Jefferson and Jesus

Despite considering himself a Christian, Thomas Jefferson was regarded by many of his colleagues as an atheist.

I mentioned Jefferson briefly in a post I wrote some time ago on Benjamin Franklin. There I described Jefferson as conflicted morally. The conflict I referenced seemed to be fairly contained to elements of race and slavery. These conflicts did not detract from his faith.

Late in his first term of the presidency, Jefferson starting cutting from the King James version of the gospels what he considered to be the authentic deeds and actions of Jesus. What was it about the Gospels that made him want to cut out parts of it? He explained this in a letter to John Adams dated January 24, 1914:

The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with with their texts, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt as to what parts are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick diamonds from dunghills.

What was the result of Jefferson’s cutting and pasting? He described that in an earlier letter, again to John Adams dated October 12, 1813.

There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.

In 1816 he returned to the project and pasted French, Greek, and Latin translations along side of the parts he had judged authentic and therefore cut from the rest of the Gospels. He called the book “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”. In 1904 the book was published by order of the Fifty-seventh congress and a copy given to every member of the House and Senate.

Photo by David Paul Ohmer

The Artist’s Way

Are you an artist? I think we all are. You may not draw or paint. You may write poetry or have musical talents. You may have a talent you’ve not yet discovered for building birdhouses. You have talents, of that I’m sure.

The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron is book outlining a 12 week course in teaching ourselves to let the creativity in all of us blossom and flourish. Originally designed to help writers overcome writer’s block, the book has been used by musicians, painters, dancers and other artists the world over to tap into their own creative process.

When I was young I was taught we were created in God’s image. At such a young age the word “image” had only visual implications. I assumed we looked like God. God had two arms and two legs and a head.

Julia Cameron puts forward in her book The Artist’s Way that our creator, the Ultimate Creator, created us in his image as creative beings. According to her theories the creator works through us in our creativity. In fact, all we have to do is open ourselves up to channel this creative energy and get ourselves out of the way. She provides the tools to do this.

Does it work? It seems to have worked for hundred of thousands of artists and would-be artists. The book has sold well over a million, mostly by word of mouth. I read the book and studied the course beginning in the first month of 2003. Within a few months I had fulfilled a lifelong dream – I had written my first novel.

Relief from Above

In the summer of the early 1970’s I had a job operating a tractor to mow a pasture. The shredder behind the tractor was 5 feet wide. The pasture was nearly two hundred acres. I mowed in a circle, first once around the pasture, then again about four feet in from the fence.

It was monotonous work to say the least. It was also hot. As was typical of summers in that part of East Texas the temperature during the afternoon was near 100 in the shade. There was no shade on the tractor. In addition to the heat from the sun, the diesel tractor motor in front of me generated even more heat. The fan from the radiator blew air past the hot engine into my face.

One particular afternoon I was especially miserable. I thought the heat would drive me out of my mind and there seemed to be no escape from it. I began to hope for a little cloud cover to block the sun. I looked up and there was literally not a cloud to be seen in the sky.

It occurred to me to ask God for a cloud. I had been taught you don’t ask God for things like that. You pray for strength to handle was is in front of you. You pray for wisdom to make the right choice. You don’t pray for things, and you especially don’t pray for things just because you want them. Still, I was desperate. I wasn’t hopeful, but I was certainly desperate.

I set my mind to bearing the heat and waiting for the sun to at least start sinking in the sky later in the afternoon. I was determined not to stop, even for water. I wanted to do a good job, and the pasture was not getting mowed if I hung around the water cooler. If I could just keep going the time would grow later, the shadows longer, and the oppressive heat would subside just a little. Around and around the acreage I went.

Suddenly I felt cool. I looked around me and saw a track of shade vs. sun moving away from me and leaving me shaded from the sun. I looked up. There was a small cloud between me and the sun. There was only one small cloud in all of the great big sky, and it was directly between me and the sun.

