Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.
Christ Overcomes the World
The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.
Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.
Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!
When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.
If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.
Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
“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
The river of God, flowing from the throne of God, with the tree of life bearing fruits in every month & leaves for the healing of the nations.
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.
Overheard: PT Barnum & the Rev. John Wesley on the Movie “Death by China”
Citizens of 1880 and 1760 usually don’t have the opportunity to visit over coffee, unless Dr. Who activates his telephone booth or we use the research tools available to us to bring their ideas together in the same space. “Free Books” can bring PT Barnum’s The Art of Money Getting or Golden Rules for Making Money and John Wesley can give us his thoughts on “The Use of Money” from his Standard Sermons. These we can bring together to share thoughts both secular and religious that open up the conversations we should be having with each other as we prepare for our Black Friday Shopping Marathons, for surely our merchants are eagerly awaiting our arrival.
PT Barnum was known for passing off a fake ancient giant skull because a rival group wouldn’t sell him the skull known as the “Cardiff Giant,” which was found in a dig in New York State. Barnum told the story that this other giant was the fake and his was authentic, causing the other owner to say the immortal words falsely attributed to PT Barnum: “A sucker is born every minute.” Unfortunately, the Cardiff Giant was an elaborate hoax, so the prophecy was unfortunately true.
This misquote, “A sucker is born every minute,” must have been designed for America when we signed the papers admitting China to the World Trade Organization, for 57,000 factories in America have shut down since China joined the WTO in 2001. These closed factories represent jobs that are no more, but they also represent other support facilities and businesses that supported those workers and factories: beauty and barber shops, bakeries, cafes, shoe shops, clothing shops, and other small businesses such as accounting and legal services, mechanics, and gas stations. All these begin to fold when a factory closes because the workers have no income to spread around. Every one manufacturing job supports a half dozen other jobs. Since 2001, America has lost 2.7 million jobs (Economic Policy Institute estimate), nearly 77% in manufacturing.
We believed a free market would operate in China and open trade would bring prosperity to all parties. Instead by 2012 we posted a $174.5 trillion trade deficit with China. Their low wages and standard of living, combined with their disregard of environmental hazards, pollution standards, labor standards, safe working conditions, and minimum wage laws meant that they could produce goods more cheaply than Americans could. There was no level playing field, so there was no free market. The cheap, addictive products made in China attracted Americans, who wanted to keep their standard of living at the same level.
These Americans had lost their living due to job and wage loss, and didn’t count the costly consequences of also buying from the hand that bit them (lost jobs, closed factories, lost manufacturing base in USA, outsourced economy.) These facts are brought forward in the movie, “Death by China,” by Peter Navarro (produced by Greg Autry).
We are buying these products on credit: one is the trade imbalance, and the other is the credit card debt people are carrying. Barnum refers to debt as “working for a dead horse” (p. 54), for it doesn’t earn money for anyone. He also said that even in 1880, “Americans as a nation are far too superficial, they are striving to get rich quickly, and do not generally do their business as substantially and thoroughly as they should” (p. 101).
Black Friday deals are made in China: Lead painted toys & jewelry, toxify me Elmo, Cheap electronics and home furnishings, and Shoes produced by prison labor. If Wal-Mart were a country, it would be the fourth largest trading partner of China. Americans will line up overnight to be the first inside the stores to claim these “bargains.” While we are there we might pick up some Tainted pet food, Toxic toothpaste with antifreeze or Fish/tilapia from China that is raised in a polluted stream. We’ll save a few pennies, but we’ll pay more in health costs in the long run. This is what Barnum calls “penny wise and pound foolish” (p.9). Those of us that have Wal-Mart stocks will celebrate when the sales on Black Friday bring the folks in, as our futures will seem to be more secure. But Barnum reminds us in his book, The Art of Money Getting, or Golden Rules for Making Money, “You cannot accumulate a fortune by taking the road that leads to poverty” (p. 18).
