adult learning, art, beauty, Creativity, failure, Faith, garden, Holy Spirit, Icons, Imagination, incarnation, Meditation, ministry, mystery, Painting, poverty, purpose, Reflection, salvation, Spirituality, Stations of the Cross, Strength, Work

PRAYER: Listening to an Icon

Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.

Christ Overcomes the World

The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.

Golden Christ

Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.

Mary Macaroni

Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!

When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.

Crucifixion

If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.

Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.

Christ Blessing the World

Generation to Generation: Learning to be Free

Creativity, Imagination, photography, Prayer, purpose, purpose, renewal, Spirituality, Uncategorized

old photographs, mostly unmarked, in decaying cigar box, found at grandmother's house.

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.

Why Do The Righteous Suffer?

Creativity, Imagination, Ministry, Prayer, purpose, purpose, renewal, Spirituality, Uncategorized


“When I looked for good, then evil came unto me;   
and when I waited for light, there came darkness.” ~~ Job 30:26

Easter morning may not be bright and sunny; at least the Weathermen aren’t predicting that this weekend. However, for Christians today, we can celebrate because we know the rest of the story. That first Easter morning, while it was still dark, the disciples were holed up in the Upper Room for fear of their lives and only Mary Magdalene was out in the darkness of the garden.  Wandering in her grief and pain, she came upon an empty tomb. Thinking that Jesus had been stolen in the night, she raced to bring the disciples to confirm this. After they left, she stayed behind to mourn (John 20).

Mixed Media Icon of the Cross

Mixed Media Icon of the Cross

On that first Easter morning, Mary Magdalene might have been thinking, “No good deed goes unpunished. Why do the dogs bite the hand that feeds them? Why do the righteous suffer?” We aren’t unlike our first century cousin, for we ask the same question when bad things happen to good people. In fact, for most of us believers and non-believers alike, we aren’t thrilled when suffering comes into our lives! Most of us adults are like Job, the uber-Father: he offers sacrifices to God on behalf of his children just in case they fail to fulfill their responsibilities of faith (Job 1:5). We too try to keep our children free from suffering, and then when we or they suffer, we wonder why the righteous have to suffer when we too have been the protector of widows, orphans, and the weak (Job 4:5-6). Unfortunately, suffering is a fact of life, even of the blessed life, as Job was to discover. If we read the final chapters of the Gospels, the histories of the letters in the New Testament, and the stories of the lives of the Prophets, we will discover that those who are called to the God life are not immune to suffering.

Some strains of Christianity practice “Happy Face Theology,” but this is just the wearing of a mask to hide the inner struggles of our truly human suffering.  “Jesus suffered on the cross to take away our suffering, their theology says, so have faith and be happy.” Unfortunately, this notion denies the believer the crucial struggle with reconciling contradictory ideas and emotions.  It keeps the believer from building a rigorous faith that will stand up to the winds and turmoil that come from the storms of life. In the darkness we don’t need a shiny happy faith; we need a strong, deeply rooted faith, even if it can’t be seen above ground.

Another tradition of this Christian Feel Good Message is that those who do good will be rewarded and if we do wrong we are punished.  Christ’s death on the cross gets complicated for this theology: here the good person gets punished, but then gets rewarded in the end.  Suffering can have a purpose, if it’s for God. This opens up a whole bag of negative implications from permitting spousal abuse, sexual harassment, or accepting corporate child punishment “because the Bible has a text supporting it.” The Bible also has texts supporting slavery, eating only kosher foods, not wearing clothes made of two kinds of cloth, marrying more than one woman, and handling poisonous snakes during worship.  Most of us ignore those things, much to our credit! Jesus said we aren’t punished for our misdeeds by God, but God wants us to repent and live a new life (Luke 13:1-5).

Riches and honor, long life and good health are also promised blessings of this tradition in Christianity that we know as Prosperity Theology. It’s belief is that salvation’s blessings are to be found today’s world, which is attractive to people who are attached to this world.  Of course, the one who died on the cross and lay in the grave for three days said, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here” (John 18:36). We are like King Solomon of old, and the Wisdom Tradition that was popular during his kingdom. We are in love with wisdom/reason, foreign gods/idols, power, and we care for ourselves rather than the poor of the land. The kingdom of Israel doesn’t survive this second king after David, but splits into a northern and southern territory. The Promised Land doesn’t hold together when humanity choses to place the love of earthly riches and power above the love of God.

