The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
Danaë was a princess of Argos in Greek mythology. Argos was an island kingdom ruled by Danae’s father, who had no sons to inherit his throne, but a prophecy foretold his fate: his grandson would kill him and rule in his place.
To defy the gods, Danae’s father sealed her up in a prison so she’d never get pregnant, but Zeus, the king of the gods, transformed into a rain cloud, came to her in a shower of gold. As a result, she bore a son, Perseus. The king put his daughter and grandson into a chest, set them adrift upon the open sea, and left them to their fate. They would either drown in the sea, or drift so far away, they couldn’t harm his kingdom.
As fate would have it, Danaë and her son washed up on a far land, where a fisherman took care of them. It’s at this point I chose to enter Danaë’s story and combine it with images from my travels and imagination. This seascape is from a photo from a journey to the Oregon coast. The sunset’s crepuscular rays reminded me of the golden rain of Zeus’s disguise. Magritte has a famous painting of a “merfish” (a Fish headed body) on a beach with a seascape similar to this one, but Picasso’s beach paintings are more like the figure itself. All artists owe a debt to the images from our culture and history. We can trace our artistic DNA from the masters who went before us, just as we can see the influence of our forebears on the faces and health of our children.
While Danaë already had given birth when she washed up on the beach, this is a dream construction of her memories prior to that time. The stress of losing her parents, her home, and her support system must have been overwhelming. Add to this the burden of knowing her own child will kill her father. On top of this, she had conceived by unusual means, which portends ill for those who attempted to circumvent their fates. The giant sea shell is a reminder of her sexual union with the god, as well as her openness to the power of the gods. Danaë doesn’t resist her fate, but surrenders to it.
In the ancient world, the Greeks believed humans were foolish if they attempted to manipulate fate, for the gods had their own designs in mind. In the Greek myths, you can run, but you can’t hide. Destinies are fixed and immutable, due to fate. The three fates wore white robes and were incarnations of destiny. One spun the thread of life, another wove the cloth, and the third snipped the cord to determine the length. They controlled every mortal from birth to death.
Happiness comes from accepting one’s lot in life, for the gods will prevail. Today, we are more likely to believe we can change our destiny by our own efforts and will. Gone are the days when women submitted to powerful men, whether they were fathers, husbands, employers, or “gods.” In the context of the #MeToo movement, women today read this myth and say, “I reject a destiny of submission to another’s power over my own body. I claim the right to my own body, not only for the sake of love, but for the power it represents when I give it to another. No one takes it from me.”
Today women are more likely to chose the hero route, to take on the role of Perseus. As Perseus grew up, the king of the place sent him on a quest for the head of Medusa. While he was gone, the king tried to marry Danaë, but Perseus returned, just in time, and froze the wedding guests into stone with the dread head.
With his mother free, Perseus and Danaë returned to Argos. His grandfather had fled to Thessaly to avoid his fate, but while Perseus was competing in athletic games there, his wayward throw of a quoit, an iron ring, struck his grandfather in the head, killing him instantly. He couldn’t bear to rule Argos, so he swapped city states with another king, and ruled there instead.
If this story sounds familiar to you, perhaps you’re thinking of Jason and the Argonauts, a hero of later myth. He and his hero pals sailed in the Argo, a ship built by Argus, who was from Thespiae, the city of the Muses. His hero story shares many similarities with that of Perseus, but that’s for another day. For each of us today, the ancient myth calls us to reconsider how we relate to one another, from the most toxic evils of date rape and sexual harassment in the workplace to the commonplace demeaning behavior known as “mansplaining.”
If men need to rethink their behaviors, women need to choose to speak up and risk public humiliation, rather than staying silent with private shame. Silence only enables bad actors by giving them continued cover. The heroic women, who take on the quests to defeat the monsters they fear, redeem their mother’s shame and silence. They also make a better world possible for the next generation. The DNA of gods and heroes flows through the veins of Danae’s descendants.
How long does a new and unusual aspect of our environment need to be in place before we notice it? On the other hand, how long does it have to persist before we treat it as the new normal and begin to ignore it?
