This week as I recovered from cataract surgery, a memory from my childhood finally surfaced. In the late 1950’s in my hometown, I had met an artist who could barely see to paint anymore because of her vision loss due to cataracts. Doctors hadn’t yet invented the modern replacement lenses and use of small incisions for implantation. Complications back then were common, rather than rare. I can still remember my dad’s response to my desire for contact lens, “What? Put a foreign object in your eye? You’re asking for an infection!” Perhaps this was why I worried myself to exhaustion while waiting for my first surgery.
As it turns out, I can now see my television set without my glasses and I read my iPad with my untreated eye. I’ve always had my glasses within arm’s reach of my bed or my chair for over sixty years. It feels strange not to put them on first thing in the morning.
If there were things I could not see before, I could always feel them if I were still enough to notice their subtle movements. Most of the time I, as many others do, stress over what “might happen,” instead of being present to the moment in which the important stuff is actually happening.
After I worried myself into an exhausted heap on my couch, I woke up in a different mood. I realized I’d been going “from house to house” to borrow a cup of trouble for a cake I didn’t need to bake or eat. It was going to be a decadent cake with multiple layers and a. rich icing. If it were autumn, I’d probably get first prize in the cake competition at the state fair.
But no one needs a Trouble Cake. I saw all my ingredients were as nothing, for I had a great doctor, people who would care for me, and this was a new age in medicine. Moreover, the Spirit of God would sustain me in my recovery and remind me my wellbeing depends on following my doctor’s instructions. As we read in John 3:5-8 NRSV—
Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Sometimes we need to feel the wind and not try to know from whence it comes or why it goes, but merely thank it for arriving to be with us in this present moment.
Who Has Seen the Wind? by Christina Rossetti
Who has seen the wind? Neither I nor you: But when the leaves hang trembling, The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I: But when the trees bow down their heads, The wind is passing by.
Sometimes we need a fresh wind blowing through our hearts and minds to get a new outlook on life. We can’t be wedded to the past like the old farmer who said of the new fangled plow he saw at the farm supply store, “My daddy plowed with a two pronged plow, so a two pronged plow is good enough for me.” He never bought the new and improved three pronged plow.
Much like the church that can’t recognize the fresh movement of the Spirit moving through the world today, if we can’t feel that wind, maybe cataract surgery would help us see the movement in the leaves.
Joy and Peace,
NOTE: The Greek word for Spirit and wind are the same: πνεῦμά. Strong’s Greek Concordance 4151 pneúma – properly, spirit (Spirit), wind, or breath. The most frequent meaning (translation) of 4151 (pneúma) in the NT is “spirit” (“Spirit”). Only the context determines which sense(s) is meant. When used with Holy, the word is Holy Spirit, not holy breath!
Utagawa Hiroshige: Yokkaichi: Mie River (Yokkaichi, Miegawa), from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido (Tokaido gojusan tsugi no uchi),” also known as the Hoeido Tokaido, wood block print, 1833-34, Art Institute of Chicago.
Luke Howard: Graph detailing prevailing wind directions, rain depth, and mean temperature over a period of eighteen years, 1815-1832, in London. The Royal Society.
Bernard Evans: Cannock Chase – ‘When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees, and they did make no noise’, circa 1885, watercolor. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sidney, Australia.
Unknown Artist: Inlay in the Form of an Eye, Glass and gypsum, Egypt, (9/16 × 1 13/16 × 3/8 in.), 1540–1070 BCE, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA.
Wayne Thiebaud, Cakes, 1963, National Gallery of Art, Washington D. C.
Nothing springs full grown to life in an instant. Everything begins in a seed, which is planted, watered, and nourished into full growth. Only in myths or fantasies can an idea come into being instantly. Zeus had a very bad headache, a “splitting headache,” that birthed his daughter Athena, the goddess of wisdom. She leapt out in fully grown from his brow. We don’t take this myth to be scientifically true, but as a metaphor for the difficulty and struggles we undergo to obtain wisdom. As my daddy used to tell me after I’d learned some hard life lesson, “The school of experience is a rough master, and we all earn a costly degree in gaining its wisdom.”
Some of us will repeat the same lessons over and over, as if we expect to get a different result. The purpose of an education isn’t to regurgitate a right answer to pass a test, but to understand why the answer is right. That’s why math classes require showing the steps to the solution, rather than the “full blown adult answer” only. In matters of faith or ethics, many of us haven’t had the training to “set out the proof” for our final answer or deed. In fact, in one situation we may think or act one way, and quite differently in another.
The name for this behavior is “situational ethics.” Less kindly, it’s also known as spinelessness, shiftiness, being two faced, or dishonesty. Mostly it means people don’t have a true center or a plumb line by which they measure themselves. If we’re measuring our lives against other people, we’re measuring against other fallible human beings. Even our heroes have feet of clay, for none of us are gods. When I used to call my parents out on this character trait, they always told me, “Do as I say, not as I do.” This sets up a moral conflict for most people, even those raised in the church or in religious homes.
We need to have a moral center based on a higher authority than our individual or cultural conventions, one that includes or exceeds the ethics of the group to which we belong, and not just our individual beliefs and actions. Professional groups—physicians, lawyers, clergy, educators, and others—all have ethical standards for caring for those they serve, even if they morally disagree with the behaviors that bring them into their care. Who decides the ethics of the group? At the risk of making my favorite seminary professor, Billy Abraham, roll about in his still fresh grave, we United Methodists do have the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, and Experience to guide us. Often we assign our personal life experience to this latter quadrilateral edge, but Wesley meant our Experience of the Assurance of God’s All Embracing and Adopting Love. As Wesley once said, “God is able to save all to the uttermost.”
Ethics and morals are often used as synonyms, but ethics refer to rules provided by an external source, e.g., codes of conduct in workplaces or principles in religions. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong. Ethics is a a late 17th century word derived from the Greek ēthos (disposition, character), in contrast to pathos (suffering). In Latin it means ‘character, depiction of character’, or (plural) ‘customs’.
Then we have the words moral and morals. The first is concerned with the principles of right and wrong behavior. The goodness or badness of human character is another concern. From these, people decide what behavior is considered right or acceptable in a particular society. We often say a person has morals if they conform to standards of behavior or beliefs concerning what is and is not acceptable for them to do. We can speak of “the corruption of public morals, “ or you can hear people talking as if “they believe addicts have no morals and can’t be trusted,” rather than understanding the disease and abuse bases which often underlie addictions.
These distinctions don’t change the negative consequences of the addict’s behaviors, yet the addicted person still has the same image of God and the same potential for wholeness each of us have, but perhaps with more suffering, or pathos. If we judge the morality of a person’s choices, and then refer that moral state to the individual’s worthiness, we can end up losing compassion for the person as well as losing the will to help them better their lives. This leads to hard heartedness and a lack of love. We reject our neighbors and make them strangers, unwelcome to our world. We forget our spiritual ancestors were once strangers in a strange land, wanderers without a home. How easily we forget our savior, who had no place to be born even in his ancestral home, and whose family fled religious persecution and certain death to live in Egypt, far from home. Strange how some Christians have no sympathy for others in the same fix today.
Moral is a word from the late Middle English by way of the Latin moralis, from mos, mor- ‘custom’, with the plural mores or ‘morals’. It refers to one having the property of being right or wrong, good or evil, or voluntary or deliberate, and therefore open to ethical appraisal. When we apply moral attributes to a person, it means “capable of moral action; able to choose between right and wrong, or good and evil.” Not until 1803 did moral come to mean “virtuous with regard to sexual conduct,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
As a noun, we meet the word in the Latin Moralia, the title of St Gregory the Great’s moral exposition of the Book of Job. Later it was applied to the works of various classical writers. All Methodists and the holiness denominations birthed from the seed of the great Methodist revival recognize the genius of John Wesley. We all quote him, but we also apply his wisdom through our own individual preconceived notions of what is “good, true, and noble.”
When John Wesley was asked, “What is that faith whereby we are sanctified?” he answered:
“First believe that God has promised to save you from all sin, and to fill you with all holiness; secondly, believe that He is able thus to save to the uttermost all that come unto God through him; thirdly, believe that He is willing, as well as able, to save you to the uttermost; to purify you from all sin, and fill up all your heart with love. Believe fourthly, that He is not only able, but willing to do it now! Not when you come to die; not at any distant time; not tomorrow, but today. He will then enable you to believe, it is done, according to His Word.”
In the old days, we said we were “going on to perfection,” not that we were so bold as to claim that we’d already arrived there or been perfected. Oh no, we allowed God could complete this for us and had the power to do it, as well as the will, but our human nature was still fallible. If a word comes up more than once in a text, writers go to the thesaurus for an alternative, but in reading scripture, we learned repetition was a sign of importance, a marker especially meant for those of us who are slow learners in the school of life.
Oliver O’Donovan in “Scripture and Christian Ethics” writes, “Moral theologians have a secret knowledge, apparently concealed from other kinds of theologians, especially those devoted to hermeneutics. They know that the most mysterious and most difficult question we ever have to answer is not, what does Scripture mean?, but, what does the situation we are facing mean?, where do we find ourselves existentially?”
We tend to speak as if our selves and our situations were known quantities, so that it only remains to choose out of Scripture whatever seems to fit our circumstances as we conceive them. Scripture has an uncanny way of shedding light on our self and our situation, to overcome our preconceptions about them. We don’t read about our situation directly in the Scriptures, yet it’s from the Scriptures we gain categories of understanding, which re-frame our view of our situation and ourselves. We can’t look for individual texts to guide our actions, but need to consider the whole of the revealed Scripture and God’s nature as we discern our path forward.
In this sense, the Bible is a mirror which reflects our inner nature to us, convicting us of our failings and giving us grace and comfort in our times of need. We can learn much about ourselves from the verses we lean on, just as much as we can by the verses we ignore. There’s a reason we interpret texts by the whole of scripture, and not piecemeal. This is one way we understand the authority of scripture.
