Tag Archive: Christianity


Over the Thanksgiving holiday I repeatedly came across something from a person who seemed to feel that a real Christian couldn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, because evidently it was so deeply rooted in Pagan tradition.  It’s every person’s right to express his or her opinion, but I find that kind of thinking rather sad.

This time of year is wonderful!  For the next month or so several traditions have holiday seasons which overlap, and I suspect a lot of those traditions may owe a lot of their growth to anxious parents long ago, having to deal with a house-load of kids getting serious cabin fever.  And I would not be surprised if a great deal of these celebrations – the particular fun things we do – are historically rooted in Pagan tradition.  This doesn’t feel, to me, to be a bad thing.

We generally accept Paganism as among the most ancient of spiritual traditions.  I accept that, too.  The symbols of ancient traditions around the world, I believe, have their roots in visceral reactions to things – these symbols seem to be more pure in a way.  When new faiths come along they generally see themselves as more enlightened paths, and will use the ancient symbols of whatever culture prevails.  So the Easter egg is a symbol for Horus, the Egyptian god symbolized by the hawk – Horus performed an intercessory function between God and human similar in many respects to how early Christians viewed the role of Christ, so as Christianity moved into Egypt this association seems natural.  And the hunt for eggs seems, then, a symbol of the seeking for the role of Christ in everyday circumstances or in the world at large.  I would be very shocked, however, if those Christians of so long ago had anticipated the vast array of different ways we have today to dye and decorate eggs.  A part of me wonders how they would react.

Oh, no!  The Easter egg is Pagan and we’ve got to stop using it!  This is a sad reaction.  Rather, in our fun way we are honoring a millenia-old symbol, using an ancient and revered idea to underscore, or expand, our celebration of a relatively new faith, Christianity.  By incorporating these ancient traditions, at least in part, we are also celebrating our ancestors.  The ancient worshipers are not strangers to us – they are our forefathers.  Where we are today is built on the lives of everyone who has gone before.  Our use of ancient symbols in celebrations of today regardless of the faith or holiday celebrated, is also a good-hearted honoring of our fathers and mothers of old.  Or at least, that’s how I see it.

For those who see the incorporation of Pagan traditions into an “enlightened” celebration as a dilution of faith, I can only say this – Truth is Truth and will always stand the test of time; honoring the faith of others can only honor your own.  By bringing in the memories of our ancestors, even in silly stuff like the extra fun holiday traditions of every faith, we include them in our happiness.  All of these people are our family, and we celebrate our happy moments – including holidays – with our family.  We should honor and celebrate the happiness of others, too, because they are also part of our human family.

I love what Ben Stein has to say about a Jew celebrating Christmas:

What did Mary feel during the events celebrated with Christmas?  When my girls were younger, I would sing Gabriel’s Message to them as we drove to school in the mornings during November and December, and invite them to think about the Nativity from the mother’s perspective.  What did she feel during the series of miracles that unfolded?  How did her experience with angels affect her motheringMohammad said the path to Paradise lies at the feet of the mother; I wonder how the life of Jesus could have unfolded other than as it did without the nurturing support of his mother.

Some more of Mary’s perspective:

And I love this version, as well:

Once upon a time, Jesus sat on the bank of the Jordan River, enjoying his surroundings.  An artist, filled with hubris, rushed to his side and commanded his attention.  “Jesus!” he shouted, “look at the beautiful thing I have made!  Truly I am the greatest artist in the world!”

Ignoring the dancing, gesticulating artist, Jesus calmly scooped a handful of mud from the bank of the river and molded it in his hands.  Working swiftly, he sculpted a tiny bird and brought it to his lips, blowing on it softly.  After a moment, the bird shook its head then fluffed its feathers, working bits of mud from its body.  It glanced quickly around, then launched itself from Jesus’ hands and flew into the sky.  Turning to the stunned artist, Jesus calmly stated, “When you can give what only God can give to your work, then you will have the right to be proud.”

