Category Archives: Contemplation

Back in the Studio

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“Morning has Broken”  iPhone Photo DS

It has been a long winter and spring. Snow, snow, snow and cold, it is so unlike Vancouver. Survival mode had kicked in and chores, errands, duties, and disciplined study had taken over. Painting had been only cerebral. Images sometimes came and went unheeded. Planning for shows has absorbed me all spring. I determined to spend more than a few minutes in the studio this sunny day.

A leisurely breakfast with my loved one, a slow shower, then some e-mails were read. When I had completed my ablutions, I found my painting clothes in the bottom of the closet. In them I felt free. In their messiness I was a worker – a worker bee (my name Deborah means honeybee). Yes, I am ready for MY work, the work that is me.

This would be a contemplative day – albeit more on the ‘labora’ side of ‘ora and labora’ (pray and work) of the ancient monks. It had been so long since I had touched a couple of unfinished paintings I prayed specifically that God would help me. I did not want to deconstruct what I had built up so far.

A step outside into the fresh fragrant morning, I breathed, as if I was now truly alive. Rhododendrons bloomed red, hot pink, fuchsia, purple. The studio unlocked, I searched for pots of paint in the colours I had envisioned. One was dried up but the lids unscrewed easily enough. I noticed a small hole in the screen window with the mountain view.

I knocked over a red Folger’s coffee can of brushes from high on my shelf. They fell on and behind a stack of completed paintings. This is how I get my exercise today.

The studio used to be a hot tub building. It has plumbing but not a sink. The hose is right outside the door, so convenient for me to fill a water bucket.

The bucket reminds me of my childhood. When I visited my grandmother in N. B. water was pulled up by a metal bucket from a well. This ancient practice is added to the painting history back as far as the caves. Like a monk, I gather water, paints, and pray. This day I feel grounded and most like myself. I am truly me when I paint, the one I was made to be before I was born. Today I paint the telegraph cross that has lain dormant in my imagination for years.  I do not wonder at all if it will sell.

“The Future of Christianity” by Alister E. McGrath

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What a good book! On April 8th while attending The North Shore Writers’ Festival luncheon circle with authors, I noticed a display of books near the door to the room. It was the week before Easter and there was an eclectic display of Christian books on various topics. I signed out “The Future of Christianity” by Alister E. McGrath.

I knew of the trusted Prof. McGrath from Oxford University through my years of part-time study at Regent College, UBC. A couple of weeks later as I started reading the book I was hooked by his bringing together of historical and political facts as precursor to the current unsettled condition of the Western church. My curiosity was piqued to read his take on the ways the church is changing and how to position myself to accept reasonable adjustments in the way we do church going into the future.

This is not a review or a summary. Upfront I want to say, I cannot do this book justice, but will only highlight a few things for readers to be encouraged in the way forward. As St. Benedict said, we are always beginners. There is much to know. This is the main thing I learned at seminary. The Gospel remains the same but the Christian in the world changes over time and culture.

So one thing is for sure, in order to understand the way forward, we need to know where we have come from and where we are right now. Dr. McGrath is particularly effective in pulling together the big picture of the church in culture and defining the essence of where the church is now across the globe. The following is a remnant of what can be feasted on in this book written for scholars and not.

There is much history of how things with Christianity in all its forms got the way it is today. One thing I noted was of McGrath’s explanation of a major factor affecting the church during WWII was in Hitler presenting his ideas to the church as a renewing of German culture. Sadly, and a warning for us, is that eventually the church became so much like the culture that it could not critique it with the noted exceptions of writers Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

After the shock of the wars, there was a spiritual vacuum, leading to the ‘Death of God’ movement in the 1960’s and other factors. Many thought that Christianity would be no more: “This surge of enthusiasm often led to the suspension of any critical faculties… The sweeping aside of traditional morality was seen as purely liberating at the time. It was fun to be able to sleep with whoever you liked and do whatever you pleased. It all seemed so innocent. The darker side of things was there to be seen… the truth could not be suppressed forever… decriminalization of paedophilia.” One can easily fill in the blanks of the long ranging effects of this movement in Paris. A long litany of historical events, large and small, illustrates the results of the: “rupture of the centuries-long cycle of intergenerational transmission of the Christian faith.”