As an interesting aside, SWTX, my original conference, which approved my candidacy for the ministry, didn’t think I should attend seminary because I scored so low on the abstract reasoning tests I took. They didn’t think I would make 65, seminary’s passing grade, in my class work. It’s true I learn and process differently, but knowing this, I crammed a three year program into four years. If I’m slow to grasp the whole until I first understand the parts, this doesn’t reflect on my fitness for ministry or my intellectual ability. It merely reflects a different way of processing information. There’s more way to skin a cat, and many ways people learn.
When I taught art classes, I had to make sure I covered all the learning methods for all my students to have success. I talked about the project, I demonstrated the techniques, I had the steps written out, and for some few children, I had to place their hands in the optimum position to get them started. This covered ear and eye learning, visual reminders, and haptic or touch learning. Some students needed multiple types of learning throughout their working time on a project. Some needed reteaching every class period. Some just needed encouragement when they got stuck at a rough patch. Most all had to learn to talk in positive terms about themselves and their work, as well as about others and their creative process also.
I talk about this teaching method, for this is how we consciously or unconsciously teach those around us ethics and morals. As one youth asked me at a church I once served, “Why are you wearing your cross today? It’s not Sunday.”
“Because Jesus is important to me every day, not just on the day I lead church services.”
I realized even though her family was very active and faithful in our congregation, when they were out in the world of day to day folks, they didn’t stand out from the crowd. Maybe one day day this child will come to a time when wearing a cross becomes bearing a cross. Then again, how many people willingly choose suffering for the sake of the body of Christ? This suffering is often difficult for those of us who’ve committed our lives to Christ’s call, but we realize most laity won’t voluntarily submit to that kind of stress. Yet experience is a great teacher. We learn from others, even those who have differing opinions and choose different actions.
Wesley’s Sermon, “The Nature of Enthusiasm,” has some advice for us: “Beware you are not a fiery, persecuting enthusiast. Do not imagine that God has called you (just contrary to the spirit of Him you style your Master) to destroy men’s lives, and not to save them. Never dream of forcing men into the ways of God. Think yourself, and let think. Use no constraint in matters of religion. Even those who are farthest out of the way never compel to come in by any other means than reason, truth, and love.”
As a further reminder from his all time classic Sermon, On Working Out Our Own Salvation, 1785: “By justification we are saved from the guilt of sin…by sanctification we are saved from the power and root of sin…”In modern terms, when we profess our faith, Christ saves us from the guilt of that first sin. Some say Adam and Eve were disobedient. They then emphasize rule keeping as their moral choice. There’s always a reason behind every behavior, however. Why were they disobedient? We hear the answer in the parable of the Tree of Wisdom:
“But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The man and the woman both heard the half truth, saw the shiny fruit, believed the promises of a creature rather than their creator, and ate the fruit they hoped would make them like gods. Instead they only gained knowledge of their nakedness and vulnerability. This first lesson of the school of life came with cost: fig leaves ooze irritating sap. They won’t choose this solution again. God’s providence replaced their poor choice with animal skin clothing even as God sent them out into the world. We might say the attitude of pride or greed drove their bad behavior and was the cause of their negative consequences.
As we grow in holiness and love of God and neighbor, the Holy Spirit destroys any remaining root of sin. One of the important sins, Wesley noted, was pride. Pride is that feeling of deep pleasure or satisfaction we get from our own achievements, or those of our family, tribe, nation, or other associated group. In matters of faith, we always have to remember Paul’s admonition to the Romans (10:9-13):
“because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, “No one who believes in him will be put to shame.” For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”
Paul reminds us of the unity of the Jews and the Gentiles, the clean and the unclean, the former masters and slaves, with the gulf now bridged between the former God worshippers and the idol worshiping strangers. Now there’s “no Jew nor Greek, no slave or free, no male or female, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
When we joined together into one annual conference in 2003, almost twenty years ago, we had good reasons to make one combined administrative body for our faith community. We had underfunded pension obligations, we were over heavy with administrators, and clergy didn’t have equity in retirement accumulation. Likewise, the conferences weren’t equally treated, since one didn’t fully fund pension needs, an act which caused clergy to seek appointments in the other conference, thus robbing the first of talents and gifts. These were the logical consequences of attitudes and behaviors, however.
The logical person thought, “Let’s make Arkansas One Faith, One Focus, One Fellowship,” and this will solve all our problems. It may have looked good on paper, but our congregations had been used to a personal touch to remind them at least once a year they belonged to a greater whole. Their pride in showing off their home church and being a good host for the Superintendent was taken from them if they were just attendees at another group meeting. The moral choice of what’s better for me, a relaxing Sunday afternoon with my family or a meeting elsewhere, gets weighed and measured.
So now here we are, nearly twenty years into this optimistic marriage of the two annual conferences. The seeds for dissent and discontent were planted long ago, even before this joining. When I inventoried the historic memorabilia of the dead bishops at the SMU Bridwell Library, I saw how the chaos of the Vietnam War era and the sea changes our society were experiencing then affected our church in many ways. Some wanted to hold onto tradition more tightly, while others were ready to experiment with new wine in fresh wine skins. These were just “outer trappings,” however, for the message of “saved by faith, sanctified by faith, and made perfect in love by faith” never changes. This is Christ’s work, enabled by the Holy Spirit.
The past sixty years, as the last two decades, haven’t always been smooth sailing. We often have had trials, storms, and tribulations on our shared journeys. Sometimes we’re so far out to sea, we don’t see the land, and the skies are occluded, so we can’t take a bearing off the stars. Yet God’s spirit will blow us along, for even detours are within God’s providence. As James reminds us:
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (1:2-4)
Today we also have powerful economic and political forces that are like wolves in sheep’s clothing. They purport to work for religion and democracy, but actually work against the stewardship of our earth ‘s resources and environment, fail to care for the poor and dispossessed, and support military interventions around the world. Moreover, some of them actively work to destabilize religious denominations with social justice callings, such as the UMC, the Presbyterian Church USA, and others. Some today think “things fall apart; the center will not hold.”
Two final words in summary: one is from the ancient wisdom tradition and the other from Paul’s paean of joy in the midst of suffering. Proverbs 22:1 reminds us, “A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches, and favor is better than silver or gold.” My dying grandfather spoke these words to me in his last hours. Ive always considered them a plumb line for my life.
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” — Philippians 4:8-9
John Wesley: Repentance in Believers (Sermon 14), “Repent ye, and believe the gospel.” Mark 1:15. The Complete Works of John Wesley, vol. 1 of 3, Kindle ereader. Read on line here: http://www.godonthe.net/wesley/jws_014.html
Welcome to June! I’ve found my sunshades and my flip flops, so this rabbit is ready for a summer vacation. Old school teachers never die, they just take the summer off. And teachers, as well as students, will need a summer off, along with some intensive counseling, to get them ready to return in a healthy frame of mind next fall.
In my early years in ministry, I served in a certain county where many people were caught up in despair. I often complained to my district superintendent of my desire to pour mood elevators into the public water supply.
“You do know drugging the water supply isn’t exactly an acceptable activity for a Methodist minister?”
“Oh, yeah, but it sure would make my job easier.”
Remember, June 3 is Love Conquerors All Day. I need to remind myself of this on occasion when I want to take the easy road. As Jesus reminds us in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
Taking the easy way out isn’t always the best choice, but it’s the one we rabbits most often choose. We rabbits don’t like to rock the boat, and we like to make all the other rabbits happy if at all possible. The only problem is if we please A, B gets upset. If we please B, A gets upset. We don’t even try to please C, since C is so cranky, even the good Lord Jesus couldn’t fry an egg to please them. We set our hearts and minds on pleasing God, as best we can, and hope to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant, enter into the joy of your master.”
Chocolate ice cream brings me joy any day of the year, but June 7 is a day dedicated to this frozen delight. Don’t worry about frying eggs, but keep it frozen. I like mine plain, but fresh strawberries or peaches are a nice addition, plus some chopped nuts. Always go for complex, unless you just can’t wait. Then grab a spoon and eat it straight from the pint. (Mark it with your name, since you ate from it.)
Often we cut the Gordian Knot and go for the shortcut to our complex problems. Sometimes this is a good solution, for the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. My daughter used to call my vacation navigation shortcuts “the long cuts,” since I’m directionally challenged. Most of the time, that straight line went through swamp land and alligators. I can hear her voice now, “NOOOOO!!!” I’m known for taking the scenic route, so I often see America’s less known sights, which are off the beaten path.
In the gospel of Luke (14:34), Jesus quotes a proverbial saying:
“Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?”
Another translation of the latter portion of this verse is “how can it be used for seasoning?”
When I think of loss, I think of a life snuffed out. Some people are burned out, so we can say they’ve lost their seasoning ability. There’s no vim or vigor in them. Other lives are cut short and aren’t able to fulfill their purpose to season the great soup of our community. Our past month was marked by 47 mass shooting incidents in May alone. A mass shooting incident is defined as one in which at least four people are injured or killed, not including the shooter. Suicides aren’t included.
Suicides are also a public health problem. They are the “deaths of despair” that leave ripples of grief and hopelessness in the survivors. They’re the ultimate shortcut solution to a problem, the placing of a period where life has placed a comma or a semicolon. My daughter once attempted suicide by downing half a bottle of aspirin. I noticed the open bottle and pills scattered across the floor. She said the “dog ate it.”
“That’s too bad, I’m going to miss that dog. She won’t be long for this world. We’ll need to make burial plans for her.”
“Well, actually, I’m the one who ate the aspirin.”
“Then we’re going to the hospital. You aren’t going to like getting your stomach pumped, but it’s better than being dead. You want to have a chance to grow up and have a good life. A dog we can replace. You—not so much.”