My mom and dad were married right after World War II, so they’d lived together for nearly forty six years when I came home for a visit from seminary one weekend. Right off the bat, I noticed something differ about my dad.
“You’ve gone and grown a mustache.”
“You like it?” He asked, as he smoothed the unruly hairs into place.
“Oh yeah! You look like a perfect Southern gentleman.”
He smiled. Perfect and gentleman was his aim.
My mother, who was sitting in the identical chair next to his, separated only by a small table with a lamp and magazines, craned her head around that lamp to look at him.
“When did you grow this mustache?”
“Mother! You’ve slept in the same bed with daddy every single night of your entire life. You always kiss each other good night. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed the hair on his upper lip!”
A little rattled, she replied, “It’s always dark when we go to sleep.”
I laughed. My daddy smiled. My mother always had an answer for every thing. I noticed his mustache because I hadn’t seen him in a while, whereas mother had watched the slow progression of the hiding of his upper lip. I should say, it’s been my experience the husband usually fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, an act which causes much family drama.
When I travel, I don’t go from point to point with the goal of arriving as soon as possible. If that were the case, I’d fly. In my car, if I see an interesting place, I’ll go visit, since the journey is more important than the destination. Once I’ve arrived, I even make side trips, just for a little exercise. I was walking around Lake Bridgeport, in the town of Runaway Bay, Texas, when I stumbled upon these grasses, flowers, and small trees. The afternoon light caught the center stalk so it glowed its reds and golds. The few leaves left from autumn’s color, which hadn’t been blown away by the seasonal rains quivered in the light breeze. A few flowers added color to a rather grey afternoon.
Why would ordinary weeds catch my eye? There’s nothing remarkable or heroic about weeds. Most people spend good money to rid their lawns of ugly and invasive weeds. Here around the lake is a wild place, however, and the weed is in its natural state. This red weed is unique among the other natural grasses, for its not a single blade, but a stem with alternating leaves. I had to pick my way through some underbrush to find an opening from which I could take a good photo. I felt as if this weed had called to me.
I’ve often wondered how long the bush burned in the wilderness before Moses looked up from counting his father in law’s sheep and said, “What is this? I must go see it!” Extraordinary events happen all the time, yet we’re too consumed with our day to day busyness to see the glories of God’s hand at work in the world. Or we come to a watershed moment, when the bush would burn brightly for us, and throw water to quench its fire, for “it’s never been done, it can’t be done, it’s always been this way, and people will never change.”
If Moses believed this, he’d have never followed God’s call back to Egypt. The Hebrew children would still be slaves in Egypt. But Moses trusted God. This is called a sea change, or a transformation. We don’t do this just on our own, but by a power at work greater than our own. We might resist, but God persists.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh,
and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you:
when you have brought the people out of Egypt,
you shall worship God on this mountain.”
~~ Genesis 3:11-12
What sea change is happening in our world today? Are people finally fed up with treating human life as a cheap commodity? We do this if we treat people as objects to be used and then thrown away when they’re worn out or too sick to be worked hard. When we fail to fund schools and health care for all, we don’t get the best people for our citizens or our employees. If only the wealthy can afford health care and a quality education, then our democracy suffers, for we will have a permanent underclass and a qualified few. This bifurcation doesn’t bode well for the future. Does a bush burn in the wilderness for any of my readers?
Are we tired of exchanging precious human lives for a shibboleth? The word means “stream” in Hebrew and was used as a sorting test to distinguish warriors of Gilead from those of Ephraim. Today, the 2nd Amendment serves the same purpose, because the National Rifle Association gives politicians large amounts of money for their campaign coffers and spends extra money on their behalf also. The NRA is the front for gun manufacturers, who profit if they sell more guns. They never want any restrictions on any freedom, but we don’t live in an anarchy, so a democracy can restrict certain aspects of gun ownership and use.
Public mass shootings have occurred on average every 172 days since 1982. Since September 6, 2011, there’s been 14 mass shootings at an average interval of less than 172 days. These don’t include domestic violence or criminal activity. Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have taken place in a school, including Sandy Hook elementary and Virginia Tech University. The deaths at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida were the 180th mass shooting since 2009 and the third mass shooting in 2018. By Valentine’s Day in 2018, 17 school shootings had been reported, and in the week after, even more.
