Thank you everyone who has ever put up with my mediocre soap-box writings! Lol. I have always searched for an outlet, and you suffered me well. From now on, I will be communicating the messages I feel I need to communicate via my FB page, TheFramework FB page, and http://www.theframeworkfw.com. I want to concentrate on starting a forum for two way communication — lol this one way diatribe stuff is not for our future! Join me in the fight; I could use you. Yours Sincerely, Donny
Author Archives: The Framework Fort Wayne
Like everyone else, I’ve heard it said: “There is no I in TEAM.” I’m not gonna play dumb (as if I have a choice), I understand what this is supposed to mean as it applies to building cooperation among teammates. But somehow I disagree with the notion as a whole. The way I see it, the I in team reveals itself in statements like “this is the team I root for,” “this is the team I side with” and “this is the team I am on.” It’s natural for people to identify with a specific group that shares common interests and beliefs — it’s natural for us to choose teams.
Where there are teams, often there is competition. Teams are known to compete not only for titles and trophies, but sometimes for resources and power. Depends on what kinds of teams we’re talking about, I suppose. Competition can be healthy, but competition invariably means my team vs. your team, us against them — even me against you. Long term competition can lead to rivalries, rivalries can grow bitter, and bitterness can lead to animosity — even to hatred.
I’ve personally never been much of a sports guy, and I’m okay with that. I’m super happy that my kids are way more athletic than I ever was (they get that from their mother). Me, I remember the terrible feeling of not getting picked when kids were allowed to choose teams in gym class — it pretty much made me hate sports. As much as I’m over that now, you’ll still never catch me watching ESPN. As a result of those negative feelings and memories, I’ve always tried to champion those who are marginalized, picked-on, or disregarded. They have always been welcome to join my team.
So when I was on staff at a small church, I worked hard to influence and reform the politics of my team to reflect this openness. I was proud that I brought tolerance and acceptance to the table when and where my team gathered to plan our doings. I was on the good-guy team, no doubt. And in my search to grow in a relationship with God, I took real pride in the levels to which I not only tolerated, but accepted and loved most every person I came into contact with. I loved just about everybody.
I say “most every person,” and “just about everybody” because I still harbored a lot of scorn, even disgust, for a fairly large segment of society. I couldn’t find it in me to tolerate or accept the worst of the worst: the intolerant. Moreover, I refused to accept or tolerate the intolerant people who claimed Christianity as their faith. My personal motto became: “I am tolerant of everyone but the intolerant.” I felt justified in my intolerance. These were bad people on the bad-guy team. They definitely weren’t on my team. Actually, saying I was intolerant is maybe a bit of an understatement. I was more than intolerant. I was more than peeved and more than annoyed. It may be fair to say I actively despised those people or groups that I viewed as being intolerant, hypocritical, hateful or discriminatory in any way. I despised them out loud, and proudly.
It was my wife Sarah that eventually pointed out how much time and energy I spent lambasting these groups — these people I despised. “I thought you were learning to love?” she questioned. “Learning to forgive?” Hmmm. Somehow I felt offended, and I stammered to justify my anger. After all, these people were big, fat jerks! They were my enemies, and they did not deserve my compassion or forgiveness! Hold on. Wait a minute. What was I saying? What was I confessing here? What attitude was I incubating and modeling? Crap.
Slowly it began to hit me. I grew quiet, and stood down. I felt ashamed and confused because I knew what was happening. I was a hater. I was choosing hatred over love. How could that be right? What should I do now? I looked for understanding, and eventually I turned to passages that I viewed as truth — they seemed so familiar, yet somehow they had eluded me in practice. I was supposed to love my enemies; I wasn’t supposed to be standing in judgment. I continued to look deeper into what I held to be sacred wisdom, and what hit me the hardest came from a man known as John the Evangelist, who wrote:
“If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen.” 1 John 4:20
Geesh. Do I love people as this writing challenges? Or just the people on my team? And if I do not love my enemies, then do I really love God? Do I love God at all? All along I thought that I did, but suddenly I became unsure. Could it be that I only loved the thought of God? Or maybe I loved the discipline of going to church every Sunday? Maybe I just loved the comfort of belonging on my team — being part of the subculture of religion that practiced Christianity as I practiced it: lean, mean, and liberal. But I was very concerned, because as much as my liberal heart brought me to love and accept people of all walks — people of all lifestyles and religious backgrounds — I still had hate in my heart for sooo many people. I did not love my enemies. How was I different from anyone else who chose judgment over love? I was as guilty as they were. By being intolerant of the intolerant, I was fighting hatred with hatred and darkness with darkness.
