Finding Meaning and Community

Life can be rough. That’s not even worth a bumper sticker, it’s just a given. Even the most positive people have dark nights of the soul. And we all run up against questions we can’t answer. I think Fr. Bill Ortt is on to something when he says it is our questions that define us. It’s also our questions that drive us.

“Is there more to life than this?” That’s one of the first ones we come across in the Alpha Course. Alpha is phenomenon that took off in London under the leadership and vision of Nicky Gumbel. The notion was and is to take people who aren’t church-goers, but who wonder about life’s big questions, bring them together, to eat a meal, to enjoy each other, to watch some short films and talk. No judgment, no pressure, but plenty of laughter, connection, and fun. And funny things begin to happen when you put like-minded seekers together, no matter how different they may seem.

Last winter and spring, something like 60 adults and 40 youth went through Alpha at Christ Church Easton. It was a transformative experience for just about all involved. I went from feeling like a newcomer to knowing I was a part of a community of people. And I saw the same thing happen to other people. It wasn’t about “church,” it was about relationships, conversations, and connections. The weekend away itself left me reeling and inspired.

It seems a rare thing today to make the time to sit down with people, to eat together, to have meaningful discussion about things that matter, to admit we don’t have all the answers, but we have plenty of questions, and to put that on the table. The humor, the honesty, the laughs that follow are amazing.

Christ Church is starting Alpha up again this coming Saturday, Sept. 9. There is a worship service called “Alive at 5,” that is one of the most laid back and Spirit-filled I have ever encountered. At about 6-6:15, everyone sits down in the Parish Hall to eat together. Right now there are 70 adults signed up, plenty of whom haven’t been a part of Christ Church, a number who have and who are looking to go on a journey of sorts, together. The church’s youth program (ages 10-18) has dinner with us. Daycare is provided, free. Then we go watch a short film and break into small groups to talk.

It’s fun, it’s free, and there is no pressure. There are folks this spring that found it to be pretty cool. I found it to be something totally unexpected that I had been waiting for for some time. So much so that I am signing on again, as are a number of other folks. If it sounds like something you would dig, you can find more information at Christ Church Easton’s website.

There are different ways to find meaning and community. Alpha is a great beginning.

 

Tangents and Timing

I waited until I was 45 to meet William Stafford. Sure, I’d heard of him. Maybe run into him at a couple parties (figuratively). But there is no reckoning, or quickening if you are a “Highlander” fan, until it is time.

Tangents seem to be the most direct route to my soul. Stafford is a writer who I have known I wanted to, and needed to read for probably 20 years. I have read bits and pieces and read articles about him, but haven’t made a point to dig in. And then he appears in a birthday compilation of thoughts, memories, and musings, writing about Great Blue Herons.

So I take the hint and find a greatest hits book that has that same poem in it. And reading Stafford it is instantly clear that he has his own unique place in my tribe of soul writers.

Timing is everything. I’ve seen it and felt it countless times: I read something or hear a song that seems cool, but doesn’t resonate. Until I have had the experience that makes the lid blow off it, and it drives directly to the heart and makes a home there. Until it is time, it doesn’t make sense.

Stafford is like that. I needed a birthday reminder to get in touch with him. Scripture is like that. For more than 40-some years, I have read spiritual tomes and everything I could get my hands on. But it wasn’t until last year that I knew it was time to immerse myself in the Bible. And now, finding the connections between the Old Testament, Gospels, epistles, and seeing how God’s Word becomes living words in our lives; I know I wasn’t ready for that search, that journey, those connections, until I was.

At Christ Church Easton, we’ve finished up our Lent Bible studies, which came on the heels of an Ephesians group. We’ve still got an Old Testament study underway, and Alpha groups, but I look forward to what’s next, what direction groups will take this fall.

But first it’s Holy Week and Easter. And spring and summer. And spring break for the girls. It’s finding the soul tangents and being led to follow them. Those tangents can be adventures, people, paddling, reading, traveling, sunrises, birds. They are the threads God puts in our lives, puts in front of us for us to follow.

Jeremy Joseph: The Shared Experience

Within a month of knowing Jeremy Joseph, we were almost struck by lightning in the storm that felled the Wye Oak. He and I sat next to each other at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum the spring and summer before he became an art teacher. In a brief span, we talked fishing, art, Tom Robbins novels, music, literature, you name it. And then he rolled on to do what he should have been doing.

