Transformation through art

Monica J. Brown

Monica Brown's art for Stations of the CrossI worked on two of the Stations of the Cross in the Wicker Park Grace series: Jesus comforts the women of Jerusalem, Station 8, and Jesus is nailed to the cross, Station 11.

I used collage and painting, a process that I hadn't tried before. Working on a piece that was part of a group project helped to free up my creativity and seemed to give me permission to explore.

Seeing the stations represented visually really helped to bring this story to life for me. The interpretations of the stations brought through others' lenses, made it even more personal and compelling - especially station 13, with its lines from a poem, and the concluding line stating "Love was your meaning."

This really sums up for me what I feel Jesus' life was paradigmatic of: the tenets of faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these – love. Through his life and up through his death, "love was his meaning."

You can see the full series of images in larger formats here, wpgrace.blogspot.com

"Comforts the Women" (station 8) was made in empathy "for every mother who has lost a child." I felt that this was a timely piece, especially in this time of war.

In "What is Forgivable?" (station 11), I wanted to pose some questions that I was contemplating about forgiveness.

These questions came to mind while going through a personal process of learning that holding on to anger and resentments from the past attributes to blockages in healing: mentally, physically and spiritually; while at the same time accepting that extending forgiveness and letting go of these sometimes buried and stuck emotions is not easy.

It has always been difficult for me to look at the atrocity of slavery up close. Whenever there was a chance for me to examine the details of the African slave trade in the Americas, I felt that this memory was encoded in my genes and that because I remembered it on this genetic level, there was no reason to unearth it.

Creating this piece was a cathartic part of the healing process of releasing some of the resentment held in my heart towards the horrors perpetrated during this time in history.

I think that sometimes forgiveness is simply acceptance. Acceptance of the thing that is, and letting go of wishing it were different or that you could change it. This allows the space for freedom, which in turn creates a conduit for release and healing.

 

peace and happiness through disbelief and questioning

Nicholas Croston

Nicholas CrostonYou've probably heard the regular story a million times before: A person falls down into the dumps and gutters, depending or drugs or alcohol or another vice which helps him escape mentally while destroying him physically. Then the chameleon-like revelatory moment occurs in one of its many colors.

The person is found by someone who takes him into a church, or stumbles into a church in some kind of stupor, or just willingly goes into one himself just to curse out the local god. Often there is a plea for forgiveness, and tears are optional. But they all end the same way: With the discovery of the holy light, the eternal divine love, and the peaceful happiness. The person says he was all alone in the dark before discovering JAY-ZUZ!

I'm certainly not mocking those who are genuine in telling this story. But this is not my story. My story, in fact, is the precise opposite. My story begins with an overt dependence on religion which caused me to be disturbed and depressed and generally unfulfilled and ends with me finding peace and happiness through disbelief and questioning.

I was raised in a Protestant Lutheran church, but it was my conversion to Islam which started to change things for me. Though I considered myself a good Christian who believed in the literal word of the Bible and did care about what God thought of me, church itself wasn't something I cared for.

The legendary atheist and comedian George Carlin nailed it when he called church "a place where people gather once a week to compare clothing." But when I became a Muslim, I was obsessive almost to the point of psychosis. Islam's rules are very minute and devout Muslims from my mosque were telling me they were ironclad. I reached my lowest point during my time as a Muslim, but ironically, Islam was able to save me from myself.

As devastating as my experience was, without Islam, I'm just another spiritual shell, calling myself a good Christian but only visiting church on Easter and Christmas, not really thinking about what's in the Bible, and never daring to challenge the very idea of a god's existence. Without Islam, I bolt from Wicker Park Grace after my first day there never to think of it again, assuming I even accept Nanette's invitation in the first place.

Surrendering the idea of a deity was a difficult thing to do. As my time with Islam started to approach its conclusion, I was very nervous about quitting the five-prayer-a-day ritual. This is extremely important to a Muslim. If the testimony of faith – that there is no god except God and Muhammad is the Messenger of God – is the backbone of faith in Islam, the prayer is the backbone of its practice.

Giving up my daily prayers wasn't a gradual phase-out; I did it cold turkey after realizing my prayers had not meant anything in a long time. My heart beat as if I was performing a tightrope walk over the Grand Canyon without a safety net as prayer time crept on by and I spent it watching football. A few months later, I introduced alcohol and pork back into my diet after my apostasy became complete.

The story of my apostasy from Islam is published on two websites, and it ends with a triumphant reassertion of my own individualism. What it doesn't say is that I was somewhat bewildered by the realization that, for the first time in my life, I had no comfort from my imagination. There were two things which I had taken on faith since I was a kid: The first was that the Buffalo Sabres would someday win the Stanley Cup. The second was that I was watched by a being of infinite love and power who would condemn the wicked. Without the latter, I took the only logical recourse I could think of and declared myself an atheist.

