When the seasons change, I have days when I drag. My get up and go has done got up and went. Perhaps my increasing age has something to do with this feeling, or the pandemic’s lack of social interaction has dulled my senses. Some days I think I’m moving through molasses, and then the next I wake up on a brighter side of the bed.
Occasionally, I wonder where my mind is. I recently had to get the attendant at the Kroger gas station to help me pump the gas. When I used my loyalty card, the pump didn’t reduce my price. I forgot this pump had a screen prompt, which I’d ignored. Once I was retrained, I got the good discount and filled my car up. I really need to get out more. I’m not driving as much as I once did because of this pandemic. I used to say, “My brain has gone to Pluto,” but now it seems to have gone to the pandemic instead. I could always count on the old grey matter making the circuit back to earth, eve if it took 248 years, but until this Pandemic passes, I may be slightly silly. Some of you will say, “No one can tell the difference,” but I know better.
One of the benefits of this enforced solitude, which we’ve all endured, is we’ve had the opportunity to consider everything tried and true, and decide if we need to keep it or do something different instead. Some of us have redecorated our homes, take up a new hobby or occupation, or even become teachers or caregivers. Many of us cleaned out our closets and clutter because looking at it daily was too much. We’ve done what we had to do. Others of us have held on to the old traditions, as if they were security blankets. We won’t change them until our world feels safe again.
To make progress in art or any creative endeavor, sometimes we have to “burn the security blanket” before we can go forward. This is hard to do, for we get comfortable with whatever small success we first make. Basketball great Kobe Bryant would practice by himself for hours before his teammates showed up and would make four hundred shots every single practice. Notice that’s MAKE, not TAKE. Work ethic is a hallmark of greatness. Kobe was never satisfied with only the good, but sought to be his best.
Building a Community of Encouragement
Yet we are also people who need encouragement, and this means we need community. In community we can build each other up by “catching the good each one does.” We can reward and praise this, even though we usually find ourselves pointing out the spot a person missed, or how they could do it better next time. There’s a difference between criticism and critiquing someone’s work. Criticism usually only has negative statements, but a good critique begins with at least three positive comments before it notes what needs improvement and how to accomplish that task.
Artists and creative persons learn over the years to separate their identities from their work. Who we are as God’s beloved children never changes, no matter how badly our work gets panned. Most of us artists think we’re misunderstood anyway, so we go back to our studios and work some more. Words won’t kill us, and plenty of artists were never commercially successful. Most artists or creative people work at their craft because they have an inner need to express their experiences or ideas about the world in which they live.
Finding Our Own Voice
We work to discover who we are and what our voice would say to the world. In most art classes, the teacher makes a model and the students attempt to copy it as faithfully as possible. This process may use the elements of art, the media of art, and the end product may look like art, but the students are imitating someone else’s creative process. Thinking through the problems of shape, shadow, color, composition, and texture are part of the creative process. I’m very proud of our group, for each person is finding an individual voice. You would be able to identify their work, even if it were unsigned.
Season of Harvest
Hoshana Raba (Heb. הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא; “the great hoshana”) is a name for the seventh and last day of the Sukkot festival, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
In the medieval poem “Om ani homah” attributed to Eleazar Kalir, the Israel nation declares ‘I am a wall’. The poem is recited during Hoshana Raba (Great Supplication) which begins this evening.
Ingathering or Harvest Festivals are part of the seasonal experiences of our lives. Last week I brought a bunch of gourds and pumpkins in for class. I gave each person the opportunity to choose the ones that spoke to them to use for their still life. We had quite the variety of solutions.
Gail’s pumpkins were bold and bright, filling the canvas.
Mike’s were exuberant and about to come alive with energy.
Margaret was new in class, and made a highly textured still life, complete with cast shadows.
Mine were socially distant, a commentary on this pandemic life.
I brought the pumpkins and gourds home to grace my altar. It changes with the seasons, so come advent, it takes a more exuberant and celebratory vibe. For autumn, it’s full of natural bounty. When Nehemiah was celebrating the festival of booths and purifying the temple, this was the prayer of the people:
“O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-29)
All good things come from God, and we owe our lives and our living to the Holy God. Help us to care for the least among us, especially those who hunger and thirst at this time of harvest and during this season of change.
