Creation and Nature

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This is a third in a series of reflections based upon random pictures friends have posted on Facebook.

I would venture to guess when most people read the word “creation” they might recall the “Genesis Story” found in the Bible. Others might think of creation simply as an event taking place which causes something to exist while others could say “the big bang.”

There are four ancient philosophical theories having to do with creation: Creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), Creatio ex materia (creation based upon preexisting material), Creatio ex deo (creation by a deity) and Creatio continua (an ongoing act of creation).

No matter how one views these four theories of creation (which have been debated by philosophers prior to the Hebrew Bible), it would be fair to say that creation in any form, under any impetus is an a priori primordial force. In other words, creation is something which precedes all things prior to becoming a recognizable substantive form.

Using the first chapter of Genesis as an example we find the words, “In the beginning when God created,” [the heavens and the earth]. This first statement tells us something very important about what would eventually become the YHWH of the Hebrew Bible: God Creates.

It means that the intrinsic nature of God (and I use nature on purpose) is the force of creation. It no longer matter how, or by what means creation takes place (sorry Greek Philosophy), but the act of creation is a primary force.

In other words, creation is not what eventually happens, but the very force in which creation is generated.

The arts are a fine form for recognizing generated creation. I once watched a film; a 1956 documentary entitled “The Mystery of Picasso”. The film maker captures the artist during the process of creation as he produces various pictures.

Each work of art began with a simple line. Sometimes the artistic idea remained the same, but other times what we thought was a bird was artistically changed, and transformed into something else. Yet the fact remains that the initial subject or artistic motive began as simple line. I suggest that the process of creation was not the finished product, but the creative spark just prior to drawing the line on a canvas.

When I was younger and first studying music composition, I enjoyed improvising at the piano. I had no idea where the muse might take me, but my first and most important choice in creation was just before playing the first notes; where my fingers would be placed on the keyboard, what time of attack on the piano keys; would I play fast or slow, loud of soft, percussive or sustained?

The milliseconds just a moment prior to my choice WAS creation, and this took place in silence within the chaos of my mind as arbitrary choices were presented and the commitments made.

Both artistic examples make a valid argument that creation is ongoing (Creatio continua), and is always with us.  Creation is a force which permeates all things. Creation is around, through and in us with all forms of nature.

And this brings us to the picture I found on Facebook of creation making itself known through a crack of pavement on a city street.

One of the characteristics of Homo sapiens which separate early humans from Neanderthals was the quest to control nature. The first important step to win over nature was the ability to make and control fire. Fire was merely the first step which eventually grew to include the harnessing of water, farming, the building of houses, and the mission to land on the moon.

As cities grew, and people’s needs spread, human beings decided it was no longer valid to allow land to remain bare, so pavement covered meadows, and telephone poles replaced trees. People who created cities were proud of their achievements with roads, and sidewalks, and underground railways transporting people to and fro.

Yet surrounding miles of cement and the proliferation of city streets, through a simple small crack in the pavement, creation sings its ancient tune, reaching up to the sun, raising its arms anew repeating nature’s dance.

Humanity may try and control nature, and sometimes we may think we have won, but then again, the ongoing Creatio Continua reminds us that we are not in control; we do not, in reality, own anything. Our hubris is somewhat delusional as nature pretends to let us believe we are its master; we are not.

 

Temptation In The Wilderness: a parable for our time

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The work of art on the left by British artist, Briton Rivière, is entitled “Temptation in the Wilderness.”

Research indicated that the artist composed the painting as an experiment of color and light, but I think there is more going on over and above the academic explanation and the artist’s experiment.

Three of the synoptic gospels share the story of Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, yet the Rivière painting leaves the viewer wondering: is this the moment after the temptation, or maybe before? Trusting in the namesake of the painting, might the artist be suggesting that he has captured the moment when the temptation(s) are taking place?

All of us at some point must deal with various forms of temptation, and to the best of my knowledge and experience, many times temptations happen within the expansive confines of our mind and may not necessarily grow from our physical environment.

Notice the tension in the shoulders of the Christ figure almost as if he has been caught in some sort of inner struggle. This physical tension captured in the painting might show that the Christ is having a difficult time possibly suggesting his choice might go either way. If temptation is real one must first be capable of being drawn into its deception. Is this the moment captured in the painting? Does this picture depict the moments when the Christ could have been lured into a false sense of security?

It is possible to read the temptation account from a parabolic perspective. When this is done it is possible to get into the heart of the passage which brings forth three intrinsic temptations (in the order presented in the passage):

  • Hedonism – which says that pleasure and happiness is that which rules a person’s life. No matter what ethics we are taught, choices made are ruled by our own quest for pleasure and satisfaction.
  • Egoism – the notion that the self comes first, beyond anyone else, or a group having nothing to do with an ethical/moral choice as the “I” comes before all things.
  • Materialism – a system of personal and public honor based upon what one owns, or can acquire without regard for what happens to others in the process. Materialism places higher value on material goods over and above the intrinsic quality of life.

