The Inspired Church

architecture, art, Creativity, Easter, Faith, generosity, Historic neighborhood, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Ministry, Notre Dame de Paris, Painting, poverty, purpose, renewal, risk, Spirituality, vision

My newest painting is from a photo I took of a church in downtown Hot Springs on one cloudy spring day. It wasn’t much to look at as a photo, but I was called to stop and snap its image at that moment. I learned long ago in ministry to listen to those promptings of the spirit, for a greater power was working beneath my poor powers of discernment and knowledge. If I listened, I’d show up when people needed me, even when they were unable to contact me. God has a mysterious power to do unlikely works, or things we ordinary folks would call minor miracles.

THE INSPIRED CHURCH

Most of us see our churches as ordinary places, maybe even “our places,” rather than God’s holy place. This is why we say “my church,” but if we were truthful, we’d admit, no church ever belongs to any human being, for the church is the body of Christ. We also aren’t just one congregation either, for all these buildings comprise a greater Body of the greater Church, which is the Body of Christ. Plus, we who look to our membership rolls forget about the ones who are outside our doorsteps: the hungry, lonely, poor, wandering, naked, or the prisoners and infirm who are confined. They too are part of Christ’s body, which yearns to be made whole.

In my painting, this ordinary, grounded church now rises as a golden, ethereal structure striving toward the heavens. As a Inspired Church, it’s “going on to perfection.” While it won’t get there on its on account, God’s energies are there to help it, just as the spirit will help each of our churches to grow in faith and witness to the world. As I consider the pre Easter fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, I think of the cycles of spiritual growth both we and the bodies of Christ undergo. We all have times of growth and lying fallow, and some even seem to have seasons of rot. Yet God’s renewing spirit can make the dead bones live again.

Notre Dame de Paris

A Christian church has been in Paris since the 3rd century of the CE. This site has a history of both blight and renewal. Two ancient churches were destroyed to build the new gothic cathedral. These were built on the site of an old Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The work on the cathedral began in 1163 and was completed 203 years later. In 1789, French revolutionaries caused major damage to the building, especially the statuary. Nearly a half century later, publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 sparked a campaign to restore the cathedral.

Although Notre Dame de Paris is a Catholic Church, it’s also a historic building. As such, the cathedral belongs to the state, which is responsible for its maintenance. Nevertheless, the day-to-day maintenance of churches and cathedrals in France often falls to cultural and religious associations. And just because the state is responsible for funding large infrastructure projects doesn’t necessarily mean it has the money to do it.

When the world watched the spire fall and the wooden roof collapse, a great sadness fell across people’s hearts. Immediately large financial pledges poured in to rebuild this architectural treasure. One of the blowbacks in the days of grief after the fire and the generous outpouring of pledges to rebuild this cathedral of hope, which is over 850 years old, was the reality of human needs. Soon folks said, “If we can raise this much money for a building, why can’t we raise it for the homeless, the hungry, the war refugees, and all the other human causes of need?”

Yes, these are important, and we should always provide relief for human distress. Great buildings, which have seen over eight centuries upon this earth, are a special case. They carry the hopes, dreams, and memories of each person who has ever entered their doors. With the advent of television and social media, they now carry the memories and dreams of everyone around the world who watched this great sanctuary burn and all their hopes for what it will become in the future.

When we cast a vision for our own churches, most of us aren’t facing a burned down edifice. Instead, we usually find a burned out congregation or a barely burning membership. Not many of us will stay in our appointments long enough to make “cosmic changes,” so we work to improve what we can, with the hope the next pastor will build on our work. In truth, it’s easier to redesign or renovate a building than it is to restore a congregation to health.

Currently architects are designing their best proposals for this spiritual heart of Paris and France. Some will “go big or go home,” while others will bring a more simple vision. Paris firm Vincent Callebaut Architectures’ vision for the cathedral is an innovative and eco-friendly design that supports the local population and produces more energy than it uses. Its vision of the rebuilt Notre Dame features a futuristic glass design, solar power, and an urban farm to support vulnerable and homeless Parisians.