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30
How many of us get to admire the great creative exuberance of the divine palette strewn across the sky twice a day in our ordinary days? Most of us are too busy breakfast grabbing, caffeine swilling, clothes donning, and storming the door in a mad dash for the morning rush to work. Then we join the misnomered evening rush hour, which actually moves at a snail’s pace. We’re too busy watching the bumper in front of us on a highway to pay attention to the sky above us. If we’re guarding our goods on a subway, we can’t even see the light of day until we exit the bowels of the earth, but then we’ve got our eyes set on home, not on the sky above us.
I wonder if this Age of Coronavirus has changed us in any way, since January 30, when the World Health Organization declared a public health emergency due to the novel coronavirus originating in Wuhan, China. It’s been about one hundred days since the World Health Organization and our everyday world has known about this pandemic plague, but cancelled sporting events and music festivals, working from home, and closed schools are now part of our daily life. The opening day for Major League Baseball heard no crack of bat against the ball and no hawkers in the stands shouting, “Peanuts, popcorn, crackerjack!” Even though the 2020 Olympic flame burns brightly in japan, the games won’t be held this summer due to the virulent virus and athletes won’t earn shining metals.
If today we haven’t these rituals of community as celebrations of our common humanity, we might feel a sense of loss, even grief. Yet we can find a daily reminder of hope, for the sun continues to rise in the morning and set in the evening. When the moon rises and the stars come out at night, we can see the rotation of the constellations according to the seasons of the year. Of course, we have to look up, and not down. We also have to look out beyond ourselves, and not just inside always. When we’re cooped up inside, doing #StayHomeStaySafe for our own good as well as for others, sometimes it’s difficult to look outward.
When I was a child, my family didn’t have many art works in our home, but we always had a colorful nature calendar. My parents were always willing to hang my art in their home, an act I found encouraging. We also made weekend trips to hike in nature, ostensibly to “search for arrowheads,” but more often just to be outside. When I was in active ministry, I would go to nature when I was drained and needed to find the quiet place to restore my soul. There were times when I felt the demands of my superiors for more productivity and the nagging from my congregation about why I couldn’t be available all the time in the office as well as out visiting the home bound were more than I could handle, so I would close up shop and take a drive. I thought I might kill the next person who came in my office, but that’s not evidence of “going on to perfection,” so leaving was a better choice on my part.
I very often served in county seat towns, so I was never far from nature, but even in the city, I knew the location of the best parks. In art school, I even lived next to a park and in seminary I lived next to a creek. Now I live in a national park. I feel like I’ve achieved a life goal. My neighbor at the condo has cultivated quite an interior and patio garden in this Age of Coronavirus. I bought an orchid plant for my birthday, rather than cut flowers, since nursing a living plant seems more hopeful in this time of loss for so many people. My Christmas cactus even bloomed again for Holy Week, another sign of optimism amidst the panic shopping and empty shelves. If there’s enough life in my little plant to bloom out of season, then I trust God’s gift of providence to feed the hungry and care for us all, if we share with one another.
Some people only see the sunsets on their vacations, but never any other time of the year. The sunset lasts less than five minutes, and the best colors are only momentarily part of this time. If we’re addicted to busyness, or filling every available moment of our time with productive activity, then we’ll be checking off our to do list and miss the magic of this moment. We could reframe our attitudes, however, and see our pause for the sunset as a time of blessing for the day. We can break for beauty, awe, and magnificence, and thank God for the whole of our day, the good, the bad, and the indifferent. After all, we’ve made it through another day, and the cycle will begin again, so we can entrust our night to God’s Care also. This is the meaning of providence.
I sometimes wonder if some are closed to creation and therefore closed to God’s love and grace. When I see the damage humanity has done to the earth and the creatures which live upon it, I wonder how much hate or ignorance can exist in people. This virus has exposed structural inequities and inequalities both in the victims and in their previous care. Two groups which are dying from covid-19 in greater proportions than normal are African Americans and men. For the first group, persons of color more often live in neighborhoods with higher pollution and less access to healthy food, plus they have more disease burden with less medical access. Men of all races and economic status have higher incidence of heart disease and smoking, plus they don’t fight inflammation as well due to their gene structure.
Perhaps this disease will take the blinders from our eyes, so we’ll begin to provide better medical care for our whole population, rather than think the coronavirus is just a means of “culling the herd.” That’s a hard hearted way to view a child of God’s creation, made from the dust of the earth, and breathed into life with the very Spirit of God. When I look at creation, the landscape or a sunset, I see the creating hand shaping me and you, and even these hard hearted yahoos, who have the survival of the fittest and wealthiest as their goal. I think somewhere within them is the image of God, even if they’re doing a great job of hiding it. Maybe they need to go in search of more sunsets or a forest. I know I was always a better person after a quiet time in the shade of a forest.