By stripping away Biblical language contained within the temptations, it is easy to accept the notion that these three temptations are still with us, and continue to be problematic for humankind, contributing to many forms of evil.

Reading the Temptation Passage as a parable shifts the focus away from Jesus overcoming temptations thereby allowing the reader the opportunity to be confronted with the distinct possibility that Hedonism, Egoism, and Materialism have played an important role in our lives.

This parabolic passage may also ask if we, as a people, might have given authority to elected officials, organizations, or business leaders who have succumbed to the temptation of Hedonism, Egoism and Materialism. This passage can be placed not only upon individuals, and organizations, but address a nation as well.

Clearly, Hedonism, Egoism and Materialism are with us, and continue to hold power over our lives, and will continue to do so until we can muster the strength, and wisdom to say to not only recognized them for what they are: an evil to be avoided, and not raised to the level of human competence. But…at least the artist offers his own insertion of hope (scroll up and view the Rivière detail)….as the Christ is seated on the rock, in the middle of his struggle, above his head you may have noticed the morning star. This star can represent a new dawn as well as a new hope….let us pray it can be so.

 

This is a second in a series of reflections based upon random pictures friends have posted on Facebook

Jacob and Esau: A 21st Century Story

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21st Century Jacob and Esau

The Biblical book of Genesis contains some great stories. One long arch within the narrative tells of Abraham and his descendants dealing with the notion of promise and inheritance.  Early on in the story Abraham’s wife (Sarah) believes she is too old to have a child, and gives Abraham permission to father a child by his Egyptian slave Hagar, perhaps one of the first instances of a surrogate motherhood. Hagar gives birth to Ishmael who would receive Abraham’s inheritance.

Later in the narrative Abraham’s wife, Sarah, gives birth to Isaac thereby nullifying poor Ishmael’s inheritance. Eventually, both Hagar and Ishmael are given bread and water and then forced to wander in the desert. At the end of their rope a crying and bewildered Hagar is told by an angel that God will make a great nation from Ishmael. This promise from God eventually became known as the Arab nations.

As the epic tale continues, the plot moves to Abraham’s biological son Isaac and his children with stories about twin brothers named Esau and Jacob. These two boys could be poster models for sibling rivalry. Esau was the first born with Jacob holding on to the leg of his older brother Esau. From the start the twins were competitive, or in the very least, Jacob was trying to supersede.

 

Time moves forward and with a plot worthy of a supermarket novel, the older brother Esau gives up his firstborn status to Jacob for a bowl of soup. Later, Jacob (at the urging of his mother) tricks his blind father into believing Jacob is his older brother receiving his father’s blessing and inheritance turning a sibling rivalry into a full blown feud with Esau threatening to kill his brother, Jacob.

As they grow older, both brothers leave the nest. Jacob, living in constant fear from his older twin brother’s retribution, goes to work for his uncle (and ends up getting cheated, but that’s another story) and Esau marries a Canaanite women with a family linage derived from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and the slave Hagar. Jacob, on the other hand, marries within his clan of people who recognize YHWH as the one God of all.

So now we have twin brothers at odds with each other, and both represent dual promises from God that their ancestors’ will form great nations. Jacob, after he wrestles with an Angel/or God is given the name Israel which means: one who struggled with God which will eventually becomes the Hebrew People and the nation state known as Israel. Next with have Esau who becomes wealthy and powerful, forming the basis of the People of Arabia. Two great nations formed from Abraham and God’s promise.

You may be wondering what happened between the two brothers and their ongoing feud. Jacob agrees to meet with Esau, convinced that they will do battle. Jacob thinks his brother will finally get his revenge, but something miraculous happens:

Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:1-4)

Within many plot twists, and long drawn out distrust, and misgivings, with countless harsh words, and threats of retribution, the relationship between Esau and Jacob, our twin brothers is restored within an embrace of forgiveness and reconciliation.

The picture shown represents the hope of God founded in the story of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Esau. God made the promise to both peoples, and wishes these nations to remember that they are offspring of the same father, Abraham, and should live in peace together. These two smiling boys represent the hope of God, and the lesson taught in Genesis that all are equal in the sight of God and that good things can happen within the realities of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Christmas Ornaments: A History of Life

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Like many, when the Christmas holiday season rolls around, the house is adorned with decorations with the centerpiece being a Christmas tree. Once the tree is placed in the appropriate spot, it’s time to carefully extract a container holding lights and ornaments to be placed on the tree.