When the dark days of despair come into our lives and we are wandering and grieving around in a garden, perhaps we even ask if God has abandoned us.  We wonder if we lost the last coin in our pocket for the magic vending machine in the sky that has produced all the goodies we have been used to receiving just by dropping into church on a regular basis or by offering up prayers.  Now these words go out to the emptiness and our coin drops back with a depressing clink. What we forget to do is to read the Bible for ourselves. Preaching is for encouragement, so it usually is upbeat. Reading the Bible will give us the whole story. In the Bible we discover that faithful people suffer as often as they have joy. The blessings of faith aren’t for our enrichment, but to glorify God and build his kingdom. We are meant to spend ourselves and be spent for God’s kingdom: to give the best of ourselves to the least, to the last, and to the lost.

Salmon swim upstream against all odds to spawn to create the next generation, even though for some this will be the last act of their lives. This is an act of suffering and sacrifice for the good of those who come after them. We want to have our faith and keep it for ourselves.  We don’t want our young to suffer in any way possible, yet discipline is a mark of a faithful Christian. Are we different from the world, which chases profit, prosperity, security, social position and pleasure over pain? What marks you as one that swims upstream?

As a spiritual exercise, draw or photograph your idols: perfection, pure health, freedom from pain, wealth, security, or what ever you have made into your own little god.  Next to this draw a rectangle:  This is the void into which God will write the words and show you how God wants to use you.  Use this as a meditation time this week. Don’t feel rushed to write on the first day. Write whatever comes into your mind, individual words or images day by day. May this be a New Day for you!

Merry Stressmas Everybody!

Creativity, home, Love, Ministry, mystery, photography, purpose, Spirituality, Uncategorized, vision

“The kiln tests the potter’s vessels…”  ~~ Ecclesiasticus 27:5 

I was baking cookies all day Friday, my oven never going higher than 375

Firca Master at Work

Firca Master at Work

degrees Fahrenheit.  This is a great test for butter, sugar and flour: leave it in that heated box too long and the smoke detector just outside the kitchen door will start its screeching. Pottery however, gets tested at much higher temperatures in the kiln.  When I was in Turkey recently, I visited at the Firca Ceramic Shop in Avanos. The craftsmen there work in a cave that was carved out in the middle ages and have been plying their trade for over two hundred years. They make museum reproduction pieces as well as their own creative work done in the Turkish decorative style. Their artists learn their trade by producing first the trade or tourist goods, and then progress onto the craftsman’s level and then to the artist’s level at which they sign their work.

The quality of the ceramic ware may vary, but all the pieces are subjected to the same testing in the heat of the kiln: very high temperatures to turn the fragile clay into hard and durable pottery.  In fact, the whole process of making a pot or dish is one of pressure and stress upon malleable clay.  First the clay lumps are slammed upon a plaster slab to drive the bubbles of air out.  If these stayed inside the clay during the firing, the air trapped inside would expand and explode the pot as the kiln heated up.  Then the clay is slammed upon a wheel.  The potter dips her hands into water, applies pressure to the sides and the top and begins to raise the cylinder to a certain height. Then holding the sides with one hand and pushing in with a thumb, the potter pulls the clay in a firm and even motion out to the desired width.  Only then does she raise the pot to its final height.  Once the clay dries out, it goes to the oven/kiln for the first firing; this makes it hard enough to work on for the glazing/painting so that it won’t break.  The final firing at the highest temperature (2400 F) sets the glaze.  Even here, the results aren’t predictable: the glazes can slip, they can give off gases that discolor other glazes on other pots, or the kiln can cool too quickly and break the pots when the cold air hits their hot skins. The stress of being made into a beautiful pot is sometimes too much to bear.

As I was baking sugar cookies, I was cutting the next batch into stars, Cornie's Kitchensnowflakes, and bells. I would pull out the cooked batch and let them cool on the pan for a minute. Then as I took them up with a spatula, some of them would break. Since I was giving these away, I was forced to eat the broken ones. It is a rule in Cornie’s Kitchen: “only the best goes out for others.” I know that no one forced me to do this, but someone had to do it, and I wasn’t waiting for volunteers. Even a sweet cookie breaks under the stress of the heat of the oven. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is the old saw that gets repeated during times of stress.

I have noticed that this holiday season has been a time of stress for many people. I remember that when I was in active ministry, I used to clear my calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas because I would be handling a lot more counseling for people having seasonal meltdowns than at any other time of the year.  I have felt the stress in the air even though I don’t have a church of my own now. The Kroger clerk told me how she really felt about the guy in produce who didn’t mark all three of the brands of blueberries that were on sale that week. I have friends that I had to recommend to a “real counselor” because they were using me as a therapist and weren’t ever talking to me about anything else anymore. They no longer were “friends” for I never heard about their lives, but only about their sickness. It was stressing me out to the point that it was impacting my health, for I was starting to have the auras that warn a seizure might be imminent. At least I have an early warning system, and can take counter measures in defense.