Life for extroverts in the Age of Social Distancing is difficult. They need people to bounce their ideas off of, friends to hear their tales of daily struggles or victories, and most of all, the transfer of energy between the parties to feel alive. For introverts, most of whom need space and quiet to restore their energies, the “stay at home unless absolutely necessary” directives are more welcome than not. A good book, some quiet music, and a calming drink of herbal tea is a balm for the body and the soul.
Of course, if you have children, activity is your middle name, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of extroversion or introversion. Taking walks in the neighborhood of your city is an opportunity to learn about architecture. How is it built, what are the forms called, and how many styles can you identify as you walk about? You can make an art project from this walk about, by building a shoebox city, a collage from magazines or scrap paper, or making a map.
When my daughter was young, we lived in south Texas, so our walks meant we might stumble upon a limestone fossil creature. She was always amazed some animal from the prehistoric times would find its way into our modern age, even if it were a lifeless stone. To find a treasure from 100,000,000 years ago always added excitement to our jaunts about the home place.
If you live in the countryside, you might have access to the woods or a forest, or you can go there. We haven’t decided to lock down everyone in their home yet. However, it’s my “Dr. Cornie” opinion we all should limit our goings and doings to the utmost necessities of grocery, health, and essential services. While I’m not a “real doctor,” those of us who are “Coronavirus Cathys and Chucks” can spread this disease to others, even if we don’t feel sick or have symptoms.
In this Age of Coronavirus, staying put at home means we “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease. While many will have a mild disease, too many will have a difficult outcome, especially when they face a lack of hospital beds and equipment to treat them. Let’s think of these others, and not just of ourselves alone.
With this admonition in mind, I invite you to travel virtually in solitude to the woods. Many of my paintings are of nature, for I feel close to God in nature. My parents may have been getting a vacation from me when I went to summer church camp at the old Works Project Administration site at Caney Lake, but I connected with the God who meets us in nature while I was there.
The Germans have a constructed word Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude. The Grimm Brothers wrote many fairy tales, which were also set in the famed German Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.
I don’t know if children read these stories today, since they’re a tad scary, but my parents grew up in the Great Depression and fought the Great War in Europe against the Nazis. They helped us through the imaginary, scary events so we could take on the actual, distressing situations. Practicing the easy operations in a safe space helped us confront our fears in real life.
Sometimes I’ll walk in the woods and hear a voice calling me to turn around. It’s not an audible voice, as if an outside agent were speaking to me. It’s also not my own inner sense, as “I should turn around.” Instead, I perceive a stillness from beyond, and the word I hear is “Turn around and look.”
If nature speaks to us, it’s because “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20). Does this mean all persons see God’s hand in creation? Of course not, for some can’t even see the image of God in their own faces when they look in the mirror as they brush their teeth in the morning. Perhaps this is why the city streets are littered, the country roads are trashed, and violence to humanity is a sad trouble in every zip code. If we are God’s people, we’ll care for one another and for God’s world.
Even in the Age of Coronavirus, when our solid underpinnings have been cut down from under us and we have crashed to the ground with the noise of a giant sequoia tearing through its smaller companions, we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Walk in the woods, in silence, and renew your soul, with Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Waldeinsamkeit I do not count the hours I spend In wandering by the sea; The forest is my loyal friend, Like God it useth me.
In plains that room for shadows make Of skirting hills to lie, Bound in by streams which give and take Their colors from the sky;
Or on the mountain-crest sublime, Or down the oaken glade, O what have I to do with time? For this the day was made.
Cities of mortals woe-begone Fantastic care derides, But in the serious landscape lone Stern benefit abides.
Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy, And merry is only a mask of sad, But, sober on a fund of joy, The woods at heart are glad.
There the great Planter plants Of fruitful worlds the grain, And with a million spells enchants The souls that walk in pain.
Still on the seeds of all he made The rose of beauty burns; Through times that wear and forms that fade, Immortal youth returns.
The black ducks mounting from the lake, The pigeon in the pines, The bittern’s boom, a desert make Which no false art refines.
Down in yon watery nook, Where bearded mists divide, The gray old gods whom Chaos knew, The sires of Nature, hide.