Even some uncritical theologians abandoned the faith and former Christians “thinking Christianity had nothing to offer in relation to the supernatural of mysterious” were attracted to New Age practices. Add to this the fact that the “Enlightenment lost any remaining credibility” with its “demand that everything should be neatly ordered, rational, and logical” and you have the perfect storm that led to Postmodernism.

Christianity has now been commodified and marketed as a spiritual product: “A successful church was now seen as a church that grew” so that “Western churches outreach” was seen as the “McDonaldization of Christianity.” “Efficiency, calculability, predictability and control” now informed the model. Yet there remains: “a longing for spiritual authenticity.”

In my oversimplified and truncated picture of events there is seen the result that Christianity remains the largest religion in the world. As it cooled in North America and Europe, faith has spread like wildfire in Asia, Africa, and Latin America – so much so that they send missionaries now to re-invigorate personal faith in the West. It is a grand story and McGrath tells it well. Much of his forth-telling of possible future trends is unfolding now – a full 15 years after his book was written. Of note are his descriptions of how each strand of Christianity can continue to right itself to face a drastically changing world with the unchanging Gospel told and lived in both new and ancient ways.

There is a move toward forming Christ-centred community churches that care for the people around them over churches that do not attract by their denominational differences and doctrinal squabbles. The Bible is paraphrased informally to include the unchurched. McGrath relays the thought that rather than more academic theologians, what the world needs now, is a movement of amateur theologians: novelists like C.S. Lewis and Dorothy L. Sayers etc. He says that some of the American megachurches are becoming like the “medieval monasteries plant[ing] smaller monasteries in outlying regions, resourced by the mother house until they were deemed strong enough to be self-sufficient.” He states: “The future of Christianity will be deeply shaped by this major new trend.”

Enough said. Actually, God is very much alive. There is the necessity though that churches get with the program that God has. What is the Spirit saying to confused churches in this so-called post-Christian cultural mash-up? Jesus came that we might have abundant life. He also turned culture upside down – especially for and by God’s people. Isn’t confusion one of the precursors of change?

Painting Pink Trees

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“Pink Trees, UBC” iPhone Photo DS 2017

Dreams of pink flutterings suffuse my night. Are we sleeping under a pink tree? Is the bed covered in petals?

After writing an early morning blog post a memory surfaced. It is part of my birth story. I was a long awaited child. I was born when the apple trees were in full bloom, my mother would often say. So, here’s the thing: the more often we seek God, the more often we come to know something about ourselves.

So what is all the excitement about this month? Easter, of course – nothing can top that. Jesus’ resurrection is the basis for the Christian faith – our daily life. It is the foundation of our love – that he first loved us. He is our Source, our Sustainer, and our Goal in life.

One of God’s gifts that particularly excites my artist’s heart is the abundance of pink-petaled trees around town. When I first moved to Vancouver from Toronto there were things about this place that overwhelmed me with their beauty: the mountains, the trees, the ocean – and the pink trees (originally gifts from Japan I hear).

When I walk the streets in the sun, my eyes are filled with pinkness. Shear happiness fills my senses. One year and each subsequent year I thought of heaven and the streets of gold written about there. And I thought to myself that this day, on this street, in this rain, with pink petals flowing into the gutters, that God’s gift in the Spring of Vancouver is streets not lined with gold but with pink – a taste of heaven, yes. Again this year, I want to say thank you, your gift is much appreciated. Your love for us knows no bounds, in depth, height or care. Are these our modern day lilies of the field?

I have painted pink trees in VanDusen Gardens and cleaned my brushes on the snow. (Should I admit that?) Years have passed but I can still feel the shivering cold, the sunny warmth, the delight of choosing alternate lime and ochre colours for the trees. I see the blobs of various pinks as they come from my brush and the way snow accepts paint. I see the squareness of my canvases. The bird-filled silence comes back to me. I taste the water, the cheese sandwich, the apple I consume with painted hands. I remember the long contented walk back to my car, seeing the paintings complete in the studio and the joy of their donation. This I realize is God’s gift to me: painting. When I am in the flow, my life becomes a prayer and I feel most myself.

