Valentine’s Day is all about love. Television advertisements push candies, dipped gold “eternal” roses, gaudy jewelry—a price for every pocketbook—and the dating apps have been in full swing since the new year.
“Everybody needs somebody to love,” the old song goes. The Blues Brothers sing this oldie before their mad escape from the Illinois Law Enforcement Community. Solomon Burkes treats it with his indigenous soul blues from his lived experience and The Rolling Stones give it their percussive upbeat treatment. Wilson Picket has a good cover, but I don’t recommend the explicit version of Rod Wave’s Sneaky Links. Fitz and the Tantrums was interesting. My “old person “ is probably showing about the edges here.
We all can love our friends or sweethearts, especially in mid February. After all, February is “for lovers.” The bigger question is, How do we love our enemies? Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his book, A Gift of Love, writes:
“First, we must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. (The one) who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. It is impossible even to begin the act of loving one’s enemies without the prior acceptance of the necessity, over and over again, of forgiving those who inflict evil and injury upon us.”
Well, how can I forgive the person who hurt me, my child, my family, my tribe, or my community? We all want that person to come crawling to us and ask for forgiveness, but that’s not how radical love works. We want the wrong doer to show remorse and ask us for mercy and forgiveness. This puts them in a subordinate position and us in a position of power. But that’s not how radical love works. Radical love initiates forgiveness, even if the wrongdoer never shows contrition.
Dr. King goes on to say:
“It is also necessary to realize that the forgiving act must always be initiated by the person who has been wronged, the victim of some great hurt, the recipient of some tortuous injustice, the absorber of some terrible act of oppression.”
Why must the wronged take on the indignity of offering forgiveness to unrepentant wrongdoers? In this act, we become most like Christ on the cross, who in his final moments, forgave not only the thief who asked for forgiveness, but also all those who crucified him, who had no intention of repenting. Our problem is we enjoy being like the risen Christ, the one with the “name above all names,” but most of us don’t want to “pick up our cross and follow” Jesus, especially if it leads to an ignominious death on that very cross.
As Dr. King wrote,
“The wrongdoer may request forgiveness. He may come to himself, and, like the prodigal son, move up some dusty road, his heart palpitating with the desire for forgiveness. But only the injured neighbor, the loving father back home, can really pour out the warm waters of forgiveness.”
The injured one, whose heart has been broken and wounded by someone else’s words or deeds, is the only one who can heal the broken rift between them. This is why the deepest lovers of Christ are most often the wounded ones who’ve been healed by God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness. The woman with the alabaster jar of ointment anointed Jesus’ feet in the house of the Pharisee, but the host had failed at the minimum hospitality for his guest, so Jesus reminded him (Luke 7:47):
“Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.”
If we would be healers in our broken and fragmented world, we need to first address our own woundedness. Each of us has a hidden pain or suffering, for this is the human condition. If we give this to God, our healing makes us into vessels where our cracks are filled with precious gold. We can offer more love, more forgiveness, and more hope to people who have been sitting in darkness and despair. People are waiting for joy and love to flow out in abundance from God’s heart into our hearts and into their world. Then we can be the light in the darkness for them, the holy fire that lights the embers of hope in their hearts, not just on St. Valentine’s Day, but every day.
Joy, Peace, and Love,
Excerpt from A Gift of Love | Penguin Random House Canada By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Chapter 5, Loving Your Enemies
On September 5, we celebrate Labor Day, and our kids are already back in school. We’re once again slowing down in school zones in the morning and afternoon, and setting an extra plate at the kitchen table for our absent college freshman. We might even see the first fall colors when the Fall Equinox comes around at the end of the month.
September is when we set aside our summer white clothes and shoes to change our closet over for darker colors and longer lengths. My dear mother had a rule of never wearing white past Labor Day. This quaint fashion principle dates from before Memorial Day, which was instituted in 1868 after the Civil War. This rule helped to separate the old money families, who summered in the country and at the seashore, from those who stayed to struggle on in the grimy cities, which were polluted by coal fired engines. These urban families usually wore dark clothes year round, as the rich did when they returned to their city residence.
Air conditioning has changed this now, but wearing starched, white cotton still reminds people you either have money to send your clothes to the cleaners or hire laborers to do it for you. Or, you might just work extra hard to look like one of the first two. This bunny has reached the age of dripping dry all those cotton clothes. I actually do more ironing when I do a craft project, such as quilting, since those seams need to be pressed open to make a good square. As this bunny has aged, I’ve changed my mind about what I think is important enough to worry about.
September is also a time to reassess the three core myths which animate much of American life. These myths are we can give 100% to our work, 100% to our family, and 100% to our personal health. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been able to do this type of higher math without going bananas or feeling significant amounts of guilt that I’m not doing enough in one of those areas. Eventually I learned I was only Wonder Woman in my fantasies, but not in real life. I also realized other people who managed better than I hired help for the housework to free themselves up for family time.
Somewhere along the line we’ve bought into the myth of the “ideal worker,” who “has no competing obligations that might get in the way of total devotion to the workplace.” The second myth is the “perfect parent,” who “always puts family first.” The last myth is the “ultimate body,” which is cultivated through diligent dieting and exercise, and doesn’t deteriorate with age.
The authors of Dreams of the Overworked, note in the digital age, when people can post curated images of their best lives, “Achieving even one of these myths would be impossible, but achieving all three is ludicrous.” If your daily stress has increased and you feel like everything you do isn’t enough, I suggest deep breathing with your eyes closed (unless you’re driving a vehicle!). Once you get some extra oxygen to your brain, you’re in a position to calmly reconsider your situation. Not all situations are hair on fire, unless you’re a two year old with separation anxiety. Most of us beyond this age have experience and memories which can guide our future behaviors. An ancient proverb is “Experience is the mother of wisdom,” or as my folks used to say, “The school of hard knocks is the most expensive degree you’ll ever pay for.” Live and learn. With age comes wisdom.
Now that you’re calmer, you can decide, “Do I have options? Do I have a support system with people who can help me discern my way? Can I lay down my false self image of competence so I can ask for help? Can I triage my priorities to say NO to the less important ones, even if it means not pleasing everyone in my social circle?”
