Perfection in Life and Art

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The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.

The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.

DELEE, negative image & Modern Sculpture

Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.

Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.

In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.

DIANA, negative image & abstract sculpture

Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.

MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.

GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window

but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.

Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.

At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.

but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”

If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.

forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.

and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.

Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.

In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.

Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.

In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.

The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”

With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.

In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”

“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.

He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”

By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”

He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.

Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?

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Crossroads and Callings

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Road to Damascus

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.

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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.

Joy and Peace, Cornelia

PLANNING TO FAIL MISERABLY

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How to do it as an artist or any other professional.

Or lollygagger in the workplace.

I personally like #8—Why don’t you ever paint landscapes in normal colors?

I get this question all the time. How do we know our greens and blues of today are “normal?” We live in creation after the fall, not in God’s original creation, as God’s hand first formed it and God’s mind first imagined it. What if all the rainbow of colors was God’s Plan A for the earth?

Of course, I get a blank stare from almost everyone, since most aren’t used to thinking about the created order and our relationship to it. Even fewer think of the fall, or what that means, for this world is all they know.

If they press me on it, I tell them, “I like colors and the emotional joy they express. And I’m not fond of wide swaths of green.”

They nod. I nod. They walk away. They probably haven’t quit talking about me. A voice comes into my head, “These are not the patrons you seek. Move along now. The Force will be with you.”

We hear that same word from the Apostle Paul, spoken long ago to the people in Galatia:

“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)

At some point in time, we each have to hear the inner voice and make the choice to take the well trod path or the path less travelled. Each one has its own consequences, both for ill and for good. If we make fame or prosperity into a god, we might start churning out well pleasing pieces for our market, but our creative inspiration might begin to suffer, to the detriment of our souls. This can lead to various self medicating behaviors, none of which are good. It also leads to depression or anxiety, as 1, 3, 7, and 10 incite these conditions.

We can develop the good qualities needed for our futures. Independence is a character trait of leaders. An artist spends a good amount of solitary work inside the studio, and faces rejection for many years. Cold calling for Insurance might be the only worse occupation for rejection. I’ve done both.

My old teachers used to egg me on when I was studying in art school. “Who are you working for, me or the other class?” I’d be bothered, but I’d answer, “I’m working in my sketchbook.”

About the third time he passed by to interrupt my work, I’d had enough of his gruff. “I’m working for myself–go away and leave me alone!”

“That’s what I was waiting to hear you say,” he smiled and stuck his pipe back in his mouth as he strode off. I didn’t see him anymore except when I was in class with him.

Doing art in solitude is preferable to cold calling because the rejection is at the end of the process and you have beautiful work to appreciate, whereas with cold calling, all you get is a list of numbers crossed out and the hope 3% of the people will give you a reason to call back. In all this we remember,

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)

CHRISTMAS TREE ICON

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Not everyone has an icon of a Christmas tree. I made this “holy image, worthy of reverence and honor, a window into heaven,” while appointed to a church which venerated its symbols of Christmas more than the Christ who brought the day into being. Of course, they didn’t see it this way. When they elevated the giant chrismond  tree and blocked the view of the large cross, they only thought of staging the tree in its best glory. These were the same folks who wondered if we would have a “come and go communion service” on Christmas Eve instead of candlelight, carols, and communion. It would fit their busy schedules so much better, after all. 

Sometimes we need to remember Christmas isn’t about us, the tree, or the gifts. I made these icon trees as a reminder to myself more than anything. PEACE is the greatest gift our world needs today. We need not only peace among nations, but also among peoples, and within our own hearts. If we aren’t at peace, we won’t find it wrapped in a package. The bill will arrive in January, and then we’ll really need peace!

I no longer have this bejeweled icon. Once it was a satire, a comedic take on a tree more holy than the God whose birth it celebrated. Then it transformed, taking on its own holy purpose when I gave it away to a young family. They’d had a rough spell that year. Dad was working part time at the storage units where I keep the things that don’t fit into my condo. 
They didn’t have money for a Christmas tree. I took them some of my extra decor along with some encouragement. The latter may have done more good, but the tree of peace, funky as it is, was an outward and visible reminder of god’s love and care of his hurting children. If we can’t be the Incarnation of Love come down at Christmas, will we be the embodied Christ of Love for the world on any other day of the year?
Be present for the world, rather than looking for presents under a tree. 

