How long does a new and unusual aspect of our environment need to be in place before we notice it? On the other hand, how long does it have to persist before we treat it as the new normal and begin to ignore it?
My mom and dad were married right after World War II, so they’d lived together for nearly forty six years when I came home for a visit from seminary one weekend. Right off the bat, I noticed something differ about my dad.
“You’ve gone and grown a mustache.”
“You like it?” He asked, as he smoothed the unruly hairs into place.
“Oh yeah! You look like a perfect Southern gentleman.”
He smiled. Perfect and gentleman was his aim.
My mother, who was sitting in the identical chair next to his, separated only by a small table with a lamp and magazines, craned her head around that lamp to look at him.
“When did you grow this mustache?”
“Mother! You’ve slept in the same bed with daddy every single night of your entire life. You always kiss each other good night. I can’t believe you haven’t noticed the hair on his upper lip!”
A little rattled, she replied, “It’s always dark when we go to sleep.”
I laughed. My daddy smiled. My mother always had an answer for every thing. I noticed his mustache because I hadn’t seen him in a while, whereas mother had watched the slow progression of the hiding of his upper lip. I should say, it’s been my experience the husband usually fails to notice his wife’s new haircut, an act which causes much family drama.
When I travel, I don’t go from point to point with the goal of arriving as soon as possible. If that were the case, I’d fly. In my car, if I see an interesting place, I’ll go visit, since the journey is more important than the destination. Once I’ve arrived, I even make side trips, just for a little exercise. I was walking around Lake Bridgeport, in the town of Runaway Bay, Texas, when I stumbled upon these grasses, flowers, and small trees. The afternoon light caught the center stalk so it glowed its reds and golds. The few leaves left from autumn’s color, which hadn’t been blown away by the seasonal rains quivered in the light breeze. A few flowers added color to a rather grey afternoon.
Why would ordinary weeds catch my eye? There’s nothing remarkable or heroic about weeds. Most people spend good money to rid their lawns of ugly and invasive weeds. Here around the lake is a wild place, however, and the weed is in its natural state. This red weed is unique among the other natural grasses, for its not a single blade, but a stem with alternating leaves. I had to pick my way through some underbrush to find an opening from which I could take a good photo. I felt as if this weed had called to me.
I’ve often wondered how long the bush burned in the wilderness before Moses looked up from counting his father in law’s sheep and said, “What is this? I must go see it!” Extraordinary events happen all the time, yet we’re too consumed with our day to day busyness to see the glories of God’s hand at work in the world. Or we come to a watershed moment, when the bush would burn brightly for us, and throw water to quench its fire, for “it’s never been done, it can’t be done, it’s always been this way, and people will never change.”
If Moses believed this, he’d have never followed God’s call back to Egypt. The Hebrew children would still be slaves in Egypt. But Moses trusted God. This is called a sea change, or a transformation. We don’t do this just on our own, but by a power at work greater than our own. We might resist, but God persists.
But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh,
and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?”
He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you:
when you have brought the people out of Egypt,
you shall worship God on this mountain.”
~~ Genesis 3:11-12
What sea change is happening in our world today? Are people finally fed up with treating human life as a cheap commodity? We do this if we treat people as objects to be used and then thrown away when they’re worn out or too sick to be worked hard. When we fail to fund schools and health care for all, we don’t get the best people for our citizens or our employees. If only the wealthy can afford health care and a quality education, then our democracy suffers, for we will have a permanent underclass and a qualified few. This bifurcation doesn’t bode well for the future. Does a bush burn in the wilderness for any of my readers?
Are we tired of exchanging precious human lives for a shibboleth? The word means “stream” in Hebrew and was used as a sorting test to distinguish warriors of Gilead from those of Ephraim. Today, the 2nd Amendment serves the same purpose, because the National Rifle Association gives politicians large amounts of money for their campaign coffers and spends extra money on their behalf also. The NRA is the front for gun manufacturers, who profit if they sell more guns. They never want any restrictions on any freedom, but we don’t live in an anarchy, so a democracy can restrict certain aspects of gun ownership and use.
Public mass shootings have occurred on average every 172 days since 1982. Since September 6, 2011, there’s been 14 mass shootings at an average interval of less than 172 days. These don’t include domestic violence or criminal activity. Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in modern US history have taken place in a school, including Sandy Hook elementary and Virginia Tech University. The deaths at Stoneman Douglas HS in Florida were the 180th mass shooting since 2009 and the third mass shooting in 2018. By Valentine’s Day in 2018, 17 school shootings had been reported, and in the week after, even more.
Schools now receive an average of 50 threats of violence daily, compared with 10 per day at the end of 2017, NPR reported. Since I began this blog in 2011, mass killings in public spaces have snuffed out the lives of 270 persons in grocery stores, church sanctuaries, schools, post offices, and restaurants. In seven years, an average of 38.6 individuals did not celebrate with cake and ice cream on their next circuit of the earth around the sun. I didn’t know any of these personally, but we may have lost the next Steve Jobs or the next Mother Theresa, or someone who would have fought happiness to their small corner of the world.