Aloft, in secret veins of air, Blows the sweet breath of song, O, few to scale those uplands dare, Though they to all belong!
See thou bring not to field or stone The fancies found in books; Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own, To brave the landscape’s looks.
Oblivion here thy wisdom is, Thy thrift, the sleep of cares; For a proud idleness like this Crowns all thy mean affairs.
Nine years ago…how time flies when you’re having fun! I was at a crossroads in my life, however, with a preexisting health condition I’d managed to live with successfully through three high stress careers since 1977. Accumulated stress isn’t good for the body, so my seizure disorder began to make itself visible.
When my neurologist told me I’d never be able to do the work of a full time church pastor again, I had to revision and rehear my calling from God. If we define a role so strictly it’s a one way highway, it can become “my way or the highway.” This extreme dividing drives clergy and laity into producers and consumers, instead of encouraging shared ministry experiences.
If being a “source of all blessings for everyone” is a short term good for a pastor’s ego, it can also lead to a long term harm in health costs or emotional burnout. For the laity, losing the opportunity to live out their shared witness to the mighty acts of God in Jesus Christ means they don’t fulfill their roles as the priesthood of all believers.
ARTANDICON in 2009: Bravely Smiling
The basic teaching of “make disciples of all nations” doesn’t have much effectiveness if we first are not disciples ourselves. So the old saw is true, we may be saved by the grace of God, and not by our good works, but if we want to become learners or disciples, our spiritual life takes some work, just as doing good for others is a hands on job.
I count myself fortunate to have a creative and curious mind, for I’ve always been the child who asked, “Why,” or went, ”Oh, I need to look that up and learn more about it!” Learning for the test, only to forget it later, has never been my strong suit.
The system as a whole also interests me more than the individual parts (I confess this is my shortcoming in relationships, since I have a few deep friendships, many good friends, and lots of friendly folks I like, and many people I know. Not enough people to count on one hand to say I totally dislike, although some I’ve set boundaries for their presence in my life because of their addiction issues).
When I set my preconceived notions of my ordination aside, I listened for a new calling from God. If I couldn’t serve IN the church BUILDING , perhaps I could still serve in the church as the BODY OF CHRIST. The body of Christ exists everywhere, both within and without the edifice we call the sanctuary, for we come and go.
In fact, we have people without churches, people who believe in god, or who are merely spiritual, all around us. Most of us are too busy dealing with our own congregations to reach out to these people. They don’t need traditional stories or sermons. I started a science fiction journal on faith.
Why not? Who else is doing it? Will it make money? Who cares? Do I get feedback? Not often. If we’re in this for the affirmation from human beings, we’re worshiping a false god. Idolatry. I can say things like this and not worry about ruffling the big givers. The taste of freedom is sweet.
Of course, I said this type of thing anyhow my entire ministry career, so I moved a lot, but the churches had good stewardship while I was there and repaired all their unmet facility needs. I left it better than I found it because the people came together to make it happen.
In the solitude of your own studio, writing room, or hangout, there’s no people to gather together to make it happen. A person only has the thoughts of what once was, what has been lost, and what will never be again. It’s the first stage of grief, a shock. It can turn into despair or depression, for everything is overwhelming.
Medication, or “better living through chemistry” can help lift the brain fog so a person can get their ducks in a row. This is no easy task, if you’ve ever tried to herd ducks. Worse than herding cats. Ducks will turn around and peck you. Trust me on this. Childhood memory.
Some people think a prescription is a faith cop out, since they should trust God’s grace alone to sustain them in a difficult time. I think God’s providing grace gave us the knowledge to create the medicine to help us heal our bodies. God can heal by ordinary means, such as health providers or medicines; or extraordinary means, such as miracles. More often God’s working in the ordinary, or we wouldn’t use the exclamation point after miracle!
I also returned to my art, for I find painting the holy icons and natural landscapes both bring me closer to God. As I got more used to being on the computer, I taught myself how to set up WordPress blogs and Facebook Pages for my special interests in health, spirituality, and art. Actually all of these get combined together, because of “systems thinking,” since we can’t lop off art from spirituality, or health from cooking, or any other combination thereabouts.
Antique Aluminum Jello Mold
Now nine years later, I’m in a good place, enjoying my new callings, and in much better health. I will always have my condition, but my condition does not have me. Of course, I have to maintain a disciplined lifestyle, unlike the rest of the world, which runs at pellmell pace until it runs out of gas and crashes. But of course, you wouldn’t do that—you have too much good sense for that, I’m sure.
