At the Heart of Town

WHAT IS THERE ABOUT THOSE ROADS that meander through the countryside in and out of small town after small town? I don’t know that my aversion to interstate highway travel is all poetic and Robert Frost-y in the sense of choosing a less-traveled road, if that’s even what the poem is about. But, I do like those roads.

Recently, My Amazing-Missus and I towed our little shiny Airstream through the “hill country” of Texas. Our first stop was in Waco, where we paid homage to the high priest and prietess of house re-doing. It’s a bit astonishing to see people come by the hundreds from hundreds of miles away to see the wonder that is Chip & Joanna. They do seem to bring a sort of beauty to the world; in more ways than just fixing-upping.

I remember hearing a speaker at a banking convention proclaim that when a small town loses its local bank, it is on its way to ghost town status. I remain skeptical of that opinion, but it did start me to thinking: what is vital to the beating heart of a  town or village?

We drove through one wide-spot in the road whose better days were behind it. On a large piece of land in the heart of the little town, where its school once stood, was a marker, reminding the few people left in the town that there was once a school with teachers and kids and sounds and smells and energy.

Maybe they were the Eagles, or Bulldogs, or Terrapins. Their “colors” might have been green & white, or blue & gold, but probably they were red & white.

So, what is it that makes the difference between a community having a pulse and being a ghost town?

Bank?
School?
Church?
Post Office?
Bar?
Barber shop / Beauty Parlor?

Or, one of those places when you can get gas, bread, milk, beer,  and lunch from a greasy, steamy glass case filled with fried stuff like okra, gizzards, potato wedges, and such; plus a 32 oz. plastic vessel of some soft drink to wash it all down?

As our trip through rural America continued, I may have discovered what it is that most every small town seemed to have. It was easy to spot them. Many are brightly painted and gaudily adorned. The local flower shop. Think about it. If the town still has one of these, not only do you have a vibrant business still left on main street, but you’re also likely to have its effervescent and flamboyant proprieter. You also have a place to buy a balloon for a birthday, a gift for graduation, Father’s Day, and a baby shower. After all what is a community if not a place to celebrate and make memories together. 

I haven’t forgotten the obvious: the flowers. How could we be a community without flowers? There will be Mother’s Days and Valentines Days. Oh, and the weddings.

And while there may not be ballgames, and school dances on the town calendar anymore, there will undoubtedly be the next funeral. You need community to bring flowers and a covered dish to the house to remind you that in the midst of deepest grief, there is a tomorrow and your community is with you.

While I’m on the subject of the essential role of beauty in the midst of despair, let me beg you to contact your congresspersons and implore them to not buy in to the ill-informed, misguided, ill-conceived, near-sighted and selfish scheme to strip funding for the National Endowment for The Arts and the National Endowment for The Humanities. It would be like burning down the flower shop of a small town, or telling Chip and Joanna they can’t fix-up anymore ugly houses, turning them into someone’s dream home.

If you don’t believe the arts are critical to our national well-being, go see this exhibit at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. You only have until July 2, 2017. If you want to go with someone, call me. I’ll join you and even buy your ticket.

Here’s another idea. Click here and Watch this. https://vimeo.com/194276412 

Wise Words in Ink

I have a friend named Molly who is contemplating a project that involves letterpressing good quotes on cards, so we were talking about people that are quotable, but maybe not in a ubiquitous way; like, say, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr. Mark Twain or Will Rogers. Not that they aren’t extremely quotable, but maybe there are others who are less known but also have good things to say.

The letterpress inked up, locked in and ready

The letterpress inked up, locked in and ready

Here are some that fit that bill for me:

Anne Lamott.

“Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”

“You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”

Wendell Berry.

“This, I thought, is what is meant by 'thy will be done' in the Lord's Prayer, which I had prayed time and again without thinking about it. It means that your will and God's will may not be the same. It means there's a good possibility that you won't get what you pray for. It means that in spite of your prayers you are going to suffer.”

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”

Homer Simpson.

“A roadside barbecue stand? Everything tastes better when it's near a road!”

G.K. Chesterton.

“A puritan is a person who pours righteous indignation into the wrong things.”

“The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see.”

Hank Hill.

“You can't just pick and choose which laws to follow. Sure I'd like to tape a baseball game without the express written consent of major league baseball, but that's just not the way it works.”

Woody Allen.

“Life doesn't imitate art, it imitates bad television.” (Case in point: the current presidential campaign.)

Erma Bombeck.

“When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, 'I used everything you gave me’.”

Molly the Notecard Maker (photo used without her permission)

Molly the Notecard Maker (photo used without her permission)

Back to Molly and her project: If I were going to commission her to letterpress a quote on a set of notecards for me, which quote would I choose? That’s tough because I love a good quote. I’m sort of a quote collector, and a hoarder of aphorisms.

