WORK IN PROGRESS: Landscape 

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stage 3, unfinished acrylic painting, artandicon


This is on my easel right now. Last autumn on a warm and sunny day, I took an Instagram photo below of the woods near my home.  Maybe we’ll have one ofthose days   again, with no rain!

The photo above is  my most recent painting. I’m letting it set overnight, to see if I need to work it some more. A fresh eye will see better tomorrow. I’ve spent 4 hours on it today. 

Notice I didn’t paint all the trees in the foreground. Photographic truth is different from artistic truth. We know this is the same place by the line of the hill, the placement of the bushes in the background and the staggered line of trees in the foreground. If details are omitted, we don’t worry. If the colors are varied, we understand the artist is responding to the emotions of the landscape, rather than to the facts of the site. 

photo edited in instagram

In the same way, biblical truths may be operating in the parables and stories Jesus told us. For some people, the miracles themselves are mere “truth stories” which serve to open up the mysteries of God. For these people, science is how they understand their world, but God’s word is the way they understand how to relate to God and God’s creation. 
If they can hold this creative tension in their minds, it isn’t any different than seeing this painting as a true image of the place it represents. 

After all, as Jacob said when he woke from his sleep, “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” 
And he was afraid, and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” — Genesis 28:16-17

The gates of heaven are all about us, if only we have the eyes to see them. We are always within the house of God. I find this awesome, life changing, and spirit filling. Recognizing God’s presence everywhere should change how we pursue our lives, our work and our relationships also. 

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Hope and Transformation 

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Happy to report this altar has found a home! It’s a one of a kind piece, made from found objects and items no longer found useful around my home. I found most of these items while walking around the local hospital, while others are from broken pieces of my jewelry and my mother’s old treasure hoard. The three matching pulls across the bottom are from the old kitchen cabinets of my 1965 era condo. For some reason, that huge block of wood called my name, as did the snuff pack and the bent radiator cap. Some one lost part of their hub cap, while I lost interest in a home improvement project for which those red acanthus supports were intended. 

While we often give up hope on the detritus of our life, only to throw it out the window or stuff it into a box, never to see it again, we still want something bright new and shiny. Many people today never speak of a struggle because they think it shows God isn’t with them or worse, God is punishing them. Yet the promise of Christ is for the hurting, the broken, the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. 

The message of this altar is Christ died to transform those without hope and for those we’ve given up hope they’ll ever change. As long as we breathe, we can hope. With our dying breath, Christ will complete us for glory if we believe in a redeeming God whose power is greater than our own struggle to rebel. 

You’d be surprised at the junk I find in the roadways and byways, but that’s where Christ did all his great miracles of healing, in the streets and fields of his world. Maybe this altar is calling us to bring Christ out into the world, instead of celebrating him safely within our sheltered walls. 

The Deisis Altar: The Handing Over

“Meanwhile, standing near the cross of Jesus were his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing beside her, he said to his mother, “Woman, here is your son.” Then he said to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” ~~ John 19:25-27

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I will make changes in my life because change is the only constant. Trees burst forthwith new, tender leaves in the spring. Their full canopies shade is from the sun’s intense heat in the summer. In autumn, we enjoy their palette of colors and in winter we appreciate the stark structure of the limbs. Each transition has its own beauty. 

 
I really don’t want to chat about the changes I’ve been through: my last 6 months have been hard, but I’m getting over it. At least I no longer have an excuse for stress eating. Now I merely need to do something about it. 
I received my daughter’s ashes this week. I’ll have her memorial service soon. I’ll always know where she is: her cremains at my church’s columbarium and her new life with God. I feel much better now, better than I did during those decades when she was on the streets of San Francisco. 

Her new life and mine are starting at the same time. What in your life is a watershed moment, one which would set you off on a new journey? 

Maybe you need to forgive someone, forgive yourself, give up a bad habit, take up a new discipline, or make some other change to make a difference in your life. 

This could be the first day of the rest of your new life…why not make it now?

Psalms 79:9 — “Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of your name; deliver us, and forgive our sins, for your name’s sake.”

IRREPRESSIBLE SLEEPINESS 

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Irrepressible  sleepiness–it comes over one at times. 

My night class on World Religions at seminary with Ruben Habito began with silent breathing. Centering, he called it. Some of us called it falling asleep. A long day of work or classes, or both, with a short night of sleep before an early morning wake up alarm marked our days back then. We were fueled by liquid caffeine and too many carbs. We ran on the adrenaline of excitement and the necessity to cram two lives into one day. We were crazy people, but we didn’t know it.

We didn’t realize the gift of silence and quiet our zen master was offering to us. We were doers, not accustomed to being. To be silent, still, and to breathe in and out as we sought an unmoving center after the hubbub of our day was our bedtime ritual, not a preparation for learning. More than a few of us crossed over into LaLa Land. 

