Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.
Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
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.
Some people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer in this germ conscious age of Coronavirus, but we who practice the art life are also stocking up on Liquitex heavy body acrylic paint and canvases plus coffee, so we can make the best of a bad situation. We’re also giving encouragement to all we meet or greet, for we know we’re all in this together. When our local officials call for “social distancing,” some think this means individuals have to take care of their own needs only, but this isn’t so. This “social distance” only refers to the space between us, not to our ignorance of the needs of others.
Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome (2nd CE), wrote in one his Meditations, “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee,” (Book VI, 54). If we don’t work for the good of all, we aren’t doing good for ourselves. I met our condo maintenance man the other day as I was returning from our last art class before spring break. (Our return date is flexible, depending on the coronavirus situation.)
“Did you hear when Walmart runs out of food, they’re going to close it down and not reopen it till all this virus blows over?” “What? That’s crazy. They’ll be selling food till the end of time. Money, honey, they wants it and food, we needs it.”
“That’s what I hear. We’re all gonna starve.” “No, we won’t starve. I have enough dried beans, pasta, canned tuna, and the like to last us a month. It might not be appetizing, but we won’t starve. If you get hungry, you just come to my place and I’ll feed you. Do not worry about food.” “There you go,” he said as he drove away. Maybe he just needed to hear reassurance from someone who wasn’t wearing crazy pants for a change.
Sometimes we get caught up in everyone else’s crazy and forget the words of faith:
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” (Matthew 6:26-27).
Worry is a topic in every age. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd CE, who favored the Stoic philosophy. For a Stoic, the vagaries of life didn’t produce happiness or any other emotional experiences, but virtue alone was the source of true happiness. Stoicism was an ethical way of life, in which order and the good of the community were more important than personal indulgence.
“Does the sun pretend to perform the work of the rain, or Aesculapius that of Ceres? What of the several stars? Are they not different, yet all jointly working for the same end? (Book VI, 43).”
In that ancient age, the Romans thought the sun, moon, and stars were all divine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and a mortal woman, but he was raised by a centaur, a half horse-half man, who taught him healing powers. Ceres was the goddess of grain and of life itself. Famine, fertility, and the harvest were all under her power. Indeed, for the Romans, the entire cosmos was divine, and was organized in favour of providence. Marcus mentions “the whole cosmos is organised like a city, that is to say, each part is so organized as to serve the good of the whole.”
“Consider frequently the connexion of all things in the Universe, and their relation to each other. All things are in a manner intermingled with one another, and are, therefore, mutually friendly. For one thing comes in due order after another, by virtue of local movements, and of the harmony and unity of the whole (Book VI, 38).”
In the age of coronavirus, we sometimes think if we aren’t at risk, or if the harm is negligible for us or our families, we aren’t obligated to practice the same healthy practices recommended for other risk based groups. We would be thinking wrong, however. If low-risk people don’t socially distance, then the entire containment process is ineffective. Generally, there are fewer high-risk individuals — the sick and the elderly — and they don’t tend to move around as much as lower-risk individuals. Therefore, it’s more likely that a low-risk individual will expose a high-risk individual to the virus.
When we paint a still life of flowers in art class, we have to pay attention to the “harmony and unity of the whole.” Often I show several famous artists’ works before we begin, partly to expose my class to great art, but also to comment on certain design elements that they can incorporate to make their works more interesting. The Cezanne vase of flowers has an off center or asymmetrical subject balanced by the strong linear shapes dividing the background. Sometimes our own lives are off kilter, but we can stay balanced if we make sure to keep the weights on either side of the fulcrum point proportional according to their distance from the balance point. A large mass near the center point will balance out a lesser weight more distant from the pivot point.
We’re talking about the different types of balance in art: symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic (or all over) balance. When our lives become unbalanced, we need to institute order. Some of us house clean, others do home repairs or work on our golf games. Others of us cook up a storm and ignore our normal routines. Lately in this age of coronavirus, folks have taken to panic grocery shopping. I went to Sam’s for some usual bulk items and thought we were going to be hit by a freak one two punch of a spring blizzard and hurricane over the weekend. All the bread, chicken, paper goods, and cleaning products were gone. The next day I went to Kroger and saw the same thing, plus all the vegetables and fresh fruits were wiped out.