Schools now receive an average of 50 threats of violence daily, compared with 10 per day at the end of 2017, NPR reported. Since I began this blog in 2011, mass killings in public spaces have snuffed out the lives of 270 persons in grocery stores, church sanctuaries, schools, post offices, and restaurants. In seven years, an average of 38.6 individuals did not celebrate with cake and ice cream on their next circuit of the earth around the sun. I didn’t know any of these personally, but we may have lost the next Steve Jobs or the next Mother Theresa, or someone who would have fought happiness to their small corner of the world.
Some want to arm the schools, but what about the other places of mass shootings? Why not just ban the weapon which enables the taking of mass casualties? Or are the lives of grocery shoppers less valued than school children? Ask an orphan if a parent is valued. We don’t want to become an armed state in America, or at least I’m not for it. Perhaps the NRA wants this, for the gunmakers would boost their bottom lines. They make enough money off the rest of their product lines.
Some would say, opioids take MORE lives, as does tobacco use (1,300 deaths per day). These substances are legal and on the market we expect people to use them responsibly. They’re also addictive and controlled. The largest incidents are mostly since 2004 when the ban on semiautomatic weapons lapsed. These weapons, civilian equivalents to military type issue, are meant for mass killing, not for sport, hunting, or target shooting. Their high velocity ammunition doesn’t just pierce flesh, but obliterates it. Survival rates are slim and none.
I wonder if this moment in our nation’s life is our burning bush, our opportunity to hear the voice of God calling to us, and we rise up to set our people free from this pain and insanity.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey…”
~~ Exodus 3:7-8a
~~ 1 Corinthians 8:9
Twenty million copies of 50 Shades of Grey have been sold, earning author E.L. James around $50,000,000 to date—one million per shade of grey, as the wag might say. As a result, the romance and erotic novel industry is on the upswing. Moreover, readers of this book are also signing up on the “sugar daddy/sugar baby” online dating site “Seeking Arrangement,” company owner Brandon Wade reports. He owns other sites, such as www.seekingmillionaire.com, and said out of 1.6 million “seeking arrangement” profiles, “50 Shades of Grey” is mentioned 28,382 times, Christian Grey 23,102 times, and Anastasia Steel 18,281 times. He claims that 186,000 females are “actively seeking a Christian Grey type arrangement.” (http://bostinno.com/2012/07/06/more-people-signing-up-for-sugar-daddy-site-after-reading-50-shades-of-grey/)
Even the makers of ties, suits, cars, bubbly and rope, as well as teas, condominiums, hotels, and helicopter rides in Seattle are cashing in on the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon. Of course the bookstores are benefiting also, and especially Amazon, because the book is downloaded onto Kindles and Ipads galore (the modern equivalent of arriving in your mother’s mailbox in a plain brown paper wrapper). (http://www.businessinsider.com/50-shades-of-grey-is-making-these-companies-rich-2012-6?op=1)
I haven’t read all of 50 Shades of Grey, but then I don’t want to. I did pick it up at the Kroger store where I usually shop ($12 in gray paper on a lower shelf, not near the regular bookshelves. We’re discrete in Hot Springs, not IN YOUR FACE!) The reason I don’t want to read it is because I’ve been in an abusive relationship before. Like the heroine, I somehow thought I would be the one to redeem or rescue the flawed person whom I loved, even though he continually hurt me. I didn’t sign a contract, but then love is its own contract. My abuser disciplined me by words and emotions until I became “his” to control by a look or a word. When the abuse escalated to physical violence, I drew the line and threw him out. The truth is you can love someone who is wrong for you and who can hurt you.
The male character in 50 Shades of Grey was sexually abused at age 15, so now he passes that gift along to an unwitting virgin who has no idea that the world can hold such wickedness. She believes she can determine her own security even though she has given control over every minute part of her own life to another person. She is in denial about her true state of affairs and the loss of her self. In an earlier century, we would say she was a sex slave. In my native state of Louisiana, many a “high-yella” African American slave served in the master’s house rather than in the fields because they were part of the family. Their lives were not their own, however, and one wrong move would get them sold down the river. They were still slaves. This woman is a slave to this man. I do not believe that we have come to the point that we are finding our libidos racing by turning back the clock! Scarlet O’Hara, lace up my corset for me, honey! My waist just isn’t as small as it used to be!