In Sermon 50, “The Use of Money,” John Wesley quotes scripture: “the love of money is the root of all evil” (1 Tim 6:10), but admits that money itself isn’t evil, for the fault lies in those that use it. He proposes several rules: “Gain all you can, Save all you can, Give all you can.” However, he qualifies “Gain all you can” in this manner, for some employments aren’t worth exchanging your life for them, and we have all been in jobs that suck either the life or health out of us. Wesley’s advice is to change our job even if it means less money. We also aren’t to engage in sinful activities to earn our wages or do work that causes us to lose our souls. We should gain all we can without hurting our neighbor: this includes not selling goods below market price, seeking ways to ruin the neighbors’ trade, or stealing away the neighbor’s employees. Also, we aren’t to gain by hurting our neighbors’ body, or by impairing the health of the neighbor (spirituous liquors in Wesley’s day, selling illegal drugs or tainted products today). As noted in the paragraph above, the Chinese don’t pass Wesley’s smell test in the Gain of Money.
Wesley’s second principle “Save all you can,” seems to apply to all of us bargain seekers, who should buy the least expensive item and not the most expensive choice. Instead, Wesley suggests that we reassess our lifestyles and not spend our money on idle expenses: things that merely gratify the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eye, or the pride of life. Most families in America have many more things than European families, and way more things than Asian or African families. We trash more things each year than others buy! Most of what we buy is for the adulation of others, and not for gathering praise from God. Wesley particularly advises his followers to avoid superfluous or expensive apparel or needless ornaments for self and the home.
Lastly, his admonition, “Give all you can,” is the purest test of our love of God and neighbor and the true assay of our hearts. Wesley takes the Biblical view that we are all stewards of God’s creation, for God owns all things that God created. First we provide for our needs, our family’s needs and then from the surplus, we are to “do good to them that are of the household of faith. If there is an over surplus, we are to do good unto all men.” For the good reverend, the test he used was “Can I offer up this expense as a sacrifice to God through Jesus Christ?”
Today some corporations are taking a new look at their use of money. Their leadership now understands that you have to give back to make more money and they are trying to change their shareholder’s understanding. As a result, Corporations made up 5% or $15 billion of US giving in 2010. Individuals accounted for 73% or $211 billion.[3
Black Friday is the day our local merchants will make their books turn from loss to profit. This is the day that determines if they survive into the New Year to spread their dollars around to the other small businesses in town and keep them alive also. Our corporations maximize short-term profits at the risk of long-term jobs. We value money over people, and we value now rather than tomorrow. Outsourcing our jobs is part of valuing the short-term profit over the long-term value of investments in people, research, development, and commitment to excellence that will make our country strong for generations to come. For instance, the US military uses aircraft “flying” technology that is made in China. We don’t make this in the USA anymore, just as we don’t make our computers, printers, smartphones, iPads, or any other technology. If we end up at war, this is very dangerous. We leave ourselves open to theft of our intellectual property, as well as theft of our national security property.
Manufacturing is the origin of Research and Development. When we outsource the manufacturing, we also farm out the activity of R&D. Our intellectual property is our inheritance. It is what we build upon for the future. We have sold it for a mess of pottage: a short-term profit to ease our hunger, but we will starve in the long run, for we have lost our blessing to another.
My Nannie used to say those that “bought cheap would live poor.” She meant that you get what you pay for: if you want a quality product, you have to pay for the quality worker. If you want a green and sustainable factory producing the item, you need to pay for the product. If you want workers treated humanely and given a living wage so that they can live in decent housing, you need to pay for it. If you decide that you are good with buying cheap because it suits your pocket book, look into the eyes of the neighbor who is joining the unemployment line. This sad and dejected person is the mirror looking back at you.
We have a choice, and our money will talk. We can put it where our mouth is! What are our ethics in buying? Do we use our money to support poor working conditions, low wages, and hazardous environmental conditions? Do we support our companies outsourcing our jobs and economic prosperity overseas? Buy American as often as possible: it’s better made, lasts longer, keeps our money at home, circulates the wealth in your community, and benefits your neighbors. Look for the designation “Made in America.” This means it was produced here at home. This is different from “Assembled in America” from foreign materials, or “assembled in X” from American materials. Only Made in America is 100% American. 
