Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.
When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”
Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.
For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.
I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.
Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.
This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.
What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.
I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”
I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”
In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.
Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:
“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.
Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.
The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.
John Wesley wrote extensively to teach the Methodists of his day the tenets of the faith. We teach seminarians the historic doctrines, but many think these are “dead ideas of a long ago world.” Wesley gave us 52 Standard Sermons and the Notes on the New Testament, both of which are part of our doctrinal standards. Today many believe as long as they can justify an idea by scripture, reason, tradition, and experience, they can believe anything they want regardless of our standards. Of course, Wesley himself believed scripture, reason, and tradition led to the experience of being a child of God, but that’s another story for another day.
The first tract I ever wrote expressly on this subject was published in the latter end of this year. That none might be prejudiced before they read it, I gave it the indifferent title of “The Character of a Methodist.” In this I described a perfect Christian, placing in the front, “Not as though I had already attained.” Part of it I subjoin without any alteration: —
Loves the Lord with All the Heart “A Methodist is one who loves the Lord his God with all his heart, with all his soul, with all his mind, and with all his strength. God is the joy of his heart, and the desire of his soul, which is continually crying, ‘Whom have I in heaven but thee? and there is none upon earth whom I desire besides thee.’ My God and my all! ‘Thou art the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.’ He is therefore happy in God; yea, always happy, as having in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life, and over-flowing his soul with peace and joy. Perfect love living now cast out fear, he rejoices evermore. Yea, his joy is full, and all his bones cry out, ‘Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who, according to his abundant mercy, hath begotten me again unto a living hope of an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled, reserved in heaven for me.’
Good is the Will of the Lord “And he, who hath this hope, thus full of immortality, in everything giveth thanks, as knowing this (whatsoever it is) is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning him. From him therefore he cheerfully receives all, saying, ‘Good is the will of the Lord;’ and whether he giveth or taketh away, equally blessing the name of the Lord. Whether in ease or pain, whether in sickness or health, whether in life or death, he giveth thanks from the ground of the heart to Him who orders it for good; into whose hands he hath wholly committed his body and soul, ‘as into the hands of a faithful Creator.’ He is therefore anxiously ‘careful for nothing,’ as having ‘cast all his care on Him that careth for him;’ and ‘in all things’ resting on him, after ‘making’ his ‘request known to him with thanksgiving.’
Prays Without Ceasing “For indeed he ‘prays without ceasing;’ at all times the language of his heart is this, ‘Unto thee is my mouth, though without a voice; and my silence speaketh unto thee.’ His heart is lifted up to God at all times, and in all places. In this he is never hindered, much less interrupted, by any person or thing. In retirement or company, in leisure, business, or conversation, his heart is ever with the Lord. Whether he lie down, or rise up, ‘God is in all his thoughts:’ He walks with God continually; having the loving eye of his soul fixed on him, and everywhere ‘seeing Him that is invisible.’
Loves the Neighbor as the Self “And loving God, he ‘loves his neighbour as himself;’ he loves every man as his own soul. He loves his enemies, yea, and the enemies of God. And if it be not in his power to ‘do good to them that hate’ him, yet he ceases not to ‘pray for them,’ though they spurn his love, and still ‘despite. fully use him, and persecute him.’
Pure in Heart “For he is ‘pure in heart.’ Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath, and every unkind temper. It has cleansed him from pride, whereof ‘only cometh contention;’ and he hath now ‘put on bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering.’ And indeed all possible ground for contention, on his part, is cut off. For none can take from him what he desires, seeing he ‘loves not the world, nor any of the things of the world;’ but ‘all his desire is unto God, and to the remembrance of his name.’
Does the Will of God “Agreeable to this his one desire, is this one design of his life; namely, ‘to do, not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him.’ His one intention at all times and in all places is, not to please himself, but Him whom his soul loveth. He hath a single eye; and because his ‘eye is single, his whole body is full of light. The whole is light, as when the bright shining of a candle doth enlighten the house.’ God reigns alone; all that is in the soul is ‘holiness to the Lord.’ There is not a motion in his heart but is according to his will. Every thought that arises points to him, and is in ‘obedience to the law of Christ.’
Tree Known by Fruits “And the tree is known by its fruits. For, as he loves God, so he ‘keeps his commandments;’ not only some, or most of them, but all, from the least to the greatest. He is not content to ‘keep the whole law and offend in one point,’ but has in all points ‘a conscience void of offence towards God, and towards man.’ Whatever God has forbidden, he avoids; whatever God has enjoined, he does. ‘He runs the way of God’s commandments,’ now He bath set his heart at liberty. It is his glory and joy so to do; it is his daily crown of rejoicing, to ‘do the will of God on earth, as it is done in heaven.’
