direction on the hangers. I have no such anxiety, for I hang my clothes up and don’t worry once I’ve done it. I have other tasks to tackle. Uninterrupted sleep is a worthy goal for rabbit health. Plus I have other creative tasks to engage me, and I’m learning new things every day. In any event, I know my salvation won’t be impaired by this failure to act on my part, just as it won’t be earned if I keep a perfect closet.
Change is moving swifter than the atmospheric river that’s currently dumping rain and mudslides on the Pacific coast and ice and snow on the Atlantic coast. Atmospheric rivers are long, narrow regions in the atmosphere—like rivers in the sky—that transport water vapor, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Drastic swings from extremely wet to extremely dry and vice versa will be nearly twice as likely, occuring on average once every 25 years, by 2100. Dramatic swings are becoming more common and will continue to do so in the coming decades thanks to man-made climate change.
Of course climate change isn’t the only change we’re dealing with in February.
Today we have one holiday to celebrate Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. Back in this rabbit’s kitten days, we had two holidays for these two presidents, but the times change and the holiday became popularly known as Presidents’ Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which was an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers.
At the time, Congress thought setting three day weekends would end employee absenteeism. Today the coronavirus pandemic has put most white collar workers out of the office and many blue collar workers out of a job. Until we get this pandemic behind us by vaccinating as many of our people as possible and continuing safe practices, we won’t get back to any semblance of normal any time soon. This virus hunts a host, and it’s sure to find a rabbit to use as its own personal Petri dish.
Super Bowl LV—Next Super Spreader Event?
On the first Sunday in February, the big game goes down. While the 7,500 health care workers who’ll be the stadium attendees will be following COVID protocols, the fans at home remain susceptible to infection. A recent Seton Hall Sports Poll collected answers from 1,522 adults spread all over the country from Jan. 22-25. That data shows 25% of respondents said they would gather with people outside of their home (defined as those who aren’t roommates or cohabitants) to watch the game. Sixty-four percent of respondents said they would not attend a gathering and 11% said they weren’t sure.
Among avid fans however, 40% of that group said they would indeed gather with members outside of their household. The CDC doesn’t recommend holding these types of gatherings, especially if they are inside and last for the duration of the game. The Super Bowl will be played in Raymond James Stadium in Tampa and is scheduled for Sunday, February 7, with a 6:30 p.m. ET kickoff, with an estimated game length of four hours, not counting the additional four hours of preliminary extravaganza programming.
I’ve always gathered the various rabbits who live in my condo building for the game festivities. It’s a good opportunity for us to socialize and since everyone always waits for “someone to take charge,” I just step up. We won’t do it in person this year, however, for we rabbits can best observe safely the whole shebang from the comfort of our couches and Zoom or find other other media connections with our loved ones and friends so we can have a real party next year.
Super Bowl LV Firsts—
There are new changes to the Super Bowl this year. Amanda Gorman, the inaugural poet, will recite an original poem before Super Bowl LV, as part of both the in-stadium pregame ceremony and the TV broadcast. The poem will honor three everyday heroes who have been chosen as honorary game captains by the NFL. These people include Trimaine Davis, a Los Angeles teacher who fought to secure internet access and laptops for his students amid the pandemic; Suzie Dorner, a Tampa nurse who managed the COVID ICU at Tampa General Hospital; and James Martin, a Marine veteran who has helped veterans and their families connect virtually through the Wounded Warrior Project.
Gorman isn’t the only pregame excitement. Miley Cyrus will perform as part of the TikTok Tailgate event for the Health Care Heroes. This will also be televised. Then there’s the The Pepsi Super Bowl Halftime Show, which is the most-watched musical performance of the year, with more than 104 million viewers tuning in to last year’s show. The rhythm and blues artist known as The Weekend (Abel Makkonen Tesfaye) will be the featured performer.
“The Weeknd has introduced a sound all his own. His soulful uniqueness has defined a new generation of greatness in music and artistry,” said Shawn JAY-Z Carter. “This is an extraordinary moment in time and the Pepsi Super Bowl LV Halftime Show is going to be an extraordinary experience with an extraordinary performer.” This rabbit has been listening to his oeuvre on Apple Music, and I’m quite excited to hear the show. It ought to be a bang up program with no wardrobe malfunctions.
JAY-Z and his company, Roc Nation, have worked over the past year on the selection of artists playing the Super Bowl Halftime Show as the league’s official Live Music Entertainment Strategists. The partnership aims to “nurture and strengthen community” through music and support the NFL’s Inspire Change social justice initiative, and also has Roc Nation serving as a co-producer of the Super Bowl Halftime Show.