I want to thank Alliance Rubber Company for bringing “Death by China” to the Market Street Cinema in Little Rock for its Arkansas premier. Alliance Rubber Company is a Hot Springs company that is celebrating its 90th year in business. Ms. Bonnie Schawxie, the owner, is carrying on the tradition that her Family began back in Ohio. They are an American success story, celebrating Manufacturing Day and American Made by keeping American Workers producing quality products at a reasonable price.
“To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” ~~ 1 Corinthians 12:7
“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.” President Obama lit up the ratio and TV talk shows a while back with this statement because 60% of Americans believe that hard work brings success more than lucky breaks, inheritance, or connections (2012—What Americans Believe: American Values Survey by the Atlantic/Aspen Institute). Not even a prolonged and hobbling “recovery” that still seems like a recession to those of us used to fatter times seems to shake this idea that the virtue of individual hard work will prevail.
Yet I am noticing a culture change among athletes, especially those who play team sports, but even among those who are individual “players” but have a support team of coaches, trainers, nutritionists, equipment handlers, bus drivers and press people or agents. In these lean times, when sponsors are most appreciated and not taken for granted, the athletes are thanking them for their support, and not just for the financial gifts, but also for the emotional assistance a name brand brings to their effort. When they begin to look beyond themselves, they realize how many people give their time and energy to help make their individual achievement a success. This is a humbling moment for sure. Neil Armstrong, who passed away this week and was the first man to walk on the moon, said as he touched that alien soil, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind!” Yet he never took the sole credit for his efforts, for he knew he only went as part of a giant team representing a great nation that willed him forward by adding its corporate strength to the thousands of gallons of rocket fuel that powered his tiny capsule into the highest heavens.
Indeed, an athlete, an artist, a writer, an engineer, an astronaut, or a mechanic doesn’t get to the top of his or her field without dedicating their heart, mind, soul and body to the perfection of their craft. We each have a calling to our work, a desire to be the best or to give our best every day, and this attitude gets recognized by the masters of the generation before us. They share their knowledge with us, like Obiwan shared his with young Skywalker. If we are given to wisdom, we will remember our old masters and give them credit when we surpass them, for if we say, “I did it all by myself,” we are showing our two year old brain to the world.
The culture change of which I speak is the value of the community over the individual. When I was young, boys were expected to work and girls were expected to marry. It’s no wonder that 61% of Americans aged 65+believe our “free enterprise system contributes to America’s having stronger values than other places in the world.” Only 36% of our 18-29 year olds think this way, for freedom of speech ranks highest with them (64%) (2012—What Americans Believe, p. 15).
When older people say, “Kids don’t know how to put in a full day’s work anymore,” I wonder if we taught them the meaning of hard work or if we wanted to spare them the pain of our struggling. We no longer teach cursive writing in schools anymore because almost everyone uses the computer. I’ve noticed that some seven year olds can barely write their names legibly in print, so they aren’t teaching basic writing skills in schools either. When I came home with my puny first grade letters, I asked my mother how I could make them better. She said, show me how your teacher told you to make the letter. I said, “The form of b is a stick with a ball.” Yes, so got to your desk and fill a whole page of paper with b until you can make a good straight stick and a nice round ball. My mom knew that practice makes perfect and training my little hands was training me to have a work ethic.
In the same manner, when cursive came to town, I already knew my task. If I wanted pretty handwriting, I needed to fill my pages with theses newfound shapes until my hand automatically produced perfectly formed script. I was developing my small motor movements and my hand eye coordination both. I thrive on details, but I’m not good at yanking heavy weights up and down. We all have our callings!
