“The Bead Within You”
Matthew 5:14-16; The Gospel of Thomas, Saying 70
Other Voices: Matthew Fox, Creativity; Nadia Bolz-Weaver, On Jesus Dream Team
By Rev. Don Ludwig, March 8, 2020


Five years ago, when we were in the process of adopting our children, I would take Tony to downtown Portland and we would throw rocks in the river and explore the bridges and walk the streets of downtown. When we first did this, he was 8 years old. ////// One time we were walking on our way to get some ice cream, we came upon a spikey green plant laying on the sidewalk. I thought it looked like a flower, Tony thought it looked like a slug, declaring it “disgusting.” As we went on, we found another spikey, green plant with the acorns still attached. We looked up to see that we were under a tall oak tree and that the spikey green thing was what attached the acorn to the tree. As Tony picked it up to look at it more closely, he said, “Oh, I understand now. It’s not disgusting anymore.”

“I understand now. It’s not disgusting anymore.” That was just one bit of his wisdom that Tony shared with me on our adventures. These downtown walks and playing at the river and in parks together was a lovely reminder for me of how the world is experienced by a child, seeing beauty, hearing music, feeling wonder, noticing that the ordinary is extraordinary and magical. Perhaps you have experienced this reminder, too.  This morning, I want us to consider three things that art and creativity can teach us about life.

Living in the Moment and Pay Attention

First, art teaches us to Live in the Moment and Pay attention.  So often, we are so mired in our daily activities that we miss the beauty that is around us and within us.  When I first bought my Prius, I started to notice all other Priuses on the road — I would compare them with my own.  Did you know that black Priuses are the best looking cars out there?   That is called selective awareness.  We all have it.  We see what we want to see.  We see what we expect to see or what we have been socialized to see.  And we so often make our judgments based on first appearance — and subsequently miss out on the deeper meaning.  That truism has transformed the way we communicate — and not in a good way — where a tweet becomes more influential in shaping our reality than actual facts.

Celebration of Creativity reminds us to slow down and pay attention to the details — there is a story in each piece of art here.  // Dr. Richard Swenson tells us that at first glance our lives are shallow and we spend more time in the mundane and at the margins, then every previous generation before us.  In his book entitled “Margins”, he points out that in today’s world, an average lifetime, you and I will:

  1. spend six months sitting at a traffic light waiting for it to change;
  2. spend one year searching through desk clutter looking for misplaced objects;
  3. spend eight months opening junk mail;
  4. spend five years waiting in line;
  5. spend three years in meetings (six years if you are Presbyterian. Even more if you are on the Art Show committee).

In our busy lives focused on our To DO lists, in our culture that determines our worth by how much we do, in our political world that gives more credence to deepening our divisions and headlines, in our personal lives that focus on appearance rather than depth, we forget that there is value in being, just being, in the moment. This moment. Now.

This is the core of most religious traditions—be in this moment. The mindfulness practice of Buddhism teaches us to relax our bodies and focus our minds on what is now; to be present to what is right in front of us; to notice and experience what is real.  In the Gospel of Thomas, I hear a call to notice what is in this moment, to pay attention to what is within you.  To discover the depth of our being.  The Jewish practice of sabbath is all about being. Those who practice Shabbat (sabbath) step outside of their usual schedule to create sacred space and celebrate connection—to themselves, to each other, to God. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel describes it this way in his book titled The Sabbath: “There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.”

And in our Christian Tradition, serving others can often focus us and bring us together.  Our youth often describe one of their most meaningful experiences on a mission trip is gathering together at night, huddling around in a circle or campfire and singing praise songs:  Oh, prepare me to be a sanctuary. Pure and holy. Tried and true.  And with thanksgiving, I’ll be a living sanctuary for you.

Each of these practices reminds us to stop and notice, to see the magic and wonder in what is around us, to appreciate and give thanks for all life, and to connect to the divine, how ever we experience it. Celebration of Creativity and this Art Show, my friends, reminds us to do the same:  Live in the moment!   Don’t let life pass you by!

There is a story in every piece of Art including you.

Second, art teaches us that there is a story in every piece of Art, including you.  The Choir sang such a glorious rendition of “Down to the River to Pray”..  The song is beautiful to be sure.  It is more beautiful and meaningful when you understand its’ story — an African-American spiritual, composed by an African-American slave.  When the slaves escaped, they would walk in the river because the water would cover their scent from the bounty-hunters’ dogs. The phrase “starry crown” refers to navigating their escape by the stars.

To recognize that each piece of art is filled with a story is to recognize the profound calling for each of us to experience depth of meaning and purpose: to allow ourselves to be vulnerable too — to not just be ordinary but be authentic and in doing so, you will surely become extraordinary.  Let me share with you the story of Martha Graham.  Martha Graham was an “American Visionary” and a true innovator in her profession as a dancer.  When Martha was 17, she asked her parents to allow her to study dance, but being strong Presbyterians, they wouldn’t permit it.  Can you imagine that?  Nevertheless, Graham studied dance in Los Angeles. In 1926, she established her own dance company in New York City.  She danced well into her 70s and choreographed until her death in 1991, leaving the dance world forever changed.

In 1998, TIME Magazine named her the ‘Dancer of the Century.’ The first dancer to perform at the White House and to act as a cultural ambassador abroad, she captured the spirit of a nation and expanded the boundaries of contemporary dance. She wrote, “I feel that the essence of dance is the expression of people–the landscape of their soul. I hope that every dance I do reveals something of myself or some wonderful thing a human can be.”

Friends, there is a story in each piece of Art including you.  I hope that every piece of art in this place reveals something of yourself or some wonderful thing that your life can be.

Bring Forth What is Within You

And finally, Art calls us to bring forth what is within you. Not long after I had my stroke when I was 40 years old, I attended a support group when a fellow member shared with everyone the importance of his beaded necklace that he had made himself and brought to one of our meetings.  As he spoke, taking the necklace off, he went around the circle giving a bead to each person along with a short blessing.  It was a holy moment filled with vulnerability and tears.  To one person suffering with depression he said, “this bead is for the joy of friends that care about you”.  For another person who shared about his stress-filled life, he said, “this is for your very own fishing hole in the mountains”.  When he came to me, he looked into my eyes and said, “Don this bead is for when you can become pastor and professor again.”  For the first time in a long time, I rediscovered what was within me — this was a time that I could hardly walk, I could barely talk but this moment enabled me to see that those were my disgusting surface realities — what was within me was far more authentic and able-bodied.

Sitting here this morning there are those of you are suffering with depression; there are those who are walking with cancer and may feel all alone; there are those who miss a loved one, there are those who struggle with an addiction, there are those who are in a difficult relationship, there are those who are financially or emotionally spent; there are those of you stressed out by work and the same old rat race.

At first, walking down the sidewalk of life, the spikey green thing can look pretty disgusting.  Until we look at it closer and discover it is what attaches an acorn to a beautiful Oaktree.  Wherever you find yourself this morning, if you want greater meaning and purpose, if you want to truly celebrate creativity in your own life:  Live in the moment.  Look to the deeper story of your life and the world around you.  Bring forth the bead that is within you — and let your light shine where everyone can see.