In my family, we didn’t break out the seasonal decorations or fashions until Thanksgiving Day. My mother put her knitting hobby to good use one year and made Christmas sweaters for all of us. She practiced on mine, so I got the baggy sleeves and an oversized middle. At least she got her stitch gauge down pat on my “ugly sweater.”
I wore it every Thanksgiving, while she still lived, just for her, for without my mother I wouldn’t be the person I am today. If there were a sweater made for her, it would be this one I found at my local Wally World: “Gonna Lay Under The Tree To Remind My Family I Am A Gift.”
We all have holiday traditions, whether these belong to Kwanzaa, Hanukkah, or Christmas. These bind us together, as a family and as a community. This year I decided to buy my holiday stamps with Kwanzaa illustrations on them. I admit, my cataracts are bad enough now I thought I was looking at a black Angel with lighted candles. I wondered why the postal clerk was questioning my choice. Why can’t I have Kwanzaa stamps? Maybe I need to go back in and buy the blue and silver stamps also.
This might be a year to make some new traditions, especially if during the past few years some of us have lost someone near and dear to us. Also, the economy has had a big impact, so focusing on togetherness rather than on materialism is a good choice. In the Great Depression, my dad asked only for a book for himself and his brother, and a fresh orange, if possible.
My mother, crafty lady that she was, made me this cross stitch one year for my birthday. All of us are gifted, even if not all of us have the same gifts or in the same amount. What we do with our gifts is the more important matter. A very gifted person who wastes their gift will benefit the world less than an average gifted person who works hard and has good people skills. Sometimes these are called under achievers and over achievers. As a former teacher, I don’t believe in the concept of “over achieving.” I do believe most of us underperform because we are afraid to fail.
Failing is how we discover what doesn’t work. Unless we’re playing with dynamite, failure won’t kill us. In sales, every time someone says NO to a presentation, the salesperson is another step closer to a YES. We think we’re too young, too old, or too something else to do what we really want to do in life. Sometimes the people around us tell us we can’t do the greater things we dream about. That was not my mother, or my dad. Daddy might have had reservations, but mother always said, “Honey, you should go for it.”
I drove alone to California last month without an advance plan for where I’d spend each night. I made reservations around lunchtime when I knew how far I’d journey that day. I have all the apps, just like the young people. I hiked in national parks, saw volcanoes, got caught in a snow storm, and paid through the nose for gasoline in the Nevada desert. I saw sea otters in the Pacific Ocean, hugged my grand kids, and learned I can do this. Yes, I wanted to go now, for driving nearly 7,000 miles is hard on the body. Full disclosure: I took a week to recuperate! Or maybe it was getting a month’s worth laundry done which finally did me in. I was glad to do it, and especially glad I didn’t let anyone talk me out of it.
I hope you choose to be a gift to others. If you don’t have a parent who encourages you to be more than others think you are, I offer my mother as a gift to you. I can share her with the world, for I keep sharing her wisdom here and there. Whatever you choose, l hope you choose to be a gift that gives to others.
Nothing springs full grown to life in an instant. Everything begins in a seed, which is planted, watered, and nourished into full growth. Only in myths or fantasies can an idea come into being instantly. Zeus had a very bad headache, a “splitting headache,” that birthed his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She leapt out in fully grown from his brow. We don’t take this myth to be scientifically true, but as a metaphor for the difficulty and struggles we undergo to obtain wisdom. As my daddy used to tell me after I’d learned some hard life lesson, “The school of experience is a rough master, and we all earn a costly degree in gaining its wisdom.”
Some of us will repeat the same lessons over and over, as if we expect to get a different result. The purpose of an education isn’t to regurgitate a right answer to pass a test, but to understand why the answer is right. That’s why math classes require showing the steps to the solution, rather than the “full blown adult answer” only. In matters of faith or ethics, many of us haven’t had the training to “set out the proof” for our final answer or deed. In fact, in one situation we may think or act one way, and quite differently in another.
The name for this behavior is “situational ethics.” Less kindly, it’s also known as spinelessness, shiftiness, being two faced, or dishonesty. Mostly it means people don’t have a true center or a plumb line by which they measure themselves. If we’re measuring our lives against other people, we’re measuring against other fallible human beings. Even our heroes have feet of clay, for none of us are gods. When I used to call my parents out on this character trait, they always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This sets up a moral conflict for most people, even those raised in the church or in religious homes.
We need to have a moral center based on a higher authority than our individual or cultural conventions, one that includes or exceeds the ethics of the group to which we belong, and not just our individual beliefs and actions. Professional groups—physicians, lawyers, clergy, educators, and others—all have ethical standards for caring for those they serve, even if they morally disagree with the behaviors that bring them into their care. Who decides the ethics of the group? At the risk of making my favorite seminary professor, Billy Abraham, roll about in his still fresh grave, we United Methodists do have the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to guide us. Often we assign our personal life experience to this latter quadrilateral edge, but Wesley meant our Experience of the Assurance of God’s All Embracing and Adopting Love. As Wesley once said, “God is able to save all to the uttermost.”
Ethics and morals are often used as synonyms, but ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Ethics is a a late 17th century word derived from the Greek ēthos (disposition, character), in contrast to pathos (suffering). In Latin it means ‘character, depiction of character’, or (plural) ‘customs’.
Then we have the words moral and morals. The first is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. The goodness or badness of human character is another concern. From these, people decide what behavior is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We often say a person has morals if they conform to standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We can speak of “the corruption of public morals, “ or you can hear people talking as if “they believe addicts have no morals and can’t be trusted,” rather than understanding the disease and abuse bases which often underlie addictions.
These distinctions don’t change the negative consequences of the addict’s behaviors, yet the addicted person still has the same image of God and the same potential for wholeness each of us have, but perhaps with more suffering, or pathos. If we judge the morality of a person’s choices, and then refer that moral state to the individual’s worthiness, we can end up losing compassion for the person as well as losing the will to help them better their lives. This leads to hard heartedness and a lack of love. We reject our neighbors and make them strangers, unwelcome to our world. We forget our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, wanderers without a home. How easily we forget our savior, who had no place to be born even in his ancestral home, and whose family fled religious persecution and certain death to live in Egypt, far from home. Strange how some Christians have no sympathy for others in the same fix today.
Moral is a word from the late Middle English by way of the Latin moralis, from mos, mor- ‘custom’, with the plural mores or ‘morals’. It refers to one having the property of being right or wrong, good or evil, or voluntary or deliberate, and therefore open to ethical appraisal. When we apply moral attributes to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.” Not until 1803 did moral come to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As a noun, we meet the word in the Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. Later it was applied to the works of various classical writers. All Methodists and the holiness denominations birthed from the seed of the great Methodist revival recognize the genius of John Wesley. We all quote him, but we also apply his wisdom through our own individual preconceived notions of what is “good, true, and noble.”
When John Wesley was asked, “What is that faith whereby we are sanctified?” he answered:
“First believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness; secondly, believe that He is able thus to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him; thirdly, believe that He is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe fourthly, that He is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to His Word.”
In the old days, we said we were “going on to perfection,” not that we were so bold as to claim that we’d already arrived there or been perfected. Oh no, we allowed God could complete this for us and had the power to do it, as well as the will, but our human nature was still fallible. If a word comes up more than once in a text, writers go to the thesaurus for an alternative, but in reading scripture, we learned repetition was a sign of importance, a marker especially meant for those of us who are slow learners in the school of life.
Oliver O’Donovan in “Scripture and Christian Ethics” writes, “Moral theologians have a secret knowledge, apparently concealed from other kinds of theologians, especially those devoted to hermeneutics. They know that the most mysterious and most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation we are facing mean?, where do we find ourselves existentially?”
We tend to speak as if our selves and our situations were known quantities, so that it only remains to choose out of Scripture whatever seems to fit our circumstances as we conceive them. Scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on our self and our situation, to overcome our preconceptions about them. We don’t read about our situation directly in the Scriptures, yet it’s from the Scriptures we gain categories of understanding, which re-frame our view of our situation and ourselves. We can’t look for individual texts to guide our actions, but need to consider the whole of the revealed Scripture and God’s nature as we discern our path forward.
In this sense, the Bible is a mirror which reflects our inner nature to us, convicting us of our failings and giving us grace and comfort in our times of need. We can learn much about ourselves from the verses we lean on, just as much as we can by the verses we ignore. There’s a reason we interpret texts by the whole of scripture, and not piecemeal. This is one way we understand the authority of scripture.
As an interesting aside, SWTX, my original conference, which approved my candidacy for the ministry, didn’t think I should attend seminary because I scored so low on the abstract reasoning tests I took. They didn’t think I would make 65, seminary’s passing grade, in my class work. It’s true I learn and process differently, but knowing this, I crammed a three year program into four years. If I’m slow to grasp the whole until I first understand the parts, this doesn’t reflect on my fitness for ministry or my intellectual ability. It merely reflects a different way of processing information. There’s more way to skin a cat, and many ways people learn.
When I taught art classes, I had to make sure I covered all the learning methods for all my students to have success. I talked about the project, I demonstrated the techniques, I had the steps written out, and for some few children, I had to place their hands in the optimum position to get them started. This covered ear and eye learning, visual reminders, and haptic or touch learning. Some students needed multiple types of learning throughout their working time on a project. Some needed reteaching every class period. Some just needed encouragement when they got stuck at a rough patch. Most all had to learn to talk in positive terms about themselves and their work, as well as about others and their creative process also.