Some time during the class, we would return to this world, much refreshed from our power nap. We could get any notes we missed from a less sleep deprived classmate. Our zen master was also a priest, who knew our needs and offered this gift of ministry for his congregation. He wasn’t bothered by our sleeping through his lectures, for if we needed to rest, God would take care of our learning elsewhere. 

When I went out as a pastor in the church, I remembered this lesson of grace. When people fell asleep in church, I knew God would bring the message to them later from the ones who stayed awake. If their lives were so out of whack they needed to sleep in church, I needed to pray for them. After all, it’s not about me, it’s about God. 

“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!     — John 16:33

Cornelia DeLee: Christ Overcoming the World, acrylic on canvas, 2015. (36″ X 36″)

Under Construction 

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I walk on Thursday evenings in the historic downtown district of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Most of our buildings are from our salad days of the Victorian period and early 20th century. We are building new construction, such as this new Regions Bank Tower, which will replace the one directly behind my back. I often leave my car under this overpass while I huff and hustle my way up to the cold spring at the entry to the mountain route to the observation tower. From there I walk past historic hotels, small and large, until I get to the site of the old Majestic Hotel, which burned to the ground in 2014. If I turn around for the start again, I can put in nearly 2 miles on a good evening. Even if I’m the last to finish, I’m still faster than the ones who never started. 

Our creative and spiritual lives are like my walking discipline in my downtown, which is both dying and being renewed. I notice some shops have closed, but new ones have taken their place. These aren’t all tourist shops, but some are tradesmen serving the needs of downtown dwellers. Each of us needs to take care of our long term needs, not just our whim wants. 

For our spirit, paying attention to our relationship with God through silence, contemplative study of scripture, and service with the poor will help ground our identity in God rather than in our own self. In our creative work, keeping the disciplines of our trade can be important. By this I mean, remembering to draw, to use color, value, to work a series, or to explore a subject fully. If we write, we pay attention to the skills of this craft, or if we are musicians, we never neglect our scales or any other skill sharpener in our toolbox. 

Sometimes we get to the place in our lives when everything burns down to the ground. Like the storied Majestic Hotel, once a home to professional baseball players during spring training and mobsters down for the gambling, our life as it is won’t stand up to the elements or to the vissitudes of fate. A stray cigarette or a frayed wire takes the whole building down, along with all its memories and its derbis inside. 

Sometimes we too have to start from scratch by making a fresh start. Yes, saving a historic treasure would be nice, but sometimes not very cost effective because the structure isn’t sound. Then it’s best to turn our back on that old life, grieve for it, and find a new hope and a new vision for the future. “If only we had done something with it 30 years ago!” Yet the will wasn’t there, was it? We can’t turn back the hands of time. 

In 1992, I answered God’s call to ministry. I spent twenty-two years away from my original calling, art. When my health took me out of parish ministry, I took up painting again in 2009. Five years in my studio relearning color, value, shape, composition, and emotion has felt like burning down a great old edifice and building a new one in its place. To date I’ve stayed close to the subject, except for the color. Lately I’ve felt constrained by those boundaries, and I’ve moved to s freer brushstroke. Will it stick? I’m enjoying it, but I feel emotionally exhausted afterward. I’m tearing down a boundary and am about to climb over a barricade. I’m excited about this adventure, even if it tastes of danger. 

WATCHING FROM AFAR

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Watching From Afar acrylic on canvas 16" x 20'

Watching From Afar
acrylic on canvas
16″ x 20′

No one wants to be on the train that’s wrecking. Not many want to watch the disaster unfolding, but when you care intensely about a person, sometimes you cannot take your eyes off the pain and trauma. You watch from the cheap seats in the balcony, rather than paying the full price of orchestra pit, where you can get the front row view, up close and personal.

The Gospel accounts of the crucifixion tell us that the Temple leadership and the Roman soldiers had front row seats at this execution, but the crowds and the followers watched from afar.

Those that had an interest only in the spectacle left once it was over. Those who cared about the person hanging on the cross stayed even after he spent his last breath.

“And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” (Luke 23:48-49)

This snow scene is the fourth in a series of a single tree representing the various stations of the cross. My personal banker, who’s a member oft church, jogs past this tree all the time. It’s near the Hot Springs Country Club at the corner of Malvern and Bellaire. I took several photos, played in Photoshop in my camera+app and went to work painting on 16″ x 20″ canvases. 

I divided the canvas almost equally into quarters and halves. The heavens and the earth are top and bottom. The Christ tree almost splits in two the right and left halves. 

“At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split.” (Matthew 27:51)

The quiet stillness of the snow reminds me both of the pause of death and the hope for the resurrection. Both are contained in the cross of Christ, but those who watch from afar at this moment do not yet have this hope. 