It was a rough time in her life, and mine too. But God was with us. And we had support from counselors, friends, family, and our church family. My work family and my clients supported me too. I must be the most extroverted rabbit in the patch, because I asked everyone for help. It turned out my problem was shared by everyone else. I discovered I wasn’t alone, but was the most ordinary of rabbits around.
This is a humbling experience, especially when you’re a first child and the only girl. I admit to being spoiled, but don’t let my brother rabbits hear me say this. I’ll deny it to my last breath: I’m like every other rabbit I know. I want to think I’m someone special, even when I’m just as fluffy as every other bunny out there on Gods green earth.
Unfortunately, half the suicides today are committed with a gun, not aspirins. When looking at overall gun deaths, roughly two-thirds are attributed to suicides—a proportion that is consistent across most states. Gun suicides are on the rise and data also indicates men, white Americans, older people, and individuals living in rural areas present higher rates of gun suicides. Another group presenting a unique risk for suicide is current and former members of the armed forces, especially those with PTSD.
Compared with the general population, current and former military members have significantly higher rates of gun ownership. According to a 2015 study, nearly 50% of U.S. veterans own a gun. In contrast, studies suggest that only about 22% of the general U.S. population owns firearms. Similarly, the age groups of 50 to 64 years old and 65 and older have the highest rates of gun ownership, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study. This can further explain the high rates of suicide among older veterans.
According to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), in 2019, close to 4,332 veterans died by gun suicide in the United States, representing close to 18 percent of the total number of gun suicides reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during that year. Perhaps more alarming is the fact this figure shows a veteran is killed by gun suicide every two hours. In 2019, active duty military members committed suicide by gun 64% of the 498 total (318), almost one gun suicide per day.
Why isn’t anyone speaking about this? For all the lip service our politicians give to the flag and to the armed service members, they seem to forget them once they’re no longer useful to fight their wars or march in their parades. Perhaps because Congress won’t devote any money to study the effects of gun violence on the citizens of our Beautiful America, so we have to fund private studies here and there to piece together a patchwork of facts of this scourge on the peace of our people.
My young neighbor, only 8 years old, was in a panic as he knocked on my door the other day. His parents hadn’t come straight up the elevator, as they’d said they would. He was crying to beat the band and was sure something bad had happened to them. I invited him inside and left the door open so we could see them come past. He was so worked up, he couldn’t sit down. I suggested a call to his daddy, but they came walking past just at that moment.
We don’t realize what terror these school shootings put our children through. There’s no safe place for them any more, no matter how “hardened” we make the buildings. Some person always breaks the shell at the most inopportune moment.
Some rabbits will have empty seats at their family reunion tables because someone decided to act impulsively. Father’s Day (June 19) won’t be a celebration without the son or daughter to give Dad the tie, the golf balls, or breakfast in bed.
I think back to my own childhood. We worried in the 1950’s more about the urban legends of Halloween candy poisoning, when we were more likely to get killed crossing Highway 1, a four lane highway running through our town. My mother rabbit would wait for me to ride the trolley home from school. She would wait until the near lane of traffic cleared before she walked out to the center median and time this so the far lane’s cars would finish passing so she could walk across the newly empty lanes to meet me on the other side. We held hands and crossed in the same manner on the way back to our home.
This was our routine from the start of school until sometime in the autumn. Mother was delayed one day, so I sat down to wait for her and opened my book to read. I was wearing a brown jacket against the early cool spell, and my dirty blonde hair blended in with the pile of dry leaves on the ground. Intent on my book, I failed to see her come outside. She overlooked me and went inside thinking I’d missed my ride.
A bit later, I decided if she wasn’t coming for me, I’d come to her. Gathering up my possessions, I stood on the curbside. I watched the comings and goings of the quickly moving traffic. Once I saw the break in the pattern, I walked out into the clearing, waited at the median, and crossed behind the trailing traffic of the second lane. When I walked inside, my mother had a conniption fit. After this, I began riding my bicycle to school, and my brother got to come with me.
Not everyone is mature enough to cross a four lane busy highway by themselves when they’re in the fourth grade, which is the same age as the children who lost their lives at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas. . Some people still need to be supervised at work even in their 20’s. The brain keeps maturing past age 21, as the frontal lobes, which are home to key components of the neural circuitry underlying “executive functions” (such as planning, working memory, and impulse control) are among the last areas of the brain to mature; they may not be fully developed until halfway through the third decade of life. Although neuroscience has been called upon to determine adulthood, there is little empirical evidence to support age 18, the current legal age of majority, as an accurate marker of adult capacities.
Since May 24, the date of this tragedy in Uvalde, Texas, the gunviolencearchive.org has recorded 16 mass shootings in six days, with 79 killed or wounded. Some of these are high school graduation parties where uninvited guests arrived and gunfire broke out, others are the result of young people wandering about in the late hours and getting into trouble with guns. During my time of ministry, youth, alcohol, and firearms were usually a recipe for trouble. Maybe parental rabbits’ brains are still developing too, if they aren’t able to put their rabbit foot down and tell the junior rabbits to leave their weapons at home. Visiting Jack Rabbit in jail for accidental death or intentional use of a firearm will throw a curve into your best laid plans for your progeny.
Instead, cities may have to reinstitute curfews after dark to curtail the opportunities for gun violence. Or they could raise the age to buy a weapon and require a longer waiting time and a more thorough background check. I wouldn’t be opposed to a training class and a test to see if the owner knows how to use the weapon safely. After all, we do this for the 2 ton weapon of mass destruction known as the family automobile. So what if the founding fathers never had autos; they also never had automatic pistols or large magazine weapons, modeled on the ones used in combat.
Did I mention June is National Safety Month? Its emphasis is workplace safety, but as a former teacher, this old rabbit reminds you, between 2009 and 2020, teachers’ workplaces are in schools, which is where 30% of mass shootings occurred in public places (schools, malls, or bars), while 61% of mass shootings occurred entirely in the home and another 9% occurred partially in a home and partially in a public location. The common factor in these is the gun and the presence of domestic violence. In at least 53 percent of mass shootings between 2009 and 2020, the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member during the rampage.
I know y’all usually expect a bright and cheery note from me at the beginning of the month, but my heart is broken. Thoughts and prayers are nice, but they don’t stop the carnage. We need to make some changes. At least one man has turned in his assault weapon to his local police station, so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. He couldn’t bear the thought of it being used to perpetrate a similar crime if he were to sell it. If we parents don’t say no to our children, if we keep voting for politicians who are doing nothing, then we get to keep the distinction of having the highest rate of violent gun deaths for any of the developed countries.
That’s not the American Exceptionalism I believe in. We can do better. These are crimes against the common good and against the innocent. The shooter shares the primary blame, but everyone who does nothing to change our society for the better also shares the blame and shame for the next group of victims. At the rate we’re going, we’re having about one mass shooting per day. Eventually this scourge will come to YourTown, USA, and your small town police force will be just as flabbergasted as poor Uvalde’s. How could this happen in our little corner of the world?
I cry along with Jeremiah ( 8:21-22):
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?
Sometimes we go along with the attributes of cultural Christianity, rather than practicing the Christianity of Jesus Christ. Romans 12:2 reminds us
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
This rabbit isn’t ready for May. Even as I say “Rabbit, Rabbit,” on this prime morning, I realize time already is too quickly flying past. I knew this day would eventually come, but surely I thought, not yet. When my rabbit parents were long of tooth—I think they were over forty—they said they had a longer “to do list” than their day was long. I think this was the time they were sending me the golden “round tuit” so I would get my own to do list done. Parental units in every generation have always projected their problems onto their offspring, or perhaps their offspring inherit or imitate the adults’ tendencies.
May is a good time for spring cleaning. Every rabbit hutch or den can use a bit of freshening up after a long winter and a cold spring. May 17th is Pack Rat Day, an opportunity to touch those items once and for all as you decide whether they belong in a Distribute, Donate, or Dump Box. If you just touch and can’t decide, you may be one of the 15 million hoarders in the United States. The days are getting warmer with more daylight and global warming adding to the elevated temperatures. We can’t do anything about the length of days, as these are determined by our planet’s oribit and inclination toward the sun. As we move toward summer, the Northern Hemisphere tilts toward the sun and gets warmer. In the Southern Hemisphere, the opposite happens and their Christmas is warmer than their springtime.
May marks the end of Ramadan, the month long Islamic fast recognizing the gift of the Quran to the prophet Mohammed. In most communities in the United States, Eid begins at sundown on Monday, May 2, and lasts one to three days, depending on cultural tradition. Eid al-Fitr, which means “festival of breaking the fast,” comes after a month of abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset in observance of Ramadan. This is a time of renewal, wearing a new outfit, giving charity to the poor, and resuming the everyday rhythms of life.
Some of us finally get our gardens planted, in honor of the Ancient Greek and Roman goddesses of May. The word May entered the English language in the 1050’s, developing from the Old English Maius, which was borrowed directly from the Latin Maius, short for Maius mēnsis, “Maia’s month.” The Greek goddess Maia was one of the Pleiades, who were the companions of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. This Maia was the mother of Hermes, the messenger of the Gods. But the Romans had yet another goddess named Maia, who just happened to share her name with the Greek goddess. When later generations conflated the Greek Maia with the Roman Maia, a goddess of fertility and spring, we now celebrate May for growth and increase in the natural world.
If we want to “go green,” in our gardens, we can practice composting our lawn clippings along with any brand of manure. This will enrich our earth with earthworms and organic materials. We can also practice “crop rotation.” This means we plant our tomatoes ina different plot every year so we don’t deplete the soil of certain nutrients or invite nematodes to eat the roots. As a spiritual practice, gardening calms the mind, for it connects us to the earth and the source of our food. Our forebears supplemented their menus in the hard times in days of old with fresh food from home gardens. Community gardens serve the public in urban areas.