When seven-year-old “Alberto” says he can’t write his name on his artwork, I look at him and say, now is the time to learn! What letter does Alberto start with? “B?” Al? Does Al sound like B? “A?” he says. Yes, so write A. Now what? “L?” Yes. And so on we go, sounding out his name letter by letter. I am sad that his parents and teachers and the many people in his community haven’t taken the time to make him successful in the one place that has real meaning: his unique name that identifies him. The struggle to learn and to achieve is something each of us must undergo if we want to be the best, for we will all hit a wall of defeat or failure to improve at some point in our lives. All learning involves a certain amount of failure, for we have to discover what we don’t know so that we can reteach/relearn that area. In this sense, learning is just a “going onto perfection” or a smoothing out of the imperfections/failures along the way to our destiny of greatness! We all need to use our gifts of hard work and our Spirits of courage to fail over and over until we succeed. For people like us, we will climb over, tunnel through, or redefine (Kobayashi Maru maneuver) all the obstacles in our paths.
We all would do well to understand what this scripture means: “To each is given the Spirit for the common good.” We each receive spiritual gifts from God, but not because we are hard working and have earned them. We each receive unique gifts from God, but not because we are already born into a spiritually wealthy family and therefore we too participate in our family’s blessings. God chooses freely to whom God will give the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues and the interpretations of tongues (vs. 8-10). These gifts aren’t for the purpose of an individual’s success (one doesn’t make a living by healing or divining the spirits), but the gifts are for the common good of the body of Christ, the church that gathers in his name. Some of the gifts are more exuberant and “flashy” so they brought more attention to the recipient, who began to claim more status and success in the body. However all these gifts are equal and all are useful. We need them all to succeed as a whole, so we need to not only credit one another, but also the give of all good things, our God who activates these gifts in us by his Holy Spirit.
As creative people, we have many people to whom we owe our lives. As I list mine, you should think about listing yours in your journal this week. My grandmother DeLee was a portrait and still life painter, so I wanted “to be an artist when I grew up.” I don’t remember my teacher’s name at the Shreveport Parks and Recreation Saturday Art Classes, but as soon as I could write my name in cursive, I could enter her class and learn the secrets of light and shared, color and value, and begin not only to draw but to paint in various media. I’m thankful for my parents who encouraged me and paid for my art lessons all those years. I give credit to my crazy college professors who pushed me and the agents who worked with me in the first stage of my art career. The twenty years I spent in ministry prepared me spiritually for the work I’m doing now: how many lives, deaths, joys and griefs are there in those 7,300 days? Words will not express these feelings, but the power of the visual image will unpack the potency of the unspoken cries of the heart.
As I think about a visual image to express this image of the community supporting the individual’s success and the individual’s gifts supporting the community, I think that if God’s light didn’t shine into the world long ago, we might still be looking for a savior. If the sun didn’t rise each day, we would know the beauty of God’s world. If we didn’t paint or draw this world as God gives us the gift to see it, then the world would be a duller place indeed. Bring to life with God’s gift to you, your vision of God’s light breaking into the world. This may be a sunrise or a sunset, or a scene with light and shadows. Share it with someone who has helped you along the way.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great price, he went and sold all he had and bought it.” ~~ Matthew 13:45-46
In the 1980’s, the price of oil dropped like a stone and the private school in Texas that depended on wealthy oil families had to cut staff to survive. Drama and art classes were cut, but they kept music because the football team needed a marching band. Since I was the art teacher, I was out of luck. I had hoped to catch on in the public schools, but without a full certificate, I wasn’t hired. All the other certified teachers had seen the writing on the wall and took those jobs that usually went begging because the economy was going downhill. With a master’s degree, I was over qualified for most of the jobs I applied for, until I hit the sales profession. There they don’t care about your education, only your ability to sell.
My first quarter selling insurance for the Prudential was on a draw since I was a “captive agent employee.” All my commissions from the first quarter would go into a bucket for the second quarter and I would be paid weekly from my own sales in the next pay period. The first quarter Prudential was willing to pay me as an investment as they trained me. I figured I had a thirteen-week guaranteed paycheck and one quarter to prove I could sell. I would either make enough to stick around or I would be looking for another job! I was like a merchant in search of fine pearls, or a dog hot on the scent of her prey. I was focused on finding people with needs that could be met by the products my company provided.