We have to ask ourselves, Why is this book so popular? Do we women really need a jolt to arouse us from this poorly written sex trash? Do we need a rape fantasy to get us “going” as it were? If our husbands or boyfriends were to make us sign a contract that gave them total control over our clothes, our makeup, our hairstyles, our perfumes, and our coming and going, most of us would say, “ In your wildest dreams, buddy!” Maybe because they aren’t billionaires, in which case, we need to realize that our values have a price. Unfortunately, that means we could become “kept women” if the price were right.
When we consider this, that our values can be bought and sold for a price, then we realize that we don’t have a core set of values. These are values that don’t change according to circumstances. They are the values that we hold “come hell or high water,” such as honesty, fidelity, trustworthiness, justice, creativity, peace, compassion, commitment, sharing, excellence, service, beauty and seeking the good of all. You may have different core values, but these are mine. I value other things also, but these are the primary goods that I value. What do you value, and what do you hold dear, or are all things negotiable for you? Have you a steady center, a firm core, or are all things permissible and/or negotiable for you?
Some people say “This is harmless and let love happen. The world needs more love.” This book isn’t about love—this is sadistic, masochistic bondage and dominance. It is abuse. Abuse isn’t love and love isn’t abusive. The dominant male groomed his college age victim just as Jerry Sandusky groomed each of his innocent child victims because they both had power and status greater than the ones they harmed and controlled, even though they made their victims feel “special” with gifts and privileges. These are broken people who break the souls and lives of others. It takes years of counseling and the love of God to make these victims into survivors who can love again, and feel whole again, and not be part of the “gift that keeps on giving,” or the eternal cycle of abuse.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that “food sacrificed to idols” is really only meat and is harmless enough, but some in the faith are still struggling to break free from their old pagan life. If these folks know they are eating “food sacrificed to an idol” they may not be inclined to eat or if they do eat, they will consider themselves sinners. It’s better instead “not to let this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor 8:9).
Consider the stumbling blocks of your own life and what enslaves you today. Some folks have an internet addiction: posting tons of spiritually uplifting photos to Facebook or playing on-line gambling games or visiting internet pornography sites for hours at a time. Some of us are shopaholics; others are micromanagers (controlaholics). Others of us are slaves to debt and some are enslaved to toxic relationships at home or at work. I myself am in the process of breaking a food addiction, as I learn to deal with my emotions as they arise, rather than stuffing them down with chocolate ice cream or cheesecake.
Write about your path to freedom and what it feels like to have the chains come off. How does it feel when you are bound and subjected to the pain of your addiction/slavery? Give this work to the Christ who broke the chains of sin and death by rising from the dead to set us free for life and love?
For our art exercise, let’s do a drawing with “50 shades of gray.” Using black, chalk, conte crayon, or soft drawing pencils, draw the subject of your choice. A white or yellow rose fully opened might be one choice, or a landscape with large clouds in it would be another. What ever you choose, be sure to have very dark and very light values with all the shades of gray in between! Reflect on how often our choices in life are more often gray than easily black or white.
May your week be full of joy and peace, Cornelia
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great price, he went and sold all he had and bought it.” ~~ Matthew 13:45-46
In the 1980’s, the price of oil dropped like a stone and the private school in Texas that depended on wealthy oil families had to cut staff to survive. Drama and art classes were cut, but they kept music because the football team needed a marching band. Since I was the art teacher, I was out of luck. I had hoped to catch on in the public schools, but without a full certificate, I wasn’t hired. All the other certified teachers had seen the writing on the wall and took those jobs that usually went begging because the economy was going downhill. With a master’s degree, I was over qualified for most of the jobs I applied for, until I hit the sales profession. There they don’t care about your education, only your ability to sell.