I talk about this teaching method, for this is how we consciously or unconsciously teach those around us ethics and morals. As one youth asked me at a church I once served, “Why are you wearing your cross today? It’s not Sunday.”
“Because Jesus is important to me every day, not just on the day I lead church services.”
I realized even though her family was very active and faithful in our congregation, when they were out in the world of day to day folks, they didn’t stand out from the crowd. Maybe one day day this child will come to a time when wearing a cross becomes bearing a cross. Then again, how many people willingly choose suffering for the sake of the body of Christ? This suffering is often difficult for those of us who’ve committed our lives to Christ’s call, but we realize most laity won’t voluntarily submit to that kind of stress. Yet experience is a great teacher. We learn from others, even those who have differing opinions and choose different actions.
Wesley’s Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” has some advice for us: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.”
As a further reminder from his all time classic Sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1785: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin…by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin…”In modern terms, when we profess our faith, Christ saves us from the guilt of that first sin. Some say Adam and Eve were disobedient. They then emphasize rule keeping as their moral choice. There’s always a reason behind every behavior, however. Why were they disobedient? We hear the answer in the parable of the Tree of Wisdom:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The man and the woman both heard the half truth, saw the shiny fruit, believed the promises of a creature rather than their creator, and ate the fruit they hoped would make them like gods. Instead they only gained knowledge of their nakedness and vulnerability. This first lesson of the school of life came with cost: fig leaves ooze irritating sap. They won’t choose this solution again. God’s providence replaced their poor choice with animal skin clothing even as God sent them out into the world. We might say the attitude of pride or greed drove their bad behavior and was the cause of their negative consequences.
As we grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor, the Holy Spirit destroys any remaining root of sin. One of the important sins, Wesley noted, was pride. Pride is that feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction we get from our own achievements, or those of our family, tribe, nation, or other associated group. In matters of faith, we always have to remember Paul’s admonition to the Romans (10:9-13):
“because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul reminds us of the unity of the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the former masters and slaves, with the gulf now bridged between the former God worshippers and the idol worshiping strangers. Now there’s “no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we joined together into one annual conference in 2003, almost twenty years ago, we had good reasons to make one combined administrative body for our faith community. We had underfunded pension obligations, we were over heavy with administrators, and clergy didn’t have equity in retirement accumulation. Likewise, the conferences weren’t equally treated, since one didn’t fully fund pension needs, an act which caused clergy to seek appointments in the other conference, thus robbing the first of talents and gifts. These were the logical consequences of attitudes and behaviors, however.
The logical person thought, “Let’s make Arkansas One Faith, One Focus, One Fellowship,” and this will solve all our problems. It may have looked good on paper, but our congregations had been used to a personal touch to remind them at least once a year they belonged to a greater whole. Their pride in showing off their home church and being a good host for the Superintendent was taken from them if they were just attendees at another group meeting. The moral choice of what’s better for me, a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my family or a meeting elsewhere, gets weighed and measured.
So now here we are, nearly twenty years into this optimistic marriage of the two annual conferences. The seeds for dissent and discontent were planted long ago, even before this joining. When I inventoried the historic memorabilia of the dead bishops at the SMU Bridwell Library, I saw how the chaos of the Vietnam War era and the sea changes our society were experiencing then affected our church in many ways. Some wanted to hold onto tradition more tightly, while others were ready to experiment with new wine in fresh wine skins. These were just “outer trappings,” however, for the message of “saved by faith, sanctified by faith, and made perfect in love by faith” never changes. This is Christ’s work, enabled by the Holy Spirit.
The past sixty years, as the last two decades, haven’t always been smooth sailing. We often have had trials, storms, and tribulations on our shared journeys. Sometimes we’re so far out to sea, we don’t see the land, and the skies are occluded, so we can’t take a bearing off the stars. Yet God’s spirit will blow us along, for even detours are within God’s providence. As James reminds us:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)
Today we also have powerful economic and political forces that are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They purport to work for religion and democracy, but actually work against the stewardship of our earth ‘s resources and environment, fail to care for the poor and dispossessed, and support military interventions around the world. Moreover, some of them actively work to destabilize religious denominations with social justice callings, such as the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Some today think “things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
Two final words in summary: one is from the ancient wisdom tradition and the other from Paul’s paean of joy in the midst of suffering. Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” My dying grandfather spoke these words to me in his last hours. Ive always considered them a plumb line for my life.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” — Philippians 4:8-9
John Wesley: Repentance in Believers (Sermon 14), “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15. The Complete Works of John Wesley, vol. 1 of 3, Kindle ereader. Read on line here: http://www.godonthe.net/wesley/jws_014.html
Are we the United States of America or the Un-Tied States of America? One of the apocryphal sayings misattributed to the great Benjamin Franklin is “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Many are the words of wisdom from those who can’t speak up for themselves anymore, but especially numerous are the aphorisms of those we hold in high esteem, the founders of our nation.
As a young rabbit, my summers were often spent in the game of “School,” as the days lengthened beyond the end of actual school. My mother rabbit, a school teacher in real life, would find me underneath the shade tree in our backyard where I’d be instructing my younger neighbor rabbits sitting in neat rows. Since old school teachers never lose their calling to teach, the upcoming anniversary of the birth of our nation is an opportunity for all of us to remember our national struggle for independence and liberty was a cause both difficult and hard won.
As we rabbits pull out our flags, bunting, firecrackers, and ice cream churns, we might want to take a moment to remember the danger and risk our ancestors took to become an independent nation, rather than colonies subservient to the English crown. For many great reasons we can thank our ancestors for their refusal to endure the insults of taxation without representation and the indignities of having all their judicial decisions subject to revision by a foreign party. Indeed, the colonists lived as second class citizens, a fact which grated upon their very souls. Many were their entreaties to the King of England for redress of these wrongs, but to no avail.
Redress is the righting of a wrong. Some wrongs are more wrong than others, to be sure. As a young rabbit in the first year of junior high school, I discovered all my classmates had later bedtimes than I did. In fact, I was still turning in at 7 pm along with my baby brother, who was a mere 8 years old. I made an extensive survey of my different class groups and discovered the average bedtime was 8 pm. I knew my old fashioned rabbit parents would never let me stay up until 10 pm at my tender age.
My daddy was always saying, “Young rabbits need their sleep to grow up big, strong, healthy, smart, and good looking.” I never had a good argument against these reasons, so I’d go to bed, even if I might sneak a flashlight and read a book under the covers. I did get permission to stay up to the late hour of 8 pm, however. Perhaps rebellion is part of the American DNA.
Birthing the American Union wasn’t easy. The collection of individual colonies operated separately and had their own interests. Joining them together into one whole wasn’t an easy task, for each would have to put the common good ahead of their own individual needs and desires. Benjamin Franklin proposed The Albany Plan In July 21, 1754, for a union of the American provinces, which he proposed to a conference of provincial delegates at Albany, New York, to better battle the French and their Indian allies. We remember this era as the French and Indian Wars.
The Albany Plan called for proportional representation in a national legislature and a president general appointed by the King of Great Britain. It served as a model for Franklin’s revolutionary Plan of Confederation in 1775. His original idea germinated in people’s minds, along with other writings which Franklin “lay upon the table.” Not everyone was ready to approve these proposals, but his proposed Draft Articles of Confederation helped the committee when they finally began to focus their action in July, 1775 to write what became our constitution.
In November, 1755, Governor Morris of Pennsylvania pressed for a Militia Act in order to recruit persons for defense of the area from Indian and French attacks. The military units contemplated were purely voluntary and the officers, though commissioned by the governor, were to be elected from below, not appointed from above. The most important difference was that in 1747 the Association was a completely extra-legal body created by the volunteers themselves, while in 1755 the military units were, for the first time in Pennsylvania history, to be established by formal legislative act. And during the eleven months before news of its disallowance by the King reached the colony, the act did serve, in spite of its limitations, as a basis for raising reserve forces for provincial defense.
The Virginia delegates to the Philadelphia convention of 1774 went with this charge in hand:
“It cannot admit of a Doubt but that British Subjects in America are entitled to the same Rights and Privileges as their Fellow Subjects possess in Britain; and therefore, that the Power assumed by the British Parliament to bind America by their Statutes, in all Cases whatsoever, is unconstitutional, and the Source of these unhappy Differences.”
The crown had placed an embargo on the colonists and had forbidden them to import any manufactured goods, books, and while they might trade with other parts of the realm, those countries didn’t have to reciprocate. Economic sanctions were used for political purposes even in the 18th century.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, published in January 1776, was sold by the thousands. By the middle of May 1776, eight colonies had decided that they would support independence. When the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia Hall on June 7, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia read his resolution beginning: “Resolved: That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”
After 21 years of planning, priming, and planting of the seeds for the fragile fruit of a New Democratic nation, it would finally come to life in the July 1776 Declaration of Independence and the 1789 Constitution of the United States of America. Yet not everyone was on board, not everyone wanted to leave the established relationship, even if it wasn’t the best situation.