Keeping the Commandments “All the commandments of God he accordingly keeps, and that with all his might; for his obedience is in proportion to his love, the source from whence it flows. And therefore, loving God with all his heart, he serves him with all his strength; he continually presents his soul and ‘body a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God;’ entirely and without reserve devoting himself, all he has, all he is, to his glory. All the talents he has, he constantly employs according to his Master’s will; every power and faculty of his soul, every member of his body.
Doing All to the Glory of God “By consequence, ‘whatsoever he doeth, it is all to the glory of God.’ In all his employments of every kind, he not only aims at this, which is implied in having a single eye, but actually attains it; his business and his refreshments, as well as his prayers, all serve to this great end. Whether he ‘sit in the house, or walk by the way,’ whether he lie down, or rise up, he is promoting, in all he speaks or does, the one business of his life. Whether he put on his apparel, or labour, or eat and drink, or divert himself from too wasting labour, it all tends to advance the glory of God, by peace and good-will among men. His one invariable rule is this: ‘Whatsoever ye do, in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God, even the Father, through him.’
Running the Race, Not as the World Runs “Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his ‘ running the race which is set before him.’ He cannot therefore ‘lay up treasures upon earth,’ no more than he can take fire into his bosom. He cannot speak evil of his neighbour, any more than he can lie either for God or man. He cannot utter an unkind word of any one; for love keeps the door of his lips. He cannot ‘speak idle words; no corrupt conversation’ ever ‘comes out of his mouth;’ as is all that is not ‘good to the use of edifying,’ not fit to ‘minister grace to the hearers.’ But ‘whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are’ justly ‘of good report,’ he thinks, speaks, and acts, ‘adorning the doctrine of God our Saviour in all things.'”
Christian Perfection is Wesley’s Theme These are the very words wherein I largely declared, for the first time, my sentiments of Christian perfection. And is it not easy to see, (1.) That this is the very point at which I aimed all along from the year 1725; and more determinately from the year 1730, when I began to be +homo unius libri,+ “a man of one book,” regarding none, comparatively, but the Bible? Is it not easy to see, (2.) That this is the very same doctrine which I believe and teach at this day; not adding one point, either to that inward or outward holiness which I maintained eight-and- thirty years ago? And it is the same which, by the grace of God, I have continued to teach from that time till now; as will appear to every impartial person from the extracts subjoined below.
Wesley goes on for some length, in his 18th century fondness for expositions. He’s not a modern blogger, but wrote for people who had time and leisure to read extensively. What I find most important for us Methodists today is his teaching about sin in believers, which is one of the points he makes strongly in the following sections.
Christian Perfection Explained 1.) In what sense Christians are not, (2.) In what sense they are, perfect.
“(1.) In what sense they are not. They are not perfect in knowledge. They are not free from ignorance, no, nor from mistake. We are no more to expect any living man to be infallible, than to be omniscient. They are not free from infirmities, such as weakness or slowness of understanding, irregular quickness or heaviness of imagination. Such in another kind are impropriety of language, ungracefulness of pronunciation; to which one- might add a thousand nameless defects, either in conversation or behaviour. From such infirmities as these none are perfectly freed till their spirits return to God; neither can we expect till then to be wholly freed from temptation; for ‘the servant is not above his master.’ But neither in this sense is there any absolute perfection on earth. There is no perfection of degrees, none which does not admit of a continual increase.
Christian Perfection means Sins Are Not Committed “(2.) In what sense then are they perfect? Observe, we are not now speaking of babes in Christ, but adult Christians But even babes in Christ are so far perfect as not to commit sin. This St. John affirms expressly; and it cannot be disproved by the examples of the Old Testament. For what, if the holiest of the ancient Jews did sometimes commit sin? We cannot infer from hence, that ‘all Christians do and must commit sin as long as they live.’
Christians have the Holy Spirit “The privileges of Christians are in nowise to be measured by what the Old Testament records concerning those who were under the Jewish dispensation; seeing the fulness of time is now come, the Holy Ghost is now given, the great salvation of God is now brought to men by the revelation of Jesus Christ. The kingdom of heaven is now set up on earth, concerning which the Spirit of God declared of old time, (so far is David from being the pattern or standard of Christian perfection,) ‘He that is feeble among them, at that day, shall be as David, and the house of David shall be as the angel of the Lord before them.’ (Zech. 12:8.)
Christ Cleanses Us from Unrighteousness But St. John himself says, ‘If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves;’ and, ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.’