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″)

THE CURRENT HEAT WAVE HAS ME CRYING

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Cultural ChristActually, that’s my stunt double. Just like Chuck Norris, I’m too brave to cry. Or, the heat dries up any form of moisture that escapes my eyes. The stuff oozing from my pores is a different matter altogether. I think those 3,000,000,000 holes scattered across my body are each an eye leaking the tears our real ducts can’t cry.

The real Chuck Norris never sweats. He breaks any sweat that comes near him. Sweat is afraid of Chuck Norris, for he is the epitome of cool. How cool is Chuck Norris? We could defeat global warming if we unleashed his massive forces of chill. His sustained energy could bring down the ocean’s temperature by 4 degrees. In fact, Chuck Norris has the cooling equivalency of two Antarctic continents plus the Arctic ice cap.

Many things make my stunt double cry. Mostly they are those events, situations, or conditions that I cannot fix or make better for someone else. I spent years helping my daughter try to overcome the effects of her abuse. Others also gave their best efforts also. Her mental illnesses haves always impaired her ability to trust others or to stay on a treatment plan. Once she became an adult, she could choose, even if she didn’t make good choices, or have the ability to choose well.

I could cry about this forever, or let my stunt double have this role. I chose to grieve about this loss, shed enough tears, and find a way to live my own life by meeting the hopeless, the suffering, the despairing, the lost, the victims, and the ones “who’ve been down so long , it looks like up” to them. After all, this is where Christ met me. I knew if he could reach into my dark pit and pull me up into the light, if I offered Christ to others, he would the same for them.
When I get to the point of dragging out my Chuck Norris stunt double, I know it’s because good old Chuck is a cultural Christ figure. When I want a power for good to make a difference in my world, I call on this Texas Ranger. Instead, I should call on the spiritual power that flows through me:
“My soul clings to you; your right hand supports me.” (Psalm 63:8)

I may not be able to relieve the suffering of any one person, but I know God in his mercy understands and has compassion on all who suffer. God didn’t withhold God’s own son, but gave him up to suffer for all of us (Romans 8:32). Through this suffering we are united with those everywhere who experience wretchedness of any sort. Too often we hear that the winners of this world are our heroes, but faith tells us that those who lose their lives will gain their lives.

If we are to best grow into the Christ life, we cannot forget those who suffer while we are being healed, nor those who hunger or thirst while our stomachs are full. The real Chuck Norris would not send his stunt double to do good in this world.

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

The Butter Queen

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“If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness,  we lie, and do not the truth…” ~~ 1 John 1:6

 Oh, Paula Dean, the Butter Queen! Once you were everywhere seen, 998661_10200934855966494_49237487_nbut now you just seem awfully mean. Or were you just good at hiding your true self until you got so big that you thought you were untouchable? Worse, did you lose your good self in the chase for fame and fortune as you left your humble startup beginnings behind you?

The famous Peter Principle may be at work here: we will all rise to the level of our incompetency. As befits our food metaphor, “The cream that rises to the top always sours.” The further up the food chain we go, the more we are surrounded by “yes-sayers.” These are folks who approve our every whim and never tell us “no.” Like politicians, movie stars, athletes, and anyone else in a position of power, those who surround them say, “yes” so that they too may stay in the shadow of power also. Sometimes these folks need someone to tell them NO: “No, Justin Bieber, having a monkey isn’t a good idea if you’re traveling to Europe.” “No, Tiger Woods, having affairs with umpteen hot honeys isn’t smart if you want to keep your wife and baby and sponsors happy.” “No, Lance Armstrong, blood doping is wrong, even if everyone else is doing it.” We really wonder why no one said, “NO, Paula Dean, allowing racist or sexist comments and pornography at your restaurants isn’t a good idea.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/26/dining/paula-deens-words-ripple-among-southern-chefs.html?pagewanted=1&_r=2)

Our first knee jerk response is to support Paula Deen because she is a southern gal who made her way up to the big time on her own. She is a real rags to riches story and this resonates with us, for if she can do it, any of us can have a shot at the American Dream.  Along the way she became a caricature of her former self, or an actor playing a part. When Ms. Deen was diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, she kept this illness a secret and continued to produce recipes that were toxic to persons with her disease (http://www.businessinsider.com/paula-deens-10-most-unhealthy-recipes-2013-6?op=1).