I went into a slump. Where had I failed? And where had my religious practice failed me? How could I be so deeply involved in a church that subscribed to the philosophy of Christ, yet hold on so tightly to intolerance in any form? I was going through an existential crisis. I was being sifted, but thankfully my faith remained. I knew that there must be a way to learn to love the way I needed to if I ever hoped to find the peace that only real love can give. I wanted to love the way Christ challenges us to love — unconditionally.
“But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” Jesus, Luke 6:27-36
It seems natural to despise your enemies — to demand an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Learning to love beyond this requires effort, I learned. So I turned again to Jesus’ teachings. I poured over the red-letter words ascribed to the man from Galilee — and the answer was there, reassuring in its simplicity. The message is not encoded, secret or hidden — but it continues to elude as many now as it has for generations and generations. Jesus was not joking, or speaking in poetic hyperbole when He told us to love. So for once — maybe for the first time — I was listening. What did I hear?
To learn to love your enemies, you must start by understanding what love looks like. Christ’s life is the perfect example, but there are so few leaders today to model this love for us. A generation ago, Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed Jesus’ teachings in a 1957 speech when he said “Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love, but you seek to defeat the system.”
King understood intolerance, and he chose to combat it with unconditional love. And with this kind of love, the goal is not to defeat or humiliate the other team, but rather to win them over to understanding new ways to create cooperation and community. More than anyone King knew that to choose love over hatred is not cowardly or complacent. “It is not a quiet, passive acceptance of evil. One is passive and non-violent physically, but very active spiritually, always seeking ways to persuade the opponent of advantages to the way of love, cooperation, and peace.”
Once you recognize unconditional love, you must prepare your heart to accept it. You must turn your heart into a servant’s heart, Jesus teaches us. Do not seek to be first; instead take on a cloak of humility. Put the concerns of others before yours, and put away your desires for the treasures this world can afford you — they will destroy you from the inside out. Meditate on love. Seek with all your strength to understand the value and wisdom of love; it is worth more more than silver or gold. Simple to grasp but tough to fulfill, these instructions lead us to love our enemies. With so many seemingly natural feelings and tendencies to overcome, it’s no wonder this kind of love is considered supernatural.
There is an I in TEAM — a me and a you. What teams do you belong to? What teams do you root for? The rich team? The intellectual team? Maybe the liberal team? Or the conservative team? Who are your opponents — and how do you choose to oppose them? Like everyone else on the good-guy team, I believe that injustice and evil must be overcome; there is no debate. But just as passionately I believe that we are all created to live in harmony. I believe that peace is always within our power. Hatred cannot be reciprocated, and us vs. them is always the first step in the wrong direction. As King said in Montgomery, “We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may be unjust.” We all become one team when we see ourselves reflected in others — in our strengths, and in our weaknesses. This reflection is clouded by intolerance, and cannot be seen through hatred.
“…Within the best of us, there is some evil, and within the worst of us, there is some good. When we come to see this, we take a different attitude toward individuals. The person who hates you most has some good in him; even the nation that hates you most has some good in it; even the race that hates you most has some good in it. And when you come to the point that you look in the face of every man and see deep down within him what religion calls ‘the image of God,’ you begin to love him in spite of. No matter what he does, you see God’s image there. There is an element of goodness that he can never sluff off. Discover the element of good in your enemy. And as you seek to hate him, find the center of goodness and place your attention there and you will take a new attitude.” MLK
The last people I really learned to love were other Christians — intolerant Christians. It wasn’t easy for me to see them as my brothers, my neighbors, or my teammates until I looked closely and saw myself reflected in their intolerance. So many religious folks out there are so fragile and lost without good leaders — just like the rest of the world. Our role, should we choose to become peacemakers, is not to change another man’s heart or mind; our job is to change our own. We cannot force our will or beliefs on the intolerant, and we shouldn’t work to restrict their legitimate freedoms in an effort to do so. If instead we work to become the people we most want to see in the world, others will follow. Of course, I can believe this because I believe in people — and I believe that love is far more powerful than hate. But I can’t convince you of it; I can only model to you the depth to which I believe it. I’m not alone. And neither are you; that’s the beauty of being human. We are all part of a greater whole–one team! Team us. GO TEAM US!