1.) The tenth verse fixes the sense of the eighth: ‘If we say we have no sin,’ in the former, being explained by, ‘If we say we have not sinned,’ in the latter, verse.
2.) The point under consideration is not, whether we have or have not sinned heretofore; and neither of these verses asserts that we do sin, or commit sin now.
3.) The ninth verse explains both the eighth and tenth: ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’ As if he had said, ‘I have before affirmed, The blood of Christ cleanseth from all sin.’ And no man can say, ‘I need it not; I have 110 sin to be cleansed, from.’ ‘If we say, we have no sin, that ‘we have not sinned, we deceive ourselves,’ and make God a liar: But ‘if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just,’ not only ‘to forgive us our sins,’ but also ‘to cleanse us from all unrighteousness,’ that we may ‘go and sin no more.’ In conformity, therefore, both to the doctrine of St. John, and the whole tenor of the New Testament, we fix this conclusion: A Christian is so far perfect, as not to commit sin.
Good Trees don’t Produce Evil Fruits “This is the glorious privilege of every Christian, yea, though he be but a babe in Christ. But it is only of grown Christians it can be affirmed, they are in such a sense perfect, as, Secondly, to be freed from evil thoughts and evil tempers. First, from evil or sinful thoughts. Indeed, whence should they spring? ‘Out of the heart of man,’ if at all, ‘proceed evil thoughts.’ If, therefore, the heart be no longer evil, then evil thoughts no longer proceed out of it: For ‘a good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit.’
Christ Lives in the Heart “And as they are freed from evil thoughts, so likewise from evil tempers. 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;’ – – words that manifestly describe a deliverance from inward as well as from outward sin. This is expressed both negatively, ‘I live not,’ my evil nature, the body of sin, is destroyed; and positively, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and therefore all that is holy, and just, and good. Indeed, both these, ‘Christ liveth in me,’ and, ‘I live not,’ are inseparably connected. For what communion hath light with darkness, or Christ with Belial?
Wesley was fond of quoting his brother Charles’ hymns in his writings: “He walks in glorious liberty, To sin entirely dead:
The Truth, the Son hath made him free, And he is free indeed.”
Lessons for Methodists Today Do we Methodists today understand this classic teaching on Christian Perfection overriding the ancient concept of justification over and over again? That idea implied we’re always in a state of corruption, so we constantly needed a sacrifice to make us right with God. Wesley taught justification by Christ, followed by the Spirit helping to refine us until we were entirely sanctified to be as Christ. This could happen in this life if we expected it and cooperated with the Spirit, but more likely the state came at the moment of death.
If we Methodists actually agreed on living out the “heart so full of love of God and neighbor that nothing else exists” motto, we’d not be listing the sins of others we find distasteful, but looking instead to shed God’s love abroad in the world.
Instead, we still attempt to keep the old laws, rather than the law of Christ’s faith, which proceeds from God’s love for the world. As Wesley writes,
Christ is the End of the Old Laws “For Christ is the end of the Adamic, as well as the Mosaic, law. By his death, he hath put an end to both; he hath abolished both the one and the other, with regard to man; and the obligation to observe either the one or the other is vanished away. Nor is any man living bound to observe the Adamic more than the Mosaic law. [I mean, it is not the condition either of present or future salvation.]
“In the room of this, Christ hath established another, namely, the law of faith. Not every one that doeth, but every one that believeth, now receiveth righteousness, in the full sense of the word; that is, he is justified, sanctified, and glorified.”
Love is the Fulfillment of the Law Q. 4. Is love the fulfilling of this law?
“A. Unquestionably it is. The whole law under which we now are, is fulfilled by love. (Rom. 13:9, 10.) Faith working or animated by love is all that God now requires of man. He has substituted (not sincerity, but) love, in the room of angelic perfection.
“Q. 5. How is ‘love the end of the commandment?’ (1 Tim. 1:5.)
“A. It is the end of every commandment of God. It is the point aimed at by the whole and every part of the Christian institution. The foundation is faith, purifying the heart; the end love, preserving a good conscience.
“Q. 6. What love is this?
“A. The loving the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength; and the loving our neighbour, every man, as ourselves, as our own souls.
Thoughts on the Future The question for me is, how do we as Methodists retain our classical teachings and interpret them for our modern world? While some in fear want to move toward the exclusionary teachings of other faiths, Methodists have never lived in fear, for “perfect love drives out fear.” Yet some persist in excluding some for the sake of “the law,” as if the breaking of one law were more heinous than all the others.