Only much later did she reveal her disease, and then as a paid spokes person for an anti-diabetic pill. Some would say this is crass, and not sass. The proof is always in the pudding, as my Nannie used to say. Her cooking show on the Food Network lost audience share over this issue of untruth. When her show was up for renewal, the Food Network cut her expensive show to concentrate on their reality/competition food shows that appeal to a younger demographic. (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323998604578567832751771860.html)

The floodgates opened: her tears flowed as fast as her partner companies dropped her. Why was she not forgiven? She said, “I’m sorry? I said something wrong years ago, but that’s not me!” It seems that it may not be so. She may not be able to tell the difference between the sweet gal she used to be and who she is now. (http://www.businessinsider.com/paula-deens-controversial-career-2013-6

When King David was confronted with his sins of adultery and murder, he repented before the LORD and asked God to “create in (him) a clean heart, and put a new and right spirit in (him)” (Psalm 51:10) When we recognize the wrongness of our former ways, we ask God to help us change so that we can become a different person and leave our old ways behind us.  When the doctor tells you that you are now a Type 2 Diabetic, this is usually a wake-up call for most people. This diagnosis changes your whole life from the food you can eat, to the exercise you must have, and the constant monitoring of your blood sugar. You learn to read the nutrition labels on packaging, discover that processed food is off limits for you because it’s mostly carbohydrates, and you discover how to cook from scratch. You throw away your Paula Deen Cook Books because they are the “pellets with the poison” and learn to cook from scratch using whole foods from the perimeter of the grocery store.

We can’t live in the darkness about Diabetes or its precursor (reactive hypoglycemia), but must share our condition. I personally have found that no one makes meals on retreats that are suitable for my health needs, so I usually pack in extra foods and have them for my own meals or snacks. Otherwise I will be fed a high dose of carbs, which will make my blood sugar crash and I will be irritable. I don’t consider this to be my “true personality,” but if I eat the wrong food, I’m not a kind person.

When Paula Deen failed to have her heart changed, or her “come to Jesus moment,” she failed to realize that what she did in the past is still continuing in the present.  She became more like Lance Armstrong who came to the first stage of the Tour de France this weekend and said, “winning wouldn’t have been possible in (his) era without doping.” They both act as if the worst thing they did was to get caught, but they don’t have real remorse for their act itself.  This is what we call “walking in darkness…and do not the truth.”  Paula had Diabetes 2 and continued to build a $16 million dollar empire with recipes that bring on the condition.  Tiger Woods and Martha Stewart got rehabilitated because they took time off (Tiger in sex rehab and Martha in jail) and had the opportunity to strip away all the circus of fame and power to get down to the person, to the human being that puts on her blue jeans one leg at a time, that ties his sneakers one shoelace at a time. They discovered their true selves again, found their roots, reconnected with their faith, and met others that had made a mess of their lives. Sometimes we have to break down, take our consequences and take our losses before we can appreciate forgiveness and redemption.

She was on the buttered slippery slope months ago, but this “fall from grace” may be just what Our Butter Queen needs. Ms. Paula will have a “time out” from the excitement of power to enjoy the humility of her own life again, and to remember who she is, where she comes from, and to whom she owes her success. When she recovers her true self, she may find that God will call her to a new mission, a hopeful, and a healing mission. After all, nearly 155 million Americans adults are overweight or obese, including our very own Butter Queen. Add to this number 24 million children and the number of butterballs rolled in sugar is amazing. I include myself in this number, for my BMI is 34.2 (above 30 is obese) (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/bmi-calculator/NU00597).

Perhaps Paula will recognize that her recipes contribute to her disease and to America’s obesity epidemic. If she uses this to remake herself into something new and better, more humble and more honest, and if her recipes reflect this, she has an opportunity for redemption.  However, if she brings back the same old package back with the high calorie, high fat contents, I think the shelf life of her product has hit its expiration point, for people today want honesty and authenticity in their food and in their relationships.

How can we have an authentic relationship with God and with other people? God is willing to forgive our sins, even if we think they are unforgivable. The world may hold a grudge against us for a long time, for this is the way of the world. God is not of this world, for when the world will not forgive, God will.  When the world remembers, God remembers our sin no more (Isa 43:25).  All we can do is to love as God loves, forgive others as God forgives us, and live a new life in love as God enables us.

To help clean your heart, take press on letters or stencils, or use a large font on your computer. Write out your negative aspects/sins/imperfections/brokenness. We all have them. If you need a kick start, google “7 deadly sins.” That should get you started!  Once you have those printed out on your paper, then write in large open letters (stencil font) the word “LOVE” or “PEACE”.  Color it as you feel led.  Use this as a prayer focus this week.