I love this Sufi story from the life of Jesus.  First, because I am an artist – and he certainly put the boastful artist in his place!  And second because it is a solid reminder of where our proper attitude should lie.  All of us are given gifts of talents, abilities, experience and wisdom; we are given these things not so we may revel in our superiority but so we can become better people ourselves and that we may use our gifts to bless those around us.  Whether or not we identify with a Supreme Being, talents and experience are best used when they are used to bring joy to others and expand awareness of our world and our own place within it.  Creatures of faith are also aware that each of us are made for a specific reason, and that reason includes finding excuses to do good for others.  The gifts we are given carry something of an ironic blessing – when we focus on using our gifts for the betterment of others, and searching within for Divine direction in their use, our gifts grow and flourish into the best they can be.  In service to others or the Object of faith, the unique abilities we possess are magnified and fulfilled.

Conversely, by exploring and expanding our own unreasoned pride – an expanding sense of ego at the expense of others’ – the use of our gifts becomes self-absorbed, narrow-minded, and cledalistic.  Pride forces us into using only our own resources, while opening our hearts and minds to Inspiration expands the field from which we can draw to truly infinite proportions.

The shape is a lesser stellated dodecahedron.  The dodecahedron is the Platonic solid symbolizing quiddity, the universe, or the matrix within which all things are manifest, and the stellation represents expansion.  Each side is etched and painted blue for the evening sky, and framed in each clear circle is a bird design mixing elements of both naive drawing and flowing calligraphy.  Inside the structure is suspended a ball of various sizes of metal wings.  The bird imagery is used for two reasons, the first pointing to the story related above regarding Jesus.  The second comes from another Sufi story shared by Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr in his book (one of my favorites) Islamic Art and Spirituality.

The Sufis teach of all the animals in creation, birds are closest to man.  The greatest difference between us is, unlike our brothers the birds, our wings are wings of spirit.

Buddha Image from Wikimedia Commons

Buddha
Image from Wikimedia Commons

In every movement there are small elements that shriek and cry out that they alone represent the entire movement, while the rest of the larger group finds it difficult to recognize much similarity.  Outside of every movement it seems that a vocal few usurp the position to define and articulate the movement, forcing members to defend their belief, stance, or thought rather than define it themselves.

Of course, these are wild and overblown generalities, but there is something to support them.  All around the world groups claim the attention of the media and are given a platform.  Because it draws in viewers, these shrill voices have airtime to share their opinions, and a sad byproduct is that the voices of the rest go unheard.  Radicals, fundamentalists, and others with little grip on a shared reality are presented as speaking for the majority.  The vastly larger portion of Christians, for example, would never recognize as a Christian act the stalking of funerals for deceased service men and women and the screaming of pejoratives through the gates at surviving family members.  It seems that the louder and more shrill a person’s voice is, screaming at the top of their longs asserting their faith, perhaps the desperate volume is to silence their own doubts.  I don’t remember Mother Theresa ever shouting, “No, really, I believe!”  Or Mohandis Gandhi shrilling crying to his fellows, “Follow me!  I know the way!”  These paragons of spirit lived their faith, and never had to scream it.

World faiths have at their core the drive to find perfection, and the faithful desire to become perfect.  This is the drive to perfect the inner being, not force others into line.  When war and ignorance are perpetuated in the name of religion, it is because the root tenets of the faith are lost or misunderstood.  A while ago I heard a commentary by an outspoken atheist, who made the statement that ignorance is the province of faith, and that only the faithful believe the earth is flat.  I immediately thought of the religious astronomers of the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, and Celts, the faith of scientists like Hypatia of Alexandria, Ibn Khaldun, Viktor Frankl, and Warner von Braun.  The earth is flat and ignorance reigns when politics, not faith, takes over the religion.

It is easy to let our differences and disagreements grow until they become the only things we see – but it is also just as easy to see those things we hold in common as fellow humans and creatures of hope.  As a non-Episcopal I was invited to speak at St. Mark’s Episcopal and teach Sunday School for a month.  They could have focused on our differences in doctrine, but instead focused on our similarities and shared ChristianityIt was a beautiful experience, and the Dean Waldon even reflected on it in his Christmas message.

When we choose to honestly follow faith, respect the faith of our neighbors, and determine to find those things which unite us, it may not dramatically change the rest of the world – but it will certainly make our little corner a much better place, and we can catch a glimpse of that for which we hope.

