Van Gogh’s Seasons

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This week I took the opportunity to view the Van Gogh Seasons exhibition at the NGV, Melbourne.  What an extraordinary man Vincent Van Gogh was.  What a blessing to humankind!  His astute and sensitive nature was an unusual beacon during the time of his life (1853-1890) and, even now, his thinking and his art provide light to the forerunners of human society.

It is impossible to view Van Gogh’s art and read his quotes without gaining an appreciation for his depth of character, spirituality and emotional integrity.  Because I am a writer, I will focus on the written quotes displayed throughout this exhibition – extracts taken from the artist’s copious letters written to his brother, Theo.

Prior to becoming an artist, Vincent explored a number of different vocations including art dealer, preacher and lay-evangelist.  During these years, his love of art, nature and spirituality were refined and sharpened such that, once he chose to create images on canvas, he was able to ‘see’ what needed to be seen.

His work has an amazing sense of the essence of place and, looking at his art, evokes a genuine experience of insight and emotion.  The light, the color, the lines and brushstrokes all initiate a strong sensory response; it is possible to enter into the places represented on canvas and smell the smells, feel the temperature and moisture in the air.  Van Gogh had the masterful ability of enhancing reality through his art, just as a good fiction writer can do the same with words if they are a talented wordsmith.

Let me share with you some of his quotes regarding the seasons:

‘It is something to be deep in the snow in winter, to be deep in the yellow leaves in autumn, to be deep in the ripe wheat in summer, to be deep in the grass in spring,’ (Van Gogh 1885)

Melting snow was falling.  I got up in the night to look at the landscape – never, never has nature appeared so touching and sensitive to me’ (1889)

‘If one looks closely, one sees that there’s a kind of gospel on the first day of spring’  (1883)

‘I myself almost don’t know which season I like best; I believe all of them, equally well’ (1873)

 

And now, let’s consider some of his thinking that goes a little deeper so that we may understand the type of man Van Gogh became:

‘And yet it was only while painting that I noticed how much light there still was in the darkness’ (1882)

‘It requires a certain dose of inspiration, a ray from on high which doesn’t belong to us, to do beautiful things’ (1890)

‘One must work long and hard to arrive at the truthful.’  (1882)

 ‘ … where people say of my work, that man feels deeply and that man feels subtly’  (1882)

 

Thank you Vincent Van Gogh for the heritage of wisdom you have given to us through your art and your writing.  We honour you and the life you led.

 

Compassion

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God describes him/herself to a man called Moses saying, ‘I AM who I AM’ and ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness’.

So, what is compassion?  I think of it as keeping company in passion; feeling with another person (or ourselves) and staying physically and emotionally present with one another.  Compassion is a part of love that renounces fear/awkwardness in order to prevent a person feeling abandoned or alone.  The expression of compassion relies on courage to take part in the feelings of another soul and a commitment to understanding the importance of emotions.

This song is one of the most beautiful expressions of compassion (God’s) that I have come across.  Enjoy!

Kindness

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Kindness is soft and strong.  It is accepting of where people are and who they are.  It does not judge, but instead respects thoughts and emotions.  It acknowledges the good, the bad, the easy, the hard.  When shown kindness, a person feels safe, is healed, is accepted.  Kindness shows that one is listened to and heard.  Kindness is generous.  It can also be fierce! (‘Because I love you …’).  Kindness sometimes means being vulnerable and risking the loss of things or people.  A gift of kindness can mean loss while also delivering the most incredible peace.

Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit of God.  It is an expression of grace and a means by which we can love one another and get along together giving us a real experience of dwelling with God and each other.  Kindness feels warm, refreshing and sustaining.  It often brings with it a strong sense of being valued and belonging.

Kindness looks like the Good Samaritan; the person who understands what it means to love God, love themselves and love others (their neighbours).  When Christ’s listeners asked ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (i.e. Who should I be kind to?), Christ answered with the story of the Good Samaritan and a question, ‘Which person in the story do you think was a neighbour?’