GRAMMY-nominated artists Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan are set to pair up for the first time to sing the National Anthem as part of Super Bowl LV pregame festivities. Grammy-award winning artist, H.E.R., will join the pregame lineup with her rendition of America the Beautiful. In addition, on behalf of the National Association of the Deaf (NAD), Warren “Wawa” Snipe, acclaimed Deaf rapper and recording artist, will perform the National Anthem and America the Beautiful in American Sign Language. For Super Bowl LV, the National Anthem will be arranged and produced by Adam Blackstone.
“Sarah Thomas will made history again as the first female Super Bowl official,” NFL EVP of football operations Troy Vincent said. “Her elite performance and commitment to excellence has earned her the right to officiate the Super Bowl. Congratulations to Sarah on this well-deserved honor.” She will be a down judge on a seven-person crew of distinguished game officials. You go girl!
This is just one more change for a world that spins 360 degrees daily and moves around the sun on its invisible circular river which it completes every 365 1/4 days. Our planet never stays in in one place as it courses through the unseen river of time in the heavens, but we see ourselves think we have a fixed place in the universe. If we observe nature, the rising and setting of the sun moves along the horizon line as the seasons change and it rises higher into the sky during the summer than the winter. These changes are part of our ordinary life, and give a structure and rhythm to our days and time upon this world.
Speaking of firsts, the Chiefs are trying to become the first team in 16 years to win back-to-back Super Bowls. The last team to do it was Tom Brady’s 2003-04 New England Patriots. Tom Brady is set to become one offour quarterbacks to start a Super Bowl for multiple teams and he could join Peyton Manning, who is currently the only quarterback in NFL history to win a Super Bowl start with multiple teams. So while the seasoned champion with a brand new team goes against a young champion trying to make the magic happen two years in a row, we should have a good game, rather than watching it for the commercials.
In other firsts, the Super Bowl is almost always the top rated TV show for audience numbers. Only the final episodes of M.A.S.H. and Cheers have ever pushed it to number two. The commercials are first class also. CBS’s asking price of $5.5 million per 30-second spot is merely the cost of reserving the requisite airtime; after production expenses, ancillary social-media investments and agency fees are accounted for, the actual outlay for a single Super Bowl ad can swell to $20 million. That’s a lot of rabbit feed.
We won’t see the Budweiser Clydesdales for the first time in 37 years, for the company will be focusing on supporting Covid vaccine awareness education spots instead. Other companies related to restaurants may be missing due to lower sales and profits, but this gives other companies an opportunity to take their place. The pandemic has changed our economy in many ways. Avocados are in demand because we rabbits eat our salads at home, not in a restaurant. This is good for grocers, but bad for cooks, wait staff, and restaurant owners.
While parts of our economy are currently staggering along, the middle class and poor are lagging behind, as if they had chains and a huge millstone binding their bodies. Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, Moody’s Analytics warns. People would go to work, but the businesses are either closed or the parent needs to stay home to school the child. Unpaid rents affect landlords, and roll on to the bankers who hold those notes.
The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, launched in April 2020, has provided nearly real-time weekly data on how the unprecedented health and economic crisis is affecting the nation. Nearly 24 million adults—11 percent of all adults in the country— reported that their household sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the last seven days. Adults in households with children were likelier to report that the household didn’t get enough to eat: 15 percent, compared to 9 percent for households without children. Hunger in America or food insecurity is linked to a greater chance of cardiovascular mortality in counties throughout the U.S. Researchers believe if the pandemic goes on long enough, more people will begin to die of hunger or famine related circumstances than the disease itself.
Some want to spend a little and let it “trickle down,” but my grandmother rabbit always said that was “penny wise and pound foolish.” After WWII, American generosity rebuilt Germany, the home of the Nazi enemies. If we rebuilt the country of our enemies, I wonder what keeps us from rebuilding our own land? We need a Marshal Plan for America.
St. Valentine’s Day—
As a small bunny, I fondly remember classroom Valentines Day Parties, mostly because I got to decorate a shoebox as my “Valentine Mailbox” and enjoyed all the dime store paper valentines from my bunny friends. Mostly I really enjoyed the pink icing on the chocolate cupcakes and those Necco candy hearts with their pithy, saucy, love quotes. In this pandemic world of Zoom classrooms, gone are class parties, valentines for everyone, and a special gift for the teacher. As a former teacher, my hope is we can get our school teams vaccinated and get our little bunnykins back in a communal setting, so they can learn socialization skills as well as educational materials.
Some grieve about this year as if it’s lost year, and it’ll never be gotten back. This is true, however, there’re other great crises our little bunnies went through in our history, through no fault of their own. The Civil War was one, for it disrupted some youth we wouldn’t let have keys to a car today. One of my grandfather bunnies dropped out of school in the eighth grade to work on the railroad when his own father left home. He made sure his own little bunnies got their education, even if he didn’t get his.