I paused to chat with a produce clerk. “I guess I picked a bad day to shop. Has it been like this all day?” She paused her straightening of the half dozen shallots remaining in the empty produce display case. Rolling her eyes, she sighed, “It’s been like this since we opened. Forty people were waiting at the door at 7 this morning.”
“Oh no! That’s too early to be out and about!” “Agreed! They’ve cleaned us out. Buying all that toilet paper, like we wouldn’t get a truck tomorrow.” “You get delivery every day?” “Oh, yeah, this is a big store and everything turns over quick. We’ll always get more tomorrow. “
I wished her luck. She looked tired and overwhelmed, but ten hours of an apocalyptic panic filled crowd had to have been unnerving. If we can’t see the danger beyond us, we often do whatever we can to help us feel like we’re taking charge of the situation. In reality, washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. After this, limiting personal interaction or social distancing, is the next good we can do for one another. My old mother had a prescription for trying times: “If you want to feel better during hard times, take care of someone less fortunate than you. Quit worrying about yourself.”
In art class we took some time to share how our lives would be impacted by the closings and postponements of upcoming various events. Some have new babies to celebrate, children to care for when schools close, and I have a 50th college reunion that got cancelled. I have an upcoming art show, which I anticipate will get cancelled also. These things happen, and while I won’t see my girlfriends from long ago, we can possibly make an alternative plan for the art show. If not, there’s next year, and we press on, knowing the year of coronavirus isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but a distraction that will bring out either the best or the worst in us.
Will general conference be postponed or annual conference? We don’t know as yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. While we can want our lives to run on our time and our schedules, there is a time and an order that belongs to God alone. Some people of faith can’t allow their minds to include the natural process of death and disease in the workings of God’s providence, while others see these as God’s just punishment for sin.
If God is at work for good in our illness and death, then it’s because God quickens the human heart to help and give care to others, rather than to lead us to care only for ourselves. If the poor and the vulnerable are most at risk in a pandemic, then the pervasive providence of God’s mercy is poured out for them through the hands of those who love and serve God. As people of faith, we believe “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Fresh flowers are fragile and not long lived. As such, artists choose to paint them in place of human subjects, who also have limited life spans. Flowers have the extra benefit of never complaining, “I’m tired. When can I get up and walk around?” They also don’t fuss if you paint them blue, if their actual color is pink, or say, “Well, I don’t think it looks very much like me.” I vote for flowers any day.
Gail rendered a fine asymmetrical design and paid close attention to the details of the flowers. Mike had an exuberant design with emotional use of color and texture. I asked both of them to try a new technique for mixing colors: pick up several colors on the brush and mix them on the canvas itself, rather than mix up one flat color, as if they were buying a bucket of paint at Lowe’s. I painted over an old canvas from last year. The bright colors of springtime give my spirits a lift, even if I know the skies are gray and drab.
Our art class Tuesday was much diminished by the threat of the coronavirus, but since many of us in the group are older, I’d rather they stay home and stay healthy, so we can meet to paint another day. Many things are changing now, so we need to adjust our minds to the new normal of life in the age of coronavirus. Just as schools are now doing distant teaching via the internet, churches will be live-streaming preaching and using small choral groups or soloists as their musicians. My favorite Starbucks will likely become a drive through, and restaurants will become get and go food distribution sites. Public places, such as movie theaters, museums, and bars will also close their doors. Prepare for the internet to slow down, with everyone streaming entertainment, school lessons, and shopping at home.
Since we don’t know how long this contagion will continue, our art class will not meet together in person until we know we can do no harm to one another by our gatherings. Our usual rule is if the schools are closed, we don’t meet. This more often applies to a weather emergency, but a health emergency is just as dangerous. When we’re cooped up at home for inclement weather, we can keep our spirits up, for we know the days will be temperate or tolerable soon enough. We find a way to keep our hands and minds busy as we mark our time of confinement. It always helps if we keep a sense of calm about us.