Speaking of options, women are primarily responsible for housework and childcare, not only in America, but also across the pond. About 91% of women with children spend at least an hour per day on housework, compared with 30 % of men with children. The latest available data shows that employed women spend about 2.3 hours daily on housework; for employed men, this figure is 1.6 hours. Gender gaps in housework participation are the largest among couples with children, at 62 p.p., demonstrating an enduring imbalance in unpaid care responsibilities within families. This leads to women taking lower and slower career paths.
September 22 is the Fall Equinox. We’re already seeing signs of seasonal leaf color changes, due to heat stress and drought. Some call this “False Fall,” but I call it a sign of hope. Trees will drop their leaves in order to survive in extreme conditions. Although some claim plants are sentient, they don’t have a brain or consciousness that we can recognize. They do interact and react to their environments. Their first priority is survival. Photosynthesis and the subsequent leaf abscission after changing color is part of this process. I always look for the change of light which precedes this event. One morning last week, I noted the color of the morning light had turned cooler, and wasn’t the warm yellow of summer. I also had a spark of energy I hadn’t had before. I look forward to more daylight.
This bunny is very fond of September, since I’ve always been eager to start fresh and new. I always got new pencils and a new manilla paper writing pad when I started elementary school. Later on, as I progressed up in grades, ink pens with cartridges were a special treat. Even to this day, I keep my journals with hand written ink in good paper books. I love the feel of these materials in my hands. I probably would have stayed in school my whole life if possible. The day our brains quit learning something new is the day our minds begin to die.
That leads me to remind my bunny friends that Alzheimer’s disease is the 7th leading cause of death in the USA and it’s the most common cause of dementia in persons over 65. While most of you may not be baby boomers, you young bunnies have grandparents or parents of that age. Today, about 6.5 million Americans have Alzheimer’s disease, but that number is expected to almost double to 12.7 million by 2050. Perhaps beginning September with World Alzheimer’s Day is a good reminder for all of us to be proactive about our health choices, so we can live independently as long as possible into our senior years.
I also like Positive Thinking Day, since reframing negative thoughts into positive ones changes our attitude, our behaviors, and then we get better outcomes as a result. If you don’t feel like being Batman on the 17th, you can ARRRGUH yourself about, MATEY, as you Talk Like a Pirate on the 19th. Bonus points if you wear an eye patch, earring, and tricorne hat or bandana on your head.
The Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah begins at sunset on the 25th. It’s one of the four “new year” celebrations in their religious calendar. This one recalls God’s creation of humanity, as well as the legal new year. On this one night in September, when the faithful eat apples dipped in honey or other sweet sauces, they remember how God originally created humans in a sinless state and wish each other a good year to come.
Did I forget International Bacon Day? How can any rabbit forget bacon? Someone will cut my carrot rations for the future, I fear. But if I remember to keep the coffee pot full, I’ll probably get out of the rabbit hoosegow before National Coffee Day on the 29th.
Some interesting holidays we can celebrate this month are: Better Breakfast Month (I suggest bacon, eggs, and pancakes on the weekend and old fashioned oatmeal during the week). There’s also Hispanic Heritage Month and National Sewing Month. Finally, every year on September 30th is National Love People Day. The purpose of the day is to show love to everyone—no exceptions. National Love People Day offers us the opportunity to show unconditional love, which many have never experienced. When we genuinely love our neighbors and express it with kind words and thoughtful deeds, we make our world a better place. This the true meaning of “love your neighbor as yourself.”
Maybe one meaning of loving your neighbor is offering a meal to them. Food insecurity is increasing once again, this time due to increased rents and costs of transportation. Consider a weekly meal service from your church building or organization’s meeting place. It doesn’t need to be fancy, but calories and nutrition would help hungry people have the strength to move on from their current situations. Joining with other groups to cover all the days of the week would be a bonus to your community, not only for the hungry, but also for the smaller groups who could team up to share in the blessing of loving their neighbors.
Until the spice is on the pumpkin, I wish all my bunny friends
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
My spiritual journey always has a late start, but I suppose my lateness is irrelevant in the realm of the God whose time is eternal and everlasting. God’s time is always kairos time, or the time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action. God always works at the opportune and decisive moment, never before or after. As Gandalf says in The Lord of the Rings, “A wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.”
I don’t claim to be a wizard, and I’d never accuse God of being a mere wizard, but I didn’t get the appellation, “the usually late, but sometimes great” Cornelia DeLee for nothing. Am I time challenged as well as directionally challenged? Or do I take on too many tasks, as well as push some of these too close together as I near the starting line for my journeys? Maybe some of both. At one time before the pandemic, I could get a car care appointment in Little Rock in two days, but now it takes three. There goes my Friday. Saturday night I spoke for three hours with my oldest granddaughter and turned into bed early in the morning after taking my medicine.
On Sunday, I was packing in zombie mode at ultra slow speed and was on the road by 3:30 pm. My intentions had been to leave by 10 am and arrive at 4 pm. At best, I now would arrive by 8 pm, but with my need for pit stops, I knew my arrival would be later still. I got to see the sunset change the light on the rolling Grant Wood hills of north Louisiana and later I watched the land turn lavender as the early evening turned to dusk. As I drove further south, the road itself became a dark blue-violet velvet ribbon, until the last rays of light left the sky and only shades of grays and blacks remained.
As I made my way past Natchitoches, Louisiana, the colorful lights of this historic city reminded me of the Christmases of my childhood and the many times my family traveled to the waterfront to see their seasonal lights and fireworks display. As I recall, my family was big on loud explosions of color at holiday times, for we also visited our riverfront’s Fourth of July festivities in the summertime. My dad believed fireworks were best left to the professionals, for he never wanted his own children to lose a precious digit or an eye in an accident with gunpowder.
I arrived safely at my destination, even though I drove in the dark. I usually malign Mapquest for its errant choices, but this time, it didn’t send me by the scenic route. While I’ve discovered many unusual places because of Mapquest, this was one trip in which I made a point to point journey. I missed the whole first day, even though I’d planned to get there by 4 pm at the latest. I’ve never met a Plan A I couldn’t transform into a Plan B. This excursion was no exception.