Just because we have a twelve year program for public school doesn’t mean we have to finish it in that length of time. If we have a large monkey wrench thrown into our best laid plans, we might need to cram those twelve years into thirteen years. If we live to seventy-nine years, the average life span in America, this extra year is only 1/79 or 1% of our lives. We spend more time than this sleeping, since we spend about 33% of our lives asleep. No one seems to grieve about this broad swath of time in bed in fact, more of us rabbits are trying their best to get either more or better sleep! Perhaps we need to reframe then way we look at some of these problems to reduce our anxiety about them. Then we’d have more strength to cope with the day to day struggles, which are real and difficult.
Ash Wednesday is moveable feast day, so its date varies. It depends on when Easter is celebrated, and that too is dependent on the lunar calendar. My old daddy rabbit had this ancient piece of lore memorized: “Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox.” While we may be able to move certain holidays around the calendar, Easter and its connected rituals of faith, Ash Wednesday and the forty days of Lent, move every year.
Because of coronavirus protocols, the hands on imposition of ashes by pastors, priests, or worship leaders will change in this pandemic year. Some churches will sprinkle ashes upon people’s heads, while others will give out packets of ashes for self imposition. The ashes are a traditional sign of humility. We may ask, if the ritual changes, is it as effective as it once was? The better question to ask is, “Does the ritual save us or does the power of God’s Holy Spirit flowing through the moment change us for the better?” Sometimes we put too much emphasis on the outward and visible elements, rather than the inward and invisible experience of God at work in us.
The Constant in the Midst of Change—
In the midst of a world intent on stoking our fears to a fever pitch, some of us rabbits find ourselves pulled down the proverbial rabbit hole into vast conspiracy theories, which purport to connect unlikely coincidences, but actually push anti-Semitic, far-right or white-supremacist ideology. Some of these ideas are as old as the Middle Ages, while others came from Russia and got passed into the American milieu during the first Red Scare in the 1920’s.
One of the worst examples is “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” a classic of paranoid, racist literature. Taken by the gullible as the confidential minutes of a Jewish conclave convened in the last years of the nineteenth century, it has been heralded by anti-Semites as proof that Jews are plotting to take over the world. Since its contrivance around the turn of the century by the Russian Okhrana, or Czarist secret police, “The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” has taken root in bigoted, frightened minds around the world.
When the world is in chaos, fearful rabbits look for a demonic figure to blame, when they should look instead to a positive source of power and strength. Fear paralyzes us, but the power of God sets us free to change our world for the better.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
~~ Psalms 46:1-3
May you make enough small changes every day to get new wrinkles in your brain, rather than on your brow.
Joy and Peace,
Intrinsic monitoring of learning success facilitates memory encoding via the activation of the SN/VTA-Hippocampal loop | eLife
Millions of Americans are heading into the holidays unemployed and over $5,000 behind on rent. Hefty bills will come due in early 2021 for rent and utilities. Economists warn many unemployed families won’t be able to pay without more stimulus aid from Congress. By Heather Long
December has snuck up on me like a racoon stalking a rabbit. Perhaps I ate too much of the Thanksgiving Feast, or maybe it was the homemade Italian Cheesecake dressed with cranberry sauce and maple pecans that did me in. It thankfully wasn’t the covid, for I had an appropriately socially distanced meal via Zoom, thanks to my niece in New Orleans and her mother in Texarkana. I’ve driven to New Orleans before, and it’s a hard eight hour trip, so I’ve always done it in two legs and made it into an easy jaunt instead. I spent the night in Vicksburg, Mississippi, to see the great Civil War battlefield there, and pay homage to those who fought to preserve the unity of the nation, even if my ancestors fought to keep other human beings enslaved. I also saw some of the grand plantation homes, which were built by slave labor. We don’t think of this history much, and I wasn’t taught it growing up, but it’s time for all of us to acknowledge all the hands who built this nation we call home.
My Decembers as a child growing up in the South were a time of waiting. I couldn’t make the clock hurry up no matter how hard I stared at it. My mother would remind me, “A watched pot never boils.” I’d grind my teeth. Hurry used to be my middle name. Now I seem to putter all day and never worry about it. I may be an aging rabbit, or maybe just a great-grandmother rabbit. Or I may have learned the wisdom of waiting, which is the lesson of the Advent season.