For a long time I traveled alone down the path I was struggling to clear. The whole time I felt like I was blindly groping in the darkness, searching for answers or some kind of truth that would bring me peace in my lifetime. Slowly that solitary situation began to change, and in late 2005 I began meeting with a small group of young people who were also looking for answers to life’s tough questions. We formed a discussion group in order to discuss, well — to discuss whatever we wanted, I guess. We talked about life, current events, relationships, religion, spirituality and what we thought it was all supposed to mean in the grand scheme of things. The five or six of us would meet for coffee, or hang out at the tattoo shop, and just talk it out. Sometimes we’d bring guests with us, just to spice things up. I guess truth was our goal — but we often fell short and settled for a consensus of opinions — and that was pretty cool.
Within a couple of months of meeting and pondering out loud we all agreed on one thing: the validity of pursuing peace and contentment through the lessons and teachings we had all been studying rested squarely on taking action — not miring in reflection. We all agreed — the time had come for us to take action! That didn’t mean act without thinking, of course. We understood that action can first require a great deal of reflection, or it could just be foolhardy and not at all productive. Still, no one ever saved themselves from drowning by thinking about swimming, right? Acting on beliefs and setting ideas into motion became requirements for us all. But where and how would we act on our lessons?
It was around that time that a friend in the group introduced me to a man living in a nursing home named Tim Hampton — a person who would change the course of my journey forever. Tim was somewhere in his mid fifties when I met him, and he was a member of the church our friend in the seeker group was attending. I became involved with Tim because he was in a heart-breaking predicament that he really wanted out of. You see he was really too young, and actually too healthy, to be permanently residing in a nursing facility– but there he was. It was a motorcycle accident more than a decade before that left Tim paralyzed with limited use of his arms and no use of his legs. Without income, advocates, or resources he was stuck living in a nursing home for lack of alternative options — save homelessness. He seemed extremely lonely with no real peers, and desperately wanted interaction with people from outside of the nursing home to relieve the despair of his situation.
Tim was not acutely sick, and required no medicines. His paralysis and condition had plateaued so he no longer qualified for physical or occupational therapy. So why exactly was he living in nursing home, I wondered? Now, and for years prior? It is an understatement to say that he longed for his own living space in the community, but instead he was living in a 10×15′ room that he shared with a revolving door of roommates in one of the city’s least esteemed nursing and rehab facilities (the State of Indiana’s opinion, not mine alone). It seemed that his Social Security and Medicaid funds were funneling endlessly into this corporate entity of nursing care, and the system itself was simply unwilling to see that kind of income slip away easily. Tim was an easy patient for them, and a ton of red tape stood between him and living on his own.
Stuck with no one to assist him, Tim was simply unable to accomplish the mountain of research and paperwork it would take to see him move out of a nursing facility and into the community where he really belonged. To be sure, I had no experience in this realm — this realm of nursing care, Medicaid, and quasi-medical determinations. None. What could I possibly do to help relieve Tim’s heavy burdens? What could I do to assist Tim in his world with his problems? Initially all I could do was simply show up and be there, so that’s what I was determined to do.
In 2005 I began to visit Tim twice a week. We shared meals, and spent time together in his room. I learned a lot about his life and I listened to his stories. I shared my life with him as well, and we became friends. Sometimes hearing his stories broke my heart or made me angry, but more than anything else it provided a perspective by which I saw how amazing and fortunate my own life was — despite my own day-to-day problems. We shared laughs, music, movies, and friendship.