Our ornaments are wrapped in paper like a little gift; each little bundle waiting to be unwrapped from the previous year, almost as if the peeling away of paper is but a rehearsal for Christmas morning.

I own a number of tree ornaments we call “fillers” but there are some ornaments dating from previous generations. My favorite decorations hold memories for me as a child as they hung on my parent’s tree; still some are older once belonging to my grandparents.

Christmas ornaments are a gift, and deserve to be wrapped carefully because they represent layer upon layer of life. Though inanimate, they contain the joys of children’s laughter, the recollection of intimate moments, and the delights and sorrows of life quietly accepting all manner of memories. In my collection, I have two decorations nearing their 100th anniversary having once belonged to my father’s parents.

One decoration is a fish, and the other ornament could be best described as an acorn, and it is this acorn which holds much value. You see, an acorn is the nut of an oak tree containing a single seed to propagate life. As it hangs on the Christmas tree, it serves as a metaphor of immigration and the birth of new life.

Jakob (pronounced Yah-kob) Keller immigrated to the USA in 1921 from the city of Novi Sad, on the banks of the Danube (formally the Austro-Hungarian Empire) now the second largest city in Serbia. After the devastation of World War I, the region was caught up in chaos after the fall of the Hapsburgs as each ethno-faction within the former empire began to assert itself claiming autonomy. The tumult  produced the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia).

This region in central Europe, mostly filled with Croats and Serbs, was also populated by ethnic Austrians named Donauschwabens (Danube Swabians) who were given means by the government to populate this area in the mid-18th century by Empress Maria Theresa. Though Serbian was the lingua franca of the city, imported Austrians continued to speak their own German dialect, and held to their own customs. After all, it was Emperor Franz Joseph  who held power, and was the dominant force.

With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbs in the area began what could best be described as ethnic cleansing making it very difficult for Austrians to live in the city. Fearing for their lives, Jakob, through the help of his cousin, immigrated to the United States in 1921 with his wife, and child, my father. After landing at Ellis Island, Jakob became known as Jacob, and Franz (my father) was renamed Frank.

The Christmas tree ornament in the shape of an acorn represents the hopes and dreams of a family fleeing a post traumatic war torn central Europe seeking sanctuary in a new land filled with opportunities, a land which provided a family a safe place to live, and grow.  It is the same acorn which heard a family struggle to learn a new language, an acorn absorbing the baby cries of two more children, and after a move to Southern California from Ohio, found its way to a new home with more life, and all manner of the messiness surrounding new holidays. It is the same acorn that now resides in my home, which I hope might make its way to one of my brother’s children.

Christmas trees and the things we hang on them are visual reminders of various chapters in the history of humankind, and all we need do is look at them and listen to what they have to say. Do your Christmas ornaments have a story? If they speak, can you take the time to listen?

Stepping Aside

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national-coming-out-daySince wrapping up last years’ service celebrating National Coming Out Day a question kept entering my mind: do we need to continue offering a special service like this when much of what GLBT people asked for has come to pass?

My initial answer was both yes and no – not a solid footing entering discernment. If the focus for some is about the equal rights, then yes…this type of service is no longer needed. With the help of humanity, and the wider Episcopal Church, GLBT people have gained support to be afforded the opportunity to flourish and thrive.

This was not the case when the GLBT ministry at St. Wilfrid of York, Huntington Beach first offered the service in 2004. The election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire caused a fire storm of imbalance. As a lay person, I had to find a way to help change hearts, and one of the ways was to turn the tide of dehumanization into a liturgy which engaged the church through personal stories interspersed with prayer, and music. Little did I know that this service would become an annual event spanning 11 years? Read More

Theology and the Pledge of Alligiance

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Pledge

During this campaign season we sometimes see candidates standing in front of what seems like a barrage of United States flags. When each candidate speaks, the symbol of the flag looms large. I suppose that’s all well and good, but I wonder if candidates and their public relations handlers have thought about the theology surrounding our flag, and the Pledge of Allegiance associated with our country’s flag.

The Pledge of Allegiance AND theology? Yes, I say. When any statement includes the word “God” it automatically enters the realm of theology. So I thought it would be good to look at our Pledge of Allegiance, and its theological ramifications.

But first, a factoid about our pledge:

  • The pledge was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, Baptist Minister and socialist.
  • It was written for a National School Day presented at the Chicago World’s Fair.
  • The original pledge was short, “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
  • The pledge was never intended to be recited on a regular basis.
  • The words, “under God” were added by Congress in 1954.
  • The pledge used to be recited by children holding their arms in the air, but was changed after the rise of the Nazi salute in the late 1930s.

early-pledge

 

 

 

 

 

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Gari Melchers’ The Nativity

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I recently came across a painting by Gari Malchers entitled, The Nativity. This work created in 1891 combines elements from the American Naturalist school yet employs touches of Dutch realism with a splattering of impressionism. What I find interesting about the painting is how the scene draws the viewer into its subtext almost as if the painting was intended to be used as iconography.

