Making Found Object Icons is an art project that evolved out of the Great Macaroni Multimedia Traveling Artandicon Show. In seminary during Art Week our fellow students were horrified we were making sacred images out of edible products, such as macaroni, lentils, peas, and beans.
Jesus is the Bread of Life
“Jesus is the bread of life, and macaroni is just another form of wheat,” we replied.
“But it’s so ordinary!”
“Clay is ordinary, and so is stone. Can an object only be worthy of God if it’s made of expensive materials?”
“The value of all the chemicals in a human body is about $5.18, but we’re worth far more than that in the eyes of God. Some say God doesn’t make junk, yet too many people of faith despise and debase the body. I’ve always wondered why this was so, since the Son of God came to earth in human form, and as the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV) says—
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
When we meet Christ at Christmas, we can get all warm and fuzzy because who doesn’t like a warm, cuddly baby? Maybe I have a soft spot for babies, but I really don’t trust people who don’t get a little ga-ga when the little ones coo and smile. I can understand folks getting squeamish at Good Friday and the cross. Most of us avoid as much pain as possible. Humility and obedience to God are not high priorities these days for many people.
Flight into Egypt
Many tend to ignore this wonderful call to the Christ-like life, preferring instead the cop out of “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14:38, NRSV). “Forgive us,” we say, but we hold others up to high standards.
We make a distinction between our dual natures of the flesh and the spirit, a concept inherited from the Greco-Roman culture. It’s notable that the often quoted verse, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit,” is found in Galatians 6:8 (NRSV), for this was a Roman province.
The ancient Mediterranean area had a knowledge/mystery tradition. The Greeks had their cult of Bacchus, the Egyptians the cult of Isis, and the Jewish had their mystical Kabbalah. The Romans had their dying and rising god cult of Mithras, the bull. Entry into all of these groups was by word of mouth only, given to a special few, and all had secret rites known to the members only. Most promised salvation through secret knowledge, and the true world for them was spiritual rather than the physical world in which we live today. Ecstatic worship separated the believer from the body and the ordinary world.
You might recognize these traits in your own church or worship community today, except for the ecstatic and enthusiastic worship brought about by mood altering substances. That’s not my church anyway! How do we come close to God? Across the centuries, the tradition has discovered contemplative prayer, singing, searching the scriptures, serving the poor, attending the sacraments, and creating art for God or the Holy Icons.
Making an object for the glory of God, to enhance the worship experience, and to honor God is a gift of the artist’s time and talent. No artist is ever paid what their training and talent is worth, for it’s a treasure from God to begin with—it can’t be valued. Artists have learned over the centuries to live simply, accept fame if it comes, and put a fair price on their work.
They get value in the spiritual real from the work they do, for the icon opens a window into heaven. As they arrange the jewels and found objects, and move them to a better position, the icon comes alive under their hands and begins to breathe. Only the person, who will be still long enough to hear the silence from beyond the open window, can hear the voice of God in this world. For this person, the icon is a treasure, and a place of holy focus, no matter how small or how simple the materials.
This is the reason the artist makes an icon—to have a moment of mystery, a time of intersection, and a communion with the holy. In today’s hurried world, each of us wants a place in which we can experience for a moment the timelessness of heaven.
When we return in the New Year, we’ll begin painting our own holy icons. The process is a spiritual journey, more than a destination or the attempt to reach perfection. We only need to “go toward perfection” each day!
One of the most difficult struggles in art, sports, faith, or anything else in life is knowing what you want to achieve, but finding yourself lacking the skills to accomplish it. Some people give up right away, since they can’t master it well. Art takes a lifetime to master, so even the best of us will be struggling to get better until our last breath. Perfection is highly overrated! All artists are their own worst critics! At least in faith we have God as our coworker.
In art a beginner can set aside this quandary and say, “Well, I just need more practice and I’ll get there soon enough.” The intermediate practitioner contends with a little more skill, and could push his or her technique over the edge attempting to discover the heart and soul of their expressions as they seek their own way to speak of the beautiful and the true in color and forms.
Sometimes a seasoned artist comes to a growth point. Even one who, perhaps from their past work in a certain style, has some following and financial success, when they come to the daily search for truth and beauty, will discover the old beauty no longer attracts them. So while they may have all the technical ability to continue creating their old works, they find this no longer is their truth and they can’t in good conscience continue to produce in the same vein.
Our Still Life
The search for truth and beauty is like the search for God and our inner truth as artists and people of faith. If we’re only working for fame and gain, maybe we should have listened to those who said, “Don’t quit your day job.” Or thought of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who found both success and poverty, but at different times. Our inner search for truth and beauty is just as fraught.
Will we take the risk and try something new? This week l brought the class a shade of my former self, no inspirational paintings of old masters, and only a variation on last week’s still life. Afterwards I was traveling up to the doctor‘s poffice for “the cure to end my misery.” After a few days on sinus medications, I can hold two thoughts together again.