Proposal for Interior of Notre Dame de Paris

Four years ago, an art historian used lasers to digitally map Notre Dame Cathedral. His work now could help save it. The Vincent Callebaut project is titled “Palingenesis,” a Greek concept of rebirth or recreation. The firm proposes a new roof made of glass, oak and carbon fiber, which connects “in one single curved stroke of pencil” to the sloping spire. The rooster which topped the original spire and retrieved from the rubble after the fire, will resume its watch from the new glass design, while the cathedral’s choir will be bathed in natural light.

Vincent Callebaut Architectures
Beneath the spire, the roof will host a fruit and vegetable farm run by charities and volunteers, in order to produce free food for vulnerable local people. “Up to 21 tons of fruits and vegetables could be harvested and directly redistributed for free each year,” the firm said in a press release. “To that end, a farmers’ market would be held every week on the forecourt of Notre Dame.”

Notre Dame de Paris


Vincent Callebaut Architectures
The roof and spire will also produce electricity, heat and ventilation for the cathedral: an “organic active layer” within the glass will provide solar power, while the roof’s diamond-shaped “scales” will open to offer natural ventilation — a design inspired by termite mounds. The spire will act as a “thermal buffer space” in which hot air accumulates in winter.

The cathedral could host an urban farm which produces food for local people. Credit: Vincent Callebaut Architectures

“How can we write the contemporary history of our country, but also that of science, art and spirituality together?” the firm said in a press release. “We seek to present a transcendent project, a symbol of a resilient and ecological future.”

If the Vincent Callebaut design is selected, the firm said, the reborn Notre Dame will define “the new face of the Church in the 21st century,” presenting “a fairer symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.”

This is so amazing, yet I wonder if the religious community will feel elbowed out of their worship space. I know one of the difficult challenges in church leadership is adopting new ideas because “we’ve never done it that way before.” On the other hand, helping this 14th century gothic cathedral rise from the ashes to a new birth is the perfect moment to claim an extraordinary vision for a forward looking future, not only for the church, but also for Paris, the French, and even the people of the world.

THOUGHT QUESTIONS

  • When we think about a new vision for our own church, are we willing to destroy the pagan temple and the god of its age?
  • When we build a church for an earlier time, do we have the faith to tear it down and build it anew for the age in which we live?
  • Do we hold on to an old form of church until it burns down and we need to create a new one from the ashes?
  • Will we have the courage to reconfigure our “idea of church” so it’s not a separation from the world, but an incorporation of the world, as in the Wedding Banquet parable?
  • Are we ready to entertain new visions and dream new dreams for our churches and our ministries?

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/04/18/france-separates-church-state-so-whos-responsible-notre-dame/

https://www.cnn.com/style/article/france-notre-dame-green-scli-intl/index.html

https://www.notredamedeparis.fr/en/la-cathedrale/histoire/historique-de-la-construction/

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Reflections of God

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I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.

Winter Lake Reflections

Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.

The Cloud Rising

This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—

“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,

so that a flood of waters may cover you?”

Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.

Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–

“For I am about to create new heavens

and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered

or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).

If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).

Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.

EPIPHANY SNOW

art, Epiphany, Faith, Family, mystery, nature, New Year, photography, poverty, renewal, Spirituality, trees, Uncategorized, vision

The snow arrived overnight, as promised! Just enough to change the landscape of winter on the lake in Arkansas. The trees, mountain, and grey sky are just shades of black and white. Snow changes our perception of the landscape, so it is an epiphany of its own kind. 

On the twelfth day of Christmas, or the night before Epiphany, folks used to take down their decorations and trees. They gave each other the last of the Christmas gifts, though I’m sure no one ever got “twelve drummers drumming ” as the old song goes, unless they were a rented band who went about drumming for hire. 

Today we celebrate National Take Down the Christmas Tree Day on the same day as Epiphany, for folks who aren’t in a rush and have lost the connection to the spiritual reason for the season. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the wise men at the birth of Jesus. The word means “reveal,” so God revealed the divine presence in Jesus to the nations of the world when the wise men visited the rude accommodations of the savior’s birth. The poor shepherds had already seen his glory in the manger, as well as the creation, represented by the animals in the stable. 

Who was missing from the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany? The extended families of Mary and Joseph aren’t ever mentioned, yet our modern celebration of this revelation of god to the world is celebrated primarily in the home, not amongst the poor or the outsiders. We focus on the giving of gifts to our families and friends. Shoppers around America planned on spending an average $929 on gifts in 2016. Religious organizations had average donations of $1,703 (secular households donate $863 on average to other causes) (2012). 