Overheard: PT Barnum & the Rev. John Wesley on the Movie “Death by China”
Citizens of 1880 and 1760 usually don’t have the opportunity to visit over coffee, unless Dr. Who activates his telephone booth or we use the research tools available to us to bring their ideas together in the same space. “Free Books” can bring PT Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting or Golden Rules for Making Money and John Wesley can give us his thoughts on “The Use of Money” from his Standard Sermons. These we can bring together to share thoughts both secular and religious that open up the conversations we should be having with each other as we prepare for our Black Friday Shopping Marathons, for surely our merchants are eagerly awaiting our arrival.
PT Barnum was known for passing off a fake ancient giant skull because a rival group wouldn’t sell him the skull known as the “Cardiff Giant,” which was found in a dig in New York State. Barnum told the story that this other giant was the fake and his was authentic, causing the other owner to say the immortal words falsely attributed to PT Barnum: “A sucker is born every minute.” Unfortunately, the Cardiff Giant was an elaborate hoax, so the prophecy was unfortunately true.
This misquote, “A sucker is born every minute,” must have been designed for America when we signed the papers admitting China to the World Trade Organization, for 57,000 factories in America have shut down since China joined the WTO in 2001. These closed factories represent jobs that are no more, but they also represent other support facilities and businesses that supported those workers and factories: beauty and barber shops, bakeries, cafes, shoe shops, clothing shops, and other small businesses such as accounting and legal services, mechanics, and gas stations. All these begin to fold when a factory closes because the workers have no income to spread around. Every one manufacturing job supports a half dozen other jobs. Since 2001, America has lost 2.7 million jobs (Economic Policy Institute estimate), nearly 77% in manufacturing.
We believed a free market would operate in China and open trade would bring prosperity to all parties. Instead by 2012 we posted a $174.5 trillion trade deficit with China. Their low wages and standard of living, combined with their disregard of environmental hazards, pollution standards, labor standards, safe working conditions, and minimum wage laws meant that they could produce goods more cheaply than Americans could. There was no level playing field, so there was no free market. The cheap, addictive products made in China attracted Americans, who wanted to keep their standard of living at the same level.
These Americans had lost their living due to job and wage loss, and didn’t count the costly consequences of also buying from the hand that bit them (lost jobs, closed factories, lost manufacturing base in USA, outsourced economy.) These facts are brought forward in the movie, “Death by China,” by Peter Navarro (produced by Greg Autry).
We are buying these products on credit: one is the trade imbalance, and the other is the credit card debt people are carrying. Barnum refers to debt as “working for a dead horse” (p. 54), for it doesn’t earn money for anyone. He also said that even in 1880, “Americans as a nation are far too superficial, they are striving to get rich quickly, and do not generally do their business as substantially and thoroughly as they should” (p. 101).
Black Friday deals are made in China: Lead painted toys & jewelry, toxify me Elmo, Cheap electronics and home furnishings, and Shoes produced by prison labor. If Wal-Mart were a country, it would be the fourth largest trading partner of China. Americans will line up overnight to be the first inside the stores to claim these “bargains.” While we are there we might pick up some Tainted pet food, Toxic toothpaste with antifreeze or Fish/tilapia from China that is raised in a polluted stream. We’ll save a few pennies, but we’ll pay more in health costs in the long run. This is what Barnum calls “penny wise and pound foolish” (p.9). Those of us that have Wal-Mart stocks will celebrate when the sales on Black Friday bring the folks in, as our futures will seem to be more secure. But Barnum reminds us in his book, The Art of Money Getting, or Golden Rules for Making Money, “You cannot accumulate a fortune by taking the road that leads to poverty” (p. 18).
In Sermon 50, “The Use of Money,” John Wesley quotes scripture: “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10), but admits that money itself isn’t evil, for the fault lies in those that use it. He proposes several rules: “Gain all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can.” However, he qualifies “Gain all you can” in this manner, for some employments aren’t worth exchanging your life for them, and we have all been in jobs that suck either the life or health out of us. Wesley’s advice is to change our job even if it means less money. We also aren’t to engage in sinful activities to earn our wages or do work that causes us to lose our souls. We should gain all we can without hurting our neighbor: this includes not selling goods below market price, seeking ways to ruin the neighbors’ trade, or stealing away the neighbor’s employees. Also, we aren’t to gain by hurting our neighbors’ body, or by impairing the health of the neighbor (spirituous liquors in Wesley’s day, selling illegal drugs or tainted products today). As noted in the paragraph above, the Chinese don’t pass Wesley’s smell test in the Gain of Money.
