Sunflowers for Distressed Hearts

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“The sunflower is mine.” –Vincent van Gogh

Distressed Hearts

One year before his death, Vincent Van Gogh wrote to a friend that he yearned “to make of painting what the music of Berlioz and Wagner has been before us. . . a consolatory art for distressed hearts.” This was the purpose behind his art—to console the distressed and comfort the brokenhearted. Perhaps this is why we feel comforted by his loving brushstrokes of variegated hues. With his palette knife, he tenderly worked the fragments of light into textured waves of consoling colors and forms. He gave us what he had hoped to give:  a “consolatory art for distressed hearts.”

As the darkness of war rises in the East, we admit our need for consolation in art and in life. We long for Lenten light — lengthening light to combat the darkness within and without. And yes, after a long winter, we long for flowers! We can, in any season, turn to Van Gogh’s flowers, especially his favorite, the sunflower—a flower he associated with both light and gratitude.

Because the sunflower is the national flower of Ukraine, we have been wearing and posting these “little suns” as they represent solidarity with Ukraine, hope for the future of democracy, and resistance against Russian aggression. But these luminous beauties represent even more for the people of Ukraine, and the world, too.

Sunflowers Instead of Missiles

A peaceful democracy, Ukraine once possessed the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world. But on June 4, 1996, Ukraine gave up its last nuclear warhead on a former Ukrainian missile base. On this celebratory occasion of becoming nuclear free, the then US Secretary of Defense William Perry said to a crowd that included dignitaries from the US, Russia, and Ukraine, “Sunflowers instead of missiles in the soil will ensure peace for future generations.”  Then, they scattered and planted sunflower seeds on the site.  

Sunflowers then became more than a national flower. They gave us a symbol of peace worldwide, an icon of sun-drenched beauty to free the world of nuclear weapons.

Van Gogh would have loved this. In 1888, in a letter to his sister, he wrote that he wanted to decorate his studio with nothing but sunflowers. Nothing but sunflowers! Is it any wonder that he filled no less than twelve canvases with sunflowers? The sunflower became his own personal artistic signature, telling his brother Theo in a letter in 1889, “the sunflower is mine.”

What if we all claimed the sunflower “as mine” in the sense of all it stands for. Could we then become like these little suns, reflecting light to the world?  What if we scattered sunflower seeds all over our neighborhoods and communities? And especially in places where tragedies have left a dark void. Would this not offer comfort, consolation, and beauty to our brokenhearted world?

Sunflower Souls

Science reveals that the sunflower is more than just a pretty face. In the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster, the sunflower stood alone as survivors in the desolated nuclear wasteland. They not only survived but thrived and blossomed afresh. That’s because sunflowers are, in scientific terms, “hyperaccumulators” that can soak up toxicity at a high rate, healing the soil of heavy metals and the air of radiation. Sunflowers help speed up the process of making water drinkable again. Sunflowers may not be able to stop disasters, but they can help heal and restore. Their beauty is more than skin deep. They have huge sunflower souls that can take in the bad as well as the good for the sake of the world.

“Beauty will save the world,” said Dostoyevsky. In the sunflower we begin to see glimpses of this declaration unfolding in bright fields of yellow suns. Sunflowers are, in life and art, light bearers of consolation, sharers of sorrow, resistant fighters against toxic forces, and restorers of life and beauty.

As the embodiment of undaunted resilience in the face of decimation, sunflowers hold within them the very spirit of resurrection hope. May that hope bring peace in Ukraine and in every distressed heart.

Why Not Paint Your Dream?

Over two centuries ago, a 19-year-old man left France to follow his dream of joining the fight for freedom in the American Revolution. Against the will of the French King, the Marquis de Lafayette procured his own sailing ship to take him to America. Some called him foolish, but soon he was called a hero, and eventually he brought France into the war. Without him, it is unlikely we would have won our independence.

If we could ask Lafayette, “Why did you come to help us?” he would probably tell us that his passion for the cause of freedom was galvanized by the motto emblazoned on his family crest: Cur Non, Latin for “Why Not?”

Today, Cur Non is the proud philosophy of Layfette College in Eastman, Pennsylvania, which challenges its students to move beyond the familiar, the comfortable, the easy. “We dare them to become thinkers and leaders themselves. We offer them opportunities to jump into the thick of things, to take risks, to care deeply. . . . Why not? Why not you? Why not here? Why not now?”