To really look at life and look inside oneself is the best way to discover truth and beauty. Some folks don’t want to look inside for fear they’ll see ugly things, long buried secrets, pains, and memories best forgotten. We need to see these, recognize them, and let Jesus take them into his already redeemed life. If we can let these painful parts be transformed by his graceful healing mercy, then we can use his renewing power in our own lives to bring truth and beauty to the life of others.
Some people look out and only see ugliness, decay, and despair. I imagine if they look inside, they also see the same things. They need to remember the nature of all things is not in itself beautiful or ugly, just as they themselves aren’t ugly or beautiful. Beauty is a standard, like a Virtue, which is an ideal characteristic, and it’s beyond anything here on this world. We’ll probably understand Truth and Beauty in the eternal world, when we have the opportunity to participate with God in the fullness of time.
Gail—Day of the Dead image in process
If beauty were only to exist in the eye of each and every beholder, and each one of us could determine our own standards of beauty according to our own experience and criteria, then all the plains would be level and no mountains would exist. Yet, we know this isn’t so, for my icebox door may be decorated with my grandchildren’s crayon drawings, but they wouldn’t be hanging in an art gallery in any creative district anywhere.
Mike—Basket of Veggies against a Yellow Wall
If art isn’t a challenge, if life isn’t a pursuit of excellence, and if we are content to rest at the foot of the mountains, then I really wonder why God created the heights, if not for us to aspire to them? If there’s mountains in this world, why are so many content to climb just the hills, but call them mountains? Most of the struggles we have in life are actually molehills, but we blow them out of proportion and call them mountains! The biggest successes come from the accumulation of many small failures. We’re just training until we hone our muscle memory to a fine edge. This is why we say works can’t save you in faith, but art is all about the work ethic.
DeLee—Work in Progress
Our biggest challenge this week in class was the woven basket. Some of us had never woven anything in youth groups, so experiences I took for granted as a child growing up (weaving situpons and potholders) weren’t in some people’s backgrounds. Learning to look, follow the weave, see the play of light along the wave of the reeds, and the shadows as they dip under the warp bands took a bit of doing. We’re also beginning some Day of the Dead related works. We’ll work in these in October. I was so sick, I failed to photo everyone’s work. I should be in better shape next week!
Joy and Peace, Cornelia
For now we remember, as the apostle Paul sighed,
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
~~ Romans 7:19
And he leaves us with these words of hope,
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
~~ Romans 8:28
In art, beginners can get so caught up with drawing the forms and representing reality, they lose sight of the emotions and meaning of their work. Small children, on the other hand, will take an idea such as a snowman in a snowstorm, and completely obliterate their surface with white swirls until all sight of the ground, the snowman, the house and the children who built it are covered up. Their work is more about the experience of the falling, swirling snow than it is about the distinctive parts. We hang this on our refrigerators and exclaimed with amazement when they tell us the story.
In a year, they’ll be interested in the separate objects and have a well defined ground and sky, even if their objects aren’t in realistic proportions. The proportions are sized according to the child’s interest, and by age 12 most children want to create drawings with realistic perspective and images. Sometimes as they age, they begin to lose their sense of magic and mystery, and need their imagination primed more, but this isn’t impossible.
Adults often have difficulty using their imaginations, for they’ve had too many years of completing to do lists, getting things done, and unfortunately, much work is mind numbing. Some of them also are products of schools that taught to the test and to the “right answer,” rather than teaching thinking or logic skills or creativity.
The disciples asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
For us as artists or as people of faith, to enter into the humility of a child is a counter cultural act, both today and in ancient times. We don’t find self help gurus preaching simplicity or poverty, but we do find plenty selling the siren call of prosperity and power. Jesus always speaks of the least of all as being the most of all, which is why the smallest child has more honor and greatness in the kingdom of heaven than the most important citizens of this world.
Some of us hear this text as a call to never question the faith we learned as a child. Unfortunately when we hit the stumbling blocks of adulthood, we find our simple faith’s pillars of belief are on shaky foundations. We can either crash and burn, or we can ask the questions of trusted and learned guides who have gone on the path before. Then we can shore up our foundations with mature understandings, or remodel our understanding so we can live with joy anew.
In art, we can either repeat the same forms over and over, or we can critique our work. In the school I attended, we had a routine—the first three comments had to be positive, then the next had to be those which needed improvement. Since we never called anything “bad” or “wrong,” the person on the hot seat never felt diminished. “You could have darkened the background more, so your foreground objects would have been more prominent.” This is better than saying, “You didn’t make the objects in front stand out,” since it doesn’t offer a solution.