Some want to arm the schools, but what about the other places of mass shootings? Why not just ban the weapon which enables the taking of mass casualties? Or are the lives of grocery shoppers less valued than school children? Ask an orphan if a parent is valued. We don’t want to become an armed state in America, or at least I’m not for it. Perhaps the NRA wants this, for the gunmakers would boost their bottom lines. They make enough money off the rest of their product lines.
Some would say, opioids take MORE lives, as does tobacco use (1,300 deaths per day). These substances are legal and on the market we expect people to use them responsibly. They’re also addictive and controlled. The largest incidents are mostly since 2004 when the ban on semiautomatic weapons lapsed. These weapons, civilian equivalents to military type issue, are meant for mass killing, not for sport, hunting, or target shooting. Their high velocity ammunition doesn’t just pierce flesh, but obliterates it. Survival rates are slim and none.
I wonder if this moment in our nation’s life is our burning bush, our opportunity to hear the voice of God calling to us, and we rise up to set our people free from this pain and insanity.
“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt;
I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.
Indeed, I know their sufferings,
and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians,
and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land,
a land flowing with milk and honey…”
~~ Exodus 3:7-8a
When I was young, I thought I had to be Wonder Woman in order to please my parents. You know, the perfect daughter, the smartest child, the best artist, and the best behaved of all their progeny. After all, I was the first born and the only girl, so I’d had my parents’ undivided attention for those crucial early years. I thought if I worked hard, I could overcome any obstacle, and make any situation better, just by my force of will.
This is magical thinking, however. It works for comic book heroes who live in hard edge black and white moral worlds, but we live in the real world of fuzzy grays and complex moral choices. My family history of long marriages wasn’t going to extend to my generation, for I could no longer live with my alcoholic husband. I felt less like Wonder Woman and more like a failure. I told my mother I thought she and daddy always wanted me to be “perfect to earn their love.”
She looked dumbfounded at me, paused a moment and spoke, “Honey, we only wanted you to do your very best at all times. We knew you had more in you that you hadn’t tapped yet!”
This is the moment I forgave my parents for my Wonder Woman complex and learned to live with her. Not every person has had my parents. Some parents have no dreams for their children, so we must dream for them and encourage them to be superheroes in our classrooms, in our neighborhoods and wherever we meet them.
Other parents lack imagination. They see their children repeating their own lives as good enough. Yet, they too only want the best for their children so if they can only imagine their life repeated for them, we shouldn’t fault these parents for their lack of imagination. They never lived in our age or times, nor in our bodies or minds! We children can become the best we can be, for our world is far grander than theirs ever was! We won’t always live up to the expectations of our parents or the plans they imagined for us, but we will be superheroes anyway.
My daddy once told me I was learning in high school chemistry what he studied in college chemistry classes. This is why your six year old nephew or niece can work your smart phone faster than you can! The world’s knowledge explodes now, doubling every year, but with the internet it will soon double every 12 HOURS!
We won’t need to learn all this information, or keep it stored in our minds, but we will need to know how to access it. Asking the best questions, knowing what is necessary, and the sense of discernment to winnow the good from the chaff will be what separates the best answers from the better, the good, and the ordinary ones.
My latest painting is a self portrait as “Wonder Woman during the Great American Eclipse.” I traveled to Kentucky to see this wonderful event at Land Between the Lakes. We can all be superheroes at every age and in every body shape. Just as the eclipse united all of America in the joy of celebrating a coast to coast mass experience provided by nature, we each have a divine image within us that unifies all of humanity as one, for we’re each made in the image of God. As the Jewish queen in scripture was reminded, “Who knows? Perhaps you have come to royal dignity for just such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14)
How we become the best persons is a matter of becoming a superhero or “coming to royal dignity for such a time as this!” We’ll always be fine tuning our spiritual lives, our education, and our professional achievements. Even when we retire, we’ll find engaging opportunities for service to others and self improvement both. Most likely our spiritual lives will deepen and our family and friendships will take on more importance. I hope you all seek your best life possible, beginning today.
Join me in being a Superhero! You can be a hero for someone who needs you today.
Joy and Peace, Cornelia
For some reason facebook decided that my 7 pages of art, cooking & spiritual formation seemed unconnected. They thought that my Page Manager App perhaps wasn’t really run by one person. How indeed, could one person have so many varied interests? How could they find all the ordinary aspects of this life relating to faith? Oh, I guess, only those who grew up reading that one good book and hearing the stories of everyday life spoken in the ancient parables and metaphors of a distant age and land would understand how to translate this way of speaking into a modern language.
I guess our world today is too one dimensional and too targeted, or perhaps facebook has fallen victim to its own splicing & dicing. We too often only share that part of ourselves that we think others want to see, or we hide that part that we think is not approved by others.
We forget that our weakness is often the key to opening the pain of others so that can begin to heal, or that our struggles are what help others to have the courage to try one more time when the going gets tough. Our world is so sold on the outward appearance of success that the inner self can be falling apart at the seams.
This is why we go through the motions of life, but the fire no longer burns inside. This is why we acquire many things, but have no satisfaction in their holding. This is why we yearn sometimes to have only a small garden, or just a backpack, or to be in a deer stand alone to see the sun come up through the pines. We may make a living, but we may not be making a life.
