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Author: Charles Davidson

“From Warriors to Saints, Saints to Lovers, Lovers to Tigers, Tigers to Flowers”

VINCENT VAN GOGH LEARNED VOLUMES from his fellow artists by the study of countless numbers of their drawings and paintings, some old, some new. Not only did he visit many museums and exhibitions. He also lined the walls of his room with copies of others’ works, including the great masters who preceded him.

Vincent once wrote to his brother Theo: “I must ask you something: Are there any cheap Daumier prints to be had, and, if so, which ones? I always found him very clever, but it is only recently that I have begun to have the impression that he is more important than I thought. If you know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I remember we spoke about it last year on the road to Prinsenhage, and you said then that you like Daumier better than Gavarni, and I took Gavarni’s part, and told you about the book I had read about Gavarni which you have now. But I must say that since then, though I have not come to like Gavarni less, I begin to suspect that I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know” (CL 239).

Are there any parallels to us?

All learning takes place at the intersection of what we already know and what we do not yet know. An artist can interpret only what the artist presently sees. The same is true for the therapist conducting therapy, the surgeon performing surgery, or the politician crafting legislation. To that end, personal and professional consultation offers fresh eyes with which to see and novel ears with which to hear.

Vincent’s Perspective Frame, The Hague, August 5 or 6, 1882

A patient and a therapist, just the two of them, working collaboratively may generate what is called an “analytic third”*—an additional and potentially transformative reality emerging from the juxtaposition of their two separate realities. Or again, the patient has one perspective, the therapist a second, and the consultant or supervisor a third, which coming together potentially produces yet a fourth perspective with elements of all three, and more.

Imagine what growth might not have taken place for Vincent as an artist if, among other endeavors, he had not studied Japanese art and French Impressionist paintings. What if he had never made his way to Paris and subsequently the south of France where the sun shone brighter than it did back home in the Netherlands?

One of the most dramatic transformations of Vincent’s artistic style and subject matter came about with his turn to the use of vivid colors as a consequence of his modified geographic perspective. Likewise, when he studied the art of those with whom he was unfamiliar, he further opened himself to the possibility for substantive change. It is just so with persons who become absorbed in Vincent’s art. They stand to encounter an “artistic third” bearing an altered perception—not only of Vincent’s reality but more so of their own.

Honoré Daumier (1808-1879)

Consider again what Vincent said about the French painter Honoré Daumier while Vincent was still living and painting in the Netherlands in 1882.

“If you [Theo] know any particulars about him or if you have seen any of his important drawings, please tell me about it . . . I know but a very small portion of Daumier’s work and that the very things which would interest me most are in the portion of his work which I do not know.”

Whether we are therapists or surgeons or politicians, or anything else by virtue of our craft or trade—whether we are the ones seeking “counsel” or the ones rendering it—what if we were to receive each new encounter as the creative and promising juxtaposition of what we already know with what we do not yet know? What might happen?

Vincent mentioned Daumier in sixty-two of his letters. Three years after having asked Theo to tell him more about Daumier, Vincent wrote his friend Emile Bernard to say of yet another artist, in the words of the French writer, Théophile Silvestre: “’Thus died—almost smiling—Eugène Delacroix, a painter of high breeding—who had a sun in his head and a thunderstorm in his heart—who went from warriors to saints—from saints to lovers—from lovers to tigers—and from tigers to flowers.’” Then Vincent added: “Daumier is also a great genius” (CL B13).

What if Vincent had failed to ask Theo to tell him more about Daumier? On the other hand, what if we, like Vincent, were to ask those around us to help us gain a new perspective upon our present reality so that we might move beyond it to something more significant?

Starry Night over the Rhone, Vincent van Gogh, Arles, 1888

What if we were to attain that “artistic” or “analytic third” offering us the potential to paint life differently?

What if the person with whom we are currently engaged in conversation says to us: “Have you considered this? Have you considered that?”

What if, thereby, we are no longer limited to “the world according to Gavarni” or the world according to “Gutenough,” as good as those worlds may be?

What if we were to see the world and paint it as did, say, Jesus of Nazareth? or the Buddha? or Mahatma Gandhi? or Mohammed? or Julian of Norwich? or Mother Teresa? or Martin Luther King, Jr.? or Rosa Parks? or Vincent van Gogh?

One can confidently conclude in the case of Van Gogh that his psychotic “breakdown,” which took place within the presence of Paul Gauguin just before Christmas 1888, bore elements of an “artistic third.” Such an experience, painful and debilitating though it was, eventually precipitated a “breakthrough” of such stellar proportion that in the final year of his life, with searing new eyes, he was able to depict on canvas his vision of the new Heaven and new Earth he had contemplated as a young man during frequent and studious encounters with the Jesus of the Gospels.

Whom, then, did Vincent have reason to thank for the epiphany? Theo? Gavarni? Daumier? Delacroix? Gauguin? All of the above and many others besides? Yet, what if he had never so much as once encountered Jesus—or worse—in doing so failed to take the Nazarene seriously?

What if, from the perspective of the persons seated next to us, with whom we have momentarily cast our lot, we unexpectedly discover brand new takes on reality? Might we then no longer be exactly the same persons today we were yesterday?

Can you imagine an artist painting canvas after canvas without ever changing visual perspective? What kind of art would such constraint produce? Yet, when we look around, and all too often when we look within, we realize just how stuck we are in the same old hardened perspectives and patterns, time and again. It’s true of therapists, patients, surgeons, and politicians.

On the contrary—can you imagine shifting “from warrior to saint, from saint to lover, from lover to tiger, from tiger to flower,” with each transmutation bearing the novel perspective of “a sun in the head, and a thunderstorm in the heart”?

The Sower, Vincent van Gogh, Auvers, 1888

And to what end? That our darkened and crazed souls might be awakened to a radically new way of perceiving, being, and acting in the world.

Yes, even to the extent that at the hour of our death, with the curtain pulled back from the face of death itself and with our mortal remains reposing in astonishment like those of Delacroix, we might jolly well appear “almost smiling”!

Therefore—when imprisoned within those calcified perspectives that impede warriors from becoming saints, saints lovers, lovers tigers, and tigers flowers—for Heaven’s sake why would we not welcome unfamiliar vistas that we do not yet know?

 

*The “analytic third,” a concept employed by psychoanalyst Thomas H. Ogden, M.D.

© Copyright 2017, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved


Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God.

 

Grace Given As Grace Received

davidson's-orchard-dillwyn-virginia

THERE ARE STORIES PASSED DOWN about my grandfather Clarence, who died several years before I was born, to the effect that he could take quickly to the stern edge of his character and at times be brusque, impatient and demanding. While he was an industrious and productive Virginia farmer who certainly knew the meaning of hard work, with prosperous farmlands and fruit orchards to show for it, he now and again failed to notice that others worked equally as hard as he, and for far lower wages. One such person was a long-time faithful farmhand by the name of Elijah, who by this time had become an old man, as had my grandfather.

As always, the toil fell to Elijah to till the ground. With his hand faithfully to the plow one sultry summer afternoon, he struggled to keep his usual pace behind the mule as from a distance my grandfather assumed the inherited posture of one whose job it was to oversee. It was not uncommon that Papa, as his children affectionately called him, might unconsciously overlook the fact that the sweltering humidity had drawn beads of perspiration down Elijah’s dark brown cheeks. For a split instant as the mule turned in its path, the two old men stood side by side at the corner of the field.

“Mr. Davisson, would y’ mine takin’ holt of the plow whilst I go relieve myself?”

“Gladly, Elijah.”

It not only had been ages since Clarence had taken hold of anyone’s plow including his own, but for many years Elijah had accumulated a debt of more than just a few greenbacks that he still owed my grandfather. Circumstances being what they were during the Depression, coupled to the customary social, economic and political arrangement, such debt hung overhead like an iron cleaver. It precluded the chance that a poor and aged black man would ever have hours enough in a lifetime, much less in a matter of months, to earn what it took to erase a debt that was part of a system of duties and obligations that kept one particular class of people subservient to another. Elijah, a descendant of slaves, had spoken nothing of such obligations on this particular day; nor had my grandfather, a descendant of slave owners.

Having obliged himself to do Elijah a small favor as the afternoon sun bore down upon the sweaty back of Elijah’s trusty old mule, Grandfather took hold of the reins and plow handles as beneath the pummeling heat he jostled with the soil up one row and down the other. When Elijah eventually returned from his errand, Grandfather spoke the first word.

Sharecropper Ploughing, Montgomery, Alabama, 1944. Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection
Sharecropper Ploughing, Montgomery, Alabama, 1944. Farm Security Administration Photograph Collection

“You know, Elijah, it’s been a long time since I’ve walked behind a plow. Mighty hard work, I’d forgotten just how!”