Today in our congregations we have persons who’ve had serial divorces or cohabitate, plus those who gamble, drink excessively, mismanage personal funds, have babies out of wedlock, and are a public nuisance. You know who I’m talking about, but we love these folks and pray for them just the same. This isn’t right to include folks whose infirmities are in the straight world, but to exclude those who have the same problems just because they have a different sexual orientation. It’s not a choice for anyone who they love. It’s not a disease to be straight or gay. It is a problem if our hearts are closed and the love of God for all our neighbors isn’t filling our hearts to overflowing.
Wesley once said, “if your heart be as my heart, then give me your hand.” In a manner of speaking, we’re saying, if your experience is the same as my experience, let’s be partners. We think too much separates us, or there’s a rat between or among us, so no one extends their hand in fellowship. We distrust what we fear, for we don’t live in perfect love, but live instead according to the ways of the world.
The QuadrilateralDoesn’t Exist
But 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. (24)
Scripture Alone is Not Enough
When challenged for his authority, on any question, his first appeal was to the Holy Bible… Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controverted 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…
Doctrine of Assurance This is Methodism’s gift to the world and the reason we can live in perfect love, which casts out all fear. We have the assurance of the forgiveness of sins and our adoption as sons and daughters of God, so that we are the joint heirs with Christ to all the innumerable riches of God’s inheritance. This isn’t just for a few, but for all who give themselves to Christ.
We humans aren’t allowed to say whom God forgives or who is worthy to be forgiven. That would put us smack onto the throne of god and make us a god. Then we would be worshipping our own selves, an act which would be the highest form of idolatry and worshipping the creature. God forbid we Methodists fall into this trap!
I read a wonderful journal, Psychiatric Times, which has a free subscription online. I began reading it because it helped me to understand the diseases of the mind, which cause people to be at dis-ease in their lives and to cause dis-ease in whatever community in which they belonged. In today’s modern world, our first choice to treat dis-ease is medication. However, the ancient practice of meditation is another choice, either as an adjunct treatment or as a stand alone, depending on the person’s need.
I recently read of some tech entrepreneurs who decided to shut off their phones, computers, and all other electronic devices for one day in every seven because they were over stimulated and never rested. Their creativity and original thinking were diminishing, and this was “hurting their brand.” Those of us in the spiritual world would say they needed to practice sabbath rest, and also to take time away on a daily basis also. If you feel “always on, 24/7/365,” you’ll wear down or burn down sooner or later. Even the Lord Jesus was given to finding secluded places to withdraw and restore his physical body and his spiritual energy. We often overlook these texts, in our rush to read the miracles and action of the salvation story.
Dr. John J. Miller, editor in chief of Psychiatric Times and founder of Brain Health, wrote this wonderful piece, which follows:
In our western culture, which values intellectual knowledge and material rewards, the concept of mindfulness is often initially difficult to grasp. Busy schedules, lengthy “to do” lists, commuting, work, family time, and group activities leave little time for self-reflection and inquiry into the nature of our minds.
In fact, all of these activities serve to keep us running on automatic pilot, and strengthen behavioral patterns previously learned that create efficiency when automatically enacted. An analogy I often use to explore the question of the potential benefits of practicing mindfulness is to ask which of the following two individuals is truly an expert on the experience of what a strawberry tastes like:
An individual who has studied the science of strawberries to the degree that he or she is considered to be the world’s expert—agriculture, botany, genetics, human taste receptors that send gustatory information that is decoded in the brain, digestion, visual responses to seeing a strawberry, and the author of over 100 books on all aspects of strawberries—but, has NEVER eaten a strawberry?
An individual who is uneducated but has just paid close attention to all of the sensations and experiences of taking a fresh strawberry, looking at it, smelling it, placing it in his or her mouth, observing the taste and texture as he or she bites into it, and mindful of the plethora of the “here and now” strawberry experiences?
The answer is usually self-evident and conjures an image or feeling of the warm juice of a strawberry sloshing around in your mouth. Mindfulness is the practice of experiencing each moment like the strawberry.
Common mindfulness adventure Broadly speaking, there are two subtypes of meditation: concentration and mindfulness. As a general principle, it is important to become proficient in concentration meditation before expanding into mindfulness. Concentration practice involves choosing an object, like the breath, a phrase, or a word that becomes an anchor for the mind’s attention.
The instructions are simple: watch the breath as it moves in and out of the body, choosing a spot to watch it that feels natural (the nose, mouth, lungs or movement of the abdomen). Inevitably, the mind’s attention will be distracted by some thought, feeling, sound, or emotion, and the mind starts to drift down an endless path of mind content. As soon as you are aware of having left the breath, without judging yourself, the task is simply to return to the breath. The same basic steps are followed if you are using a phrase or a word.