Spring reminds us the seasons of the year are balanced, for we have a cold winter and a hot summer, just as we have a middling spring and autumn. I say “middling,” but I might have said “muddling,” for these two seasons in my corner of Rabbitville are marked by rain and mud. Torrents of rain, drenches of rain, and sometimes mere drizzles of rain. Some of us rabbits may have bad hair days, but I hear all this moisture is good for the face and the skin.
In our world, the great powers also attempt to maintain balance and influence. Two world wars will push nations into this choice, but nations rise and fall. Once Great Britain was the world’s great super power, but after these great wars, it was greatly diminished, while the United States, which was the source of Britain’s war materials, prospered. Germany, was cut off from international trade due to its war mongering, became dependent on itself. American industries prospered, so that by the end of the first world war, America became the creditor nation to these former belligerents.
Moreover, we began to feed the world. This rabbit would like to think our government is more generous than Mr. McGregregor, who is always chasing us hungry bunnies out of his precious garden, but poverty and hunger lead to unrest among the world’s people, and that destabilizes governments. Stable governments, which don’t oppress their people, are more welcome on the world stage than dictatorships that exist to serve only a small group of privileged individuals.
As the United States and the Soviet Union struggled to reach a balance of power during the Cold War that followed World War II, President Harry S. Truman outlined what became known as the Truman Doctrine in a speech to a joint session of Congress on March 12, 1947. He emphasized the broader consequences of a failure to protect the democracies in Greece and Turkey by saying:
“The United Nations is designed to make possible lasting freedom and independence for all its members. We shall not realize our objectives, however, unless we are willing to help free peoples to maintain their free institutions and their national integrity against aggressive movements that seek to impose upon them totalitarian regimes. This is no more than a frank recognition that totalitarian regimes imposed on free peoples, by direct or indirect aggression, undermine the foundations of international peace and hence the security of the United States.”
Seventy-five years later, some of us rabbits have abandoned our national vision of democratic ideals, and have turned our back on our historic uniqueness among the nations of the world. While we may have aspired to grand ideals, but haven’t yet achieved them, this shouldn’t stop us from helping others continue their own difficult journey toward perfection. Once again, we have a bellicose dictatorship attempting to overthrow the will of Ukraine, a democratic nation, with the potential to continue such destabilizing activities in neighboring countries. What’s worse, Ukrainian agricultural products feed the world’s poorest countries, so without their harvests being replaced by American grain, people might go hungry. Hungry people are at risk for strong men with bad intentions.
Journeys aren’t ever easy. Any rabbit who tells you the road is easy, wide, and well marked on the way to their destination, has never heard the call of God saying, “Go to a land I will show you.” Those who think their path is sure, certain, and easy might want to remember this word from Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
This is why we admire heroes, for their journeys aren’t ever easy, but usually require some difficult and demanding task, which transforms them into a new person. They become more than they ever were before. Yet, perhaps, they were always a hero, and they only needed the auspicious moment to bring forth their true character.
I remember the young man I met at a NASCAR event at Texas Motor Speedway. I asked him what he did under the stands while the race was going on.
He shrugged, “I just stand here and make sure nobody takes the other worker’s things.”
“Oh, like you’re the guardian of stuff!” “I never thought of it like that.”
“Strike a hero pose. I’m going to take your picture .”
Everyone has a hero within, but not everyone has someone who affirms that hero. We all need to discover the hero within us, just as Jesus heard at his own baptism (Luke 3:22)—
“and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
We rabbits can’t fail to recognize the heroes who gave us life and brought us into this world. I speak of our mothers, of course. My own dear mother was ready to move mountains and call in every personal favor to come be by my side when I was in an Italian hospital while I was on a summer student art program. My dear daddy had to calm her jets and remind her, “Honey, it’s just a bit of food poisoning. It’s not like major surgery.” Our mothers will do anything to protect their offspring, and that makes them heroes in my eyes. I was released in three days, so it would have been a futile trip for my sweet mother. Make sure you recognize your hero mom on May 8, for without her, you wouldn’t be here.
Speaking of hospitals, May 12th is the birthday of Florence Nightingale, whose service as a volunteer nurse during the 1854 British war against Russia in Crimera. Because of her service, dedication to her call, and the innovations she brought to her vocation, we now celebrate the women and men who follow her in the nursing profession. Back in Victorian times, nursing wasn’t a respectable job, and women of the upper classes were expected to remain at home to care for the family’s affairs. Those who hear God’s call don’t worry about cultural expectations, but follow the solitary path of the heroes who went before them. Remember the nurses of today who’ve had to put themselves into harm’s way to care for people with a disease that now can be prevented from the worst complications and death in most people with immunizations and ordinary remedies like masks, hand washing, and avoiding crowds.
All us rabbits can celebrate Sally Ride Day on May 26, which was the birthday of the first American woman in space. While our national space program seems to have lost its energy and will as we’ve outsourced its efforts to the private sector, we have to ask if giving millionaires the ride of their lifetimes benefits a democratic society more than when we funded the space program by a community of citizens who sent the most highly trained and vetted astronauts into space. But then, I’m only one rabbit and I can remember the thrill, excitement, and joy when I saw our first astronauts exiting from their bobbing capsules. I saw these events on a small screen, black and white television in my school room. Afterwards, all we could talk about in our classrooms was the heroic journey of these brave individuals and the team that helped them circumnavigate our planet at such heights.
Finally, all rabbits of every stripe can celebrate Memorial Day Weekend. For some of us, this holiday has been reduced to a three day picnic at the lake or the racetrack. Others will decorate the graves of fallen soldiers from one of our many wars, participate in a patriotic parade, or watch a plethora of auto racing events around the world. Memorial Day weekend is the busiest weekend in motorsports, with Formula 1 racing in Monoco, NASCAR at Charlotte, the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, and Lucus Oil Pro Motocross Championship from California. This rabbit will be in heaven. You could spend your tax refund on a new Television, many of which will go on sale over the weekend, or you could open a savings account for emergencies. A wise rabbit always has a little something extra stashed away for lean times. One never knows when Mr. McGregor will lock down his garden, since he doesn’t practice the ethics of Isaiah 58:10—
“if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.”
My old mother rabbit always reminded me if I was feeling down, all I needed to do was help someone less fortunate than me. It would get me out of my funk by focusing on helping another, as well as reminding me my problems were shared by others. Her message was a key to unlock the hero within me, without which I wouldn’t have done half the good I visited upon this world. My hope for each of you rabbits is to find the hero within you. If you allow God to accomplish deeds of courage through you, whether they be great or small, you’ll be transformed.
Hamlet’s famous soliloquy begins with these very words,”To be, or not to be: that is the question.” In seminary I learned one of those big fifty cent words I often had to check my dictionary for its meaning. Ontological is a word we don’t throw around in ordinary conversations. I never used it in a sermon, for its strangeness would have been a stumbling block to folks without similar training. Who am I kidding? It was often a stumbling block when I tripped over it in my reading. I finally understood it after my first year of Greek. I needed to know its meaning fully and completely to comprehend it.
Current events, however, make an auspicious teaching moment for this weird word. Ontology is a branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature and relations of being. Ontology is the the branch of philosophy which deals with abstract entities. It’s concerned with the nature of being or the kinds of things that have existence, but are outside objective experience. It deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, substance, cause, identity, time, and space. Our word essence carries the meaning well, for it means “the permanent as contrasted with the accidental elements of being.”
An example of an ontological statement in scripture is the discussion Jesus has in John 8:56-58 with some of the Jews who opposed him:
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
In Shakespeare’s play of the same name, Hamlet’s whole soliloquy is about his existence, and whether he should live or die:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; No more; and by a sleep to say we end The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
Ontology comes from the Greek root ontos, ōn, which is the present participle of einai, of the verb to be. As I’ve watched the unfolding horror of this “Russian special exercise” on Ukrainian soil, I’m struck by the sense of Hamlet’s description of the struggles of life:
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause: there’s the respect That makes calamity of so long life; For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office and the spurns That patient merit of the unworthy takes, When he himself might his quietus make With a bare bodkin?
“To be” is the ontological insistence for the Ukrainians, for they desire to exist as a free people in a free nation. They resist occupation and occupiers. Dictatorship isn’t in their five year plan, or in their distant future, if they can help it. The surrounding nations have suddenly come alive in their recognition of Russia’s unfortunate foray into this breadbasket of Europe.
Yet even as the Ukrainian people are being killed in their streets, for no reason other than their citizenship; and their homes, hospitals, museums, and public buildings are reduced to smithereens by cluster bombs and artillery fire; they fight for their land and their freedom. I watch for one hour on the evening news, for I believe our world must stand witness to this horror.
Yes, some will turn away, for they have too much trauma in their own lives to bear the pain of others. Others will watch and say this isn’t our problem. If we remember our scripture, the chosen disciples abandoned Jesus in his hour of pain and need, but the women stayed by his side until his last breath. Then they came to dress his dead body’s wounds, but found an empty grave, while the men were holed up in a locked room for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).
Humanity is always our concern and when inhumane acts or conditions prevail, the human responsibility is to bear witness and to share the burden. As Paul writes in Galatians 6:2—
“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Hamlet muses on, dithering as contemplates taking his own life, but he takes no action for fear of what awaits him in the world beyond.
who would fardels (burdens) bear, To grunt and sweat under a weary life, But that the dread of something after death, The undiscover’d country from whose bourn (boundary) No traveller returns, puzzles the will And makes us rather bear those ills we have Than fly to others that we know not of? Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry, And lose the name of action.
While none of us know with certainty what lies beyond this world, for no one has ever returned with souvenirs, people of faith have trusted God to be always with them, even in the worst of times. As Paul writes in Romans 8:35, 37-39—
“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Artists across the centuries have responded to the horrors of war, if they aren’t held in thrall to the purveyors of such deeds. Those who exist to magnify the glories of battle are there as servants of powerful leaders, not as representatives of the fragility of the human condition. Think of Alexander the Great and his route to deification, first as a glorious leader, then as a god.