Doing Battle With The Dragon

Children, Creativity, Fear, Health, Holy Spirit, Icons, Imagination, Mental Illness, mystery, purpose, purpose, renewal, Stress, Travel, Uncategorized, vision, Work

“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, 
but the victory belongs to the Lord.”  ~~ Proverbs 21:31

Mount Erciyes, Cappadocia, Turkey As I journeyed with my group along the Silk Road on the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we saw the twin peaked volcano Mount Erciyes, on which St. George of Cappadocia was said to have slain the dragon. As we made our 400 miles across the sunlit fields with poplar trees into the tufted fairy mountain volcanic formations, I had several conversations about art and artists with my fellow travelers. We had visited the Firca Ceramic Factory in the morning. The artisans there explained their apprentice program and the process of training to become a master potter. Not everyone makes the cut, of course, but they can still be employed at the level of tradesman or tourist ware producer.

For people who have no concept of the time, effort, sensibility or spirit that is necessary to produce a great work of art, this “educational session” went right over their heads. Others had their “consciousness raised,” as we used to say back in the old days. This latter group happily gave a fair price for the extraordinary works of these artists’ hands.  I myself brought home a small plate of colorful fish to remind me that I am always called to “fish and to catch the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of others for the sake of Christ and his church” (Matt 4:19).

At lunch I visited with one of my new friends. She asked, “Why did it take Michelangelo so long to paint the Sistine Chapel?” Because it was fresco—fresh plaster. He could only work while the plaster was wet. Bodies with clothes and landscapes went quickly, but nudes and faces were painted more slowly. If we could get up close we could tell by the edges and lines how much he did in a sitting. “Oh. Everyone who saw the chapel on our tour was kind of bored with it all. Now I understand why it was so important.”

I realized it’s because not many of us make art anymore, just as most of us don’t can jams or jellies. We also don’t quilt, knit, crochet or embroider. We buy our clothes premade and our foods prepackaged. Cooking from “scratch” is a lost art. We don’t seem to want to dirty our hands any more with the creative process. Instead, we have lost the spirit that calls us to enter into battle with the raw materials. We are a people without faith that God is with us in these fights. It is as if we are afraid to risk losing the battle, so we do not enter the fray.

I have recently been teaching art to prekindergarten children. The first thing I had to teach their classroom teacher was that “failure in art is part of the process of learning how to succeed.” In other words, it’s not the finished product of polished perfection that we seek, but the child’s growth in using the tools correctly and their creative response to the imagination challenge of the day.

The second teaching principle was allowing the child to do his/her own work.  Many of our parents have “taken over” doing for our children so they can have a good outcome. These children will have poor motor skills and will not be self-sufficient when they grow older. They will be less independent and less confident.  However, they can master skills in art class that can give them a sense of self-esteem that comes from accomplishing a task, taking charge of their own work, and creating their own designs from their own fertile imaginations.

The third principle about art is joy, and I usually don’t have to teach this to the children.  They love to play and the colors, materials, textures, and tools are great ways to explore the world in play. For adults, however, art is about the finished product from the get-go, so we worry that our idea will not come across on the canvas or paper.  For the work to come alive, the artist must let go of that original idea and go with the image that begins to come to life on the canvas. Sticking with the old idea is like staying with the old battle plan when the lines of engagement begin to shift. We all know what happened to General Custer at Little Big Horn.  The same death will happen to our creative product if we don’t pay attention to the new information coming t us from the front lines.

Likewise, in our lives, we don’t listen to the battles going on in our hearts, minds and bodies. Some might call this our conscience, or that voice that whispers “this isn’t right for you.” That other voice that whispers so sweetly, “but everyone else is doing it…” is like St. George’s dragon, or the personification of evil. Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine used to say, “The Devil made me do it!”

We can go along with the “demon voice” of “everyone else is doing it” and discover that our moral standards are at the lowest common denominator, and we make decisions not on any ultimate truths or standards, but on conditional and relative criteria. The ground is always shifting under us, like a mountain about to erupt. If we refuse to fight this particular dragon and “go along to get along,” then either our mental health or our physical health will begin to fail us. We may intellectually marshal the arguments of reason for our refusal to do battle against this insidious dragon, but like the fiery beasts of the old tales, they will surely begin to ravish the countryside.  In this case, the country isn’t Cappadocia, but the heart and mind of the one who needs to gird the horse for battle.