In the darkness at the retreat center, I met a young man who directed me to the office. I thought I said, “Thank you, honey,” but he heard me say, “Thank you, sonny.” I guess I’ve crossed into old lady land, or my trip aged me. It didn’t help I tried to drive over the concrete curbing, which I thought was where the shortcut to the central building should have been. They didn’t consult me when they first laid out the streets here, or they would have included a logical road at this place. There’s a wisdom in not pouring the walks or streets until folks make the way, since commuters will find the shortest distance from place to place.
Monday was a good day in that I started well, but I missed the afternoon teaching session due to napping. I did have the best intentions, but forgot to return my phone’s ringer to loud. The small chirping sound didn’t arouse me from my much needed slumber. I noticed the crepe myrtles along the pathways to the conference room have shed their outer bark. These scraps have settled in the crooks of the trees, as if the crepe myrtles were loath to give them up. Only mature crepe myrtles lose their bark by peeling, not the immature trees. As I thought about this, the image of the circumcised heart from Deuteronomy 10:16-18 came to my mind:
“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.”
When the crepe myrtles mature, they’re able to reveal the beauty of their trunks only if they shed their bark. If we humans would take a lesson from these trees, we’d shed our false fronts and show off our inner beauty to the world around us. Instead, we hide behind our “protective barks” or “facades of competence, strength, or knows it all,” so we can show our false selves to other people’s false selves. Then we wonder why we’re all so immature and fake.
Sometimes we gardeners try to “treat the bark shedding” as a problem by fumigation or poisoning the unseen fungus causing the bark drop. We don’t realize this is a natural state of this tree, rather than a disease to cure. “Too old to care what you think anymore,” is the mature crepe myrtle’s motto, just as the old lady wears purple with a red hat and doesn’t care what you think about that! The world wants us to keep our bark on, to stay spiritually immature, but if we’re to grow in grace, the bark has to come off.
When the bark comes off the mature crepe myrtles, we can see the many colors of their trunks. They’re a delight to behold, and even more beautiful when the rain brings out their subtle coloration. Most of us think our inner selves need to be always hidden, for “if people only knew who we really were, they might not like us.” We also try to hide from God, even though Jesus reminds us in Luke 8:17—
“For nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed, nor is anything secret that will not become known and come to light.”
This is because of God’s nature, as described in Sirach 42:18—
“He searches out the abyss and the human heart; he understands their innermost secrets. For the Most High knows all that may be known; he sees from of old the things that are to come.”
Once we realize God knows our hidden nature or our inner truth, we want to hide our nakedness with clothes made of sticky fig leaves. The ancient story tellers had a sense of humor, for this choice of clothing was only one step above a garment made of poison ivy. No one ever said our ancestors or their progeny were smart. But we have a gracious God, who gave humanity clothes made of skins to wear when they were sent out from their first home.
Ever since the garden, humanity has tried to hide their true selves from an all knowing God. As my daddy used to say, “Darling, I don’t think you’re getting smarter with age. You’re supposed to learn from your mistakes and not repeat them.” Some of us mature slower than others, but the race isn’t to the swift. It’s to the ones who persist, for God has a time for each of us. We will always arrive at the crux of time when God’s time for us is prepared, just as it was for Queen Esther in Esther 4:14—
“For if you keep silence at such a time as this, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.”
Like the wizards of old, God is preparing each of us to be in the right place at the right time. Our only question is, Are we willing to answer God’s call to act for the good of God’s people when that time comes? As Gandalf reminds us in The Lord of the Rings, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I was attending a 5 day academy for spiritual formation last week, sponsored by the Upper Room of the United Methodist Church. We were blessed to have support from the Arkansas United Methodist Foundation. Our leadership group had Methodists from Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as Cooperative Baptists from Mississippi. Ours was an inclusive group of young, old, black, and white Christian folks who share a love for God and neighbor. It’s very interesting, for the Cooperative Baptists split from their more conservative crowd to give women in ministry a voice as the Holy Spirit called them.
Today, we Methodists are approaching a split because some conservatives want to leave. I won’t be leaving because I did my dropping out when I was younger. I rejected everything and everyone that was the establishment. I came back because God had faith in me, even when I’d lost faith in God. If God was willing to be steadfast in love for me, who was I, the prodigal daughter, to say no to God? And so this is the opportune time, this present moment, when we learn God is always with us, God will always be with us , and God will be with us until the end of the age.
I’m back home now, full of Lea’s pie from LeCompte, Louisiana, and happy to continue the meditations and insights I learned from our speakers. If we listen more, speak less, and spend more time in God’s holy silence, we might discover the gifts of communication and compassion. The traits of winning at all costs as we take no prisoners is very warlike, and not the way of peace. Of course, this is the way of our media personalities, not our saints. We ought to be forming our personalities after Christ and the saints, rather than media personalities, but now I’ve gone to meddling again.
Perhaps I should have a bite of the delightful yam loaf I brought back from Lea’s Pie Place. That might sweeten me up!
What a difference a month makes! Only a few weeks ago, I was speaking with a rabbit pal, who was ground down by her constant caregiving in this pandemic world. She cares for elderly rabbits in a nursing home, a vulnerable population, plus she’s grieved the passing of several of her own family members lost to COVID.
“I’m not getting another shot,” she said. “I’m so tired of COVID, I could scream.” “I know,” I replied, “but this isn’t over. As long as we have hosts—those who either can’t or won’t get vaccinated—COVID is going to mutate and stick around.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that! We’ve been through alpha, beta, and gamma. We’re on omicron now. What’s next?”
I laughed. “It doesn’t matter. It could be gigatron, megaton, or atragon—they’re all monsters and we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. We’ll do what ever it takes to beat those monsters, just like in the Japanese movies.”
Her mood lifted somewhat, for in these hard times a friend has to be a support. I was only returning the favor, for she’s been my rock when I’ve been down.
Speaking of monsters, I love Japanese films. I once had a boyfriend in college who had a fondness for Japanese films.
“Oh, me too!” I exulted. “What’s your favorite ?” he asked. “I really like Mothra and Godzilla,” I replied to his frozen face.
He favored more arcane fare, such as The Burmese Harp, Rashomon, and others with samurai military themes. We did share a common love of pasta, but his military service took him elsewhere, and my artistic sensibilities took me to a different place also.