It’s humbling to receive criticism, even positive feedback, because we want to be accepted just as we are, especially in faith. Yet Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us just as we are (justifying grace), but rose from the dead to perfect us and make us holy, just as he is (sanctifying grace). In faith, we come as humble children to grow in grace before God and to come to full perfection of love of God and neighbor that is entire sanctification. In art, we work each day to join our hand, our hearts, and our vision into one spiritually inspired whole. The more we know ourselves and can connect with the spirit of the creating God, the better we’ll make art with an inner life.
Sometimes in art, we decide to repeat a certain set of forms because we get approval from others for our work. We do this to the danger of our very lives. While we may continue to sell our work and earn the acclaim of critics, if we aren’t pushing the boundaries of artistic creativity, we are stagnating and not growing. The greatest artists–Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Michaelagelo–never quit growing. In faith, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
When I was young, I thought I had to be Wonder Woman in order to please my parents. You know, the perfect daughter, the smartest child, the best artist, and the best behaved of all their progeny. After all, I was the first born and the only girl, so I’d had my parents’ undivided attention for those crucial early years. I thought if I worked hard, I could overcome any obstacle, and make any situation better, just by my force of will.
This is magical thinking, however. It works for comic book heroes who live in hard edge black and white moral worlds, but we live in the real world of fuzzy grays and complex moral choices. My family history of long marriages wasn’t going to extend to my generation, for I could no longer live with my alcoholic husband. I felt less like Wonder Woman and more like a failure. I told my mother I thought she and daddy always wanted me to be “perfect to earn their love.”
She looked dumbfounded at me, paused a moment and spoke, “Honey, we only wanted you to do your very best at all times. We knew you had more in you that you hadn’t tapped yet!”
This is the moment I forgave my parents for my Wonder Woman complex and learned to live with her. Not every person has had my parents. Some parents have no dreams for their children, so we must dream for them and encourage them to be superheroes in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods and wherever we meet them.
Other parents lack imagination. They see their children repeating their own lives as good enough. Yet, they too only want the best for their children so if they can only imagine their life repeated for them, we shouldn’t fault these parents for their lack of imagination. They never lived in our age or times, nor in our bodies or minds! We children can become the best we can be, for our world is far grander than theirs ever was! We won’t always live up to the expectations of our parents or the plans they imagined for us, but we will be superheroes anyway.
My daddy once told me I was learning in high school chemistry what he studied in college chemistry classes. This is why your six year old nephew or niece can work your smart phone faster than you can! The world’s knowledge explodes now, doubling every year, but with the internet it will soon double every 12 HOURS!
We won’t need to learn all this information, or keep it stored in our minds, but we will need to know how to access it. Asking the best questions, knowing what is necessary, and the sense of discernment to winnow the good from the chaff will be what separates the best answers from the better, the good, and the ordinary ones.
My latest painting is a self portrait as “Wonder Woman during the Great American Eclipse.” I traveled to Kentucky to see this wonderful event at Land Between the Lakes. We can all be superheroes at every age and in every body shape. Just as the eclipse united all of America in the joy of celebrating a coast to coast mass experience provided by nature, we each have a divine image within us that unifies all of humanity as one, for we’re each made in the image of God. As the Jewish queen in scripture was reminded, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)
How we become the best persons is a matter of becoming a superhero or “coming to royal dignity for such a time as this!” We’ll always be fine tuning our spiritual lives, our education, and our professional achievements. Even when we retire, we’ll find engaging opportunities for service to others and self improvement both. Most likely our spiritual lives will deepen and our family and friendships will take on more importance. I hope you all seek your best life possible, beginning today.
Join me in being a Superhero! You can be a hero for someone who needs you today.
old photographs, mostly unmarked, in decaying cigar box, found at grandmother’s house.
“The slave does not have a permanent place in the household; the son has a place there forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” ~~ John 8:35-36
With all the Paula Deen jambalaya on the airwaves lately about her treatment of African-Americans and her misplaced desire to have a plantation themed wedding reception with “slaves attending their masters,” I thought I ought to spend some time researching my own Southern ancestors. Creeping age does that to one, as does the addition of yet another life to our family tree. I flew to Florida to celebrate becoming a grand aunt for the first time. Bringing gifts embellished with the family emblem, the fleur de lis, as well as handmade gifts that harken back to a simpler, earlier time when I was young, this child will know that he is a true DeLee.
I also brought a gift that has been another long-term project, my nephew’s family tree album. When my parents died, as the oldest child I inherited the photos and memorabilia of their lives. This is that detritus of accumulated treasure of the deceased that they didn’t organize, identify, or otherwise “get a round tuit,” but they also wouldn’t get rid of it because of the love and memories they had locked up in those old photos and letters. This is the debris that the rest of my family either didn’t have the patience to deal with, or their emotions were too raw at the time, so they said, “Just set a match to it and burn it all up.” I knew I might not have the time or emotional capability to handle this task in the days or months after our last parent died, but the day would come when I would have that desire and the gift of time.