Many of our modern illnesses are related to stress, which comes from having to reconcile two discordant tunes in one’s head. Only when we can fine that one tune to hear will we be both well and at peace.  Another image is trying to “spot paint a wall that was painted too many years ago.” Putting fresh paint over dull color will make this one spot stick out like a sore thumb.  One must paint the whole wall, and of course, the other three walls and the ceiling, for the rest will look too sad next to that freshly painted wall. The truth is we can’t just put a new piece of cloth on to an old garment; we must change out the whole thing. This is called a “make over” or a life style change, or the “new life in Christ.”

I myself have had a lifestyle change from the hectic, caring for the lives of others that is the life of a pastor to the new life of caring for myself in these years of being on incapacity leave.  These past four years others from my old life have pushed me to be “more involved and to do more ministry with and for others” in the hope that I will be able to return one day to full or part-time ministerial service.

As I listen to my body, I realize that the stresses of these activities aren’t for me anymore. I can do them on an occasional basis, but not on a weekly basis, and definitely not on a daily basis. I am healthier when I am in the solitude of my studio writing and painting. I need the quiet to stay well and avoid the stress that brings on the seizures. Here I can reflect on the battles between good and evil, the struggles we all have to live the full Christian life.

We all do battle against the dragon.  Some of us want to be at the heart of the action, to receive the affirmations of the people to be there for them and to touch their lives. We think if we can make a difference here, it will atone for our failures to make a difference somewhere else or in some one else. We will be at peace when we understand that while we may gird the horse and swing the sword, “the battle belongs to the LORD.”

As an artwork for spiritual reflection, find an icon of St. George and the Dragon. As you meditate upon it, write out the words of your particular “dragons.” These are the powers and principalities that you struggle against: pride, fear, self-doubt, worry, hopelessness, arrogance, anger, weakness, hate, etc.  You can make the words of any size or shape. Embellish them with wings, give them an elongated tail, scales and an open gaping mouth. Now draw a large sword, gleaming brightly in the light of day. Upon this sword write the words of power that come from scripture: “The battle belongs to the LORD!”

Keep this image near you this week and draw strength from it: God is at your right hand!

For photo & info on the volcano at Mt. Erciyes:  http://volcanocafe.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/cappadocia-upright-volcano-of-turkey/

For Illnesses related to Stress:  http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems

Merry Stressmas Everybody!

Creativity, home, Love, Ministry, mystery, photography, purpose, Spirituality, Uncategorized, vision

“The kiln tests the potter’s vessels…”  ~~ Ecclesiasticus 27:5 

I was baking cookies all day Friday, my oven never going higher than 375

Firca Master at Work

Firca Master at Work

degrees Fahrenheit.  This is a great test for butter, sugar and flour: leave it in that heated box too long and the smoke detector just outside the kitchen door will start its screeching. Pottery however, gets tested at much higher temperatures in the kiln.  When I was in Turkey recently, I visited at the Firca Ceramic Shop in Avanos. The craftsmen there work in a cave that was carved out in the middle ages and have been plying their trade for over two hundred years. They make museum reproduction pieces as well as their own creative work done in the Turkish decorative style. Their artists learn their trade by producing first the trade or tourist goods, and then progress onto the craftsman’s level and then to the artist’s level at which they sign their work.

The quality of the ceramic ware may vary, but all the pieces are subjected to the same testing in the heat of the kiln: very high temperatures to turn the fragile clay into hard and durable pottery.  In fact, the whole process of making a pot or dish is one of pressure and stress upon malleable clay.  First the clay lumps are slammed upon a plaster slab to drive the bubbles of air out.  If these stayed inside the clay during the firing, the air trapped inside would expand and explode the pot as the kiln heated up.  Then the clay is slammed upon a wheel.  The potter dips her hands into water, applies pressure to the sides and the top and begins to raise the cylinder to a certain height. Then holding the sides with one hand and pushing in with a thumb, the potter pulls the clay in a firm and even motion out to the desired width.  Only then does she raise the pot to its final height.  Once the clay dries out, it goes to the oven/kiln for the first firing; this makes it hard enough to work on for the glazing/painting so that it won’t break.  The final firing at the highest temperature (2400 F) sets the glaze.  Even here, the results aren’t predictable: the glazes can slip, they can give off gases that discolor other glazes on other pots, or the kiln can cool too quickly and break the pots when the cold air hits their hot skins. The stress of being made into a beautiful pot is sometimes too much to bear.