Once we lived under one umbrella and sought to find one large tent or tree to shelter as many as we could, but now we each seek a tiny pup tent for each person’s own comfort and solace. How many of us have progressively cleaned our facebook friends until we find just those who vote like us, eat like us, think like us, and are like us?
Soon we will no longer feel the fire, no longer want to burn up in the flames of power, and we will be content to watch the Hunger Games on our TV sets. The young will burn and catch on fire and we will be content to pass commentary upon it.
I hope I never get that old. I plan to always be hungry at CORNIE’S KITCHEN, making art at ARTANDICON & CORNELIA DELEE & celebrating faith at ART AND SOUL FUMC HS, ARKANSAS SPIRITUAL FORMATION ACADEMY, & TRIBE OF DAN.
As I am entering the outskirts of my city, I leave the local highway and climb onto the bypass that loops around the south side of town. I wouldn’t dare climb this route in a winter storm, but on one of our interim false spring days, I can negotiate the incline and curves without fear. On one of my journeys home, I arrived as usual near sunset, so I was driving into the setting sun. The light was falling between the low mountains with a flooding glow that didn’t seem to come from the sun, but from a holy presence.
Since I was driving sixty miles an hour on a two lane, one way elevated road, I did not whip out an Instagram memory. Instead, I committed this to my mind’s memory and sketched it out when I got home on the first piece of paper I found, which happened to be a magazine page I had ripped out and put into my purse. Then I unloaded the car and went inside to my home.
Where are the people? Where are the distinctive landscape markings? I didn’t make these on purpose so that this road can be everywhere for everyone. We each have our own personal wilderness in which we wander before we can come home. We can’t come home as long as we are just in this world, but we can come home when we realize that we are walking with God in God’s world. The problems that keep us from having good relationships with our family, our friends, our neighbors, and our god will be healed when we realize that God has already prepared the highway for us on which we are to travel homeward:
“A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
No lion shall be there,
nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;
they shall not be found there,
but the redeemed shall walk there.
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” –Isaiah 35:8-10
One day we will climb up the entry to this bypass, the light will strike us as truly different from all other days we have been in this place, and if we are aware of God’s speaking to us in his world, we will hear his voice calling us home. The burdens will lift from our shoulders and the tears will dry from our eyes. Songs of joy will burst unbound from our hearts and our feet will leap and dance with gladness.
My usual walking route takes me from the local YMCA around the Mercy Hospital and Physicians Buildings until I make the mile and a half loop back to the gym. I take this walk on the days it’s not too hot or humid to be exercising outside, for I like the transition of the landscape against the sky, the changing shapes of the buildings as I walk past, and the patterns that the occasional breeze makes in the tall grasses of the ditches beside the access road that is my outdoor track.
This summer has been a blessing, for our usual 100 degree days didn’t appear. While we did have “heat factor 100 degree and then some” days, our early mornings were still bearable in the outdoors. It was on such a walk as this that I found this beautiful butterfly. Usually they are fluttering about with vigor on whatever imperceptible currents of overheated air that we call late summer in Arkansas, but this one was lying on the asphalt, no longer going about its appointed rounds. It had joined the cast off cigarette packages, the empty 5Hour Energy bottle, the smashed turtle and the carcass of the bird that marked the stages of my journey.
Gently I took it from the ground. This could not be its final resting place, for something so beautiful needed to be remembered and to be celebrated. I carried it with me as I thought of our great cities and their historic beauty. We tend to tear down our old architecture and put up new in its place with great abandon, yet we pay dearly to go to Europe and Asia to see ancient cities. I live in a 1960’s era high rise condominium on a lake that is near a bridge where bats live. Because some of these endangered species have made a nuisance by nesting in a few of the condos’ decorative cinderblock patios, our board proposed covering all these balconies with painted sheet metal. We live in the oldest and tallest solely residential building in Arkansas. We are a cultural and architectural icon. We wouldn’t want to look like a ten story trailer park!
Do we hold our traditional skills in honor any more? Are we willing to invest the time, effort, and sweat to fully develop our craft? Will we live below our means so that we can enrich the world with the products of our imagination and our spirit? Will we mentor anyone to follow in our footsteps, or will we be the last ones of our kind? Do we honor the living treasures or do we fawn over only the latest hot shot?
In this life, we may have many walks, along many paths. We can choose our direction, our companions, and our departure dates. We may think that we are self sufficient, but we are just butterflies in a moment of time, for in God’s “hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being” (Job 12:10).
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.” ~~ Revelation 22:1-2
I have never visited a more beautiful city than Venice, Italy, with her
ancient mansions on the canals, her grand piazza opening up to the lovely Basilica of San Marco’s domes, and her delightful bridges, museums, and churches. Most tourists who visit here love to feed the pigeons, while I think they are a public nuisance. Then these birds take flight heavenward and I’m inclined to think of angels’ wings and brushes of glory.
