Finding Beauty

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Benjamin West (1738-1820), The Ascension (1801), oil on canvas, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis, Tenn.

On Friday I returned from a ten-day trip to Millington, Tennessee where I was doing special work for the US Navy. Last Saturday I ventured out in a cold rain and drove to nearby Memphis to visit the Dixon Gallery of Art. I passed through some pretty slummy areas of the city to get there. My first impression of the Home of the Blues was mostly negative until I arrived at the Dixon. This small but impressive museum was founded by the English-born cotton magnate and fine arts patron Hugo Dixon, who made a large fortune in the cotton business.

French impressionist paintings by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Bonnard form the core of the permanent collection. There are also two Marc Chagall paintings on display and even an abstract expressionist painting by Sir Howard Hodgkin (b. 1932) who literally colored outside of the lines, painting over the frame. But the work that has stuck with me the most since my visit is a stunning painting of the Ascension of Christ by the artist Benjamin West (above).

Conspicuously absent from the museum collection is any depiction of the laborers upon whose backs Mr. Dixon’s fortune was built. No sharecroppers. No African-Americans. No Americans of any kind for that matter. Dixon ascended to glory on the backs of the poor who have no representation in his art collection. We all compartmentalize our lives and I don’t want to be too harsh on a great philanthropist. For all I know, he may have given millions to help the poor. But a museum brochure mentions only Dixon’s generosity to the fine arts and higher education.

The day after my visit to the Dixon Gallery, I traveled to the Mississippi Delta where cotton is still king, and rural poverty, which was invisible in the art museum, is all too apparent. I went to the tiny town of Shaw (pop. 1,952) where our daughter Natalie took a mission trip during her spring break last year. Shaw’s infrastructure and buildings are literally crumbling. Along the main street stores have collapsed behind their fronts and several empty buildings have fallen prey to arsonists. This once thriving town is now in a state of decay. Most businesses left after whites moved out in the 1970s and 80s. Now there isn’t even a supermarket. The only place to buy food is at the local gas station. Many people are unemployed. Drug and alcohol abuse is rampant. It’s not a pretty picture.

However, even in the depressing surroundings of Shaw I found beauty. There’s beauty in the people who continue to scratch a living from hard circumstances. There’s beauty in the three nuns who run a tutoring center for under-performing children. As I reflect back on my trip, I can’t help thinking about Benjamin West’s image of Christ ascending. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Even though parts of it look like hell, maybe Shaw is closer to heaven than it appears.

Shaw MS storefronts

Shaw, Mississippi

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Latin America in Black and White

Algaze CottonCandy

Martio Algaze, Cotton Candy, San Angel, Mexico, 1981.

I wish I could fly to Miami, not just for the warm sun or cool nightlife but to view an art exhibit: a retrospective of the work of Cuban-American photographer Mario Algaze. The artist deserves a greater reputation than he currently enjoys. He’s done for Latin America what Ansel Adams did for the American West: he’s brought it to life with still photography. Algaze’s black-and-white photographs focus on street scenes with everyday people and capture the essence of cultures still foreign to most Americans. His images are free of the social and political commentary one might expect from an exile that fled Communist Cuba. This fact makes his art particularly appropriate to consider in light of President Obama’s recent announcement that the US Government will restore diplomatic relations with the island nation.

One of Algaze’s best known photographs shows a solitary figure shouldering a giant column of individually wrapped balls of cotton candy, reminding me of an ant carrying a piece of corn on the cob. The face and upper body of the person are hidden from view, but a close inspection reveals a thick-waist and flowing skirt sticking out from under the oversized burden. The shadows suggest the woman is walking in the midday sun. There are no other people in view. No man-made objects lying around. A few feet in front of her a scrawny tree grows out of the pavement. The cotton candy seems out of place in the sparse landscape. Is there a fair nearby? How far must the woman walk to sell her sugary snacks? The image is as delightful and sticky as the confection.

A Respect for Light: The Photography of Mario Algaze is on display at HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler Street, until January 18, 2015.