My first quarter selling insurance for the Prudential was on a draw since I was a “captive agent employee.” All my commissions from the first quarter would go into a bucket for the second quarter and I would be paid weekly from my own sales in the next pay period. The first quarter Prudential was willing to pay me as an investment as they trained me. I figured I had a thirteen-week guaranteed paycheck and one quarter to prove I could sell. I would either make enough to stick around or I would be looking for another job! I was like a merchant in search of fine pearls, or a dog hot on the scent of her prey. I was focused on finding people with needs that could be met by the products my company provided.
After that first quarter, I was making three times as much as I had when I was teaching school. I went out to celebrate, not at a bar, but to the finest jeweler in San Antonio, and spent an entire week’s salary on a matched set of large natural Baroque pearls with gold stems worth around $600 (1987 value). I checked eBay today: I could buy some that looked like them with silver stems for less than $10 and get free shipping from Hong Kong, but then, what do I know about that seller? These are my “pearls of great price.”
A week’s salary isn’t quite the same as “selling all one has,” and maybe that’s why most of us never quite lay hold of a pearl of great price. We aren’t willing to give all we have for this one really great possession. I met a man last year that was starting up an organic farm near Jessieville. He retired early and sold all that he had. He bought his land, house and farm equipment: his new life was beginning at age 60. This farm for him is his “pearl of great price.” It’s not only his retirement plan, but also the place where he hopes his spirit will be centered. Even if the farm isn’t financially viable, he will still live in a beautiful place that is paid for.
My “pearl of great price” at one time was to be a famous artist, but I soon discovered that I wasn’t willing to give up “all that I possessed.” I didn’t want to move to a large art center, live in a tiny apartment or a cheap warehouse loft, or deal with the lifestyle of my artist friends. I wanted a husband, a child, and time and space in which to create my art. I wanted a “pearl of greater price”—a full life with relationships that extended beyond my career and into the next generation.
All of these “pearls of great price” are just pretty baubles, penultimate pearls, as it were. None are the true pearls for which we are truly called to give up all that we have so that we may possess and own for ourselves this one desirable object. Jesus, the Son of God, already owns all things, since all things were created through him (John 1:3), so when he gave his life that we might live, he is selling all that he has for us, his “pearls of great price.” We are God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5). Jesus took the ultimate risk: he trusted God completely and he believed that God could and would raise him from the dead and give him the name above all names (Philippians 2:9). We take the same risk when we put our faith in Christ and trust in his life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of our lives.
This is why the spiritual life is filled with phrases like “Leap of Faith” and “Let Go & Let God.” To search for the pearl of great price requires active intent and the risk of not finding, but God is faithful. “When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with your whole heart” (Jeremiah 29:13)
What is your pearl of great price? Is it your family, your job, or your security? Maybe you have had a spell of bad health, and now the pearl you would give anything for is to find wellness again. I knew one woman who more than anything wanted to shed tears, for she had lost the ability to cry because she was so depressed. Give your pearl to Christ in your daily journal or prayer time during the week ahead. Know that you are God’s treasured possession. Feel his love filling you and giving you strength for the road ahead.
As a creative exercise, seek out the beauty of your treasure box/jewelry box. You may have a stamp collection or coin collection that is valuable. Some folks collect other items that have value. Do you hide this, or is it out where you can enjoy it? If it is locked up, consider having at least one item appraised & insured on your homeowner’s policy (inland marine/fine arts/silver rider) so that you can have it out to enjoy it and appreciate it. If we have to hide beauty, is it still beautiful if it cannot be seen? These hidden objects should be donated to a museum that can display and protect them properly, so that all can enjoy their beauty. These “pearls of great price” deserve to be appreciated and enjoyed!
May your week be full of joy and peace, Cornelia
~~ Matthew 6:21
Driving home from a retreat in north Arkansas, I made a pit stop at a local McDonalds. I called a friend, for I missed an opportunity to help publicize a group of homeless veterans’ art works. One of the road riding prophets of the Christian Motorcyclists Associations heard me say, “Let me leave here and we’ll pray,” so he followed me outside. I’d seen his colors as I exited the building, so I wasn’t afraid of his rough looks. Women traveling alone don’t normally want to engage in conversations with strangers because it pierces our bubble of security. The rest of us just want to be left alone so we can get on with our lives. CMA riders share their witness whenever and wherever they can.