Jefferson modeled the Declaration of Independence on the Virginia Bill of Rights, which became the basis for the Bill of Rights of the new Constitution of the United States of America. Notice the sections on 3: Governance by the Majority, 5: Separation of Governmental Powers, with Executive and Legislative members returned to private service, 12: Freedom of the Press, and 13: Armed State Militias.
“That a well-regulated militia, composed of the body of the people, trained to arms, is the proper, natural, and safe defense of a free state; that standing armies, in time of peace, should be avoided as dangerous to liberty; and that in all cases the military should be under strict subordination to, and governed by, the civil power.”
Section 13 of the Virginia Bill of Rights is one of the founding documents of our nation. Many today talk about “what the founders wanted.” One way we can know in part is to look at the historic records, although they are few and far between. We can find these in the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and at the Smithsonian Museum, among others. We don’t have to be mind readers or seek some medium to channel the spirits of their ancestral vision. We’re fortunate they and their descendants recognized their importance to history. Today we throw away records at a fast pace, not knowing what will be important for the future.
While today nearly every young rabbit instagrams their lunch or their night out with a comment, which lasts in perpetuity on the internet, sometimes to a more mature rabbit’s shame and embarrassment, people nearly 250 years ago had to sit down, collect their thoughts, sharpen a quill pen, dip it frequently into the ink well, and write on precious sheets of paper.
Scholars think the Declaration of Independence was not signed by any of the delegates of the Continental Congress on July 4. The huge canvas painting by John Trumbull hanging in the grand Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol depicting the signing of the Declaration is a work of imagination. In his biography of John Adams, historian David McCullough wrote: “No such scene, with all the delegates present, ever occurred at Philadelphia.” We do have Jefferson’s draft copy as well as several printed copies that are “originals,” plus the clean, handwritten copy we treasure as a founding document.
If we had been members of the Second Continental Congress in 1776, we would have been rebels and considered traitors by the King. He would have posted a reward for the capture of each of us, since we were the most prominent rebel leaders. Soon enough the largest British armada ever assembled would anchor just outside New York harbor. By affixing our names to the document,we pledged our life,our fortune, and our sacred honor to the cause of freedom. Perhaps this would causes us today to pause. Then again, we might dip the quill into the ink well and take our first breath as a free American. We’d sign our name with pride. We would be part of history now.
As we prepare our menus for our backyard barbecues and make our plans for block parties, let’s remember in most urban areas firecrackers and explosive devices are banned, except for professional light and sound experiences. Be safe in large crowds, especially at night and in entertainment districts. Be safe, be smart, keep hot food hot and cold food cold.
In the “late unpleasantness” which has some of our Methodist congregations in turmoil, many have their reasons for going or staying. As one born into the Methodist Church, who spent a portion of my life looking for a “better god” before God called me back home, I have some experience with faith. I’ve had it, lost it, and received it once again. My privilege in seminary to work along side the Wesley librarian allowed me to touch authentic Wesley letters. I also had the blessing of being the late Dr. Billy Abraham’s assistant for the Evangelism Chair. When I think of faith, Romans 12:3 comes to mind:
“For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”
Here Paul’s word for faith is the Greek word pistis, which is always a gift from God, never something that can be produced by people. In short, faith for the believer is always “God’s divine persuasion” and therefore distinct from confidence or human belief. The Spirit continuously births faith in the yielded believer so they can know God’s will (1 Jn 5:4).
The former UMC Bishop Mike Lowery wrote in his notice of withdrawal from the Council of Bishops as he surrendered his elder’s orders: “I believe “We are in a fight for the faith delivered once for all.” (Jude 3, CEB).
I’m not picking on the former bishop. I knew him from my Emmaus community days in Southwest Texas. But his posted letter, which can be read at the link below, charges the United Methodist Church has lost her Wesleyan understanding of Christianity. This piqued my interest, so I decided to focus my own thoughts, as well as to inform others, on this matter of faith.
Faith as Doctrine of Assent vs Doctrine of Assurance:
Today we often think of faith as a set of beliefs, or the Doctrine of Assent. In Wesley’s time, he understood faith as the Doctrine of Assurance, a unique gift to the Christian church, whereby believers can know with certainty they are truly beloved of God with a steadfast love which endures forever.
This love is unconditional and saves us from the tragic consequences of the law of sin and death by bringing us into the law of life and love through Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. That descriptive mouthful is John Wesley’s heartwarming experience he had at Aldersgate in 1738 on the fateful evening when he attended a meeting very unwillingly, yet had the heart changing event that set his life on a different path.
Historic Wesleyan Faith is a Gift of Grace
We need to ask, “What is the historic Wesleyan understanding of the Christian faith, anchored in the Holy Trinity and welded to Christ as Lord and Savior?” Is it located in regeneration, aka the new birth, or is it located in human morality as proof of righteousness in Jesus Christ? This probably means nothing to people in the pews, but if we’re going to claim the mantle of John Wesley, or the argument from tradition, we must get Wesley’s understanding of faith down pat. We find Wesley’s thoughts in his Notes on the New Testament and in his StandardSermons, both of which are part of our Methodist teaching.
In the sermon OF EVIL ANGELS, Wesley reminds us faith is “our evidence of things unseen.”
“Faith is the life of the soul; and if ye have this life abiding in you, ye want no marks to evidence it to yourself: but [elencos pneumatos/Spirit control] that divine consciousness, that witness of God, which is more and greater than ten thousand human witnesses,” is Wesley’s explanation of faith in AWAKE, O SLEEPER.
Faith as the Spirit of Adoption
Another way of saying this is Romans 8:15-17,
“When we cry Abba! Father! It is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.”
For Wesley, faith is a gift of salvation, our trust in the saving work of Christ. As he says in the sermon AWAKE OH SLEEPER:
“Awake, and cry out with the trembling jailer, ‘What must I do to be saved?’ And never rest till thou believest on the Lord Jesus, with a faith which is His gift, by the operation of His Spirit.”
Then Wesley gives his altar call: “In what state is thy soul? Was God, while I am yet speaking to require it of thee, art thou ready to meet death and judgement? Canst thou stand in His sight, who is of ‘purer eyes than to behold iniquity’? Art thou ‘meet to be partaker of the inheritance of the saints in light’? Hast thou ‘fought a good fight, and kept the faith’? Hast thou secured the one thing needful? Hast thou recovered the image of God, even righteousness and true holiness? Hast thou put off the old man, and put on the new? Art thou clothed upon with Christ?”
“Hast thou oil in thy lamp? grace in thy heart? Dost thou ‘love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy mind and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength’? Is that mind in thee, which was also in Christ Jesus? Art thou a Christian indeed that is, a new creature? Are old things passed away, and all things become new?”
Faith comes as a Gift. Our good works respond to Christ’s work.
Most of us are in agreement Wesley’s initial understanding of FAITH having to do with accepting Christ’s work for us as the only precondition for our salvation. There is no good deed or accumulation of good deeds needed to earn our salvation from God. What many of us have difficulty is accepting we also don’t earn our perfection in holiness by our own power.
Our Christian perfection is always a cooperative work of the Holy Spirit and our own spirit. As the Spirit works in us, we respond to work toward the complete renewal into the original image of God in which we were created. While it’s possible we might attain this perfect state in this lifetime, most Christians will attain completion in the purity of love of God and neighbor at the moment of death by God’s work, not by our own accomplishments.
Do the Born Again Christians Sin?
In Wesley’s sermon, “The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God,” he quotes 1 John 3:9—
“Whosoever is born of God doth not commit sin.”
Wesley admits people who are born again can err or make mistakes, but they don’t sin. That’s a bridge too far for many to accept today, for many of us are prone to judging others. We have a dysfunctional understanding of “perfection.” We think it’s like a Martha Stewart design, forgetting she has a whole staff of helpers to carry out her ideas. As one of my professors once explained it, “Once you’ve been to Waxahachie, you’ve always been to Waxahachie.”
If you don’t know Waxahachie, it’s a midsized Texas town about the size of Hot Springs, Arkansas. It was known for cotton in its hey day, and now hosts a crepe myrtle festival. Once you’ve been there, you can’t lose that experience. In the same way, you can’t lose your status of new birth. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit, given by faith through Christ.
But some of us will try to throw it away anyhow. Wesley wrote in that same sermon, The Great Privilege, “Some sin of omission, at least, must necessarily precede the loss of faith; some inward sin: But the loss of faith must precede the committing outward sin.”
The Outward Appearance vs. The Inward Attributes
So, one who has faith doesn’t sin, since we have to lose faith in God to sin. In other words, we have to reject the gift freely given to us without price. As he also says in his great sermon on Christian Perfection, “Every one of these can say, with St. Paul, “I am crucified with Christ: Nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me:” [Gal 2:20]— Words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin.”
For Wesley, the goal of Christian perfection, or the recovery of the image of God, was to love God and neighbor with one’s whole heart until nothing else could exist inside. No favoritism for a group, no exclusion for a group, no yearning to be better than others, no desiring a better place at the table, no hoarding of resources for selfish purposes, no fear of tomorrow, nor any other anxiety that strikes the human heart.
We give our resources away so we can have room for new blessings. God always provides for those who give with generous hearts. We open our doors to the least, the last, the lost, and the unloved, because Jesus and Wesley went out into the fields and met the people where they were. Those are our people out there, and they aren’t “living moral lives,” any more than the imperfect people within our churches are. But we all can and do live lives of faith. We all can learn to trust a savior who loves every sinew of our wounded and broken bodies. We can love a God who never gives up on us even if we’ve given up on ourselves.