Kindness is often recognized by actions and sometimes magnified by attending to the small intricate things in the life of another.  Developing a kind thought-life and affirming others with kind words are also important expressions of love.  Other virtues that accompany kindness include generosity, integrity, steadfastness and compassion.  We should be able to receive kindness as well as give kindness and it should be a virtue devoid of superiority or inferiority.  Self-righteousness, selfishness and judgementalism oppose and hinder kindness.  Kindness can be used as an agent of change when we ask the question: ‘How can I bring kindness, love, grace into this awkward (or challenging, or volatile) situation?’

Why be kind? Because our God is kind.

The Hebrew sacred text says,

‘I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with unfailing kindness.’ (Jer 31:3)

The story of Ruth as told in the bible is full of kindness and in Colossians we are instructed to be kind:

‘Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.’ (Col 3:12-14)

Shalom, and may we remember to consider the Lovingkindness of God often (Psalm 107:43) and not conceal it from others (Psalm 40:10).

Peace

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Peace is something we all want, even if it is amongst an adrenaline-filled pacy existence.  As our lives are filled with appointments, visual stimulation and stress, we become aware of our essential need for calmness alongside our busyness.  Is this a possibility?

In English, the word peace implies a rather passive picture of the absence of disturbance or hostilities.  It conjures up pictures of a personality free from internal and external strife.  However, the Hebrew word for peace is shalom and this word has a much fuller meaning.  It rests heavily on the root slm which means to be complete or to be sound.  It speaks of wholeness, of life, of health.  It refers to right relationship between two parties or people.  The word, shalom, implies prosperity, success, fulfillment and victory over our ‘enemies’.  It refers to things that are quite disparate, like wellness of body and an absence of war.  Encompassing so much meaning in the nature of the word, shalom is as complete a word for well-being as we could find.

In Jewish communities, shalom was (and still is) used in both greetings and farewells.  It is meant to act as a blessing on the one to whom it is spoken: ‘May your life be filled with health, prosperity and victory’.  And what a wonderful blessing that is!

Some Christian gatherings include a time when people pass the peace to each other. When I first came across this small ritual, I panicked.  I had no idea what it meant; whether I had peace to pass, who I was suppose to pass the peace to if I did have peace to pass, how many people I could pass the peace to before I would risk being left with none?  I jest a little.  Passing the peace in a church simply involves shaking another person by the hand and saying ‘peace be with you’ and they reply ‘and also with you’.  This greeting is also founded on the word shalom and affirms the Christian belief that Christ has established a pure shalom between Yahweh (god) and humans through His living, dying and rising experience.  In believing and receiving Christ, each person is given friendship with Creator and an eternal shalom.  This speaks of a well-being freely given based on grace and faith instead of good works or rule-keeping.

When shalom is used as a verb , it conveys both a static and a dynamic meaning; to be complete or whole or to live well.  This implies that it is both a state of being (a gift given to us) and a state of doing (a gift received by us).

Now that I am totally overwhelmed by the beauty, generosity and love contained in the meaning of this word,  I must sincerely pass shalom to each one of you:

Shalom’.  

And may we all have the courage and humility to receive it.

The middle ground

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It seems in the science/faith or science/spirituality discussion there are plenty of people who can talk knowledgably about one of the two extremes: science or faith, but not so many who want to discuss that ground in the middle.  We listened to a talk by a leading Christian geneticist who really knew his stuff about the history of evolution as recorded in our genes.  He was also pretty good at standard Christian doctrine, clearly having read his Bible well, no doubt along with numerous commentaries and associated texts.  The interesting part of the talk was when everyone in the audience landed their questions right in the middle of these two fields.  It was clear that our speaker felt less comfortable there, but in a room full of experts in either of the two fields of science and theology, so did everyone else.

