Our ancestors viewed the earth as rich and bountiful, which it is. Many people in the past also saw nature as inexhaustibly sustainable, which we know is the case only if we care for it. It is not difficult to forgive destruction in the past that resulted from ignorance. Today, however, we have access to more information, and it is essential that we re-examine ethically what we have inherited, what we are responsible for, and what we will pass on to coming generations.
–His Holiness the Dalai Lama
–His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Bo in Andrew Wyeth's coat during the
Holistic Painting Master Class Workshop,
Columbus State University, Columbus Georgia.
A Brief History of and Homage to my Ministers
I’ve been thinking about what it means to ‘minister’ lately. I’m not sure what has brought this up for me. Perhaps its some aspect of the Occupy movement, or maybe it was when I looked back at my very first Message, written ten years ago, just after 9/11. In rereading that message, I was struck by how ‘religious’ the tone seemed. I don’t think of myself as particularly religious these days. And in fact, in retrospect, it probably was 9/11which began a long crisis of faith in me that has brought me to where I am today.
When I was a kid, besides being an artist, one of the only other things I ever imagined being, was a preacher. You must understand that I grew up in a very religious Southern Baptist family in Georgia; we went to church several times a week. I drew in church, it made me feel good, and it passed the time. I liked to draw the stories as they unfolded in the telling in the sermons. The first preacher I remember was Pastor Webb at Eastern Heights. At twelve I left the Baptist church, much to parents chagrin, to go to MYF (Methodist Youth Fellowship) over at St. Paul in Wildwood. I did this mainly because all of my friends from school went there, but particularly because of the girls. On some levels my parents were right to be concerned, the Methodist girls were very different from the Baptist girls and the church being situated in ‘Wildwood’ didn’t help either. Rev. Fredrick Wilson was the minister at St. Paul. He became a good friend, and he loved the art I did as a teenager. I remember one sermon he gave about not running yellow lights, he said that ‘we must have the law “in us”’ in order to live in a civilized society. Therefore, the example he used was a traffic signal, he suggested, a yellow light means ‘prepare to stop’, not ‘speed up”. He took the metaphor into the scriptures but I don’t recall that part of the sermon. Fredrick Wilson officiated my first marriage; I was 18.
In Pennsylvania, I wound up at an Episcopalian church outside Philadelphia, St. John’s Lower Merion. Father Bob Keel was the minister there. I loved Bob. He was an avid outdoorsman. He would go backpacking, and ask me to join him. In time, we began a youth group and we’d take the kids canoeing in New Jersey or Virginia and hiking on the Appalachian Trail, along the Poconos to the Delaware Water Gap. I remember a sermon he gave about the Transfiguration, where he talked more about the difficulties of climbing that particular mountain (traditionally though to be Mt. Tabor in Israel) than he did about any mystical experience that may have occurred on the mountaintop. Later, I did a mural for the church of that sermon, the apostles mountain climbing.
Father Keel was fond of quoting naturalist and forager Euell Gibbons he always talked about taking out what you bring in, “Don’t leave anything in the woods”, “What you bring in, goes back out”, etc. It may have been Keel who introduced me to the phrase coined by the founder of the World Scout movement, Robert Baden-Powell in 1941, his last message was, “Leave the world a little better than you found it.”
After Father Keel retired, I moved with my young family to a Presbyterian church in nearby Gladwyne, PA. The Rev. Howard Friend was the minister there. From him I first heard the phrases ‘the haves and the have nots’, ‘paradigm shift’ and ‘holistic’. He was an activist and charged his congregation to move their feet when they prayed. We protested, we fed the hungry, and we did sweat lodges. Many mission trips, schools, meals, homes for the homeless, and aid organizations were begun at Gladwyne Presbyterian Church. The seeds for many of the ideas that are explored in my ‘Holistic Painting’ Master Class workshop were planted in those Gladwyne years.
My sons have grown. To be polite, I’ll just say that they had only a modicum of interest in the church going experience. They are all healthy and in different levels of adulthood. My oldest son has two beautiful little ones and lives in California; he works for a very popular computer company. My middle son lives in New York and is an emerging artist, performance artist and ‘social media artist’. My youngest son works and lives in the suburbs of Philadelphia.
After 9/11, I struggled for some time with my God concept. The God I thought I understood wasn’t a God that would let almost 3000 innocent people die in a terrorist attack. My God concept needed to evolve. After 2001 and around the time of my divorce, I began more and more to read books on Buddhism. I travelled the world. I studied briefly and took lessons in meditation from a Buddhist nun in Nepal. It seemed that Buddhism allowed for a kind of grace in living, without the judgment which was the root cause for so much division amongst the other world religions. Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, Shantideva and Dalai Lama books became my regular reading companions. It’s not that Buddhists don’t believe in ‘God’, it’s just too big to mention. We are too limited to address or comprehend the idea.