“Yessuh, Missuh Davisson.”

“Elijah, you know that $5,000 you currently owe?”

“Yessuh, Missuh Davisson.”

“It’s forgiven. You don’t owe it anymore.”

Elijah stood in sheer dumbfounded amazement, exclaiming, “Oh, thanks you, Missuh Davisson! Thanks you! Thanks you!”

Not many months thereafter, early on a cold, blustery Sunday morn in January 1941, for causes I have never fully known nor fully understood, concerning the extent of all that burdened him and made him a prisoner within himself, my grandfather Clarence went to the basement of his house and put a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

The irony of what otherwise appeared to be a largely successful life, despite the share of human foible and failure to which all are entitled, was that Grandfather Clarence at age sixty-five, having forgiven the $5,000 owed him by Elijah, could not for whatever personal reason forgive the “debt” he owed himself. Perhaps that, too, was debt in the form of a deficit long ago transmitted. My guess is that it had already begun to accumulate when at an early age he lost his mother to death’s dark door. Being told that he was somewhat unmanageable, he was soon shuffled off by his father to live with a relative. The rage that more than once manifested itself outwardly eventually turned its way inwardly upon the self.

Davidson Family Bible
Davidson Family Bible, Buckingham, Virginia – To Vitula Monroe Sandridge Davidson by her son, Thomas Archer Davidson

Sometimes it is necessary to invert Jesus’ maxim, “As you wish that people would do to you, do so to them,” in order to say, “As people wish that you would do to them, do so to yourself.”

Of all the besetting sins of an increasingly narcissistic age of emptiness and brokenness, the failure to love oneself may be a root sin that is perpetuated down the cycles of the generations. In keeping with the Christ-like virtue of losing oneself in order to love another, not to love oneself at all makes it virtually impossible to love someone else. Yes, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” For, only as grace is received can grace be given.

Grandfather in a brief moment of grace walked in Elijah’s shoes. I do not know, nor can I know, precisely what that meant. Perhaps there dawned upon Grandfather the extent of sacrifice Elijah for so many years had made for him, which in turn made it possible in a system that had wounded them both for the one man to extend grace and the other to receive it.

Whatever may have been the case then, or soon thereafter upon that cold, blustery January morn, I believe by the eternal mercies of Christ that Papa Clarence has come at last, with Elijah, as shall we all, to receive the full measure of grace that shows itself upon the ever loving face of God.

“Father, forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

 

Credit: Featured image is a painting of Davidson’s Orchard, Dillwyn, Virginia, by Jim Moore

Charles DaivdsonCharles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

© 2017 Charles Davidson,— All Rights Reserved — Originally Published in The Presbyterian Outlook, October 21, 2002

“Best and Deepest” Self-Portraits

van-goth-self-portrait-in-front-of-an-easel

IF ONE TAKES THE TIME to study Vincent van Gogh’s numerous self-portraits, it is apparent that there are several “Vincents” dwelling within the one Vincent. Never, though, do Vincent’s self-portraits exhibit an outright display of mirth. Like a hound tracking a faint whiff of exotic expectation, one must hunt for the glee hidden beneath the surface of Vincent’s solemn countenance.

Van-gogh-self-portrait-with-pipe
Self-Portrait with Pipe by Vincent van Gogh, 1886

Yet, if his mirth is imperceptible within his mirrored visages, there is apparent nevertheless within the vast repertoire of his art and letters an ample supply of unpainted “self-portraits” intimating what Vincent often said of himself when reiterating the words of Saint Paul: “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”

As for the human subjects who sat before his discerning eye, Vincent declared: “I always feel confident when I am doing portraits, knowing that this work has much more depth—it isn’t the right word perhaps, but it is what makes me cultivate whatever is best and deepest in me” (CL 517).

It seems the “best and deepest” that Vincent cultivated in himself, for having seen and depicted the “best and deepest” in others, became the wellspring from which he “drew” the crowning artistic achievements of his life. The entire array of his drawings and paintings, in a manner of speaking, contains implicit self-portraits. The depth of his innermost being permeated the depth he encountered beyond himself in the fullness of nature including human nature, whether in the thunderstruck sky or the sunlit face. Vincent as artist was integrally and resonantly connected to his subject. To stand before his art is to stand before the soul of both.

Self-Portrait (Dedicated to Paul Gauguin) by Vincent van Gogh, 1888

From the nearly 900 Van Gogh still life, landscape, seascape, and “peoplescape” paintings that may be alternately viewed as projective renditions of aspects of Vincent’s inner subjectivities, for those viewers who keep their eyes peeled there also emerge before them more than a few veiled images of the holy and mysterious One—The Artist—whose enshrouded appearances are principally and sublimely joyful. This may explain in part the consolation so widely derived from the mindful observation of Vincent’s art.

Vincent’s succinctly stated sacral mission was this: “In a picture I want to say something comforting, as music is comforting. I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize, and which we seek to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our coloring” (CL 531).

van-gogh-agostina-segatori-cafe-tambourin
Agostina Segatori Sitting in the Cafe du Tambourin by Vincent van Gogh, 1887

Just so, and truer than all the lesser parts of him that contradict or conceal his deepest self, Vincent’s truest self continues even today to break forth upon many a captivating canvas like a burst of sunlight at dawn. Or, to re-image the epiphany, his brush and pigment unleash his quintessential self like a pageant of bright shining stars dazzling the midnight sky.

Whether we ponder the convergence of darkness and light swirling through the fireworks of his “Starry Night,” or fine-tune our attention to the soulful essence of his portraits of an Agostina Segatori or a Joseph Roulin, it is as we linger in their presence by means of prolonged meditation that we encounter sacred dimensions of life inherent in everyday realities.

As for Vincent’s idiosyncratic self-portraits, set alongside his portrayals of those iconic persons who sat for their portraits in front of his sympathetic easel, there is always more depth to be found in their countenances than what meets the first glance of a viewer’s eye.

van-gogh-portrait-of-joseph-roulin
Portrait of the Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent van Gogh, 1889

Remarkably, to undertake an in-depth study of the celebrated Dutchman’s art and letters is also to embark upon a comparable study, as it were, of ourselves. For, just as Vincent said that painting portraits was “what makes me cultivate whatever is best and deepest in me” so does our immersion in his artistic and literary imagination cultivate whatever is “best and deepest” in us.

 

 

 

© Copyright 2017, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved


Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God.

A Day for True Love May (Still) Be More Than You Think

THE COURTLY MONTH OF FEBRUARY makes for the saintly match of charmed lovers and gusty blizzards. It sets forth the marriage of fire and ice.

When I was once-upon-a-time a lad in elementary school, I exchanged with all my classmates a batch of little red Valentine cards laced with white cutouts and presented with tiny pink, heart-shaped candies, soliciting “Be My Valentine.” That was long before it crossed my mind to ask a newly found heartthrob to accompany me to the mid-winter dance on my very first date.

Vintage Valentine (Creative Commons)
Vintage Valentine
Creative Commons

To put it succinctly, she was short and I was tall. When the school photographer ambled about taking impromptu snapshots for the yearbook, he merrily captured from behind my back a stunning photo revealing the presence of my charming dance partner, but disclosing nothing more than her gloved hand resting upon my slender shoulder. Her greater loveliness remained hidden from view of the camera.

Much to my chagrin, minutes later some churlish smart aleck suddenly brushed by the two of us as we danced the fox trot, and cruelly inquired, “Where did you find her? Did you pull her out of a hat?” He swiftly catapulted into the safety of the swirling crowd like the surly “fox” that he was. I distinctly remember being so utterly mortified by his outrageously rude rebuff that I swore to myself never again to speak to him. Despite the eruption of that persecutory moment in the midst of our youthful ecstasy, my lovely Valentine and I, only briefly deterred from our fancied world of bliss, danced on into the night with enchanted eyes fixed upon one another.

Little did I know at the time just how it was that Saint Valentine’s Day came to be. You might say that at its inception it was born of the order of a lover’s “blizzard.” For, as legend has it, Saint Valentine, a third century Christian priest, selflessly ministered to his fellow Christians during the blizzard of persecution instigated by the Roman emperor Claudius. He did so by deliberately defying the emperor’s summons for more soldiers to fight his wars. Saint Valentine, brooking no enamorment of imperial power, proceeded to marry young lovers so that the newly wed husbands could remain home with their wives instead of marching off to battle.

