Saturday, November 28, 2015

Art Dogmatics: Pollock and Rothko

For this one man - it is as if the framework is now filled out and burst through - is the Son of God who is one with God the Father and is Himself God. - Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1.

No one could have been more surprised than me when a visit earlier this week to the National Gallery of Art led to an outstanding spoken meditation on theology, liturgy and modern art. At the outset I have to say that, as much as I love art, the initial surprise arose when I discovered that I would in fact be interested in visiting the modern art exhibition - an era that I typically avoid in favor of the work done by anyone earlier than the early 20th century. Add to the mix that Trudy (a friend, fellow seminarian and ordinand from the Church of England studying this semester at Virginia Theological Seminary) had the specific goal of seeking out the works of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and this day was shaping up to be something that was far out of my usual comfort zone.

Pollock's "Lavender Mist Number 1" dominated the far wall in gallery G39, and while it was the second painting with which Trudy and I spent a great deal of time it was the one that seemed to dominate the conversation. The Barth quote found at the top of this post seems quite appropriate to this painting, as the two of us discussed how the busy-ness of the work - the chaos and rush of multiple images and impressions - seemed to be restrained by the thin metal frame surrounding it, just on the verge of bursting through. The National Gallery summary refers to the fact that there are no discernible focal points to this painting, and I think that contributed to its great attraction for me. As seminarians and (God willing) future priests in the Church of England and Episcopal Church, respectively, Trudy and I (and our many classmates and predecessors) are used to the process of discernment, of finding how God has been present and the Holy Spirit has been active throughout our journeys. Similarly, discernment is valuable in seeking out the hidden layers and meanings in artwork.

During our conversation, Trudy applied the wonderful phrase "beautiful chaos" to the Pollock painting - a very apropos description. The quick glance that I would have typically given this work would have revealed nothing more than a giant canvas of paint splatters and the occasional handprint. But there are things that appear - that are seemingly created - out of the chaos found here. At first glance, I saw a thin, pale line of coral color weaving throughout, something that immediately evoked thoughts of the Holy Spirit winding throughout all that occurs. I then saw handprints, presumably the handprints of Pollock (and a later check confirmed this) but, at the time, symbols of the hand of God on all that is in us and around us. Trudy mentioned some of the conversations held in her liturgics class about the mysteries of the liturgy and some of the chaos found there. In reflecting on that I have been considering how - as with the various aspects of the painting that appeared to me with each new glance - there are things that appear in each service, how something I may notice with the Eucharist one week may be replaced the very next by something I see in the face of a congregant during the recitation of the Creed.

And then there is the first of the two Rothko's which we explored, "Untitled 1955." Where the Pollock was chaotic, this is much more simple, unbounded by any constraint and flowing gently off the edges of the canvas. There is something very Trinitarian about it - three individual blocks of different colors and thicknesses, each maintaining their individuality but crucial to the overall unity of the piece. In considering it further, one might also see the ancient understanding of the three levels of creation: the heavens; the earth; and the underworld. It is orderly and held together by something greater and invisible, yet something that allows for the release of the tension of the solid blocks of color.

This visit is one prompting ongoing reflection, and it has certainly given me the opportunity to ponder anew what gifts can be found in art that I would historically have preferred to ignore. With apologies in advance to Trudy, I would like to close with this excerpt from her post:

'Do we need to understand the art to appreciate or enjoy it?' Standing there we realised that we do not. We can simply be in its presence and enjoy what we personally take from the painting, whether that is simply liking the look of it, appreciating all that went into it or finding something profound. Similarly with liturgy, we do not need to know the intricate details of everything that is going on. We can simply be in its presence. Just like modern art, it is multi-layered.

[Note: Trudy's full post on this experience and our reflections can be read here.]

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Riding the Waves on the Sea of Life: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedStar Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment, August 3, 2015.)

One of my all-time favorite novels is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” For those of you who might not have read it, this book is set during the “Roaring Twenties,” a decadent era of extravagance in the years just prior to the onset of the Great Depression. It was a time when people lived for the moment and did not give a thought to what tomorrow may hold.

Of all the wonderfully crafted lines of this book, one of the most powerful is the very last one on the very last page: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Boats against the current.

Or perhaps consider this. Imagine yourself wading into the ocean, leaving the sand behind as you walk into ever deepening water. After enjoying the waves for a few minutes, you turn to walk back to the shore.