With all these earthly visual delights, my eye still is drawn heavenward to the sky, for the clouds and the atmospheric haze of Venice give this city a unique ambience. If a painter were to lay the colors of the South Italian sky upon the watery bogscape of Venice, the discord would be marked immediately. At dawn and twilight especially, travelers don’t need a GPS to recognize the location or even a town sign to mark their arrival, for the sky alone says, “Welcome to Venice, weary traveler! Rest your soul!”
Most of us are used to living on a city lot with trees and grass that is bounded by a concrete walkway, a grass “neutral ground,” and a street that separates us from a mirror image of our own property across that same road. Venetians live on canals in multistory buildings that double as homes and warehouses. The lower floors were for work, for the cargo hauling gondolas easily accessed these, while the upper floors were for the family retreat, since they were more private. Everything in Venice moves by some form of floating contraption, since the city was built on marshy land in the middle of a lagoon between several small islands.
Because there aren’t any motorcars, there is a different feeling to the city. On the larger canals, the big boats ferry people on the tourist routes and smaller motorboats act as taxis. The classic gondola with the human powered oarsman is a premium priced experience, much like a carriage ride in downtown Hot Springs or Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Travelling to the nooks and crannies of this jeweled city is by foot over one of the many bridges and side paths, so it is a sightseer’s paradise.
This slower travel allows a visitor to feel the rhythm of the place, to smell the air, to note the patina on the marble facings of the homes, the worn indentations on the entry steps of the ancient homes, and the variety of colors in the handmade bricks. Walking down the narrow corridor between the homes doesn’t prepare the visitor for the sudden opening into a larger space and the overwhelming, all enveloping softness of lush rose, moist yellow, and puffy crème that make up the clouds of a Venetian sky. Perhaps someone else sees only a cerulean blue sky and a titanium white cloud, but I know what I see. I visited this beautiful city only once, some forty years ago, and I still remember images from those blessed days.
As I think about this crystal clear memory from my past, I wonder how we see our own world today and how we envision the world that is to come. Many of us have a very negative view of this world: the problems, the people, and the pains are all overwhelming. We have divided our world into an “us vs. them” place: rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat, Developed world or Emerging world, Christian or Muslim, and the list of dualisms goes on and on. Even in the Bible, folks were divided, until Paul set them straight, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
We aren’t meant to separate ourselves from one another but to find a way to come closer to each other. “If only we were all Christians,” you say, “and everyone belonged to MY church/denomination.” I think that what Paul also means by “one in Christ Jesus” is that all human beings share the image of God, no matter what church they belong to, and no matter what God they call upon. No matter how different they look from you and me, they still hold the divine image and imprint within them. If we are to truly live out our call to be “the living image of God in the world,” just as Jesus Christ was the living image of God in the flesh as the Incarnated Son of God, then we have to take that incarnation in our lives and the recreation of this world seriously.
In the Celtic Tradition, heaven and earth are only three feet apart. The “thin places” where we feel the presence of God are even closer. What if God intended all creation to be a “thin place?” The Garden of Eden seemed to be such a spot, for Adam and Eve not only lived and cared for the land here, but they had daily walks with the LORD in the cool of the evening breezes (Genesis 2-3). Unfortunately, our spiritual forbears decided that equality with God was more desirable than companionship with God, so they lost their daily privilege of the presence (Gen 3:22-24). This is called “The Fall.”
Ever since this Fall, all of human kind has attempted to recover the intimate relationship with God and nature that we once had in the Garden. Today some focus only on their spiritual lives and separate their souls from their flesh. Both Christian and New Age groups will do this: we deny our body sleep, good nutrition, or healthy exercise. We also see it when a proponent of some “spiritual doctrine” proclaims that the body is unimportant, so that it can be treated either well or ill, or can be used by the cult leader for “higher purposes.” Or we claim that since our bodies don’t matter, we can use them for any purpose we want, for only our soul matters.
Since God created us with both a body and a soul (Gen 2:7), both must be valued by God. Moreover if God sent his Son into the womb of a teenage Virgin, so that he might be born fully human (both body and soul) and fully divine (still the Son, still part of the Holy Trinity), then God distinctly values the human body, both female and male. God sent his Son in human form to the earth, not just to redeem humanity, but to set all creation free (Rom 8:21).
When we spend time in a thin place, most often we are isolated and silent. Most of us need that time away from the hustle and bustle of life to settle our minds so we can hear or feel the presence of God. We need a “Garden of Eden” that is our place to meet God daily until we are able to meet him in the midst of the fallen world in which we live. How can we learn to feel the presence of God while we are within the “maddening crowd?”
I practice times of “tuning out” or letting my mind drift. Some call this daydreaming or a failure to stay on task. Creative people are task slaves until their idea has fully formed well enough to get them excited about working and then you can’t tear them away from their fever until they drop from exhaustion or realize they are about to overwork their piece. We know our own work habits, and it usually isn’t on anyone else’s time clock. The creative idea is their master, not the schedule, the calendar, or some outside influence.
I will be in the car at a red light and hear a voice in my inner mind prompting me to look up and photograph the sky. I do this for no particular reason, other than I feel impelled. It’s not an actual voice of a person; it’s more of an intuitive feeling that now is the time to take this photo. Perhaps I’m just bored, or I have better peripheral vision, or I need something to occupy my time so I don’t go silly waiting at the back of this long line. I think of these moments as “intersections of heaven and earth,” for these are windows in which our everyday world opens up into a world in which God is present and touches our world and our space and our time.