Shrine of St. Valentine in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, Dublin, Ireland (Wikimedia Commons)
Shrine of St. Valentine in Whitefriar Street Carmelite Church, Dublin, Ireland
Wikimedia Commons

As the legend goes, the gracious and lovingly kind Valentine was met by the wrath of the emperor’s henchmen who ceremoniously beheaded the priest on the 14th of February. From this act of ultimate sacrifice, Valentine became known as the revered patron saint of lovers far and wide. During the subsequent annual commemorations of his holy feast day, it was said that the birds of the air joyfully sang their songs of seasonal mating. Thus “The Day of Wine and Roses,” now dedicated to the romancing of the hearts of lovers, was granted its nativity in the fire and ice of martyrdom.

As the liturgical season of Lent ushers in its deep consciousness of human sin and suffering, with Ash Wednesday’s imposition of ashes culminating in Good Friday’s draping of the cross in black, the Christian calendar traces yet another straight line back through time, from the unsaintly decapitation of Saint Valentine to the gruesome cruciform hanging of Jesus of Nazareth. The secular mind, if it notices at all, may deem these two events to possess little more than remote likeness, a confluence of historical similarity by now having morphed unrecognizably into the marketable flavor of Godiva chocolates presented with a glass of Champaign wine and a dozen red roses, all very sweet to the scent and taste of postmodern love.

Yet, for the cognizant Christian, with respect to the ancient martyrdom that first took place as a solemn oblation before God—commemorated as Valentine’s Day—such an inauspicious “Saint’s Day” was not to be the unexpected consequence of the bloody sacrifice that preceded it on Good Friday. In both instances human slaughter was exacted at the brutal behest of imperial power. It was concerning just such things that Jesus called his followers to a different way of life: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.”*

This is not to say that February’s “Day of Wine and Roses” should consist of anything less than the most amorous of glorious celebrations, with rosebuds in hand and grapes of affection adorning the lips. But it is to say that a Hallmark card does not begin to tell the whole story. February the 14th, as we have come to know it, is little more than a gloved hand resting upon a slender shoulder, in contrast to the heavy hand laid upon the head of Saint Valentine, which for the average lover is still hidden from view of the camera.

So, how would it be if we who are Christian were to commemorate February the 14th as a day for true love in the same spirit that Saint Valentine celebrated his defiance of Emperor Claudius in front of the lovers who stood before him, consummated as a martyr’s marriage of fire and ice? What if true lovers everywhere were to join hands and hearts in resistance to imperial edicts that make not for love but for tyranny and war?

Relic of St. Valentine in the Church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Rome
Wikimedia Commons

How might this change the picture on little red Valentine cards laced with white cutouts presented with tiny pink, heart-shaped candies, soliciting “Be My Valentine”? The reliquary remains at the Shrine of Saint Valentine offer a sobering clue.

When self-absorbed autocrats induce the flame and smoke of repression and war, then the taste of profoundly sacrificial love, which is true to God’s love rather than Caesar’s hunger for power and conquest, is anything but sweet bliss. And when this is so, Caesar invariably takes note.

True love always defies the unjust and unloving ways of bullies and tyrants who by their flagrant abuses of power prey upon the lives and liberties of common folk whose love for one another makes them the true saints.

*Mark 10: 42-43, NRSV

Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising; Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers)

 

©2017 Charles Davidson – An adaptation of the original published in The Presbyterian Outlook, February 11, 2002

 

A Call to Action – Christians in Response to Donald Trump

martin-luther-king-preaching-and-donald-trump

DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., declared in a speech exactly one year before his death: “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late . . . Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘Too late.’”1

As a nation we are barely beyond the morning after the longest and darkest night in recent history when we witnessed the dawn of the unthinkable: Donald Trump elected as president of the United States. Now we Americans of this beloved land are facing an outcome that far too many welcomed and far too few sought to dispel.

A self-infatuated, heedless, reckless, unstable, and impulsive authoritarian has become captain of the ship of state, surrounded by what may be the most regressive and repressive coterie of advisors and administrators ever to be put in charge of federal agencies.

In view of this ominous development, multitudes of socially conscientious Christians, who are also earnest and committed patriots, are asking the most solemn of moral and ethical questions. What are our Christian communities of faith and our Christian leaders preparing to do right now in response to a potential national and international calamity, before it is too late?

Martin Luther King Jr. addresses a crowd from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream,” speech during the Aug. 28, 1963, march on Washington, D.C.

Dr. King also said: “A time comes when silence is betrayal. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”2

Given that a prolonged silence becomes a protracted betrayal, what are Protestant, Catholic, Pentecostal, and Orthodox clergy, who are first and foremost accountable to the Lord Jesus Christ and to the gospel of God’s Kingdom, openly proposing to their congregations?

In addition to the importance of reassuring words of providential sovereignty (“God is still God despite Donald Trump”) and offerings of healing solace amid appeals for calm in the midst of the storm (“fear not, faithful ones, for God is present in the tempest”), what specific calls to action must emerge from pulpits, ecclesiastical boards and agencies, and ecumenical bodies across this country? Are we Christians effectively organizing for a potential nightmare in the worst-case scenario that events turn dismally dark under the aegis of President Trump and Vice President Pence?

Among the most pressing concerns collectively before us as Christians are these:

(1) The vulnerability of Muslims, Jews, Latinos, African Americans, LGBTQs, and women as the most likely populations to experience private and public intimidation and the imposition by the Trump administration of repressive measures—

Are we Christians and our churches prepared to stand in solidarity with such persons whenever they are the objects of social disparagement or political recrimination?

(2) Mr. Trump’s threat to institute a national registry of American Muslims, in effect placing them under government surveillance as they practice their constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of assembly and religion, and as they live their lives peaceably with the same rights to equal protection under the law as the rest of Americans—

Are we Christians and our churches prepared to close ranks with American Muslims for their defense and protection, doing so as the mutual children of Abraham, with Jesus as our prophet-in-common?

(3) Mr. Trump’s slander of Mexicans as “rapists and criminals,” and his repeated threats to deport potentially millions of undocumented persons and workers, most of them being of Latino origin—

Are we Christians and our churches prepared to act in solidarity with such undocumented persons and, if necessary, embark upon movements of massive resistance in the event even small numbers of them are subjected to draconian methods of arrest, detainment, and deportation?

(4) The increased incidents of social vilification and defamation of Jews by virtue of their being Jewish, subjected to disdainful words and repugnant acts of anti-Semitism as a consequence of the election of Mr. Trump as president—

Are we Christians and our churches prepared to act in spiritual solidarity with Jews for their defense and protection, doing so in the name of the One God whose life-giving love and justice we share in common?

In consideration of these concerns, and for the simple reason that we are Christians and Christian communities, it behooves us to raise among ourselves the matter of our willingness to join with those Christian churches that have already opened their doors as sanctuary congregations. And, to do so by offering safe harbor for men, women, and children, including secular and religious minorities, people of color, and LGBTQs whose safety and wellbeing may be at risk due to unjust governmental intrusion upon their lives.

Thus as pastors, preachers, lay leaders, and members of congregations, being aware of the inherent dangers posed to us by such actions, it nonetheless behooves us to declare openly before civilian, military, and police authorities who may be commandeered by Mr. Trump, his administration, the governors of states, or local officials, stating to them boldly: If you attempt to arrest or remove from our presence any of these our beloved sisters and brothers, youth and children, to whom we give Christ’s shelter, then you must also take us with them as fellow captives of your unjust dealings; for we, unlike you, will not abandon them.

WE DECLARE that if President Trump, Vice President Pence, their administration, congressional legislators, or state and local authorities set about to decree and carry out various and sundry laws and directives to alienate, isolate, incarcerate, or extradite unjustly targeted persons and communities under the guise of “national security” or for the pretense of “making America great again,” then in the name of the universal God of love, justice, and mercy, and in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, we American Christians and Christian communities, given all our God-given human capacities, stretching from coast to coast, unite our hearts, minds, voices, souls, and bodies as shields and protectors of those sisters and brothers among us who are exposed to imminent peril or harm due to ill-begotten, inhumane, or merciless schemes and actions instituted and undertaken by federal or state governmental authorities, so help us God.

Let it not be said of us by future generations that as American Christians we were among those who waited until it was too late.

Rather, let it be said of us that we solemnly sought to be faithful servants who heard and obeyed the words of our Lord Jesus Christ: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”3 “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”4 “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”5

Taking Dr. King’s words to heart, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.”

It is time to act.

1 “A Time to Break Silence” in I have a Dream: Writings and Speeches that Changed the World, James M. Washington, ed. (Harper San Francisco, 1992), 151.
2 A likely conflation of elements of several speeches.
3 John 14:15, NRSV.
4 Matthew 25:40, NRSV.
5 John 15:13, NRSV.