The people who live their lives as one train wreck after another want to get off this track, but don’t want to give up control of their lives to a power that can break the chains of death that have held us. “To die to our old selves” is to become a train wreck in the flesh. As we give up these old parts of us, old relationships are rent and have to be reformed in a new manner or we have to part ways with old friends and make new ones instead. 

“So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Corinthians 5:17)

The good news is that the cross of Christ unites both heaven and earth, life and death, hope and despair, as well as peace and travail. 

More Power: Thoughts on the Spiritually of A Found Object Icon

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I should never begin working with power tools without caffeine. Having said this, I’m glad to report that I still have all the fingers on each hand and no body parts remain glued to a flat surface, unlike Tim “The Tool Man” Allen. My only error was to put my battery pack backwards into the charging unit. This meant I needed an extra hand to help me pull it loose. God provides, for my young neighbor was handy to pull the charger away while I held the battery’s release mechanism. Two minds are better than one, and two efforts double the power.

My friends at the Canvas Community Church in downtown Little Rock, Arkansas, work with the homeless folks there. Street people are made in the image of God, just as you and I are. They have broken lives, just as you and I do. Their brokenness is out on view for all to see, whereas ours is often hidden behind elegant facades or ordinary tract homes. Canvas will host a Good Friday Stations of the Cross worship service for their community. Their art outreach program with the homeless produces some of the art, but other artists offer their works for exhibition and sale also. A portion of the proceeds befits the church’s outreach ministry.

Icons are such sacred objects that they have acquired a sense of holiness all their own. This attribution of holiness to the icon itself, rather than to the person or subject represented, led to the Iconoclast Controversy. Some destroyed many precious works of art because they thought the image was being worshiped, rather than God or Jesus. We do this today, of course, when we worship our “litmus test issues,” such as which Bible translation is the only sacred cow, what age the earth is (a cover for the Creation science or evidential science debate), or picking a Christian candidate to support (by virtue of the proof texting quotes with which we agree, of course).

My thought is that we still worship the image, but fail to worship God or Jesus. If we were to go beyond the icon/image, we might see more of us meeting the Christ who lives on the streets, in the prisons, and in the sickbeds of our nation:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36)

In the ten hours I was in my studio assembling this icon, I had time to remember where I found all these items that make up this altarpiece. The two red supporting decorative brackets are from a home decorating project that never got off the ground because I decided to tear out the old counter space rather than to make a mosaic there. I hauled the wood shelf back from a walk. It was once a scrap piece of a fence that kept someone out or in. I pick up sticks that feel right, and scraps of wood or crushed soda cans that call out my name. The debris of this world has a beauty of its own kind, just as the acknowledged fine materials of our convention have value. If one day we found a way to manufacture gold, the metal would become base in a heartbeat.

That Chrysler hubcap was a real find! I may have found that on vacation when I stopped along a quiet roadside to snap a photo. The old crosses are from my days of living in large homes, rather than a small condo. The green glass cross broke in a move, but I couldn’t give it up. Most of us can’t give up our brokenness to the Christ who said, “This is my body, broken for you.” This is why we share our broken lives with all who are broken by sorrow, illness, pain, or hurts. We may wind up rusted on the side of the road, like the windshield wiper or we may end up painted over and stashed away in a garage like the board on which this icon exists. I also used beads and old pieces of jewelry that needed to be recycled and repurposed, in the great icon making tradition.

The power of the icon isn’t in the materials. I’ve made icons of macaroni and plastic jewels that read “holiness” as much as any ancient icon. I’ve had people make icons from their grandmother’s jewelry boxes. These too read as holy icons, even if they are nonrepresentational. The power comes through the Holy Spirit into the artist and then into the work. When I make a work such as this, my hands are steady, my pace is slow, and I lose all track of time. I enter into another realm, so to speak, that of the icon itself. The ancients believed that the icons were a window into heaven. I believe this is true, for the power of such an object is to take us out of our ordinary experiences and into a world where there is no more hunger, pain, or grief.

The icon’s great mystery and power is to remind us that ordinary materials can open us up to the truth and beauty of the holy. When our eyes are jaded by the ugliness of the world about us: wars, beheadings, poverty, injustice, economic destabilization, and human insensitivity, look upon the icons and enter into the power of the one who makes all things holy:

“He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (Philippians 3:21)

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OPEN WOUNDS AND LOOSE BINDINGS

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Sometimes we bind our wounds with bandages that don’t quite cover the scars. Then these scrapes and cuts don’t heal properly, but stay open and never mend. The doctors among us may be concerned that these wounds are sites for a new infection, but the healers know that suchwounds are given to us for the healing of others. Our visible scars make us accessible to the woundedness of others. If we hide our woundedness and weakness under the bandages of strength, then they may be afraid to seek us out for comfort or support.

if we hide ourselves behind our well placed bandages, then we have missed the opportunity to pour out our experience of God’s love and hope in our lives into their lives. Perhaps that is why the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion were visible on his resurrection body. Most people think after they die, they will have a perfect body, but if we get a body like our Lord’s, surely we will have the evidence of the scars of this world, even if we no longer feel the pain.