After that first quarter, I was making three times as much as I had when I was teaching school. I went out to celebrate, not at a bar, but to the finest jeweler in San Antonio, and spent an entire week’s salary on a matched set of large natural Baroque pearls with gold stems worth around $600 (1987 value). I checked eBay today: I could buy some that looked like them with silver stems for less than $10 and get free shipping from Hong Kong, but then, what do I know about that seller? These are my “pearls of great price.”
A week’s salary isn’t quite the same as “selling all one has,” and maybe that’s why most of us never quite lay hold of a pearl of great price. We aren’t willing to give all we have for this one really great possession. I met a man last year that was starting up an organic farm near Jessieville. He retired early and sold all that he had. He bought his land, house and farm equipment: his new life was beginning at age 60. This farm for him is his “pearl of great price.” It’s not only his retirement plan, but also the place where he hopes his spirit will be centered. Even if the farm isn’t financially viable, he will still live in a beautiful place that is paid for.
My “pearl of great price” at one time was to be a famous artist, but I soon discovered that I wasn’t willing to give up “all that I possessed.” I didn’t want to move to a large art center, live in a tiny apartment or a cheap warehouse loft, or deal with the lifestyle of my artist friends. I wanted a husband, a child, and time and space in which to create my art. I wanted a “pearl of greater price”—a full life with relationships that extended beyond my career and into the next generation.
All of these “pearls of great price” are just pretty baubles, penultimate pearls, as it were. None are the true pearls for which we are truly called to give up all that we have so that we may possess and own for ourselves this one desirable object. Jesus, the Son of God, already owns all things, since all things were created through him (John 1:3), so when he gave his life that we might live, he is selling all that he has for us, his “pearls of great price.” We are God’s “treasured possession out of all the peoples” (Exodus 19:5). Jesus took the ultimate risk: he trusted God completely and he believed that God could and would raise him from the dead and give him the name above all names (Philippians 2:9). We take the same risk when we put our faith in Christ and trust in his life, death, and resurrection for the salvation of our lives.
This is why the spiritual life is filled with phrases like “Leap of Faith” and “Let Go & Let God.” To search for the pearl of great price requires active intent and the risk of not finding, but God is faithful. “When you search for me, you will find me, if you seek me with your whole heart” (Jeremiah 29:13)
What is your pearl of great price? Is it your family, your job, or your security? Maybe you have had a spell of bad health, and now the pearl you would give anything for is to find wellness again. I knew one woman who more than anything wanted to shed tears, for she had lost the ability to cry because she was so depressed. Give your pearl to Christ in your daily journal or prayer time during the week ahead. Know that you are God’s treasured possession. Feel his love filling you and giving you strength for the road ahead.
As a creative exercise, seek out the beauty of your treasure box/jewelry box. You may have a stamp collection or coin collection that is valuable. Some folks collect other items that have value. Do you hide this, or is it out where you can enjoy it? If it is locked up, consider having at least one item appraised & insured on your homeowner’s policy (inland marine/fine arts/silver rider) so that you can have it out to enjoy it and appreciate it. If we have to hide beauty, is it still beautiful if it cannot be seen? These hidden objects should be donated to a museum that can display and protect them properly, so that all can enjoy their beauty. These “pearls of great price” deserve to be appreciated and enjoyed!
“If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”~~ Matthew 19:21
I didn’t hit it big last Friday, but then I didn’t go buy the golden ticket. In fact, I bought no ticket at all. I didn’t participate in the mega-normus Mega Millions Lottery with the $656 million pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. I didn’t join the lines stretching out the door and down the block waiting for the opportunity to mark the little circles of hope and dreams. The last time I waited in a line that long, I was in Berryville, Arkansas, waiting for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger” to open at the local theater where they showed photos of the local folks, sites, and events before the movie started.