Here’s a common example: awareness of the inbreath and the outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . you hear a car driving down your street, and your mind drifts to the thought of the car . . . my car . . . my car payment . . . bills to pay . . . do I have enough money saved to buy that new iPhone . . . images of the cool new camera on the iPhone 11 pro . . . wait a minute, I left my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . the muscle in my left calf is starting to cramp up . . . I need to start stretching my muscles again . . . why did I stop stretching regularly . . . I should rejoin the gym . . . the last time I was at the gym I saw Tom . . . Tom was a great college roommate . . . college was such a great experience . . . maybe I’ll drive out there and take a walk on campus . . . college is so expensive these days . . . how will I pay for my child’s college tuition in a few years? . . . oh yeah, my breath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . inbreath and outbreath . . . .
This is how much of the time practicing meditation is initially spent, and usually is so frustrating that most people stop meditating long before their attention is strengthened. With perseverance and practice the mind slowly develops the capacity to stay with the breath for extended periods of time. This commonly results in calmness, relaxation, mental clarity as well as an anti-fight or flight physiology.
Once the mind’s concentration has stability, that focused awareness can be intentionally refocused on the mind’s activity itself, and this is the beginning of mindfulness. A holding environment of sorts is created whereby impersonal and non-judgmental attention is watching the many mind states that come and go, the only task being to stay present and learn from what is observed with open acceptance. As mindfulness strengthens, the underlying themes and patterns that fill our mind automatically are seen clearer, and it becomes easier to disengage from them, remaining in the present moment with pure mindfulness. Like exercise, continued practice sustains the ability to be mindful, while lack of practice allows a regression to automatic patterns.
The practice of mindfulness In our roles as clergy and clinicians, we recognize we always have more to learn, and more experience to be gained. Such is the case with mindfulness—it’s always patiently waiting for us to resume that selfless non-judgmental awareness of the present moment—with more to learn about the patterns and themes of our own mind, and continued opportunity to choose a different thought or behavior. As 2019 draws to an end, the practice of mindfulness is but a breath away, and is a worthy companion.
The Light of the Body: meditate on this verse
“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light. Your eye is the lamp of your body. If your eye is healthy, your whole body is full of light; but if it is not healthy, your body is full of darkness. Therefore consider whether the light in you is not darkness. If then your whole body is full of light, with no part of it in darkness, it will be as full of light as when a lamp gives you light with its rays.” ~~ Luke 11:33-36
Time and the tide waits for no one, we’re certain of this, for we can no more wrestle the waters of the sea to keep the waves from their constant flowing in and out than we can stop the minutes and seconds from slipping into the past, where they’ll be only a memory for a while.
As a mother, I endured the pains of childbirth for excruciating moments, but when I held my beloved daughter in my arms, I immediately began to replace those difficult memories with the present joys of her new life and my new hopes for our life to come. I learned how quickly a newborn child could grow, for she hardly had a chance to wear those cute 3 month old clothes before she outgrew them. When she was six, I bought her lace Sox and white patent leather shoes two weeks before her baptism, but she out grew them and walked to the font barefooted to receive the sacramental water.
I was appalled, but children’s feet don’t pay attention to parent’s pocketbooks or church calendars. Besides, God called her to holy ground, so her feet needed to be bared. The rest of us were just doing church. Time and tide, as well as the Holy Spirit, can’t be controlled by any human means. We have to ask, what does this have to do with art?
Samuel Johnson, the English author said, “The true art of memory is the art of attention.” To what do we pay attention?
1. To the various lists of chores we need to do before we can do something for our own joy or spiritual health?
2. To our list of fears and anxieties about what others will think of our choice to do an activity?
3. To our feelings of inadequacy if we don’t achieve instant success?
I could name others, but in truth, the true art of memory, which is the art of attention, is being present to oneself and to the present moment. We aren’t asked to be in the future or the past, but in the now. This isn’t as easy as it seems, but it’s extremely rewarding. When an artist “gets into this zone of the present moment,” all cares fall away, thinking about pains and problems ceases, and only the creative process and the creation becomes important. In a sense, the artist enters into the life of the creating God. How is this so? God is I AM, or the one who is I AM BECOMING. God is also I WILL BE, for God’s name is all of the “being and becoming” verbs at once.
I began formal art lessons at age 8 years old, but not everyone has that opportunity. Grandma Moses began painting at 78 years of age. Some people paint for fame or to try to earn a living. That was my goal before God called me to the ministry. Now I see my art as the opportunity for others to grow closer to God as a form of meditation. It’s also a good way to challenge the brain, since learning new things helps to keep the mind sharp. Adults need this, along with exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and companionship.