I mention this, since nowhere in scripture can we find a proof text to affirm going into debt to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We can find multiple texts in which God forgives debt, but Mastercard does not forgive debt. John Wesley asked his clergy, “Are you so in debt as to embarrass yourself?” The wags among us answer, “I’m not embarrassed if you’re not embarrassed!” The correct answer is “NO.” 

Sometimes it takes an epiphany, a revelation of divine insight, if you will, to realize Christmas isn’t a day, but an emotion. Even if we take down the decorations, put away the carols and stockings, and return our homes to “ordinary time,” we can always live in the season of welcoming Christ into the world. If we look upon the face of the poor, or the least of these my brothers and sisters, we are seeing Christ. If we look upon the natural world, we are seeing representatives of those who first saw his glory. If we see our families, we see those who failed to attend this miracle, and we give them the gift of grace, for we too were off doing other more important things those twelve days of Christmas long ago. We can gift ourselves a little grace also. 

Today is Epiphany. We can have the revelation anew because God is always inbreaking into our world of grey, or black and white. I see the world in shades of grey, rather than strictly either/or, but an epiphany will light up the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome this light. 

Happy New Year to everyone! May you keep Christmas in your heart every day! May an epiphany be yours at the right time. (God’s time is the right time, so be open!)

WORK IN PROGRESS: Landscape 

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stage 3, unfinished acrylic painting, artandicon


This is on my easel right now. Last autumn on a warm and sunny day, I took an Instagram photo below of the woods near my home.  Maybe we’ll have one ofthose days   again, with no rain!

The photo above is  my most recent painting. I’m letting it set overnight, to see if I need to work it some more. A fresh eye will see better tomorrow. I’ve spent 4 hours on it today. 

Notice I didn’t paint all the trees in the foreground. Photographic truth is different from artistic truth. We know this is the same place by the line of the hill, the placement of the bushes in the background and the staggered line of trees in the foreground. If details are omitted, we don’t worry. If the colors are varied, we understand the artist is responding to the emotions of the landscape, rather than to the facts of the site. 

photo edited in instagram

In the same way, biblical truths may be operating in the parables and stories Jesus told us. For some people, the miracles themselves are mere “truth stories” which serve to open up the mysteries of God. For these people, science is how they understand their world, but God’s word is the way they understand how to relate to God and God’s creation. 
If they can hold this creative tension in their minds, it isn’t any different than seeing this painting as a true image of the place it represents. 

After all, as Jacob said when he woke from his sleep, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 
And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” — Genesis 28:16-17

The gates of heaven are all about us, if only we have the eyes to see them. We are always within the house of God. I find this awesome, life changing, and spirit filling. Recognizing God’s presence everywhere should change how we pursue our lives, our work and our relationships also. 

CULTURAL CHRISTIANITY & THE PROVIDENCE OF GOD

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Some folks say Merica, like they can’t stand to say the whole of our country’s name or bear the taste of it in their mouth. Others bleed red, white and blue, but they only see the America they know and love. Once they have their piece of the pie, they are afraid to let others come to the table. 
First we maligned the Irish, then we found other newcomers to scapegoat. We kept a whole race enslaved, and then found ways to keep them second class citizens. Women didn’t get the right to vote until 1920! Yet none of these oppressed groups ever gave up their dream of the America we can become if we all work together for the best of the lofty goals our forefathers desired. 
The providence of God is a faith belief and a trust that the pie is always large enough for all to share. God will provide for us our needs every day. Our human need to control our own destiny and define our own life is marked by our fear of God not being there for us. While humans may abandon us in our hour of need, God’s steadfast love endures forever. This is a promise repeated over and over again in scripture. 

Human love tends to be conditional, or a quid pro quo type of love. “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is how we explain this. God’s love is unconditional because God loves God’s creation and provides for what he created. The pie for people of faith is limitless, for God keeps increasing it. How does this happen? God opens our hearts to the needs of others and we share God’s blessings with them. 

This is why Americans are the most generous people of the whole world. We know the source of our strength and our power is magnified when we share it with others who are weak and under attack. If Christianity is going to be co-opted by our culture, let it be the best parts of our faith! The care for the poor, the weak, the hungry, the sick, the ones who need a miracle in their lives. Let’s not have Christ be used as a one armed bandit to deliver riches, health and wealth to individuals for the rice of prayers or deeds. 