The painting which graces the headline is from a photo of the street outside of my condominium, beyond the small creek, looking over into the wooded lot beyond. The old asphalt road has become the River of Life, bright as crystal. There are many trees there and the golden sky tells us that we are in the presence of the glory of God. I go in and out of this gate every day, into a world in which God is ever creating and recreating. I have a much better attitude toward all the ugliness I see out there when I know it is passing away before my very eyes.
“A highway shall be there and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.”~~ Isaiah 35:8
All good things come to an end, but the ending is just the beginning of something new. This week a fifty year old jockey came out of retirement and rode Oxbow, a 15/1 long shot, into the winner’s circle at the Preakness: they beat the favorite and his mud covered jockey who finished fourth, out of the money. I have a dear friend who just turned 66 and is contemplating retirement after forty years in medicine: he wonders what he could have done if he had more time in his career or if he had more time in retirement. Thousands of graduates from all educational levels are celebrating with their families this end of their journey with a mixture of joy and sadness. Whether they are “kiddie kollege” grads or college graduates, there is a mixture of sadness in knowing that this shared journey with friends is over, and in a few days the classrooms will be empty as others come to take your place.
This is the way of all journeys, whether we are going for a weekend at the lake or for two weeks in the Footsteps of Paul on a pilgrimage. When I came home after being in two countries, seven hotels, multiple airports, a taxi ride by myself in Istanbul, and finally slept in my own bed within my own four walls, I woke up feeling sad that there wasn’t some new and compelling place to be that day. Already I wanted to see more of Greece, for I only tasted of her beauty and delights. I didn’t get to see the ancient sites of mythology or the northernmost cities that Paul visited. When I said goodbye to some of my travel companions that I enjoyed touring with, I knew that they were just seasonal friends, but one friend I have kept in touch with through Facebook. Sometimes this is the way life is, for we can’t manufacture friendships over a short period of time.
My first Sunday at home I was still on Istanbul time, so I woke at 2 AM (10 AM Istanbul time). This was “sleeping late” by their clock, but my eyes were wide open. Coffee in the kitchen, writing in my journal, a very early breakfast, meeting my newspaper man, and getting to church early for a change were on tap for today.
I did notice that I had a difficult time clapping in rhythm with the band, however, as if I were straddling different time zones or time travelling between the two places I had been and the place where I was now. My driving was also a tad impaired, for while I was able to navigate the highway, the glowing scenery distracted me. The landscape had an effervescent glow that I remember only one other time in my life, a radiance that it gave off as if God was touching all his creation and sanctifying it. I remember the land, the trees, the grass, and all living things giving off this glow for weeks after I visited the Holy Land. This didn’t transfer to the streets or to bridges or houses, but only to growing things. It is a holy moment, when one realizes that the journey that was once thought to be over is now just beginning.
When we get our diplomas, our gold watches, or our plaques for our faithful years of service, we think we have finished our course. When we cross the finish line or win first place, we think we have succeeded and can rest on our laurels. The journey isn’t over yet! We are not called to be a settled people. We are a nation that was called to move west, to improve the widget, to build a new land, and to send humanity to the moon. Now we have greater problems: within two generations, our great seacoast cities around the world may be inundated if the global warming folks are correct, over 7 ½ million people die of hunger every year around the world (http://www.statisticbrain.com/world-hunger-statistics/), and as our world becomes more urbanized, more will lack access to fresh water (w.globalresearch.ca/un-800-million-people-without-drinking-water/23843).
The ideas we are taught today won’t solve the problems of tomorrow, and we can’t wait until tomorrow to begin solving them! We have to become travelers and not settlers. Our education is just the passport to the next leg of our journey, and our first retirement annuity payment is merely the visa to the next country of destination on this great lifetime adventure we are about.
So how can we bring the Traveler’s experience to our daily lives? Travelers believe they are going someplace, that they have a destination in mind. If we don’t physically leave home, where are we going? I think it is the sense of a life well lived, or a life full of reasons to get up in the morning. We United Methodists have a saying from our founder, John Wesley: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” If this were your goal in life, each and every day can be an exciting day! We don’t know whom God will place into our path, but if we pass some helpless one by so that we can take care of our own important business, we will miss the opportunity to be a Neighbor like the Good Samaritan and detour from our daily routine to help someone in need (Luke 10”28-38).
Travelers expect the journey to be exciting and renewing. Daily life in the same old routine can get so predictable and humdrum. Our alarm goes off at the same hour and minute, we take the same rut to work, see the same old crowd at work, fight the same traffic snarl on the way home, and maybe even our home fires are barely flickering. We miss the old excitement and passion we once had in life! Where has our energy gone—sucked down a black hole into oblivion, washed down by one too many drinks or spoonfuls of ice ream?