We United Methodists might be messy, but we surely can love God and neighbor. Moreover, we’re all going on to perfection, even if some of us are moving more slowly than others. We’re still a community of faith, a people who trust God’s grace and one another to get through this thing called life together. We’ll bring each other along, for we’re not leaving anyone behind. We include in the great worldwide Body of Christ the body of Christ whom we meet outside our doors. After all, the race isn’t to the swift, but to the ones who help their brothers and sisters to the finish line, where we have a finishing medal for everyone, along with a big potluck dinner with enough food for folks to take home leftovers. That’s the never ending banquet table to which we invite all who hunger and thirst for community—both spiritual and personal.
Trusting Faith for a Risky Love in Unsettled Times
All we have to do is ask ourselves in this unsettled time: “Do I have Wesley’s trusting faith to live this risky love? Are these the people with whom I want to experience God’s steadfast love and share the grace of Christ? This is our heritage in the United Methodist Church, for we’re a people of faithfulness, who believe the “Bible has everything sufficient for salvation.”
I can only hope for those who leave, whether they become global Methodists, independents, or community congregations, that they will provide a large enough tent for our big God and big Christ, for the Spirit always is seeking people and places to fill completely with the gift of God’s extraordinary love and power.
My prayer is our United Methodist churches will receive a fresh rush of the Spirit to become even more of what we are today, for
“Our standards affirm the Bible as the source of all that is “necessary” and “sufficient” unto salvation (Articles of Religion) and “is to be received through the Holy Spirit as the true rule and guide for faith and practice” (Confession of Faith).” Theological Guidelines: Scripture https://www.umc.org/en/content/theological-guidelines-scripture
The last day of our art class we had a “free for all.” Not exactly a “food fight” or “slug fest” free for all, but a finish up or start a personal project type of day. Our class never disappoints me. Mike brought in his patio parrots, some of which have seen better days. These are papier-mâché sculptures that have been brightly painted and covered with shellac. He hopes to paint over them and repair them so they will look respectable once again in the poolside area. If that’s not possible, I see a vacation south of the border in his future.
Gail brought an icon she didn’t quite finish to add gold outlining to the figures. This detail gave her work an extra embellishment to bring it to life. Before, she’d left an edge of white canvas between the background and the figures. This had the same effect, but also gave her work an unfinished appearance.
I’ve been working on a series of Creation Icons from the first chapter of Genesis. Actually, they’re mandalas, but they serve the same purpose as an icon: to focus the viewer’s sight into the window of the world beyond this one and to contemplate the universal mysteries of the universe and the God who created it. The Creation inspired me because I’ve seen old icons with this theme painted both in figurative and abstract styles.
This one represents Day three and is from The Nuremberg Chronicles (1493). Written by Hartmann Schedel and illustrated with woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut, it represents a monumental place in the history of the printed page. One of the most beautifully illustrated texts of all time, the approximately 600 pages, in-folio, contain 1,804 woodcuts intended to communicate to the public a schedule of events predetermined by God, beginning with the Creation, and ending with the end of time.
My icon is a stylized flower against a blue sky with a cross in the center to remind us, as John 1:1-3 says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
I chose a sunflower as my representative plant, for the young plants constantly track the sun’s transit across the sky each day. The older plants don’t make use of this mechanism of heliotropism, but always face east to wait for the sunrise. The ancient wisdom says when Christ comes in his final glory, he’ll first appear in the east at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem. However, the Bible says in Revelation 1:7,
“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.”
I think it best to be ready, day or night, for like the servants whose master has gone off on a trip, we don’t know when he’s coming back. We should be always ready, always eager to serve. We’re never too young or too old to be a servant for Christ. As we grow older, one of our best gifts is mentoring the next generation for leadership. Perhaps they’ll make mistakes, or maybe they’ll do things differently than we did, but mission and ministry will happen.
Most mistakes don’t matter in the great scheme of life, unless they’re breaking a moral or legal law. If they’re just doing a task in a different order, like my arrangement of the dishes in the dishwasher at my mother’s house, we should probably leave that alone. I went and sat in the den and let my mother load the next evening’s dirty dishes because “If you’re going to rearrange everything, you might as well put them in yourself.” She did that one night and sat in the den the next night. Training is everything. My mom spent years training me, so I learned from the best. When it’s time to let go, you step aside and let them do it on their own. Learning from mistakes is part of leadership.
In art class we also learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we find out our palettes are too small to mix up all the different colors we want. This can limit our color schemes, muddy our colors, or tempt us into putting more color over the old color in the same tiny space for mixing. Then we look at our painting and wonder why it’s grey and dull, but fail to notice how dark our glass of brush water is. When the water gets dark, we need to pour it out and get clean water, or we carry that wash water full of pigments into our painting with our brush. In a like manner, if we hold our grudges or anger over time, these soil and blemish our souls. Washing them clean through prayer to God makes a difference in our countenance and joy. We’re brighter people when we rid ourselves of these burdens.
I’m taking the summer off from teaching. I have an art show planned for August to September at the Garland County Library, so I’ll be finishing up some work for that event. I also have a couple of chores around my condo planned, and more of my SOULJOURNIES blog to put into shape. I’m excited about these creative renewal projects. I’ll see y’all on the flip side.
Welcome to June! I’ve found my sunshades and my flip flops, so this rabbit is ready for a summer vacation. Old school teachers never die, they just take the summer off. And teachers, as well as students, will need a summer off, along with some intensive counseling, to get them ready to return in a healthy frame of mind next fall.
In my early years in ministry, I served in a certain county where many people were caught up in despair. I often complained to my district superintendent of my desire to pour mood elevators into the public water supply.
“You do know drugging the water supply isn’t exactly an acceptable activity for a Methodist minister?”
“Oh, yeah, but it sure would make my job easier.”
Remember, June 3 is Love Conquerors All Day. I need to remind myself of this on occasion when I want to take the easy road. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
Taking the easy way out isn’t always the best choice, but it’s the one we rabbits most often choose. We rabbits don’t like to rock the boat, and we like to make all the other rabbits happy if at all possible. The only problem is if we please A, B gets upset. If we please B, A gets upset. We don’t even try to please C, since C is so cranky, even the good Lord Jesus couldn’t fry an egg to please them. We set our hearts and minds on pleasing God, as best we can, and hope to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Chocolate ice cream brings me joy any day of the year, but June 7 is a day dedicated to this frozen delight. Don’t worry about frying eggs, but keep it frozen. I like mine plain, but fresh strawberries or peaches are a nice addition, plus some chopped nuts. Always go for complex, unless you just can’t wait. Then grab a spoon and eat it straight from the pint. (Mark it with your name, since you ate from it.)
Often we cut the Gordian Knot and go for the shortcut to our complex problems. Sometimes this is a good solution, for the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. My daughter used to call my vacation navigation shortcuts “the long cuts,” since I’m directionally challenged. Most of the time, that straight line went through swamp land and alligators. I can hear her voice now, “NOOOOO!!!” I’m known for taking the scenic route, so I often see America’s less known sights, which are off the beaten path.
In the gospel of Luke (14:34), Jesus quotes a proverbial saying:
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Another translation of the latter portion of this verse is “how can it be used for seasoning?”
When I think of loss, I think of a life snuffed out. Some people are burned out, so we can say they’ve lost their seasoning ability. There’s no vim or vigor in them. Other lives are cut short and aren’t able to fulfill their purpose to season the great soup of our community. Our past month was marked by 47 mass shooting incidents in May alone. A mass shooting incident is defined as one in which at least four people are injured or killed, not including the shooter. Suicides aren’t included.
Suicides are also a public health problem. They are the “deaths of despair” that leave ripples of grief and hopelessness in the survivors. They’re the ultimate shortcut solution to a problem, the placing of a period where life has placed a comma or a semicolon. My daughter once attempted suicide by downing half a bottle of aspirin. I noticed the open bottle and pills scattered across the floor. She said the “dog ate it.”
“That’s too bad, I’m going to miss that dog. She won’t be long for this world. We’ll need to make burial plans for her.”
“Well, actually, I’m the one who ate the aspirin.”
“Then we’re going to the hospital. You aren’t going to like getting your stomach pumped, but it’s better than being dead. You want to have a chance to grow up and have a good life. A dog we can replace. You—not so much.”
It was a rough time in her life, and mine too. But God was with us. And we had support from counselors, friends, family, and our church family. My work family and my clients supported me too. I must be the most extroverted rabbit in the patch, because I asked everyone for help. It turned out my problem was shared by everyone else. I discovered I wasn’t alone, but was the most ordinary of rabbits around.
This is a humbling experience, especially when you’re a first child and the only girl. I admit to being spoiled, but don’t let my brother rabbits hear me say this. I’ll deny it to my last breath: I’m like every other rabbit I know. I want to think I’m someone special, even when I’m just as fluffy as every other bunny out there on Gods green earth.
Unfortunately, half the suicides today are committed with a gun, not aspirins. When looking at overall gun deaths, roughly two-thirds are attributed to suicides—a proportion that is consistent across most states. Gun suicides are on the rise and data also indicates men, white Americans, older people, and individuals living in rural areas present higher rates of gun suicides. Another group presenting a unique risk for suicide is current and former members of the armed forces, especially those with PTSD.