Only three people in this country hit the mother load, the jackpot, and they may or may not show up for work on Monday. When they stood in line on Friday, they may have dreamed of what they would do with the money they might win. If nothing else, it would make the time go quicker, as some of those lines were stretching quite a few blocks! They may have been dreaming of “my salad days” when their ship comes in, when they can tell the boss to take this job and shove it. or they may be thinking of paying off debts and helping others. We do know that $1.5 billion dollars was spent by 1/3 of the American public who took a chance, even though the odds were 1/176 million.
A quick Internet search turned up what we could have bought as a nation for this $1.5 billion ($5/person who bought tickets).
Gasoline—685,000 tanks of gas for these households
Health care for one year—462,000 American families
One week unemployment benefits—40% of 12.8 million American unemployed
Someone came to Jesus and asked, “Tell me what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” Jesus told him to keep the commandments, because for a Jew to be in a right relationship with God, right behavior was necessary. The man wanted to know which commandments were the important ones to keep. Jesus began to list the Decalogue, or the Ten Commandments, which were given by God to Moses at Sinai.
When he said, “I’ve kept these all my life,” he cut Jesus off before he could name the one law that he couldn’t keep: “Do not covet anything belonging to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17). He asked, “What do I still lack?” So Jesus answered his question with a challenge, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me” (21). This man went away from Jesus sad, because he had many possessions.
Whether he had few or many, the real problem is his possessions “owned him” and he couldn’t part with them. As appealing as the hope of eternal life, treasure in heaven, or perfection/completion in Christ is, the siren call of his stuff was greater still. He never gets to the “come, follow me” point in his life because he has to answer the call of his possessions that say “stay, remain with us.”
This is one of the hard teachings of our creative and spiritual lives. As long as we chase the Dream of the Pie in the Sky and Something for nothing, we are chasing a Chimera of Temptation. If we want to be perfect, or “complete,” we must give away all we have and follow the higher calling. Some folks find a way to do that concretely, as those who enter the religious orders in the Catholic Faith.
The Protestant clergy and all Christian laity have a different calling. We recognize that our possessions don’t belong to us in the first place, but are a loan from God. We are merely stewards of all things, for God is the ultimate owner. Once we accept that we are managers of our Master’s estate, we are thankful that we are entrusted with a share to supervise. Then our possessions no longer own us, for we no longer own them! We render our accounting back to the Master, and make faithful use of them for his good and his purposes, and not just for our own good. We have the incentive to use money appropriately and not squander it gambling, on drugs, or wasting precious resources. We are thankful for what we have and share with others to help the hungry, the homeless, the hopeless, and other missions of our faith community.
Amazing isn’t it, what happens what happens when you give up ownership of your many possessions? In fact if everyone in America, not just the one third of us that bought a ticket last week, would chunk in just $5, we could feed nearly one million households for a year!!
A similar sea change happens to the creative artist when he or she gives up chasing perfection itself. The great Apelles said of another Greek Classical artist, “He was a great Master, but he often spoiled his pieces by endeavoring to make them perfect; he did not know when he had done well; a man may do too much as well as too little; and he is truly skillful, who knew what was sufficient.” (The Mind of the Artist, Binyon, 1909, p.159-160).
I have watched many beginning artists and amateur painters work an area of their canvas over and over until it is quite dead. The worst mistake is working into wet paint, rather than letting the area dry first. Then everything turns into a mush of grey. Or they spend so much time on the details of one area they fail to keep that section in balance and harmony with the rest of the canvas, so it sticks out like a sore thumb.
The solution to this is to paint over the whole canvas so that the “whole” is always in mind. First sketch the scene lightly to be sure it fits on your surface, then begin to lay in the colors over the whole canvas. Keep the balance of light and dark, warm and cool in harmony as you work. When a color appears in the foreground, it needs to appear in the middle and back layers also, even if it is muted or tinted, for the eye will carry itself through the painting this way and help establish depth on the two dimensional surface.