Wesley’s second principle “Save all you can,” seems to apply to all of us bargain seekers, who should buy the least expensive item and not the most expensive choice. Instead, Wesley suggests that we reassess our lifestyles and not spend our money on idle expenses: things that merely gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life. Most families in America have many more things than European families, and way more things than Asian or African families. We trash more things each year than others buy! Most of what we buy is for the adulation of others, and not for gathering praise from God. Wesley particularly advises his followers to avoid superfluous or expensive apparel or needless ornaments for self and the home.
Lastly, his admonition, “Give all you can,” is the purest test of our love of God and neighbor and the true assay of our hearts. Wesley takes the Biblical view that we are all stewards of God’s creation, for God owns all things that God created. First we provide for our needs, our family’s needs and then from the surplus, we are to “do good to them that are of the household of faith. If there is an over surplus, we are to do good unto all men.” For the good reverend, the test he used was “Can I offer up this expense as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?”
Today some corporations are taking a new look at their use of money. Their leadership now understands that you have to give back to make more money and they are trying to change their shareholder’s understanding. As a result, Corporations made up 5% or $15 billion of US giving in 2010. Individuals accounted for 73% or $211 billion.[3
Black Friday is the day our local merchants will make their books turn from loss to profit. This is the day that determines if they survive into the New Year to spread their dollars around to the other small businesses in town and keep them alive also. Our corporations maximize short-term profits at the risk of long-term jobs. We value money over people, and we value now rather than tomorrow. Outsourcing our jobs is part of valuing the short-term profit over the long-term value of investments in people, research, development, and commitment to excellence that will make our country strong for generations to come. For instance, the US military uses aircraft “flying” technology that is made in China. We don’t make this in the USA anymore, just as we don’t make our computers, printers, smartphones, iPads, or any other technology. If we end up at war, this is very dangerous. We leave ourselves open to theft of our intellectual property, as well as theft of our national security property.
Manufacturing is the origin of Research and Development. When we outsource the manufacturing, we also farm out the activity of R&D. Our intellectual property is our inheritance. It is what we build upon for the future. We have sold it for a mess of pottage: a short-term profit to ease our hunger, but we will starve in the long run, for we have lost our blessing to another.
My Nannie used to say those that “bought cheap would live poor.” She meant that you get what you pay for: if you want a quality product, you have to pay for the quality worker. If you want a green and sustainable factory producing the item, you need to pay for the product. If you want workers treated humanely and given a living wage so that they can live in decent housing, you need to pay for it. If you decide that you are good with buying cheap because it suits your pocket book, look into the eyes of the neighbor who is joining the unemployment line. This sad and dejected person is the mirror looking back at you.
We have a choice, and our money will talk. We can put it where our mouth is! What are our ethics in buying? Do we use our money to support poor working conditions, low wages, and hazardous environmental conditions? Do we support our companies outsourcing our jobs and economic prosperity overseas? Buy American as often as possible: it’s better made, lasts longer, keeps our money at home, circulates the wealth in your community, and benefits your neighbors. Look for the designation “Made in America.” This means it was produced here at home. This is different from “Assembled in America” from foreign materials, or “assembled in X” from American materials. Only Made in America is 100% American. 
I want to thank Alliance Rubber Company for bringing “Death by China” to the Market Street Cinema in Little Rock for its Arkansas premier. Alliance Rubber Company is a Hot Springs company that is celebrating its 90th year in business. Ms. Bonnie Schawxie, the owner, is carrying on the tradition that her Family began back in Ohio. They are an American success story, celebrating Manufacturing Day and American Made by keeping American Workers producing quality products at a reasonable price.
“Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” ~~ Luke 12:15
I have way more things than I need! I have the antique pink Fostoria china from my Dad’s mother and the gold-rimmed china from my Nannie, Mother’s mother. When my Mom died, my brothers actually wondered if I wanted our Mom’s multiple sets of china. If we had a close knit family that all gathered for celebrations at one table, I might have considered it, but since I was in the moving business at the time, it was just one more thing to pack in addition to my setting for twenty from the prior generation.