Upon my acceptance of born-just-fine-the-first-time atheism, I learned quickly that many atheists follow a dogmatic view of their very own. The majority of atheists I have met proudly claim atheism is free of all dogmas and doctrines and tout the virtue of free thought. Unfortunately, those same atheists also follow unbending doctrines of their own.

To be a good atheist, I am apparently expected to think of religion in a strictly evil context and regard the books of pop atheists such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris as my guides to the unerring laws of the universe. It was sitting down and shutting up all over again, except with The God Delusion taking the place of the Quran as my divinely written guide to the universe.

When I actually sat down and read The God Delusion, I also learned that many atheists I've personally met are taking a page from followers of the Bible and Quran because they shout the truth of The God Delusion from the hilltops despite apparently having never read it themselves.

I've personally heard atheists use arguments which Richard Dawkins himself has debunked in the book he's written. (Though I am compelled to mention that I am almost finished reading Hitchens' God is Not Great and have so far found it to be very convincing.)

I knew nothing about Wicker Park Grace until October of 2006, but I had actually met Nanette Sawyer a few months before, probably in May or June that year. She certainly didn't leave me under the impression that she was a minister. She came off as more of a middle-aged hipster than anything, and I had assumed she was with the Arts Council.

I'm shocked that I was able to remember her name the following week. When I showed up at the wrong place for a meeting in October 2006 (the organization I was with at the time was switching meetings between two or three buildings) and didn't feel like walking back home after learning it was the wrong place, Nanette casually told me there would be a prayer service soon.

I went to the service. It was a small and intimate affair, and there was a very stimulating conversation afterward in which I felt comfortable enough to admit that I was an atheist who was coming off a very bad experience with Islam. It was the conversation which brought me back the following week out of curiosity.

Soon my curiosity was satiated, and I kept returning to Wicker Park Grace for the promise of being able to ask questions I've always wanted to ask about religion, scripture, and the varying nature of a potential god. My urge to question hasn't been fulfilled and probably never will be.

But after awhile, I realized that it was more than the opportunity to ask questions that I attend Wicker Park Grace. It was because I had found a home there, full of broken machina and wanderers who had also experienced the worst parts of religion.

Wicker Park Grace helped me reach an important realization: That I am an atheist because I have doubts about EVERYTHING. I've done my share of bad-mouthing religion as much as any other atheist, but it doesn't make me anti-religion. I simply refuse to adhere to the "everything can be explained" dogmatic view of pop atheism because I refuse to take my atheism for granted, closing off my mind to the idea that maybe I'm the one who is wrong about the existence of an ultimate being.

There are still mysteries in the universe which are unsolved and still phenomena which are passed off as the work of a delusional mind, and so I have a healthy and unwavering belief in the supernatural. My willingness to shun dogmatic pop atheism has left my mind open enough to seek different contexts for religious scriptures.

Wicker Park Grace has made me a better atheist. The people there don't take scriptures as answers, but as questions. It was at Wicker Park Grace that I learned to view the Bible in ways I hadn't considered before.

While I don't believe in a god, I've learned interesting ideas of how the Bible can be interpreted to be a potent force for humanism, with a god who is more just – and perhaps more importantly, more consistent – than straight-up literalism makes it out to be.

And at the same time, my atheism has only gotten more solid because I'm being guided in a way that lets me see the context of the events mentioned in the Bible. I've heard many arguments for the complete literalism of the Bible denounced by the very minister who leads Wicker Park Grace, in ways which have had far more weight than the standard atheistic peon of "they just don't make any sense!"

Now if only the Buffalo Sabres could win the freaking Stanley Cup.

They call me the seeker
I've been searching low and high
I won't get to get what I'm after
Until the day I die

The Who, "The Seeker"

 

Music and Me

Jake Story

Jake StoryMusic tends to reach me in ways that most other things in life can't. There is something about a simple melody that carries me to a place of lofty thoughts and rampant idealism.

Whether it's the mysterious dissonance of a minor key or hearing that perfect fifth at just the right moment, I am always struck by the way in which music can serve as both a carrier of tradition and untamed exploration.

It was early in my life that I realized I would never be anything more than a dabbler in the world of composition and performance. I was cursed with small hands, you see, not quite large enough to span the octave on the piano and fingers just fat enough to hit the wrong key at the wrong time.

And though I tried, on the piano, saxophone, and guitar, the talent seemed to always escape me. Sometimes I still wish that I could become a world-renowned musician, but at least now I have grown to a place where I no longer fool myself into thinking this is a reality and, rather, consign my mediocre musical talents to the shower.

This is not to say, though, that music hasn't or doesn't play an important role in my life. Music still carries me to places that other things can't.