As I was baking sugar cookies, I was cutting the next batch into stars, Cornie's Kitchensnowflakes, and bells. I would pull out the cooked batch and let them cool on the pan for a minute. Then as I took them up with a spatula, some of them would break. Since I was giving these away, I was forced to eat the broken ones. It is a rule in Cornie’s Kitchen: “only the best goes out for others.” I know that no one forced me to do this, but someone had to do it, and I wasn’t waiting for volunteers. Even a sweet cookie breaks under the stress of the heat of the oven. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen” is the old saw that gets repeated during times of stress.

I have noticed that this holiday season has been a time of stress for many people. I remember that when I was in active ministry, I used to clear my calendar between Thanksgiving and Christmas because I would be handling a lot more counseling for people having seasonal meltdowns than at any other time of the year.  I have felt the stress in the air even though I don’t have a church of my own now. The Kroger clerk told me how she really felt about the guy in produce who didn’t mark all three of the brands of blueberries that were on sale that week. I have friends that I had to recommend to a “real counselor” because they were using me as a therapist and weren’t ever talking to me about anything else anymore. They no longer were “friends” for I never heard about their lives, but only about their sickness. It was stressing me out to the point that it was impacting my health, for I was starting to have the auras that warn a seizure might be imminent. At least I have an early warning system, and can take counter measures in defense.

But what about the people who are tied into the news 24/7? Their stress levels are off the wall, for every event is part of their immediate pain and suffering. And what of the people who are mentally unstable, who feed off the constant attention given to the intense interest and glorification of the victims of mass shootings? There have been 62 mass shootings in the last three decades, and 24 in the last seven years alone.  Mass shootings are those in which four or more people have died. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2012/12/14/why-are-mass-shootings-becoming-more-frequent/)

These people may not be able to set boundaries on their obsessions and then they finally give into them. The fact that they have a gun is what makes the carnage so devastating. The sad thing is most of these mass shootings were done with legal guns. Perhaps the only answer is to have armed guards at every public gathering place, but then we would be living in a police state. I don’t think most Americans want that to happen.

Perhaps I am lucky in having a physical condition such as a seizure disorder that can send the “flashing yellow light” that warns me to slow down. Stress lowers the seizure threshold, so too much of a good thing or too much of a bad thing can cause my brain’s electrons to misfire.  I don’t know what sets off a mass murderer, but I do know what stresses out the average person: things that are out of control. I remind everyone I meet, we are not in control of how anyone else receives our words, our actions, or our intentions. We are only in control of what we do, think, say, act, and intend. We cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can lead a horse to water, but we cannot make it drink.

As someone living with epilepsy, I know that if I smell things that no one else can smell, I need to cut back on anything that causes stress in my life.  In ancient times, folks would have screamed “demon possession!”  Today, we modern people are beyond that, and realize that the kiln of life is just “testing this cracked pot.”  I can either keep on going and ignore the warning signs and explode into a seizure, or I can back away and stay seizure free. I choose the latter.

Our lives “explode” sometimes, though most of us don’t become mass murderers. We have fights, fusses, dramas, and all the other distresses of the human condition. It seems all the worse at Christmas because we have the expectation of an idealized and serene family experiencing a blessed birth.

Most of us don’t realize that the reason “there was no room for them at the inn” was because no one wanted Mary and Joseph and their “inconvenient truth” which was “conceived out of wedlock” to be born at their hotel. People were cruel then too. They stayed in a stable because one innkeeper wasn’t so hardhearted. God gave the message of the Christ child to the shepherds and to the foreigners, but not to the Israelite priests or the middle class merchants, for God’s love for human kind includes the poor outcasts and the aliens. The king and the priests conspired to kill all the baby boys, but the Holy Family had already fled into Egypt.  Does the early life of Jesus sound like a sweet innocent Hallmark or Lifetime movie now? (Luke 2, Matthew 2).

Jesus’ life was more like ours: full of stress and pain, not all sweetness and light. Remember that the baby in the manger doesn’t bring the faith you need to get through the days like these, but the Christ who endures the trials of the kiln, the Savior who tests his love for you on the cross.

As an artwork to process your pain in the midst of darkness, consider Christ as the Light that comes into the World.  Chiaroscuro is the term we use for strong contrasts of light and darkness. Set your subject in a strong light, so that the shadows are equally intense. Have only part of your image appear against the darkness. Use paint, crayon, pastel, pencil or photography. Consider how goodness in this world is sometimes obscured by evil, and how we have to find the silver lining in every cloud.

Meditate upon this verse: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” ~~ Romans 8:28