This essay was published January 22, 2017 on Vox Populi (A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry) – Click Here for Link

© Copyright 2017, Charles Davidson – All Rights Reserved


Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God. He may be contacted through charlesndavidson.com.

 

 

 

The Line Of Vision

crowe-slaves-waiting-for-sale-richmond-virginia

DICK, STEPHEN, CHARITY, AND LUCY were their given names – these beloved “Negroes.” They were the propertied slaves owned by my fourth great grandfather at the time of his death. At the top of the list of all of Hezekiah Davidson’s worldly goods, the court appraised Dick at 120 pounds sterling, Stephen at 100, Charity at 20, and Lucy at 90. Together they comprised more than half the pecuniary sum of the entire estate lumped together, down to and including five axes, a grindstone, two handsaws, a pair of spectacles, and one “woman saddle.” It does not take a microscope to discern whose fingerprints fell upon the axe, the grindstone, and the handsaw.

These sons and daughters of Africa in the year of our Lord 1812, like many of their Native American forebears, in terms of sheer distance from the remembered familial past whence they had come, to the unforeseeable and splintered destiny hence they would go through all the predictable and unpredictable daily dangers to life and limb, trudged their journey painfully and treacherously along a beleaguered “trail of tears” toward the Promised Land. From the vantage point of the auction block as slavery’s narrow vista and constricted view of the future – “I’m here today and gone tomorrow” – these children of God were promised nothing remotely akin to a realized eschatology. Short of stumbling through the gates of heaven, theirs was a stumbling block into disaster.

Slave_sale_posterShamefully and disgracefully, by legal decree if not divine dictate, due to the theological falsehoods of many preachers and the economic egotism of numerous slaveholders, the likes of Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy were deemed, if not doomed, to the lot of mere mortal chattel. In an ethos of white supremacy wedded to the wealth of landed aristocracy and entitled gentry, this human chattel was numbered among any “moveable… article of tangible property other than land, buildings, and other things annexed to the land.”

In truth, every slave in the Old Dominion was annexed to an entire system of which the fixtures included blistering hot rows of tobacco leaf baking beneath the scorching sun, outbuildings consisting of one or two room shanties that housed and slept an entire family, and the bricks and mortar mixed with the sweat of the brow that built and sustained the Big House where the white master and missus partook of daily morsels of dough kneaded by black mammies whose bruised feet stood atop packed earth while their gnarled fingers baked the loaves of the white man’s freedom upon the iron griddles of oppression.

In that respect and with regard to the fate of the black man, I lament the awful truth about one of my not so well esteemed ancestors. Opposite the branch of the family tree bearing my surname there is a line that gave me my middle name, Nuckols. Hezekiah’s great-great-grandson, my grandfather Clarence, married a dear and sweet woman, my grandmother Susie Nuckols. Her paternal grandfather, Joseph Nuckols, being large of stature but small of heart, bore his strength in such a way that with his one hand high in the air he lifted his slave-man upside down by the feet, and with the knuckles of his other hand beat his slave-man’s rump into stinging raw meat.

Thus, when the hopes and dreams of slaves sprang up like lilies in a scorched field, theirs were the songs and dances of a faith-vision that fashioned a cry: “O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!” Nothing else, not anyone else, sufficed to assuage the morning dread and to curb the evening hunger. The underground rail to freedom for those who made it through thickets of woods to safe harbors hidden behind plaster walls and beneath knotty pine floors was as tumultuous and turbulent as the waters of the Red Sea. Only Jesus as Living Water could quench the thirst of souls whose bodies lay wilted in the heat of the noonday pestilence and whose spirits grew weary under the threat of the midnight rider. Dreams and visions, not of an actualized fulfillment, but imaginings with the scope of an unflinching mind’s eye and a pining heart’s desire peering over the horizon propelled these persons to see beyond the brutal and bitter plague of their captivity. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the only true, wise, just, righteous and loving Master of All would someday, on the far side of the Jordan, blessedly grant a better way of life than the crack of the whip and the curse of the hoe.

Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795
Official Medallion of the British Anti-Slavery Society by Josiah Wedgwood, 1795

Think of it this way. Since none of us can see far down the line of vision, we can only trust past the point at which we do see. Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, plus countless others who endured the horrors of slavery in this unfair land, bequeathed us a gift of faith that defies the sight of everyday comprehension and ignites the power of astonishing imagination. To dream dreams and see visions, in life and death, is to dare to believe the impossible beyond the familiar. It is to picture that what has happened thus far along the way, some of it lovely and some of it dreadful, simply cannot add up to the culmination of what life is about. To our world-glued, world-fatigued eyes there is yet more to enter our line of vision than what has narrowed our vista and constricted our view. There is even far more of goodness itself still to come than caged in the darkness we can possibly imagine being true.

Today, beloved, you ache with the torment of fire in your bones, miserably attached to your shackles, hopelessly bound to your chains. Tomorrow – surprise! – in defiance of all that appears inexorable, you spring loose into the cool, fresh air of freedom. Your bruised feet and jagged toes leap from the soil with elation. Your scarred hands and crippled fingers touch the tips of the clouds in ecstasy. Your dry lungs and parched lips burst forth upon the firmament with praise. Halleluiah!

Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation, John Rose, ca. 1785-95
Slaves Dancing on a South Carolina Plantation, John Rose, ca. 1785-95

Dick, Stephen, Charity, and Lucy, this outlandish event called Resurrection is yours not by chance but by Providence. Hooray to you as the last become first! Seen through the eyes of your long-suffering faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” this marvelous turnabout through God’s mercy and grace is the one thing, the only saving thing, for a saint to believe in. Trusting courageously against entire odds the very desire you long for, like the craving of sight by a blind person whose glass eyes eclipse the sun, in the end is not so preposterous after all.

“O, come, sweet Jesus, deliver us!”

 


Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

© 2017 Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved — Originally Published in The Presbyterian Outlook, August 5-12, 2002

A World Of Surprises

BEING MOTHER OR FATHER TO YOUR OWN LIFE’S WORK is like the stone-deaf Beethoven birthing the Ninth Symphony’s Ode to Joy. The craft of creativity is far more formidable than comprehensible. We become infinitely more dependent upon what we do not know than upon what we do know.

Who knows for sure whether this score will ever make sense or sound? — as Beethoven most certainly must have plagued himself in fruitful self-doubt while laboring over a multitude of musical phrases.

We, intensely and deeply stirred by the sound and sense of Beethoven’s muse, must ask a question. Are we the sole proprietors of our works? Unlike clocks ticking in a hushed universe, are we swept along by something far more compelling than the ill-fated motions of hands and faces gradually winding down? How do we, being at times so mortally hard of hearing, like Beethoven, become at other times acutely attuned to the sounds of silence that strangely disrupt our imperviousness to grace?

Ludwig van Beethoven Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler
Ludwig van Beethoven
Portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler

What comedy amid tragedy! Here is Beethoven arranging the musical harmony of one of the most sublime moments of his life—an entire symphony. Yet he’s composing the riches of a majestic melody to the dread, awful contradiction of absolute, mute silence.

Henry van Dyke sought words for the Ode: “Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love.” And Beethoven, it is ascribed, also composed seven measures of a chant for an offertory response. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.”

Enter upon the scene. You, music lover, take a deliberate glance at the deeply entranced Beethoven. By fits and starts he is sitting with his muse. His “time” has caught up with him. The years immediately preceding have been overwhelmed with anxiety and grief, his output brief. But now comes one of those “given” instants, some would say, of brilliance. The master musician is composing his Joy in eerily deafened silence, yet the moon and the tides are waxing eloquently. Is unbridled faith able to muffle the world’s screaming dissonance long enough for anyone to listen and know that it is none other than God who speaks? Ludwig, alone but not alone, “hears” the music of the spheres as the presence of None Other. Are we surprised?

Mundane explanations aside, is it not forever true that “of thine own have we given Thee”? Did Beethoven love God all the more for not being able to hear the chanting cardinals and warbling snowbirds awaken him in the morning? Did their sound waves inaudibly split the air of his silent universe, mysteriously entering the marrow of his bones that he might declare in song, “O God!”?

The rest of us, being uninspired mimics of the world’s misfortunes, are less than attentive. We possess all our faculties, save one. We in the digital age, perhaps permanently, have lost the quiet composure of staying still long enough first to dream and imagine, then to sing the joyous melody close in for one solitary split second. The world of immediate bellow and clamor has dulled our inner senses. Our spirits have sprung loose like frayed violin strings. If only our lost souls were to commit the art of our living to the deaf side of our being, we might be surprised at what we hear when silenced like stone.