What I can say is that music has been and is an example of what life, both secular and spiritual, can be. I grew up immersed in church life at Sunnyside Presbyterian in South Bend, IN. Music was a large part of my existence there.

I sang in special choirs, played hand bells, and even scored my own solo in 5th grade for our annual Christmas musical!

I loved to sing hymns and listen to the organ as it was made to sing the songs of Bach and Mozart. And music also served as the catalyst for my first foray into serious church involvement.

The experimental nature of music was part and parcel of what allowed me to develop my own sense of "experimentation" with theology and church. I've always been outside of the box a little when it comes to "what I believe," and it's a question that I'm a little wary of answering.

This is partly because, like music, I think our ideas about God and the world are more about the journey than finding definitive answers. It's a trait that tends to frustrate people, but it's a place that I am content.

I love books that challenge the status quo just as I love music that tries something different. In my life today, church is becoming something very different for me than the traditional emphasis on a building and programs that are geared towards me.

Perhaps we can begin to see church as a place that is willing to explore new avenues of being as part of our responsibility as a people called to something more important than the selfish concerns of our egos.

 

Animal, Vegetable, Mineral

Rebecca Murphy

Rebecca MurphyWhen I was in the 7th grade, some liberal rag of a magazine showed up in the mail and I read it, which is unsurprising since my eyes can't seem to keep from reading whatever wafer of text are put in from of them. It lauded the society in Amsterdam, where drugs were legal and health care was free and probably discussed baby seals and whales. The latter is probably what drew me in. I remember showing my Language Arts teacher, Mrs. Herrity, this mind-blowing new truth I had found and she said as politely as she could that possibly there were other sides to that story. You've got to respect her sense of restraint.

But another article in that 1988 periodical was about organic farming and how some folks in San Francisco were starting to be able to make a living on smaller plots of land, tending their crops by hand and selling the more expensive produce to restaurants.

And thus was born my ultimate fantasy...

(Read more below. Rebecca originally posted this essay at her blog, at Wild Rumpus.)

At age 11, I pictured raising my children in a rustic farmhouse with no TV, getting up early in the morning before school to harvest the eggs. With my shiny Prodigy account, I knew that we wouldn't be too remote as long as we had a computer and a phone line. I could live life the way it was meant to be lived: with the middle-man cut out and possessing the ability to feed myself directly, rather than working for money that would then be used to purchase my sustenance.

I had taken a summer school class for gifted kids that taught us the basics of economics by creating a marketplace where we all had something to sell and were given monopoly money to purchase the commodities produced by others. I baked a coffee cake before class every Wednesday so that I could serve it still warm and cinnamon-y. So, this is not revisionist history. I really did understand capitalism enough to fantasize about circumventing it.

And the fantasy has continued to exist fairly consistently for the last 20 years or so.

When I lived on the island, I even volunteered once a week or so with on my friend Rhonda's start up organic farm, plunging my hands into goat poop, feeding the trimmings to the chickens and getting my hands stuck my nettles as I weeded the strawberries. I also learned that the island also has an organic farm camp, where kids come to spend a week doing that exact same stuff. I still have two giant balls of yarn that some kids spun and sold at the farmer's market. Then, I altered the fantasy to having a farm camp where urban kids could come to let down their emotional defenses for a moment while school is out. That combined my two passions, you see.

I'm not sure when I will make this fantasy a reality, but when it doesn't seem exhausting to think about, I'll know it's time. That's how I've known when every other decision was right in my life. When an idea shifts from seeming like an uphill battle to bringing images to my mind's eye of flying down that hill on a bike, I know I'm ready. If I start before then, I only fuck everything up.

Still, I can be brought nearly to tears at the sight of a stray kohlrabi at a farmer's market because I remember Rhonda giving one away as a gift to a customer. She covered the woman's protest by saying, "It's just a kohlrabi; please take it," but I knew it wasn't just a kohlrabi. I knew exactly how much effort had gone into sprouting and cultivating and fertilizing and weeding and harvesting and cleaning that kohlrabi. It was an enormous gift Rhonda was giving this woman.

So, yesterday, when I rounded the corner on my lunch hour and saw a farmer's market in Federal Plaza, I considered carefully before entering.

Farmer's Market - Federal Plaza

But August is food month at my church.

It only makes sense. August is when the harvest starts rolling in. Why not spend that time meditating on and talking about the life-giving routine that we practice every day? I mean, if religion can't address the daily routines of life, really, what can?

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle front book coverAs a church, we're reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and I have to say that it's blowing my mind in the same way that Irresistible Revolution did. One of my favorite authors writes about her family's attempt to eat only local food for an entire year, growing and preserving much of it herself.