Compared with the general population, current and former military members have significantly higher rates of gun ownership. According to a 2015 study, nearly 50% of U.S. veterans own a gun. In contrast, studies suggest that only about 22% of the general U.S. population owns firearms. Similarly, the age groups of 50 to 64 years old and 65 and older have the highest rates of gun ownership, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. This can further explain the high rates of suicide among older veterans.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in 2019, close to 4,332 veterans died by gun suicide in the United States, representing close to 18 percent of the total number of gun suicides reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during that year. Perhaps more alarming is the fact this figure shows a veteran is killed by gun suicide every two hours. In 2019, active duty military members committed suicide by gun 64% of the 498 total (318), almost one gun suicide per day.
Why isn’t anyone speaking about this? For all the lip service our politicians give to the flag and to the armed service members, they seem to forget them once they’re no longer useful to fight their wars or march in their parades. Perhaps because Congress won’t devote any money to study the effects of gun violence on the citizens of our Beautiful America, so we have to fund private studies here and there to piece together a patchwork of facts of this scourge on the peace of our people.
My young neighbor, only 8 years old, was in a panic as he knocked on my door the other day. His parents hadn’t come straight up the elevator, as they’d said they would. He was crying to beat the band and was sure something bad had happened to them. I invited him inside and left the door open so we could see them come past. He was so worked up, he couldn’t sit down. I suggested a call to his daddy, but they came walking past just at that moment.
We don’t realize what terror these school shootings put our children through. There’s no safe place for them any more, no matter how “hardened” we make the buildings. Some person always breaks the shell at the most inopportune moment.
Some rabbits will have empty seats at their family reunion tables because someone decided to act impulsively. Father’s Day (June 19) won’t be a celebration without the son or daughter to give Dad the tie, the golf balls, or breakfast in bed.
I think back to my own childhood. We worried in the 1950’s more about the urban legends of Halloween candy poisoning, when we were more likely to get killed crossing Highway 1, a four lane highway running through our town. My mother rabbit would wait for me to ride the trolley home from school. She would wait until the near lane of traffic cleared before she walked out to the center median and time this so the far lane’s cars would finish passing so she could walk across the newly empty lanes to meet me on the other side. We held hands and crossed in the same manner on the way back to our home.
This was our routine from the start of school until sometime in the autumn. Mother was delayed one day, so I sat down to wait for her and opened my book to read. I was wearing a brown jacket against the early cool spell, and my dirty blonde hair blended in with the pile of dry leaves on the ground. Intent on my book, I failed to see her come outside. She overlooked me and went inside thinking I’d missed my ride.
A bit later, I decided if she wasn’t coming for me, I’d come to her. Gathering up my possessions, I stood on the curbside. I watched the comings and goings of the quickly moving traffic. Once I saw the break in the pattern, I walked out into the clearing, waited at the median, and crossed behind the trailing traffic of the second lane. When I walked inside, my mother had a conniption fit. After this, I began riding my bicycle to school, and my brother got to come with me.
Not everyone is mature enough to cross a four lane busy highway by themselves when they’re in the fourth grade, which is the same age as the children who lost their lives at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. . Some people still need to be supervised at work even in their 20’s. The brain keeps maturing past age 21, as the frontal lobes, which are home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” (such as planning, working memory, and impulse control) are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life. Although neuroscience has been called upon to determine adulthood, there is little empirical evidence to support age 18, the current legal age of majority, as an accurate marker of adult capacities.
Since May 24, the date of this tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, the gunviolencearchive.org has recorded 16 mass shootings in six days, with 79 killed or wounded. Some of these are high school graduation parties where uninvited guests arrived and gunfire broke out, others are the result of young people wandering about in the late hours and getting into trouble with guns. During my time of ministry, youth, alcohol, and firearms were usually a recipe for trouble. Maybe parental rabbits’ brains are still developing too, if they aren’t able to put their rabbit foot down and tell the junior rabbits to leave their weapons at home. Visiting Jack Rabbit in jail for accidental death or intentional use of a firearm will throw a curve into your best laid plans for your progeny.
Instead, cities may have to reinstitute curfews after dark to curtail the opportunities for gun violence. Or they could raise the age to buy a weapon and require a longer waiting time and a more thorough background check. I wouldn’t be opposed to a training class and a test to see if the owner knows how to use the weapon safely. After all, we do this for the 2 ton weapon of mass destruction known as the family automobile. So what if the founding fathers never had autos; they also never had automatic pistols or large magazine weapons, modeled on the ones used in combat.
Did I mention June is National Safety Month? Its emphasis is workplace safety, but as a former teacher, this old rabbit reminds you, between 2009 and 2020, teachers’ workplaces are in schools, which is where 30% of mass shootings occurred in public places (schools, malls, or bars), while 61% of mass shootings occurred entirely in the home and another 9% occurred partially in a home and partially in a public location. The common factor in these is the gun and the presence of domestic violence. In at least 53 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2020, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member during the rampage.
I know y’all usually expect a bright and cheery note from me at the beginning of the month, but my heart is broken. Thoughts and prayers are nice, but they don’t stop the carnage. We need to make some changes. At least one man has turned in his assault weapon to his local police station, so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. He couldn’t bear the thought of it being used to perpetrate a similar crime if he were to sell it. If we parents don’t say no to our children, if we keep voting for politicians who are doing nothing, then we get to keep the distinction of having the highest rate of violent gun deaths for any of the developed countries.
That’s not the American Exceptionalism I believe in. We can do better. These are crimes against the common good and against the innocent. The shooter shares the primary blame, but everyone who does nothing to change our society for the better also shares the blame and shame for the next group of victims. At the rate we’re going, we’re having about one mass shooting per day. Eventually this scourge will come to YourTown, USA, and your small town police force will be just as flabbergasted as poor Uvalde’s. How could this happen in our little corner of the world?
I cry along with Jeremiah ( 8:21-22):
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
Sometimes we go along with the attributes of cultural Christianity, rather than practicing the Christianity of Jesus Christ. Romans 12:2 reminds us
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
The everyday objects around us are like so much white noise: we know they’re present, but after a while, we tend to ignore them. A running joke among the clergy is “Never move anything at the new appointment for six months because you don’t know what objects are the sacred cows.” I learned this the hard way in my first full time appointment when I suggested we rid ourselves of an aging, olive green, velvet curtain hanging on the back wall of the fellowship hall stage, since “It was just hanging there for no purpose.” Oh, the outcries of rage! Little did I know this was the one and only curtain to survive the fire which destroyed the old church building. The people saw this ragged banner as a symbol of hope for the church they were rebuilding for the future. They had invested spiritual meaning into this curtain, even though it no longer served a spiritual purpose.
In the same way, we treat our Bibles as holy objects because they contain the inspired writings handed down over the centuries. We recognize they tell us important truths about God, humanity, and our relationship with the God whose steadfast love for God’s creation never wavers. In worship, we often say after reading from scripture, “The word of God for the people of God.” When many read John 1:1—
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
These same readers connect the “word of God” with the ”Word and the Word (who) was with God, and the Word was God.” The English translation of LOGOS to WORD derives from the Greek principle of Logos, or divine reason and creative order, which is identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ. This is how the early Christian writers argued for the preexistence of Christ and for the existence of the Holy Trinity. When we refer to the Logos/Word of God, we are speaking of Christ. If we read the Old Testament, we’re speaking of the one God who has spoken through the ages, but only revealed God’s Son to humanity during the New Testament era. The Spirit has been active always.
This reminds us to honor the Bible for revealing the Incarnate Christ through inspired words, but not to idolize the Bible as a object greater than the God it reveals. After all, over the centuries, the Bible has been interpreted differently by various schools of thought. This brings up the question of how do we know what we know. There’s a whole body of philosophy dedicated to how we know what we know, called epistemology. There are various kinds of knowing:
Sensory perception or observation of facts
Reason or logic
Authority of tradition or common wisdom
Intuition, revelation, or inspiration
Some of us use one way more than others, but each has both good and bad points. In the case of the authority of tradition or common wisdom, for instance, some have been time tested across the ages, but deference to authority without critical thinking can be a mark of intellectual laziness on our part.
John Wesley’s famous understanding of what we now call the Quadrilateral comes from Albert Cook Outler’s discussion on how Wesley understood authority. When challenged for Wesley’s authority on any question, Wesley’s first appeal was to the Holy Bible. Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controversial point of doctrine. Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian Tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that.
However, Scripture and Tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical Reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian Experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter.
In reality, Wesley’s diagram for how we know is really a triangle— consisting of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason—which leads to the Christian Experience of being a Child of God, forgiven for our sins. It’s based on the Anglican tripod of the faith: scripture, reason, and tradition. Wesley took the tripod and added the firm “seat of experience” of God’s loving mercy to forgive all our sins. This insight came out of Wesley’s life changing Aldersgate experience, which he recorded in his journal on May 24, 1738.
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley understood he could spend his whole life learning about God, reading about God, and even serving God to the best of his ability, but he was in his words, an “almost Christian” because he didn’t have the faith of a son or daughter who served God out of love, but had instead the faith of a slave or a servant, who served only from fear of punishment. One of Wesley’s Standard Sermons is the “Almost Christian,” which you can read in its 18th century glorious English at the link below. Most of us would be glad to be accounted in the “almost” category, but Wesley asks, why don’t we go farther and become “altogether Christian?”