Before long an occupational therapist taught me how to help Tim with a regimen of daily exercises, because he no longer qualified for in-house therapy. These exercises were designed to help prevent Tim from physically deteriorating into worse conditions. So when we met bi-weekly, we would often spend time exercising — stretching his arms and legs and practicing basic movements. I even learned to help him onto an exercise bicycle where he would work hard to tone his legs and upper-body. Amazingly, with specially designed leg braces and a walker, Tim could harness his upper-body strength and actually walk the halls of the nursing home with a lot of supervision and assistance — counting every step to measure his progress. Standing up, Tim was over six feet tall, and at times assisting him was very physically demanding, but we managed. While we worked we spent a lot of time laughing and dreaming about Tim having his own personal living arrangements — an apartment that might one day host parties and get-togethers.
We talked a lot about life and religion, too. He often would break down and cry, asking how God had given him the life he had been living. What had he done to deserve it all? Mostly I would just listen during those times. These conversations challenged my notions and chastised my selfishness! I couldn’t come up with any answers for him on a lot of the tough questions — after all, I was seeking those answers myself. So, we would pray together — a lot. And we learned to appreciate that in many ways life is just beyond our abilities to understand. We accepted that simply being alive in itself is an amazing gift — living is an opportunity to love and to be loved. To be alive is to participate in the grand scheme of it all, when you accept that learning to love is the key to living. We began to see that at the end of the day, love is living — life’s highest aspiration. Tim always gave thanks to God for the roof over his head, for his daily meals, and for our friendship. He appreciated that many people had far less.
Several months into our friendship, I began to see a change in Tim. His attitude and outlook began to change — to improve. I had believed initially that I could offer Tim nothing in the way of help: I wasn’t a social worker, a therapist, or even a member of a church or clergy. I was just me. But I could now see that isolation and despair were Tim’s biggest enemies, and that these enemies were vanquished handily by small doses of love, comfort, and encouragement. Tim was no longer alone, and it made all the difference. Even if we were both crouching together in the darkness of it all, we were still crouching together. He was no longer alone, and I could feel his soul exhaling; finding rest — and I saw hope born in his eyes.
Our visitations were regular, and other friends from our small group of seekers also visited Tim on regular schedules. Whether we were helping Tim with exercise, or just hanging out listening to Marvin Gaye, it was about the quality of time we had together. His life became full, despite the living arrangements he longed to escape. Eventually, when I would visit he began to suggest we do something for the other residents in the nursing home. Something special to “share the love” (his words). We began to brainstorm scenarios. Group activities would allow us to reach others, but we weren’t an organization with a budget. We were just us, so we focused on what we could do for cheap to free. Tim was excited to simply bring life and love to the few friends he had at the nursing home. “They’re hurtin’, Donny” he’d say when we’d talk. “They need to feel the love.” Okay, I thought. If all we can lend is love then so be it. We found a stack of Bingo cards and a set of wooden Bingo balls in a metal hopper tucked in a closet. Could I entertain a roomful of seniors and rehab patients with a few rounds of Bingo? The least I could do is try, I optimistically reasoned.
We met with the Administrator of the facility and she seemed excited, and enthusiastically welcomed the idea. Tim and I made flyers together and saw to it that the newsletter announced our Bingo event for all to join in. It became official: we would meet on Monday nights from 7:00 pm til 8:30.
And so we met that way. Laughing, loving, sharing life, and playing Bingo with all of the residents of the nursing home –every Monday for the next two and a half years. In that time, because of Tim Hampton, a simple idea took shape. It wasn’t my idea, or even Tim’s. It was a very, very old idea that I read about in a very old book. We simply acted on it.
By the end of 2005 I elected not to put my work illustrating the Old Testament into an organized art show or event like I had with Project 52:03, though I feel that maybe I could’ve. My focus and direction had changed with a new awareness of what was developing with my art-related pursuits. It just seemed that showing my artwork, especially the spiritual stuff, was pointing too much attention towards me as an artist — and too little attention to the ideas I was dealing with and wanting to share.
So okay, I know what you’re thinking — since when have I ever been afraid to draw attention to myself, right? I mean, even this blog embarrasses me with my own self-important tendencies. I guess being an artist comes with the awkward burden of being a shameless self-promoter. In the world of art no one is going to promote you if you don’t promote yourself first! So, I suppose I can accept that and try to accomplish it with grace. But as 2005 came to a close, the purpose for creating my art had morphed and grown into something different. I felt that an awareness of the impact I had the potential to make both for myself and others was leading me in new directions and forcing me to take an honest look at my personal values and priorities. And honestly, I didn’t like the order of the things I found.