The ancient International Wisdom Tradition prized order not only in nature, but also in the community. Those who practiced this way of thinking in the Hebrew world could relate to Ben Sira’s words:
“In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord.” (Sirach 18:25-26)
The solid Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Do you dread change? What can come without it? What can be pleasanter or more proper to universal nature? Can you heat your bath unless wood undergoes a change? Can you be fed unless a change is wrought upon your food? Can any useful thing be done without changes? Do you not see, then, that this change also which is working in you is even such as these, and alike necessary to the nature of the Universe? (Book VII, 18)”
Just remember, as an artist, you are a change agent. This is your nature, your being, and your purpose. You bring beauty to the empty canvas, you make sense of a lump of clay or a slab of rock. You can take cast off objects found on the roadside and recreate them into a new object full of meaning. You can change the fears and anxieties of your community by encouraging others to have hope and optimism. If we find the small ounces of courage within us, and share the teaspoons of it with others, we’ll find more courage welling up within us to flow out to others. By being willing to change our own lives, we can change others, and together we change the world.
I will keep you posted with my plans and projects, for I don’t plan to waste this time of seclusion. It’s a great time to catch up on reading, make some new paintings, try new recipes, and maybe even finish some chores about the home place. We won’t lose connection with each other, for if you keep me in mind and I keep you in mind, we will all keep the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
Keep one another safe until we meet again. Joy and Peace, Cornelia
As part of my ministry in retirement, I take my prior callings as an artist and a pastor with equal passion and joy. I call my studio ARTANDICON because my paintings aren’t just pretty colors, but always have a spiritual content. You may think I’ve painted a pleasing landscape, but my intent was to glorify the God who created this world and gave us the mandate to care for God’s creation.
In art class we not only learn art lessons, such as how to render a realistic 3-dimensional geometric form on a flat piece of canvas in perspective using size and scale, but we also learn about the color wheel. Colors which are warm tend to come forward, and cool colors tend to recede. These examples from last week’s class are a case in point.
I didn’t make it easy on them, for we learn more when we’re faced with a challenge. Adults in particular need to have continuous learning experiences to keep their minds nimble and active. Learning new and complex skills is one of the six pillars of Alzheimer’s prevention, along with social engagement, regular exercise, healthy diet, quality sleep, and stress management.
This is the 2nd year of our class and they’re showing improvement over last year. They can draw the forms better and we’re working now to free them from making a line and filling it in like a coloring book. This is a sign of “needing to get the design right before I start.” Most of us are “afraid” most of our lives—will we measure up, what will people think of me, what if I make a mess, and worst of all, can I live with myself and know I’m not perfect?
Each person in art starts from where they begin. Art is one of the few classes in which working hard will help improve your skills. Plus students aren’t judged against against an abstract criteria, but for how well they managed to fulfill the parameters of the lesson and their overall improvement. Faith, not works, may get us to heaven, but works, not faith, get us an art work.
In art class, we have to drop all these false masks of “competence and perfection.” Every day is a learning experience and every work we do will have some small part which we know “I could have done this better.” Yet we have to let this work go out from under our hands and take this lesson to the next work. If we truly learned that lesson, we’ll learn a new one on this next work, and the cycle repeats. We call this the growth cycle in art. In life, it’s called “growing pains” or suffering. All artists “suffer for their work” if they’re making progress and growing.
In the spiritual life we can be comfortable or suffering. Those of us who are comfortable aren’t aware of the suffering of others, the injustice of systemic oppression, or environmental harm. We aren’t meant to merely co-suffer, but are called to act to relieve suffering and change the systems that cause suffering in the world and her peoples.
In art class, students tend to draw one object at a time, without checking the scale of it to the nearby objects. Then when they paint it, they focus on getting the one object looking good, even if they ignore the original shape. Rather than correct the other shapes of their drawing, they go ahead and fill in the lines. This is a problem many of us have in life. We pay too much attention to one thing, to the detriment of everything else. We work on it, trying to get it right and then everything else is out of whack. We’re like a three year old who gets the scissors in hand and works diligently to even out his or her selfie haircut. It doesn’t go well for us. It’s like cleaning the kitchen, but letting the rest of the house go to pot or worse.
Art class is a place where you learn life lessons as well as art. Art is for life. It’s a place where you can get encouragement for your best efforts. We all make the same mistakes. Great artists can see flaws in their own work the average person doesn’t have the eye to see. If they are truly great, they’ll be truly humble, for they know how much more they have to learn. If we could bring these art lessons to life, many of our interpersonal relationships would be much more successful.