Besides, I had the old table Mom had refinished that was her parents’ first purchase for their home. We used to eat many a Sunday dinner around that old oak table. It was always fried chicken, rice, green beans with pork, pan gravy, and Jell-O salad with fruit inside and mayo on top. I also have the mementos that are part of the family’s heritage. I chose to keep them because they weren’t important to my brothers at the time and I believed that this history would be important to our children at some point in their lives.
However, I was in the moving business at the time, for I was under appointment as a pastor in the United Methodist Church. This meant that I would “go where I was sent to serve God’s people.” Keeping my family’s treasures and history meant that I had to take a new look at possessions. All my stuff had to fit into the largest U-Haul truck and my vehicle, with a possible overflow into a truck of a parishioner who would be traveling to help move me to the new parsonage. I began to rid myself of bought gifts, cards without personal messages, and clothes I couldn’t wear. If something came in the front door, something had to go out the back door! I was ruthless! This didn’t mean that I didn’t value the giver or the gift, but holding onto the object was something I no longer could do.
Push came to shove when I went on medical leave in 2009 from the parish ministry setting, for I moved into my condo at the lake, all 768 square feet of it! This is half the size of the smallest parsonage in which I ever lived. I rented a storage unit near my home that has about 1600 cubic feet of storage space (12 x 14 x 10). I have built a new storage shelf annually and worked on giving away items that I no longer need or use. I am finding the books I want to keep for now, and making my art & tool shelves more accessible for the various projects I like to work on from time to time.
When I found the box of family photos and history, I got sidetracked and decided to do a scrapbook for the nieces and nephews. In typical fashion, I got that project half done, and added a book of memories to it. Since the memories are fuller than the scrapbook, I think I should finish the first project, and send the memory book at a later date.
I think of my Dad’s workroom at their old home on River Road in Shreveport, Louisiana. He had a jumble of lawn tools, fishing items, and household tools stuck in the shed. Neatly nailed in rows above his workbench, however, was a collection of bent boat propellers from his days of fishing on the lake. He would take the most recent causality into the marine store, ask the counter man how much it would cost to beat it back into shape, and learn that it still cost less to buy a new one. He would then nail this propeller next to the last one, “against the day when it’ll be cheaper to fix it than buy a new one.”
There was a rich man in the parable whose land produced so much that his barns couldn’t store it all. He had no way to store his crops for the future or to provide ease for his soul. When God called him home that night, his preparations for a future of ease were all for nothing, and all his preparations benefited someone else. The point is, Jesus said, “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves, but are not rich toward God” (Luke 12:16-21).
In both our art and our spiritual lives, the questions we need to ask ourselves are “For what purpose is our treasure being stored and for what purpose is our treasure being spent?” If the answer is like the rich man’s—“ for me”—then we have wasted our time and our energy. God may as well ask for an accounting of our soul tonight. If we have no higher purpose than ourselves, then we have no god beyond ourselves. The one true God needs to make himself known and visible to us, so we can discover our true self, which can only be known in relation to the living God and lived out in service in his name.
As an art and spiritual project, knowing your family line is important. When I was 20, I wanted to be known for who I was and what I did. I thought my family didn’t matter, but the book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue by Edwin H. Friedman, has taught me differently. I discovered the true stories of my earlier generations, and know now that these have shaped me, for better or worse. As the artist selects the parts of the image he or she wants to emphasize, so we too select the parts of our lives and history we want to portray to the world. God knows all that we are, so offering to God a true self-portrait would be our gift to God this week.
“If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”~~ Matthew 19:21
I didn’t hit it big last Friday, but then I didn’t go buy the golden ticket. In fact, I bought no ticket at all. I didn’t participate in the mega-normus Mega Millions Lottery with the $656 million pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I didn’t join the lines stretching out the door and down the block waiting for the opportunity to mark the little circles of hope and dreams. The last time I waited in a line that long, I was in Berryville, Arkansas, waiting for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger” to open at the local theater where they showed photos of the local folks, sites, and events before the movie started.
Only three people in this country hit the mother load, the jackpot, and they may or may not show up for work on Monday. When they stood in line on Friday, they may have dreamed of what they would do with the money they might win. If nothing else, it would make the time go quicker, as some of those lines were stretching quite a few blocks! They may have been dreaming of “my salad days” when their ship comes in, when they can tell the boss to take this job and shove it. or they may be thinking of paying off debts and helping others. We do know that $1.5 billion dollars was spent by 1/3 of the American public who took a chance, even though the odds were 1/176 million.