All small children endure the waiting at the end of the year, for the end of the year is full of holidays for many faiths. Today we’re all waiting for more normal times to return, so we can hug one another, kiss each other on the lips, and drink from the same cup without worrying about a dread disease. Waiting was so difficult for me and my brothers, we’d beg and cajole our parents to “Please, pretty please, just let us open one gift before Christmas!” We were the fortunate ones, for when our parents were children in the era of the Great Depression, they knew better than to ask for much. My daddy asked Santa Clause for an orange, boxing gloves, and a book for his older brother. Most of us today think we’d be bad parents if we gave our children only two items, but in the era of covid, when nearly 30 million people are out of work, we might need to readjust our priorities. Keeping a roof over our heads and food on the table could take priority, unless angels bring the gifts instead.
Today, I’m listening to Mannheim Steamroller play Christmas music. Tomorrow is the first day of meteorological winter and the Winter Solstice will be December 21. It’s a quiet time in the condo, for I’m alone with my decaf coffee and the furnace is keeping me cozy. One small joy I always look forward to is the opportunity to use my Christmas themed mugs for a whole month. I’ve put up the ordinary dishware and pulled down my collection of red, green, gold, and white cups. When I was young, I looked forward to the gumdrop tree and the Christmas cookies. Decorating and baking every weekend kept mother busy in the kitchen and me helping or getting my fingers in the icing bowl. I learned to share by helping my mom. I never liked her candied fruitcake recipe, however, or the fruitcake cookies. You can keep that to yourself. I think some traditions may need to die, and fruitcake is one of them, but my tastebuds don’t cater to sugared fruit anymore. Her pecan sandies were to die for, however.
If we approach the coming holiday season with anticipation for the small joys it brings, rather than thinking of the losses we’ve suffered, this December will be better for us by far. By this I mean, the tree isn’t the most important thing, for if it were, we’d worship the tree. We don’t worship the lights shining brightly, but the light which shines in the darkness. The presents aren’t the most important part of Christmas, for we don’t worship the gifts, but the gift from God.
While light has been central to many religions across the centuries, it becomes very important toward the end of the year when the days grow short. The Romans originally celebrated Saturnalia as a harvest festival, but then moved it to the middle of December, and changed its focus to a celebration of light, knowledge, and truth. They would gift dolls and treats of fruit, and light bonfires. It began as a home holiday, but became a public feast holiday in 217 BCE.
Another religious festival is the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, which celebrates the miracle of the oil and its burning for eight days, when only enough for one day was found. Jewish people celebrate their faith by lighting a menorah with nine candles: one is the helper or attendant, and the others represent the days of the ancient miracle of rededication of the Temple after the Maccabean Revolt. Families always place the menorah in a window, so everyone will see it. As a special treat, families eat foods fried in oil, such as potato pancakes and doughnuts.
The tradition is one should spend time in close proximity to the Chanukah lights for, “We must listen carefully to what the candles are saying.” The flickering flames may be telling us the following:
1. Never be afraid to stand up for what’s right. Judah Maccabee and his band faced daunting odds, but that didn’t stop them. With a prayer on their lips and faith in their heart, they entered the battle of their lives—and won. We can do the same.
2. Always increase in matters of goodness and Torah-observance. Sure, a single flame was good enough for yesterday, but today needs to be even better.
3. A little light goes a long way. The Chanukah candles are lit when dusk is falling. Perched in the doorway, they serve as a beacon for the darkening streets. No matter how dark it is outside, a candle of G‑dly goodness can transform the darkness itself into light.
4. Take it to the streets. Chanukah is unique in that its primary mitzvah is observed in public. It’s not enough to be a Jew at heart, or even at home. Chanukah teaches us to shine outwards into our surroundings with the G‑dly glow of mitzvahs.
5. Don’t be ashamed to perform mitzvahs (individual act of human kindness), even if you will feel different. Rather, be like a menorah, proudly proclaiming its radiant uniqueness for all to see.
My daddy died one year and my mother died the next. I didn’t much feel like Christmas in my heart. When the Salvation Army representative came calling to the church office, I really didn’t have the energy to help reorganize another messed up program. Then the words of my mother entered my mind: “If you want to feel better about your situation, you should do something for someone in more need than you are.” I can’t say I grieved any less, but I felt better about that Christmas, for I knew I was called to share my blessings with others. I could talk to all the service clubs in town and get them to ring the bells, including the high school service clubs. We made many people in that community able to pay their utilities and rent in hard times.
December 6 is Saint Nicholas’ feast day, the saint who most people know as Santa Clause. Saint Nicholas was the Bishop of Myra and endured the persecution of Emperor of Diocletian, who put so many priests, bishops, and deacons into prison, there wasn’t room for actual criminals. After his release, Nicholas attended the Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, before his death in 343. His generosity was legend, as was his concern for children, the poor, and anyone in need. Europeans celebrated the saint’s day and reserved the day of Christ’s birth for more sober, religious experiences.