Who doesn’t love: “Not all those who wander are lost” from a poem by J.R.R. Tolkien?

How could you go wrong with John Muir? “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

Don’t worry, I haven’t forgotten C.S. Lewis. “I have found a desire within myself that no experience in this world can satisfy; the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

Maybe all those are too obvious. After all, if I’m going to have custom cards made, I don’t want them to look like they came from Mardel or a Hallmark store.

Like so many who came of age in the 60s, song lyrics were my poetry. I could definitely find ongoing inspiration from some song lyrics pressed into just the right paper.

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
—IMAGINE. By John Lennon

Hello darkness, my old friend
I've come to talk with you again
Because a vision softly creeping
Left its seeds while I was sleeping
And the vision that was planted in my brain
Still remains within the sound of silence
—The Sound of Silence. By Simon & Garfunkel

That one may be too long, but I like the idea of having the ampersand character pressed on the card as in the name Simon & Garfunkel.

Just the right verse from scripture could be apropos, not so that I would seem holy, but because of the human honesty there. Definitely, my choice would be Mark 9:24. It is the story of my faith journey in six words:

“I do believe, help my unbelief.”

I had a fleeting thought, and I realize it sounds as arrogant as Donald Trump to even verbalize it, but why let humility stand in the way? What if—I used a quote of my own. What if—I had ever said, or could possibly say, something quotable? What if—one of these days, at my funeral, someone could read a eulogy: “He loved his family and music, and as he would always say: ‘blah, blah, blah, blah and blan’,” And people would knowingly nod and turn to one another and murmur in whispers things like: “That sounds like him,” or “If I’ve heard him say that once, I’ve heard it a hundred times”.

The lines I say often somehow don’t seem notecard-worthy, carefully letterpressed one card at a time by Molly or anyone else.

  • “I prefer thin crust.”
  • “Did you notice how all the pictures on their walls were crooked?”
  • “I will never vote for Donald Trump.” (But I’m haunted by the old aphorism, “Never say never!” because I once said out loud I would never vote for Hillary Clinton. That was before I could fathom the day that a cartoon character would be the candidate of the “Party of Lincoln”.)
  • “Dang allergies!”
  • “Yes, my Grand-Girls are beautiful and amazing!”

How about you? If Molly were going to letterpress your favorite quote on a lovely notecard, what would it say?

 

Manger, Magi, and The Mystery of Majesty

INCARNATION! THAT'S WHAT THIS SEASON IS ABOUT. The Word becoming flesh and dwelling with us. (John 1.)

It is so weird to me that God would do this--enter humanity like this; and then we, the church, seem to work so hard to make Jesus something other than human. Why would we do that?

I want you to meet a dear friend, Mako Fujimura. Mako is the person that taught me about the concept of "re-humanizing" the world. Becoming what God intended us to be.

Somehow in understanding this, the mystery of incarnation became clearer to me.

Mako Fujimura

Mako Fujimura

For this post, I am sharing with you some of Mako's words.  This is from a talk Mako did to artists encouraging them to create art for the Christmas season. Mako is an artist and founder of International Arts Movement, a movement I've had the joy and honor of being a part of for several years now. I asked Mako for permission to share this with you and he graciously agreed. You can find more of his writings and learn of his work at www.makotofujimura.com.

 

What a strange beginning to what many have called “The Greatest Story Ever Told.”

A teenage girl engaged to a carpenter gets pregnant. She claims that an Angel appeared to her to say that she would have a virgin birth. Her fiancé is hesitant to believe her. They cannot make it back home when she is ready to give birth, and they cannot find an Inn in which to stay. So she gives birth in a stable.

The people who come to visit are not the in-laws or other family members, but shepherds—an identity few people desired, like today’s garbage collectors. A few weeks later, Magicians from the East come with their gifts. They are fortune tellers, not religious leaders, and the stars are their scriptures.­

The themes of the Greatest Story are not of power, wealth, and worldly notions of success; it is rather the story of people in the margins, people under suspicion, people who are outsiders—people like artists.

When I meet someone on a plane and I tell them I am an artist, I almost always have to go into “explaining mode” to answer the same common questions: “What kind of art do you make?” “Why do you do it?” “Can you make a living?”

If I said I was an electrical engineer, explaining would not be necessary. But tell people, particularly Christians, that I am an artist and I am immediately regarded with suspicion and thoughtless dismissal: “You don’t paint nudes, do you?” “I don’t understand modern art.” “You make that weird stuff that my kids could paint and then call it ‘art,’ don’t you?”

No wonder artist types sit in the back of the church and leave as soon as the music ends, if they come to church at all. Church is for successful people, for respectable folks with real jobs.