In my own life I sometimes “overwork” an area aiming for perfection or completion, especially in work or relationships. I think if I just see more people, help more people, pray more, teach more, serve more, do more, say yes more, never say no to anyone, I will be responsible for (the first perfect church ever/best sales staff/perfect family/no child left behind/etc). Then I realize that the disciples who were walking with Jesus, who saw the many miracles, saw him die on a cross, saw him raised from the dead and touched his resurrected body weren’t able to bring a perfect church into being in their lifetimes. So I have to give up my “perfection fantasy” and come back to my post Mega Million Meltdown reality. I settle for doing my best, and let God do the rest. He will bless my best, if only I have given my all.
This week, find evidence of hunger. Jesus fed 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. What could you do with $5? A gift to the Arkansas Food Bank makes this $5 multiply into more and feeds many hungry Arkansans. Share this message with your friends, and share your “bread” with the hungry. Write a poem or blog about your experience. Make a collage (cut out images) of the faces of hunger. Add hunger to your prayers. Joy and Peace, Cornelia
This is a strange & dark veil of bamboo and vines that I found in Garvan Woodland Gardens in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Looking into the sun, the image was backlighted, so it seemed to be a fence guarding against my entry.
I thought about the fences that keep me from progressing in my spiritual and artistic life: some of them are barricades of my own making. I seek perfection, but if I were to seek the good first, the perfect would eventually follow. Because I seek the perfect, sometimes I don’t even reach the good! It’s crazy of course, but that is what happens when one tries too hard.
I belong to a Facebook prayer group. One of the members is overwrought because they are exhausted from trying to wrangle, cajole, force, convince or otherwise browbeat a member of the family into a better behavior that will indeed save their life. No doubt quitting the alcoholic lifestyle would save that person’s life and maybe someone else’s life. However, no amount of logic or emotion will make an addict change until they are good and ready. When they lose all they have ever trusted in and all their support systems are gone, then they might change. Or maybe not. It’s not up to us. This member is so worn out that she wanted strength to keep going. I wrote, “when sawing gets hard, stop and sharpen saw.”
At some point in our spiritual and creative lives, we need to stop and sharpen our saws. We can’t keep pouring out all things for others and expect to have any creative energies left. We need to be filled up again. The best life is to be constantly filled, spilled, and refilled.
I was reading an article today on http://www.alternet about the 40 hour work week and the 8-8-8 plan (hours for work, sleep, and enjoyment). After 40 hours, workers begin to react as if they are tipsy with alcohol as their reaction time and production begins to lag. Their production goes down with each additional 10 hours added to the work week. Even more interesting was the fact that the loss of even one hour of sleep each night had the same effect as adding an extra 10 hours of work to the week! For folks that labored with their minds, it was even worse!
In this world today, folks are so happy to be employed, they are willing to work any amount of hours to keep a job, but they aren’t happy and they aren’t healthy emotionally or physically. They also aren’t very productive either. We could probably put a few more folks to work, cut the work week back, decrease the cost of our health care (the cost is claims based, so fewer claims based on illness is a lower premium), and get this country moving again!
But no one listens to me, I’m just an artist with a spiritual heart who has been crying in the wilderness for a long time! I cried in the 60’s for peace and civil rights, I cried in the 70’s for women’s equality, I cried in the 80’s for an opportunity to lead where my heart went, I cried in the 90’s for the liberation of the human soul, and I’m still crying today for the whole person to become wholly human and wholly holy. At least today I understand that the forces of evil may try to hold us prisoner, but God in Christ has defeated them! These chains cannot hold us, and neither can the chains of sin and death.
Therefore, perfection no longer holds us. Instead, we work for the good of all (Gal 6:10). As a creative project, you might want to photograph fences you see on your walks or travels this week. We all travel the same routes to the store, to work, to our favorite haunts. Our cars can drive themselves automatically, or we can sleep on the subway or bus and know when our stop is about to come up. Seeing our environment anew is always good practice. Take photos with the cell phone or a single use camera. Note the “fences” and “barricades” in your environment. They may be a keep out sign, a locked gate, a decorative wall, a privacy fence, or a japanese decorative screen between the sleeping and living areas of a small apartment. What fences are around your heart and soul? Give these over to God in prayer. Joy and Peace, Cornelia