Over the last year, two students have persisted. Both have improved their drawing skills, they are better able to make self directed choices, they are better problem solvers, they see better, and their painting skills are improving. Moreover, while they say “I really don’t have time for this, but if I don’t do it, I get overwhelmed by too many other things. Art class helps me clear out a space for myself.”
In a sense, painting is like prayer. If we don’t have time for prayer, we can find our lives cycling out of control. We are ships on tides we can’t control and live from day to day, watching the leaves of our calendars fly past us, never to return again. Some of us may like living in chaos, since it gives us the feeling of being alive. Others choose to live in chaos because then they don’t have to deal with their feelings, but can spend their time putting out the fires. If we stop for prayer, or stop to paint, these feelings will come to the surface. At least in prayer or in art class, we’re in a place where God is close at hand. As the scriptures promise,
“The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” (Psalms 145:18)
I awoke Sunday morning to a fog enveloped world. My brain was much the same until I made my morning cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this took longer than I expected, for I had only one tablespoon of grounds and a full bag of beans. I’m glad the electric coffee grinder was standing silent beside the coffee pot, waiting only for its moment to be of service. On any ordinary day, I ignore it completely, just as many of us fail to observe the subtle changing of colors from day to day or how the sunlight of the seasons has a different temperature and feel.
Seeing is a learned skill, but like the ancient, secret, gnostic wisdom known only to a few and passed by word of mouth, seeing is best learned in an art class with one who is an eye already. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye—yet what an eye.” Monet taught students not to think of the tree, the building, or the flowers they painted, but of the colors and shapes they were putting on their canvases. This is a conceptual leap, as if we were translating English into Spanish or Martian (we may need this when we go to Mars).
faced with all the many impressions daily flooding into our consciousness, most
of us have learned to block all these distractions out. We do this to “get our
chores done in record time” and “come home to escape from this rat race.” “Out
of sight and out of mind” is a phrase I often heard growing up. We are often
“unconscious people,” walking about in a fog. My dad grew a mustache and my mother
kissed him every night before bed without realizing he’d changed his facial
appearance. I came home for a visit and said, “When did you grow the Col.
Saunders’s look?” My mother was shocked she hadn’t noticed it.
Our first lessons in art class are drawing the geometric figures, since we can simplify or translate most things in nature to these forms. Bushes are balls, houses are cubes, trees are cones, and so on. Some are multiplications of the forms, such as some tree’s foliage is made up of several ball shapes. You get the idea. This way of looking helps to simplify the details so people don’t get stuck on every single leaf.
Another way to simplify is to leave out some of what you see and focus only on what you think is important. If you were a camera in front of a landscape, your eye would take in everything in front of it. We aren’t cameras, however. We can paint as much or as little of what we see before us as we want. I remember in seminary study groups, we prepared for final exams together. The exam would be 3 hours long and cover a semester’s work, which included all the class notes and 15,000 pages of reading. Some of my pals would write a book length answer to one study question. “Fine, but there’s going to be a dozen other questions, so can you hone this down to an essay?” Keeping it simple is a good motto in art class.
Friday in art class I brought in angel hair spaghetti. If the kids eat it, I’m not worried. Fortunately, my “kids” are grownups, but we like to get our inner child out to play every once in a while. We put paint on the sticks and tossed them down on our canvases wherever luck would have them land. In biblical terms, this is “casting lots.” I had given them some ideas for landscape images or they could do some squares in the style of Paul Klee. They went with trees. Mr. Energy and Exuberance, aka Mike, finished his up with jewel tones. Gail, Thoughtful and Precise, did a hard edge tree with a lightning bolt in the background. I worked on a Klee square piece, but I only got the first layer down. It needs more subtle overpainting.
Learning how to see is a lifetime process. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality, said Aristotle. Art opens us up not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world. As we see more in the world about us, we find more compassion for its brokenness as well as more love for its beauty. Likewise, we realize we too are both broken and beautiful, so we find we can be more compassionate and loving towards our own selves. As forgiven and reconciled people, we can pour God’s love out into the world and into our art as well.