But what about the people who are tied into the news 24/7? Their stress levels are off the wall, for every event is part of their immediate pain and suffering. And what of the people who are mentally unstable, who feed off the constant attention given to the intense interest and glorification of the victims of mass shootings? There have been 62 mass shootings in the last three decades, and 24 in the last seven years alone.  Mass shootings are those in which four or more people have died. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/why-are-mass-shootings-becoming-more-frequent/)

These people may not be able to set boundaries on their obsessions and then they finally give into them. The fact that they have a gun is what makes the carnage so devastating. The sad thing is most of these mass shootings were done with legal guns. Perhaps the only answer is to have armed guards at every public gathering place, but then we would be living in a police state. I don’t think most Americans want that to happen.

Perhaps I am lucky in having a physical condition such as a seizure disorder that can send the “flashing yellow light” that warns me to slow down. Stress lowers the seizure threshold, so too much of a good thing or too much of a bad thing can cause my brain’s electrons to misfire.  I don’t know what sets off a mass murderer, but I do know what stresses out the average person: things that are out of control. I remind everyone I meet, we are not in control of how anyone else receives our words, our actions, or our intentions. We are only in control of what we do, think, say, act, and intend. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make it drink.

As someone living with epilepsy, I know that if I smell things that no one else can smell, I need to cut back on anything that causes stress in my life.  In ancient times, folks would have screamed “demon possession!”  Today, we modern people are beyond that, and realize that the kiln of life is just “testing this cracked pot.”  I can either keep on going and ignore the warning signs and explode into a seizure, or I can back away and stay seizure free. I choose the latter.

Our lives “explode” sometimes, though most of us don’t become mass murderers. We have fights, fusses, dramas, and all the other distresses of the human condition. It seems all the worse at Christmas because we have the expectation of an idealized and serene family experiencing a blessed birth.

Most of us don’t realize that the reason “there was no room for them at the inn” was because no one wanted Mary and Joseph and their “inconvenient truth” which was “conceived out of wedlock” to be born at their hotel. People were cruel then too. They stayed in a stable because one innkeeper wasn’t so hardhearted. God gave the message of the Christ child to the shepherds and to the foreigners, but not to the Israelite priests or the middle class merchants, for God’s love for human kind includes the poor outcasts and the aliens. The king and the priests conspired to kill all the baby boys, but the Holy Family had already fled into Egypt.  Does the early life of Jesus sound like a sweet innocent Hallmark or Lifetime movie now? (Luke 2, Matthew 2).

Jesus’ life was more like ours: full of stress and pain, not all sweetness and light. Remember that the baby in the manger doesn’t bring the faith you need to get through the days like these, but the Christ who endures the trials of the kiln, the Savior who tests his love for you on the cross.

As an artwork to process your pain in the midst of darkness, consider Christ as the Light that comes into the World.  Chiaroscuro is the term we use for strong contrasts of light and darkness. Set your subject in a strong light, so that the shadows are equally intense. Have only part of your image appear against the darkness. Use paint, crayon, pastel, pencil or photography. Consider how goodness in this world is sometimes obscured by evil, and how we have to find the silver lining in every cloud.

Meditate upon this verse: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” ~~ Romans 8:28

People, Politics, and Mute Buttons

Creativity, Family, Health, home, Imagination, Meditation, Mental Illness, ministry, poverty, purpose, salvation, Spirituality, Stress, Uncategorized, vision, Work

“Indeed, there have to be factions among you,  for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine.” ~~ 1 Cor 11:19

 Red State, Blue State. Latest polling numbers. Romney chooses Ryan—Breaking news! Pick Bump, Attack Dog, Spin Doctors, and Campaign Ads.

I’m already warming up my remote and I long ago quit watching cable news of any type or stripe. If there are factions in the American public concerning our politics, why are we surprised when we discover that divisions prevail inside the hallowed walls of our places of worship?

First, we have a misguided idea that the church is a warehouse for saints. This metaphor is the farthest from reality, for the church is more like a factory that takes raw materials (sinners) and re-processes them over a period of time into a more useful product, “the saints.” Even though we are “saved by our faith in Christ,” our old sin habits remain, and that is the long term work of the factory as the imperfect saints who carry the image of the holy God within them yearn and work to be conformed to the truth of God’s holiness in the entirety of their lives: heart, soul, mind and body. In as sense, we remain in the finishing room of this factory/church until we die. Then God takes us for our final “touch up” into his heaven and we are put into his eternal service there.