Part III: Shifting Priorities
We all have priorities — an order of things most important to us. My top three priorities? Well, at the time, looking out for myself was definitely my highest priority! Taking care of the needs and comforts of numero uno. In second place came an intense interest in my personal investments. This groups together all of my relationships and related concerns for my family, friends, and career, in no particular order — which in a way is just an extension of number one. In third place? Maybe by that point it was my focus on spiritual growth — my focus on discovering God and peace in this lifetime.
This doesn’t seem so bad,right? A few hundred of years of conventional wisdom strain to quote and bastardize Shakespeare’s iconic line “this above all: to thine own self be true.” Our culture lends the interpretation: me first, everything else second. And there I was! But what has this philosophy done for us as a culture? As a society? I can remember my mother lamenting over the “Me Generation” lol — typically when one of her kids did something overtly selfish or inconsiderate. And well, why not put yourself first, Mom? Isn’t that just logical in a way? Natural even, in a human-animal sort of way?
Hmmmmm… But I had just studied the words “the first will be last, and the last will be first” — this is what the philosophy of Jesus teaches, right? What the heck!? That’s a pretty inconvenient way of approaching the world we live in! Yikes! Luckily for all of us “me” people, most churches don’t really expect that you actually follow through on this concept in more than just a superficial way! Maybe just in token gestures, right? But maybe, I thought, this is why so many people find religion to be an utter failure both on a global and a personal level. Maybe this is why people abandon religion when the crap hits the fan in their lives. Maybe it’s why they feel it just doesn’t work — because in practice, no one really follows the instructions, or is even taught to believe that Jesus actually meant 90% of the things he taught or prescribed philosophically. I mean, really. Put a stranger’s interests ahead of your own? How can that possibly get you anywhere in this world? Ahhhhh… Exactly!
In a JFKish way, the new question for me became What can I do for God? rather than What can God do for me? And, what would happen if I actually took myself out of first place? Could I actually learn to defy human nature, and live — well, supernaturally? Could this be the untried key, the missing puzzle piece, and the disregarded instruction that makes all this work?
After just a year break from Project 52:03 I committed to another painting project. This time around I wanted to focus on the stories and images of the Old Testament. I guess by 2005 I felt that the concepts of Christ and Christianity were beginning to make sense to me in more profound ways — but that the stories of the Old Testament still confused the crap out of me! At the time I just couldn’t quite see how these two parts of the Bible harmonized. The misperceptions, misinterpretations, and manipulations of the entire text have definitely convoluted a reasonable understanding of what it’s all meant to be — leaving honest thinkers with their hands in the air. But I’m not going to beat myself up –The Old Testament really is tough for a lot of people. I’ve even met folks who disavow it while still claiming to be Christian — which is just confusion on top of confusion, if you ask me.
Often the lasting impression made after a quick assessment is that the God of the Old Testament is radically different from the God of the New Testament. And really, it’s a little too obvious to say that the Old and New Testament contradict each other, though on the surface it seems like a fair criticism — even if it is a shallow one. But hey, I had argued heatedly that they didn’t make sense together on several occasions! Mostly I would get angry with those who used the social mores, laws, and doctrines of the O.T. to beat up the folks they somehow disagreed with — while hoarding the love, mercy, and forgiveness of Jesus’ N.T. teachings all for themselves. “Justice for you; mercy for me” is the mantra I hear from a lot of people — religious and/or otherwise. Surely, this wasn’t what any intelligent and loving God intended for all of us, right? So, really, what was up with this divided Bible? How could the seemingly grouchy and vengeful God of the Old Testament jibe with the gentle and forgiving God personified in Christ? I had to do a lot of thinking about this. Everyone does.