The Alexander Mosaic depicts a moment of victory in Battle of Issus in which Alexander has broken through to Darius of Persia, whom he defeated and shocked, before Darius was at the verge of fleeing. The mosaic is as great as Alexander himself, for it’s about 9 feet by 17 feet in size and contains over 1.5 million individual blocks of color, or tesserae. This Roman copy of an original Greek fourth century BCE painting dates from the second century BCE and is in the Museo Nazionale, Naples, Italy.
Here we see Goya painting the horrors of war and its impact on humanity. His inspiration comes from the French army’s assassination of a group of Spanish patriots during the 1808 rebellion. The Spanish heroes are illuminated by the intense light, but their faceless enemies aren’t easily visible in the darkness from which they operate. Not only does the design make plain Goya’s feelings, but his psychological understanding of the scene as well.
As Matthew writes in Jesus’ teaching kernel known as “The Sound Eye,”
“The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (6:22-23)
Probably the best known war painting of our modern era is Picasso’s Guernica. He painted it in response to the Nazi bombing of Guernica, a Spanish town in the Basque region during the Spanish Civil War. At about 16:30 on Monday, 26 April 1937, warplanes of the German Condor Legion, commanded by Colonel Wolfram von Richthofen, bombed Guernica for about two hours. Germany, at this time led by Hitler, had lent material support to the Nationalists and were using the war as an opportunity to test out new weapons and tactics. Later, intense aerial bombardment became a crucial preliminary step in the Blitzkrieg tactic.
Guernica, Picasso’s most important political painting, has remained relevant as a work of art and as a symbol of protest. It has kept the memory of the Basque town’s nightmare alive. While Picasso was living in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II, one German officer allegedly asked him, upon seeing a photo of Guernica in his apartment, “Did you do that?” Picasso responded, “No, you did.”
Lest we forget, while wars are often started by those in power, it’s the mothers who suffer when young soldiers are killed in action. Some are fortunate enough to have the body of their loved one to hold, but it’s a sad consolation prize. How heart rending it must be for the families whose children were left behind as casualties of war. As the old Cold War era 1985 Sting song about nuclear war reminds us—
There’s no such thing as a winnable war It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore… We share the same biology, regardless of ideology But what might save us, me and you Is if the Russians love their children too.
The great sadness of this brutal war foisted on the Ukrainian people is while we’re free to see and own the pain inflicted on others, too many of us will turn away. Then again, we often have difficulty acknowledging our own pain and weakness, for we prefer to see ourselves as whole, strong, and unconquerable. All of us have a weak place and we all have an emptiness that needs to be filled. Some of us fill this emptiness by seeking power and control, while others choose various substances or activities to overuse. A few will let God’s Spirit fill us, as Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7—
“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.”
When I see the satellite imagery of the obliterated Ukrainian towns, I recall my childhood memories of the old ones in my family repeating their ancestors’ stories of the troubled times during the Civil War. I can easily imagine in Ukraine, for several generations to come, all the stories of pain, survival, and resilience that will be told as they rebuild their nation from the ground up. In the midst of this ongoing disaster, they’re already thinking “How can we build back better?”
This is a great lesson for all of us. If our life hits a major roadblock, we can either give up, scale the wall, or find a way around the wall. Another option is to make peace with the wall and find a way to be happy there. Since Putin is tearing down all the walls for the Ukrainian people, they’ve decided to double down on being Ukrainian. “To be me” is “to be free” and that means “to be Ukrainian.” As their land lies in ashes about them, those who once also spoke Russian, a similar language to Ukrainian, now find that language dead as ashes in their mouths.
To win friends and influence people requires a gentle hand, not the ham-fist of a dictator. I only wonder if the Russian people will ever understand this. But they may have been slaves of their state for so long, they don’t know the sweet taste of freedom. Perhaps only those who believe in a forgiving God, who allows God’s people the freedom to make mistakes and gives them through the reconciling grace of renewed fellowship, are able to come through such disasters. Those who are “sinners in the hands of an angry god” must think their fate is destiny and accept it.
So the questions remain:
What IS the nature of YOUR God?
How does God’s nature affect your understanding of human nature?
Does your view of humanity reflect your image of God or do you see humanity through “God’s eyes?”
Read the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:11-30 and answer the questions again
What a difference a month makes! Only a few weeks ago, I was speaking with a rabbit pal, who was ground down by her constant caregiving in this pandemic world. She cares for elderly rabbits in a nursing home, a vulnerable population, plus she’s grieved the passing of several of her own family members lost to COVID.
“I’m not getting another shot,” she said. “I’m so tired of COVID, I could scream.” “I know,” I replied, “but this isn’t over. As long as we have hosts—those who either can’t or won’t get vaccinated—COVID is going to mutate and stick around.”
“Oh, don’t tell me that! We’ve been through alpha, beta, and gamma. We’re on omicron now. What’s next?”
I laughed. “It doesn’t matter. It could be gigatron, megaton, or atragon—they’re all monsters and we’ll have to cross that bridge when we come to it. We’ll do what ever it takes to beat those monsters, just like in the Japanese movies.”
Her mood lifted somewhat, for in these hard times a friend has to be a support. I was only returning the favor, for she’s been my rock when I’ve been down.
Speaking of monsters, I love Japanese films. I once had a boyfriend in college who had a fondness for Japanese films.
“Oh, me too!” I exulted. “What’s your favorite ?” he asked. “I really like Mothra and Godzilla,” I replied to his frozen face.
He favored more arcane fare, such as The Burmese Harp, Rashomon, and others with samurai military themes. We did share a common love of pasta, but his military service took him elsewhere, and my artistic sensibilities took me to a different place also.
We rabbits like to escape from reality when life gets too real at times, as it has this past month. The Bible speaks of “the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle,” in 2 Samuel 11:1. When the sap rises and the light gets brighter, some circadian rhythm must kick in that sets off a power struggle amongst the powers that be. When I taught school back in the day, all my rabbit students were wild as hares from April Fool’s Day until the last day of school in May. During my first year teaching, we got an extra week of spring break, since we didn’t use any of our snow days.
My old daddy found me crying on that Monday morning. “What’s wrong, honey?”
I sobbed, “We only have one more week of vacation before school starts again!” “It’s all downhill from here, honey. You can do this,” he said, encouragingly. “Dry those tears and let’s share a cup of coffee at the breakfast room table.”
Life is always better with coffee, and with an older bunny to talk some sense back into you. At least my daddy was always willing to listen to my tales of woe. I must have been a real drama queen back when I was young, but surviving those “bad old days” meant I could take my turn later on and help other young rabbits through their peaks and valleys. As the apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 12:10—
“Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”
One of the ways I would escape reality was to watch those Japanese monster movies. They weren’t always long on plot or character development, but you could count on lots of action. Atragon, a huge monster of the Mu empire, an underwater civilization that was supposedly extinct, resurfaced in one movie to declare war against all nations. The sole hope of humanity seemed to lie on Captain Hachiro Jinguji, who refused to surrender, and his atomic super-submarine, the Gotengo. When the Mu and their evil Queen kidnapped his daughter, he decided to attack them. Earthquakes and battles between submarines and the great sea monster ensued.
I’ve always found watching monster movies and the concomitant destruction they cause easier than watching the actual mayhem reported on the evening news, but then I grew up in the Vietnam era. I always had difficulty with the people my parents’ age who wanted to “bomb the North Vietnamese back to the Stone Age.” Now when I see a Russian dictator doing this very deed to Ukraine, an independent nation, I have even more distaste for this activity. I’m reminded how easy it is for us to project a demonic nature on those who do terrible, unprovoked, and unimaginable deeds on others.
In the years after the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese worked out their fears of another nuclear horror or the after effects of that first one with their mutated monsters by atomic radiation. Today, we have movies which deal with our fears of robots taking over the world or artificial intelligence throwing over its creators.
These aren’t new themes, of course, for Greek mythology tells of the early Titan king Chronos, who swallowed all his children, so none would fulfill the prophecy of taking his throne. When Zeus was born, his mother spirited him away. When he grew up, he came home, caused his father to vomit up his siblings, and together they defeated him. This is how the gods came to rule the heavens, the oceans, and the underworld. These gods were made in the image of human kind, so while they were more beautiful, stronger, and immortal, they were also given to the same passions and consequences as those besetting humanity.
The Greeks and Romans were always in a contest of power, whether between the gods, gods and humans, or humans alone. Nothing was ever in a steady state. Their great leaders were known both for their military successes as well as their political prowess. They were leaders both in peace and war. The Ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “War is both king of all and father of all, and it has revealed some as gods, others as men; it has made some slaves, others free” (no. 22 fragment B53).
Native American tribes have a story of the warring nature we each carry within us. It’s commonly known as “the two wolves” or “the grandfather story.”
“I have a fight going on in me,” the old man said. “It’s taking place between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.”
The grandfather looked at the grandson and went on. “The other embodies positive emotions. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. Both wolves are fighting to the death. The same fight is going on inside you and every other person, too.”
The grandson took a moment to reflect on this. At last, he looked up at his grandfather and asked, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee gave a simple reply. “The one you feed.”
We each have a wolf or a Godzilla within ourselves, but sometimes we fail to notice it. Instead we see it only in the outsiders, in our enemies, or those whom we’ve excluded from our privileged circle. How we manage this “darkness” within us, how we the battle the “enemy within,” is the great work Jung spoke to when he proposed the presence of the Shadow within each of us.