The earthly factory that is the church is an odd enterprise, for it’s the body of Christ. It serves the body that lives within the walls of its meeting place, but it also serves the body that hungers, thirsts, is naked, imprisoned, lonely, and oppressed outside of its walls. These saints in process sometimes fall out into factions over the best way to do these things, who should lead them, or what teaching to follow. Sometimes they don’t want to do the work at all. This bloc is the most difficult, for they want to let others work, cast blame on why it isn’t being done better, or done as it was in their day (when things were glorious in the factory and everyone prospered). Of course, they aren’t going to come off Mount Critical to advise or mentor a new generation because that would take time and energy out of their well-earned retirements.

I think of this last crowd as the “surplus saints” who are last year’s model. It’s best if we just ignore their carping, pet them on the head and tell them how wonderful they are and send them off on yet another trip to the local gardens or the museum. Keep them active and busy, but keep them off the working floor if possible, unless they share the vision that God means for us to work for good in his world as long as we live just as he is working for good in all things (Rom 8:28, Eph 2:10).

Paul says that factions show up in a church so that the “genuine will be sorted out.” The ancient farmer separated wheat from the chaff by throwing all of it up into the air. The wind blew away the lighter chaff and the heavier seeds fell to the ground. So also the storms of life come to us as individuals and as a church. If we think of these times of sifting wheat from chaff, separating the true from the false, then we will endure with equanimity the struggle before us. The factions without and within our sacred walls won’t disturb our inner peace.

I have a friend who is stressed over the Muslims attacking the Christians in Africa. She believes that will happen in America and attaches this belief to our current president’s work in opening a dialogue with Muslim countries. I think she is projecting outward her stress that she deals with at home with her bipolar adult son and his wife who are awaiting a long delayed Social Security disability claim. This is her way of diffusing the stress she has to deal with by worrying about something that she can’t do anything about.  If she were to step back from her situation, she would realize that she can’t cure his illness, she can’t make the claim come quicker, and if it does come through with a lump sum back payment, her son will not be able to manage the money and will be just as homeless in a year as he was when she and her husband brought them home to live here in Arkansas. He is forty something years old and needs professional help. They can’t see it yet, and so she blames Obama for her lack of inner peace.  I don’t think he is the “great Satan” she thinks he is, nor is he the savior of the universe or even a lesser angel. Man or woman alone will not solve the unsolvable problems of this world, whether they be political, religious or social.

In theses storms, we seek a quiet place. Every four years, I have a mute button that works very well. My general rule is the first campaign that throws the first mudball is the one I vote against. It’s already happened, so when the early voting opens, I can get my ballot down and counted. There is a spiritual quiet place that is better than any mute button: it is the place of “being” and “resting in God.” We are such active people; we have goals, to do lists, five-year plans, bucket lists, and planners to organize our lives. We often forget to plan “rest” and “downtime” as if it were a negative quality in our lives. Sometimes we even come to work sick because we are saving our sick days for our kids or because corporate frowns on “illness as weakness.”

If we were to take our calendars and day timers and post regular times for “quiet time with God,” then when someone wanted to schedule that time with us, we could say, “I have a prior commitment. Would the hour before or after be better for you?” The same would hold for exercise, or time with our spouse or loved one or child.  What? You don’t keep a calendar? You don’t have a schedule, a routine to your life? No wonder you feel fragmented, “factioned” and fractioned! This is our spiritual practice this week, to set a disciplined schedule for waking and bedtime, for meals, for daily quiet time with God (20 minutes) and for exercise (30 minutes daily). Journal about your experience.  Was it difficult to begin, or did you benefit by the end of the week?

As an art project, use the three primary colors, plus black and white. I chose scrapbook paper because I had it handy. I used a large ruler to cut the rectangles and squares with a matt knife. Once I laid out my design, I used scrapbook sticky tape to attach the papers, but you could use glue.  Keeping the design in rectangles and squares makes us focus and pay attention to the lines, colors, lights and darks. An hour or two will pass and you will not think of much else but the work in front of you. This is how resting in God feels. Your breathing will be steadier, your blood pressure will be lower as you will feel calmer. (Unless you are that Type A personality that just had to make this a race to the finish in RECORD TIME!! HIGH FIVE!!)  The good news is that “God is at work in all of us, both to will and to work for his good purpose” (Romans 8:28).

Hunger Games and Religious Famine

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two trees “Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.”             ~~ 1 Corinthians 2:12 

I spent two days last week listening to my favorite seminary professor, friend, bog Irishman and mentor, Dr. Billy Abraham from Perkins School of Theology. I was his research assistant one year, which is actually a glorified title for travel/booking agent, secretary, and general flunky.  Since I also was his alter ego for his correspondence, I learned to “channel my inner Abraham.” Fifteen years later, I can still easily pierce through his Irish dialect, which for others is as heavy as a stout pair of brogues handed down from their granddaddy’s closet.  “Faith” for Billy has three syllables, just as the Holy Trinity has three persons.