In Methodist terms, this is “entire sanctification,” or “going on to perfection.” We don’t talk much about this any more, but it’s the purpose of our Christian life to be conformed to the image of God. We aren’t trying to be like Beyoncé, JayZ, Taylor Swift, or Jake Owen. Instead we have the promise in Romans 8:29—
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”
We don’t do this on our own, but with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Spirit is called a helper, for it’s a coworker in the process of perfection or sanctification. This epistemology for knowing is useful for art classes also. Some of us believe we need to be perfect from the get go and can’t accept our raggedy messes we produce as we learn the techniques of color mixing and shading, much less the fine motor coordination required to connect our thoughts with our hand movements. If we aren’t able to endure the rough edges of imperfection as we “go on to perfection,” we won’t last long in art class. Just learning how to see the three dimensional world and translate it onto a two dimensional surface is a Mount Everest accomplishment in itself. Some days we have no energy to cope, and that’s when we need to come for support and encouragement.
Last Friday we painted chairs. Every artist’s work we viewed for inspiration had a different take on the chair. We no longer have to make a photographic rendering of an object because we have cameras for this purpose. We can use the chair as a reason to break up the picture plane and organize the spaces. I found a funny little poem called “The Chair,” by Theodore Roethke:
A Funny Thing about a Chair: You Hardly Ever Think it’s There. To Know a Chair is Really It, You Sometimes have to Go and Sit.
As the class went on, Sally decided she wanted to copy one of the inspiration images. She’s new, so she was practicing color mixing with her limited palette. When she couldn’t get the bright turquoise color, I brought my manganese blue over and mixed it with her titanium white. The color she wanted came popping out, much to her delight. “I’m going to buy me some of that color.” Sometimes all we need is the right materials.
Lauralei’s humor takes the cake with her shower chair. She can imagine the model chairs in a new environment. She doesn’t let the reality limit her options.
Gail divided up the canvas into various planes of colors, which sing for joy. I think she had fun. As the only one of our group who took the challenge of the entire scene, Mike took a bird’s eye view of the table and chairs. I hear he may be traveling again, or at least yearning to fly away from the day to day grind of full time work to something closer to retirement.
I can understand that feeling. After years of teaching school, I look forward to summer vacation. We’ll have art class on the last two Fridays of May, and then take the summer off. Our current plan is to return on September 9, the first Friday after Labor Day. In the meantime, if you want to know how God really is,
“Be still, and know that I am God!” ~~ Psalms 46:10
A fun summertime activity is building a chair fort or a chair cave. All you have to do is turn over a couple of chairs on the floor and throw a sheet or blanket over them. This provides a quiet place for a child of any age to have a “time out” alone during a long summer. I recommend a quiet place for children of all ages, even those who’re long of tooth.
This rabbit isn’t ready for May. Even as I say “Rabbit, Rabbit,” on this prime morning, I realize time already is too quickly flying past. I knew this day would eventually come, but surely I thought, not yet. When my rabbit parents were long of tooth—I think they were over forty—they said they had a longer “to do list” than their day was long. I think this was the time they were sending me the golden “round tuit” so I would get my own to do list done. Parental units in every generation have always projected their problems onto their offspring, or perhaps their offspring inherit or imitate the adults’ tendencies.
May is a good time for spring cleaning. Every rabbit hutch or den can use a bit of freshening up after a long winter and a cold spring. May 17th is Pack Rat Day, an opportunity to touch those items once and for all as you decide whether they belong in a Distribute, Donate, or Dump Box. If you just touch and can’t decide, you may be one of the 15 million hoarders in the United States. The days are getting warmer with more daylight and global warming adding to the elevated temperatures. We can’t do anything about the length of days, as these are determined by our planet’s oribit and inclination toward the sun. As we move toward summer, the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun and gets warmer. In the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite happens and their Christmas is warmer than their springtime.
May marks the end of Ramadan, the month long Islamic fast recognizing the gift of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. In most communities in the United States, Eid begins at sundown on Monday, May 2, and lasts one to three days, depending on cultural tradition. Eid al-Fitr, which means “festival of breaking the fast,” comes after a month of abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset in observance of Ramadan. This is a time of renewal, wearing a new outfit, giving charity to the poor, and resuming the everyday rhythms of life.
Some of us finally get our gardens planted, in honor of the Ancient Greek and Roman goddesses of May. The word May entered the English language in the 1050’s, developing from the Old English Maius, which was borrowed directly from the Latin Maius, short for Maius mēnsis, “Maia’s month.” The Greek goddess Maia was one of the Pleiades, who were the companions of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. This Maia was the mother of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. But the Romans had yet another goddess named Maia, who just happened to share her name with the Greek goddess. When later generations conflated the Greek Maia with the Roman Maia, a goddess of fertility and spring, we now celebrate May for growth and increase in the natural world.
If we want to “go green,” in our gardens, we can practice composting our lawn clippings along with any brand of manure. This will enrich our earth with earthworms and organic materials. We can also practice “crop rotation.” This means we plant our tomatoes ina different plot every year so we don’t deplete the soil of certain nutrients or invite nematodes to eat the roots. As a spiritual practice, gardening calms the mind, for it connects us to the earth and the source of our food. Our forebears supplemented their menus in the hard times in days of old with fresh food from home gardens. Community gardens serve the public in urban areas.
Spring reminds us the seasons of the year are balanced, for we have a cold winter and a hot summer, just as we have a middling spring and autumn. I say “middling,” but I might have said “muddling,” for these two seasons in my corner of Rabbitville are marked by rain and mud. Torrents of rain, drenches of rain, and sometimes mere drizzles of rain. Some of us rabbits may have bad hair days, but I hear all this moisture is good for the face and the skin.
In our world, the great powers also attempt to maintain balance and influence. Two world wars will push nations into this choice, but nations rise and fall. Once Great Britain was the world’s great super power, but after these great wars, it was greatly diminished, while the United States, which was the source of Britain’s war materials, prospered. Germany, was cut off from international trade due to its war mongering, became dependent on itself. American industries prospered, so that by the end of the first world war, America became the creditor nation to these former belligerents.
Moreover, we began to feed the world. This rabbit would like to think our government is more generous than Mr. McGregregor, who is always chasing us hungry bunnies out of his precious garden, but poverty and hunger lead to unrest among the world’s people, and that destabilizes governments. Stable governments, which don’t oppress their people, are more welcome on the world stage than dictatorships that exist to serve only a small group of privileged individuals.
As the United States and the Soviet Union struggled to reach a balance of power during the Cold War that followed World War II, President Harry S. Truman outlined what became known as the Truman Doctrine in a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. He emphasized the broader consequences of a failure to protect the democracies in Greece and Turkey by saying:
“The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.”
Seventy-five years later, some of us rabbits have abandoned our national vision of democratic ideals, and have turned our back on our historic uniqueness among the nations of the world. While we may have aspired to grand ideals, but haven’t yet achieved them, this shouldn’t stop us from helping others continue their own difficult journey toward perfection. Once again, we have a bellicose dictatorship attempting to overthrow the will of Ukraine, a democratic nation, with the potential to continue such destabilizing activities in neighboring countries. What’s worse, Ukrainian agricultural products feed the world’s poorest countries, so without their harvests being replaced by American grain, people might go hungry. Hungry people are at risk for strong men with bad intentions.
Journeys aren’t ever easy. Any rabbit who tells you the road is easy, wide, and well marked on the way to their destination, has never heard the call of God saying, “Go to a land I will show you.” Those who think their path is sure, certain, and easy might want to remember this word from Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
This is why we admire heroes, for their journeys aren’t ever easy, but usually require some difficult and demanding task, which transforms them into a new person. They become more than they ever were before. Yet, perhaps, they were always a hero, and they only needed the auspicious moment to bring forth their true character.
I remember the young man I met at a NASCAR event at Texas Motor Speedway. I asked him what he did under the stands while the race was going on.
He shrugged, “I just stand here and make sure nobody takes the other worker’s things.”
“Oh, like you’re the guardian of stuff!” “I never thought of it like that.”
“Strike a hero pose. I’m going to take your picture .”
Everyone has a hero within, but not everyone has someone who affirms that hero. We all need to discover the hero within us, just as Jesus heard at his own baptism (Luke 3:22)—
“and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We rabbits can’t fail to recognize the heroes who gave us life and brought us into this world. I speak of our mothers, of course. My own dear mother was ready to move mountains and call in every personal favor to come be by my side when I was in an Italian hospital while I was on a summer student art program. My dear daddy had to calm her jets and remind her, “Honey, it’s just a bit of food poisoning. It’s not like major surgery.” Our mothers will do anything to protect their offspring, and that makes them heroes in my eyes. I was released in three days, so it would have been a futile trip for my sweet mother. Make sure you recognize your hero mom on May 8, for without her, you wouldn’t be here.
Speaking of hospitals, May 12th is the birthday of Florence Nightingale, whose service as a volunteer nurse during the 1854 British war against Russia in Crimera. Because of her service, dedication to her call, and the innovations she brought to her vocation, we now celebrate the women and men who follow her in the nursing profession. Back in Victorian times, nursing wasn’t a respectable job, and women of the upper classes were expected to remain at home to care for the family’s affairs. Those who hear God’s call don’t worry about cultural expectations, but follow the solitary path of the heroes who went before them. Remember the nurses of today who’ve had to put themselves into harm’s way to care for people with a disease that now can be prevented from the worst complications and death in most people with immunizations and ordinary remedies like masks, hand washing, and avoiding crowds.