When the world is falling apart, we too feel unmoored. When a dictator attempts to redraw the borders of another country, our cognitive maps also fall apart. If that part of the world isn’t safe, is our world at risk also? Even though we know change is inevitable, will the apple cart be set on fire or just dumped over? We rabbits aren’t the bravest animals, so we can borrow trouble from the morrow, as well as from the next half hour. Somehow we have to revision our old lives, shed our old cocoons, and renew our selves for the new world to which we find ourselves awakening.
A hundred years ago, T. S. Elliott wrote these opening lines of his famous poem, The Waste Land. In the days after the end of World War I, his wife was suffering from mental illness and his marriage was falling apart because she was having an affair with another man. He too was suffering from the shared grief of the loss of so many in the Great War, as well as his own personal relationship problems. He wrote this poem at a sanatorium, where he was taking a “cure” for his own mental health.
April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers.
If we’re ever to understand the great mysteries of faith, we have to meet the darkness within us. That’s what is symbolized by the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. The loneliness in the garden of Gethsemane, the descent into the grave, and the rising back to life once again. If ever we’ve had this loneliness, emptiness, and sense of rebirth, we’re participating in the Easter mystery. Once we die to our old selves, we can live the Christ life, not just a life assenting to the doctrines of the Christian faith.
No one will be able to call us rabbits April Fools, even if they call us fools for Christ. Let’s celebrate this month some of the great faith holidays, and don’t forget your taxes are due. That perhaps is “the cruelest” event of April.
April 3—Ramadan begins—revelation of the Koran to Muhammad April 10–Palm Sunday April 14–Maundy Thursday April 15–Good Friday & Income Tax Day April 16–Passover & Holy Saturday Vigil April 17–Easter April 18–Easter Monday (Emmaus Monday) April 24–Orthodox Easter April 28–Holocaust Remembrance Day April 29–Laylat al Qadr is the day in Ramadan that observes the night when the Prophet Mohammad received the first verses of the Koran
A sunflower follows the sun. Actually, only young sunflowers track the sun across the sky, while mature sunflowers face east. Why is this? Why do we care? As sunflowers fill our Facebook feeds and social media posts, most of us are looking at flowers so we can ignore the awful consequences of this unprovoked war. Right now, many of us are heartbroken because of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. I had only a passing knowledge of this country because of its well known naïve artist, Maria Primachenko and her paintings of fantastic imaginative animals in gardens. They have always been a delight to my soul and a joy to my spirit. Many of her works include the sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower. Sunflowers have been grown in Ukraine since the mid 1800’s, and are not only an important export crop, but also a symbol of peace. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, people planted sunflowers as a symbol of the peace they hoped would follow.
Sunflowers, when young, follow the sun on a 24 hour circadian cycle, just as our bodies have a similar cycle keyed to the light and dark. When the flowers are growing, they maximize their time facing the sun, but once they’re mature, they set their face toward the east, since this gives the head maximum warmth. Bees love warmth, so keeping the buzzing crowds near is in the sunflowers’ best interest for pollination and reproduction.
Most of us prefer the sunny days. Clouds, storms, and distress aren’t our first choices. After the last few years of pandemic stresses, we’re unprepared for yet another crisis, even if it seems to be on a distant continent. Our own supply chain for reserves of caring and concern have been stretched thin by the nearly million deaths from COVID in our nation alone, not to mention the worldwide death toll of over 6 million. On Friday in Sam’s Club, I met a lady who complimented me on my flowered pants, which I was wearing in honor of the Ukrainian folk painter, whose museum had been bombed by the Russian army.
“I can’t bear to even listen to the news any more. It’s all so awful,” she said.
“I know. It reminds me too much of domestic violence cases, where the man decides he’ll punish the ex by killing all the children and taking himself out also.”
My blood sugar usually drops low on Friday after art class, before I eat lunch, so I don’t have my usual, civilized filter on my mouth. The look of awareness on her face was the sudden recognition of a truth she had refused to see before. Sometimes we need to face our fears and deal with them. This is the hero journey. None of us can travel it alone, but far too many fail to ever set out on it at all, even with a spiritual companion or guide. My failure to snack at art class upset her comfortable apple cart and caused her distress. She ran out of Sam’s in a heartbeat. I was able to chat with a baby and her mom later on, who was amazed her child wasn’t at all afraid of this stranger. Food is a medicine for my mood and a bridle for my mouth.
On a sunny day, we can see our shadow. Most of us are afraid of our own flickering shadows. We don’t want to see the darkness within us, even though we’re ever ready to see the sinister images of others. Like a sunflower, we’ll turn instead to the light and only see the good, the beautiful, and the true.
A story I remember from my classical art studies regards Alexander the Great and the shadows. His father Phillip II, the ancient king of Macedon, had a difficult, high strung horse, which no one had been able to ride. In fact, it was downright vicious and unmanageable, which made it less of a “gift” to the ruler. Alexander, even though a youth, noticed the handsome horse was disturbed by his own shadow, so he turned the animal’s head into the sun, attached the bridle, and was able to mount him. Alexander rode Bucephalus until the horse’s death at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C.E. In his honor, Alexander named a local city, Bucephala (sometimes identified with the modern Jhelum, in the Punjab province of Pakistan), after him.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes,” Carl Jung wrote to one Fanny Bowditch, on the eve of his entry into military service during the First World War. Jung believed as long as you looked at other people and projected your own psychology into them, you could never reach harmony with yourself. Jung taught all persons had a shadow side to their personality, or those aspects of ourselves which we’ve repressed. These may be both bad or good aspects, for some of us have yet to realize our own brutal natures, as well as the heroic figures which we’ve also buried inside.
My old granddaddy was fond of saying, “When you point out another’s failings, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.” I came to learn I couldn’t recognize the fault in others unless I could claim it also in my own self. This keeps one humble for sure, but it also keeps a person from thinking he or she has any godlike or dictator qualities.
This brings me to another famous shadow story involving Alexander the Great. After his father’s death, he visited Corinth, where Diogenes the Cynic lived in 326 BCE. Diogenes was famous for carrying a lamp in the middle of the day in his “search for an honest man.” In the most famous exchange of this meeting, Alexander asked Diogenes whether there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes, who was enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun, answered, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.”
This abrupt response, showing Diogenes’ utter contempt for the power and prestige craved by Alexander, inspired many artists over the years. Although Alexander’s attendants took offense at Diogenes’ rudeness to their king, Alexander himself wasn’t displeased. Leaving, Alexander was said to reply, “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”
When I brought these delightful images from Maria Primachenko to class, Gail and Mike were amazed at how bright, flat, and clean her designs were. Partly this is due to her use of gouache, an opaque water based color paint. She also uses repeated motifs, symmetry, and clean lines with sharp color contrasts to make her images “pop,” as the decorators say. Mike, who favors textures, was thrilled to see another artist who paints like he does. Gail was glad to process the distressing news through flowers and the yellow and blue of the national flag of Ukraine.
Often we don’t feel “safe” speaking about dark or upsetting experiences, preferring instead to bury them deep inside. This is maybe the worst decision we can make, for like a poison or an infection, what we refuse to bring to the light will fester and grow. Then it further sickens the body or the mind until it becomes unrecognizable and unhealthy. Perhaps this is when we move from being rational to irrational. As I always tell folks, “Just because you think the world operates on reason and order, doesn’t make it so.” By this I mean, we live in a world with accidents, change, disease, sociopaths, and greed. In biblical terms, we live in a broken and fallen world, one in which even those of us who are “saved by the blood of Christ” from the wages of sin are “not yet perfected in the love of God and neighbor.”
This is what it means as a Christian to carry the Jungian shadow within us. If we believe keeping a law is the best evidence of our faithfulness, we can overlook the moral quality of the law itself and find ourselves carrying out harm, rather than doing good. As the writer of Hebrews explains in the platonic argument of Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All:
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.” (10:1)
If we want to be law keepers, we can’t be picking and choosing which laws we want to keep, as if the law were a cafeteria or buffet table. Jesus certainly knew what potholes lay ahead of him after his baptism in the Jordan River. A forty day fast in the wilderness is great for getting your head together and dealing with our human nature’s dark side of desire for security, power, and equality with god.
I post my Artandicon blog on LinkedIn as well as on my various spiritual formation Facebook pages which I manage. I sometimes get a message from folks there. One was from a friend, who mentioned she really wanted to get back into her art, “for it brings her peace.” I tell people, “the process of making art brings satisfaction, but we’re not ever satisfied with the work itself.” If we were ever to be satisfied with the work, if we thought we could reach no higher, or if we thought so highly of ourselves that we’d made the last best artwork for all times, then we’d have to quit and make pancakes, until we’d perfected those. And then we’d find a new obsession.
My favorite monsters are those from the Japanese nuclear monster movies of the 1950’s. They are both kitschy and scary. The sunflowers destroyed by these monsters of war will fall to earth and be reborn once again in ever increasing numbers. If hope is the last to die, it’s also the first to rise again. As long as one has breath, one can hope. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome long ago,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:13)
Making art is a metaphor for the hero’s journey. Jung believed art was important because often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. We don’t know what battle or monster awaits, but we also don’t know what divine spirit will come to our aid. Along the fantastic inward journey, we’ll meet the very same creatures who are outside of us. They arise in our dreams, but they were planted in our awakening moments. We may have been turning our faces towards the sun, like the baby sunflowers or the horse Bucephalus, but soon enough we’ll trust the one who guides us and we’ll go wherever it’s necessary.
The journey toward Christian perfection in love is a heroic journey, one which we can only undertake with the help of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, we also travel with others on same road: mystics, saints, and holy persons from yesterday and today. As the old camp song refrain goes,
“And they’ll know we’re Christians by our love, by our love, They’ll know we’re Christians by our love.”