Billy is a resident alien in these parts, since he is an Irish citizen, but even if he were a naturalized American citizen, my guess is he wouldn’t consider himself a citizen of this world, for as a Christian “our citizenship is from heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20).

In this world we have many nations, both rich and poor. In these, there are rich who live in the poorest nations and very poor people who live in the rich nations such as our own. I speak here only of economics, for some of those who are financially poor are richer spiritually than those who have great wealth, for they understand their lives depend upon God’s providence and mercy, and not on their own strength and position for gain.

Those who are caught up in the spirit of this world are beset by the cares of this world and focus on these problems. They see no hope for change, no way out of the status quo. They are “hopeless” people, for the spirit of the world can’t offer hope, but only more of the same. This is why “the Hunger Games” and its dystopian view of the future has captured the attention of our youth. They see it as a possible future, for they live without hope. Their generation’s symbol is the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11/01.

As I was chatting with my Walgreen’s photo clerk the other day, she said, “Your parents fought to make the world safe for democracy, and people your age put a man on the moon. Our generation hadn’t seen anything grand or positive happen. We’ve been at war most of our lives, mostly “against something”, but never “for anything.” It’s like we have lost our will to do any great deeds as a country. We can’t even be “for peace, for ecological sanity or for whatever!” The spirit of this world is negativity in all its aspects.

Jesus said, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own” (John 15:19). Those who walk on another path don’t belong to the spirit of this world, even though they live in this world, for they have received the Spirit of God. This isn’t some special gift, reserved only for a few extraordinary persons, but it’s the gift of God to each and every believer! How are we to know God if we aren’t joined to him in a spiritual manner? We aren’t able to use our minds alone, for “no human mind can grasp this, and who can comprehend his ways?” Our mind is part of this world, but not part of the spiritual world (Ecclesiastes 16:20).

Once we have our own experiences with God, we can test them against the experiences of the saints of the church (tradition), the witness of Scripture, and the reason of our minds. We will never understand God with our minds only, but we will also never understand God only by our human experience or by the tradition of others either, or just by reading about God from the Bible.  Because God is a personal God, whom we know as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, we need to experience God in relationship, for our spirit communicates with God’s Holy Spirit. When we experience God, we experience hope, life, and love.

We aren’t able to hear the sounds of hopelessness in the world unless we too have also known no hope. When I met this worker at the photo counter, we got into this discussion because another customer was admiring my iPhone 4S photos and compared them to my  35mm Minolta black body camera photos. Because there’s nothing automatic on my 40 year old camera, I have to think and compose my photo before I shoot.  She particularly admires the two trees winter stark against a blue sky. This photo was one of a series I took of trees that stood naked, ready to bloom once spring began, I was reading Brian D. McLauren’s Naked Spirituality at the time. It reminded her of the Twin Towers in New York City, the symbol of her generation’s loss and communal grief. She is my daughter’s age, part of Gen Y or the “Millenniums.” They are the first Internet generation, so technology is a necessity in their life. They may be wired into the world, but they have no intelligible vocabulary or theological framework from which to make a coherent and positive sense of the world.

They are “Saturday’s children, but they aren’t in Sunday School,” for as a group, these young people are deeply suspicious of tradition.  I suspect that even if they were in a church they would find that the gospel there has been watered down to what Billy Abraham calls a “civil religion” or “God, the flag, private enterprise, and the fourth of July.” Upon finding this worldly gospel within the church, they would turn and leave, and rightly so, for why get out of bed early on Sunday if they aren’t going to hear a different message from the world they are in the other six days of the week? They are hungry, but they aren’t finding nourishment in our “fast food churches” these days.

To make coherent sense of this world, we have to have a worldview that is focused on God, for only then will we understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. Our primary gift is “prophecy, in proportion to faith” (Romans 12:6). This isn’t some two bit foretelling of the future, but a vigorous listening to God’s word, an active calling of God’s people back to God’s love, and the announcing of God’s judgment if we fail to return or God’s mercy if we repent and return.

Too often we have made the gospel a cheap one-armed bandit, putting our quarters in and hoping for the three cherries to hit the jackpot of prosperity. Other times we have made the good news a shackle to bind people by laws and restrictions instead of freeing tem to become fully human and fully holy in the grace of God. We who claim the name of Christ have failed to articulate the good news so that our children and grandchildren can hear us! Why is that? Could it be that we actually practice a less robust religion, the civil religion in which we nod to the flag, to the country, to the rule of law, and to a creator God, but we do not give our whole lives over to the one Lord who can transform all that we are into more than we can ever imagine!  Our children deserve the Bread of Life!