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Hail Mary

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Leonardo da Vinci, Annunciation (ca. 1472-1475)

Christmas is the one time of the year that it’s okay for us Protestants to talk about Mary. The Protestant movement of the sixteenth century was a reaction to perceived abuses in the Catholic Church. Anything considered idolatrous or unbiblical was rejected. The reformers saw popular devotion to the Virgin Mary with all of the statues and images and prayers to her as superstitious at best and idolatrous at worst, so they said it had to go. That’s why Protestants have a kind of spiritual amnesia when it comes to Mary. She appears in nativity scenes, Christmas pageants, and old familiar carols. But after Christmas Mary gets wrapped in bubble wrap and put away for another year, and then she’s forgotten.

But we shouldn’t forget about Mary. She’s the mother of our Lord. Instead of forgetting about her, we can learn from her example. Mary was the first and greatest disciple. When the angel Gabriel told her she would conceive by the Holy Spirit, she said, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Her immediate reaction was humble submission. She didn’t protest or bargain with God. She didn’t complain that a miraculous conception might get in the way of her plans to marry Joseph. She simply said yes to God’s will, even though God was calling her to do something that would cause both great joy and great suffering.

Mary’s obedience can be seen throughout her life. At Cana, where Jesus performed his first miracle turning water into wine, Mary said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:5).  That’s good advice for us all.

When Jesus was being crucified, and his disciples had fled, Mary remained, watching her son suffer. From the cross, Jesus entrusted John, the beloved disciple, to his mother’s care, saying to Mary, “Behold thy son!” and to John, “Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27).  There’s a sense in which Mary became not only a surrogate mother to John but to the whole church. Without Jesus there would be no church. Without Mary there would be no Jesus. Mary was also present in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, praying with the other disciples for the coming of the Holy Spirit. And even though we Protestants don’t pray to Mary the way Catholics do, I believe Mary prays for us in heaven because spiritually we are all her children.

Just as we are all children of Eve, we are also all children of Mary. Through Eve’s disobedience sin entered the world and passed unto every one of us. Through Mary’s obedience, the remedy for sin entered the world: Jesus Christ, the Savior. Mary is the new Eve.

The miracle of the incarnation is the greatest miracle and it required Mary’s cooperation. The word “incarnation” means God took on real human flesh and blood. Jesus wasn’t half God and half man. Jesus was no demigod. He was fully God and fully man. As the Nicene Creed puts it, Jesus is “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

The baby Mary carried in her womb and nursed at her breast was none other than the God of the universe. That’s why she’s called the Mother of God. Not because she came before God or caused God to exist, but because her baby Jesus is truly God. The churches in the East call Mary theotokos, which is Greek for God-bearer, or as Jaroslav Pelikan translated it, “the one who gives birth to the one who is God.” The greatness of Mary depends on the greatness of Christ.

When she gazed into her infant’s eyes, did she see the galaxies he made? When she nursed him at her breasts, did she realize that he was the bread of life, sent from heaven? As she fled to Egypt with Joseph to save Jesus from Herod, did she realize that she was saving the Savior of the world?  When she watched her beloved Son die, did she realize he was dying so that others might live?

These are some questions for us to ponder when we get out the bubble wrap and put Mary away for another year.

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Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

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The image of compassion: a mother running along the bank of a rapid river, keeping up with her drowning child, running along the bank because she had no arms.—Lindsay Hill, Sea of Hooks, citing Patrul Rinpoche

An older man in my congregation called me last week because he forgot his wife’s cell phone number. The doctor’s office had called and he needed to relay an important message about a cancelation. I told him I didn’t have her number but I would try to find it and call him back. I called a couple of people who didn’t have it, and then I remembered that the wife sings in our choir. I got the choir director on the phone and she said yes she had the lady’s number but it was saved in her own cell, the one she was talking on. She’d have to hang up and call me back. She did, and I wrote down the number. Triumphant, I called the man back but as I went to read him the number I realized I had written it down wrong. There were only nine digits, not ten. I apologized and told him I’d have to call him back again. I tried and tried but couldn’t get the choir director on the phone. No one else I could think of had the number. An invisible vise squeezed my chest. I hated that I couldn’t assist someone who reached out to me. It’s lonely at the intersection of compassion and helplessness. I’ve been there many times.