The following prayer, Psalm 23, has comforted people for thousands of years in times of trouble and grief. Here in the English Standard Version, if you have fears, trepidations, or trembles, it might help you to calm your spirit. As you speak it aloud to the rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation of breath, remember those who have given up their lives rather than reject their faith: Christian martyrs in the Roman coliseum, Jewish martyrs in the holocaust, and democratic freedom fighters around the world. Let your voice be heard, even as their voice is being silenced:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
As the days grow shorter, the pile of leaves grows larger. This is Einstein’s equation for autumn. I know “Energy equals Mass times the speed of Light squared” isn’t really congruent with all those bags of leaves accumulating on the edge of the streets of the front yards in your neighborhood. It just seems that way. When I bought my first little stucco, flat roofed house back in my hometown, the former owners reminded me at closing, “Be sure and rake the roof every autumn.”
Of course I forgot about this, until the twenty something major trees around my little flat roofed house dumped all their leaves on my roof. How did I know? When it rained, those leaves blocked the drainage holes, so water came inside the ceiling light fixtures of my kitchen in the back of the house. As soon as the rain quit, I had the ladder out and was filling the big, black garbage bags with soggy leaves. If you only fill them half way, they’ll stay intact when tossing them over the parapet. I was younger then, and trainable. I didn’t forget when autumn came the next year.
I’ve always thought leaves “fell” off the trees or the wind blew them off, but I asked Mr. Google, “Why do leaves fall?” Turns out, the trees cut them off with scissor cells. The leaves are only useful for making food for the tree. They are the seasonal kitchen staff, so the tree lets them go for the winter and brings in a new crew in the spring. The changing light and cooler temperatures triggers a hormone that makes this happen.
If the leaves stayed on the tree, they’d wake up during a winter warm spell, start their food production work, and then get frozen when the cold inevitably returns. The tree knows the lifespan of the leaf, and this is the natural course of the life cycle. New growth will come in the spring, after a period of rest and recovery.
Our holiday season coincides with darkening days and marketing excess. Most of the commercials show happy families with lots of presents in heavily decorated holiday environments. Statistics show 25% of people are estranged from their families, and one out of every 463 Americans alive at the beginning of 2020 has since died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. About 1 in 8 Americans say that a member of their family died of the virus; another fifth say that they lost a close friend, according to YouGov polling. These are staggering numbers, for in the US alone, 779,293 people have lost their lives as of November 30, 2021. One too many Thanksgiving tables had an empty place setting for a loved one no longer among us, and this will be a blue Christmas for many families.
If this were a war, maybe folks would get all excited and consider good health practices such as mask wearing , hand washing, and vaccinations their patriotic duty. Instead, they throw themselves into the breach of a thousand tiny viruses as if they were seeking the congressional gold medal for valor, and end up leaving their families with nothing but medical bills, grief, and the loss of their presence. Into this weary season comes Omicron, yet another variant, but an expected event due to the lack of worldwide access to vaccines and the virus’s ability to mutate in immunocompromised individuals. The enemy keeps evolving and the battles continue, whether we’re weary of the struggle or not.
“The Falling Leaves,” by Margaret Postgate Cole of England, is one of the first anti-war poems from a woman’s perspective. It was written in November 1915, during the First World War, when from 1914 to 1918, Flanders Fields was a major battle theatre on the Western Front. A million soldiers from more than 50 different countries were wounded, missing or killed in action there. Entire cities and villages were destroyed, their population scattered across Europe and beyond. The tradition of poppies on Veterans Day came from the red flowers given life from the blood spilled on this battlefield. COVID today is exacting it’s own cruel battle toll, with children left orphaned and spouses left without their mates. The adverse affects on this generation may be equal to those who went through the great flu pandemic of 1918 or the Great Depression.
War may be necessary in some instances, but it’s never to be glorified. There’s always a sadness related to the loss of life, regret over the great expense poured out that might have been used to build rather than destroy, and the cruelties that attend actions when we make others into evil enemies and refuse to see them as human as we are. Her poem speaks poignantly to this human loss:
Today, as I rode by, I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree In a still afternoon, When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky, But thickly, silently, They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon; And wandered slowly thence For thinking of a gallant multitude Which now all withering lay, Slain by no wind of age or pestilence, But in their beauty strewed Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.
Source: Margaret Postgate’s Poems (1918)
If we want to treat these end of year days as “days of denial” of all that’s grim in the world to focus only on the good and the light, we’s be like people who claim we have no shadow. Carl Jung believed the shadow included everything in the unconscious mind, good or bad. Also, the shadow might include only the part of the personality that you don’t want to identify as self, but still is a part of your unconscious mind. This dark side of your personality contains everything your conscious mind can’t admit about itself.
When we read the birth story of Jesus, we often focus on the angels and the gifts of the magi. We forget these heavenly hosts are God’s armies and the magi came to meet the new king. These were revolutionary acts that caused King Herod to feel insecure and threatened, so he slaughtered the innocent babies born at this time. The Bible never forgets this shadow side of life, for this is why Christ came into our world:
“to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” ~ Luke 1:79
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” my daddy was fond of saying. We often long for the “way things used to be,” as if the Golden Age of the past was the best of all times. Yet, that past often exists only in our memories, but not in the lived reality of all persons. This is the classic story of the young prince, who while sheltered within the confines of his sumptuous palace never knew want, but once he walked among his people, he saw suffering and need everywhere. Today we know him as the Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama. Many over the centuries have wondered why suffering exists in the world, or why they themselves must suffer. The Buddha saw all life as suffering, or rather our inability to accept the impermanence, change, and dissatisfaction with the present moment.
The Golden Age is a myth and poetic concept, as well as a political and philosophical construct. It began in Greece and was fixed in people’s minds by the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The Golden Age is a dream of an “earlier time when people lived peaceful, untroubled lives, and the earth supplied all their wants.” Those who read the Bible can easily find a parallel story in the first humans, who lived in the Garden of Eden. Of all the high and holy days in our cultural calendar, Christmas rates number one for nostalgia, both the personal kind and the universal type.
Nostalgia is the state of being homesick, or a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning, either for the return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. It can be a salve for those who suffer, or it can be more salt poured into an open wound. It just depends on how one frames the experience. We feel “homesick “ in the worst possible way, for we yearn for the security of the familiar and the safe. Mostly we yearn for the people we love and are kin to us.
I remember the year I divorced my husband. It was necessary, for I couldn’t trust him to care for our daughter due to his alcoholism. The first Christmas was hard, for his family chose him and shut me out, as did all his friends. Decorating the Christmas tree was always a family affair in the Golden Age of my memories of Christmas. If this year I had no family, I would bring friends to decorate my tree. Just because I’d always celebrated one way before, I wouldn’t let my circumstances keep me from finding joy this Christmas. I called my young mother friends, invited their families to my home, and we decorated my tree within an inch of its life. It was my best tree ever! And then we ate and drank a toast to our creation. My friends were salve for my suffering, and helped me create a good memory, which still gives me pleasure to this day, four decades later.
Christmas brings families together, but this is a double edged sword. While we all want to be with our families, we also know oil and water don’t mix. After both my parents died, I often ate with some of my clergy pals’ families. I was glad to know they had relatives who also wore their crazy pants to dinner. If I ate with congregation members, they were often on their best behavior, as if I were some sort of god on earth. You’d think after six months at a charge, I’d already have disabused them of that notion, but some people never see your true nature, but only the image of every pastor they’ve ever known before. More often, I’d get pastoral calls of family crises during holiday seasons, so after years of this recurrence, I finally learned to plan for it. I eventually realized we all have a Golden Age of Christmas in our minds, but in real life, we live in the Age of Iron. When reality hits our delusions, the disconnect is palpable. We feel it in our very bones.
For many Americans, images of Victorian Christmases include memories of “children all snug in their beds with their visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads,” which we recognize as one of the opening lines of Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” These sugar plums aren’t sugared fruits, but are more like candy covered peanuts or almonds. Jelly beans also are made by this same process. Whatever these treats were, the children dreamed of a world of happiness, sweetness, and delight.
As my Depression Era mother would say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would be kings.” That outlook never stopped me or my brothers from wanting everything in the Sears Christmas catalog, even though we knew these were just suggestions for Santa. Yet we never felt deprived, for whatever we received was a gift, plus it was more than we had before. On Thanksgiving day this year, consumers spent at a pace of at least $3.5 million per minute on line due to stores being closed for the holiday. This year, the average household is pegged to spend $924 for online shopping, more than double the $440 expected for in-store.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects November/December retail sales of $843.4 billion to $859 billion, up 8.5% to 10.5% from 2020 results. NRF said its forecast — excluding automobile dealers, gas stations, and restaurants, and covering Nov. 1 to Dec. 31— tops the previous high of $777.3 billion. This total is up 8.2% over 2020, as well as the average gain of 4.4% over the past five years. This increase is in spite of supply chain hiccups, rising gas prices, and the pockets of as yet unvaccinated individuals, who continue to be the greatest number of COVID admissions to our hospitals. It’s as if we’re trying to replace the suffering of our present with presents for those we love. This also accounts for our desire to donate to charities at this season.
Yet the Scrooge of Christmas continues to be COVID, for as an Augusta University Medical analysis released in May of 2021 revealed, which looked at COVID-19 related deaths in vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals—only .8% (150) of vaccinated people accounted for the 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May. If you want to give someone the gift of life this Christmas, take them to the local pharmacy and get them started on their vaccinations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found both infection-induced and vaccine-induced immunity are durable for at least six months — but vaccines are more consistent in their protection and offer a huge boost in antibodies for people previously infected. Unfortunately, unvaccinated persons are also the prime hosts in which the virus can mutate, so the Grinch has already brought us the latest variant of concern, Omicron.
This variant was first identified in the South African peninsula, due to their excellent testing facilities. Of course, now the nations of the world have isolated the countries there, so they now feel punished by these bans. Travelers arriving in major world airports already have tested positive for for this variant, so we can expect disruptions and quarantines worldwide to follow. During this holiday season of restoring relationships, COVID keeps breaking our ties instead of rebuilding them.