Look at the photo again: a true patriot…

“This woman explained to me that the flagpole over her door was broken but ‘on such a day as this, one keeps one’s flag on one’s heart.'” I felt in her a touch of the strength and robustness of the early American pioneers’.

Photo by the great photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson USA. Massachusetts. Cape Cod. July 4th, 1947. Independence Day.

THE PARK MAY BE CLOSED BUT THE CITY ISN’T

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I took the back way home. Even though I was using the GPS, I deviated from her well intentioned directions. Perhaps I was just intent on exploring, or perhaps I had “authority issues” I needed to work out on leadership, since no one in our country’s Capitol seemed to care for the the poor and the weak any more. “It doesn’t affect me, so why should I worry? Most people won’t notice anything amiss in their daily lives.” How easily we discount “the other.” We think so often only of ourselves: of me, myself, and my. My exploration, as I call the GPS recalculating mode, led me to an island of peace in the heart of the industrial zone of Hot Springs National Park.

Because of the current government shutdown, the park spa, museum, and natural spaces are shut down. We can still walk up to the fountains of the ever flowing springs and fill our water bottles for free, but hiking the trails are forbidden until the money flows from DC. The City of Hot Springs National Park belongs to the state of Arkansas, so it was Wednesday as usual. Our schools had lunch and adults went to work (unless they were federal employees or national guardsmen).

I ended my exploration at Sanders Plumbing Supply. There I found an old wooden railroad trestle bridge crossing both the road and the creek that runs beside it. I parked in the business lot, took my iPhone and crossed the street. The slope down into the creek was gentle and dry, for we haven’t had much rain in these parts. As I clambered into the shallow stream, I walked on an extruded basalt flow. That this old volcanic rock had coursed across the earth in an ancient time and still persisted reminded me that life is more than just today. Even the years of water had not worn it down. I made a short instamatic video of the rippling water, the waving weeds, and the sunlight touching the water. I was finding my peace again.

These black basalt beds were big enough to stretch out on, so I took advantage of this position. Folks in Arkansas aren’t much used to seeing a gray haired lady dressed in bright yellow and red lying in the middle of a creek bed and taking photos. I got a lot of friendly honks & waves from the passing cars. Then again, a person of any age doing something out of the ordinary is apt to get encouragement from the folks who aren’t quite up to stepping out of the safe path themselves.

When I came home, I made this little drawing in a Strathmore watercolor sketchbook. It’s no bigger than an iPad mini. I used an ordinary ink pen, the same tool with which I journal on most days. To focus on the antiquity of the natural elements and the constancy of God’s divine providence for God’s creation reminded me that this day’s problems are being handled by a higher power. As I drew the old railroad trestle bridge, I realized that “this train is bound for glory” (Woody Guthry). We may not see the train right now, but it won’t carry the self-righteous anymore than the hustlers or the sinners. It will carry the humble, the ones who put their trust in God, and care for all of God’s people, not just for the ones who can return the favor.

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land” (Deuteronomy 15:11).

The Sunlit Tree

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I am not a point A to point B person, but what right brained artist is? Yet, making a work of art requires planning and structure, just as building a house requires plans, or both will fall apart before very long. This is why some of our efforts continue to please us many years into the future, while others, with our more experienced eye, now are relegated to paint over land.

This field of trees caught my eye, not because it was full of light or promise of abundance, but because only one great tree stood proud with a glorious yellow robe amid a field of dried up stunted trees and weeds. It was so different that I had to detour from the interstate, retrace my path on the old state highway and take a picture with my camera. I’ve kept this photo for a dozen years, waiting for the time when I had both the skill and the spirit to bring it to life as a painting.

I have shown this photo to various people over the years. “That’s nice, a big tree, it’s a lot of yellow and brown, and it looks half dead and half alive” are some of the comments I’ve heard. I’m used to this, for most folks don’t have vision. They cannot see the promise in the grey clouds of the rainbow to come. The rainbow must be there in all her radiance, dancing all seven of her colors across the heavens, for the hope of the promise to be written in bold enough letters for most of us to read it in the sky.