So, I had to go and at least smell the farmer's market. Earlier this summer, I was admiring my friend Emily's tomato plants and had a visceral sense of being three feet tall in my mom's garden again. It made me think of my friend Carrie's daughter Caitlyn coming in from the backyard through the dog door when she was two years old, clutching tomatoes in her chubby fists that she had picked herself. It's moments like those that I want for my someday family.

I actually ended up coming home with a little of the farmer's market.

Rebecca's market take

The problem right now with following in Barbara Kingsolver's footsteps right now is that I rarely cook. Almost every night I am meeting friends for dinner at a restaurant or at their homes. They don't come here because a) I actually don't enjoy cooking very much b) my house is a mess and c) many of them now have children.

But, contrary to popular belief, I can cook. But if I only have a couple of hours of rest in an evening, I'd rather spend it reading a book than shopping and cooking my meal.

But Kingsolver really reinforces the idea that how we spend our money will ultimately determine what the market offers. If traditional farmers can't make a living, the option of better-tasting, more nutritious and carbon footprint-reducing produce won't exist very much longer. Both my 6th grade economics summer school and my University of Chicago graduate degree tell me that.

Plus, I believe that how we spend our money is a spiritual practice and I'm working to transform myself into the kind of person who spends money in proportion to my priorities rather than society's priorities. For instance, I'm trying to get to the point where I spend as much money every month on maintaining the institution of my spiritual community (church) as I do on Netflix.

I want to use the world's currency to express my spiritual beliefs. Those currencies can be my money, my time or even my relationships. I mean, if I don't care about something enough to talk about it with my friends because I'm afraid of their reaction, it must not really be that important to me. I think that I can shape my spiritual identity by committing to act out my beliefs because those commitments create a mold that I can grow into. So, I signed up to have money deducted every month automatically for my church.

And I cooked local green beens for my dinner instead of eating an organic frozen pizza that had been trucked across the country to my local Trader Joe's.

cooking greenbeans

planting cilantro

I planted the cilantro plant in my window box with my morning glories.

I'm saving the eggplant to make a tiny experimental batch of baba ghanoush.

It's a start.

Barbara Kingsolver describes part of the store her family put up for winter:

. . . I took inventory of our pantry. During our industrious summer we'd canned over forty jars of tomatoes, tomato-based sauces, and salsa. We'd also put up many jars of pickles, jams and fruit juice, and another fifty or so quarts of dried vegetables, mostly tomatoes but also soup beans, peppers, okra, squash, root vegetables, and herbs. In pint-sized freezer boxes we'd frozen broccoli, beans, squash, corn, pesto, peas, roasted tomatoes, smoked eggplants, fire-roasted peppers, cherries, peaches, strawberries, and blueberries . . .

Our formerly feisty chickens and turkeys now lay in quiet meditation (legs-up pose) in the chest freezer. Our onions and garlic hung like Rapunzel's braids from the mantel behind the kitchen woodstove. In the mudroom and root cellar we had three bushels of potatoes, another two of winter squash, plus beets, carrots melons and cabbages. A pyramid of blue-green and orange pumpkins was stacked near the back door. One shelf in the pantry held small, alphabetized jars of seeds, saved for starting over - assuming spring found us able-bodied and inclined to do this again.

. . . Right now, looking at all of these jars in the pantry gave me a happy, connected feeling, as if I had roots growing right through the soles of my shoes into the dirt of our farm.

My parents live in the original farmhouse of their neighborhood. At some point, previous owners sold off the land in suburban-sized lots but they left an acre for the house to live on.

A common theme in this blog is my search for community, for a connected feeling. After three years in Illinois, I'm just now starting to feel comfortable with the group of people that is sprouting out around me. They are like the leaves that photosynthesize food for my soul. But I left the community I had on the island partly because I didn't want a community without my family in it. Lately, I've been starting to wonder if I'm not supposed to incorporate my parents' backyard into this fantasy of mine. My personal roots are already planted there. Why not pull in my branches just a little closer so I can really focus on opening blossoms that will ultimately become fruit?

I have a long way to go until I can realize this dream. The longest distance will be actually learning how to garden. I'll rely upon my mom to teach me how to can and preserve things. I have such pleasant memories of standing at her hip, being told not to touch the sterilized jars and being warned not to get under foot lest I get burned or one of the newly sharpened knives "cut my heart out." And Jeffrey's mom has spoken of my mom's canning kettle in rapturous tones that came quite close to breaking the 10th commandment.

The fact that I'm starting to dream like this makes me think I'm getting a little closer to the top of the hill of possibility.

Two summers ago, I bought this painting at the Renegade Craft Faire from Johanna Wright. It's the most expensive piece of art I own (at $125) but the lifestyle it portrays is so exactly the life I want.

art piece

I believe that I get to be a citizen in the Kingdom of God whenever I follow her commandment to be connected to the earth and to other people.

Slowly but surely I'm spending more and more time there and I couldn't be happier.

 
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