So in 2005 I began to study the Old Testament in a more concentrated way, looking at each story and verse in a fresh light — as I had with the New Testament in 2003. I even spent time cross-referencing stories with similar stories in parallel religions — stories about creation and the great flood, etc. With each story a new drawing or painting, this time without demand or deadline to hurry me up or slow me down. By the end of the year I created about 25 illustrations in the same manner as Project 52:03; each one with a study and meditation on the concepts I was attempting to illustrate. I did my best to consider it all — from the creation of everything to the stories of the great prophets and their journeys. Yes, the Old Testament is extremely difficult, to say the least — some stories departing a wisdom or lesson way-way beyond my abilities to process. Thankfully, I knew better than to let arrogance allow me to dismiss such ageless wisdom and beauty as being worthless simply because I wasn’t ready for it personally. I tried to understand each piece that I could grab onto, while storing those I couldn’t for the proper moment of my own particular intellectual revelation — should it ever happen, lol.
I’m not going to lie to anyone and say that I got it all figured out that year, because I didn’t. I am happy to say however that I did find a few “aha” moments that helped me to get past some of the roadblocks that were holding me back in my understanding. The most profound of these epiphanies? Well, for one I found that it’s nearly impossible to understand what Jesus came to straighten out without understanding what was missing. The Old Testament is a great record of how people spent thousands of years trying to understand what they weren’t getting. It is a history of religious and spiritual revelation that mirrors our own awakenings to God in many ways. It’s a mirror, and a handbook, and much, much more. It is wholly venerable and frighteningly sacred, but also crazy and ridiculous depending on what day you pick it up or what page you turn to — just like life! And like life it’s not meant to be seen on a graph, or parsed in a timeline of events — it just can’t be understood or appreciated that way. It’s meant to be lived out and understood through experience in living-3D. The words are just shadows of actions, behaviors, thoughts, sins, hopes, pains, corruptions, triumphs, and joys. The words are there to make a record that lets us know that we are not alone in our “lostness” and that we all are experiencing the very same historically human need for acceptance, guidance, forgiveness, atonement, and unconditional love. It’s all a long and beautiful history of why Jesus is so important to humanity. And really, that’s as far as I got.
Wow. I was wowed. I never thought Christianity could be attractive to me after having spent years arguing with Christians about how weak it seemed to be. My atheist and agnostic friends were nearly disgusted that I could actually be excited about the idea of Jesus. As they shook their heads I could see the superiority well up in their frowns. I tried to explain that things were not as they understood them to be — that we had all somehow been duped! They were incredulous, and I expected that. But the Christ I was excited by was not the one they were familiar with — the one we learned about through the words and example of those who struggled to teach us. We live in a post-Christian culture, and I should have expected the reactions I received. At best post-modern society sees Christianity as quaint and antiquated. At worst — hateful, ignorant and devastating to progress. That’s how I viewed Christianity before this shift, and that’s how so many people still see it. My friends couldn’t understand what I was going through, and that was hard.
On the flip side of the same coin, the Christians that I encountered at that point weren’t exactly helpful either. Just as few seemed to understand what I was so excited about, because they weren’t excited at all. And most wanted to simply hand me the neatly prepackaged lexicon of knowledge and interpretation that they wholly accepted without digestion — the same one they used to qualify their version of Christianity over others. So many versions arguing against the others! To me all the infighting pointed to a lack of knowledge, not an understanding — especially as it applies to peace and harmony.
I wanted to share my search with anyone interested, and I wanted more than anything to uncover a truth I could live by. But I saw that for a time it would be my journey alone. It doesn’t have to be that way — and it shouldn’t be that way, really — but for me it was. So I developed an idea for a project. A venture, to help me. Something I could do on my own. I decided I would spend one year studying and researching the concept of Christ. I would keep track of my progress, and keep my friends updated on what I was finding — reporting back to them on what was bogus and what was solid. I would be like a scout on a reconnaissance mission, I imagined, keeping a journal of my thoughts and discoveries as I ventured into a wilderness.
As a practicing artist I understood the importance of incorporating art into my pursuit. After all, if I was somehow gifted with art ability, then it had to be some key to my personal journey — or at least a piece of this elaborate puzzle I was about to tackle. For sure, making art was something that helped to put me in the correct state of mind for opening up, ingesting, and growing. A right-brain activity — a meditation. By November of 2002 Project 52:03 was conceived. I designed this project to begin on January 1, 2003. That year I painted one image of Christ each week for 52 consecutive weeks — hence the name 52:03. Each painting was completed in a single sitting over the course of several hours. I used this time to think over the information I had read and considered leading up to the day I worked on the painting. As a result, in 2003 I reread the entire New Testament of the Judeo-Christian Bible. Actually, I read several versions of the New Testament, to be thorough. I read many commentaries, both secular and parochial — and weighed all opinions with equal gravity where necessary. I wanted the truth, and that’s a difficult thing to track down.