One day, early on, before his ears were hardened to the vibrations of audible melody, the young Ludwig was handed the task of learning to play the piano. What if there had been no piano? Would an “enthused” Ludwig have had the presence of heart, like an oyster, to take up pearl making? Mark Twain once quipped, “It is a world of surprises. They fall, too, where one is least expecting them.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Portrait by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Consider the child Mozart. Full of gift, full of surprise, his “lyrics” were like pure “liquid sunshine,” as Karl Barth exclaimed. Yet Mozart’s ordinary life remained tumultuous. What, then, explained his music? In the midst of Wolfgang’s gathering storm, how on Earth was he able to compose such implausible reverberations of grace? Was it by lunacy that he achieved ethereal heights? To what end? Only so that he could be cast into an unmarked pauper’s grave, his lot thrown in with the rest of us? O “liquid sunshine,” like that yellow ball of fire in the sky, how quickly you fade to the west, wearing out your heart in the fever of darkness!

Mozart exhausted his song. His song exhausted Mozart. In his thirty-fifth year the virtuoso perished, not having completed his life’s last measure of mirth. Had he lived yet a few more, then what? Maybe not nearly so much. For what is life when measured by yearSnowbirds? The last words that Amadeus, “lover of God,” penned to his unfinished Requiem were these: “Make them pass from death to life.”Cardinal on Evergreen

Truth is, each day is a divine-human “passage.” In “a world of surprises” belonging first to God before being found of us in ways we least expect, each day is passage “from death to life.” Come, close your eyes and see. Come, close your ears and hear. Like chanting cardinal and warbling snowbird, come open your heart and sing — with whatever song you are given grace to say thanks.

 


Charles DaivdsonCharles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

 

© 2017 Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved 

Originally Published in The Presbyterian Outlook, January 13, 2003

Quiet, Please! While The Fox Is Passing!

AMONG THE PURPORTED BLESSINGS OF LIFE in the countryside is nature’s primordial gift of tranquility. This is reason enough to take the wilderness trail that rambles toward Eden.

To a human actor too long accustomed to the raucous rattle of the internal combustion engine in its endless procession over miles of concrete freeways, the world-stage of woods and stream with its hushed panorama of starlit nights and morning mists on the distant mountain is welcome respite to a pilgrim seeking solace for the soul.

This is not to say that nature is well endowed with silence as it once was in that time-before-time when the Earth was a prehistoric habitat, minus creation’s crowning achievement known as homo sapiens (the “wise guy”) whose penchant for disrupting the reigning tranquility with all manner of congestion and noise is among the least admirable of his achievements. The presence of the human actor, on any stage, changes the disposition of the blue bird and the outlook of the fox, to say nothing of the godly lay of the land.

Believe it or not, but here in Campbell County, Va., those who have “generationed” among these rolling hills and farmlands are quite accustomed to the still-to-be-reckoned-with sound of the yelping foxhound driven by a drove of hungry hunters trotting around on horseback. Eager packs of dogs with their noses to the ground, numbering in the dozens, chase passionately through field and forest in unyielding pursuit of the forever sly but increasingly helpless old fox.

Chicken (Domestic)The sputter of the four-wheeled tractor and the screech of the earth-moving bulldozer have long since disturbed the fox’s peace as routinely as any natural four-legged enemy ever did in the wild. Thus the fox by day, which once preyed upon the chicken as sport by night, can hardly find a lively henhouse anywhere that does not belong to the game of agribusiness, which in the free market system has virtually eliminated the free reign of the chicken. In such diminished rural splendor, with beer can and wine bottle flung into nearly every roadside ditch, there is nevertheless, if but for a time, ample supply of the foxhound. It keeps the fox dizzily on the run from the hunter at its back, while losing the battle against urban sprawl at its front.

My yellow Lab, Buddy, and I were on our early morning walk the other day in witness to the spring sunrise that was breaking over the horizon when we spotted the sleek gray form of a fox heading south down the tarmac road in front of us. Its head was turned back, glaring at us, and with little wonder. It was checking to see whether its symptomatic paranoia and depression were sufficient to warrant the fox doctor’s diagnosis of a clinical disorder.Gray_fox_animal_urocyon_cinereoargenteus

If I were the fox instead of the therapist, I would have prayed that the man and his dog keep the Prozac to themselves. Heaven forbid the day when pharmaceuticals find their way into the drinking water! For the last thing a fox needs is to be drugged into a state of euphoria in which all lingering anxiety about the devastating wiles of the human family system into which the fox has been endlessly hounded and gunned down should suddenly dissipate. It is bad enough that the fox’s collective unconscious is no longer able to remember a primordial age that was decidedly pre-human. It will be even worse when the fox’s best defense against extinction, its capacity to produce a birth rate higher than its death rate, no longer works in its favor. To be sure, utter disaster will prevail when the residual effect of “the morning after pill” in the drinking water puts an end to the fox’s survival forever. No wonder the old fellow instinctively turns its head over its shoulder to see what is coming at it from behind. Yesterday it was the foxhound, today polluted rivers and streams.

Likewise, within the greater scheme of nature’s changing state of tranquility, the rumble of the logging truck comes thudding and blundering round the bend in the road where I live, destined for chopping up and spitting out what’s left of a pulp and paper economy in which the fast-growing pine supplants the slow-growing oak and maple. The driver of the Big Mack, with its friction decibels increasing in loud crescendo, careens his way down the same road that the fox takes in search of a safe crossing to the obscurity of shrubs and trees in which to hide its anxiety.

Subsequent to the Fall, the road from Eden was first a fox alley, then a Native footpath, then a horse-and-buggy mud track, then a trail blazed in gravel for the Model-T, and then, at last, a drag-strip for the after-school racings of Generation Y in its red sports car going nowhere faster than it can go everywhere, which is halfway across the world via television and the Internet to every other place of like kind that is short on tranquility and high on discharging energy.

Yes, I thank God for every vestige of quiet that prevails here within this oasis of “New Concord.” At the moment there is nothing stirring other than a gentle breeze fanning the white pedals of the dogwood and the rustling leaf of the magnolia. Neither a cow moans in the distance, nor a cloud billows with lightning and thunder over the mountain. There is deep silence….

Steeple 1 Watermarked
New Concord Presbyterian Church Spire, Concord, Virginia

Well, I should say, there was deep silence. For the carillon inside the white clapboard tower beneath the church steeple is abruptly blasting forth a hymn of glory. Its bells are ripping through the silence like a rocket taking off into outer space. Dog Buddy, his nose to the sky, is howling for all he’s worth, in tune with the mighty Glory. “Nearer, my God, to Thee, Nearer to Thee!” Though like the wanderer, The sun gone down, Darkness be over me, My rest a stone: Yet in my dreams I’d be Nearer, my God, to Thee… wrote Sarah Adams in 1841, six years after this faithful congregation was founded.

“Nearer, my God, to Thee”? We pray Thee all, yes, may it be so.

And if so, then like the fox and the bluebird, who for the most part maintain their silence through all that is spinning around them, we draw our silence before God in the midst of the tumult by standing apart from it. For this is how God draws near to us, first apart, then close at hand.

Wherever we are on this rambling wilderness trail in our return to Eden, given as we are but a fleeting acquaintance with the primordial gift of tranquility, when we pause long enough to listen — to listen deeply — we hear below the surface-noise a holy silence that is solace for the soul.

The secret is in the vigil of watching and listening — listening to what is stirring down under, not only in nature, but at the very heart of nature, that is to say, to what is rousing from the depths of every living creature whom God knows by name and calls by name. Even the fox on the run that falls to the hunter, and the bluebird on the fly that does not return to the nest, and the generations of the human species who fling their anxieties like empty beer cans and broken wine bottles into the far ditch as though there were no tomorrow over which to fret.

We know that we too will observe our silence in due time, when the Spirit is right, when at last the eye is able to see and the ear is able to hear – O, Holy Silence.


Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

© 2017 Charles Davidson —  All Rights Reserved — Originally Published in The Presbyterian Outlook, June 10, 2002

Some Wisdom From Woodchuck

IT IS TRUE. An oyster would have better concocted this beloved mother-of-pearl than I, the pearl-maker, who is left holding nothing but the encrusted shell of a mollusk. What on Earth, I ask, has happened to the luxurious nacre within? My fond creation, all six pages of it, like pearls on a strand, broke loose this past Sunday morning at precisely eleven-thirty o’clock and scattered asunder in every possible direction – I know not which way to the good. O Lord, how humbling for such laudable intention to come to naught.

digging-in-the-dirt
Holy Humus

I’m going quietly. I’m going to take these poor, wretched and wrinkled remains to the garden which I have coined Lost Eden and where in solemn retreat I shall find a plot to give them decent burial. The spent fruits of my labor will lie fallow amid decaying limbs and decomposing leaves. My preacher’s bent at this point is simply to be relieved of the perilous burden of wandering futilely further down a dead-end path into a spiritual desert. This sermon, at last, is finished. I say therefore, “Unto the mercy of Almighty God, I commend the soul of the departed…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”

I have come to make it my custom to dispose of all my deceased sermons in rich dark loam. When the proclamation of the preacher holds forth no promise whatsoever, the addition of humus to homiletical word-rot increases the chance of supernal growth. Despite its appearance, humus is holy. It is requisite for regeneration. Someday when I’m suckering tomatoes, if I’m lucky and my eyes don’t dim, I’ll look beneath these weeds and see fresh words sprouting.

“When you find them, nurture them with the sanctity of profound emotion!” chuckled the woodchuck, wobbling its way out of the brush and into the grass. I was taken aback by this slovenly creature’s sudden display of empathy. I took it to mean, “Laugh now. You will have ample opportunity to cry again later.”

“Well, you too, old Wobbles!” I blurted out while pondering what tangle of briars a woodchuck must nibble through to earn a day’s wage. “Wood and branch must be to you as paper to me,” I wagered. “We seem to bear our fibers in common. Chew them up and what do we get but a mouth full of pasty splinters! I don’t know about yours, but my congregation deserves better.”

“Yes, true. So does mine,” she retorted. “Yet remember, dead words, like dead works, can come to life. Rejoice when they do, and cart them back to your stump and digest them. Don’t neglect to eat good fiber if you ever hope to have any substance to your preaching.” “Thanks, my friend,” I chortled. “I’ll do exactly as you say.”

“And watch out for your shadow, too,” she snickered, “especially round about the beastly month of February!”

Brooding Bench
The Brooding Bench

Given the peculiar speech to which our “profession” is devoted, and as token of the woodchuck’s good faith in the ability of the preacher’s words to come to life, I cheerfully elected to name my study The Writing Burrow and my prayer stump The Brooding Bench. That’s right. No more trifling diversions, and no more temptation to unworthy pursuits, like paying the bills, revising the calendar, or rearranging the desktop. Strictly writing when in The Writing Burrow and praying when on The Brooding Bench! I must do what the ophthalmologist chirped to my young daughter while he sought to focus her vision upon the figure on the wall as he shined a bright light into her eyes. “Keep your eye on the birdie, dear!”

“And don’t tarry long over what you just did with your grubbing hoe either, preacher,” exclaimed the woodchuck. “You had to bury the lousy things. It was of divine necessity! So pack them down and leave your totally depraved pages to the earthworms. Go back now to your burrow and start composing again.”

“Oh, what does a woodchuck know about composing?” I coughed back. “I say there, the important thing is proof-texting! Every whole-witted woodchuck knows that composing a sermon is only one-third of the job. The other two-thirds consist of proof-texting.”

Before I could even think of a verse to quote in justification of my argument, she set forth another homily. “If the Spirit inspires something new and original and assigns it to you to speak, like the Spirit so moved Moses and Ruth and Jesus, you will want to test the Spirit to ascertain that it has declared absolutely nothing that can be construed as contradicting what the Scriptures have already said on the subject. Beware especially of those portions of the Scriptures that contradict other portions.”

“By golly, Woodie, you do seem to know that certain proof texts are a mighty necessity and others a nasty nuisance!”

“Yes, for example, you must never say, ‘You have heard it said, but, lo, I say unto you!’ That would be tampering with sacred portions of the Scriptures, not to mention holy pearls of human tradition.”

King James Version of the Bible, 1611
King James Version of the Bible, 1611

Woodie-Chuck, as I sometimes affectionately call her, taught me precisely how to refine the retail art of proof-texting, that is to say, how to foolproof my sermon for public consumption by settling a weighty theological issue once and forever with all the authority granted me on Earth as it is in Heaven. Here’s how I do it. I set myself down somewhere other than vertically upon the bumpy tree stump that beatifies my monkish posture for the Brooding Bench, or in the hardback rocker that puritanizes my worldly thought in the Writing Burrow. What I do instead is stretch myself out horizontally in a comfortable Lazyboy next to a roaring fireplace in a dimly lit room, preferably with the received text of His Majesty, King James (who, I’m told, is still considered by some to be the long-lost brother of Jesus) opened upon my lap. The poesy of the king, if not the flaming fire at my feet, will surely inveigh against any flimsy interpretation that may unwittingly arise from my own mythological invention.

With proper proof-texting as the easy-chair method of settling difficult theological matters without having to bother with the quarrelsome details, my sermons shall demonstrate incontrovertibly that God has chosen me to unveil, in an instant, everything concealed but waiting to be revealed to all who yet don’t know. That includes a direct word to every Aunt Gurtie and Uncle Gusty who, given lukewarm piety or none at all, need to know finally how to “get” saved. Salvation, surely, is to be “gotten.” But rest assured it will never be gotten by wading verse-by-verse through all the troubling waters churned up by the scandalizing words of Jesus, especially those outlandish things he said about God’s unconditional grace. Who needs infinite grace when infinite judgment will do? With the right proof-texts we can all join forces with Jerry Falwell to erect a modern Massada high atop Candler Mountain, hole up as the party of the elect killing time while waiting for the impending Rapture, and avoid the choppy seas of sin and sickness altogether.

Dead Sea Scroll - Part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 - 59:9)
Dead Sea Scroll – Part of Isaiah Scroll (Isa 57:17 – 59:9)

Well, now. Now that my proof-texts have been properly lifted from the Bible and placed where they rightfully belong, I move steadily toward the completion of the “revised version.” Rule number one from The Book of Homiletical Proverbs, like rule number one from The Proven Means of Investing, is to “cut your losses.” According to Saint Homileticus, “After you’re done mining (please, don’t say “minding”) the Text, and have sufficiently butchered the Text to suit your own purposes, you’ll need to wash the sediment out of your sermon.”

In that respect, the most proven way I’ve found yet to improve my sentences is to stand stark naked in the shower with my manuscript in hand. To eliminate extraneous theologizing, I do so in the midst of falling water. Not only does ink disappear miraculously from the page and speedily race down the drain, but as a wet-behind-the-ears theologian I am far less likely to catch my socks on fire while proof-texting, fall asleep while daydreaming, or allow the sunshine to wrinkle my skin into the leathery look of premature wisdom during a long summer’s absence of meaning at the beach.

Should I instead choose home-rest for vacation, I will take a deliberate stroll into Lost Eden, defiantly shake at the sky my left hand wielding the manuscript, and, with all the strength I can muster from the right hand, yank from the soil every last weed I can lay my eyes upon!

“Notwithstanding Jesus’ parable about the danger of uprooting the weeds from the wheat,” I said to Woodie, “if there should ever be discovered an abundant lack of wheat in my sermon, the congregation will have no choice but to ingest weeds. A day later the hearers will recall not a single word of what I said that was worth repeating, since I did not say it to begin with. They shall remember every last word, however, of what I did say that was not worth repeating, which shall be the telltale sign that I failed to take Jesus seriously at his word because I feared I’d fail miserably at mine. On giving second thought to that non-divisive parable, I reluctantly admit that the most useless sort of preacher is the one who cuts a path straight and wide through the middle of the congregation on a Sunday morning just like a wild weed-eater. In answer to my critics, what good is salvation, pray tell, if it kills every single living soul?”

“None whatsoever!” cried Woodie. “But rest assured. Dead words, like dead works, can come to life again after they have found their way to the graveyard! The best sermon, like the best prayer and best word of counsel, is the one born less of loud telling than of quiet listening. The distinction between the former and the latter is the difference between a garden choked with weeds and a field brimming with wheat.”

On my next morning walk around the outskirts of Lost Eden I overheard Woodie-Chuck mumbling, “As the wheat grows, the weeds wither.”

“Yes,” I replied. “And I must do as the good doctor chirped. I must keep my eye on the birdie.”

Woodie-Chuck chuckled, “Keep your nose to the ground, and rejoice over newfound fibers that ascend from the ‘soil.’”


Charles Daivdson

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers)

 

 

© 2017 Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved — Originally Published in The Presbyterian Outlook, Nov. 25, 2002

Trickling Twiddling Rippling River

OLD MISTY EYE, Fountain of Eden —
Draped over spiked spine of wet-cold sleeping mountain
Ancient of Days, canticle of waters thundering aground
Rumbling and tumbling atilt and crashing around
Through craggy fissures of rock and sodden seams of silt.