But you can’t. The harder you try to return, the more difficult the waves make that short journey. You want to go in, but the ocean tides are pulling you out. The more effort you exert, the more tired you become.

Each of these examples is a metaphor for how we find our lives sometimes. Just like a boat moving against a current or a tide that is pulling us in the opposite direction of where we want to go, how many times have we encountered a situation where it felt we were trying to move against the flow of something?

An illness for which we want a cure. A financial difficulty for which we need a solution. A clear sense of direction about a major life decision we must make. Like that person trying to walk in the ocean, we exert so much effort in trying to force a cure – a solution – an answer – that we exhaust ourselves.

Now imagine yourself back in the ocean – and next to you is a surfer. But unlike you, the surfer is taking a different approach to the waves.

Rather than going against the tide, instead of fighting against the waves, the surfer instead goes with them. On the longboard, the surfer waits for just the right moment, stands up, and rides the wave back in. Does this skill take practice? Yes. Does it require courage? Yes.

And perhaps most importantly, it requires the surfer to let go – to trust in the board and the waves and the ocean currents.

In our lives, the current we feel is God. Like the ocean moving towards the shore, God is guiding us towards a particular solution, a specific destination, to that one answer we are seeking. But like the casual wader being pummeled in the surf, how often do we find ourselves fighting him, choosing instead to try and make our own way, our own solution, our own cure?

I can tell you from personal experience that the end result of my trying to do it on my own was exhaustion, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of feeling beaten.

Rather than fighting the waves – rather than going against God – it is so much easier to go with him. Does it, like the surfer trusting in the longboard and the ocean, take courage? Absolutely. Sometimes, tapping into our faith is one of the hardest things we can do.

But once we have found that faith, once we have embraced the grace that God has extended to us – once we jump on top of that holy wave instead of trying to ride against it – the journey becomes much easier.

Will there still be times of difficulty? Without question. The best professional surfers still manage to wipe out from time to time. Even as we go about our lives today, here in this hospital and outside these walls, there will be moments of cross-currents – of sudden undertows and waves that knock us off balance and drag us away from our goal.

But in those instances, be calm – trust in the “board” that you have been given – and you will see that the most incredible thing happens: God will reach out his hand, pull you out of that treacherous water, and put you back on top of the wave.

All he asks is that we trust, that we have faith, and that we continue to ride that wave across the sea of life.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Through God, All Things Are Possible: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedStar Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment, June 24, 2015.)

We are the tools of God.
Think about that for a moment. The God of infinite power; the God who created the smallest speck of dust and the grandest galaxy; the God who graced us with hearts to love, minds to reason, and hands to craft – that God needs each of us to complete some very important work.
Now I’m not saying that God’s power is limited, and we need to pick up the slack for him. Quite the contrary. We have been given the gift of this planet and the blessings of being joined on this journey by our fellow man – and it is up to us to care for this wondrous creation.
But doing so is difficult. Often the challenges appear daunting; sometimes, in fact, we may think they are impossible to overcome. How can we heal or care for the sick under our charge in this place? How can we ensure that all the hungry are fed and all the homeless housed? How can we end the violent acts man commits against man and nation against nation? What must we do to protect our fragile environment and ensure its survival for future generations?
Rather than stress over the enormity of these challenges, however, we need to focus on one simple fact.
We do not have to do any of this alone. Through God, all things are possible.
We already have been given all we need to accomplish these tasks. Our reason; our intellect; our skill; our creativity; our compassion; our love. Each of these is a tool in the toolbox with which God has blessed us to do these things. But using them requires instruction – careful guidance, a gentle hand showing us the way.
We do not have to walk that path by ourselves. Through God, all things are possible.
The late Harvard University professor and chaplain Peter Gomes reminded us of what to do in difficult times. As he wrote, “What is the response for calamity? Endurance. Don’t rush, don’t panic. What are we to do in calamitous times? We are to slow down. We are to inquire. We are to endure. Tribulation does not invite haste; it invites contemplation, reflection, perseverance, endurance.” Writing further on the recollection by ancient people of God’s work on their behalf, he continued, “They remember … how the Lord delivered them out of these troubles and helped them to endure and bear and eventually overcome them.”
So as you go out into your day, remember you do not walk alone. The difficult medical situations, the families experiencing fear and sadness, the stress and exhaustion of your individual challenges – you will not deal with them in a vacuum.
The solutions may be hard to find, the answers a challenge to see. But you have a companion, a guiding hand, an inspiration, a cheerleader.
For through God, all things are possible.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Whisper of God: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedSTAR Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment on Friday, June 12, 2015.)