This was Ron C, bearing fruit for the weary traveler, sharing that his life now with Christ has been much better than it was before, when he was briefly confined to a mental institution. Now he has a purpose when he rides the road. He shares Christ with all he meets, for Christ is the seed buried in his heart. I thanked him for his witness and we parted. I wondered how many Christians have a Christ treasure to share from their heart, or whether Christ is their means to gain earthly treasures.
We’re coming up on the first anniversary of Harold Camping’s prediction of the End of the World (5-21-11). Many folks cashed in their pension plans to pay for advertising to warn people of the impending doom/judgment/rapture. They were disappointed, but like true believers, unshaken. Perhaps they should have read the text, “no one but the Father knows the day and hour of the coming of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:36). How can we witness to our faith, if we aren’t given to selling all that we have or riding the roads as a lonely prophet?
Jesus says, “store up for yourselves treasures in heaven” (Matt 6:20). We can’t exactly make a deposit in the First Heavenly Bank & Trust: it doesn’t have a drive through or an ATM. There’s not an app for that for your smart phone. However, we can care for ourselves, since we are the “temple of the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 3:16). We can also care for others as well as for God’s creation. Caring for ourselves means not burning our candle at both ends, choosing fewer processed foods/more fresh foods, making exercise and sleep a priority, and finding our quiet time with God for prayer and meditation. Two days away for a golf/spiritual retreat with my clergy pals was a way I could honor this need to store up treasure in heaven. When 42% of American adults are predicted to be obese by the next generation, we are building McTemples by the millions! This excess weight adds $550 billion to our medical bills in preventable disease costs, for obesity related costs now outrank those caused by smoking.
Caring for others means we value them as we value them as we value ourselves, for we are all made in the image of God. To care for others means not only means to do good to their bodies and souls, but also to refrain from doing harm. People in caretaking professions and customer relations tend to put others first, and themselves second. Years of doing this will diminish our healthy sense of self, until we no longer can stand up for what is true and right. We will do for others exclusively, and fail to take time for ourselves. For some reason, we think we are Superman or Superwoman, and we can fly forever doing mighty deeds. We don’t see the kryptonite until it’s too late: Doing no harm means caring for ourselves. The truth is not one of us is yet under the complete Lordship of Jesus Christ, for none of us are entirely perfected in love: we are still going on toward perfection! We yearn for our hearts to be so full of love of God and neighbor that nothing else exists, but we still are riding the road, making a way on that journey to perfection.
I may laugh about our McTemples of the Holy Spirit, but that’s only because I come from a culture of eating. I grew up in a Methodist Church and went to a Methodist Seminary. I told folks I had a course called “Preacher 101—Follow the Food.” It’s a good way to understand the dynamics of the local church, which does run around food: donuts with the pastor, men’s breakfast, ladies’ luncheons, Wednesday night choir supper, potluck dinners, senior club dinners, youth night dinners, spaghetti fund raisers, valentine suppers, potato bakes, etc. I sometimes ate only two meals at home in any given week. All these folks know how to cook, and they all want you to eat their food. No wonder their pastors have big round bellies, and their insurance is so high! But then, we are just like they are, so we are all going down the same road to illness together.
It’s not that we don’t have access to decent food. Most of my churches have been in small towns, not in the urban jungles of decay that are designated as “food deserts.” They aren’t in rich neighborhoods by any means, but we do have access to a variety of food. Since I’ve been on health leave, I’ve become more conscious about caring for my body, soul, and mind. I’ve learned that our food industry makes cheap food palatable by layering fat, salt, and sugar together in a heavily processed form. These products are heavily packaged, highly advertised, and subject to extreme couponing offers. They are not the best foods for you. The best foods are on the outer perimeter of the grocery store: fruits, meats, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.
The food deserts are in the poorer neighborhoods that have more fast food restaurants and fewer grocery stores. They also have less access to transportation and higher rates of metabolic syndrome diseases plus less access to medical care. A good project would be a community garden and cooking classes. Neighbors helping neighbors by improving the little patch of the earth on which they live makes a whole lot of good for God’s kingdom, or “storing up treasures in heaven.”