So who is trying to help us map out this middle ground?  Who is brave enough to spend their time on the fringes?  Is it a dangerous place to be, a mere slip and slide into heresy or is it the new frontier, with scores of interested souls waiting to be engaged?

We recently had the opportunity to give some science talks to an audience not trained in either science or faith.  The talks were predominantly about science but they also covered where science borders philosophy by looking at the limits of what we know.  It was a fascinating experience and one where the audience showed through their questions that they did not fully accept the standard line coming out of the two extremes.  It has encouraged us to continue our search for a broad discussion in the middle ground between science and spirituality.  Sometimes this may put us at odds with those who hold fast to mainstream science or mainstream religion, but there are lots of souls out there searching for answers and I don’t think it is a good idea to just sit in our bunkers.

What we did learn from delivering our talks was that the questions were genuine and heartfelt, and the questioners sincere in their enquiry.  And I don’t think we had to trade any of our hard-won beliefs, we just had to listen and to learn from each other.

Blessings.

At the cross-roads

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I was thinking about this again today…

God and me

We were recently on a car rally where we were sent around some beautiful countryside, navigating with the aid of a tulip diagram. These are simple schematic images of how an upcoming intersection will appear. Of course, the 3-dimensional reality is spectacularly different from this simple line drawing and so there is a challenge in first recognising the intersection and second navigating through it.

People sometimes talk about “being at the cross-roads” as if they have magically arrived at some moment in their life where they are faced with a clear cut decision. A decision that is a significant change or where they can choose to keep going along the current path. I think that life is seldom like that. Decision points can build gradually, or they can sneak up on you, or they can arrive suddenly and demand an immediate response.

Perhaps the most “cross-roads” like moments are when you are…

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Trust

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One of the main “benefits” of a faith journey has been those moments in my life when I have been able to trust my life and circumstances to the Divine.  In such moments I have found simplicity; all has seemed right with the world and my current problems have been just a ripple on a deep pond – not unimportant but somehow part of a grander scheme.  Those moments have felt like that pause between a deep breath and a sigh.

Different faiths encourage their believers to handle problems in different ways.  I gather that followers of Islam learn to accept whatever life throws at them as fate.  Buddhists are taught to make good decisions so that they will have peace of mind.  Christians are taught to have faith in God – but is that a job to do or is it a state of mind?

Our conscious minds are busy most of the time.  There are jobs to do, relationships to navigate and conundrums to ponder.  At times, our unconscious mind adds to the problem when it throws ideas on the table through our dreams.  How do we learn to find peace amidst the clamour?

I was re-reading something we wrote many months ago where we encouraged our readers as they started out on the road of spirituality.  In it we encouraged simplicity – a simple prayer, setting aside small moments, adopting a watchful presence.  I think that is my desire for the coming weeks.  Simplicity in my trust.

I hope you find rest and succour along your journey.

Baboon Lessons

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Robert Sapolsky’s book, A Primate’s Memoir, describes in detail the interactions within an African baboon community.  Such communities function to enable the biggest, strongest, most-fertile individuals to flourish and reproduce so that the majority of offspring are produced by dominant individuals and carry their superior genes. This means that baboons form hierarchical societies ruled by a dominant alpha-male individual.

One of the great advantages of studying animals in their natural environment, particularly primates, is that we inevitably learn something about ourselves in the process.  We can sometimes even discern which behaviours can fairly be used to ‘mirror back’ our failure (or refusal) to develop effectively into human beings. Other observations can remind us of important behaviours common to all primates that we have unwisely left behind.  We are called back to our animal instinct and challenged to temper our overly-busy, productive, ‘sophisticated’ lifestyles.

So, what do we observe from baboons that we can learn from?  The baboon community shares the responsibility of raising young so parents are not left isolated in nuclear families.  Grooming each other is considered an important activity for all members of baboon society so that no individual suffers from the neglect of a touchless existence.  Mating is generally initiated by the female baboons. When they are sexually aroused and interested in copulation they present themselves to the males and foreplay begins.