Trickling, twiddling, rippling river
Splattering over bobbing twig, jagged stone and sunken rig.

Gentle flowing brook today, rowdy ripping rapids tomorrow
Frothing beneath drooping willows weeping in anguished sorrow
Dripping tears of yearning for enveloping arms of protection
Like beads of crystals raining upon pallid petals of dejection
Sagging visages in mourning, countenances languished in dread
Hands and faces of sad-bellied children solemnly begging for bread.

Fingers blistered raw-red, palms pleading for pity
Yanking at row after row of steel-wired fences
Erected by sadistic warriors on grassy knolls of the dead
Blasted by tools of oblivion, shoveled into prayers of lament
Entreatments for rancid corpses ripped into scrawny shreds
By the malice of men marching to the animus of swollen heads.

Trickling, twiddling, rippling river
Splattering over bobbing twig, jagged stone and sunken rig.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cataract cascading ridges of boulders, plummeting ledges of cliffs
Rollicking and swirling in peals of laughter, frolicking in reels and riffs
Splashing the victims of disaster bathed in the raging storms of night
Twirling from springs of justice, whirlpooling from provinces of grace
Bursting upon each new day’s space, billowing into the bright morning’s light.

 

© 2017 charles davidson, all rights reserved

Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist,  and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

Of Mites and Miters

miters-and-mites

MINISTRY IS LIKE SPORTS. It is subject to the pointless competition of the steeplechase, the serious injuries of boxing (with shadows), and the deadly leisure of line drives aimed straight at the preacher—absent the benefit of recreational drugs (religion alone is dangerous enough as opiate). It is like golf minus the combat compensation of seaside, sand dune, and sunshine for golfers in pastel pants and Polo shirts devoting entire careers to sinking itsy bitsy balls into trophy-size cups half the size of the human brain. I’ve never seen the average poor preacher, without brain, suddenly get converted to being a rich athlete with brain, and I’ve never seen the average rich athlete, with brain, suddenly get converted to being a poor preacher without brain until after making the first million on the sports field.

So, what does this say about candidates for ordination in the fields of ministry who take the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, whether they frame it so or not? From the start it’s almost guaranteed that at least one of these three hallowed promises-to-do-good will not make it to the finish line. For in the end zone we meet not only the unfulfilled and once immortal dreams of undaunted youth but side-by-side with them the old-beyond-their-years handicaps of washed up wealthy athletes, and yes, poor preachers among other creatures with arthritic backs and bunions on their feet. At the close of day, Grace knows not the difference between a poor preacher and a rich athlete, or, for that matter, between rich and poor anything. For, as Jesus said, God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45).

As a pastor and therapist I have seen rich and poor in roughly equal numbers, though they seldom view themselves as equal. Illusions aside, rich and poor are ultimately cursed with the same blessings of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience that eventually befall all. Yet it’s especially the poor preacher who is supposed to know that these three earthly things are what you will “take with you” when your turn comes to “shuffle off this mortal coil.” So, why put off until tomorrow what you can enjoy today?

babe-ruth-swinging-his-batTake your end-of-life vows now with the best of intentions and good will. Become ordained to subsidiary things like Sunday sermons and bedside prayers since those who habitually chase footballs, baseballs, golf balls, and race cars, are more than glad to leave the incidental stuff to poor preachers while they, the super heroes, attend to the World Series and the Super Bowl. Keep the faith that routine sermons and sequestered prayers, while promised no earthly reward for attempting to lure sports celebrities and big league players away from life’s feigned center of worship, the winner’s circle, will eventually hit home like Babe Ruth swinging all out for the bleachers.

We are to remember but one thing as we take our solemn oaths. When the “last words” are spoken it’s the poor preacher, not the overpaid athlete, who gets to say those final words over the grave where Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience (unto death) are the superstars.

So indeed why put off until tomorrow what you can enjoy today? Take your heavenly vows knowing that today’s pastel pants and Polo shirts are about as flattering to a corpse in a casket as steroids are to the athlete who breaks all sports records in order to land himself in jail.

church-1565156_640Find a church where the steeple overlooks the cemetery. If you catch yourself boxing at shadows, take a walk in the cemetery. If you catch yourself taking the lumps of ricocheting line drives while others hammer their hearts out at home runs, take a walk in the cemetery. If on your day off you catch yourself spending too much time and money chipping and putting life away on the golf course, and watering more than the grass on the “nineteenth” hole, take a walk in the cemetery.

When all is said and done, poor preachers ask themselves just who, including the preacher, knows or even cares what the score was on the tenth and eleventh holes of Sand Castle Links. For when you’re standing up or kneeling down, doing a poor preacher’s job of either preaching or praying, with one eye on the text and the other peering out the window, not at the high steeple but at the low cemetery, you’re suddenly aware of the sacred claim of your calling.

Preacher, go preach, if you believe in such a thing as Grace. Hers is the gentle wind blowing across the faces of small people jockeying big horses for bigger purses, heavyweights trading anything but lightweight punches for golden glove awards, hard hitting swingers amassing the motions of muscular bodies and atrophied souls aimed at fast balls attached to multi-million dollar contracts, and the least likely pro hookers and slicers in the world driving down the fairway of life to become nothing less than number one on the grand tour.

It’s not unlike busted Barry Bonds staring down at his cracked baseball bat, realizing that his last pitch has already been hit hard with steroids, and the grand tally of the all-time highest number of balls slammed over the fence is destined now for the baseball Hall of Shame. There is left only the one inescapable and final “home run” that neither a bat-out-of-hell nor a bawl-out-from-heaven will snatch from the jaws of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience. So where’s the wisdom in this?

At the end of the fiscal year, see that there is slightly more cash remaining in the cemetery fund than in the church’s general coffers. Momento mori – remember you will die. It is worth keeping that forward memory alive by perpetually preventing the grass and weeds from overtaking the tombstones lest they become invisible to human eyes.

Only the humble and the humbled have the last word, the very last being God’s, which is a reversal of the usual order of things and in line with what Jesus said about the first becoming last and the last first, for those who care a hoot about what Jesus said. And that is why poor preachers and ex-bona fide sports champions do well to take long walks in cemeteries in contrast to too many dry martinis consumed at the country club.

There in the cemetery everybody who’s ever done anything, or nothing at all, eventually finds out what it means to be poor, chaste, and obedient. At the least, poor in spirit, chaste of heart, and obedient unto something other than chasing steeples, boxing shadows, hacking rawhide over the deck and out of the park by less than pure prowess, and clubbing for huge corporate hand-outs in exchange for having peddled the least number of strokes aimed at hooking and slicing the biggest profits for the benefit of none other than those who need them the least, and “all these things” through the most ephemeral of media—thin air. So where’s the wisdom in this?

mite-and-miter-widow's-mite-smallest-coin
The Widow’s Mite, Coin of Smallest Value in Circulation During Jesus’ Time

When you preach, aim low. When you pray, remain at a whisper. Keep one eye on the cemetery, the other on the widow with the widow’s mite in hand. Her name is Grace. Her face is the visage of the back row mourner standing next to the stone slab etched with a simple cross and first, middle, and last name, date of birth and date of death. Hidden from vanity, veiled in modesty, she is weeping with the gentle wind of Spirit at her back. Her Poverty of body is her Chastity of soul, and her Chastity of soul is her Obedience unto death. She has met and become acquainted with all three persons of the trinity of goodness standing guard against the ranting and raving legions of “dyed” in the wool sports fans filling the pavilions of self-indulgence. And yet it has never so much as crossed her mind, and never shall, that she, Grace, is filthy poor in anything while all the rest are smutty rich in everything. With head bowed and eyes pressed shut she knows what’s coming. In her frail and feeble hand she holds the key to what’s as true for her as for anyone and everyone.

Death spares not the fact that the tiniest mite suffers the same fate as the tallest miter—to be taken away or given away.

This is the point in time where stewards of ministry, true to their vows, part company with the icons of mass entertainment and all other “sporting” events of war and greed played for higher and higher stakes, as though all manner of pleasurable mammon were simply waiting to be acquired for fame and fortune and nothing ever lost.

Jesus said, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you (Matt. 6:33).

Was Jesus not pressing his point? All these things shall be added? At the end of the day, when all is said and done, what else is there to be added if, like Grace, you’ve already found the Kingdom?


Charles DaivdsonCharles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian minister, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God (Cascade Books, Wipf and Stock Publishers).

 

© 2017 Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved — Published Originally in The Presbyterian Outlook, Feb. 11, 2008

Symbols of the Ages

“Why a book of images matters in a world as chaotic and complex as our own.”         Ami Ronnberg, Editor-in-Chief, The Book of Symbols

HAVE YOU EVER considered that something as minuscule as a tiny ink dot on a sheet of paper is actually a complex, multivalent symbol?