“I Can Only Imagine” is a wonderful song—you can download it from iTunes if you don’t already have it. Although it’s about “heaven,” it could be about the new creation. Imagine your vision of a better world: describe it in positive terms rather than negative ones (we are at peace, rather than there is no war). If your idea is that all will have enough to eat, find a food pantry or soup kitchen and volunteer for a day to put a face on hunger in this present world. Make a difference in the part of the world in which you live. This is hands on spirituality or the spirituality of praxis.

As a creative project, write a poem or story, photograph, or place colors on a canvas about your experience. If you are photoing people, ask permission first, for not everyone wants their image used. Colors tell the story of your experience. You don’t have to make a realistic image, but your colors and shapes/lines should reflect your inner emotions. This may be harder than it sounds.

Joy and Peace, Cornelia

Mega Millions, Pie in the Sky and Perfection

Creativity, Family, gambling, generosity, home, Imagination, ministry, poverty, Prayer, purpose, purpose, Spirituality, stewardship, Uncategorized, Work

“If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”~~ Matthew 19:21 

I didn’t hit it big last Friday, but then I didn’t go buy the golden ticket. In fact, I bought no ticket at all.  I didn’t participate in the mega-normus Mega Millions Lottery with the $656 million pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I didn’t join the lines stretching out the door and down the block waiting for the opportunity to mark the little circles of hope and dreams. The last time I waited in a line that long, I was in Berryville, Arkansas, waiting for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger” to open at the local theater where they showed photos of the local folks, sites, and events before the movie started.

Only three people in this country hit the mother load, the jackpot, and they may or may not show up for work on Monday.  When they stood in line on Friday, they may have dreamed of what they would do with the money they might win. If nothing else, it would make the time go quicker, as some of those lines were stretching quite a few blocks!  They may have been dreaming of “my salad days” when their ship comes in, when they can tell the boss to take this job and shove it. or they may be thinking of paying off debts and helping others. We do know that $1.5 billion dollars was spent by 1/3 of the American public who took a chance, even though the odds were 1/176 million.

A quick Internet search turned up what we could have bought as a nation for this $1.5 billion ($5/person who bought tickets).

  • Food–$6,129/household = 238,000 hungry households fed
  • Gasoline—685,000 tanks of gas for these households
  • Health care for one year—462,000 American families
  • One week unemployment benefits—40% of 12.8 million American unemployed

Someone came to Jesus and asked, “Tell me what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus told him to keep the commandments, because for a Jew to be in a right relationship with God, right behavior was necessary.  The man wanted to know which commandments were the important ones to keep. Jesus began to list the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, which were given by God to Moses at Sinai.

When he said, “I’ve kept these all my life,” he cut Jesus off before he could name the one law that he couldn’t keep: “Do not covet anything belonging to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). He asked, “What do I still lack?” So Jesus answered his question with a challenge, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (21). This man went away from Jesus sad, because he had many possessions.

Whether he had few or many, the real problem is his possessions “owned him” and he couldn’t part with them. As appealing as the hope of eternal life, treasure in heaven, or perfection/completion in Christ is, the siren call of his stuff was greater still. He never gets to the “come, follow me” point in his life because he has to answer the call of his possessions that say “stay, remain with us.”

This is one of the hard teachings of our creative and spiritual lives. As long as we chase the Dream of the Pie in the Sky and Something for nothing, we are chasing a Chimera of Temptation. If we want to be perfect, or “complete,” we must give away all we have and follow the higher calling. Some folks find a way to do that concretely, as those who enter the religious orders in the Catholic Faith.

The Protestant clergy and all Christian laity have a different calling. We recognize that our possessions don’t belong to us in the first place, but are a loan from God.  We are merely stewards of all things, for God is the ultimate owner. Once we accept that we are managers of our Master’s estate, we are thankful that we are entrusted with a share to supervise. Then our possessions no longer own us, for we no longer own them! We render our accounting back to the Master, and make faithful use of them for his good and his purposes, and not just for our own good. We have the incentive to use money appropriately and not squander it gambling, on drugs, or wasting precious resources. We are thankful for what we have and share with others to help the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless, and other missions of our faith community.

Amazing isn’t it, what happens what happens when you give up ownership of your many possessions? In fact if everyone in America, not just the one third of us that bought a ticket last week, would chunk in just $5, we could feed nearly one million households for a year!!

A similar sea change happens to the creative artist when he or she gives up chasing perfection itself.  The great Apelles said of another Greek Classical artist, “He was a great Master, but he often spoiled his pieces by endeavoring to make them perfect; he did not know when he had done well; a man may do too much as well as too little; and he is truly skillful, who knew what was sufficient.” (The Mind of the Artist, Binyon, 1909, p.159-160).