The first death I dealt with as a pastor was tragic. The wife of my chairman of deacons took her own life violently on a Sunday morning with her husband and seventeen-year-old daughter at home. A neighbor of the family called me and said I needed to get over there right away. I did. A lone deputy sheriff was there, retrieving something from his squad car. He saw me walking up the drive and asked if I was the coroner, I guess because I was dressed for church, wearing a dark suit and tie. I said no, but wished I were. I thought it would have been easier dealing with the dead body than the live, grief-stricken people. I went in and saw the husband looking shell shocked and the daughter with swollen eyes. There was no Bible verse, no counseling trick, nothing in my pastoral toolkit that would make this situation better. I sat next the husband, put my hand on his shoulder, and said nothing. We sat in silence together for a long time.

What do you do when you desperately want to help but you’re powerless?

You must learn to say to yourself that you have no arms; that there is nothing in the world you can fix.

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How I Failed As a Pastor

arrows missing target

The first church I served as pastor was difficult. No, impossible. At least that’s how it seemed at the time. I realize now it was as much my fault as theirs. I was twenty-four when they called me to be the spiritual shepherd of their flock. I learned immediately that just because sheep pick you as their shepherd, that doesn’t mean they will follow you.

The biggest problem was my lack of compassion. There are three rules for ministry. Any pastor who masters them cannot fail. They are as follows: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. This approach works whether or not all the people love the pastor, love the pastor, love the pastor. (The ego-shattering truth is pastors are sometimes as difficult to love as sheep.) Jesus was often moved to compassion when he looked upon his sheep. I was – and still am – too often moved to anger and resentment.

My parishioners in that first church could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought they should be. Then again, I could never be as dedicated and virtuous as I thought I should be. Whoever said “people rise to the level of your expectations” never tried leading a church. Most people already have their hands so full trying to meet the expectations of their bosses and families, and often failing to do so, that they have no emotional resources left to try to meet their pastor’s expectations or even figure out what they are. As cynical as it may sound, one key to being a successful pastor is low expectations. Don’t expect too much and you won’t be disappointed. It doesn’t mean I give up on my people or assume that God has. It means I love them enough not to ask them to jump through my hoops.

Another problem was that I believed ministry functioned the way seminary did: work hard and you’ll be rewarded. You’ll make A’s and earn awards. I worked hard in seminary. I made A’s. I earned awards. I went to my first church and failed. Why? Churches aren’t seminaries. Most of the lessons I learned in the seminary classroom didn’t apply directly to pastoral ministry. When I went to my seminary professors for advice about what to do with my failing ministry, the best they could offer was that I should leave my “preacher-killing church” before I gave up on the ministry altogether. I liked the advice because it allowed me to shift all the blame to my congregation. But it didn’t help the congregation or me. An opportunity for growth on both parts was squandered.

Becoming a pastor is like going to the foreign mission field, especially if you grew up in the suburbs and you’re called to a rural parish as I was. A pastor has to become a cross-cultural expert. In order to be effective a new pastor must learn the language and the culture. That takes time. In my first church I never stuck around long enough to learn what made them tick. I was too impatient. When they didn’t follow my lead, I bailed.

Monks take a vow of stability, meaning they promise not to leave the monastery they first join. There’s a story in the Lives of the Desert Fathers about a monk who told his abbot that he was troubled by thoughts of leaving the monastery. The abbot said, “Go and sit down, and entrust your body to your cell, as a man puts a precious possession into a safe, and do not go out of it. Then let your thoughts go where they will. Let your mind think what it likes, so long as it does not drive your body out of the cell.” Pastors would do good to learn a lesson about stability from monks. To put it in non-monastic terms, you have to be more stubborn about staying at your church than the people in your congregation who want you gone.