How can we keep faith and fidelity while reigniting that spark of excitement we used to feel when we were first sharing our passion for one another? Sometimes we are just trading information with one another, rather than really sharing our lives and our hearts with the one we really care about. Taking a new course in an experiential class, learning a new skill or sport together, or reading a book together and sharing our lives/thoughts/hopes/dreams/mistakes/achievements/joys means that we are suddenly vulnerable to one another again, for we are both travelers in an “unknown country.” Now we have to depend on each other just as travellers do; we strengthen our bonds.
As travelers, we expect to return home changed by our experiences. Once you’ve been to Turkey, you’ve always been to Turkey. Even if you break your camera or lose the filmcard, you have your memories and your postcards and souvenirs. The experiences have transformed you. If they didn’t, then all you did was pay a lot of money to wander around a wonderful place to complain about how “it wasn’t like home.” Of course not! It’s Turkey!
We do this in our daily life when we fail to engage the promise and potential of the gift God offers to us with each new day. We say that each sunrise brings a new gift, “the present.” It may be a silly pun, but it’s also a truism. Some of us spend our daily gifts grieving about our yesterdays or yearning for them to come again. Yesterday is water under the bridge: we can’t bring it back and neither can we hold it here with us now.
Others of us miss the gift of the present because we are dreaming about our futures: things will be different when the kids leave the house, I will find someone to love me when I lose 40 pounds, or when the highway comes through this city will thrive again. The future we dream about may not come to fruition. Moreover we set ourselves up for unhappiness and failure to act in the present while we wait for this future chimera to appear.
The best way to live as a traveler in our daily lives is to realize that we are all on a journey to God, for we are all on a “Holy Way.” We think some folks are fools and won’t make it to the goal, but God is gracious and cares for fools even when the rest of us aren’t suffering them gladly. We aren’t assigned to be the tour guide for this journey, and we don’t assign seats according to status.
As a spiritual exercise, take a respite from your journey to make self-examination. Where are you on this journey, physically and spiritually? You may want to make a time line or a time circle. Another way is to journal your experience to date or journal about a particular special event on this journey. As on a real journey, your experience is your own and no one else’s. You feelings can’t be right or wrong: they just are. Give them to God.
“You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” ~~ Numbers 33:53
I overslept this morning, a behavior that seems more common lately. I did make to church yesterday. It was a grand day at Bristol-Baby! Even watching on TV, it had the makings of being there. Wrecks that took out the leaders, who would have expected that? Kyle winning, again. Joey Logano getting into a fight: the older he gets, the more his testosterone kicks in. Everyone will be glad to go to next week!
I am reading an ancient book THE ODD WOMAN, set in the early days of the women’s movement. In early industrial England, women of certain classes had limited choices: marriage, teaching, clerking, governess, or unwholesome occupations. The primary characters either ply these trades or have the economic means to live off the income of their estates. Two are out to change the world by teaching the shop girls how to type so they may move up a class and gain better working conditions.
Then last night I woke up several times with a very dry mouth. In between, I had several dreams, only one of which I even recall a fragment. As I slept, dogs and I spoke together as if we understood each other perfectly. Perhaps I need to write a book, DREAMING WITH DOGS!
As I made my morning ablutions, this verse popped into my mind, “You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” I had been thinking of exploring beyond my memoirs of Turkey and Greece, and what it means to be an explorer who never leaves home. How can one be both a settler and an explorer at the same time?
Settlers and explorers don’t share the same skill sets. Nor do they share the same callings. If they were sailors, settlers would hug the known shores, while explorers would follow a star until they discovered an unknown land. Explorers want to try the new restaurant in town, while settlers feel secure ordering from a known menu and eating a familiar repast. I suppose this is why when church people move, they look for a place that feels like home and a church that feels their home church. These are settlers. Explorers, however, lead them, for the clergy are always moving into a land “God has given us” by virtue of our appointments. I grew up in a big church, thought I was getting a small church experience in seminary, and learned that there are still even smaller churches out in the world! Culture shock is the sure sign of being out of your comfort zone, and a pointer that you travel not in the shallow waters anymore. John Wesley identified the explorer DNA of the Methodist clergy when he told them to be ready at a moment’s notice to “pray, preach, move or die.”
Agoraphobia–the fear of open spaces–affects nearly 1.8 million American adults (.8% of the population). Xenophobia–the fear of strangers– affects more of us, sometimes in subtle and unrecognized ways. The “other” is the one we fear because they aren’t like us. The tension this sets up between their settlement and our settlement constructs a “no man’s land” across which neither of us can transit. So we both lob bombs of hate, suspicion and denigration across into each other’s territory. US vs. THEM is our tribal rivalry, our devotions to our pack, and our adherences to our specific creeds.
The other race, immigrants, the poor, the rich, the educated, the ignorant, the churched, the unbelievers, and all other contrasts of our world, such as those that shop at Wal-Mart and those that wouldn’t be caught dead in the parking lot. All of these are “strangers who live in strange lands.”
Sometimes we artists, creative people, and persons of faith think we must leave home to find the new experience that will open the eye of our imagination and set our creative juices flowing. We believe that only by traveling can we find the novelty that will awaken our senses that have been jaded by the constant bombardment of repetition. What we fail to do is to be explorers at all times, even when we return to the same address and the same bed each night. I have a set of coffee mugs for DST and for CST. I get bored drinking from the same set all year round and begin to miss the spring colored ones. These then are too bright in the fall and winter, so I bring out the deep colors and snow scenes. Monet painted his backyard many times: think Water Lilies!