First I did research on the generations of our family tree for a Family Systems Class. I learned that each family or organizational system is interconnected across the generations, and our own lives today can’t be understood outside of this generational legacy. Our history affects our present relationships: family, friends, and workplace.
I discovered some interesting “myths” about my Dad’s family that were told to “keep face,” for it seems not all my ancestors were such fine, upstanding citizens as my parents were trying to raise in their generation. I also discovered that my Mom’s people were all fairly straightforward folks. Maybe the fact that their history goes back much longer than my Dad’s people makes a difference, for my earliest ancestor I’ve found on his side is from the early 1800’s in South Louisiana, just after the Louisiana Purchase. Jonathan Livingston DeLee married Mary Day, a young widow with a child, after she lost her husband who died of the measles after helping Stonewall Jackson defend New Orleans in the Battle of 1812.
My ancestors in Louisiana were all slaveholders before the Civil War, or “The War Between The States,” as my unreconstructed Daddy was wont to call it. I discovered that I had great and grandparents in the KKK. I wondered how they could sleep soundly at night or keep their souls at peace by day. Their sons and daughters in my parent’s generation formed “private clubs” from public restaurants so that they wouldn’t have to integrate their dining establishments. This ruse didn’t last long, and now no one bats an eye, thankfully, because my generation marched with MLK in Atlanta and turned the world upside down for justice’s sake.
The question is today, how would any of us know the difference between the life of a slave and the life of the son/daughter in the family? If we are all “free people in these United States of America,” are some of us yet living in bondage, while some others have been set free? In the matter of faith, some of us are still slaves, while some of us have the freedom of the sons and daughters of God. Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). He also said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy” (same verse). To have this abundance is to live by faith in the work that Christ has done for us. The thief is our delusion that we must be good enough to earn God’s love or that we must work hard to be loved by the God that already loves us beyond measure (“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ*—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.” ~~ Ephesians 4:4-7)
Some of us have spent our lives trying our hardest to earn our parents’ approval, our loved one’s approval, our child’s approval, our boss’ approval, or our friend’s approval. We can’t turn around without trying to please someone else, only to discover that what pleases one displeases another! Now we are caught up in the anxiety circle, for we are stuck halfway and please no one, not even ourselves. There is the third party whom we can never please, The Contrarians, for this group isn’t happy with anything we do and will surely find fault in us!)
We think that God is also like this, only bigger and more difficult to please. We have heard the verse, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). We pile rule upon rule for our lives and the lives of others to measure up as “good enough.” This is why we are not “free to love God as a son or daughter,” for we are like slaves always looking out under the corner of our eyes to see if we are going to be punished for doing the wrong thing. We can’t allow God to love us freely, for we are in bondage: slaves to the managed life, the life of rules and regulations, bound to the prison of punishments for failure to attain perfection. We cannot love a God who keeps us in chains, for we are slaves and slaves want to be free. If we only knew that “perfect” in Greek meant “complete,” then we might have a different take on how we live our lives.
The daughters and sons of God love their Father freely, for they will inherit all that their parent has. I may have received the house and the bric-a-brac along with all the photos from my earthly parents, but I will inherit the kingdom from my heavenly Father (Matt 25:34), as well as eternal life (Luke 18:18). If our goal as a person of faith is to live our life with a heart so full of the love of God and neighbor that nothing else exists, surely then we will be “perfect/complete in love” in this life. We live by faith knowing that God enables us to grow toward this goal of complete love day by day.
As you reflect in your journal on the faith of a son or a daughter versus that of a slave or a servant, consider: are you just a hired hand for God, showing up faithfully when God rewards you with a blessing, but being scarce or quitting on God when the “paycheck” seems short? Journal your feelings or use a stencil to make word art that sums up your feelings.
“A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”~~ Jeremiah 31:15
Reflections of sky and sun in a pool of water.
We crossed the Isthmus of Corinth to the Old City to hike among the ruins of Acro-Corinth. Two famous and sacred springs flow there beneath the renowned Doric Temple of Apollo. Its spare monolithic columns rise above the old city center’s area of commerce and religion. One spring is the Peirene Fountain, the city’s major source of water. It was named for the woman who wept so hard when Artemis accidentally killed her son in a hunting accident that the goddess took pity upon her and turned her into a spring of water. Nearby is a hidden spring of water, sacred to Artemis herself and located underground beneath the ancient Temple of Apollo. Because Artemis was both a protector of youths and the bringer of harm to them, devotion to her cult of “protection” became interwoven with that of the “fates,” mythological beings who controlled the lives and destinies of humankind.