Twenty plus years after my failed pastorate I find myself serving a congregation that reminds me a lot of that first one. It’s in a small town and most of the older folks grew up on farms. The church was in a full-blown crisis when I arrived as interim pastor. I had just left active duty with the Navy and a plum job teaching at the Naval Academy. I had no intentions of staying. I just needed a place to hang my hat for a while until I found something better. That was two and a half years ago, and I’m still here.

There’s no guarantee things will turn out any better than they did at my first church. True, I’m no longer a naive twenty-something out to save the world. I’ve learned that I can’t save myself much less anyone else. I’m also a little more patient and a little less demanding than I was two decades ago. Still, at some point I may get frustrated and bail. In the meantime I’m going to do my best to take my own advice: Love the people. Love the people. Love the people. That’s not always easy but I’ll keep trying, because love covers a multitude of sins.

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What Good Is Religion?

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A few weeks ago I received a hostile comment about religion on my blog from someone who accidentally stumbled upon it. I chose not to post it. Instead I sent an email to the person who wrote it, asking for clarification. I received a long and thoughtful reply, explaining that the author isn’t against people of faith, only organized religion. “I’m spiritual but not religious” has become a modern mantra. It’s made me wonder, Is personal faith enough? What good is organized religion? Is religion better than irreligion? Here’s my attempt to answer these important questions.

For starters, I reject the dichotomy between faith and religion that has become popular in Protestant Christianity since the twentieth-century Swiss theologian Karl Barth first drew the distinction. Just as you can’t have an army of one (despite what the US Army’s recruiting ads say) you can’t have a religion of one. Faith is by its nature a group activity. There’s certainly a place for the private practice of one’s faith. Everyone needs time alone to study and pray. But it’s misguided (if not arrogant) for individuals to think that they can attain to the truth about ultimate reality on their own or even live as persons of moral and spiritual integrity without a community of faith to support and guide them.

I will admit that not all religion is good. That’s true of any human activity. Not all government is good. Not all education is good. Not all medical treatment is good. Institutions are only as good as the people in them and saints are in short supply.

One of the most pervasive myths of the modern age is that religion has caused most of the wars and violence in the history of the world. It’s not true. Indeed irreligious people have arguably caused more death and destruction than religious people ever did.  Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Zedong are prime examples. Religion certainly has had a hand in war and other social evils like slavery and persecution, but it hasn’t been the sole or even primary cause of them. Complex social ills like war and slavery never have a single cause. It’s wrong to blame them all on religion.

Keep in mind that religious people use religious language to justify their choices – some good, some bad, some neutral – even when the underlying cause is something else. Although economics made slavery lucrative and therefore desirable, the institution was both defended and condemned in religious language by people of faith on both sides of the debate.

Organized religion has given the world a host of institutions that have made life better. Secular humanists didn’t invent the university; the Catholic Church did. Long before the Enlightenment there were hospitals, hospices, orphanages, schools, homeless shelters, and a host of other charitable organizations paid for and run by churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques. Christian missionaries are often condemned for exporting western culture to the non-western world, and it’s true they did. But they also exported western medicine which saved countless lives. Recently I read that by 1938 there were over 1,000 hospitals around the world founded by missionaries. Even today the only food pantry in my town was founded by six local churches, not secular institutions or humanist societies.

My roommate in college was Cambodian. He fled the killing fields of Pol Pot before migrating to the US. He learned to read in a Buddhist monastery and learned English at a Baptist church. A Protestant missionary named Frank Laubach, developed a literacy program that taught teachers how to teach reading. Millions of people in dozens of countries learned to read through this program – a program born out of a desire to spread the Christian faith. Religion teaches more than dogma. It teaches compassion and the obligation to be good and act benevolently toward others.