We rabbits like to escape from reality when life gets too real at times, as it has this past month. The Bible speaks of “the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle,” in 2 Samuel 11:1. When the sap rises and the light gets brighter, some circadian rhythm must kick in that sets off a power struggle amongst the powers that be. When I taught school back in the day, all my rabbit students were wild as hares from April Fool’s Day until the last day of school in May. During my first year teaching, we got an extra week of spring break, since we didn’t use any of our snow days.
My old daddy found me crying on that Monday morning. “What’s wrong, honey?”
I sobbed, “We only have one more week of vacation before school starts again!” “It’s all downhill from here, honey. You can do this,” he said, encouragingly. “Dry those tears and let’s share a cup of coffee at the breakfast room table.”
Life is always better with coffee, and with an older bunny to talk some sense back into you. At least my daddy was always willing to listen to my tales of woe. I must have been a real drama queen back when I was young, but surviving those “bad old days” meant I could take my turn later on and help other young rabbits through their peaks and valleys. As the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10—
“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
One of the ways I would escape reality was to watch those Japanese monster movies. They weren’t always long on plot or character development, but you could count on lots of action. Atragon, a huge monster of the Mu empire, an underwater civilization that was supposedly extinct, resurfaced in one movie to declare war against all nations. The sole hope of humanity seemed to lie on Captain Hachiro Jinguji, who refused to surrender, and his atomic super-submarine, the Gotengo. When the Mu and their evil Queen kidnapped his daughter, he decided to attack them. Earthquakes and battles between submarines and the great sea monster ensued.
I’ve always found watching monster movies and the concomitant destruction they cause easier than watching the actual mayhem reported on the evening news, but then I grew up in the Vietnam era. I always had difficulty with the people my parents’ age who wanted to “bomb the North Vietnamese back to the Stone Age.” Now when I see a Russian dictator doing this very deed to Ukraine, an independent nation, I have even more distaste for this activity. I’m reminded how easy it is for us to project a demonic nature on those who do terrible, unprovoked, and unimaginable deeds on others.
In the years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese worked out their fears of another nuclear horror or the after effects of that first one with their mutated monsters by atomic radiation. Today, we have movies which deal with our fears of robots taking over the world or artificial intelligence throwing over its creators.
These aren’t new themes, of course, for Greek mythology tells of the early Titan king Chronos, who swallowed all his children, so none would fulfill the prophecy of taking his throne. When Zeus was born, his mother spirited him away. When he grew up, he came home, caused his father to vomit up his siblings, and together they defeated him. This is how the gods came to rule the heavens, the oceans, and the underworld. These gods were made in the image of human kind, so while they were more beautiful, stronger, and immortal, they were also given to the same passions and consequences as those besetting humanity.
The Greeks and Romans were always in a contest of power, whether between the gods, gods and humans, or humans alone. Nothing was ever in a steady state. Their great leaders were known both for their military successes as well as their political prowess. They were leaders both in peace and war. The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “War is both king of all and father of all, and it has revealed some as gods, others as men; it has made some slaves, others free” (no. 22 fragment B53).
Native American tribes have a story of the warring nature we each carry within us. It’s commonly known as “the two wolves” or “the grandfather story.”
“I have a fight going on in me,” the old man said. “It’s taking place between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
The grandfather looked at the grandson and went on. “The other embodies positive emotions. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. Both wolves are fighting to the death. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person, too.”
The grandson took a moment to reflect on this. At last, he looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee gave a simple reply. “The one you feed.”
We each have a wolf or a Godzilla within ourselves, but sometimes we fail to notice it. Instead we see it only in the outsiders, in our enemies, or those whom we’ve excluded from our privileged circle. How we manage this “darkness” within us, how we the battle the “enemy within,” is the great work Jung spoke to when he proposed the presence of the Shadow within each of us.
When the world is falling apart, we too feel unmoored. When a dictator attempts to redraw the borders of another country, our cognitive maps also fall apart. If that part of the world isn’t safe, is our world at risk also? Even though we know change is inevitable, will the apple cart be set on fire or just dumped over? We rabbits aren’t the bravest animals, so we can borrow trouble from the morrow, as well as from the next half hour. Somehow we have to revision our old lives, shed our old cocoons, and renew our selves for the new world to which we find ourselves awakening.
A hundred years ago, T. S. Elliott wrote these opening lines of his famous poem, The Waste Land. In the days after the end of World War I, his wife was suffering from mental illness and his marriage was falling apart because she was having an affair with another man. He too was suffering from the shared grief of the loss of so many in the Great War, as well as his own personal relationship problems. He wrote this poem at a sanatorium, where he was taking a “cure” for his own mental health.
April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers.
If we’re ever to understand the great mysteries of faith, we have to meet the darkness within us. That’s what is symbolized by the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The loneliness in the garden of Gethsemane, the descent into the grave, and the rising back to life once again. If ever we’ve had this loneliness, emptiness, and sense of rebirth, we’re participating in the Easter mystery. Once we die to our old selves, we can live the Christ life, not just a life assenting to the doctrines of the Christian faith.
No one will be able to call us rabbits April Fools, even if they call us fools for Christ. Let’s celebrate this month some of the great faith holidays, and don’t forget your taxes are due. That perhaps is “the cruelest” event of April.
April 3—Ramadan begins—revelation of the Koran to Muhammad April 10–Palm Sunday April 14–Maundy Thursday April 15–Good Friday & Income Tax Day April 16–Passover & Holy Saturday Vigil April 17–Easter April 18–Easter Monday (Emmaus Monday) April 24–Orthodox Easter April 28–Holocaust Remembrance Day April 29–Laylat al Qadr is the day in Ramadan that observes the night when the Prophet Mohammad received the first verses of the Koran
In art class, I taught our group the time honored technique of using a cartoon to transfer an image to another surface. Of course, their first reaction was, “Are we watching Saturday morning cartoons today?”
“No, it’s Friday. We’re going to make our own carbon paper,” I said, as I showed them how artists of old would rub graphite on the back of their drawings and then outline the major lines onto the wall or the canvas to transfer the image. The J. Paul Getty Museum has a great video on YouTube explaining this process.
“You mean we’re going to paint by number?” “Not a chance. You still have to make your own color decisions and shading choices.” Really, by now you’d think they know my opinion on the easy way. As Jesus says 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.”
I didn’t bring any complicated images of the holy icons. I brought only ones with simple outlines. I knew this project wasn’t going to be as easy as people first thought. It’s not as simple as coloring within the lines.