Many people consider Christmas to be quintessential American holiday. When my daughter and I hosted a French exchange student chaperone, she raved about the American Christmas. “The English do the season well, but the Americans are the very best of all. I only wish I could be here in December!”
I laughed. I had too many memories of being up all night assembling Strawberry Shortcake Doll Houses or putting together my daughter’s new bicycle. I’ve always been directionally challenged when it comes to maps, but also when it comes to reading set up plans. I’ve never understood it, since I seem to be able to follow a recipe just fine, but mechanical things are a stumbling block to me. My memories of Christmas are from participation, not from observation.
The first Colonists, who were primarily Puritans and other Protestant reformers, didn’t bring the Nicholas traditions to the New World. As we celebrate the Christmas of today, we have a hard time thinking of the Puritan tradition which ignored Christmas altogether. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, once the work was done, people would drink and become rowdy. Drunken mobs would roam the streets and scare the genteel classes afterwards. Even in the mid 19th century, Christmas was a regular workday. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday until June 26, 1870, under President Ulysses S. Grant.
After the American Revolution, New Yorkers remembered with pride their colony’s nearly-forgotten Dutch roots. In 1773, New York non-Dutch patriots formed the Sons of St. Nicholas 1, primarily as a non-British symbol to counter the English St. George societies, rather than to honor St. Nicholas. John Pintard, the influential patriot and antiquarian, who founded the New York Historical Society in 1804, was the first to promote St. Nicholas as patron saint of both society and the city.
In January 1809, Washington Irving joined the society and on St. Nicholas Day that same year, he published the satirical fiction, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, with numerous references to a jolly St. Nicholas character. This was not the saintly bishop, but rather an elfin Dutch burgher with a clay pipe. These delightful flights of imagination are the source of the New Amsterdam St. Nicholas legends: the first Dutch emigrant ship had a figurehead of St. Nicholas; St. Nicholas Day was observed in the colony; the first church was dedicated to him; and St. Nicholas comes down chimneys to bring gifts. Irving’s work was regarded as the “first notable work of imagination in the New World.”
Another work of the American imagination is the “Visit from Saint Nicholas,” or “The Night Before Christmas,” a poem which still holds our interest. This poem centers around the family and the safe toys for the good little girls and boys, which Santa and his reindeer will bring to each snug and cozy house. This poem is in the public domain, so it’s available on the internet.
Christmas for many of us in years past has been like the Bunny 500: racing about the countryside as fast as we can to get as many of our to-do lists done. This covid Christmas, we might exchange our tradition of mass consumption for hot chocolate and communication. I’ve always enjoyed reading Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales. After two decades of ministry and multiple Christmas Eve candlelight services, I’ve always appreciated the quiet of the parsonage afterwards and the descriptive words rolling off this poet’s tongue. If the poem harkens back to a simpler time, it also reminds us of our lives before we were isolated from one another. As one who rarely saw snow on Christmas, I always enjoyed reading about the snowball fight against Mr. Prothero’s fire, and the Uncles and the Aunts at the meal. After a big day, Thomas said some words to the close and holy darkness and then he slept.
The light will come into the darkness and the darkness won’t overcome it. Two thousand years ago, even the parents of the holy child could find no place to spend the night but in a cave with animals. They had no crib for their child, but placed him instead in the manger. Their families in town didn’t come to visit, but angels announced his birth to shepherds in a field nearby. Strangers brought gifts from far away, but no one from his family was around to celebrate.
Maybe this is Christmas at its best, when we recognize the one who lives on the margin and isn’t included in the center of the social experiences. If your Christmas today isn’t what it’s always been, perhaps the gift of this Christmas present is the one you need.
May you and your bunnies celebrate this season of light and be a light in the darkness for those who think the dawn can’t come soon enough.
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
Leonardo da Vinci is the ideal Renaissance man: a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath. Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, whose extraordinary talents included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology. He once said,
There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.
When small children draw, they first make experiments with whatever medium they have in hand. They’ll put their whole body into it, cover the entire page, and sometimes even eat the materials. Even though they’ve been given a limited arena to explore, such as a sheet of paper, if you turn your back, kids will want to see how the crayons or paint work on a wall, on their bodies, or on the family pet. Parents think of this as more cleanup work, but it’s just another learning experience for the children. The pandemic may have brought this lesson home to roost in more than one home.