We discover art isn’t just about decorating a surface with pretty colors and shapes, but art is more about the spiritual process of growing in grace, accepting our lack of strength, and learning to depend on the power of the Spirit moving our hands and hearts. The more we try to impose our power upon the work, the less life it has, but the more we “get out of ourselves,” and let our inner witness work, the more life our creation embodies.
the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
As part of my ministry in retirement, I take my prior callings as an artist and a pastor with equal passion and joy. I call my studio ARTANDICON because my paintings aren’t just pretty colors, but always have a spiritual content. You may think I’ve painted a pleasing landscape, but my intent was to glorify the God who created this world and gave us the mandate to care for God’s creation.
In art class we not only learn art lessons, such as how to render a realistic 3-dimensional geometric form on a flat piece of canvas in perspective using size and scale, but we also learn about the color wheel. Colors which are warm tend to come forward, and cool colors tend to recede. These examples from last week’s class are a case in point.
I didn’t make it easy on them, for we learn more when we’re faced with a challenge. Adults in particular need to have continuous learning experiences to keep their minds nimble and active. Learning new and complex skills is one of the six pillars of Alzheimer’s prevention, along with social engagement, regular exercise, healthy diet, quality sleep, and stress management.
This is the 2nd year of our class and they’re showing improvement over last year. They can draw the forms better and we’re working now to free them from making a line and filling it in like a coloring book. This is a sign of “needing to get the design right before I start.” Most of us are “afraid” most of our lives—will we measure up, what will people think of me, what if I make a mess, and worst of all, can I live with myself and know I’m not perfect?
Each person in art starts from where they begin. Art is one of the few classes in which working hard will help improve your skills. Plus students aren’t judged against against an abstract criteria, but for how well they managed to fulfill the parameters of the lesson and their overall improvement. Faith, not works, may get us to heaven, but works, not faith, get us an art work.
In art class, we have to drop all these false masks of “competence and perfection.” Every day is a learning experience and every work we do will have some small part which we know “I could have done this better.” Yet we have to let this work go out from under our hands and take this lesson to the next work. If we truly learned that lesson, we’ll learn a new one on this next work, and the cycle repeats. We call this the growth cycle in art. In life, it’s called “growing pains” or suffering. All artists “suffer for their work” if they’re making progress and growing.
In the spiritual life we can be comfortable or suffering. Those of us who are comfortable aren’t aware of the suffering of others, the injustice of systemic oppression, or environmental harm. We aren’t meant to merely co-suffer, but are called to act to relieve suffering and change the systems that cause suffering in the world and her peoples.
In art class, students tend to draw one object at a time, without checking the scale of it to the nearby objects. Then when they paint it, they focus on getting the one object looking good, even if they ignore the original shape. Rather than correct the other shapes of their drawing, they go ahead and fill in the lines. This is a problem many of us have in life. We pay too much attention to one thing, to the detriment of everything else. We work on it, trying to get it right and then everything else is out of whack. We’re like a three year old who gets the scissors in hand and works diligently to even out his or her selfie haircut. It doesn’t go well for us. It’s like cleaning the kitchen, but letting the rest of the house go to pot or worse.
Art class is a place where you learn life lessons as well as art. Art is for life. It’s a place where you can get encouragement for your best efforts. We all make the same mistakes. Great artists can see flaws in their own work the average person doesn’t have the eye to see. If they are truly great, they’ll be truly humble, for they know how much more they have to learn. If we could bring these art lessons to life, many of our interpersonal relationships would be much more successful.
“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” ~~ Romans 5:3-5
My students in the art class at the church have shown much progress since we began last year. I’m proud of them for sticking in there and taking this journey down a path less traveled by others. Most art education classes begin with the idea of a model and the students should all try to match it. This is typical of “right answers” in most schoolwork, such as math. Indeed, 2 plus 2 should equal 4, and not 3 or 5. We can’t get creative in our answers in math class, but we can have room for creativity in art class. If we have a still life to render on a page, we should have something that’s recognizable as the objects, but Cubism has taught us the objects don’t have to be painted as Realism. We can paint them different, emotional colors, as in Fauvism, or in a monochromatic scheme, like Georgio Morandi.
Another growth area we have is continuing to observe the subject while we draw and paint. Children draw the idea or symbol of the thing they’re representing. If we’re attempting to render a realistic subject, we need to constantly check back to the objects to notice the negative spaces and the shadows, as well as the forms themselves. This is a matter of discipline, which all artists have to undergo. I spent many an hour in art school drawing models without ever being able to look at my work—this is how you train your brain to connect to your hand. The first efforts are pretty goofy looking, for sure. You have to leave your ego at the door if you want to become an artist.
All beginning artists try to make a shape perfect first and then color it in, much like filling in the black lines of a coloring book. This year we’re working on losing our need to be perfect from the start, and begin to paint from the first. This lets us have more emotion and feeling in our work. We do this by drawing with a brush and a light, yellow wash on the canvas. We can easily paint over it with our thicker paints. If we don’t get it right, we can scribble over it, or use a pale pink wash to make a different line.