I stopped the tractor, leaned back and smiled at the world. I breathed the cooler air deeply and rested for a moment. I raised my hands up into the shade and stretched my back. Soon the little cloud moved away and I restarted the tractor to continue on with my task. I was refreshed, feeling great, and perhaps even bolstered by the thought God was listening and looking out for me.

That story is completely true and accurate. There may be a message in the story somewhere, but if so it is up to you to find it. It was more than thirty years ago and I still don’t have a clue what to make of it.

Photo by Natalie Maynor

Ben Franklin and French Women

From “The Writer’s Almanac” 26Oct07:

It was on this day in 1776 that Benjamin Franklin left for a diplomatic mission to France, to gain support for the American Revolution.

Benjamin Franklin was a ladies man. It has been reported he had over a dozen illegitimate children. When he got to France he immediately went after the wives of the dignitaries, and given his track record, we must assume with some success. The French respected that. The French loved Franklin and assumed all Americans were like him. Since they were looking for an excuse to get into another dust-up with the British, having been 40 years or so since the regular as clockwork war between the two, Franklin’s stature in their eyes convinced them to help us out with our revolutionary war.

It proved decisive, but barely. Our own U.S. Continental Congress heard what a jolly time Franklin was having over in France enjoying the women and the food, and called him back home. They sent Thomas Jefferson over there to replace him. Jefferson was a bit of a stuffed shirt, and conflicted morally. He didn’t chase French women. The French quickly lost their admiration for Americans and sent word to their generals over here to come back home. Lucky for us the French Generals whipped a few British on their way out, just enough for us to declare victory.

While true and accurate, the above history lesson is an advertisement for the poem by Robert Bly what will greet you if you click on the above link. Here is is again.

The God Who Loves You

A really good poem is a little troubling at first read, and then grows in stature with each successive reading. This poem does that for me. Every once in a while I entertain some bothersome thoughts about free will. This poem blows right by the issue to make a wonderful and simple point at the end.

The God Who Loves You, by Carl Dennis

Free Speech

Today the U.S. Supreme Court said it is okay for a school official attending a school function to rip down a student’s banner proclaiming “Bong Hits 4 Jesus”. The sign was described as promoting drug use. There was apparently no discussion of the banner’s promotion of Jesus. That’s probably a good thing.

Space for God in the Room

It was implied when I was taught we were created in God’s image we resemble him physically. Julia Cameron, author of “The Artist Way” describes it slightly differently. She puts forward that God is the ultimate creator. When he made us in his image he made us creative as well. When we are striving to create something beautiful we are serving God.

The great music producer Quincy Jones tells us of something a little more hands on. A phrase commonly used in the recording studio was to “leave space for God in the room.” That phrase might be taken to mean techniques such as the importance of a pause in a busy musical passage, or it might be as Quincy tells it: there is something magical that can go on in a recording studio and the best way to describe it is simply a visit from God. However busy it might get in the studio, one should not forget to invite God along for the journey. If you make room for him, God will fill the space.

Today I went to see the exhibit of French Impressionist masterpieces on loan to the Museum of Fine Art, Houston from the NY Metropolitan Art Museum. When I gazed at the walls of the first room of the exhibit my heart made the short leap into my throat, catching me completely by surprise. Sunlight cascading over a young woman’s shoulder. A lush valley. The body of a beautiful woman. Artists we call the best describing God’s work with their talents, for the artist nearly always tries to show what he sees as beautiful in the world. As my wife elaborated: Even when an artist records the ugly he tries to show what beauty he finds in it.

The exhibit was much too crowded, so much so I was told they had a fire code incident. Many of the people there were rude, and I’d have to say I spent more time waiting than viewing the art. Some of the works were poorly lit. Half of the artist’s names I didn’t recognize, and would rather not try to pronounce. I certainly do not know the religious views of a single one of them.

However, as I stared at some of these works, say a painting by Manet of a family at the park on a spring afternoon, I could see God was there that day. He was there then, and he was still in the room.