We can long for the Golden Age of light from our younger days, when our parents took on the big worries so we could have the pleasant memories of an untroubled childhood, or we can fix our sight on the lights of our faith. The great star of the east which announced the birth of Jesus was a pale light compared to “The true light, which enlightens everyone, (which) was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) His was “The light (which) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5).
Our Jewish friends meet the darkness of this Hanukkah season with prayers and menorahs, nightly lighting candles to disperse the darkness of hopelessness against great foes. They remember doing battle against spiritual powers, with God empowering their weakness. God never comes for the strong, but has a special kindness for the poor and weak. This is why we should feel blessed, no matter our personal experience, but especially during the holidays. The ceremony begins on November 28 and ends December 6, since it’s set by the lunar calendar.
So also are these December celebrations light filled: Burning the Yule Log on the 4th, St. Lucia on the 13th, the Winter Solstice on the 21st, Kwanzaa on the 26th, and finally, New Year’s Eve. Our good earth will bring its tilt back towards the sun gradually in the days following the winter solstice. This darkness too shall pass, whether it’s our personal grief or our universal suffering.
We’ll keep walking until we meet the better land beyond the horizon. If this isn’t yet the Golden Age of our memories or the Golden Age of our sugar plumb dreams, let’s work together as we walk to build a better world for all people, “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10)
May you have a mindful holiday, full of joy and peace,
Reckford, Kenneth J. “Some Appearances of the Golden Age.” The Classical Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1958, pp. 79–87, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294223.
The saying is true: “If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.” Yet how hard do we humans hold to the past, even if we need to move on into the future? As an artist, I’ve always been caught between my desire to honor the traditions of the past, but also to move into the the unknown realms of the future. Artists already have a vocabulary and boundaries to describe the works of the past, so we can tell if our current works “meet the criteria for excellence.”
When we go beyond this known world into the uncharted territories, we’re like Columbus, who landed in the Caribbean islands, but thought he was on the continent of North America. I wonder if the monarch butterfly, just emerging from the cocoon, has any idea it soon will begin a 3,000 mile migration to its ancestral winter home in Mexico. The butterfly has the innate ability to navigate this path, whereas we humans are like Abram, for we’re going to a land our God will show us. We have no idea where we’ll end up, but we do know we’ll travel by stages and God’s guiding inspiration will always be with us.
During this current protracted COVID pandemic, with cases beginning in mid December 2019, we’ve now lost over 766,206 persons in the US alone and over 47,390,239 individuals have had COVID. Worldwide, the numbers are far greater: over 5 million have died and nearly 255 million have contracted COVID, mostly because vaccines and health care services aren’t available to the extent they are in America and the European Community. Not only has our world as a whole suffered a great grief, but each of us individually have lost friends, neighbors, or loved ones. This adds to our collective grief.
When we see the rest of our world changing around us, we feel another loss, and this becomes the grief leading to the death of a thousand tiny cuts. Just as in our workplaces, when the ideas of the young, the female, and the ethnic individuals aren’t valued, their dismissal leads to devaluation of their perspectives as well as their personhood. When we devalue nature and treat creation as an arena for humanity to restructure for our purposes alone, we can fall into the trap of thinking only for our immediate future, but not for the generations to follow. This is why building lots inside the city get cleaned off and offered as a blank slate, since this makes them valuable to the greatest number of buyers.
Death by a thousand cuts was supposedly a form of torture in ancient China. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes, such as matricide, patricide, treason, and the like. From all the tiny slices, the accused finally bled to death. It was a cruel and unusual punishment, rather like flogging the back of a law breaker until the flesh was raw, but this punishment was intended to cause death because the executioner kept at it until he succeeded.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of the loss of a few trees here and there in our neighborhoods. Sometimes we even want to cut down the trees on our own property because we’re tired of raking leaves every fall, or if we have a magnolia tree, we’re tired of our year round duty of leap reaping. Of course, if you want a high strung, classy tree to show off in your front yard, you also need to sign onto the high maintenance these trees require. “Those that wears the fancy pants has to take care of those fancy pants,” my mother always reminded me.
Yard work is a type of infrastructure most of us can understand. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, those of us hosting the feast are also getting the house and yard ready for family and friends to visit. Infrastructure has been in the news lately also, with politicians debating whether soft or hard infrastructure deserves the most funding.
In Hot Springs, we have “Green Infrastructure,” which includes all the natural assets that make the city livable and healthy: trees, parks, streams, springs, lakes and other open spaces. These assets are ‘infrastructure’ because they support peoples’ existence. For example, tree canopy keeps the city cooler while also absorbing air pollutants and mitigating flooding. The Hot Springs National Park forest area is also an important resource for a variety of reasons. The mountain area is in the recharge zone for the hot springs and the forest provides other important ecosystem services.
In urban areas, we can evaluate the landscape on a smaller scale, so even small patches of green space become important, since together they can make a greater large cumulative impact. Smaller urban spaces, such as linear stream valleys, or even pocket parks, can add up to a connected green landscape. When evaluating the ecological health of an urban area, urban tree canopy is a key green asset. For instance, Hot Springs has 57% tree canopy coverage and an additional 12% green space coverage. This adds to our quality of life, for this isn’t only pleasing to the eye, but the trees and grass convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, thus improving the air we breathe.
Cities are beginning to recognize the importance of their urban trees because they provide tremendous dividends. For example, city trees are a strategic way to reduce excess stormwater runoff and flooding. Even one tree can play an important role in stormwater management. For example, estimates for the amount of water a typical street tree can intercept in its crown range from 760 gallons to 4000 gallons per tree per year, depending on the species and age. Taken city-wide, the trees within the city provide an annual stormwater interception of 1.2 to 1.5 million gallons which equates to 7 to 9 million dollars in benefits. The loss of one tree is worth so much money, replanting our tree cover is an investment in our future wellbeing.
I often heard an old proverbial poem growing up, which may not be repeated much today:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
My nanny would remind me of the same principle in other words, “A stitch in time saves nine.” My daddy was from the school of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While those two schools of thought still persist today, I think making a small, inexpensive repair, rather than a costly replacement, is a better choice, but too many of us live in a throwaway society.
When we lose one small thing, we brush it off as no matter, but after a thousand small losses, we just can’t take it any longer. We look around and wonder what happened to our world, why didn’t we take action sooner, and now we might be in a hole so deep we can’t see the top. When I first painted the trees on this vacant lot, the little coffee kiosk had closed shop and moved on. It was springtime and the violet wisteria vines were bright against a sunlit cerulean sky.
As I was taking a few photos with my iPhone last spring, the local policeman pulled into the circular drive to check on me. We chatted a bit, but he wanted to make sure I was OK. I’m at that age when silver alerts go out for others, but I’m not there yet. I guess “old gal taking photographs of trees” still looks suspicious in my small town. I’m thankful my town is this quiet.
When I told the officer, “These trees called to me,” he might have had second thoughts about my state of mind. Then he realized he was talking to an artist. I was rescued when his radio called him off to take care of some real trouble. I find I do my best work when I feel called to a subject, for I have a spiritual connection with it.
That was this past April, and here at year’s end, this lot is up for auction, with a commercial use zoning. It has easy access to the bypass and would be good for a food place or a fuel stop. Things change and we can’t hold back progress. I know people who buy a vacation home to visit while they still work, but as soon as they retire to this same place, they grouse about all the weekenders who come and spoil their solitude. They put up with it a year or so, griping daily, and then sell and move on. Life changed for them and they didn’t adjust to their new normal. I wonder why they never realized Hot Springs was a vacation destination. We think we need an infrastructure just for the 38,500 people who live here year round, but we actually need an infrastructure to support the over two million visitors to whom we offer the hospitality of our hot springs, our hotels, our fine dining, our attractions, and our natural beauty.
When I saw the trees were gone and the lots had been plowed level, I wondered if the trees had a swift death, or if they had brief dreams and fantasies while the saws pierced their outer skins. I thought of the butterflies encased in their cocoons, and the deep sleep of their transformation. Do butterflies dream in this stage, or do they even dream like we do? I wondered if next April I would see wisteria growing near the ground, for as a weed, it’s hard to kill. I always hope, for I’ve learned over time, if I’m a prisoner of hope, this is better than seeing only the loss.
After traveling and recovering from an autumn sinus infection, I decided to destroy an old mobile sculpture of a butterfly made from found materials and attach it to a canvas. I took some scraps of cloth from some mask projects, and glued the whole to the canvas. Maybe I crammed more than I should have onto the small surface, but I was going with it. This work might be more catharsis than art, or more process and possibility than success. It doesn’t matter, for sometimes art is more therapeutic than anything else.
The first layer held all the colors and shapes of the original Google map. The second layer began to make sense of the shapes and textures, for I started to pull together the small areas into larger spaces. By the third layer, I’d lost most of the color areas and turned them instead into linear shapes. The primary colors of the background I subdued beneath an overall gold tone. The lines now are like an automatic writing or glyphic writing, which might be the language spoken either by the trees or the butterflies, or by all natural living beings.
When we confront suffering in nature, in our lives, or in the world, we often ask, “Where is God in all of this?” In the days past when I suffered, I held on to the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (8:18-21)
Often we suffer because we can’t change our past, or we think we can’t affect our future. At some point in our lives, we come to accept our suffering. We don’t have to continue to suffer, of course, but we need to accept that what happened to us is over. We can forgive ourselves for not leaving a bad relationship earlier, or being too young to know we were being harmed. Some of us may have survivor guilt from our nation’s wars, and suffer moral injuries from acts of war. Only good and decent human beings would feel this guilt, and they can heal with Christ’s forgiveness. We can be changed and then begin to change the world, even if we begin only with our own selves.
After all, the Psalms promise us God is faithful both to us and to the creation also: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)