Our spiritual practice will be an inventory of our heart: what are our treasures? Begin to list them one by one, beginning with all the things and all the people you hold dear to you. Then list all the powers and strengths. Now list all the pains and sorrows, weaknesses and failures. See how God has used these also to bring treasure into your life. As our art project, try building a treasure box: If you have an old box, you can paint or decoupage (cut pictures & glue designs) it according to your taste. This can be a place to keep the treasures from the years gone by. You can also fold a box of scrapbook paper using the ten step directions found at
Joy and Peace, Cornelia
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
“When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” ~~ 1 Corinthians 2:1-2
When I was in kindergarten, I wanted more crayons in my drawstring bag, so I put my little five year old hands into the darkness of this hidden place, found the larger crayons, and broke them in half. I did this in secret, to have “more” when I spread them out on our table during coloring time. I didn’t understand that I didn’t have any more “colors,” but only had more pieces of crayons. This “mystery” of “numbers and more” was lost on my undeveloped five-year-old mind.
In the first grade, we had individual desks, so we kept our colors in their original boxes. This is when I first noticed that while my teacher required us to have the Crayola standard eight color non rolling crayons, these magic colors came in boxes of many more colors! As soon as I was allowed to bring more than a set of eight colors to school, I begged my parents for the biggest box my teachers would allow. The beauty and secret joys of all the mysteries of the universe were there in all these colors as I opened my first large box. It may have had only twenty-four colors, but I thought I had all the secret knowledge of heavens before me.
There are secrets and then there are mysteries. Secrets are things that can be known and understood, but for some reason we want to keep the information “sub rosa.” Mysteries, however, can’t be understood and are beyond knowing, so they are often hidden, even if they are in plain sight. Such is the mystery of God and the reality of the crucified Christ. We cannot see the invisible God, but we can see his visible evidence in Christ’s broken body hanging on the cross: God’s abounding love, his radical forgiveness, and his amazing grace in the gift of his son’s life to bring us into a new life and a new relationship with the Father.
Death, especially a hideous and tortuous demise, doesn’t seem the avenue to life. A criminal execution isn’t noble or brave. The people around the cross jeered, “Save yourself, as you saved others!” (Luke 23:35) But he did not. This is a mystery to us, for he could have called 10,000 angels down at any time! Surely the heavenly host who filled the skies at his birth would have rescued him from this horrible fate at the last. This is why “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).
Lately secrets have been much bandied about. Our straight arrow University of Arkansas football coach seems to have had a secret life, one that only came to light after his motorcycle accident with a female passenger on board. This young university employee was in a “previous relationship” with the head coach. My gut tells me that the “previous” became “active” the moment the motorcycle went off the road, for the coach at first failed to mention to the University authorities that he had anyone with him. This lie and the multiple refusals to come clean over a period of time broke the bond of trust between him and his employers and supervisors. He was placed on administrative leave while others decided his fate.
Over the Easter weekend the true colors of our theology began to show. The Facebook page “Save Bobby Petrino” held a rally Easter Sunday. In the spirit of the season they said, “Jesus saved Bobby Petrino, now Jeff Long can save him too.” Wow! Never thought that our Athletic Director would get elevated to the second person of the Holy Trinity! That’s usually reserved for winning football coaches like Petrino. “Forgive and Forget” for this crowd really means, “Let’s get back to winning games.”
I wonder how they would have reacted if Coach Nutt had been caught—oh wait! There was the text message scandal and the comely media lady. This was the final straw, as I remember, that caused us to buy out a losing coach’s contract. It seems we treat the indiscretions of losers differently than those of winners. In a like manner, consider the realm of politics and two men, both of whom “did their wives wrong.” One we continue to faun upon and the other we still love to hate. I speak of Bill Clinton and John Edwards. In truth, the first has redeemed himself and changed his ways, devoting his post presidential life to good works around the world. John Edwards is too fresh in our minds for his cover-up of his relationship with his pregnant mistress and paying hush money to her family while his own wife was battling cancer.