“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” ~~ Romans 5:3-5
How many colors exist in creation? Many more than we can buy in a tube at the art supply store and even more than the number of paint chips at our local building supply store. Recently I gave my adult art class an assignment to use their primary colors and white only to mix new colors, since I noticed they were not getting middle values in their paintings. I too enjoy the brightness of the primary colors, so this was also a challenge for me.
Power of the Cross
The following week I needed to do less geometry and more nature, but I came back to the cross theme once again, for these flowers are from a photo of the Easter “Living Cross” at my church. While we can’t see the arms of the cross, anymore than we can see Jesus today, we know the cross is there, just as we know Jesus is present for us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This makes Christ alive, not only in our hearts, but also in the lives of all who suffer: the poor, the immigrant or stranger in our land, and the oppressed. Even the land itself, which suffers from human caused climate change, can be a place where we meet the living Christ.
The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem is a powerful place, for it was where Christ was handed over to his captors by a former friend. From there he went to death on the cross and resurrection for our salvation. This garden retains this energy of struggle: Jesus prayed to get his will in line with God’s will.
If the story ended here, we’d have no living crosses full of beautiful flowers on Easter Sunday. Out of pain and struggle comes great beauty. Most of us will avoid any challenge in our lives, thinking the easy way is the best way. Intentionally causing others to suffer pain isn’t acceptable for moral reasons: “do no harm” is a good adage, as is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Setting achievable goals and challenges are different. These cause us to grow. They may also cause us discomfort, but this isn’t pain.
On this canvas, Spring Flowers, I had to overpaint and scumble to create the textured grays of the background. I even had to repaint the wispy border flowers several times to get their petals colored and straight, plus to get the ground varied enough to make them stand out.
One of the artists I most admire is Picasso, for he was always reinventing his style. Today artists pick a style and stick with it. Perhaps this is lucrative and makes economic sense. Still, I wonder what happens to the creative spirit when it’s not nurtured, challenged, and expressed. Of course, this may be the difference between a great artist and a good artist, and only the centuries will tell which among us now will be great.
“You totally (should) become his nature, deny his being apart from you; you should be he himself, not Christians, but Christ, otherwise you will be no use to the coming god.”
—C. G. Jung, The Red Book, p. 137.
“No one can be spared the way of Christ, since this way leads to what is to come. You should all become Christs, says C. G. Jung, in his Answer to Job. He goes on to explain in the divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit in humanity, “a christification of the many arises.” One of the great and simple prayers is “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them in them the fire of your love.” When we ask for the indwelling third person of the Trinity, we also ask for the rest of the “family,” for the three are fellow travelers. The Father and the Son aren’t separate entities, even when the Spirit proceeds from the two, just as the Father and the Spirit aren’t off somewhere distant when the Son is suffering on the cross.
In the season of Lent, many people begin with ashes on their forehead as a sign of repentance and fasting for the forty days before Easter. Some give up bacon, others give up alcohol, and some give up social media. Perhaps this is our idea of suffering today, since most of us have our needs for shelter, food, and security met. Modern people tend to suffer emotionally instead, so this may be why we fast from social media. Unfortunately, we don’t have much deep Christian teaching around suffering, mostly because it’s not a happy subject. Nobody likes a downer sermon. Bible studies on Job and the prophets are unpopular too. We don’t like seeing our faces in a BCE Mirror.
I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
Who wants to suffer today? No one! Most of the Christian teaching around the cross concerns a variation on the substitution theory, or Jesus takes on our suffering so we no longer have to endure the agony ourselves. Of course, when we meet trouble in our daily life, we then call into question either the effectiveness of this work on the cross or our faith in his work on our behalf. Did Christ die for everyone else, but not for me? Are there other works besides my faith in Christ necessary for my salvation? Do I need to be a better person to earn my freedom from suffering?
If we understood the nature of the earthbound Christ life, rather than the resurrected Christ life, we’d grasp the essential nature of suffering bound up into this life of flesh and spirit. Christ knew hunger, thirst, loneliness, temptation, disappointments, weariness, rejection, and pain. Worst of all, he tasted the emptiness of death before he knew the fullness of the resurrection.