Into this underground shrine and spring, devotes of Artemis would come for protection during childbirth, bring their young children for blessings of protection, and families would come to celebrate the great transitions of life just as we do in our faith communities today: hatching, matching, and dispatching. After invoking the goddess’ blessing, they would sacrifice a living animal. Having appeased the god’s power, the people went off to live their daily lives. A sign in the underground sanctuary said “Do not enter: forbidden—Eight coin fine.” Even today this warning holds true, for we can’t access this tunnel. It has yet to be excavated. It may have led to the hidden chambers for the priests and priestesses of the Artemis cult, it could have been a passage between the spring and the Temple of Apollo, or it could have been the passageway into the rooms for the initiates into the mystery cult of Artemis.
Artemis as “protector” brought prosperity to fields and crops, herds and wild beasts, as well as long life, peace and health to her human devotes (Callimachus, Hymn 3 to Artemis, 3rd C BC, www.theoi.com/olympios/Artemis.hmtl). However, just as she could protect, so also she could bring down, for she was a hunter and her arrows were swift and true. One never knew if today’s blessings would continue on the morrow. Over the years, the Greeks developed a mythological concept of Fate or Moira to further explain their understanding and meaning of life.
The Fates were illustrated as ancient women: one spun the fiber of our lives, one measured the length of the thread, and the last cut the thread with shears to determine the end of our lives. “Moria/Fate brings good and ill to mortals and the gifts of the immortal gods are inseparable” (Solon, Frag. 13, 6th C BC). They didn’t believe in a person’s freedom of will to choose, for they believed a person’s destiny was set at birth (people who believe in astrology and horoscopes are examples of this type of thinking). “But mortals are not free to choose prosperity nor stubborn war, nor all destroying civil strife: Aisa (Destiny), giver of all things, moves a cloud over this land, now over that” (Bacchylides, Frag. 24, www.theoi.com.Daimon.moirai.html).
We all deal with death in our lives. Our own bodies are dying every month: at least our outer layers of skin are, which we shed every thirty-five days. In a sense, we are “new people” about eleven times a year! This loss happens so often that we ignore it until the house needs dusting. However, when we are struck with a great loss, a huge grief, or an inconsolable sorrow, we can become like Peirene weeping and wasting, or Rachel refusing to be comforted. It doesn’t matter what our loss is: death of a child, loss of a breast, demotion at work, disability, terminal diagnosis, loss of limb, death of a beloved pet, divorce or breakup of a relationship—we are blindsided by this event. “It isn’t supposed to happen this way! What kind of God lets these kinds of bad things happen to good people?”
At times like these, we forget that God has experienced first hand the suffering of his Son’s agony on the cross. God isn’t unfamiliar or unaware of the cost of pain and the experience of death. Anything that the Son experienced here on earth was also experienced within the Holy Trinity, which never ceased to be Holy or Three in One. Even when we forget this subtle piece of reasoning in our own pain, and all we want to do is kick the shins of the Almighty or put our boot into his hind parts, God knows that we are consumed with our own suffering and agony. Our anger against God is just a reflection against the circumstances in which we find ourselves: bereft, abandoned, hurting, despairing, and worn out by sorrows.
I think of my cousin Tommy Mac: brilliant, good boy, golden child. Not like his older brother Earl Jr., who would barely get through high school due to his good old boy party ways. Tommy had a full scholarship to a big East college and was going to law school and make his parents proud. The summer before law school, he drowned in a tubing accident on a swift running stream. His parents were in the bedroom to receive visitors, but all they could say was, “Why would God take this one?” I don’t know if Earl Jr. was there also, but if he were, I hope he heard only the grief of his parents speaking. More likely he would have thought, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (Gen 27:36).
I walk into the home of the one who took his own life and left his family devastated. They didn’t know how troubled he was, for they would have helped, or they may have been reaching out, but nothing they could have done would have been enough. Wracked with guilt, they ask, “How could he leave us? Will we see him again?” All I know is that sometimes our “real self” is lost to our “dark self.” This darkness convinces us that no hope exists, no one cares, no help is available, and no life is worth living. The dark self can’t see God, but God can see all things: “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light” (Ephesians 5:13-14). Many believe that suicide puts one’s self outside of the love of God, but scripture affirms that “not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:39).
How do we get beyond the grief that binds us to it or causes us to waste away until we are mere fountains of tears? Some parents make their child’s room into a shrine. This “guest bedroom” is like visiting Graceland or Neverland Valley Ranch. It pays homage to a “star” but it isn’t meant to host visitors overnight, for it is prepared for the return of the King. Others grieve inwardly, and move on, but live within a shroud. They expend their energy of grief in giving back to others in their community, just as Peirene did. Her tears became a fountain of life giving water for the city. Children gathered to play there, women met to share their lives, men gathered to make business deals, and the city thrived. If Peirene couldn’t answer, “Why was my child taken by the goddess?” then the only peace that Artemis could give her was to let her share the gift of life for others in exchange for the stolen death of her son.