Flammarion Woodcut

All blessings flow from the same ultimate Source, and sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the idea that somehow we are the ones triggering the blessings.  When pride rather than rejoicing gratitude is our state of mind, I believe that can turn the heart of the Giver away.  At any moment, the wonderful things we have and experience can be withdrawn and our world can shift dramatically, so this mindset of gratefulness for the blessings we receive is vital to our constant welfare.

Job and Jesus were both examples of the best mindset to receive.  Job, through a twist of fate, had everything stripped from him, but he retained his dignity and faithfulness – and was ultimately rewarded with blessings far exceeding what had been taken away.  Jesus gave up the blessings of his family’s position and wealth to live the life of an itinerant preacher, always mindful of the many blessings surrounding him without the trappings of wealth.  In Sufi tradition when Jesus was asked how he felt being poor, he responded by confidently declaring he had all he needed, “My shoes are my chariot, the moon is my lantern, and the morning sun is my winter’s fire.”

To become the creatures we are created to be, we must open ourselves to the Divine will, and being caught up in our blessings or thinking that somehow God “owes” us these things is a dangerous, prideful attitude and closes our hearts.  “Pride goeth before a fall (from Proverbs 16:18)” is a principle consistent with our growth cycle – to “reopen” our hearts to His presence, sometimes we have to be reminded of the proper attitude and our blessings are stripped away.  Jesus, First Among Saints, gave up his material blessings in voluntary abasement as an example to those around him; Job was abased because, I believe, he was a trusted servant and God required an example for Job’s contemporaries.  Both proved that material blessings are to be accepted with grace and humility, and that true blessings are beyond this material world.

In my personal reflection, I believe this Name has to do with keeping a hedge about our proclivity to pride.  Our Creator has built the entire universe just for our well-being, and His desire for our welfare means we deserve rich blessings, but the moment we act like attention-starved selfish children and whine to the heavens that somehow God “owes us” something, we begin to weaken our channel with the Source and sour our relationship.  By remaining aware that, at any moment and quicker than an eye-blink, our fortunes could be reversed and our haughtiness brought to abasement, we can be motivated to remain in a grateful state of mind.  And, if abasement comes although we maintain the right attitude, I believe it is because our Creator trusts that we’ll have the strength to deal with it and be a good example to those around us.

The shape is a truncated dodecahedron, modeled after a popular lamp imported from the Middle East during the 60’s and 70’s, inspired by a lamp made by my friend David n. Sterling of The Mall of America Religious Council.  Each pentagonal face has a representation of the numbers 1 through 12; in the bottom are ashes (reminding us of the example of Job) and hanging from the top is a polished moonstone (symbolizing the story related about Jesus).  The ashes are from prairie oak, Russian olive, and cottonwood branches (naturally fallen from their respective trees, growing around the areas I’ve lived in – and with some alchemical significance).  The indigo and blue paint are to remind us of the expanse of heaven.

All of us have our stories of abasement, and I pray that we have the strength to remember to offer gratitude for the blessings we receive; I’m also confident our Creator hears and is greatly pleased when we thank those wonderful people who surround us, who give us His blessings through their own hands.

99_Names___1_to_25_Cover_for_Kindle

The book of the first sculptures in the 99 Names series is done!  It is on Amazon.com as well as Amazon Europe for my overseas friends.  From the back cover:

Islam is a faith revealed to the Prophet Mohamed, whose motivation was to heal the spiritual rift between Judaism and Christianity.  The tradition of the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God in Islam is an index of those traits which make us all most uniquely human; although rooted in Qur’anic tradition the Names echo thorugh every faith wherever people aspire to the very best of humanity.

This is a Christian’s exploration of Islam and the 99 Names through sculptural stained glass – sharing the beauty found in another faith coupled with the reflections of an artist, minister, and teacher.

Check it out here.

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Construction Photos by Lydia Kosorok

In the post Building Reliever, I mentioned the particular symbolic meaning some plants have in a desert environment, plants which mark water sources being readily seen as signs from the Divine – the acanthus in particular.  It seemed appropriate for this to be the backdrop for Merciful.  The structure itself is based on the early Christian church style, the basilica – in the early days of Islam, when the faith arrived in some new settlements the traditional churches were many times out of use and were in serious states of disrepair and neglect.  Many of these structures were rebuilt and repurposed as masjids, or mosques, and became not only religious buildings but civic centers as well, for use of the faithful of all religions.  The basilica structure is built on the Golden Section rectangle, a shape sacred to and used by every faith.