A few rare people have vision. Some are cooks, some are tinkerers, some are prophets, and some are artists. If I had copied this photo, I would have made a very different painting, one in which all the values are nearly the same, for it was an overcast day when I took the image. As a photograph, it was unworthy, but as a sketch or a plan for a future work, it was worth keeping. My mother saw this photo and said, “This is a strong tree that survives and shelters others.” My Mother had vision.

I could have gone in several directions with this painting. One choice I considered was the gathering grey clouds anticipating a certain storm. The lighting of the trees and the field would have been more dramatic. I decided to go with a brilliant autumn day, with the sky and fields full of light. All the trees were in their full dress glory as the winds shake their leaves of yellows, oranges, and reds.

The verse from Ezekiel 17:24 came into my mind: “And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”

This vision of sunlight, warm wind, healing and uplifting the dried up landscape brought hope into my heart! We may be discouraged for a season, but our standing rooted as we trust the God who loves us means that we will be there when God’s promises come true. If we are the dry tree, we will flourish! If we are the low tree, we will be made high!

As artists, we are constantly creating, so we share this activity in common with God. Do we have the vision to see beyond our circumstances to God’s promises that await? Do we have the courage to continually work along side God to bring God’s vision into reality? Take your sketchbook, your easel, or your camera this week out into the countryside. Find the tree that calls you apart from your designated journey. Enter into a conversation with this place. Perhaps you are not used to being still, or quiet. Listen to the sounds of this place. Do not be too quick to hurry off to worship the idol, “I’ve got better or more important things to do with my life.”

Instagram in The Garden of Dreams

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I am never too busy to heed the prompting of that inner voice that calls me to stop and smell the roses. In my case, the voice says, “Stop and Instagram this moment!” I’ll be driving down the road, just going from point A to point B, singing my favorite Bon Jovi tune, when I feel that pull on the steering wheel from my Higher Power. Sometimes I have seen the extraordinary play of light shimmering through the trees beside a rural road and other times one magnificent tree stands out from the crowd of its kin. Sometimes I snap several photos around an area before I “see the real image” that was calling out to me.

This prompting of the Spirit ought not to be denied, for we will miss our most inspired works if we are just fixed on getting to our planned destination. In art, as in the spiritual life, the journey is as important as the destination. We can miss some important opportunities for growth if we think that our journey needs to be easy, direct, quick and according to plan.

In my studio as in my life, I like to be on a schedule and have a plan/goals. The unknown is frightening, full of dragons, and has many places where I could “lose it all” by falling off an unseen cliff face or down into a sudden crevasse. Yet, meeting these challenges is what strengthens us. A child making a mess of his drawing has merely taken the media too far. We adults want to stop him before he makes a mess of it, but he has to learn the limits of the medium before he can truly take his creativity out to the maximum, but no farther. If we are pushing ourselves creatively, we will “lose it early and often.” (Ask Tiger Woods or any pro golfer who has changed his/her swing: the transformation is daunting, so only the passionate will give it a try.)

I’ve been eating healthier and exercising more, so my blood pressure medicines were working too well. My blood pressures were in the zombie zone, so I wasn’t perky enough to do much work in the studio. Once my doctor adjusted my medications, I discovered my housekeeping skills also hadn’t been tested for some time there. Many of the photographs that I’ve taken as inspiration were stuck together from a water spill. I microwaved them (with a bowl of water), peeled them apart, cut up the interesting fragments, and glued them together as a collage: “Garden of Dreams.”

I decided to use the collage as the sketch for a new painting, an idea which freed me from grieving the loss of the good things or the original plan I had in mind for these photos. I could concentrate instead on the better hope for the future that this new opportunity presented. My best laid plans may have come to naught, but “we know that all things work together for good for those that love God, who are called according to his purposes” (Romans 8:28).

The Shining River

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“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  ~~ Revelation 22:1-2

I have never visited a more beautiful city than Venice, Italy, with her

The river of God, flowing from the throne of God, with the tree of life bearing fruits in every month & leaves for the healing of the nations.

The river of God, flowing from the throne of God, with the tree of life bearing fruits in every month & leaves for the healing of the nations.

ancient mansions on the canals, her grand piazza opening up to the lovely Basilica of San Marco’s domes, and her delightful bridges, museums, and churches. Most tourists who visit here love to feed the pigeons, while I think they are a public nuisance. Then these birds take flight heavenward and I’m inclined to think of angels’ wings and brushes of glory.