Perhaps this is how the ancients came to tell this story to understand how one recovers from a great grief. To give one’s self for others is the greatest gift: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). Peirene’s Fountain kept the valley watered, lush and beautiful the year round. Her outpouring of grief gave a blessing of life and beauty to the town. In the hidden and sacred spring, Artemis was worshiped as a protector and savior for the family.
Today we recognize that these waters of life come from one Savior: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink” (John 7:37-38). Find a mug, cup, glass, or your favorite drink container. Fill it with your favorite beverage. Sit down with it and begin a page of memories about the person(s) or situation(s) that fill you with grief. If at first all you can do is write their name or the word identifying them on the page, that is fine. Sit with this and drink for a while. As the words come up, write them down. Now is not the time for pretty paragraphs, outlines, or perfect punctuation. Organization isn’t necessary. In fact, if you just write in jotted notes all over the page or in boxes, you can “organize it later.” We are looking for FOUNTAIN FLOWING THOUGHTS—automatic writing, if you will. Let the words flow out of you like the tears of Peirene or Rachel. Later you can put this catharsis to good use. This is your spiritual cleansing experience for the week.
“Now the LORD said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.’” ~~ Genesis 12:1
All Women Are Flowers–Sign in Turkish Public Restroom
Finding a restroom in the States is pretty simple. Most of us eat in “box” restaurants, not that we always eat fast food. Every chain restaurant is built according to the same design, so the one in which I eat in my hometown is the same as the one on either coast of these United States. We may be divided in our politics, but were united in our affection for the Cheesecake Factory, the Texas Roadhouse, Olive Garden, and PF Chang’s China Bistro (Forbes, 2011: Ten Best Casual Dining List).
In a foreign country we are bereft of these common designs as we travel. Each day presents a new challenge, a new place, and new discoveries to be made. Travel can be exciting or overwhelming. Take the matter of finding the restroom in a foreign country. Will you understand the directions if you ask “WC?” and suddenly a rush of many words flood from the native mouth? If they point, how far is it and will it be one of those clean modern facilities or a stand up primitive lavatory? Some folks just decide to let the more adventurous do the discovery work and report back.
Some in our small band seem to have difficulty finding the restrooms without these common cues from home. They don’t ask if they don’t see the signs. The signs are hard to pick out among all the items offered for sale in every place that we stop! (Maybe they don’t play the hidden object games on iPad: today there were 591 results for hidden object games!) Perhaps because I am a firstborn child, I am a natural explorer. I just follow my nose because I “know it is there or I will walk until I find it.” Nothing will get between me and a bathroom break, for I am a woman on a mission when I have a need. Then again, I am a mother and have had a small child who loved to visit every bathroom in every facility she entered. I learned quickly to pick up on the cues for location of restrooms in every type of building you can imagine. We explored some interesting places! I can still see the look on that precious face that said, “Now! Mom! Now!”
“To go” now is implied in God’s command. To make a clean break from his country, his kin, and his family is a big deal. For Abram, for any of us, to turn our backs to all that we have ever known and loved would have been heart wrenching. If we are uncomfortable finding the WC in a strange land, we probably aren’t the type of folks who would chuck it all as Abram did.
I have met families in my ministry who have four generations living within a half mile of each other. My own family is spread across the entire USA. Perhaps my family has the type of faith required to “go to a land I will show you” rather than stay put among the known and the secure.
In this “journey to the unknown land,” faith and art have much in common. In art, we work from an original design idea or concept, but any piece that doesn’t grow beyond that initial premise hasn’t been fully developed. The same goes for our faith. If it doesn’t grow beyond our childhood notions of “being nice” and “Jesus is my friend” then we won’t have a robust or rigorous enough commitment that will help us stand our ground when the trials and tribulations of the road we travel assail us.
Insipid works of art, as well as faith that has lost its saltiness, aren’t worth much. I bought a painting for $10 at the Habitat Restore. The clerk said, “you got a deal.” Yes, I said. The frame is worth more than $10 and I’ll use the stretcher strips with new canvas and make my own new painting. The raw materials alone are worth $60. It’s a good buy, but it isn’t a good painting. Our faith can be like this painting: it looks pretty to someone without the ability to discern what is true and real, but it is only meant for destruction (Matt 5:13).
To turn our backs on all that we are and to go out to become some new creation is the very essence of faith. This is called “regeneration” or rebirth/new birth. It is the state of the believer who becomes a “new creation in Jesus Christ “(2 Cor 5:17). We are able to live a new life in Christ, to live as Christ, and to live sustained by the Holy Spirit. We will not live it perfectly at first, but we will grow into increasing holiness of heart and life over time.
So why do so many artists and people of faith hit a comfortable spot on their journeys and fail to move beyond it? Artists get comfortable with a style and recreate new works in the old style for commercial success. In faith, we get to the point where we don’t want to be challenged anymore, and we switch to cruise control for the rest of our lives, as we say, “I’m good enough; God will complete the rest.” Are we afraid to push beyond our small success? Do we think God isn’t big enough to take us farther? Or do we fear going too far away from “home?”