Even atheists and agnostics have inherited the bulk of their morality from religion. Organized religion gave us principles such as the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have done unto you.” The great legal traditions all flow from organized religion. Hammurabi, Moses, and Justinian all credited the Divine as the source of their laws. For a millennium and a half before Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, Christian monks and nuns had renounced private property and were living communal lives. The monastic traditions of Christianity and other religions have stood the test of time in a way that secular communism has not. The ethical code of secular humanism is largely the product of organized religion.

Government has been taking over the charitable work once left to religious institutions, and some might argue that organized religion has outlived its usefulness. However, if all of the faith-based schools and charities were removed from the earth, there’d be a humanity gap bigger than all the non-religious organizations and governments could fill. Even if they could, religion meets needs that other institutions can’t.

Religion creates communities and spaces that bind us together with other people in ways that civic organizations can’t. The word religion comes from the Latin prefix “re-” plus “ligare,” which means to tie or bind. Religion reconnects us to God and others, making us stronger and better than we are alone. Religion ritualizes all the stages of life. It teaches us how to celebrate new life and how to grieve when life comes to an end. It points us toward ultimate meaning and helps us understand transcendent things. Only religion can provide the hope of a salvation that endures beyond this material world. To irreligious people that may sound like a bunch of bunk, but everyone has a desire to find meaning that transcends the here and now.

I can love my religion while admitting its faults for the same reason Noah could love the ark despite the noise and smell. It’s not perfect but it’s better than treading water on my own.

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Art and Decoration

Cathedral Jackson Pollock 1947

Jackson Pollock, Cathedral (1947), enamel and aluminum paint on canvas, Dallas Museum of Art

The border between art and decoration can be as fuzzy as a political boundary in the desert. Like political boundaries “art” and “decoration” are artificial, man-made concepts at best. At worst they are mere value judgments that signal our own preferences: That’s not art! While acknowledging the limitations of human subjectivity, I think there’s a case to be made for the difference between art and decoration. It’s roughly the same as the difference between wild and domesticated animals. Decoration has been tamed, housebroken. It’s suitable to hang above the sofa or put on the mantel above the fireplace. Art is feral, unpredictable, even dangerous. Decoration is forgettable. Art has the ability to sear itself in our brains and leave a mark . . . or a scar. Decoration and art can both be beautiful. But art doesn’t have to be beautiful at all. It can be weird, impenetrable, ugly, or offensive.

Take, for example, Gustave Courbet’s 1866 The Origin of the World, which confronted my wife and me when we visited the D’Orsay Museum in Paris. It’s a realistic painting of a woman’s elongated nude torso with the genitalia front and center. Who would dare display that in the living room for all to see? Art museums are safe houses where we can be voyeurs without getting arrested or even violating the conventions of polite society. It’s a highbrow alternative to going to the movies where we docilely munch on popcorn as we watch things we’d never even think of doing and if we witnessed them, we’d dial 911.

I remember visiting the Dallas Museum of Art when I was an undergraduate in Texas. After all these years I only recall one painting: Cathedral by Jackson Pollock. I lived such a sheltered life I’d never seen one of Pollock’s big, messy canvases, thick with drips and splatters of paint. It was mesmerizing. Having grown up being taught always to color in the lines, I was shocked and drawn to this rebellious work of art. Everyone knows that to paint means to apply pigment to canvas with a brush. Oh yeah?, the painting screams, Says who?!  It’s the kind of painting that makes you want to drop out of college and go backpacking through Africa. While I was still at the museum considering what I might sell for my airfare – I’ll never forget this – a professor from my college appeared out of nowhere. We exchanged greetings. He was surprised to learn that I wasn’t there because of a class assignment. I was there because that’s how I chose to spend my Saturday. He praised me for my good taste and left me feeling domesticated. Backpacking through Africa was off. I was just a nerdy college kid without a social life.

To be a great artist – or to be a great anything for that matter – you have to be willing to take risks and defy conventions. I’m not talking about being offensive for the sake of being offensive. I’m talking about doing what you know is right, even if you know others will be offended. I want my life to be art, not decoration.

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