Jeremy taught both my daughters art in school, and over the years we circled back into each other. He has been a ceaseless inspiration for me to be creative. At one point when I caught up with him, he and a friend had put out a music album, he was painting every day and had his work in a local art gallery, along with a full-time job, his wife, also a teacher, was equally busy, and their two daughters in school, sports, etc. His motivation to make time to be creative pushed me to do the same.  We have had similar takes on art, life, family, fatherhood, books, writing, and sports. Jeremy and his wife Tiffany are among the best people and kinds of friends you can encounter.

I’ve been a fan of Jeremy’s saltwater-based still life paintings for some time. And then this fall, a funny thing happened: he opened a solo exhibit of 30 paintings that were nothing like the work he had been doing. The new paintings were imaginative, primitive, celebratory, seemingly whimsical, communal. I wanted to see what was going on.

Jeremy has been serious about, and dedicated to painting for 22 years. He decided against going for a master’s degree in fine art, so instead set to making his own studio time and creating his own art history studies. From 1994 to 2003, he painted in a narrative style, telling stories with his art. And then he started looking more closely, observing more deeply, and in his meditative observations, the mundane became elevated. Still life painting became the medium.

jj-still-life-nov-2016

“I had a lot to learn. If you are going to spend the time study and paint a striped bass or a mullet, it better look like one.”

Salt-water still life became Jeremy’s hallmark. His paintings sell reasonably well in the local galleries, he gets requests and commissions. He developed a nice niche. And then a new direction emerged.

Painting still lifes made Jeremy learn color in depth and develop his mark making. Teaching elementary school students, and seeing their unbridled imagination on a daily basis kept inspiring him. Add to that the fact that realist and impressionistic landscapes are all you will find within a few hours’ drive.

“I’d always wanted to do this imaginative work,” he said. “Maybe it’s punk rock vs Joe Satriani; maybe it gets back to Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea,’ just working very simple.”

the-raccoon-the-pineapple-the-hummingbird

At first his idea was to convey the “first people,” or earliest people. Fishermen were going to be his transition. Then he started studying Meso-American figurines, Buddhist sculptures, and African masks. He saw stick figures and moved toward complete simplification. He started to notice some commonalities.

“People (artists and cultures) have been making the same eye shapes to represent contentment forever.”

Contentment, happiness became a current. Both conveying happiness, but also experiencing it in the moment.

In March of this year, Jeremy put up a studio in their back yard. It opens from the end and the side, and in the warm weather, hummingbirds flew into the studio while he was working. Birds and animals became a current.

jj-sil-nov-2016

“I get so much from the birds, the wings of birds, the flight of birds, that’s where my blood pressure goes down and where I go,” he said. “And I wanted to get across this universal happiness, we break bread, we share a moment, the thing I am after is just this little bit of happiness. And thinking about having a conversation with a merganser or a fox made me happy.”

Four months of painting every day, Jeremy created each of the 30 works in his studio. And had the full support of his gallery, the Grafton Galleries in Easton, to show the new works, even with them being a departure from what his work had been for the past 13 years.

“There were times when I thought that doing this type of work was a kind of career suicide for the still like work that I do. I wondered if I could make paintings that through the use of form and simplification, could dare someone not to smile, not to like it? I really wanted it to be about a mood, a shared moment or experience. Matisse said he painted for the tired businessman, the guy (or girl) who is tired at the end of the day.”

Part of that shared experience is captured in the painting, and part of it is shared with the person looking at the painting.

fox-jay-playlist

Breaking new ground after more than 20 years developing a style: I dig the creative courage that is behind a move like that. But what I get in talking to Jeremy, in spending time in his studio, is that it’s not about the painter, or the painting specifically; it’s more about the process.

What is it that gets you out to the studio, after teaching all day, after coaching sports, or family time, what is it that gets you to pick up the brush?

“You know it’s there, you know there could be a reward, you just have to get yourself out there. It’s the happy accident, the resolution of something, experiencing the unexpected. Honestly, it’s the smell, the sound, the feel of coming outside, you put yourself in the place where something can happen.”

sunlit-friends

Jeremy’s solo exhibit, “The Shared Experience” is on display at the Grafton Galleries, 32 E. Dover Rd., in Easton through the end of November. Some of his new works will remain on display after that.

The Gameplan Part II: The Real Work

You’ve called yourself to action, now what are you going to do with it?