By December of 2003 I had completed all 52 paintings I set out to paint, but not without weathering several personal storms along the way. Before my demons could be exorcised, each took their turn stabbing me — clawing and building distractions to keep me from walking my path and completing my work. The farther into the journey I ventured, the bigger the obstacles I faced. Nine months into the project in September of 2003, after struggling with declining health since the day Mom died, my Dad suffered complications recovering from surgery following a heart attack. He died at St. Joe Hospital with my brother Dominick there at his bedside. I was grateful that the project had given me a focus and understanding that kept me strong through the loss and hard aftermath. Without it I may have been devastated. My father was the strongest person I ever met — that I even knew of. He had achieved both wisdom and peace in his lifetime. I knew I had to keep moving, if I wanted to be like him.
I finished my painting and studying that year with a new perspective on what I had once dismissed. I felt like I had accomplished something real for the first time in my life. Having heard of the body of work I created, the University of Saint Francis offered to show my project as a one man show in November of 2004. I was honored and excited to show Project 52:03 and speak on my work several times in 2004 and even into 2005. I had come to terms with the great divide between Jesus and the Church that was currently representing Him. I dedicated my life to an earnest pursuit of these newly rediscovered philosophies and teachings — though it was still a long, long time before I would call myself a Christian.
So many of the things Jesus had to say were lost, modified, neutered or simply ignored. Important things. Things that make all the difference. Furthermore and most importantly, I learned through Project 52:03 that an awareness or even understanding of these ideas is not the end goal at all — these teachings require that earnest students transition from awareness into action — into participation. As it turns out, my journey hadn’t ended at all — it was just beginning.
Mom was 64 when she died of cancer lying in her bed, as she had wished. Thirteen days is not enough time to prepare for losing anyone, especially a mother, but that’s what I was given. But I guess some people have no time whatsoever to prepare — no warning at all. And still others experience their loved ones going through long drawn out battles with illness that become living nightmares. I guess nobody gets to choose how they lose their parents, because that wouldn’t be a choice at all, right? Most everyone will endure the event, and there is a numbing comfort in the commonality of human experience. I struggled to endure the event when I was 25 — for me it was difficult. It should be said that the next five years spent in the long shadow of this loss did bring a ton of great things into my life — amazing things that continue to bring me joy — my career, my marriage, my son. But the stress of feeling ungrounded, unfulfilled, and unsatisfied with what this world afforded me began to corrupt my best efforts at finding peace in my own heart and mind. I was feeling pretty lost, dark, and depressed.
And then came 2001. I remember holding Memphis in my arms at 11 months old watching the skyscrapers crumble onto themselves on live television. I was horrified; we all were. I hadn’t talked to God for years, but I begged Him to stop this thing I saw happening in front of me. For months I was in shock. Where was a God in all this? It’s been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Wikipedia says this statement “is an aphorism used to argue that in times of extreme stress or fear, such as when participating in warfare, all people will believe in or hope for a higher power.” Is that what I was experiencing that day in September? Or was the ground-in stain of God on the very fabric of my being coming to the surface? I was confused. As an agnostic my inclination was to agree with author James Morrow, who said that this foxhole aphorism “isn’t an argument against atheism, it’s an argument against foxholes.” lol. Maybe the very event we experienced together could be blamed squarely on religion, but what had Godlessness done to end foxholes? No more or less than religion. Could any force or belief overcome hatred and war? That didn’t seem to be the goal of religion or Godlessness. What would it take to find peace?
My thinking was shaken. What if I had it all wrong? What if we all had it wrong — Godless and religious people too? What if I had thrown the baby out with the bath water as far as my spiritual life was concerned — as far as religion was concerned? I slowly began to feel as though I had knowingly shut down a real and tangible component of my psyche by chosing to ignore my own spirituality — the side of a person’s mind that processes these types of notions. Could I even reawaken a connection that would give me answers? Should I take a second look at God? Religion now seemed so weak to me; broken beyond repair! I thought back to all the studies of religion that I had undertaken as a student — all the historical abuses that turned me off. I decided immediately that if I should embark on any new spiritual quest, a second look at the idea of God, that I should approach it with a scientific mind — or as much of one as I could muster — so as to dodge and bypass what I perceived as being wholly superstitious or steeped in mythology that just didn’t add up.