Sometimes I feel the need to rearrange my 768 square foot condominium: then again, I decide to rehang the artwork to give myself a fresh look on the walls. Buying a new rug in Turkey was my big redecorating project for a while. I will change the cover on my bed according to the season, just to keep the room fresh. I am thinking of redoing the valence in the bedroom. I could still add crown molding and baseboards to the rooms, but I won’t do that until I change the floor covering. These projects are all worthy, but they take away from true creative pursuits. They are just signs that I want to strike out in a new direction, but I am afraid to leave the shore.
“You shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given you the land to possess.” This word is for the explorers who yearn to be settlers also, for the Hebrews had been wandering for a long time in the wilderness when they heard this promise from God. For them, the land would be new, wonderful, exciting, full of surprises, and an explorer’s delight. Only later would they be a settled people, forgetting how God fed them daily in the wilderness, and instead trusting their own labor to wrest a crop from that land. They would forget as they sat at their looms patiently weaving that for 40 years in the wilderness, their clothes never wore out and their saddle leather never failed. As they became settled, they trusted themselves more and depended on God less.
The explorer, however, is always going into the unknown, so trusting God in all things is a highly developed characteristic. “It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not fail you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8). This is what the Hebrews were told crossing into the Promised Land, but within a generation they began to trust themselves and other gods. The explorers still trusted the same God who had been with them in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
“Where is my next meal coming from” is the same question as “from what source is my next creative idea or expression?” How can I make ends meet is a question both settlers and explorers ask. Settlers will tie themselves to a plot, whereas explorers will find a way to live off the land. The same God provides for them all. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6.26:). I think we would all be improved by trusting God a little more, by risking entry into the unknown land where God resides, and opening our hearts and minds to the other.
Perhaps that is why we travel, to discover amidst the uniqueness in others an essential humanity. I would be sad to think that some folks traveled hoping to discover the unusual, but yearned for only the familiarity of home, but then they would be settlers. People who travel looking for home, who spend time comparing their experience to home, and talk about how glad they will be when they get home have missed the joy of traveling! Why did they spend $4000 on a grand tour of the holy places when they could have stayed home and complained!? They may have just needed a change of scenery or the weather was poor at that time of year. I too can find a growl bear mood, but when this happens, I like to take my iPhone out and wander about to photograph the common scenes of my everyday life.
Taking photos that are interesting and might be useful for a painting requires me to pre-compose or imagine the image through the lens. Then I brighten and/or use one of the Instagram filters before I share it on Facebook or twitter. I will put the camera inside the flowering bush, lie down on the sidewalk to shoot upwards (just because I’m a granny doesn’t mean I can’t get up again!), or bend down to get eye to eye with a low subject. People’s photos often fail because they aren’t close enough, the light is from the wrong direction, the viewpoint is ordinary, and the subject or photo itself lacks contrast. In other words, they are safe, shore hugging pictures. Explore what your camera can do. Take it for a ride out on a big wave out beyond the breakers. Feel the exhilarating breeze upon your face as your bark rushes over the tops of waves that have yet to break! You are flying! This is art! This is fun! You can bring your ship home anytime you want, but you’ll never be the same again. You are now an EXPLORER.
This quote is often attributed to Mark Twain, but it hasn’t been found in any of his writings. It still speaks the truth to all of us:
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines, Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”(—attributed in error to Mark Twain, first found in H. Jackson Brown Jr.’s P. S. I Love You (Rutledge Hill Press, 1990). Brown’s book is a collection of quotes and maxims attributed to his mother.)
“The horse is made ready for the day of battle, but the victory belongs to the Lord.” ~~ Proverbs 21:31
As I journeyed with my group along the Silk Road on the fourth day of our pilgrimage, we saw the twin peaked volcano Mount Erciyes, on which St. George of Cappadocia was said to have slain the dragon. As we made our 400 miles across the sunlit fields with poplar trees into the tufted fairy mountain volcanic formations, I had several conversations about art and artists with my fellow travelers. We had visited the Firca Ceramic Factory in the morning. The artisans there explained their apprentice program and the process of training to become a master potter. Not everyone makes the cut, of course, but they can still be employed at the level of tradesman or tourist ware producer.
For people who have no concept of the time, effort, sensibility or spirit that is necessary to produce a great work of art, this “educational session” went right over their heads. Others had their “consciousness raised,” as we used to say back in the old days. This latter group happily gave a fair price for the extraordinary works of these artists’ hands. I myself brought home a small plate of colorful fish to remind me that I am always called to “fish and to catch the hearts, souls, minds, and bodies of others for the sake of Christ and his church” (Matt 4:19).
At lunch I visited with one of my new friends. She asked, “Why did it take Michelangelo so long to paint the Sistine Chapel?” Because it was fresco—fresh plaster. He could only work while the plaster was wet. Bodies with clothes and landscapes went quickly, but nudes and faces were painted more slowly. If we could get up close we could tell by the edges and lines how much he did in a sitting. “Oh. Everyone who saw the chapel on our tour was kind of bored with it all. Now I understand why it was so important.”