“We know it by a dozen names. . . . As the smallest, the beginning point. It can be seen as an image of infinity . . . which we can only represent in concrete terms as a visual pattern, as a dot. But it can also mean the very first material incarnation of such formlessness, the starting point from which all things arise. . . . As the center and source of everything, the dot is imagined as giving rise to all opposing tendencies: above and below, male and female, hot and cold. And it is also the place where they can be reconciled, the still place at the center of life’s multiplicity . . . the tiny mustard seed growing into a huge bush, which Jesus likened to the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:31-2) . . . the potent spot of the divine within. . . . ” (The Book of Symbols, 706).

With respect to a different image, “What would the feast of life be like without the ‘flagrant crimson’ or the chaste simplicity, the playful exuberance, or the serene composure of the rose?” (162). In other words, when is a rose more than a rose, despite Gertrude Stein’s demur that “a rose is a rose is a rose”?

Or, what about a varied assortment of symbols acting as keys to the workings of the psyche? “Keys evoke the tension between seeking and finding, restricting and releasing, withholding and giving, prohibiting and admitting. . . Psyche offers keys to its conundrums in the form of symptoms and symbols” (562).

Meister Eckhart Portal of the Erfurt Church

Editor-in-chief Ami Ronnberg avows that “symbolic images are more than data; they are vital seeds, living carriers of possibility.” She cites Meister Eckhart—“when the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it”—believing that “Eckhart’s words also explain why a book of images matters in a world as chaotic and complex as our own” (6).

Behind The Book of Symbols lies a rich intellectual and bibliographic history dating to the 1930s, when a series of conferences called “Eranos” (Greek, “shared feast”) took place and persisted throughout most of the 20th century in Ascona, Switzerland. Diverse scholars from East and West gathered there in concert, Carl Jung among them, to mine the world’s vast wealth of symbolism. Thanks to Olga Froebe Kapteyn, who arranged these conferences and also “exhibited on the walls in the lecture hall” an enormous assembly of symbols constituting an archive of some 17,000 images with accompanying texts, we now have access to an abundance of interpreted iconography (www.aras.org).

The book’s visual images alone are worth the purchase price, enriched as they are by substantive narrative interpretations, comprising a “fine arts” collection of cultural “objets d’art” presented mostly in color “from around the world and from every era since human beings first depicted . . . psyche’s imaginal forms.”

The volume is arranged in thumb-indexed divisions entitled Creation and Cosmos, Animal World, Plant World, Human World, and Spirit World. Its 318 articles elucidate the ways “a given symbol reflects intrapsychic landscapes and field phenomena in which structures and functions, shifting, mercurial energies and processes of transformation participate.”

The cover design displays an antique rendition of the human hand, a cutout likely representing the “Hand of God” as crafted by the American Woodland Indians (200 B.C.E. – 400 C. E.). As an example of archetypal symbol, the palm and fingers extend beyond their physical attributes (a hand is a hand) into the trans-material sphere of mythic metaphor (behold, the hand of God).

The Book of Symbols is replete with a cache of metaphors that editor Kathleen Martin concludes can ”flow into each other in ways that mirror psyche’s unexpected convergences.” Its pages, like keys inserted into locks, open doors to what psyche’s imaginal eye can see that the physical eye cannot.

Garden Rose And Blue Forget Me Nots In A Vase by Gustave Caillebotte, France, 1848-1894

Case in point is the rose as an intoxicating symbol of attraction, its “flower’s fragrance, evoking both the seductive love magic of Cleopatra, and the ‘odour of sanctity’ of the Virgin Mary.”

The classic second-century novel The Golden Ass by Apuleius declares “roses are the antidote for the magic-gone-amuck that has transformed the hero Lucius into a donkey.” As the story unfolds, the enticement of the roses “are always just out of reach until strategically placed in a festive procession for the Egyptian goddess Isis, who subsequently calls Lucius to priestly service” (162).

Appropriating the symbolism of this ancient tale for a 21st century audience, we might do well to consider that roses signify the values and virtues of archetypal feminine powers. In that respect the collective energies and wisdom of women will proffer a far better chance to save the planet than the “magic-gone-amuck” of male testosterone donning dark suits and uniforms for breeding wars, famine, environmental degradation, and refugee migration.

Think for example of the positive hope and energy engendered by the National Women’s March of January 21, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. Here is the man who, not unlike his mythic counterpart Lucius, continues making a “golden ass” of himself!

Is it possible, as for Lucius, that Trump might regain his lost humanity by ingesting a bouquet of roses, which is to say, by digesting some feminine elixir? Instead of his infatuation with monuments to male dominance and aggression (“Trump Towers”), might a reintegration of his own feminine anima (as opposed to his lonely male animus) free him from his misogynistic, locker-room proclivity for demeaning women, among others, with predatory disdain?

Think, for instance, how the Virgin Mary might transform his numerous personal animosities during quiet moments of reflective solitude, should he ever grant her the opportunity to provide him with spiritual redemption. Yet, can you imagine Donald Trump—even for one still minute—praying the rose-ary? Thus in his case the career of the rose is “always just out of reach.”

Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear Vincent van Gogh, 1889

This leads us to ponder another anthropomorphic symbol, the human “ear.”

“Antiquity suggests how important it is for us, not only the gods, to listen especially to the soft-spoken ‘sounds’ that religions hint at through their metaphor of the ear, and which are also a psychic reality” (358).

Just so, “medieval Christians claimed that Christ (as the Word of God) was conceived in his mother’s womb after a dove entered her ear.” This figurative portrayal of Mary’s conception challenges the limits of modern empirical rationality. It compels us to reckon with the incongruity between the ways we ordinarily interpret the everyday world and the antiquarian image of a dove entering the human ear as a sign of divine incarnation. Translated: Who among us is listening deeply and profoundly to the Word of God spoken to us in the Age of Google?

If not spoken by means of hobbled preachers and holy scriptures, then perhaps some other forms of artistry may open at least a narrow passageway into the pregnant imagination where more than gargoyles and goblins dwell. By that avenue, meditate for a season upon the proverbial “spiral.”

Picture the “archetypal path of growth, transformation and psychological or spiritual journey” embodied in Georgia O’Keefe’s Pink Shell with Seaweed. Here we encounter iconography that draws us into “the sacred way of commandment and prayer, the spiral voice of God and the sacred call to God.” For the icon “evokes one’s own center, divine source, ‘I am’ and seed of consciousness” (720).

Now juxtapose this with the “double spiral” visible in cosmic galaxies, working visual wonders by “the direction of its spin” by which we humans find ourselves caught in the contradictions of “growth or decay, ascent or descent, evolution or involution, waxing or waning . . . increasing or decreasing, offering or receiving, revealing or hiding” (718). Such paradoxes—are they not the subjects of our prayers? And, as with the ragged events that condition our prayers, do our dreams not contain within them symbols of veiled mysteries waiting to be revealed? “Then the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called Aaron and Miriam; and they both came forward. And he said, ‘Hear my words: When there are prophets among you, I the Lord make myself known to them in visions; I speak to them in dreams'” (Numbers 12:5-6).

Georgia O’Keeffe

As for the myriad of archetypal images that accompany such dreams, you may want to check out a few of these and others from the pages of this book: waterfall, cloud, flower, mushroom, Ganesha, Dakini, ant, bear, baldness, heart, subway, gossip, stranger, sword, bow and arrow, net/web, earring, attic, mirror, butterfly/moth, fountain, school, drum, bridge, tunnel, Quetzalcoatl, Siren, Furies, dragon, incense, pearl, ancestor, chakras, crucifixion, and crossroads.

The Book of Symbols awakens within us an awareness of the artistic imagination whose “priestly service” acts as an intermediary between conscious and unconscious dimensions of life. Without the presence of archetypal metaphors, symbols, and dreams as lifelong companions, we would be bereft of their profound implications and ofttimes life-changing insights and meanings.

The splendid achievement of The Book of Symbols is its portrayal of the extraordinary magnitude and genius of the symbolic mind that belongs to all races and people. Ω

The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images, Ami Ronnberg, Editor-in-Chief, and Kathleen Martin, Editor; Köln: Taschen, Pp 807, 2010, Hardcover (Amazon)

© 2017 Charles Davidson — All Rights Reserved


Charles Davidson is a retired Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor, psychotherapist, and professor of pastoral theology, care, and counseling. He is the author of Bone Dead, and Rising: Vincent van Gogh and the Self Before God.