To discover the answers to these questions, draw your artistic and spiritual maps. Are they going to a land God will show you, or have you been taking the well-worn paths near home? Are you listening to the call God has placed on your heart? This may be the week to try a new medium just to shake out the cobwebs and to give you a challenge in your studio.
Caravansary interior, Sultanhani. Turkey. Along the Silk Road
“And Abram journeyed on by stages towards the Negeb.”
~~ Genesis 12:9
“A wandering Aramean was my ancestor” (Deut 26:5) is likely the first affirmation of faith in the Bible. It speaks to a people who began their lives with a call from God to journey in faith: “Go to the land that I will show you” (Gen 12:1). I spent two weeks in Turkey and Greece along the Silk Road making a journey of faith with others who were out to visit the sites of the Seven Churches of the Revelation. We were not just on a journey of faith during this brief time, but this pilgrimage was a microcosm of the experiences of our lifetime faith journeys.
Deciding to set out is the first step of a faith journey! For many of us, counting the cost is too expensive. We say we could save so much money by setting out alone, buying a cheap fare on line, and so on. However, we never do this because we are afraid to go alone. Travel in a foreign country, even one as safe and hospitable to Americans as Turkey, is not as safe as being in the USA for those without connections or knowledge of the language.
I missed the tour bus and had to negotiate my own way out to the suburban location of our hotel in Istanbul. First I tried the bus, but the driver wouldn’t take me there, so I went to the taxi stand. The driver didn’t speak English, but I had the hotel address and phone. He called them and got me there before the Tour Bus arrived. If my mother were still alive, she would be in the hospital with a heart attack! But I travel by faith, and believed that God takes care of those who journey with him.
In ancient times folks travelled in groups also. These are the caravans of antiquity: traders travelled together to protect their goods and families journeyed together to protect their herds of animals. The average daily distance herds or camels could cover was 15 or 20 miles. Along the Silk Road we saw many Caravansaries/Hotels, some of which have been converted into destination resort/hotel accommodations rather like our bed and breakfast lodgings.
The Sultanhani Caravansaray pictured is more like a fortress than a hotel. Inside are rooms for the people and their goods. These have high and small windows and heavy doors for easy defense. The open courtyard has water and cooking areas for the common use. Across the way are covered open porticos for the animals and their handlers. There are also “accounting rooms” for any trade that was contracted there.
We all need a resting spot on our faith journey. Sometimes we just get tired of “going onto perfection.” We think that we are good enough, or at least better than our neighbor, and that ought to suffice. But is that our true calling as a people of faith on a journey? In the work place, we always strive to do better. On the athletic field, we always want to leap higher or run faster. In our creative endeavors, we are unsatisfied unless we are constantly improving!
So why is it that people of faith who have set out on the long journey of Christian Perfection come to the decision that “good enough” is their Caravansary or Resting Place, when they have “an ancestor who was a wandering Aramean?” If we are ever to obtain the image of Christ by faith, continuing the dangerous journey is our calling.
Along the way we’ll not know the language, the bathrooms will be hard to find, and the food won’t be familiar. If we look only for what “feeds my needs,” we probably aren’t leaving familiar territory. We aren’t going to the Land God is going to show us. We aren’t journeying by stages to the Negeb, to the desert lands. The heart of the matter is we don’t want to go to the desert as part of our journey, for in the desert everything is stripped clean down to the bare essentials. The excess of the fat lands, the lush growth of flowers, the sweet smell of success, and the power of regeneration that happens with ease all have a siren call. The arid and dry lands have a still small voice that can only be heard by a heart that is in tune to silence and simplicity.
This is a different journey from the world’s journey. Not everyone will hear it. Not everyone will take it. Some of us will use the Caravansary as a place in which to hide from the world, others will use it as a temporary resting place. The Silk Road beckons us to continue on our pilgrimage.
Our spiritual and artistic reflection project: Journey Image. Consider your own journey and your own call (spiritual, vocational, missional, etc.). Pick a line or image or both that represents the story of that journey to date. You can use a “timeline” format, a collage, layers, a clock face, or a self-portrait with multiple images to represent this journey you are on. If you want to include your hopes and dreams for the future that is also good!
“There are winds created for vengeance and in their anger they can dislodge mountains. On the day of reckoning they will pour out their strength and calm the anger of their Maker.” ~~ Ecclesiasticus 39: 28
Seventeen days and counting to Christmas: Grey Thursday, Black Friday and the Great Christmas Sales are upon us. Wal-Mart is covered up with people like the great ski slopes in the mountains should be covered with snow at this time of year. The Salvation Army bell ringers are out, but their friendly jingles and smiles aren’t making much of a dent into the general mood with Fiscal Cliffadedron, Egyptian Meltdown, Iranian Idiots, or Syrian Chemical Weapon threats weighing heavy in the air.