Within the alpha-male, hierarchical community-structure of baboons, there are some behaviours that would be considered unevolved and unacceptable in human society.  These include: males grabbing babies to protect themselves from other males, alpha-males occasionally forcing females to copulate against their will, and a small number of dominant individuals consuming the lions-share of all community resources.

I will leave you to contemplate the lessons we may choose to learn from our baboon friends.

L’chayim.

A Primate’s Memoir

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We have recently finished reading A Primate’s Memoir, by Robert Sapolsky. It is an entertaining account of his time in the African jungle studying the savanna baboon. He describes his adventures as a young post graduate student becoming accustomed to the African way of life and particularly living amongst the baboons. He is studying the effect of position in the social structure on stress hormones in the body and their effect on the animals’ health. Of course he also gives insight into the ways of the baboons and describes in detail the way they interact with each other.

As a scientist he is careful to avoid anthropomorhising the baboons’ activities and trying to see human traits among them, or more dangerously, seeing baboon traits among humans. But somehow it is inevitable that the reader sees something of themselves or their acquaintances played out in the lives of the baboons.

Is that valid or is it dangerous? Of course we have far more complicated social environs than the baboons. In fact we are a part of multiple structures including family, friends, work colleagues and so on. And none of those groups would function in the same fairly one-dimensional manner that the baboons experience. And while the baboons are somehow destined to play out roles provided to them by breeding, their physical attributes and the particular circumstances of their group, we have the privilege of discernment, the ability to learn and the orientation of an in-built moral compass to affect our behaviour.

Still, it was an entertaining read and one that helped me to see that sometimes I seem to behave just like a baboon.

Blessings.

The Animals of Narnia

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In The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis uses a number of different animals to bring us wisdom from the mouths of animal characters such as Aslan the lion, Reepicheep the mouse, Bree the horse and the Bulgy Bears.  Not all the Narnian animals are endowed with voice as is explained in the first book in the series, The Magician’s Nephew:

‘Creatures, I give you yourselves,’ said the strong, happy voice of Aslan.  ‘I give to you forever this land of Narnia.  I give you the woods, the fruits, the rivers.  I give you the stars and I give you myself.  The dumb beasts whom I have not chosen are yours also.  Treat them gently and cherish them but do not go back to their ways lest you cease to be Talking Beasts.  For out of them you were taken and into them you can return.  Do not so.’

And so it is that certain animals are given voice that can be understood by humans in the seven books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia.  C.S. Lewis uses his understanding of animal behaviour and inherent animal characteristics to explore anthropomorphic allegories in order that we may learn something about ourselves.  The use of this literary device is masterful in the hands of Lewis and I will give you some examples:

‘We’re free Narnians, Hwin and I, and I suppose, if you’re running away to Narnia, you want  to be one too.  In that case Hwin isn’t your horse any longer.  One might just as well say you’re her human.’  (Bree the horse

‘You need not always be grave.  For jokes as well as justice come in with speech.’ (Aslan the lion)

‘This is a very great adventure, and no danger seems to me so great as that of knowing … I left a mystery behind me through fear.’  (Reepicheep the mouse)

 

‘I tell you it is an animal,’ said the Bulldog.  ‘Smell it for yourself.’

‘Smelling isn’t everything,’ said the Elephant.

‘Why, ‘ said the Bulldog, ‘if a fellow can’t trust his nose what is he to trust?’

‘Well, his brains, perhaps,’ she replied mildly.

 

Treat yourself and read all seven of the Narnia series.  My favourite is The Horse and His Boy, however the most famous book in the series is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  I will leave you with a quote from Prince Caspian where Aslan has been interacting with the talking mice:

Ah!’ roared Aslan.  ‘You have conquered me.  You have great hearts.  Not for the sake of your dignity, Reepicheep, but for the love that is between you and your people . . . you shall have your tail again.’