An icon is an image of a holy person, but it isn’t a mere representation of the individual. When we make photographs or even painted portraits, we seek to make “likenesses” of the individual, and capture their outward details and idiosyncrasies. If we can also capture their inner spirit, we take the image to a master level. Icons, however, are more concerned with representing the inner, spiritual nature of the person, rather than their outward nature. After all, we don’t have any images of how the holy ones from the earliest days of faith actually looked. We only have their acts and the symbols connected with them, so in the iconography we can identify them by these qualities. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikōn ‘likeness’ and -graphia ‘writing’, so when we paint, we’re actually “writing a likeness” of the holy image.
In the iconographic tradition, all of the faces are broad across the brow, to represent the holy wisdom of God residing in the saints, just as their elongated figures and extremities accent this holiness. The eyes, windows into the soul, are large compared to a natural face, while the mouth is small. The small mouth indicates the saint has conquered bodily passions. There’s always an ear open on an icon, for the icon needs to “hear our prayers.” Not that the icon is alive, but it’s more like an open window into heaven. Therefore, the saint’s ear is the open window through which our prayers flow into the golden light of the mysterious world beyond this material one in which we dwell both in shadows and light.
The color in icons also plays an important role. Red belongs to martyrs. Blue stands for wisdom. White symbolizes paradise and chastity. Green is the color of the Venerable Fathers. Gold symbolizes sanctity.
The icon painter and teacher of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Svetlana Vasyutina once described an experience before the iconostasis or screen of images of the saints in the church. “A while ago, I was tortured by the question why it is golden. Once I was standing at a church, looking at the iconostasis. Suddenly, they turned off the electric lights, and only candles before the icons were burning. The golden traces were shining, giving back the light. It was as if, not the candles, but the halos, were radiating light. I was amazed; the light seemed not material, not as comes from a candle or a lamp. The golden color shows the person painted in the icon was granted a different kind of light.”
According to St. Paul, glory (doxa) appears where the form and the idea of God, which inhabits it, become one. This is especially true where form becomes a place of theophany (a visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god), where the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. This glory is represented by the nimbus or halo of the saints. We hear Paul speak of this power in Philippians 3:21—
“He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
The disciples first saw this glory descending upon Christ on the Mount of the Transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17:2—
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
To become completely transformed by the Holy Spirit wasn’t only a special gift given only to the saints alone, but it was meant for all believers. As Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (American Standard Version)—
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.”
A famous story in the Eastern Orthodox Monastic tradition follows:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Many of us are barely alight with the fire of Christ, and we wonder why the glory of God doesn’t shine through us. Others of us hide our light under a bushel so we don’t stand out from the crowd. If we wonder why we aren’t going onto Christian Perfection in love of God and neighbor, or being a witness to Jesus Christ for others to follow, then we might need to read Abba Joseph’s recommendation once again: “If you will, you can become all flame.”
When we paint an icon, we participate in a spiritual endeavor in which we are coworkers with the Holy Spirit. We enter into a kairos time, or God’s creating time, and are no longer only working only in human, chronological time. This is a mystery, not to be understood in ordinary terms, even if we begin at 10:15 in the morning and stop to cleanup at 11:45. Like the golden background, time has no meaning while we paint the icon. Our cares and concerns of this world can be given to the icon, and thus to God.
We make our prayer gifts in two ways: we hope to become more conformed to the image of God and we hope our images conform better to the icon before us. We’re going on to perfection, one bit at a time. In faith, we expect to be made perfect in love in this life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, or at the moment of our death, as the classic Wesleyan teaching states. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, union with God, from which our Methodist teaching of sanctification derives, teaches we can have real union with God, just as Jesus had, being fully human and fully divine. We don’t become gods, but we participate in the full image of God, in which we were first created.
We can contemplate these beautiful words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (+373), in his treatise On The Incarnation, against the Arian heresy:
‘God became “sacrophore”—bearer of our flesh—so that mankind might become “pneumatophore—bearer of the Holy Spirit.’” (Michael Quenot, THE ICON, p 55)
When we keep our heart set on the image of Christ, we remember his undying love for all creation. Then we learn the meaning of the faith of a loving son or daughter, in comparison to that of an unwilling servant. This is how John Wesley saw his own conversion at Aldersgate:
“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.”
Once we realize the law of sin and death no longer holds us in chains, we can freely live in life and love, now and always, if we conform our image to Christ.
Can you believe we’re almost halfway through 2021? My how time flies when you’re having fun! And to think only a year or so ago, we thought our lives were going to be locked up behind closed doors forever and a day! Amazing how following good hand washing practices, not congregating in large groups, and wearing masks managed to stem the larger transmission of this deadly pandemic in most areas, until we could begin getting shots in people’s arms. Now that about half of Americans are vaccinated, the summer months are looking “like the good ole summertime” of memory.
Folks are going en masse on vacation and indulging their pent up travel bug by plane, car, and train, as well as bus and cruise ship. I live in a tourist town, so a goodly number of the 34 million people who kicked off the summer vacation season by traveling in a car are jamming our city streets. We’re thankful for them, however, for they spend money at the local hotels and restaurants, and that means the folks who work there can support their families. The City of Hot Springs has 38,468 people, while Garland County has 96,371. We have year round visitors, with more enjoying our hospitality in the spring and summer. Annually over 2.1 million people visit us to hold conventions, reunions, weddings, and vacations in our fair, historic town. Some days you can’t stir them with a stick. You’d think this was Times Square in New York City, or a rabbit farm.
But I digress. Those who visit us here in the Ozarks seem to be better mannered than those who travel elsewhere. Perhaps because they drive here, they refrain from alcohol until they arrive, unlike the airline passengers who’ve gained their fifteen minutes of infamy on social media and a lifetime ban from traveling on the friendly skies of the major airlines. No one will miss these bad actors on airplanes in these early days of recovering from the pandemic. Instead, we might want to recover some “good old summertime events and activities” in their place.