I realized it’s because not many of us make art anymore, just as most of us don’t can jams or jellies. We also don’t quilt, knit, crochet or embroider. We buy our clothes premade and our foods prepackaged. Cooking from “scratch” is a lost art. We don’t seem to want to dirty our hands any more with the creative process. Instead, we have lost the spirit that calls us to enter into battle with the raw materials. We are a people without faith that God is with us in these fights. It is as if we are afraid to risk losing the battle, so we do not enter the fray.
I have recently been teaching art to prekindergarten children. The first thing I had to teach their classroom teacher was that “failure in art is part of the process of learning how to succeed.” In other words, it’s not the finished product of polished perfection that we seek, but the child’s growth in using the tools correctly and their creative response to the imagination challenge of the day.
The second teaching principle was allowing the child to do his/her own work. Many of our parents have “taken over” doing for our children so they can have a good outcome. These children will have poor motor skills and will not be self-sufficient when they grow older. They will be less independent and less confident. However, they can master skills in art class that can give them a sense of self-esteem that comes from accomplishing a task, taking charge of their own work, and creating their own designs from their own fertile imaginations.
The third principle about art is joy, and I usually don’t have to teach this to the children. They love to play and the colors, materials, textures, and tools are great ways to explore the world in play. For adults, however, art is about the finished product from the get-go, so we worry that our idea will not come across on the canvas or paper. For the work to come alive, the artist must let go of that original idea and go with the image that begins to come to life on the canvas. Sticking with the old idea is like staying with the old battle plan when the lines of engagement begin to shift. We all know what happened to General Custer at Little Big Horn. The same death will happen to our creative product if we don’t pay attention to the new information coming t us from the front lines.
Likewise, in our lives, we don’t listen to the battles going on in our hearts, minds and bodies. Some might call this our conscience, or that voice that whispers “this isn’t right for you.” That other voice that whispers so sweetly, “but everyone else is doing it…” is like St. George’s dragon, or the personification of evil. Flip Wilson’s character Geraldine used to say, “The Devil made me do it!”
We can go along with the “demon voice” of “everyone else is doing it” and discover that our moral standards are at the lowest common denominator, and we make decisions not on any ultimate truths or standards, but on conditional and relative criteria. The ground is always shifting under us, like a mountain about to erupt. If we refuse to fight this particular dragon and “go along to get along,” then either our mental health or our physical health will begin to fail us. We may intellectually marshal the arguments of reason for our refusal to do battle against this insidious dragon, but like the fiery beasts of the old tales, they will surely begin to ravish the countryside. In this case, the country isn’t Cappadocia, but the heart and mind of the one who needs to gird the horse for battle.
Many of our modern illnesses are related to stress, which comes from having to reconcile two discordant tunes in one’s head. Only when we can fine that one tune to hear will we be both well and at peace. Another image is trying to “spot paint a wall that was painted too many years ago.” Putting fresh paint over dull color will make this one spot stick out like a sore thumb. One must paint the whole wall, and of course, the other three walls and the ceiling, for the rest will look too sad next to that freshly painted wall. The truth is we can’t just put a new piece of cloth on to an old garment; we must change out the whole thing. This is called a “make over” or a life style change, or the “new life in Christ.”
I myself have had a lifestyle change from the hectic, caring for the lives of others that is the life of a pastor to the new life of caring for myself in these years of being on incapacity leave. These past four years others from my old life have pushed me to be “more involved and to do more ministry with and for others” in the hope that I will be able to return one day to full or part-time ministerial service.
As I listen to my body, I realize that the stresses of these activities aren’t for me anymore. I can do them on an occasional basis, but not on a weekly basis, and definitely not on a daily basis. I am healthier when I am in the solitude of my studio writing and painting. I need the quiet to stay well and avoid the stress that brings on the seizures. Here I can reflect on the battles between good and evil, the struggles we all have to live the full Christian life.
We all do battle against the dragon. Some of us want to be at the heart of the action, to receive the affirmations of the people to be there for them and to touch their lives. We think if we can make a difference here, it will atone for our failures to make a difference somewhere else or in some one else. We will be at peace when we understand that while we may gird the horse and swing the sword, “the battle belongs to the LORD.”
As an artwork for spiritual reflection, find an icon of St. George and the Dragon. As you meditate upon it, write out the words of your particular “dragons.” These are the powers and principalities that you struggle against: pride, fear, self-doubt, worry, hopelessness, arrogance, anger, weakness, hate, etc. You can make the words of any size or shape. Embellish them with wings, give them an elongated tail, scales and an open gaping mouth. Now draw a large sword, gleaming brightly in the light of day. Upon this sword write the words of power that come from scripture: “The battle belongs to the LORD!”
Keep this image near you this week and draw strength from it: God is at your right hand!
For photo & info on the volcano at Mt. Erciyes: http://volcanocafe.wordpress.com/2012/03/29/cappadocia-upright-volcano-of-turkey/
For Illnesses related to Stress: http://www.webmd.com/balance/stress-management/features/10-fixable-stress-related-health-problems