Two hundred years after the American Revolution, Robert Kennedy resurrected the spirit of Cur Non in one of his famous speeches, when he quoted George Bernard Shaw: “Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream of things that never were and say why not.”

Here’s an idea: What if we adopted the courage and daring imagination of Cur Non into our spiritual life? Would we be less hesitant to follow our dreams? Would we finally pull out the canvas and paint brushes we’ve been secretly holding back? Would we dare to speak out for those being crushed by the powerful and greedy? Would we have the courage to follow the “lure of God” as we say in process theology? Could we galvanize our imagination to look beyond the world of “what is” to the world of “what can be”?

What if the motto Cur Non could be ours? Why not? Great thinkers and artists embed this motto into their creative work all the time. It’s what makes them great.

Van Gogh once wrote, “I dream of painting and I paint my dream.” Such is the spirit of Cur Non. After years of struggle over his vocation, when he finally said, “why not?” to his dream of being an artist, out poured over 2,000 luminous works of art in the span of 10 years. Martin Luther King had a dream, too, and he began painting it with bold, vivid colors, leaving us to pick up that dream and continue to paint justice. Why not dream? Why not create? Why not, against the naysayers, set sail for a revolution of mind and spirit?

Don’t just dream, whispers Cur Non, but paint your dream. Step out of your plushy comfort zone and say “Yes!” to the gladness waiting to rush out in a stampede of purpose and meaning. Simply take one step forward — one step, one breath, one stroke of the brush, and see how it feels. Why not? No one else will do it for you. The clock is ticking. What else have you got to do?

We have dreams tucked away in the drawers of our souls, and these dreams are precious. But we are born on this earth to do more than dream; the spirit of Cur Non beckons us to paint our dreams on canvas, in words, in brave acts that some will call folly; but, if driven by love, will leave an indelible impression on the whole planet so that it spins with just a little more gladness.

Lafeyette dreamed of a world of human dignity and freedom and dared to actualize that dream, fulfilling his family motto of Cur Non. But such stories can be intimidating. These giant figures of history remind us of how small and insignificant our own dreams are in comparison; our efforts wouldn’t make much difference anyway, we think. It would be risky, too. We might as well not try; better to be safe than sorry.

And we would be wrong.

We are all divinely imbued with the motto, Cur Non, “Why Not?” It is emblazoned on the hearts of those yearning for the freshness of adventure; it reaches to the heavens of novel possibility — and then boldly proclaims, Yes!

Our dreams don’t have to be big and flashy, and they are not just for the young and hardy. We can paint them at any age, on a canvas of any size we wish. If we could make our corner of world just a tad more beautiful, slightly more just, and fleetingly more kind, then, why not? Why not paint outside the lines of what is to the world of what can be? Why not now? Why not here? Why not you?

Begin the New Year with Me!

Join me for my very first Zoom class, “Beauty and Process Theology,” sponsored by the Cobb Institute. This will be my first class taught on Zoom, and I’m pretty excited about it! I hope to make a lot of new friends who are as passionate about beauty as I am. After each presentation, we will have time to discuss and ponder the many ways beauty can transform our new year, our lives, our relationships, and our planet. This course offers you a unique look at “process theology through the eyes of beauty.” Save your Thursday afternoons in January–or watch at a different time. All the information you need is here: Beauty & Process Theology | Cobb Institute

Only a week away! Hope to see you there. 🙂

Beauty & Process Theology | Cobb Institute

“L” is for Listening (Spiritual Alphabet)

“All things in the universe want to be heard.”

— Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spiritual Literacy

Listening may be the key to unlocking the doors that separate us, to gaining wisdom, to communing with birdsong, and finding intense joy in music — but make no mistake: listening is hard work. I preach sermons every Sunday, and I am well aware that if I go over twelve minutes, no matter how scintillatingly or profound I imagine my words to be, my flock will (if still awake) become restless and dreamy, some playing with lunch possibilities or recipes in their heads. How do I know this? Because when I am in the pew, that’s exactly what I do — food taking up an excessive amount of space in my head. . . (more)

When Fear Hurts

In Alan Gordon’s new book, The Way Out: A Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven Approach to Healing Chronic Pain, he speaks of “catching your fears” as part of his therapy. Gordon demonstrates through neuroscience, case studies, and storytelling that fear plays a huge role in most chronic pain. Fear can create pain, he says. Learning how to be aware of our fears, observing them, and “catching” them before they get too cozy inside us may be the very image many of us need, chronic pain or not. . . . (more)