With all these earthly visual delights, my eye still is drawn heavenward to the sky, for the clouds and the atmospheric haze of Venice give this city a unique ambience. If a painter were to lay the colors of the South Italian sky upon the watery bogscape of Venice, the discord would be marked immediately.  At dawn and twilight especially, travelers don’t need a GPS to recognize the location or even a town sign to mark their arrival, for the sky alone says, “Welcome to Venice, weary traveler! Rest your soul!”

Most of us are used to living on a city lot with trees and grass that is bounded by a concrete walkway, a grass “neutral ground,” and a street that separates us from a mirror image of our own property across that same road. Venetians live on canals in multistory buildings that double as homes and warehouses. The lower floors were for work, for the cargo hauling gondolas easily accessed these, while the upper floors were for the family retreat, since they were more private. Everything in Venice moves by some form of floating contraption, since the city was built on marshy land in the middle of a lagoon between several small islands.

Because there aren’t any motorcars, there is a different feeling to the city. On the larger canals, the big boats ferry people on the tourist routes and smaller motorboats act as taxis. The classic gondola with the human powered oarsman is a premium priced experience, much like a carriage ride in downtown Hot Springs or Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  Travelling to the nooks and crannies of this jeweled city is by foot over one of the many bridges and side paths, so it is a sightseer’s paradise.

This slower travel allows a visitor to feel the rhythm of the place, to smell the air, to note the patina on the marble facings of the homes, the worn indentations on the entry steps of the ancient homes, and the variety of colors in the handmade bricks. Walking down the narrow corridor between the homes doesn’t prepare the visitor for the sudden opening into a larger space and the overwhelming, all enveloping softness of lush rose, moist yellow, and puffy crème that make up the clouds of a Venetian sky. Perhaps someone else sees only a cerulean blue sky and a titanium white cloud, but I know what I see. I visited this beautiful city only once, some forty years ago, and I still remember images from those blessed days.

As I think about this crystal clear memory from my past, I wonder how we see our own world today and how we envision the world that is to come. Many of us have a very negative view of this world: the problems, the people, and the pains are all overwhelming. We have divided our world into an “us vs. them” place: rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat, Developed world or Emerging world, Christian or Muslim, and the list of dualisms goes on and on.  Even in the Bible, folks were divided, until Paul set them straight, There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).

We aren’t meant to separate ourselves from one another but to find a way to come closer to each other. “If only we were all Christians,” you say, “and everyone belonged to MY church/denomination.” I think that what Paul also means by “one in Christ Jesus” is that all human beings share the image of God, no matter what church they belong to, and no matter what God they call upon. No matter how different they look from you and me, they still hold the divine image and imprint within them. If we are to truly live out our call to be “the living image of God in the world,” just as Jesus Christ was the living image of God in the flesh as the Incarnated Son of God, then we have to take that incarnation in our lives and the recreation of this world seriously.

In the Celtic Tradition, heaven and earth are only three feet apart. The “thin places” where we feel the presence of God are even closer. What if God intended all creation to be a “thin place?” The Garden of Eden seemed to be such a spot, for Adam and Eve not only lived and cared for the land here, but they had daily walks with the LORD in the cool of the evening breezes (Genesis 2-3). Unfortunately, our spiritual forbears decided that equality with God was more desirable than companionship with God, so they lost their daily privilege of the presence (Gen 3:22-24). This is called “The Fall.”

Ever since this Fall, all of human kind has attempted to recover the intimate relationship with God and nature that we once had in the Garden. Today some focus only on their spiritual lives and separate their souls from their flesh. Both Christian and New Age groups will do this: we deny our body sleep, good nutrition, or healthy exercise. We also see it when a proponent of some “spiritual doctrine” proclaims that the body is unimportant, so that it can be treated either well or ill, or can be used by the cult leader for “higher purposes.”  Or we claim that since our bodies don’t matter, we can use them for any purpose we want, for only our soul matters.

Since God created us with both a body and a soul (Gen 2:7), both must be valued by God. Moreover if God sent his Son into the womb of a teenage Virgin, so that he might be born fully human (both body and soul) and fully divine (still the Son, still part of the Holy Trinity), then God distinctly values the human body, both female and male. God sent his Son in human form to the earth, not just to redeem humanity, but to set all creation free (Rom 8:21).