Later on, children make symbols for the objects in their world. This is why all early grammar school art looks very similar: the blue line across the paper’s top represents the sky, the yellow sun blazes in an upper corner, a house has exactly one door and two windows, and the ground is green grass. Once a child is 9 to 11 years old, they begin to draw realistically, and over the next few years a child will develop their eye for accurate color and detail.
Sometimes children get the idea they have no artistic ability, and develop a bad case of the “I can’t do this-itis.” When I taught art, I had kindergartners cry when they couldn’t cut out a snowman perfectly on the fold. “Oh, sweetie, no one cuts it perfect the very first time! The first time is just for practice. Let’s see what you were doing that got you two pieces instead of one.”
I knew they were holding the cut side, rather than the folded side, when they made made their cut, but they needed hands on instructions to get the lesson. “Oh, look, you need to hold the fold in your hand, and cut on the flappy sides. That’ll give you the whole piece. Try that while I watch.”
It’s just amazing what happens when the scales fall off their little eyes! In the book of Acts (9:17-18), Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. When we find the magic key to unlock the storehouse of hidden knowledge, all the possibilities of the world beyond us seem to be close at hand. It only takes a few successes to gain confidence.
Once young people get up to middle school age, they begin to sort themselves into “groups.” Those who think they’re Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s heir apparents often think they only need to do a minimum of work, since their native abilities exceed the best efforts of the less talented students. In mandatory art classes, everyone needs to work under the same grading system. Otherwise systemic structures would always prefer and rank higher those students who had the benefit of prior training, cultural experiences, and native talent.
I always leveled the playing field by grading on heavily on the work ethic, the amount of improvement, and then gave the finished product only 25% of the overall total. This meant if Michelangelo goofed off, but dashed off a winning project, he’d most likely fail the first grading period. His parents would get his mind straight and then his art works would begin to improve by leaps and bounds.
Likewise, the students who never had a chance at succeeding in art class could give their best efforts, seek to solve the assignments, and discover they could improve! It was as easy as A—B—C—Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If we began with a positive attitude, we made positive actions, and got good grades and improving art works. Plus we began to feel good about ourselves. If we kept a negative attitude, we wouldn’t try, we’d goof off, be slow to improve, and get a bad grade. Why feel bad about yourself when everyone else was having a good time in art?
The fancy name for this process is brain plasticity. Our brains can form new information and structures, not only when we’re young, but also as we age. The brain is a muscle, which we can exercise. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. You might ask, “How often must I practice tennis, guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” This is the question about brain plasticity, since you’re asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another. The simple word for this is “Use it or lose it.”
Today we live in a world in which many children don’t get to explore a wide variety of interests. Some of this is because our schools have focused on teaching just the basics, so art and music get shuffled off to the outermost edges, or dropped if finances get tight. We live in a more structured world than fifty years ago, so children don’t often interact with their environment unless they’re camping or on a field trip. Many don’t play sports because teams are competitive, time consuming, and don’t allow children to have outside interests. I’m not sure why we want children to become professionals too early in life, when they could be exploring the world in all its vast wonder instead.
Maybe this is why as adults we come back to discover our true selves and take up a hobby we never thought we’d ever try. We have to drop our preconceived notion that our abilities and success in one area of our lives will mean we’ll quickly progress in a new field. Some have said we need 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence, but others say it depends on the field. Deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. If we were to start up a brand new business , we might need to break some of the rules.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook, “Shadows which you see with difficulty, and whose boundaries you cannot define… these you should not represent as finished or sharply defined, for the result would be that your work would seem wooden.”
We sometimes see with difficulty, and our hand isn’t yet fully connected to our eye, so the boundaries of our shapes don’t match what we see, but we find joy in the act of painting. We keep looking ever more closely, increasing our powers of observation, and training our hand to follow our eye. Some of this is keeping a memory in our mind long enough to put the image on the surface, and the other part is to still the mind of extraneous thoughts so we can hold that thought for the few seconds it takes to make the line.
We do this for our mental health, to keep our neurons fresh and our brains challenged by the problems of representing color, shadows, light, and space. We approach our art work as if we’re little children eager to discover a new way to describe our world. Each time we set brush to canvas, we grow, if only in humility.
Gail brought us some beauty berry bushes. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beauty berry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. The berries are edible when they’re deep purple, but they require lemon juice and sugar to make a good jelly.
The leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either. In 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beauty berry leaves— callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. The last hurdle is making the process financially feasible.
I brought another of my antique 1930’s glass vases from my grandmother’s house. Filled with water, the stems appear distorted underwater and don’t line up with the stems above water. This proved more difficult to paint, so I suggested to Gail a way to simplify the leaves. If the basic yellow shape were filled in first, then the shades of green could go next, leaving thin streaks of yellow for the veins. This is easier than painting a thin yellow line. A thin red edge could highlight certain areas to get the shadow. This takes a steady hand and controlled breathing. Hurrying to get somewhere fast won’t get it done. She paid close attention to the berries and their highlights.