The stylized acanthus leaf and the outline of the sculpture’s form was drawn out 150% larger than needed, then shrunk down to size so I could get the detail needed.  Using a special light-sensitive film made by Rayzist, similar to films made for silk-screening but designed for glass etching, I transferred the image to the glass I had cut out and etched both sides with multiple layers.  The etching gives the glass a ‘tooth’ for the paint to attach to, and by brushing off or wiping the areas left un-etched and firing between applications of paint (for German New Antique with this kind of Mason Stain and Glass Frit/Flux mixture, I fire between 1335 and 1365 F), the paint reticulates similar to watercolor and ends up looking rather reminiscent of medieval-era illuminations.  In dry-brushing the paint using brushes with stiff bristles and changing the direction of brushing, the paint develops a texture suggesting textiles.  By working both sides of the glass and using its natural transparency, even subtle differences of pigment compound each other and show up very nicely.

The eight layers of glass symbolize both the architectural use of the octagon in bridging the cube of the earth-bound structure and the dome of heaven, and the number of angels the Qur’an states will carry the throne of God in the Final Judgment.  Each vertical layer has an arch cut out, inviting the viewer inside, and in the layer before the Acanthus I etched a petroglyph open hand symbol.  It’s important to note that this was not meant as the literal hand of God, but as a metaphor for His welcome and eagerness to receive all who spiritually approach him.  Many anthropologists believe that symbols like the open hand petroglyph were not meant as a literal hand, but as a symbol of welcome.  Jenna Krajeski wrote a nice piece for Egypt Independent about this and the 99 Names Project, where she writes about some of her observations, too.  This sculpture reminds us that spirituality and religion are welcoming guides, and should not be spiritual prisons.

The bottom panel, the foundation of the whole structure, is etched and painted with an alternating 8-pointed star and cross pattern, referred to as the “Compassionate Breath”.  Traditionally, this pattern has been used as a reminder that the Creator thinks of his works with compassion through every breath, as the stars represent metaphorical inhales and the crosses exhales.  Eight is a common feature of geometric shape in Islamic art – I mentioned the angels, but the architectural symbol is profound.  Just as the octagon bridges the static earth with the infinite heavens (the cube with the dome), the octagon has become a symbol for the bridge which allows the human spirit or soul to reunite with our Creator; for Christians this became a symbol of the Body of Christ, and for Muslims this became a symbol of the Holy Qur’an – in their respective faiths, these are the vehicles which allow us to overcome the weaknesses of our natural states and become the creatures God intended us to be.

St. Mark’s Episcopal in Salt Lake, Utah, invited me to teach Sunday School for a month, and we spoke about the intersections of faith, alchemy, and creativity.  St. Mark’s has a distinct mission in the area – they go out of their way to mend the spirits of those feeling rejected and used by society, and they have become a healing center for the souls of those on the verge of giving up all hope.  Their community forms a wonderful expression of the ideal of this Divine Name, Merciful, so after out Sunday School experience together they were presented with this sculpture in appreciation of their beautiful spiritual community.  My friend Reverend Walton, Dean of the congregation, gave a beautiful Christmas service in response.

Almost every chapter in the Qur’an begins with an invocation to God’s Name Ar-Rahim, The Merciful.  This reminds us of the limitless love, compassion, and mercy our Creator is anxiously waiting to bestow on His creations – we are always welcome, and He is always ready and willing to receive us.  This also reminds me that, if we hope to receive this from our Maker, we perhaps should make it a priority to show the mercy we ourselves hope to receive to those around us.

Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them: otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven… That thine alms may be in secret: and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
Matthew 6:1-4

YasSarNalQuR'aN

The next ayah addressing Muslims through the kindly address Yaaa Ayyuhal Lazeena Aamanu is also related to spending in the way of Allah but with a similitude that makes a thinking Muslim sit up and take stock of his/her  charitable deeds. This is Ayah No. 264 of Surah al Baqarah.