So I set out to find balance in my life through spirituality. Why not? It was definitely the last thing on my list to employ in an effort to figure out this something (or lack thereof) that was torturing me. In 2002 my new journey officially began, and with it came some pretty major homework. I had to do some heavy-duty research and old-fashioned investigation — even to find a starting point. Very practical religious philosophies are what attracted me first. I began to read books more grounded in philosophy and practical psychology than what I considered to be circular and inbred religious fervor. Eastern thought and manner appealed to me most strongly, as it does a lot of people seeking peace and harmony. And it wasn’t long before I began to transition out of a generic study of spiritual/religious thinking and into a concerted pursuit of Buddhist teachings and philosophy — which promised peace, if not knowledge of God. I began by reading primers and works by prominent figures in that culture.
The beauty of Buddhism is not something revealed in a superficial audit, but it’s simplicity excited me to discover more. I studied, read, and reflected — doing my best to glean what I could. The beauty of Buddhism connected with me on an artistic level. It concerned me, however, that along the way I felt as though I was always an outsider, simply peering into the window of another culture — never quite feeling at home with it all. Furthermore the strict demand for Eastern style discipline and detachment seemed foreign to me in light of my particular life experiences as a product of the Western world. Could this actually be a solution for all men? Or just those who could handle the prerequisites? Is that a solution at all? Still the promise of inner peace, despite life’s troubles and complexities, drew me deeper. After a busy 6-8 months of reading and research, I stumbled on a book by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and writer Thich Nat Han seductively titled Living Buddha, Living Christ. What on Earth did these two men have in common? It seemed healthy, considering my apprehensions and upbringing, to look at a comparative study of the two religious figureheads, so I set into reading. After all, I had a very solid background in non-denominational Christian practice and a large resource of working knowledge of the Christian Bible and it’s associated teachings. Maybe a comparison would unlock some of the foreign concepts that held me back in understanding Buddhist teachings, I reckoned.
To my surprise, the comparison lifted a veil for me that I really never knew existed! I began to see the concepts of Jesus’ teachings free themselves from the cloudy filters of the Western Church, with what I felt to be its misguided interpretations in so many instances. Could the Christ I was familiar with — that I had dispelled as an idealistic tool for nothing less than corrupt religious manipulation and exploitation — actually be something different? Something fresh — even intoxicating? Something aside from what religious leaders of American culture had made Him out to be? Can Christ — the concept, the man, and the manner — even exist without the explicit approval of these leaders? I was curious to find the answers for myself. After all, Christianity was my culture growing up; maybe it could yield different results having now been stripped of what I saw as the warped dogma that neutered the very messages and lessons taught by or attributed to Jesus Christ. Strangely, my look into Buddhism lead me back the religion I was born into — but by a back route, with beautiful scenery, and no toll roads.
For sure, the Christianity of my childhood seemed awkward in ways — naive as all get out. It was a simplistic system of righteousness and reward where the idea of love is widely celebrated, but not seriously practiced or pursued. But by rereading the words attributed to Christ I saw the potential for hope, and for peace! First within the individual, and then beyond. How could this Christ — of the very same text — be the Christ whose churches in America stood on the wrong side of every major humanitarian advancement in the last 300 years? How could this Christ lead people to condone enslavement and oppose abolition? To oppose civil rights and support the unequal segregation of races? How could this Christ lead people to systematic methods of hate and war and discrimination? Hmmmm… I began to see that the message of Christ was something deeper and hidden away — something the Church had taken little part in promoting. To me it seemed that churches were in the business, literally, of preserving and promoting themselves. I could see how they found the true teachings of Christ to be dangerous, even to their own survival.
The words of Jesus, once familiar and sing-songy, were new to me again. All I had to do was read them for myself — and for once believe that He actually meant what He said. That somehow the road to peace and contentment lies in your ability to learn to love in a supernatural way — that is — unconditionally.