Mike had an errand of mercy to attend to, so he made an appearance and left to help someone who was in trouble. Trouble is just another word for the opportunity to be the hands of Christ in the world. Anytime I had interruptions in my daily plans, I always knew God’s plans were superseding my well planned calendar.
My little still-life has all the autumn colors. Gail brought in a variety of branches and a red sumac also. We only have about 90 minutes to paint after I show some examples and have time to cleanup afterwards. Therefore, I choose to simplify the subject before me. I decide what is most important and necessary to convey the image, to set it into the space, to give it a mood, and to let it speak. If there’s an air of sadness about it, it’s because I painted it on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. If there’s a mood of mystery within it, the changing season is one of harvest and celebration. The earth gives forth its bounty, then goes into a form of rest, until it rebirths itself in the springtime.
If we’re going to paint not only the subject before us, but also share our true selves in the finished work, we need to become as little children who put their whole selves into their work. Although I’d hope we would have learned by now not to eat the paint.
Next Friday we’re going to make decorations for the harvest season. Mike is bringing in leaves, branches, and spray paint. I’m bringing a drill, glue guns, wire cutters, and wire. If you’re coming to make a wreath or mantle piece, bring your “autumn stuff,” as well as a wreath or log. Please wear a mask.
One of the best genres of painting is still life: it doesn’t move, it never gets tired, and it never fusses about sitting in one place for a longtime. It’s only drawback is it might rot if you take too long to do your art work. Most of us won’t have this problem, since we’ll either take a photo of the piece or go on to paint something else before that happens.
Still life painting as an independent genre or specialty first flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s, even though parts of earlier paintings paid detailed attention to flowers or fruit within the whole. The rise of still life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands, mainly in the large city trade centers, reflected the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning—all the aspects and diversions of everyday life. These still lifes featured imported flowers and fruits plus expensive objects such as Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilt cups and trays, all of which were usually rendered in a glistening light and with a velvety atmosphere.
A noted Flemish master of the 17th century, Jan Davidsz de Heem, enjoyed combining multiple flowers from different seasons along with ears of corn, a spider, a ladybird, ants, and butterflies in a glass vase on a slate ledge with red currents, a violet, a snail, and a caterpillar. Photorealistic paintings like this were in vogue then, but as the years rolled on, modern artists began to explore other directions. Cezanne retains the luxurious drapery of earlier still life paintings, but simplifies the forms of everyday objects. He’s the father of the cubist painters, represented by Picasso’s bottle still life.
Another artist shows us how to handle the reflection of the background in a glass vessel. Matisse freely paints the colors and shapes of the plants, the window, and the bright goldfish plus all the highlights from the light sources. He even lets some of the white of the unpainted canvas show throughout his work to add to the feeling of airiness.
A current painting from Pinterest is a quieter and more sedate rendering of the goldfish theme. The overall drawing is good, but it lacks energy. There’s no vibrancy in the light coming through the window and the shadows on the goldfish are too dark. Muting the values of the colors toward grey and brown will decrease the “pop” of a painting every time.
We also looked at a painting of a clear bottle with lemons in the background. Objects behind a glass will often be displaced by the surface, just as water also shifts the position of anything underwater. We’ve tried bottles and jars before, but this is the first time we’ve focused on them entirely. As a collector of ancient and odd things, these are old beer and soda bottles I’ve found over the years. They aren’t THAT old, with the oldest being about 1905. They’re all mould blown and have distinctive air bubbles and seam lines.
One is from the bottling company of my hometown, the Star Bottling Company, which first produced the Uncle Joe and Aunt Ida soft drinks, before becoming part of the Coca Cola bottling family in 1904. Before the Coca Cola Company created a line of flavored drinks, most of the bottlers created their own brands, with orange, root beer, strawberry, grape and fruit-flavored drinks. Because they weren’t allowed to put them in bottles with the “Coca-Cola” script, the bottlers developed their own “flavor bottles.”
The writing on many of these bottles indicated they were property of the local Coca Cola bottling company. Collectors can find an enormous variety in flavor bottles, and most are very inexpensive to collect. Mine are of the nondescript, ordinary variety, but I have fond memories of the experience of finding them. Plus the excitement of a field trip to the bottling plant, which both got us out of school for a morning and introduced us to the wonders of industry.