But church people forget that the Bible is full of wonderful, strange artsy folks. Ezekiel the prophet believed he was told by God to do performance art like eating a scroll and cooking with human dung. King David danced naked in the streets. The prophet Hosea claimed that God told him to marry a prostitute and, when she’d run off, to keep buying her back from her pimp by baking food for him.

Stillpoint-evening. Makoto Fujimura.

Stillpoint-evening. Makoto Fujimura.

Then you have this pregnant teen who gave birth to a supposed King in a food trough—a King who was first greeted by the garbage collectors of the time. Right.

When I read the Bible as an artist, though, it really makes sense. Artists do all sorts of strange things to communicate—they create language to describe the indescribable. Ezekiel, David, and Hosea were marginalized, poor, outcast, creative, curious—more like artists than “respectable people.” God is also an artist, inventing strange ways to communicate. Since he exists outside Time and Space, He has to translate the indescribable into our notion of the ordinary. He humbled Himself to condescend to us, daring to use us, broken and lost, to do the work of re-creation. And like “modern art,” this looks strange, otherworldly, and full of mystery.

Saint Paul, while in prison, asks for prayer to “boldly proclaim the mystery of the gospel.” The “gospel” is the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which on the surface seems pretty clear. So why does he use the word “mystery?” Why not say, “Pray that I can be clear,” or “Pray that I can be persuasive?” Perhaps what Paul meant by “proclaiming the mystery” was revealing things spoken of in the past, in the Old Testament, secrets that were now being revealed through Christ.

“Mystery” can also, in the generative sense, mean indescribable, unseen, or unforeseen things. Jesus—himself a mysterious, artistic person—often spoke of mysterious things by using parables, stories that did not really work on a normative level. He said things like, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or wear,” and then, as an antidote to our worry addiction, suggested, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them . . . Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.”

He told the story of two sons. The younger, wayward son takes his inheritance from his father and goes to town, wasting it all on frivolous pleasures. His father does not stop him from destroying himself, but when the son loses everything and decides that it’s better to be home than homeless, the father throws the biggest party for him, saying, “My son was lost, and is found.” The elder brother is understandably upset with his younger brother’s reckless behavior and cannot fathom why his father would welcome his younger brother home. Where’s the discipline? Where’s the punishment? As Jesus tells this story, he turns to the religious authorities of his day, insinuating that they were that elder brother who did not understand the Father’s frivolous love for his inconstant and selfish child. They were as we often are—legalistic and wayward, an anxious people who cannot stop to appreciate beauty or hear music in the spheres of our world.*

A journey with Jesus is more like being an artist than working a predictable 9-to-5 job. It’s unpredictable, risky, and often strange. It’s an adventure for which you need faith. You don’t need to be a “respectable Christian” to walk with Jesus: in fact, it’s best if you are not. You’ll be better able to wrestle with the deeper realities of your journey, to confront your brokenness. You’ll be able to let your life’s experience become the materials for your craft, articulating that deep mystery within you rather than trying to explain it away.

The church needs artists, because, like Jesus, they ask questions that are at the same time enigmatic and clear, encouraging and challenging. But, unlike Jesus, they are far from perfect. And that’s okay because none of Jesus closest followers were respectable, well put-together people either. Jesus still gave them “authority” because they were chosen, broken creatures in need of a Savior who learned of their dependence on God. He gave them “author-rity” to write the story of the Kingdom and the mystery of redemption. He made them into artists. 

We are all chosen, broken creatures and Jesus has made us all into artists, whether we use a brush or simply ride on a garbage truck. Our stories are living stories of the Kingdom that we write every day. Infused with the mystery of the Great Artist’s spirit, our stories can become a wide open adventure—part of the Greatest Story Ever Told.

Halo Amok

HOT SHOTS AND KNOW IT ALLS

HOT SHOTS AND KNOW IT ALLS

Last night we heard and watched Wayne White at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.  Wayne is an artist. Which always seems to bring up the question--who gets to say who's an artist and who isn't? With Wayne that question would come to the mind of any skeptic who sees his work. But don't judge too quickly. Sometimes you just have to spend time with the artist and their work. You may have spent time with Wayne's work and not even known it. Maybe your kids watched "Pee Wee's Playhouse." Wayne was a set designer, puppeteer, and creative. But, as I said, don't judge too quickly.

By the way, Wayne is one of us (Baby Boomers)--born in 1957.

If you're not familiar with Wayne, start with the film "Beauty Is Embarrassing." It's available on Netflix® and when you decide to add it to your library you can purchase it at Amazon®. (see below)

Interesting note for us Okies: The film is the brainchild of Neil Berkeley from Moore, Oklahoma and Oklahoma City University.

Oh... the title of this post, "Halo Amok?" That's the title of Wayne's amazing exhibit open now through October 6, 2012 at the OKCMOA.