With the dawning of each day, we are presented with new opportunities to see God at work – in our lives and the lives of those around us. We see God reflected in the faces of patients and their families, in the doctors and nurses and support staff. We see God in every man, woman, and child. We see God in each magnificent part of nature.

On the metro, on the Beltway, in the crowded lanes of traffic and long lines at the supermarket – everywhere we look, we see God.

But how often, in the midst of our busy and rushed lives, do we stop looking for God and start listening for him?

Often, the perception we have of God’s voice has a very epic Hollywood feel to it. God announcing his presence from a pillar of fire. God speaking from a burning bush. God making a dramatic appearance in a dream.

How often have we dreamed of having our own dramatic encounter with God? Perhaps you or someone you know has. But others may have missed their moment because the chaos and noise within their lives has drowned out God’s voice. Car horns and telephones, arguments, screaming children, doorbells, news broadcasts, television announcers. The chaotic situations that bring people to this very building. There are many distractions that make hearing what is truly important a great challenge.

But in straining to listen for God’s voice over the noises of our hectic, over-scheduled lives, we miss those moments where God can truly speak to us.

We miss those moments where God whispers to us.

Think of a conversation you may have had where there is suddenly a gap when no words are spoken.

Sing your favorite song, and pay attention to that brief moment between verses.

When your eyes open in the morning, ponder that sliver of time before the first thought of the day enters your mind.

Even in something as automatic as breathing, notice the moment between one breath and the next.

It is in these sacred seconds, these moments of quiet, where you will hear that wonderfully blessed whisper – a whisper reminding you that you are loved, you are valued. A voice that says, “You are my beloved child.”

As you depart this morning and go about the business of your day, listen for the voice of God. Listen with your heart, and take notice of those instances of silence and be amazed when you discover it is not silence you are hearing after all.

It is God, whispering in your ear.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Simple Gesture for Our Pets Means So Much More

Shortly after 4:00 this morning, our beloved cat Smokey - a moody, temperamental, independent, but very loving lady who was just shy of turning 19 - passed away. After living a remarkably long life, it had become obvious in recent days that time was growing short for her. She had accomplished all she wanted (as much as any cat could want to accomplish in life), and more and more of her time was spent looking for quiet places to rest. My wife awakened me early to tell me the end was at hand, and together the two of us sat with her, stroked her fur, and held her as she quietly and gently slipped away.

In 45 years, this was the first time I had experienced death. I had not been with any of my family members who have died, and another much-loved pet who passed away last summer had chosen her moment when she was outside the house and away from us. Any death is a loss, as those of our pets have been for our family, but Smokey's has been particularly impactful. My wife and I first picked her up at the animal shelter on the day we returned from our honeymoon, and she has been with us every day since then. She has been as much a symbol of our marriage as our two children, marking the passing years, changing homes, and exciting developments in our lives.

In thinking about these deaths, though, I continue returning to something my wife did for each of our cats when we realized the end was near. In both instances, she took them to the bathtub, gave them each a long and careful bath, wrapped them in a towel, and held them close for as long as possible. In a way, these were much more than baths; they were expressions of love and her special way of anointing them.

Just as the three women went to the tomb that Easter Sunday to lovingly anoint the body of Jesus after his death, my wife lovingly took similar steps with our cats before theirs. Christ's time here was seemingly finished, but the love of Mary, Martha, and Mary extended far beyond that Friday at the cross. The simple gesture by my wife for our beloved pets demonstrated our love for them, a love that continues beyond their time with us.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Shoulders of a Seminarian

In the days that have passed since my most recent visit home to the foothills of the Blue Ridge, I've been thinking a great deal about the inestimable value of the human shoulder. I'm not normally given to pondering the mysteries of the human body, but a profoundly emotional moment at the altar rail during the Eucharist pushed musings on shoulders to the fore.