My thoughts are filled this week with the spectacle of there being a pink blanketed picnic in the park and fuchsia lit trees at night. I wish I could go. My schedule is tight. I will make do with viewing photos on the Vancouver Cherry Blossom Festival website. I will walk my own streets, take iPhone photos, and worship.

 

Easter Prayer

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“Good Friday Morning” DS 2017

As we stop to appreciate Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross for us, we can also take the time to look at darkness – the blue darkness in our own lives. I do not necessarily mean sin. I take stock. I struggle. I want to recognize where I have been a good and faithful servant in enduring difficult situations – or not.

Sometimes I think of that saying, no good deed goes unpunished, as a way to laugh when there is opposition to our leadership. I think of times when our children take the road that we do not recommend. Like walking through mud uphill our attempts at friendship fail. The mere expressing of our opinions causes offence. Our apology brings no bridge. The way we live brings oppositions – yes, those times when we are just minding our own business and others resent us, try to trip us, do not value our efforts. When we ourselves slip, hurt others or become our own worst enemies, we can look at those areas of darkness.

But let us examine those areas as shadows, shadows of beings and doings that the light illumines. There must be light in our lives for the shadows to be seen. We go forward tomorrow in the day in between Friday and Sunday, not dwelling in the darkness but seeing the shadows, appreciating our own sacrifices and stumblings, for what they are.

So we follow Jesus not only on the Via Dolorosa some days, but meet him powerfully in the garden resurrections of our lives, as well as around the campfire where he has cooked the seafood, the writing in the sand that frees us, and the inviting of him to our houses both to speak and to wipe his perfumed feet.

In his name we offer a cup of water. If that is all we are asked to do, it is enough. For now we rest. Everything is an incarnation, a cross gift, a knowing that he ever intercedes for us at the right hand of the father. He asks to live in us by the Spirit to be salt and yes, light, shadowed light, to the world around us. I want to soak my shadows with Presence, his essence colouring mine. This is my Easter prayer.

Eating Caesar Salad at Nitobe Garden

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“Nitobe Memorial Garden”  DS, iPhone Photo, April 2017

So I am a colourist. There’s no doubt about it. I like colour. Today I am surrounded by greens; layers and layers and shapes of greens at Nitobe, an Asian garden on the UBC campus.

Huddled in my knitted forest green scarf with clear and emerald hand-tied beads and navy hooded coat, I sit to rest. The planked bench is dry. I take the Caesar Salad container out of my grey felted bag and eat.  The lemon wakes me. I swish around the breadcrumbs in my mouth with water from a green gingham lidded jam jar I carry with me often since art school days.

Students crunch by walking on the path. They overwhelm my quiet peace for a while with their heated discussion. Photographers set up tripods in a couple of places in the distance; a waterfall rushes, bringing movement to the still water under the arced wooden bridge. In this day, when the rain has taken a break and the sunshine has not started, the greens clear the palette of my painter’s mind for the paint box of colour that will show up in this late arriving spring.

I breathe

I offer a prayer of thanks

I stop to write in the gazebo

Moss lichen bark

Tiny patterned ferns

Marsh green shoots

Yellow polka dot buds

On bushes

Small verdant mounds

Fill my eyes

The seagull

Calls to the rasp

Of the gardener’s rake

Wind on my face

I look forward with courage again. I continue on the grey pebble path accompanied by the unseen sfumato of soon coming Valley Lilies.

Drops begin to fall but the exit is in sight.

 

“Be still and know that I am God.”

Book of Psalms

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The Spiritual Discipline of Letting Go

A lecture on ‘letting go’ had me riveted to the hard pew on Sunday morning. As my eyes glanced across the familiar tangerine and teal stained glass windows, my thoughts reviewed my inner life.   Purging has been a lifelong practice for me but has never caught up with my ability to acquire, to accumulate, to pile up possessions or offenses. Yet again I realize I need to weed out the garden of my heart. Some dandelions that seemed useful perhaps for tea drinking have actually become entrenched in my mossy green lawn. Their roots have strangled my grass and some of my reasoning about words and deeds I have heard and observed.