This sort of self-destructive behavior happens to people who rise to great power, have many “yes men” around them, and have pressures from all sides pushing them constantly. They become isolated from their families and from the ordinary world’s give and take. They live in an unreal universe in which they are the sun and everyone else is a mere planet that revolves around their light and glory. It can happen to doctors, lawyers, CEOs, clergy, teachers, managers, principals, or any one in supervision over another person.
What we forget is the “other woman,” the young “planetoid” that gets sucked into the gravitational pull of this bright shiny object. Some would say that she’s an adult and could say “no,” but when the power is unequal, and especially when the person is her boss, “yes” is more often what she will say. Men of power usually survive, but the “other woman” is marked for life, especially in her home state. “Why did you leave your last job?” Spin that one, honey. Ask Monica Lewinsky how life has treated her these last seventeen years: no steady job, no home of her own, no love life, people still taking her photo as “that girl,” and she still has the trophy black dress hidden at the back of her closet. She hasn’t exactly moved on and thrived.
We tend to respect power and strength. We want a winner at the helm, whether we are speaking of a football team, a church, a business, a family or a volunteer organization. We want a “messiah” who walks and talks like Tim Tebow and looks like him if possible! If he has the purity, power, and passion of Tim Tebow, that’s even better. What we don’t realize is that his character comes from understanding the mystery of God in Christ: power is found in weakness! Only when we set aside our human strength can the strength of God be brought to bear in the tough times of our lives. When we are standing on our own two feet in when we are at our weakest. When we are driven to our knees, when all our powers have fled, this is when God takes over! “I give up” means “God, take over.”
Any one of us would trade $1 for $10, an act that results in a1,000% no risk return. Yet every day, people play the lottery in hopes of more payout with a lesser opportunity of result. Giving up our puny power for the power of the Almighty God is a no brainer trade! This is why Paul came knowing only Christ and him crucified. This is why the “tebowing” move is on one’s knees. It is the attitude of a humbled soul, who recognizes that while God’s mysteries may be beyond our understanding, the gift of Christ’s body on the cross, broken for us, is the key to unlocking all the wisdom and knowledge of God.
The ancient Jews practiced the “whole burnt offering” as a gift to God. Nothing was left for them to consume, enjoy or keep. As a practice of self-examination, we need to discern what we have kept hidden in the closets of our minds and in the secret places of our hearts. God already knows these things, but we are keeping them hidden from the world, from our friends, and our families. We don’t need to spill our guts to everyone, but we do need to admit these to ourselves and to God. Write your secret on a piece of paper: anger at (name) who raped me, my substance abuse, workaholism, fear, sadness, perfectionism, my idiot boss, etc. Find a place on pavement, patio, or rock and set this paper on fire. As you burn this paper up, watch the smoke lift up to the sky above. Know that God is burning this pain from your life. Pray that God strengthens you to live a new and intentional life, depending upon the love that held Christ to the cross. When the road gets hard ahead, go down to your knees, and let the power of God hold you close, moment by moment.
You might have many hidden objects that you can’t get rid of because they have meaning to you. They are in boxes or drawers, tucked in the back of your jewelry box or in your storeroom or garage. One day you’ll get around to it, do something with them, but you just don’t know what yet. I have many small crosses people have given me, some small pieces of broken jewelry that have lost their mates, and some odd items that I’ve found and for some reason I can’t throw away. I have seashells from the beach vacation I took 20 years ago and old necklaces that are no longer in style. I finally pulled these all out and made an icon of the cross from found objects.
Find an 8 X 10 inch frame at the craft store that you like and get rid of the glass carefully (wrap it in newspaper and throw it away). Cover the backing board with fabric or scrapbook paper. You can also use an 8 X 10 canvas panel painted gold. Use gorilla glue or a glue gun to attach the objects, beginning from the center outward. Make sure to leave 1/4 inch or more outer margin so that the frame will fit! Do NOT lift the panel up to look at it or the heavy items will fall off! Leave panel flat to dry for 24 hours. Insert it into frame and display.
May your New Life be one of Joy and Peace, Cornelia