I have watched many beginning artists and amateur painters work an area of their canvas over and over until it is quite dead. The worst mistake is working into wet paint, rather than letting the area dry first. Then everything turns into a mush of grey. Or they spend so much time on the details of one area they fail to keep that section in balance and harmony with the rest of the canvas, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.

The solution to this is to paint over the whole canvas so that the “whole” is always in mind. First sketch the scene lightly to be sure it fits on your surface, then begin to lay in the colors over the whole canvas. Keep the balance of light and dark, warm and cool in harmony as you work.  When a color appears in the foreground, it needs to appear in the middle and back layers also, even if it is muted or tinted, for the eye will carry itself through the painting this way and help establish depth on the two dimensional surface.

In my own life I sometimes “overwork” an area aiming for perfection or completion, especially in work or relationships. I think if I just see more people, help more people, pray more, teach more, serve more, do more, say yes more, never say no to anyone, I will be responsible for (the first perfect church ever/best sales staff/perfect family/no child left behind/etc). Then I realize that the disciples who were walking with Jesus, who saw the many miracles, saw him die on a cross, saw him raised from the dead and touched his resurrected body weren’t able to bring a perfect church into being in their lifetimes. So I have to give up my “perfection fantasy” and come back to my post Mega Million Meltdown reality. I settle for doing my best, and let God do the rest. He will bless my best, if only I have given my all.

This week, find evidence of hunger. Jesus fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. What could you do with $5? A gift to the Arkansas Food Bank makes this $5 multiply into more and feeds many hungry Arkansans.  Share this message with your friends, and share your “bread” with the hungry.  Write a poem or blog about your experience.  Make a collage (cut out images) of the faces of hunger.  Add hunger to your prayers.  Joy and Peace, Cornelia

 

Generosity

Uncategorized


“But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 
Therefore it is said, ‘When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his peoples.’” ~~ Ephesians 4:7-8  

Generosity is a spiritual gift that marks one as having the nature of Christ within them. The human nature says “mine,” but the Christ nature says “yours.” God is a generous God, sharing without reserve his image, love, provision, salvation, and his Son.

When my parents were newlyweds, they lived in a tiny garage apartment. Dad was home from World War II and was just setting up his medical practice with his older brother. Uncle Berkely promised him the grand wage of $45 per week to start. I came along and they moved to my grandparents’ rent house. With the impending birth of my second brother, we bought our first home in an older section of town.

As the oldest child, I had the privilege of handing out the gifts under the Christmas tree. I might have claimed this honor because I was the oldest, or I was the first to read, or I was hyperactive and needed something to occupy my busy hands. I think I enjoyed giving gifts to others and seeing their faces light up with excitement.  As long as we gathered at our parents’ home, I was the designated giver of gifts on Christmas Eve. This was our family tradition.

When we have nothing, we truly appreciate the generosity of another. When we are rich ourselves, are we able to be generous to others or do we hold on and say “mine?” If we have little, can we share what we have with others, and know the richness of giving from our poverty? If we are truly have the Christ image in our hearts, we have his generous nature there also and know that the measure with which we give will be the measure which we get back (Luke 6:38).

Sometimes we are so used to giving, that we can’t receive.  Then we rob someone else of the blessing of giving, for we’ve heard it said so often “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). As a designated giver, I know how hard it is to receive! It feels more “right” to me to gift someone than to be on the receiving end of the blessing.  Yet if we pause and consider, we are always on the receiving end of God’s inexhaustible gifts of grace and power. We are always the recipients of his unearned gift of salvation that is ours by faith in the work Christ did for us on the cross.  We aren’t the active partner, giver or the one who blesses in our relationship with God, for we are the ones who receive all good things from God!

Generosity in art is a gift also. How can I share my gift/talent with others? Too often “art” is tied up in the “sale” of art: merchandising, advertising, gallery contacts, commissions, and all the attendant hoopla that comes with that scene. That isn’t “art.” The work of creativity is art. The outpouring of heart, soul, mind, and spirit into paint, clay, stone, and other media is art. Whether a child, a hobbyist, or a professional, the artist is generous with their time and energy when confronted with their chosen medium. Time passes unnoticed and unmarked as the artist pours out her soul upon her work, a generous offering that holds nothing back. The blessing is visible—the gift is there for all to see! A thing of beauty is a joy forever!

Generosity for the artist is not just in the creation of the work, for the artist needs not just to give his all to his muse.  That would be self-serving; a giving that may benefit the audience, but also benefits the artist’s fame, celebrity, status, and accomplishments.  For the artist to be truly generous, his effort must benefit his community and lift up others. An artist that volunteers his skills to teach at risk children in a neighborhood art program helps his community.  My old churches in West Helena, Berryville, Parkview, and McGehee had afternoon programs that reached these kids with music, art, scripture & food. The volunteers weren’t always the best artists or musicians, but they had the best hearts!  God gave gifts to his peoples!