When we spend time in a thin place, most often we are isolated and silent. Most of us need that time away from the hustle and bustle of life to settle our minds so we can hear or feel the presence of God. We need a “Garden of Eden” that is our place to meet God daily until we are able to meet him in the midst of the fallen world in which we live. How can we learn to feel the presence of God while we are within the “maddening crowd?”

I practice times of “tuning out” or letting my mind drift. Some call this daydreaming or a failure to stay on task. Creative people are task slaves until their idea has fully formed well enough to get them excited about working and then you can’t tear them away from their fever until they drop from exhaustion or realize they are about to overwork their piece.  We know our own work habits, and it usually isn’t on anyone else’s time clock. The creative idea is their master, not the schedule, the calendar, or some outside influence.

I will be in the car at a red light and hear a voice in my inner mind prompting me to look up and photograph the sky. I do this for no particular reason, other than I feel impelled.  It’s not an actual voice of a person; it’s more of an intuitive feeling that now is the time to take this photo. Perhaps I’m just bored, or I have better peripheral vision, or I need something to occupy my time so I don’t go silly waiting at the back of this long line. I think of these moments as “intersections of heaven and earth,” for these are windows in which our everyday world opens up into a world in which God is present and touches our world and our space and our time.

The painting which graces the headline is from a photo of the street outside of my condominium, beyond the small creek, looking over into the wooded lot beyond. The old asphalt road has become the River of Life, bright as crystal. There are many trees there and the golden sky tells us that we are in the presence of the glory of God. I go in and out of this gate every day, into a world in which God is ever creating and recreating. I have a much better attitude toward all the ugliness I see out there when I know it is passing away before my very eyes.

 

The Journey Never Ends

Creativity, Family, home, Imagination, Love, Meditation, photography, Prayer, purpose, renewal, Spirituality, Travel, Turkey, Uncategorized, Work

Hot Air Balloons in Turkey

Hot Air Balloons in Turkey

“A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.”~~ Isaiah 35:8

All good things come to an end, but the ending is just the beginning of something new. This week a fifty year old jockey came out of retirement and rode Oxbow, a 15/1 long shot, into the winner’s circle at the Preakness: they beat the favorite and his mud covered jockey who finished fourth, out of the money. I have a dear friend who just turned 66 and is contemplating retirement after forty years in medicine: he wonders what he could have done if he had more time in his career or if he had more time in retirement. Thousands of graduates from all educational levels are celebrating with their families this end of their journey with a mixture of joy and sadness. Whether they are “kiddie kollege” grads or college graduates, there is a mixture of sadness in knowing that this shared journey with friends is over, and in a few days the classrooms will be empty as others come to take your place.

This is the way of all journeys, whether we are going for a weekend at the lake or for two weeks in the Footsteps of Paul on a pilgrimage. When I came home after being in two countries, seven hotels, multiple airports, a taxi ride by myself in Istanbul, and finally slept in my own bed within my own four walls, I woke up feeling sad that there wasn’t some new and compelling place to be that day. Already I wanted to see more of Greece, for I only tasted of her beauty and delights. I didn’t get to see the ancient sites of mythology or the northernmost cities that Paul visited.  When I said goodbye to some of my travel companions that I enjoyed touring with, I knew that they were just seasonal friends, but one friend I have kept in touch with through Facebook. Sometimes this is the way life is, for we can’t manufacture friendships over a short period of time.

My first Sunday at home I was still on Istanbul time, so I woke at 2 AM (10 AM Istanbul time). This was “sleeping late” by their clock, but my eyes were wide open. Coffee in the kitchen, writing in my journal, a very early breakfast, meeting my newspaper man, and getting to church early for a change were on tap for today.

I did notice that I had a difficult time clapping in rhythm with the band, however, as if I were straddling different time zones or time travelling between the two places I had been and the place where I was now. My driving was also a tad impaired, for while I was able to navigate the highway, the glowing scenery distracted me. The landscape had an effervescent glow that I remember only one other time in my life, a radiance that it gave off as if God was touching all his creation and sanctifying it.  I remember the land, the trees, the grass, and all living things giving off this glow for weeks after I visited the Holy Land. This didn’t transfer to the streets or to bridges or houses, but only to growing things.  It is a holy moment, when one realizes that the journey that was once thought to be over is now just beginning.