A quick Internet search turned up what we could have bought as a nation for this $1.5 billion ($5/person who bought tickets).
Gasoline—685,000 tanks of gas for these households
Health care for one year—462,000 American families
One week unemployment benefits—40% of 12.8 million American unemployed
Someone came to Jesus and asked, “Tell me what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus told him to keep the commandments, because for a Jew to be in a right relationship with God, right behavior was necessary. The man wanted to know which commandments were the important ones to keep. Jesus began to list the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, which were given by God to Moses at Sinai.
When he said, “I’ve kept these all my life,” he cut Jesus off before he could name the one law that he couldn’t keep: “Do not covet anything belonging to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). He asked, “What do I still lack?” So Jesus answered his question with a challenge, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (21). This man went away from Jesus sad, because he had many possessions.
Whether he had few or many, the real problem is his possessions “owned him” and he couldn’t part with them. As appealing as the hope of eternal life, treasure in heaven, or perfection/completion in Christ is, the siren call of his stuff was greater still. He never gets to the “come, follow me” point in his life because he has to answer the call of his possessions that say “stay, remain with us.”
This is one of the hard teachings of our creative and spiritual lives. As long as we chase the Dream of the Pie in the Sky and Something for nothing, we are chasing a Chimera of Temptation. If we want to be perfect, or “complete,” we must give away all we have and follow the higher calling. Some folks find a way to do that concretely, as those who enter the religious orders in the Catholic Faith.
The Protestant clergy and all Christian laity have a different calling. We recognize that our possessions don’t belong to us in the first place, but are a loan from God. We are merely stewards of all things, for God is the ultimate owner. Once we accept that we are managers of our Master’s estate, we are thankful that we are entrusted with a share to supervise. Then our possessions no longer own us, for we no longer own them! We render our accounting back to the Master, and make faithful use of them for his good and his purposes, and not just for our own good. We have the incentive to use money appropriately and not squander it gambling, on drugs, or wasting precious resources. We are thankful for what we have and share with others to help the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless, and other missions of our faith community.
Amazing isn’t it, what happens what happens when you give up ownership of your many possessions? In fact if everyone in America, not just the one third of us that bought a ticket last week, would chunk in just $5, we could feed nearly one million households for a year!!
A similar sea change happens to the creative artist when he or she gives up chasing perfection itself. The great Apelles said of another Greek Classical artist, “He was a great Master, but he often spoiled his pieces by endeavoring to make them perfect; he did not know when he had done well; a man may do too much as well as too little; and he is truly skillful, who knew what was sufficient.” (The Mind of the Artist, Binyon, 1909, p.159-160).
I have watched many beginning artists and amateur painters work an area of their canvas over and over until it is quite dead. The worst mistake is working into wet paint, rather than letting the area dry first. Then everything turns into a mush of grey. Or they spend so much time on the details of one area they fail to keep that section in balance and harmony with the rest of the canvas, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The solution to this is to paint over the whole canvas so that the “whole” is always in mind. First sketch the scene lightly to be sure it fits on your surface, then begin to lay in the colors over the whole canvas. Keep the balance of light and dark, warm and cool in harmony as you work. When a color appears in the foreground, it needs to appear in the middle and back layers also, even if it is muted or tinted, for the eye will carry itself through the painting this way and help establish depth on the two dimensional surface.
In my own life I sometimes “overwork” an area aiming for perfection or completion, especially in work or relationships. I think if I just see more people, help more people, pray more, teach more, serve more, do more, say yes more, never say no to anyone, I will be responsible for (the first perfect church ever/best sales staff/perfect family/no child left behind/etc). Then I realize that the disciples who were walking with Jesus, who saw the many miracles, saw him die on a cross, saw him raised from the dead and touched his resurrected body weren’t able to bring a perfect church into being in their lifetimes. So I have to give up my “perfection fantasy” and come back to my post Mega Million Meltdown reality. I settle for doing my best, and let God do the rest. He will bless my best, if only I have given my all.
This week, find evidence of hunger. Jesus fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. What could you do with $5? A gift to the Arkansas Food Bank makes this $5 multiply into more and feeds many hungry Arkansans. Share this message with your friends, and share your “bread” with the hungry. Write a poem or blog about your experience. Make a collage (cut out images) of the faces of hunger. Add hunger to your prayers. Joy and Peace, Cornelia