About the age of nine, children begin to draw what they see, but still have no real sense of perspective or scale. The most important object is the largest. About the time they become teenagers, they show an interest in realism and the artistic skills needed to produce these tricks of the eye. More precocious children will begin earlier, and others may never show an interest at all. Some naive painters will retain childish forms, but have strong pattern and design elements, such as Grandma Moses, who painted the memories of her childhood.
Last year I started the class on basic perspective. It might have been too difficult for some, or too uninteresting for others. Yet basic perspective is a building block lesson for any art lesson that is more than decorating a flat surface with pretty colors. Likewise, making a shadow study of basic geometric forms is important because all objects in nature can be reduced to a geometric form: tree trunks are cylinders, fir trees are cones, oak trees are spheres, houses and churches are rectangular solids and pyramids, and bridges are rectangular solids supported by piers, which are more of the same. A complex landscape becomes easier to sketch out in block shapes if the artist can identify the basic components of what he or she sees.
People think art is “Just something I can do when I feel like I’ve got nothing else to do.” This is the description for finger painting for kindergarteners, if you think about it. Art is for both thinking and feeling, since both the brain and the heart need to be active at the same time. Some say only the heart needs to be active, but the head is exercising choices and making decisions to limit the red or to add more yellow or to rip a huge black down the side of the canvas. Only the artists who are unintegrated will contend they work only from the mind or from the heart. We actually work with both, even if one is diminished in nature.
If the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” means anything in the art life, it’s we aren’t meant to separate any one part of our experience from any other part. In our art expressions, as in our faith expressions, our heart, soul, and mind needs to be fixed on love of God, as well as love of neighbor, for loving our neighbor, in whatever form, fashion, or fix our neighbors find themselves in, is the same as loving the image of God in which they were also made. By loving our neighbors, we love ourselves also. If we hate our neighbors, we hate ourselves. God didn’t mean for us to hate God’s image.
These are the wonderful spiritual truths we learn in art class. It’s more than learning how to mix colors or draw a box in perspective. These are art skills. Life skills are way more important. Take a look at the work from last year and this year. You can still join this class. You aren’t competing with anyone, but you will be working to improve over time. Going onto perfection takes time. Now is a good time to begin!
I am never too busy to heed the prompting of that inner voice that calls me to stop and smell the roses. In my case, the voice says, “Stop and Instagram this moment!” I’ll be driving down the road, just going from point A to point B, singing my favorite Bon Jovi tune, when I feel that pull on the steering wheel from my Higher Power. Sometimes I have seen the extraordinary play of light shimmering through the trees beside a rural road and other times one magnificent tree stands out from the crowd of its kin. Sometimes I snap several photos around an area before I “see the real image” that was calling out to me.
This prompting of the Spirit ought not to be denied, for we will miss our most inspired works if we are just fixed on getting to our planned destination. In art, as in the spiritual life, the journey is as important as the destination. We can miss some important opportunities for growth if we think that our journey needs to be easy, direct, quick and according to plan.
In my studio as in my life, I like to be on a schedule and have a plan/goals. The unknown is frightening, full of dragons, and has many places where I could “lose it all” by falling off an unseen cliff face or down into a sudden crevasse. Yet, meeting these challenges is what strengthens us. A child making a mess of his drawing has merely taken the media too far. We adults want to stop him before he makes a mess of it, but he has to learn the limits of the medium before he can truly take his creativity out to the maximum, but no farther. If we are pushing ourselves creatively, we will “lose it early and often.” (Ask Tiger Woods or any pro golfer who has changed his/her swing: the transformation is daunting, so only the passionate will give it a try.)
I’ve been eating healthier and exercising more, so my blood pressure medicines were working too well. My blood pressures were in the zombie zone, so I wasn’t perky enough to do much work in the studio. Once my doctor adjusted my medications, I discovered my housekeeping skills also hadn’t been tested for some time there. Many of the photographs that I’ve taken as inspiration were stuck together from a water spill. I microwaved them (with a bowl of water), peeled them apart, cut up the interesting fragments, and glued them together as a collage: “Garden of Dreams.”
I decided to use the collage as the sketch for a new painting, an idea which freed me from grieving the loss of the good things or the original plan I had in mind for these photos. I could concentrate instead on the better hope for the future that this new opportunity presented. My best laid plans may have come to naught, but “we know that all things work together for good for those that love God, who are called according to his purposes” (Romans 8:28).