Some of my formative years were spent in my grandmother’s house in Scotland. Every spring and autumn what we called ‘McGuinty’s closet’ would get some spring-cleaning attention. This walk-in closet held layers of belongings decades old. Only the things close to the door were gone through and given away. These were mostly children’s clothes too small for the new season.

Last Sunday’s guest talk was no mere spring-cleaning or polishing up of what was there near the door of our hearts and minds. It was like our moving day to me. Long held possessions of hurts, and ways of doing things a certain way, were to be let go of or group life would fail. That was the message, yes.

My mind goes today to a large outdoor sculpture that used to be in Vancouver called “Device for Rooting out Evil.” It was a hut-sized 3D silver church sitting upside down on the landscaped lawn. The steeple had been dug into the ground. The first time I saw it I felt angry, was this an insult, I thought. As the work penetrated my thinking, as all good art will, layers of understanding emerged in my mind. I wondered, is this rooting out of evil, to be of the church by the church, can it be.

http://www.calgaryherald.com/news/calgary/Ramsay+famous+upside+down+church+uprooted+after+lease+expires/9382601/story.html

Let it begin with me, yes. I carry my hurts rattling along like tin cans on festive streamers attached to a wedding car. But this is not happy. Yes, I have a muffler silencing them, as any good Christian would, but what if I were to detach from them and drive along free, unencumbered to my future. Unencumbered, is this the freedom of forgiveness that the cross symbolizes, I muse.  I wonder if this is part of the power of spiritual disciplines: to hold sacred space for inner movements toward God.

I will be free of that which so easily besets me. I take out my steeple and dig it out, this memory of unintentional hurts. So, what if someone said this or did that. I choose to be over it by the power of the Spirit.

Book of Philippians

 I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally…

I feel spring-cleaned and ready for Easter. The intriguing thing for me, as one who holds a graduate degree in the art of spiritual formation, is that the church changes will come now by way of ‘new’ (but ancient) spiritual practices and disciplines (perhaps mingled with art practices) that have become my life’s work. God’s ways are of course higher than mine. I really love spring, especially the outrageous pinkness of spring in Vancouver’s Cherry Blossom Festival.

http://www.vcbf.ca/

Book of Isaiah

Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.

 

 

Cutting, Crocheting, Same Thing?

So I have addictions in my family.

I do.

Recently I have been creating textile art projects – knit and crochet. I had also read an article about ‘cutting” and wondered how people do this. I heard a speaker talk about ‘cutting’ as a way to counteract psychological pain. I still could not get my head around actually taking a box cutter and doing controlled cuts: the blood drops, the permanent scars, the hiding of the body. How does one hide one’s arms – from everyone?

The other night as I continued to crochet long after my shoulders and neck hurt. And went back to it again the next pain-filled day. A question came to me: “Is this any different from ‘cutting’, really?”

Well I have been creating ‘Circle Flowers’ for a pop-up love gifting. At least my pain is producing something good, I thought, ‘Cutting’ is just destructive and a call for help.

It was then that I saw them as the same. The meaning is mixed – perhaps because a moral judgement is irrelevant. I am no different. Perhaps my scars will come from carpel tunnel.

So I find myself wondering: “What pain am I trying to counteract?” and “Am I addicted now to creating beauty?” and “Am I damaging my neck to crochet for so long?” again “Why do I have to do this?” and “What am I hiding?”

Life is complicated. ‘Handle with Prayer’ is the old saying. I also practice contemplative knitting. I contemplate God. I contemplate myself. I pray. Is this contemplative knitting becoming an addiction? Can I tell the difference or is life a mash-up of healthy and destructive habits with a permeable line between?

I am not ready to look at my other addiction, Netflix, no.

Anyway, here is an image of my small ‘Circle Flowers’ installation as a love gift for all those engineering students at UBC who need some art love. Maybe, somehow, if anyone cuts with all the stress of midterms, the art love will give them a reprieve and with prayer, some healing – as I am healing in rest today.

And by the way – Happy International Women’s Day!

Christians for Biblical Equality – academic accessible ideas on Christian Feminism

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“Circle Flowers Installation by DS at UBC”