When we get our diplomas, our gold watches, or our plaques for our faithful years of service, we think we have finished our course. When we cross the finish line or win first place, we think we have succeeded and can rest on our laurels.  The journey isn’t over yet! We are not called to be a settled people. We are a nation that was called to move west, to improve the widget, to build a new land, and to send humanity to the moon.  Now we have greater problems: within two generations, our great seacoast cities around the world may be inundated if the global warming folks are correct, over 7 ½ million people die of hunger every year around the world (http://www.statisticbrain.com/world-hunger-statistics/), and as our world becomes more urbanized, more will lack access to fresh water (w.globalresearch.ca/un-800-million-people-without-drinking-water/23843).

The ideas we are taught today won’t solve the problems of tomorrow, and we can’t wait until tomorrow to begin solving them! We have to become travelers and not settlers. Our education is just the passport to the next leg of our journey, and our first retirement annuity payment is merely the visa to the next country of destination on this great lifetime adventure we are about.

So how can we bring the Traveler’s experience to our daily lives? Travelers believe they are going someplace, that they have a destination in mind. If we don’t physically leave home, where are we going? I think it is the sense of a life well lived, or a life full of reasons to get up in the morning. We United Methodists have a saying from our founder, John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” If this were your goal in life, each and every day can be an exciting day! We don’t know whom God will place into our path, but if we pass some helpless one by so that we can take care of our own important business, we will miss the opportunity to be a Neighbor like the Good Samaritan and detour from our daily routine to help someone in need (Luke 10”28-38).

Travelers expect the journey to be exciting and renewing. Daily life in the same old routine can get so predictable and humdrum. Our alarm goes off at the same hour and minute, we take the same rut to work, see the same old crowd at work, fight the same traffic snarl on the way home, and maybe even our home fires are barely flickering.  We miss the old excitement and passion we once had in life! Where has our energy gone—sucked down a black hole into oblivion, washed down by one too many drinks or spoonfuls of ice ream?

How can we keep faith and fidelity while reigniting that spark of excitement we used to feel when we were first sharing our passion for one another?  Sometimes we are just trading information with one another, rather than really sharing our lives and our hearts with the one we really care about.  Taking a new course in an experiential class, learning a new skill or sport together, or reading a book together and sharing our lives/thoughts/hopes/dreams/mistakes/achievements/joys means that we are suddenly vulnerable to one another again, for we are both travelers in an “unknown country.” Now we have to depend on each other just as travellers do; we strengthen our bonds.

As travelers, we expect to return home changed by our experiences. Once you’ve been to Turkey, you’ve always been to Turkey. Even if you break your camera or lose the filmcard, you have your memories and your postcards and souvenirs. The experiences have transformed you. If they didn’t, then all you did was pay a lot of money to wander around a wonderful place to complain about how “it wasn’t like home.” Of course not! It’s Turkey!

We do this in our daily life when we fail to engage the promise and potential of the gift God offers to us with each new day.  We say that each sunrise brings a new gift, “the present.” It may be a silly pun, but it’s also a truism. Some of us spend our daily gifts grieving about our yesterdays or yearning for them to come again. Yesterday is water under the bridge: we can’t bring it back and neither can we hold it here with us now.

Others of us miss the gift of the present because we are dreaming about our futures: things will be different when the kids leave the house, I will find someone to love me when I lose 40 pounds, or when the highway comes through this city will thrive again.  The future we dream about may not come to fruition. Moreover we set ourselves up for unhappiness and failure to act in the present while we wait for this future chimera to appear.

The best way to live as a traveler in our daily lives is to realize that we are all on a journey to God, for we are all on a “Holy Way.” We think some folks are fools and won’t make it to the goal, but God is gracious and cares for fools even when the rest of us aren’t suffering them gladly. We aren’t assigned to be the tour guide for this journey, and we don’t assign seats according to status.

As a spiritual exercise, take a respite from your journey to make self-examination. Where are you on this journey, physically and spiritually? You may want to make a time line or a time circle. Another way is to journal your experience to date or journal about a particular special event on this journey.  As on a real journey, your experience is your own and no one else’s. You feelings can’t be right or wrong: they just are. Give them to God.