At an altar I have visited countless times in my life, I knelt to receive the bread and wine - and almost immediately I was overcome by emotion, to the point that I cried. Yes, part of it was the feeling of being back in a place that means so much to me, one that was a root from which grew the person that I am today. More than that, though, it was the feeling I got while kneeling at the rail - the sensation that the hands of those I knew in that church, men and women whose friendship and support sustains me today as well as those who have long since passed on and are now the subject of wonderful memories, were all placed on me. All at once, in that moment, they each laid their hands on my shoulders, silent, unheard prayers of blessing and encouragement from those who were and continue to be guides and companions, at moments great and small, in my journey to the seminary.

Shoulders are of great significance in both the Old and New Testaments. They were used to carry water jars in Genesis 2 and sheep in Luke 15. They have borne the burden of man's laws in Matthew 23 and the weight of Assyrian oppression in Isaiah 14. And they carried the weight of messianic power and responsibility as prophesied in Isaiah 9. Throughout history, we have put our shoulders to the wheel; Isaac Newton said that success in his life was only the result of "standing on the shoulders of giants;" W.H. Auden said that "every American poet feels that the whole responsibility for contemporary poetry has fallen upon his shoulders."

In the months since beginning my first year at seminary, I have seen the true power and significance of shoulders in my friends and classmates. They have been a place for them lay their heads at stressful moments. They have been the landing point for many tears of frustration and anxiety. They have been a support for those recovering from brief moments of physically frailty and pain. More than anything else, however, they have been a place to receive arms thrown around them in joy and celebration as we have each shared in the many wonderfully profound and Spirit-filled moments experienced each day.

Our natural inclination is to view shoulders as necessary for carrying weight or bearing burdens. For me, that is a glass half-empty; shoulders carry so much more. They carry the love of friends and family; they carry the hopes of our church; they carry the dreams for our future. And as I learned first-hand at the altar in that small, beloved country church, a hand on a shoulder is a sign of blessing from all those whom God has chosen to weave into the thread of our lives.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Fifty Years On, the Lessons of Selma are Still Being Learned

I was not born in Selma, Alabama, nor did I live there (although I was married at the Episcopal church there, in 1996). I did not take part in the Selma to Montgomery march, being born five years too late. I was not there to express outrage at the discriminatory tactics taken by Sheriff Jim Clark to block blacks from exercising their constitutional right to register to vote. I did not witness the brutality of the state police against the marchers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. I was not able to mourn the deaths of Jimmie Lee Jackson or James Reeb.

But as I sat in a theater today watching the outstanding and powerful new film "Selma," I wept - and my tears encompassed all the sorrow and outrage that, while missed in March 1965, are just as real and just as raw for many today as they were 50 years ago. Equally present, sadly, is the need for many to learn the lessons of justice and reconciliation that are strong threads running through what Dr. King called "the moral arc of the universe."

There is much that has changed. In just two generations, the racial slurs that I can recall one of my grandfathers using in front of me, even in my very early years, have been replaced by the joy of two young daughters who have friends based on love and the ability to share good times together and not upon skin color or background. My wife and I have taught them the importance of honoring and respecting the equal worth of every man, woman, and child. We have talked to them about the important rights prayed and fought for by men like Dr. King, John Lewis - a personal hero of mine and someone I am honored to have met - and millions of other men and women, and why they should be remembered.

Despite all we have done, however, how do we find the words to explain why people like Michael Brown, Wenjian Liu, and Rafael Ramos die so needlessly? How do we talk to them about why there are so many people in the world who have a difficult time accepting and loving as easily as they do? Why have they been taught to forgive and yet see others who cannot, who will not, accept, nor love, nor forgive?

On Christmas 1957, Dr. King delivered a sermon on love and forgiveness that I think is very applicable. He said,

This simply means that there is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies. When we look beneath the surface, beneath. the impulsive evil deed, we see within our enemy-neighbor a measure of goodness and know that the viciousness and evilness of his acts are not quite representative of all that he is. We see him in a new light. We recognize that his hate grows out of fear, pride, ignorance, prejudice, and misunderstanding, but in spite of this, we know God's image is ineffably etched in being. Then we love our enemies by realizing that they are not totally bad and that they are not beyond the reach of God's redemptive love.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of the Selma march, as we remember those who were and are oppressed, those who struggled and fought and fight still, who lived and died so that the future might be born anew, all in the name of equality and justice, I pray that the Pettus Bridge is remembered not only as a symbol of how many steps we as a nation have walked, but how many miles we still have to go. May the lessons of Selma go on, and may the bridge serve as a tool for crossing the divide that still exists and bending the moral arc completely back to justice, equality, and reconciliation.