Giving of your self may be something new, a growing edge. As creative and spiritual people, we seek to stretch ourselves, to push our boundaries, and find the edge of discovery that allows us to find the deeper connection with our God and our selves.  If we are a little uncomfortable, that is good: God wants us to go to a land he will show us (Genesis 12:1). After all, this is a journey of faith into the unknown, not a well-worn path into the known.

Into the Light

Creativity, home, Meditation, Ministry, poverty, Prayer, purpose, renewal, sleep, Spirituality, Stress, Uncategorized, vision

Light & Shadow

“But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,    in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you  out of darkness into his marvelous light.” ~~ 1 Peter 2:9

 

Darkness and light are what make an object appear three-dimensional on a flat surface. The object in the shadows is more hidden and the light reveals more of its true nature. Likewise, we are not our true selves when we are in the darkness. When we are in the light, we are more like who we were born to be: the image of the living God whom we know in Jesus Christ.  We are called out of the darkness of ordinary life into the life and light of Christ when Christ claims us in our professing of faith in his life, death and resurrection for our salvation.  When we give up trying to save ourselves, we proclaim his mighty deeds with our walk, our witness, and our service to the body of Christ we know both as “the church” and “the poor.”  Jesus said to those who were faithful, “I was hungry and you gave me food…” (Matt 25:35).

The beginning artist sometimes has difficulty getting either enough light or enough shadow in their painting or drawings. The values all tend toward the middle range; there’s not enough contrast to emphasize any area of their work. Rembrandt knew how to make his works sing! He always had enough darkness to make the lights seem very bright indeed. Even this unfinished painting has enough contrasts of light and dark to define the light from the shadows.

Our faith lives sometimes lack contrast because they aren’t different from the lives the world leads. We don’t “shine like stars in the world” which is in darkness (Phil 2:15). We aren’t the contrast that the world is looking for, and so our lives aren’t attractive to them.  We live “gray lives” when instead our lives should be full of the light of Christ!

Perhaps we don’t hear the call of God clearly enough, for the sound of “sheer silence” or the still small voice of God that Elijah heard in the wilderness isn’t very often heard in the midst of the rush and busyness of human life. (1 Kings 19:12).  God’s voice is more often heard when we are ourselves still, silent, apart and waiting expectantly and often. This alone is reason enough to find the appointed place and time for each of us to “meet God,” to be found waiting faithfully for his appearance and his affirmation by his calling our name, “God’s own people,” “My Beloved.”

Just as I have my appointed place to work—my studio—I also have my appointed places to meet God.  My easy chair has a nest of books beside it: Bible, journal, pens, concordance and some books by other spiritual writers that encourage me.  It awaits me each morning at 6:30. Sometimes I sit with my coffee in the quiet for a while, other times I am ready to write in my journal. Sometimes I need to check my friends on Facebook when I know they are going through a rough patch. Mostly I need this quiet time with God and no one else. Afterwards, I am ready for the world, ready for work, ready for my day.  I used to be an extrovert, always on the go, always on, always with other people. Now I confess to needing my quiet time with God as much as I need my work time, and my people time! In fact, I enjoy my time with others more because I have had my time with God. I work with more passion and strength because I have had the quiet and the silence to focus my life on what is beautiful and what is true.

My other appointed place to meet God is at my Church. I found a place of worship that centered on God, not a minister or the people. The purpose of our church is to “Connect people to God, to one another, and to the community” around us.  We are a downtown church, so we do a lot of mission work with the poor and we have teams that go abroad also.  We can be taught all the history of the Bible and all the facts of our faith, but if our hands don’t lift to help a neighbor in need, we aren’t living our faith in the light of Christ.

But God in his wisdom finds ways to meet us any place and any time.  God is the master of the unexpected, for when we least expect to see him, he’ll find a way to come to us!  We might be washing dishes or pumping gas into the truck or buying groceries. Unless we are prepared and receptive however, we will most likely miss this moment.  To prepare our hearts and minds for the chance encounters, the practice of sitting still before God is worthwhile. This week set a time aside for a quiet time: make it an appointment in your Day Timer, or iCal or write it on your hand and look at the clock.  Show up in this place and put on the “I’m invisible hat” and just breathe deep for thirty minutes. If you sleep through it, God knows you need that nap! Remember, God can work in you to restore you even when you aren’t working. Maybe to be a light, your battery needs charging.  Spend this week on “being present to God,” and let God be present to you.