All us rabbits can celebrate Sally Ride Day on May 26, which was the birthday of the first American woman in space. While our national space program seems to have lost its energy and will as we’ve outsourced its efforts to the private sector, we have to ask if giving millionaires the ride of their lifetimes benefits a democratic society more than when we funded the space program by a community of citizens who sent the most highly trained and vetted astronauts into space. But then, I’m only one rabbit and I can remember the thrill, excitement, and joy when I saw our first astronauts exiting from their bobbing capsules. I saw these events on a small screen, black and white television in my school room. Afterwards, all we could talk about in our classrooms was the heroic journey of these brave individuals and the team that helped them circumnavigate our planet at such heights.
Finally, all rabbits of every stripe can celebrate Memorial Day Weekend. For some of us, this holiday has been reduced to a three day picnic at the lake or the racetrack. Others will decorate the graves of fallen soldiers from one of our many wars, participate in a patriotic parade, or watch a plethora of auto racing events around the world. Memorial Day weekend is the busiest weekend in motorsports, with Formula 1 racing in Monoco, NASCAR at Charlotte, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, and Lucus Oil Pro Motocross Championship from California. This rabbit will be in heaven. You could spend your tax refund on a new Television, many of which will go on sale over the weekend, or you could open a savings account for emergencies. A wise rabbit always has a little something extra stashed away for lean times. One never knows when Mr. McGregor will lock down his garden, since he doesn’t practice the ethics of Isaiah 58:10—
“if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
My old mother rabbit always reminded me if I was feeling down, all I needed to do was help someone less fortunate than me. It would get me out of my funk by focusing on helping another, as well as reminding me my problems were shared by others. Her message was a key to unlock the hero within me, without which I wouldn’t have done half the good I visited upon this world. My hope for each of you rabbits is to find the hero within you. If you allow God to accomplish deeds of courage through you, whether they be great or small, you’ll be transformed.
Are we our works? Are we valued by our works? Is work a noun or a verb? The child in me asks these questions until the parent in me wants to answer, “I don’t know. Go ask Alexa!”
We’ve all been there with the rug rats of our families and kinfolks. Children are curious and for this we’re grateful. This incessant questioning is their way of learning about the world. It’s altogether better than a puppy’s chewing on every new object it comes across. If families are to encourage their child’s interest, they get them a library card so they can have internet access and books to read, and they answer as many questions as possible. If they don’t know the answer, “Go look it up in Google or the encyclopedia.”
In ancient Greece, Socrates taught by asking his students questions, a technique we call the Socratic Method. Some of us teach art in this way also. When we see the student at a stopping point, we teachers ask, “Are you having a problem and not figuring out a solution?”
The student can usually point out what they want to change on their work, but they don’t have the experience or prior learning to drawn upon to solve it. For instance, if the flower petals all look flat because they’re painted in one color, the beginning student knows this doesn’t look right, but they need a trained eye to point out the variety of values in the petals. Once they see the gradation of light to dark, it’s never again unseen. We know it’s there.
Teachers can point out the range of values from dark to light that make up the visual vocabulary of shading a two dimensional image so it looks like a three dimensional shape. Students can learn this technique and master it over time. Mastery then becomes a matter of hand and eye coordination. In a sense, we have to lose ourselves in the subject matter so we can let its energies enter into our hearts and minds, and quicken our hands. The rest is a matter of practice and learning how our egos can quit controlling the outcome.
The spiritual writer and Jesuit priest Richard Rohr speaks of the three eyes in his book, The Naked Now. The first eye grasps what the senses can understand, the second eye understands the science and poetry, while the third eye is aware of all of the above, but especially how all things connect as part of God’s great mystery. When we enter into this “now,” we’re present not only to God, but to all creation, as well as our own selves. This is the contemplative spirit for which the artist strives, and not just for the mastery of the materials or for the rendering of the subject matter.
If we allow this energy to move our hands, does that mean our work also becomes part of us? If we baked a simple yellow cake out of a box, we might not ask that question. When we start decorating a cake made from scratch and adding frillies of frosting, then we start identifying with the cake. Should someone smash the cake enroute to the soirée, there’ll be hockey sticks to pay.
I remember almost fainting in Italy when I saw a glue blob on one of my delicate watercolor paintings, which had just been framed for an exhibition there. A stiff shot of some unknown alcohol brought me back to life. The framer made it good, for the glue was water soluble, so we could gently lift it up. I was more of a drama Queen in my 20’s also. I take things as they come these days. I also was more immature, for I didn’t separate my work from my identity.
Some say we are what we eat, so then are we what we create? Jesus had an answer in Mark 7:18-19 for those who thought certain foods were unclean, or forbidden to eat:
“He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
That fancy dinner we ate two nights ago leaves us after a few cups of coffee in the morning. We don’t recognize it and most of us don’t even inspect it as we flush it down the toilet on its way out the sewage pipes to the sanitation station. Of course, only parents can get excited about their two year olds who manage to do their “business” in the toilet instead of in their diapers. I know I was one of those. If Facebook had been invented back in the day, I’m sure I’d have posted an update.
As we grow older, we enjoy making and crafting for the experience of the textures and the command of the materials. Children have fun pushing the paints, papers, and glue all around the surface of their artwork. Parents often look askance at the grey, scribbled messes their children excitedly present to them for the honored place on the refrigerator display, but these muddy creations are the result of a dramatic story of their child’s imagination. “Interesting, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Is an adult’s best response in this situation.
I’ve had kindergarten children meltdown because they had difficulty cutting a snowman on the fold. It’s hard to be five years old and live in a home in which the parents don’t want their children to make a mess. These children, as a result, have poor fine motor skills, have difficulty writing, and handling scissors. Even folding a piece of paper is tough. Then they miss the important information: hold the fold, and cut on the flaps. If they hold the flaps instead, they end up with two halves of a snowman. And a meltdown into tears.
“I’ll never be able to make a snowman! My snowman is cut in two pieces. Why can you make a perfect snowman and I can’t?”
This lesson always called for me to wear my therapy hat, and remind my five year old students I’d been making folded snowmen for a very long time and my first ones looked just like theirs did. There was hope for them. We just needed to go over the directions again and make one together. Sometimes we miss a step, and that’s ok. It’s just a piece of paper. It’s not like we took away recess from everyone forever.
Usually when we went over the directions again, I could remind them of the way to hold the fold and cut the flaps. Then they’d all be amazed at how easy the project was. “Everything is easier when you follow the directions.” They’d laugh and start decorating their snowman, all their meltdowns forgotten.
Most of us aren’t successful the first time we attempt a new experience. If we were all extraordinary artists right off the mark, none of us ever would get excited about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Picasso. If we could all pick up a musical instrument and play it well right off the bat, who’d have the need for civic symphonies or even bar bands? We’d all be happy making our own music. The truth is some of us not only have the interest and inclination, but also the will to spend not just hours, but years, honing our craft, until we sing our notes purely or paint with a master’s hand.
If we all aren’t masters, we all can enjoy the journey if we learn to detach our egos from our products. When I wrote papers in seminary, before I opened up my graded work, I’d repeat the mantra, “I am not my grade. I am a daughter of the living God, chosen for God’s work.” Then I’d look at the markings on the inside. This helped me to remember who I was, whose I was, and what my purpose was. I was also two decades older than that fainting child in Italy.
As I would tell visitors to Perkins, “If your well-being is wrapped up in your grade average, you might want to rethink either that notion or choose another school.” “Oh, really?”
“Yes, if you’re going on for a PhD, you’ll get over a 90 in your classes. The top grade for the Mdiv is 89. If you get any grade higher than that, the professor thinks you could do PhD level work.” “That doesn’t seem right,” they said.
“It’s a curve. If you go elsewhere for a DMin, those schools know Perkins’ grading system. Think of it as an A at 89 and don’t worry about it.”
Some people can’t restructure their world so their 89 is an A, but if that’s the system they’re in, that’s how it is. If they have in their mind nothing less than a 95 will validate their worthiness, then if they do their degree work at Perkins, they’ll always be up against the immovable wall. When they go out into ministry, they’ll discover everyone they meet has a grading system. That can drive a person crazy, unless he or she decides the ultimate approval they seek comes from the one who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Likewise, if we’re beginners in art, we have to suspend our criticism of our imperfections in our work. Instead, we reframe our critiques into “areas which need improvement.” Even now, after decades of working in my studio, I’ll let a canvas rest near me in my living room. I’ll eye it in different lights, until I hear it call my name. I’ve totally repainted some of these, and others I’ve destroyed. A few I leave alone. All of us will keep learning something new, both from our “good paintings “ and our “need improvement works.” Most likely, artists quit painting when they they think they have nothing left to learn, or when they lose the courage to risk moving into the unknown mystery, as it’s written in 1 Corinthians 2:9—
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Paul also writes in Romans 8:27-28,
“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
So we too ask the Spirit to work more in us and free us from attachment to our need to be loved and affirmed by our works, since God is already working for good for those who love God and who are called according to God’s purpose. As we drop our old ideas and preconceived notions of the good, we become open to God’s good and God’s purposes. Releasing control to God is an act of humbleness and faithfulness, both of which are contrary to our modern belief in self-actualization and autonomy. This is the way of the mystic, or the contemplative, and the inspired artist.