Since moving West, it has become clear to me that American Westerners don’t have the same sense of tradition, when it comes to religious observance, that Easterners do. Some Californians, Oregonians and Washingtonians are ‘spiritual’, but not per se ‘religious’. But, Betsy and I have found a little church, in tiny Burton, which is open-minded and progressive. Surprisingly, it turns out that it is affiliated with the Baptist Church. We first went because of a wonderfully entertaining and insightful minister, Marcus Walker. We loved Marcus. He was a theater director and his sermons were all a performance. He would quote some popular contemporary or classic play (often one he was currently directing) and relate it to a bit of ongoing world news and smash it all together into some piece of biblical history. Truly, fun for all. Marcus died abruptly this Spring. The tiny congregation was in shock and in a period of mourning. But, recently, the little Baptist church has called, we are proud to announce, our first openly gay minister, the Reverend Bruce Chittick.
(Over the years, there have been other ministers of course, such as the Banksons, Peter and Marjorie in Maine, Elaine O. Hinnant, Patricia Pierce, Jimmy Elder and others; all good friends and thoughtful prodders. Interestingly, some of the best friends of my life have been my ministers.)
Why do I offer up this bit of history regarding the ministers in my life? Perhaps because I want to thank them openly, but also perhaps, to address what the phrase ‘minister’ means in a larger sense. In Columbus Georgia, growing up, one of the descendants of the towns forefathers was Bill Turner. Turner is a follower of the writings of Robert Greenleaf; particularly Greenleaf’s philosophy of servant leadership. Servant leadership as a philosophy implies a comprehensive interplay between the quality of the individual person, the work they do and their service to the whole community. Turner exemplifies the philosophy in his own relationship to the community in which he lives, his philanthropy and his service. At close to ninety he still works everyday, overseeing several of the towns oldest and most successful companies. He teaches Sunday school and makes sure that the individual employees in the towns premier companies are involved and invested. He is the towns leading philanthropist. He said to me once, when I was troubled and I’d sought out his counsel, “Bo, I always ask myself in situations like this, “What is the loving thing to do for the most number of people involved?”. For years that has been my mantra.
What does it mean to minister to? To tend? Is it similar to what it means to ‘steward’? Betsy and I have a firsthand understanding of the term stewardship. We have to steward the island in Maine. We are the only residents, and although legally we are the owners of the island, in fact, we both know that we are just stewards of the island during our lifetimes. No one owns anything. As an American artist, I’ve worked hard my whole life to do the best work I could, with little regard to the fashions of the moment. I have tried hard to not play the games of the art world. I’ve worked hard to be successful on my own terms, because that was what I was expected to do; and it was what I wanted from myself and my efforts. By most anyone’s measure, I’d be considered a ‘successful’ artist. But, now the Occupy movement is upon us and understandably, I find myself feeling uncertain and having to readdress my own values anew. I have to ask, “how much of this problem am I a part of?” “Can I get by on less?” “Can I give more?” “What would it look like to do the best work I can, and not participate in the financial inequalities of the current system?” “What is the American Dream?”
In theory I support the ideas behind the Occupy movement. It raises important questions which need to be addressed. If I had to label myself, I’d say that I’m now more of a ‘secular humanist’ than I’ve ever been. Most of my protesting days are behind me. If I want to Occupy anything, it is my studio. A few years ago, when Betsy and I got married, we both became ministers of the Universal Life Church. We did it on a lark and under the mistaken idea that we’d be able to marry ourselves. We had to get a friend to become a Universal Life minister in order to marry us. Ordination was free. We can perform weddings and funerals. ULC members believe in total freedom of religion. Their beliefs are to “live and let live” and “we are one”. The church has only one doctrine, “Do only that which is right”. It’s very West Coasty. The idea is simple. No dogma. No dues. No guilt. No one owns anything. It doesn’t matter if the title was gotten on line or for free. Betsy and I are now ministers. And with this authority, I do herby bless you in all your endeavors whatever they are and to whatever end you see best fit. May we all find and redefine the American Dream on our own terms. May we question and prompt to question that which is right and that which is not right. May the paradigm shift move in us and through us. In a dream recently my friend Rev. Marcus Walker returned to me, playful as always, the gist of what he said was, don’t hold back, set free your morals, there is no wrong. Live fully. Enjoy your life.