The earliest known man made glass date back to around 3500 BCE, with finds in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. Discovery of glassblowing around 1st century BCE was a major breakthrough in glass making. Archaeological findings in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia indicate the first manufactured glass dates back to 3000 BCE. The oldest fragments of glass vases found in Mesopotamia date back to the 16th century BCE and represent evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry. Beside Mesopotamia, hollow glass production was also evolving in the same time in Egypt, in Mycenae (Greece), China and North Tyrol (now part of Austria). The first glassmaking manual from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (669-626 BCE) dates back to around 650 BCE.
Because glassmaking was slow and costly, it was luxury item and few people could afford it. Around the end of the 1st century BCE, Syrian craftsmen discovered the new technique of “glass blowing.” This revolutionary event made glass production easier, faster and cheaper, so that glass, for the first time, became available to ordinary citizens. The tools and techniques of glass blowing have changed very little over the centuries.
The Romans traded glass across the vast RomanEmpire and beyond. They were the first to use glass for architectural purposes when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around 100 CE. Venice was the center of the glassmaking craft.
The art of glass making flourished during the Roman Empire and spread across Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Glass was one of the most important items of trade beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The Romans were the first ones who began to use glass for architectural purposes, when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around AD 100.
Other examples in the image above of the Roman expertise in glass blowing include a pale green bottle, with the four-sided mould-blown body with rounded shoulder and tapering cylindrical neck, the wide strap handle attached to the shoulder and curved under the lip, 5¾ in. (14.5 cm.) high; a pale green jug, the squat spherical body with diagonal ribs, a pinched handle attached to the flaring neck with trailed ring, 4¾ in. (12 cm.) high; and a pale yellow unguentarium, 4 5/8 in. (11.8 cm.) high. These were from an auction lot at Christie’s.
A flourishing glass industry was developed in Europe at the end of the 13th century when the glass industry was established in Venice by the time of the Crusades (1096-1270 CE). Despite the efforts of the Venetian artisans who dominated the glass industry to keep the technology secret, it soon spread around Europe. Eventually all the great gothic cathedrals of Europe would have stained glass curtains or large windows of colored light illuminating their interiors.
Because stained glass is translucent, we see both the color and the light. When we paint with acrylic colors, the light reflects back from the pigments in the binding medium. In watercolor, the white paper adds brightness since the colors are transparent. This means we have to “fool the eye” and use highlights plus color values near to the background colors to give the illusion of clarity.
Gail is getting good at analyzing the shapes and setting them down on a small canvas during our short class period. This still life had both the extra solid apple and the very clear bottles in contrast. It was more challenging than it sounds. How do you balance the heavy with the light, the solid with the transparent, and the cool blues with the warm reds? Adding a strong background color helps tie the two together.
Another way to bring everything together is to ignore the apple all together, as Mike did. This is called artistic license. He included the red in a cloth crossed by another golden fabric. He uses multiple viewpoints, for the base of the bottles are on one plane and the tops are flipped forward. I don’t know if he changed position or just sat up straighter when doing the bases. I also gave him one of my brushes to use in class, since he’s been using the same one forever. He wants to paint a straight line, but is using a round brush. He needs to take a lesson from Tim, the Tool man Taylor, and “use the right tool for the right job.” Of course we all know that means the one with “more power!”
“Here, use this flat edge artist’s brush. I think you’ll like it.” “Wow, it really paints a smooth edge.”
“Yep, I been suggesting you get a better brush, but you keep using the old one. I finally decided you needed to experience what a real brush feels like in your hand.”
“If I go in the store, do I need a special license to buy a real artist’s brush?”
“They’ll take your money. That’s the only license you need.”
He laughed. I’m glad he has a sense of humor. We’ve been doing this class for about two years now. It takes us a while to learn from each other. We have to learn how to be transparent and open to one another, much as a clear glass bottle is open to light shining through it. The greatest challenge for any of us as adults is accepting any instruction or critique at all. In seminary, I always opened my tests and papers after I repeated my mantra, “I am not my grade.” If I got a good score, I didn’t let it go to my head, but worked even harder on the next effort. If I didn’t score well, I took that grade as an opportunity to define my arenas of insufficient knowledge. I could work on that for the next time.
As we read in the scriptures, the apostle Paul writes: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. ~~ 2 Timothy 3:16-17
If we weren’t willing to be transformed, why would we read our Bibles or attend to the teachings of God’s holy word? If we let the good word go in one ear and out the other, and it never makes an impact on our hearts, minds, or lives, we’re dead in our faith. We’re called to have a living faith, one full of hope, and actively bring that same hope to our hurting world.
Johnny Nash, who recently passed away, had the number one song on Billboard’s Hot 100 song list in 1972, called “I can see clearly now.”
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh what a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I hope you have a bright, bright, sunshiny day, Cornelia
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30