Those of us who are bearing the pains of the world in our hearts, minds, and bodies will show those scars on our outer selves. We can’t wrap ourselves up like an Egyptian mummy! Even if we did, these bandages would fall away and expose our woundedness. Only then can we be best used by God.

Psalms 147:3–He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.

A ROAD IN THE WILDERNESS

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As I am entering the outskirts of my city, I leave the local highway and climb onto the bypass that loops around the south side of town. I wouldn’t dare climb this route in a winter storm, but on one of our interim false spring days, I can negotiate the incline and curves without fear. On one of my journeys home, I arrived as usual near sunset, so I was driving into the setting sun. The light was falling between the low mountains with a flooding glow that didn’t seem to come from the sun, but from a holy presence.

Since I was driving sixty miles an hour on a two lane, one way elevated road, I did not whip out an Instagram memory. Instead, I committed this to my mind’s memory and sketched it out when I got home on the first piece of paper I found, which happened to be a magazine page I had ripped out and put into my purse. Then I unloaded the car and went inside to my home.

Where are the people? Where are the distinctive landscape markings? I didn’t make these on purpose so that this road can be everywhere for everyone. We each have our own personal wilderness in which we wander before we can come home. We can’t come home as long as we are just in this world, but we can come home when we realize that we are walking with God in God’s world. The problems that keep us from having good relationships with our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our god will be healed when we realize that God has already prepared the highway for us on which we are to travel homeward:

“A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” –Isaiah 35:8-10

One day we will climb up the entry to this bypass, the light will strike us as truly different from all other days we have been in this place, and if we are aware of God’s speaking to us in his world, we will hear his voice calling us home. The burdens will lift from our shoulders and the tears will dry from our eyes. Songs of joy will burst unbound from our hearts and our feet will leap and dance with gladness.

Are we the Good Shepherd or Are We the Lost Sheep?

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Recently a male acquaintance of mine had the temerity to suggest that perhaps I might need one of those buttons that calls for help to a distant monitoring site. I had told him I’d been sick and he knew I lived alone. I was feeling much better by then and retorted, “As long as I can walk the around the 1.5 miles of Mercy Hospital, I don’t need a button that says I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” He escaped my wrath by a quick exit into the elevator. Indeed!

“I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” Paul said of Christ to the Philippians (4:13). Isaiah reminds us that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young fall exhausted; but those that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.” (40:29-31).

With verses like these ringing in our ears, well meaning people of faith do great harm to God’s gift, which is God’s own image, whether male or female (Genesis1:27). We run our precious images into the ground until they are flat exhausted, burnt out, overwhelmed, physically sick or plain old addicted to either the work, the adulation, or some other less desirable habit. We forget that the one person who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15) is also the same one of whom was said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). John’s gospel alone mentions that “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well” (4:6). No other gospel author speaks of the Lord’s humanness as does John. If Jesus can get tired and need rest, why is it we who follow him cannot do the same thing?

We think we are being good shepherds by being always at work, always on call, always at work. I have clergy pals who feel they have to justify their exercise time as “prayer time or sermon preparation.” I have other friends that have worked themselves into the hospital with exhaustion, yet tried to leave against medical advice just to do someone’s funeral because they were jealous of another pastor coming into their church. The stress of disaster relief efforts in addition to all our other responsibilities can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Hurricane Gustave in 2008 put several of us in lower Arkansas into the hospital with stress related heart events. Fainting into your spaghetti at the community meal gets you a free ride to the local hospital, even if you go under protest!

I won’t begin to list the side effects of all this stress on our precious bodies, other than to say that when we put ourselves under this much stress, we eat more comfort foods, we exercise less and we sleep less. All these acts cause us to eat more comfort foods. If we really want to live a Jesus lifestyle, start walking! Give up your need to be a Ken or Barbie doll perfect person and tell your people you are going out to find the lost sheep.

The lost sheep is your identity as a child of God, not your calling as a pastor or your ministry in the church or the world. It isn’t how you make your money as a banker, a mechanic, a coder, or a salesperson. This isn’t you as a mom or a dad, but you as God’s own child. If you are feeling lost in the role of what you do, you are a lost sheep. This icon (image) of the Good Shepherd should point you to the only one who can find you and bring you home safely from the wilderness. If you are with him, you stand under the tree of life, whose leaves are used for healing. Your wounds will be healed and you will heal the wounds of others also.

For further reading, a classic spiritual text is Henri Nouwen’s THE WOUNDED HEALER