That’s the real question. And the answer has been growing in me for 44 years. It’s something that has gained momentum and traction, has surfaced at earlier parts of my life, and keeps coming back, with more force. It’s to the point now where I can feel it when I pray, when I listen, and it can overwhelm me when I don’t expect it. It’s something that is bigger than me, maybe something for which I am just a vessel.

The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. – Frederick Buechner

I’m not clairvoyant. But I try to pay attention and to be mindful when and where things keep coming up. In July, I made a conscious change to more actively follow my dreams. To live life more intentionally and closer to my heart. To commit myself to writing in ways that I hadn’t before. During the past year, but especially the last several months, I can feel a clearer voice and purpose when I write, that seems to come the more I do it. It’s moving toward something, or some way to see.

And a strange thing has happened repeatedly now when I talk to people. I get, “You’re writing a book, aren’t you?” “There’s a book coming.” “It’s time to write a book.” I didn’t think so until a couple months ago, but it has been connecting threads, uncovering itself, and coming to light. More on that another time.

buechner-quote

I have been drawn to learning. It recently came up as a primary strength of my personality. No surprise there. I’ve talked before about deciding  against going to graduate school in Duquesne University’s philosophy program, just after college. I took the more practical, sensible option of getting to work.

Years later, when the contract we were working on ended after three and a half years of working in Washington, D.C., I was at a similar crossroads. Reading and thinking and praying back then, I felt a pull to go to seminary, to delve into studying Christian theology and see where that went. It felt strange, but right, and I talked to a handful of people about it and began researching options. Then I was offered another DC job for a good paycheck, which I took, thinking it the best option for my family, and let that notion fade.

My sense is that things in our lives happen when they are ready to happen and not before. Both of those times, feeling pulled to deeper study in faith and philosophy, I wasn’t ready. It wouldn’t have been real in the way it needed. It was while working the second DC job that I lost track of what my heart and soul wanted out of life, my marriage fell apart, and ultimately so did the job. I had to hit the reset button on life. That had to happen.

That calling to continued, deeper, sustained study in faith and Christian theology is back, exponentially louder than either time before. I’ve ignored it twice before; I won’t do that again.

slide-jesusreally

I get stirred up, moved, inspired when I read Thomas Merton, Buechner, C.S. Lewis, T.S. Eliot, Richard Rohr, and of late John Eldredge (which is where the image just above is from). I feel things working in me and through me when I am in church. But that isn’t enough. I have to do something with that, I have to act.

One of the things I have seen during the past year at Real Life Chapel with Pastor Frank Short, is how vital and essential small group study is. Church on Sunday is a time to recharge, to reflect, to come together, to pray. But there is no dialogue, there is no depth, it is not the time or the place for the real work to be done. That’s where smaller groups, and directed study and engaging with each other comes in.

Getting people together for some purpose seems to be something I do. A number of years ago, we had a writer’s group, which was a big part of a number of our lives for a stretch. In 2008, a few of us started the Rise Up Runners group, which led to more adventures and friendships than I could have imagined.

Life, and our personal walks of faith are best shared. We need to be encouraged, challenged, helped out, questioned by others. It’s not a safe or easy walk. There are wrong turns, bad ideas, fog, darkness. But there are also accomplishments, clues to be found and left, ways to hold each other up.

God acts in the world through people, among other ways. Through us. Finding and honoring our tribe of spiritual adventurers is key to making sure we find and keep to our path.

Now what are you going to do with it?

That’s the question my heart has been sitting with and my prayers have been in conversation with. When fire and passion and energy have built, are building, what will I do with it?

The answers that keep presenting themselves, over and again: 1) write, tell and share your story.  Dig deep, sustain it, tie the threads together, focus it. Look to examples like Buechner and Merton, that’s part of why they are there. 2) Learn, study, sustain and direct it. Follow the repeated calling to graduate study, find your teachers and mentors for that road. 3) Find and convene and honor a tribe, a small group for Christian study. Engage, laugh, celebrate, wrestle with stuff. Help each other.

Life is an adventure, at least how I want to live it. When I look back, so many things and experiences have been building in me and informing me, some I could hear, some I ignored. They are beginning to come together, and I’ve been quiet enough to listen, to hear, to feel.

It’s all led to right now. It’s where the good stuff is. Where the fun is. And where the real work begins.