People aren’t much in the mood for Christmas this year, perhaps because our expectations are too high. We wanted a “Good Thanksgiving” with a happy family all gathered around the table, but the drunk uncle made his appearance once again and the kids all wanted to text the entire meal, while Dad wanted the food served in the “media room” so he wouldn’t miss any of the game. This didn’t make any of the lady folks happy after baking and cooking for two days for the thirty-minute meal. So the gals took the credit cards and maxed them out on the early deals Thursday afternoon.
Now we have the incessant commercials of increasing expectations berating us on the TV: moving up to a bigger car, a bigger diamond, or giving your stepchild a diamond just like the one you gave her Mom (this is outrageous, children shouldn’t get diamonds until they are grownups! They need to have something to look forward to!). But most of our lives today aren’t like this, for we are more like the 99% and less like the 1%.
I was recently in Turkey in the region of Cappadocia. There is an area called the Fairy Mountains that has unusual stone pillars and shapes that have been worn away by the wind, rain, and blowing sand. One such
fairy mountains Cappadocia
shape is a camel, and another grouping of three is known as the “holy family.” This Nativity Scene makes me think of all the precious sculptures I’ve seen. Most of them are highly sophisticated, brightly colored, and “clean” for that is truly how we view holiness. This isn’t the world the Christ Child was brought into by his parents, however.
Mary was a young teenager when the angel came to tell her she would bring the Christ into the world without benefit of a husband, that is, it would be a virgin birth. Folks in the village soon began to talk, and Joseph was going to break off their engagement, but an angel told him in a dream it would all work out ok. When Mary began to show, however, she needed to leave town, so she went to see her older cousin Elizabeth who was also with child. These two were alike in that they were “outsiders:” Elizabeth was alone because her husband wasn’t able to speak because he doubted the Lord was at work in his wife’s pregnancy and Mary was alone because her family and town doubted her story.
When the census time came, everyone had to go to their ancestral hometown. Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, the city of David, but no one would let them stay in their inn. The text says there was no room for them in the inn, but Joseph wasn’t a stupid or slow man. He didn’t wait until the last minute to take his very pregnant wife on this trip, so that all the hotels and motels were already full. People back then are just like people now: they talk, they make judgments, and folks decide that out of wedlock babies are unwelcome in their nice establishments. One innkeeper did take pity upon them and gave the family a place in the stable among the animals. The baby was born there; the king of the world had a manger for his throne, and the animals for his court. Angels proclaimed the Savior’s birth to shepherds, outcast persons on the margins of society because they were not clean. They were the first to honor him. Strangers from the east came to worship him and give him gifts, aliens and nonbelievers rather than the Jews themselves. His mother “…treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
The King and the priests heard the strangers from the east ask: “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” (Matthew 2:2). They conspired among themselves to murder all the newborn baby boys when they didn’t find out the one name. Joseph took Mary and Jesus in the middle of the night out into Egypt, for he was warned in a dream that the child was in danger.
This Christ Child knows the pains of the world from the very beginning of conception, for he knows the loneliness of the poor and the isolated, the rejected and the misunderstood. He knows that if the king of the world will be rejected and despised, so will all we lesser human beings. If we are persecuted in this world, we are in good company, since he was singled out from birth and many innocents died on his behalf (Matt 2:13-33). His family fled with the clothes on their backs, but they carried the gold, frankincense and myrrh gifts he received as gifts for his ministry and burial.
Most people don’t read the Nativity Story this way, but when I look at the way the wind wears away the stone, I have to think that these figures are the strength that is left after the winds have torn away the soft parts. The hard parts, that core that remains, is the true part that is the inner strength that comes from the inner spirit of a person. The winds may move mountains and reveal a new shape, but that is just God’s recreating power at work.
The biblical word for wind and spirit are the same, so the Holy Spirit can be the rushing wind that changes our hearts and minds into the new shape God has in mind for us. The American Bible Society says that each American home has 4.3 bibles in it in 2012. However, most people aren’t reading it, for 46% couldn’t tell the difference between the Koran, the Bible, or the Book of Mormon. What’s worse, 50% of Americans, including Christians, couldn’t name ANY of the four gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John). The Bible’s oral traditions have been around for 6,000 years, and it’s been written down for 4,000 years. Surely that is a testimony to its robustness: the winds of other ideas may blow against it, but its inner strength stands firm against all the storms.
As a spiritual art project, make your own nativity from found objects, the more humble the better. If you go on a nature walk, find rocks or pine cones and paint them with minimal decoration so that they are recognizable as “figure” or “animal”. If you make them from toilet paper rolls, use construction paper and simplify the figure drapery. These should be fun because you need to quit thinking “perfect” and allow yourself to “enjoy Christmas for a change!” Have yourself a Merry Simple Christmas!