Vacation Bible School
One of my fondest memories from childhood was Vacation Bible School. I looked forward to it each year for the arts and crafts projects, the singing, and the snacks. I might have remembered the teachings, but I liked being with my friends from across town, who went to other schools. We could see more of each other during VBS. Children who attended my home church always created a traditional craft, the plaster hand cast. I made one in the 1950’s when I put my right hand into a pie plate full of quickset plaster. After it dried, I was allowed to pick one color to paint it. In the 1980’s, my daughter made the same craft, but she could paint it any way she wanted; she always fancied rainbows.
The Helping Hand
If I learned anything in Bible School, it’s we’re called to give our hands to God’s service for good for all, especially for the weak and defenseless. Also, no hand is too small to serve God. The good news is even if VBS isn’t able to be held inside at one place with the usual songs, skits, and crafts, it could always be held in a park, in a parking lot, or by traveling from backyard to backyard in carpools, or “car pods” as we call them today.
Another fond memory is the neighborhood lemonade or Kool-Aid stand. As I recall, this endeavor was never profitable, but it kept us out of trouble for at least an entire afternoon. If we kids managed to keep our noses clean that long, it was likely a world record. Our parents were glad for the peace and quiet, and the opportunity for adult conversation. We kids worked together to solve our own problems and overcome any obstacles to our sales project. Of course, my brothers usually retorted to my suggestions, “You’re not the boss of me!” To which I’d reply, “But I’m older and I know better!” We’d hash it out and find a middle way.
Sometime in the middle of summer I’d get a break from those ornery brothers and get to go to camp. At first it was YWCA Day Camp, then Church Camp at an old Works Project Administration lake, and on to tent camping with the Girl Scouts. While the water might taste like iron in places, if I were thirsty, I’d drink it gladly. Some places we built our own tables with tree limbs and ropes. I learned knot tying and cooperation out in the woods. I also learned how to cook an entire meal in the coals of a fire by wrapping it in tinfoil. As my daddy would say, “There’s more than one way to skin a cat.”
Speaking of Fathers, a major holiday for all rabbits is Father’s Day on June 20th. We all have a father who has guided us in the good paths of life, even if this person wasn’t our birth or adoptive father. Often it’s another outside the family unit, such as a teacher, a coach, a pastor or lay leader in our faith tradition. For those rabbits among us who had distressing experiences with their fathers, this is a fraught day, for our past memories can color current events and relationships. If we cannot change our past, we can change how the past affects our present and our future. This is part of the healing process by which we face the pains of the past and gain power over the memories so we can have a better future not only for ourselves, but also for the next generation. Otherwise, our pain can become an unwelcome generational inheritance.
Just as soldiers returning from wars have to put aside the mental and physical wounds of wartime with medical and psychological help, anyone who has suffered abuse at the hands of a father figure also needs healing. PTSD help available through the VA for everyone. They have apps available at the link below anyone can access, but nothing takes the place of a human professional. Your health care provider or clergy person can refer you.
Of course, for fathers, the meaning of “manhood” is always in question, as American historian Timothy Marr wrote in American Masculinities: A Historical Encyclopedia (Sage Reference Publication 1st edition) that in the holiday’s early decades, men ‘scoffed at the holiday’s sentimental attempts to domesticate manliness with flowers and gift giving, or they derided the proliferation of such holidays as a commercial gimmick to sell more products — often paid for by the father himself.'” We usually gave Dad a necktie, or handkerchiefs. These are gifts going the way of the dodo bird, so my guess today’s equivalent is sports equipment or tech wearables.
National Iced Tea Day
We have the hot summer of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to thanks for the popularity of iced tea. In fact, if you believe the tales, more new American foods were invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, than during any other single event in history. The list includes the hamburger, the hot dog, peanut butter, iced tea, the club sandwich, cotton candy, and the ice cream cone, to name just a few.
By the First World War, Americans were buying tall glasses, which became commonly known as iced-tea glasses, long spoons suitable for stirring sugar into taller glasses and lemon forks. Prohibition, which ran from 1920 to 1933, helped boost the popularity of iced tea as Americans looked at alternatives to drinking beer, wine and hard liquor, which were made illegal during this period. Cold tea first appeared in the early nineteenth century when cold green tea punches spiked with booze gained in popularity. Recipes for “punches” began appearing in English and American cookbooks, and called for green tea, rather than the black tea consumed by most Americans today.
In 2003, Georgia State Representative John Noel introduced a House Bill proposing that all Georgia restaurants that serve tea be required to serve sweet tea. It was done apparently as an April Fool’s Day joke. Noel is said to have acknowledged that the bill was an attempt to bring humor to the Legislature, but wouldn’t mind if it became law. This is certainly better legislation than some of the recent laws Georgia and other southern states have passed recently to combat the imaginary boogeyman of a stolen election and voter fraud, although there were zero instances of voter fraud in Georgia in 2020, and only 20 total instances in the conservative Heritage Center Voter Fraud Data Base. The ancient, well worn wisdom is “Don’t fix what ain’t broke.”
We meet the middle of our astrological year on the summer solstice, which will occur on June 20, at 10:32 pm CDT in the USA. The most famous solstice site is certainly Stonehenge, in England. The stone settings at Stonehenge were built at a time of “great change in prehistory,” says English Heritage, “just as new styles of ‘Beaker’ pottery and the knowledge of metalworking, together with a transition to the burial of individuals with grave goods, were arriving from Europe. From about 2400 BC, well furnished Beaker graves such as that of the Amesbury Arche are found nearby”.
Perhaps in American society we’re at a turning point, just as the days are approaching the summer solstice. It’s as if we’ve been on a roller coaster carnival ride on the ups and downs, and now we’ve chugged our way up to the very heights. We’re ready to throw our hands up over our heads and scream all the way home and get off the ride ready to go again. We can’t forget the rest of the world beyond our shores, for if we don’t defeat the virus abroad, it will come back to carry us on the roller coaster ride again. Besides, the generosity of the American spirit calls us to heal the nations of the world, for the good of all.
The summer solstice is the longest day of the year of the year, so all good bunnies should remember to reapply sunscreen every few hours if you’re playing in pools or running through sprinklers or enjoying the waves on a sandy beach. A hat is also good. Don’t forget to drink lots of water, for the warm breezes can dry you out, the activity can tire you out, and then you get cranky in the afternoon. Take a nap in the afternoon, or just rest inside in a cool place and read a book. Don’t wait till August to do your whole summer reading program. You’ll thank your old teacher rabbit for this suggestion, as the days begin to dwindle down again and routines require relearning.