Should we protect our children from suffering? If we mean, should we do our best to feed, clothe, and shelter them, the answer is yes, of course! If we mean, do we protect them from the logical consequences of their acts, I’d say, most likely no. If a child won’t do their own homework, they should get the logical results for their refusal. Physical punishment isn’t a logical result. Poor grades, limits on sports or activities, or staying after school are consequences in line with the poor behavior. Small sufferings now will avoid larger sufferings later. (If they want to jump out of a third story window, that’s another matter. Put some locks on that, parents!)
Of course, to even call these “suffering” shows how far our modern world has moved from the ancient world. Sufferings once were the lot of slaves, who had no authority over their own lives, and could be bought and sold like cattle. They had no agency or control over their fortunes or lots in life. We modern folk are different, unless we buy into the idea we’re rudderless ships upon a stormy ocean. Then we’re merely chaff tossed about by external forces, so we might as well be slaves to our environment.
If we held the whole nature of Christ within us, we’d know both the Christ of suffering and the resurrected Christ of glory. While we ourselves have not yet ascended, we do hold fast to his promise,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)
If we live with hope, we can rejoice, and be patient in suffering, while we persevere in prayer.
~~ Romans 12:12
We had a bright taste of spring in last Friday’s art class with the yellow daffodils from Gail’s yard. She and Mike have come a long way in their powers of observation and rendering. They take their time to see, study, and really observe intentionally whatever objects are before them. These two students have been to most of the 26 classes to date, beginning back in June 2018. They’ve come a long way.
We can get lost in the busyness of the world with all the competing claims for our attention, but if we take our time, breathe, look for the most important things first, and then deal with the details, we’ll usually have a better outcome. This is an art studio principle we can carry over into life.
I happen to be doing something entirely different. It’s a woven painting, from two old works I’m no longer keeping. As part of my recycled/resurrection series, it belongs to a theme of change. In Luke 9:51, we hear
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up,
he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
Sometimes we have to set our minds on what God wants for us and deal with the consequences. As we head into Lent, I recognize as a teacher most students today don’t want to suffer, but want the prize of achievement without the sweat of practice. Some say 10,000 hours is the mythical threshold to acquire competency.
Will we then all be Leonardo’s, Picasso’s, or Monet’s? Some of us will work 100,000 hours and still be ourselves, but we’ll be so much more than we were when we began! It’s like the Christian life: if we aren’t intentional about giving ourselves into God’s service, we won’t practice it often enough to grow in love and grace.
I had a dream about this image I’m working on now. Jesus knows the cross is before him. He’s already seen it in his mind. When he goes down to Jerusalem for the Passover, things won’t go well for him. He can go to fulfill his mission or turn tail and run. The prelude to his ministry was the temptation in the desert, which we remember during Lent. He goes forward to the certainty of his ministry and also his death and resurrection.
DeLee—Face Set Towards Jerusalem”
Those of us who like Easter, but not Good Friday, will one day have to deal with suffering: our own, someone’s we love, or the suffering of humanity. We can’t escape suffering, for it’s part of the human condition. Some of it we choose, like training for sports, but some is visited upon us unkindly, such as the dread illnesses and wars of our world. Some were born into suffering by geographic location, and this causes mass refugee populations to move across national borders in search of hope and opportunity.
When we’re painting these pretty pictures of flowers, we can think of those who have put their hope in God’s hands and remember we are Christ’s hands in God’s world.
My weaving is a dream image of a transformational point in time when you see what is both before you and behind you. You choose to go ahead anyway, even knowing the consequences. Both the hero and the artist have to risk the danger. Otherwise we’ll paint pretty canvases for nice homes and be the Christians who wear our decorative crosses, but we’ll never bear the cross for the sake of Christ, his kingdom, and the better world God calls us to recreate.
The Christian life calls each of us to be a hero, one who suffers on behalf of another. If our lives are too easy, we aren’t walking like Christ. We aren’t called to suffer at the hands of another, or to be harmed by others, but there’s a real need in our lives for “structured and guided suffering in a safe environment,” such as learning a new skill or getting outside of our comfort zone.
Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.
Christ Overcomes the World
The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.
Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.
Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!
When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.
If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.
Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.
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.