When faced with a complicated task, what’s the first thing we need to do? I usually vote to have a cup of coffee and sit down to think about it. Some may call this procrastination, but I call it contemplation. I need to settle my mind, focus my senses, and discern the most important parts of my task. This is necessary, for if I were cutting off a limb from a tree, I’d sure want to get my body placed on the part of the tree that wasn’t going to fall. Keep the most important thing the first thing in mind is always the best practice.
Once our youth group from church went to the Appalachian Mountains for a mission work project. Most of our kids came from poor homes and we arrived in a single church bus, which for some reason the license plate hadn’t got renewed. The group even let me be the navigator. Only by the grace of God did we arrive, for I’m known to be directionally challenged among all my friends.
The other group who attended this session with us came with another truck, complete with all their own tools. Our children were despondent at first, for they felt they couldn’t “compete.” Our adult team leaders reminded them, “We’re here to do the work God has called us to do. This isn’t a contest. Everyone has value and all our work counts toward the greater good.”
That big, well provisioned group got the job of replacing a front porch and a roof. They divided up into a porch and roof team. The porch team finished first, but then they got mad when the roof team had to destroy their work to put the roof on right. They had failed to talk out an overall plan first. If the roofers had started on the porch end, then the porch team could come behind them and work would progress along properly.
This is called team work in groups. Our small group was experienced in talking out the process before we began working, so we knew the consequences of our actions. “If…then” is always an important consideration, especially in our artistic endeavors.
If we’re familiar with the work of Dr. Stephen R. Covey, he talks about putting first things first by organizing and executing around our most important priorities. We live and are driven by the principles we value most, not by the agendas and forces which surround us. Pleasing others isn’t God’s purpose for us, but to do God’s work of loving all and serving the least of God’s people.
When we look at a landscape, we have to select the primary image to emphasize, and relate the other forms around this important image. In the still life, we might drive ourselves crazy trying to paint every single petal, pistil, and leaf of some flowers in a vase, or we could find the most important shapes, which give us enough visual cues to let the viewer say, “Yes, this is a flower painting.” Not every leaf needs to be given the same attention, since our goal is to make a painting, not a rendering of the subject before us.
Some might ask, “Why do we return to this well worn theme from time to time?” The best answer is we continue to learn from our repeated exposure to this theme. For another, our drawing skills improve over time, so we can see our progress. Also, our ability to handle the paint gets better, so we are more comfortable with mixing our colors and planning our composition. Besides, the great artists over the centuries have found this discipline fruitful, so if it benefited them, most likely we’ll get some good from it also. My nanny’s wisdom comes clear here: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
When faced with so many shapes of leaves, a central stem, and a glass vase with ridges and reflections, our untrained brain wants to explode. We have to catch our breath, inhale, and exhale to cleanse our nerves. This is the point we begin our first simplification. If we note the proportions, the leaves are about the same height as the vase, and we can set the vase on a plane (the table) so it has depth. We can mark these off on the bare canvas with light pencil or a light wash of yellow paint. We’ll paint over it later.
The next step of simplification is to get the basic lines and shapes down. These don’t have to be perfect, but give you an idea of where you’re going to paint. If you do this in a pale wash, you can paint over it with the heavier colors in the more exact form. In sculpture, Michelangelo was known for chipping away from the stone everything that didn’t look like his subject. In painting, we add color, tint, and shade until it looks like our subject.
The final stage of simplification is to get the background in. Here you can paint up close to the individual shapes and “clean up the edges.” You can add highlights in places to bring out the foreground shapes, and add a shadow in the background for variety. By this time, the vase ought to be dry enough to put highlights on it also. Notice the leaves aren’t all the same color and they don’t bend the exact same way. Nothing in nature is perfect, for each part grows according to the amount of sun, shade, and nutrients it receives. As one of my old teachers reminded me, “Nature has no straight lines, so you never have to worry about that.”
To show you how sustained effort and intentional looking over time can helps student’s work improve, I offer the following examples from February, 2019, and September, 2020. One was the spider plants and the other the daffodils. I’m not sure who did these, so I won’t identify them.
I merely throw these in here because Gail and Mike have been working with me for several years. If practice hasn’t yet made perfect, it certainly has made improvements, and that’s all anyone can ask for. After all, we’re not asked to be perfect, but to go on to perfection (in love of God and neighbor).
For history buffs a side note. Wild indigo is in the genus Baptisia, which derives from the Greek word, βάπτω, which means “to dip” or “immerse,” just as our baptism (βαπτίζω) does. North American indigenous peoples and early settlers would extract yellow, brown, and green dyes from the leaves and stems of wild indigo, notably blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) and other species. Indigo dye was extracted from yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), but it proved to be an inferior source compared to the treasured true indigo (Indigofera species).
For years, wild indigo remained an obscure historical relic, its ornamental and ecological contributions undiscovered and under appreciated. Yet, in the springtime, wild indigo produces tall spikes of pea-like flowers that rise above the gray- to blue-green three-lobed leaves to provide nearly a month long display of color. The flowers sustain bumblebees and other winged pollinators, while the leaves feed the larvae of a variety of butterflies that include the wild indigo duskywing, frosted elfin, eastern tailed-blue, silver-spotted skipper, and various sulphurs. If you want to encourage butterflies in your garden, this is a hardy, drought tolerant, and deer resistant plant.
Gail found the plants with their unique seed heads on a hike last week. This subject matter was received with more joy than my suggestion of apples. Evidently, what was good enough for the great master Cezanne is an acquired taste for my students. I might need to bring apple pie to soften them up. I’m not above bribery for a good cause. Besides, pie would be a great still life. Gail got a very detailed drawing of the leaves, the vase, and the grouping’s placement on the table. She sketched in the counterbalanced stick with its mossy growth. This was the quickest I’ve seen her work, for she’s usually very deliberate in her choices.
We had a full house last Friday, so Mike sat at a different table. He had to paint with the added burden of looking over his shoulder periodically to check his work. He began to paint more from emotions than from sight, which isn’t a bad choice. As long as his work carries enough of the vocabulary of the image to speak its message, he’s good with it. It’s the energy, the experience of painting, and using his mind to solve a problem in his own creative way that engages his interest. So if his painting looks “less real” than Gail’s, it doesn’t mean it’s less successful. He began from a different place, so his destination is also different.
A new member of our group, Sally is experimenting with techniques and tools, as well as the paint itself. This week she came with heavy body Liquitex paints, the professional quality paint, which has more pigment than binder. She was so used to the thin bodied paints, however, she watered down these excellent colors. When she asked why they weren’t working like she thought, I pointed out, “You’re supposed to use them straight out of the tube, thick.” This is why we have a group session, so we can learn together. Sally also had a new fan brush, which she used to make brown decorative marks all over her canvas. “I just wanted to try it!” Now that she knows, maybe she’ll plan ahead. I really like the swaying energies of her leaves. They’re happy and full of life. If this were in bright colors, Matisse would be proud.
Lauralei brought an interesting solution to our subject this past week. The clear vase was a little intimidating, so she, like several others, colored it solid. When we first learn to swim, we want the security of water wings or the proximity of the edge of the pool. We all take small steps before we take bigger steps. She got the stick and fringed moss down and the many leaves of the plant.
Making all these decisions takes a lot of energy. Our brains use about 20% of our calories, so if we’re engaged in a new challenge, our blood sugar can dip if we’re not careful. If we aren’t aware of this, we can run out of energy or make careless choices. As someone who has prediabetes, I get low blood sugar easily. Stress and excitement can cause my blood sugar to dip. I always bring a small snack as well as eat a good breakfast with whole grain complex carbohydrates, like old fashioned oats. That snack is important, since I test my blood sugar before I drive home.
I’ve learned the hard way if my blood glucose reading is under 80, it’s falling and my driving skills will be going south too. I usually know I’m having trouble, for I can’t string two thoughts together and I begin to overwork my painting. I can’t make the good decision to stop while I’m ahead. Not everyone has this problem, but learning to recognize when you’re tired or just painting with no purpose in mind, is also an acquired skill. Taking care of our bodies so we can fully enjoy exploring a new adventure is a gift we can give ourselves. We only have one body in which to live out God’s purpose for our lives.
Dusty concentrates well and gets a good shape on his canvas before he sets out to paint. I can’t read his mind, but it seems as he draws, the steps he needs to paint his image come into his mind. This is contemplating at a deep level. It’s not surface thinking, but an inner, deep knowledge that percolates up from within. I mention it’s an icon, for the tablecloth is tipped upward as if it were a background, not a flat plane on which the vase sits. This isn’t something he did by choice, since we haven’t done a lesson on perspective together. In the language of icons, the four cornered shape represents the world and its cardinal directions, or all creation. So we have one plant and all creation, as Paul said to the Romans (8:19-21):
“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”
We’ll take Friday, February 4, off due to the frozen roads. On February 11, we’ll do paper Valentine collages. Y’all stay warm and safe. Eat hearty soups and enjoy the beauty of the snow.
Joy and peace,
Manet: Chrysanthemums and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, 1882, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.