I’m in the middle of a condo renovation, so I’ve got very busy rabbits coming and going, with hammering and banging noises all day long. We’re down to the bathroom now, so sometimes I have water and sometimes I don’t, but at least I live near others who can open their homes to me. We’ve all been isolated for the past year, so some of us may take time to lower the walls and learn to once again to trust one another. Not everyone should get the welcome mat, especially unvaccinated persons. Yet hope is on the horizon, for two of the main vaccines have sought full approval from the FDA, and children 12 and above can get the vaccine now.
As we rabbits always say, “Sing praises to the LORD, O you his faithful ones, and give thanks to his holy name. For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” ~~ Psalms 30:4-5
We’ve made it to May, the official door to summer, picnics, swimming pools, backyard cookouts, and slower paced lives. Or so we hope, as the temperatures warm and the pandemic wanes. Of course, this last is dependent not just on our individual responses, or even on our citizens’ cooperative actions, but it also depends on the developed nations of our world sharing our expertise and resources with the larger world’s need. If we ever thought we could build a wall and isolate our people and economy from the outside, our need for imported goods and our desire to travel on cruise ships seems to trump our need for isolation. India’s ongoing coronavirus catastrophe results from an inadequate health care system and a lack of vaccines, oxygen, and PPE. Less than 10 percent of Indians have gotten even one dose, despite India being the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer.
As we come out of our enforced hibernation, like bears we shed our winter coats and start foraging for foods in an ever widening territory. We’re looking for reasons to celebrate and tantalizing foods to taste. The yum factor and new environments suddenly become sirens singing irresistible songs, which have the opportunity to dash our small bark against the rocks if we’re not careful. Like Ulysses, the ancient Greek hero, we travel between Scylla and Charybdis, hoping not to wreck.
Fictional heroes make a big splash in May. On May 1, 1939, Batman, the caped crusader, made his first appearance in Detective Comics Issue #27. Star Wars Day is “May the 4th be with you.” On May 5, 1895, Richard F. Outcault published the first ever cartoon, The Yellow Kid. Since all those years ago, cartoons have seeped into our lives through every media outlet possible. If it weren’t for The Yellow Kid all those years ago, we probably wouldn’t be watching Iron Man and Captain America slugging it out on the big-screen. May 25 is a tribute to author Douglas Adams, who wrote the famed novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
It’s a rather easy day to celebrate and it’s done by taking a towel with you wherever you go: to work, school, or just to the shops. This way you can celebrate such gems of wisdom as, “Nothing travels faster than the speed of light with the possible exception of bad news, which obeys its own special laws.” The only thing that’s truly important on this day is you don’t forget to bring a towel!
Oh, and the answer to the “Great Question of Life, the Universe and Everything” is “forty-two.” In the 1979 novel, the supercomputer Deep Thought takes 7.5 million years to calculate the answer to this ultimate question. The characters tasked with getting that answer are disappointed because it isn’t very useful. Yet, as the computer points out, the question itself was vaguely formulated. To find the correct statement of the query whose answer is 42, the computer will have to build a new version of itself. That, too, will take time. The new version of the computer is Earth. To find out what happens next, you’ll just have to read Adams’s books. For a math geek discussion of the significance of 42, read the link “For Math Fans” below.
Having dispensed with heroes, we can move onto the significant May Days that truly appeal to me. “April showers bring May flowers” is a saying I’ve heard since my childhood ever so long ago. Historians believe this phrase may date back to a 1610 poem, which contained the lines, “Sweet April showers, do spring May flowers.” A longer phrase, “March winds and April showers bring forth May flowers,” has also been traced back to 1886. Of course, this tidbit of wisdom depends upon your geographic location, for folks inland and north may wait until what we southern folks call “early summer” before they get their “springtime.”
“The month of May was come, when every lust heart beginneth to blossom, and to bring forth fruit,” wrote Sir Thomas Malory in Le Morte d’Arthur. The early Greeks called this month Maia, after the goddess of fertility, many of the early May festivals relate to agriculture and renewal. May Day, celebrated on the first with the Maypole, is one such festive event that was more debauched in earlier times, but now survives as a chaste minuet of colorful ribbons woven around a tall pole by children dancing in an interweaving circle below it.
Other modern May festivities include No Pants Day on 5/1, originally an end of the college year prank at the University of Texas, Austin, which spread to other realms needing release, and World Laughter Day, celebrated on the first Sunday of May. This holiday helps raise awareness about the benefits of laughing and promotes world peace through laughter. Laughing can instantly help reduce stress and brings us closer to other people, as we share our happiness with them. Those who take part in World Laughter Day can help spread positivity and cheerfulness to help change the world for the better. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What potent blood hath modest May.”
No Diet Day is May 6, a good day to remember our good health isn’t based on a scale number or a pant size. Instead, our health is dependent on nutritious foods, adequate exercise, and sufficient sleep. Extreme weight loss, except under a doctor’s supervision, usually leads to yo-yo weight gain, with the body gaining back the lost weight and more after severe deprivation. Slow, long term, weight loss is more likely to be permanent loss, since we aren’t “dieting,” but changing our habits. May 11th is Eat What You Want Day. I suggest we don’t follow Oscar Wilde’s habit: “My doctor told me to stop having intimate dinners for four, unless there are three other people.”
Speaking of breaking a fast, May 12th ends the month of Ramadan, the holy month of observance for Muslims. It was during Ramadan Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, received the revelations from angel Gabriel that allowed him to compile the holy book of Quran. Upon arriving in Medina, Muhammad announced Allah had established two days of celebrations for Muslims, Eid Al Fitr and Eid Al Adha. The purpose of Eid Al Fitr was to commemorate the end of the fasting of Ramadan, and mark the start of the Shawwal month, as well as to thank Allah for giving Muslims the perseverance to fast during Ramadan. The customary feast day greeting is “Eid Mubarak,” which translates to “blessed celebration” or “Happy Eid.”
The dessert of May is apple pie. Originally invented in England, the earliest apple pie recipe dates all the way back to 1381. The original recipe is very similar to the one we currently know, but it also included figs, raisins, pears, and saffron. The Dutch also created their own version of the apple pie, and the first recipe was published in a 1514 cookbook. This recipe is very similar to the apple pie we know and love today. Apple Pie Day is May 13th.