Islam doesn’t approve the slogan ‘Ends justify the means’! 

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Photography by Hawkinson Photography

As I began focusing on the 99 Most Beautiful Names of God, I reached out to scholars and clergy who write and teach about the Names.

One of my fears regarding this project is that Muslims will be offended that a Christian is trying to learn about their faith and express what he learns through art.  I thought that my motivation would be misunderstood, that somehow it would be perceived I was trying to “Christianize” their treasured beliefs or, worse yet, come as an unlettered scholar and announce I knew Islam better than Muslims.  However, I found very quickly that my sincerity and honest desire were accepted at face value and those I approached went out of their way to help me on my path of appreciation and understanding.  One Imam was grateful when he saw I was also trying to find ways to apply the principles of 99 Names traditions in my own life, and find parallels with my Christian beliefs.  Imams, Mawlanas, and Sheiks of many different paths of Islam responded.  One teacher in Egypt had written a book on the 99 Names – he found one of his congregants who knew English, and had him translate and email the book to me.  A Sheik in Azerbaijan, who also didn’t know English, had one of his congregants translate the blessing he gave to me to guide me in the work.  There have been, and continue to be, other stories of people opening their hearts as they realized I was sincere.

One friend, Besim Bruncaj (who works with World Interfaith Harmony Week), connected me with the internet arm of WISE University in Jordan, Qibla (known as SunniPath at the time).  I was told they were just considering a class focusing on the 99 Most Beautiful Names when they learned about my project and they took it as a sign – they gave me a scholarship to study Islam theology and the 99 Names for a semester, which deepened my appreciation immensely.  The teachers and students were incredibly supportive of my work and I actually did a pretty decent job in the class.

With this learning, a few principles in Islam really struck chords with me.  One is the concept that as infinite as the universe is, it was all created for us.  Another is although we can only see a small portion of reality at a time, we are all part of something much greater and we all have a necessary role to play – it is our purpose of life to discover what our role is, and to play it well.  These principles rolled nicely into meditations on Humbler.

This Name has two faces, as it were.  One is the role God has to help remind us that He is the only One justified in His pride, and it is dangerous to our souls when we inflate our own worth at the expense of those around us.  The other face is the fact that we are constantly surrounded by the evidence of the Creator’s magnificence and love for us, and awareness of this helps us realize we are literally nothing without His grace.

The sculpture is a dodecahedron, the twelve-sided Platonic solid representing aether, or the medium within which all things exist.  In each face I used hermetic geometry techniques to find a ratio of circle to pentagon which felt and looked appropriate.  Sources were online directions for constructing pentagons (one of my favorite here) and one of my favorite books, A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe by Michael S. Schneider.   I used his book and the Little Wooden Books Sacred Geometry by Miranda Lundy, The Golden Section by Scott Olsen, and Ruler and Compass by Andrew Sutton to evenly space the two to thirteen tying holes around the larger center hole in each face.  The holes on the edges (to tie the structure together) were spaced far enough from the edge to provide maximum strength when tying.

Each side is painted indigo to remind us of the night sky and space, and each facet is tied with stars of differing numbers of points.  In the center is a small clay bead to represent the human element.  This serves as a reminder, as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu said, God didn’t make us because He needed to, but solely because He wanted to.

Easter

Pieta by MichelangeloImage by Wikimedia Commons

Pieta by Michelangelo
Image by Wikimedia Commons

Christmas is awesome, but I really love Easter.  There’s a lot fewer people telling you of all the bargains and sales you simply cannot miss, and there’s no rush at the mall.  More than that, though, I love the promise of new life that walks hand in hand with the new life we see in Spring.  And, of course, I love explaining to my youngest what the Easter Bunny has to do with it all.

The site Christianity Today has an excellent article on Easter, and Religion Facts has some very good bits, too.  I find beauty and godliness in all faiths, but I have a deep resonance with Easter – Christians around the world remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of the one Being in all the universe who could redeem another, and hope returns.  Jesus is the example of perfect obedience for many faiths, and offers salvation to those who honor, reverence, and apply His sacrifice to their lives; in the eyes of many Christians, a redemption the world itself recognizes in the new life of Spring.

From The Passion of the Christ, Youtube

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