English and Dutch settlers brought the apple pie recipes into the colonies of what would become the United States, during the 17th and 18th centuries. They had to wait until the apple trees they planted grew and bore fruit, so at first apples were mainly used to make cider. It was only in the 18th century, when the first apple pie recipes were printed in America, that the dessert quickly grew in popularity. Following this came the 19th century Legend of Johnny Appleseed, whose real name was John Chapman. He crisscrossed the expanding American frontier to bring seeds for apple orchards for homesteaders. He also brought news and the gospel for fifty years.
Chapman, or Appleseed, lives on as a barometer of the ever-shifting American ideal. Some see him as a pacifist, others as an example of the White Noble Savage (so remembered long after the settlers drove indigenous peoples from the land), and others see a mere children’s book simpleton. Some see him as a frontier bootlegger, since he helped expand the hard cider industry. Others see Johnny Appleseed as the patron saint of everything from cannabis to evangelical environmentalism and creation care—everything, that is, but the flesh-and-blood man he really was.
Our heroes are too often cardboard cutouts, and we don’t spend much time reflecting on their shadow sides. Of course, much like a Flat Stanley, a two dimensional character doesn’t have enough density to cast much of a shadow, unless the light is just right. This is why continuing Bible study is so important: most of us stop in grammar school and never get an adult insight into the scriptures. When we meet grownup problems, we have to wrestle the questions of faith that we once easily accepted trustingly. Or we walk out the door and never come back.
One of the most difficult sermons I ever preached was on the first Mother’s Day after my mother died. One of my best clergy pals, who was a mentor in my ministry, had arranged for a single rose to be on the pulpit beside me on that morning. It was a gift of grace and an empowering symbol, for roses were my mom’s favorite flower. Every time I thought I might cry, I held on tight to the polished oak wood and inhaled the fragrance of the rose. Even now, nearly two decades later, I can clearly see this rose and pulpit, and while I remember where I was, I recall the congregation’s faces were a blur on that day. It’s always the second Sunday in May.
I talk about my fresh grief from years ago, for during this current Pandemic too many of us have had present grief and stress, but either have no words for it, or perhaps have no safe place to express it. Then again, we may be “managing the grief of others,” and don’t have time for caring for our own needs. I call this Deferred Maintenance Grief. If you have an old, leaky faucet, you can keep turning the handle tighter for only so long. You can keep the leak stopped for a while, but soon you’ll strip out the insides of the faucet. Once it’s stripped down, it both streams steadily and needs a completely new fixture to replace it, instead of a minor repair.
I experienced this DMG once after a spate of ten deaths in a week, or maybe it was seven in ten days, followed by the death of one of the old, beloved black clergymen in my community. As I lay on the parsonage couch watching a rerun of Babylon 5, I was crying as if old E.D. were my own daddy. I then realized I’d been too busy caring for others and doing the “work I was called for,” to do the grief work I needed to do for myself. I needed to honor my loss and give myself dedicated spaces to deal with my feelings, so I could be present for others. That’s Deferred Maintenance Grief in a nutshell. If I were eating Cheetos by the bucketful, I’d be in a deep hole of DMG and digging it deeper!
Most of the churches I served had a “Don’t fix it unless it’s broke” policy. I grew up in a Depression Era family, so I was familiar with this attitude. However, these same people didn’t live this way in their own homes. We usually had a long list of deferred maintenance projects in the church property to finish in my time there. Then I’d go to the next place and do it all over again. “Always leave a place better than you found it, both structurally and theologically. Teach people the law of love. As we learn in Romans 13:8, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Most of us human beings have “deferred maintenance projects” also: days off, doctor visits, exercise, healthy meals, quiet times, and family times. Taking time for ourselves means we’re refreshed and eager to serve from the quickening power of the Spirit. Without this resting or love for our own embodied image of God, we end up working from the dying embers of our body’s frail resources—burnout calls our name.
When we get this broken, our families and our ministries both suffer along with us. We know better than to drive our vehicles with the gas gauge on empty past every filling station on the road of life. We aren’t called to die on the cross to prove our worth to Christ or to anyone else. He’s our savior and we claim his work on the cross. Anything else is workaholism or salvation by works. We need to name and claim this.
For clergy moving to a new appointment, this is an opportunity for a reset. For those who remain in place, I suggest a planning book. Mark off in advance quiet times, office hours, and visitation times. Take educational events, even if zoom is the only offering. Read for pleasure. Take a day off out of town. Don’t answer the phone after 9 pm unless it’s an emergency. Boundaries are blessings. I always told people up front, “I take my brain out of my head and put it inside a brain box at 9 pm. I put it back in at 9 am. If you call me between those hours, somebody better have died, be on the way to the ER, or the church is burning down.” They laugh, but I’ve had friends who wanted their pastor to be their bedtime Bible expositor. Boundaries keep us from burning out.
Speaking of burning, the official door to summer begins with Memorial Day Weekend. This holiday celebrates those who gave their lives in the great wars of our nation. It began after the Civil War in 1865 as a way to deal with the shared grief of a nation, which lost 750,000 people, or 2.5% of the population, in the struggle. If we were to translate this to today’s world, the number would equal 7,000,000 deaths. War is a pandemic all its own.
As a parting commentary on Memorial Day, the Pandemic, and Extreme Care Giving, I leave you with a portion of the 1865 Walt Whitman poem, “The Wound Dresser,” which he wrote after serving as a hospital volunteer in the Civil War.
But in silence, in dreams’ projections, While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on, So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand, With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there, Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)
Bearing the bandages, water and sponge, Straight and swift to my wounded I go, Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in, Where their priceless blood reddens the grass the ground, Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital, To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return, To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss, An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail, Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.
I onward go, I stop, With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds, I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable, One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you, Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.
Remember to wear sunscreen to protect your skin if you plan outdoor activities on the first three day weekend of the summer and watch the temperature of the grill. We don’t want anything to burn if we can help it. Charred meat and burned skin are both indicated for cancer risks. Be safe and continue to mask up in public. Get vaccinated as an act of love for your family, your neighbors, and the world community. Since we’re all wound dressers, as well as the wounded also, we want to give as much care to healing our own wounds as we do to the wounds of others.
The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”