Naturalism, from what I read, presents subjects as they are without symbolism. This differs from realism in that the artist includes obvious visual symbols intended to educate the viewer to the plight of others. The Nativity invites the viewer into a private moment not too long after the birth of Jesus. The trio is seen alone, long before visitors begin to arrive, unaware of the star making their location known.

The Nativity, Gari Melchers (1891)

The Nativity, Gari Melchers (1891)

We see Mary asleep, totally exhausted after giving birth, her head resting on an abandoned wheel. For this young woman, the day has been exhausting and hard, ending a long journey to Bethlehem only to find that there was no place to give birth, let alone rest her head.

Joseph, on the other hand, looks as if he’s been through a traumatic experience. His gaze is one of reflection and concern. Their journey was difficult, his wife just gave birth in a dirty stable, and he has to deal with the realities of a newborn infant. He seems to be thinking about their future. At first it may appear that he’s looking at the infant, but his gaze wonders off into his confused private horizon.

 

A lantern lights the scene. Here Melchers employs a naturalist tendency to discount the supernatural from religious painting. The artist suggests that the Gloriole surrounding the baby’s head could be explained by the lantern’s glow, but at the same time, the lantern light might also heighten the Shekinah embodied in the baby’s nature.

How does is this painting like an icon? I could not help but think of a line from the Magnificat:

“…for God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…..”

In a dirty stable, a baby sleeps in a manger, a trough created to feed animals. From these horrible beginnings a new dawn will rise from the dirt and the muck of an unknown stable. From the dim light of a solitary lantern, a new light will reach out over all the earth bringing hope to those in living in fear, joy to those who weep, and laughter to those in pain. From this intimate scene of three individuals held within abject squalor, a Holy Night emerges to engulf humanity.

 

A New Reformation Sunday

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martin-luther-95-theses-e1268997282362On or around October 31, many Protestant churches celebrate “Reformation Sunday” which commemorates Martin Luther’s nailing of 95 Thesis to the front door of All Saints Church, Wittenberg; a college town in north-east Germany. Luther’s rant began with his theological disapproval of Paper Indulgences (a written piece of paper from the Church shortening the amount of time people would spend in punishment purgatory).

Luther had no intention of breaking away from the western church headquartered in Rome, due to the invention of the printing press Luther’s thesis was published, and the formal process of the Reformation began splintering the church, enabling the creation of Enlightenment, changing the course of humanity.

The church in Rome lost power to control and dictate thought as well as managing the future of nations. Of the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant quite adequately named the process as, “the emergence of man from his self-imposed infancy.”

In two years we’ll be approaching the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Thesis, and it makes me wonder of we are losing sight of what Luther’s had begun. Martin Luther, in 1517, took on the status quo, challenging accepted sociopolitical structures as a means of life. Luther looked at doctrine, not as a means of allowing people to thrive, but saw that that the church enveloped doctrine as a means of total control not only of people, but of nations and people’s well-being.

Over the years, the Protestant church in Europe entered into the fray, and slowly but surely fell into the trap of telling people how to think, and how to act, turning once Catholic countries into nations espousing Protestantism, thereby creating a circle of religious freedom into nations just as tyrannical as the preceding regime led by Popes. Self-imposed infancy once again became the norm, not from a centralized church in Rome, but by individuals claiming to know the truth, using power and might to impose yet another theocracy all in the name of “Scripture Alone.”

We, the Protestant church in the United States, though protected from a theocracy by our Constitution and Bill of Rights, has worked its way into the establishment of society sometimes afraid to speak out for fear of losing wealthy members, and our jobs and pensions.

I suggest on Reformation Sunday, the church once again should take it upon itself to present  to each community it inhabits making known what they stand for, not in religious terms, that’s too easy, but to name what is preventing society from flourishing, and to say we stand against this inadequacy.

Here’s my list:

  1. People should be paid a living wage (Matt. 20, Parable of the Vineyard Workers)
  2. Fair Distribution of food so that people are not starving (Mark 6, Feeding of the 5000)
  3. Respecting human dignity (Matt. 25, Parable of the Sheep and Goats)
  4. Helping to eliminate homelessness (Isa. 58:6-8)
  5. Helping our neighbors (Mark 12:28, the greatest commandment)
  6. Abhorring violence in all forms (Romans 12:9-21)
  7. Welcoming the stranger (Jeremiah 22:3)
  8. ?????? (Keeping adding to the list…mine was just to get you started)

The Protestant Church should once again become the protestant church, not waging war against each other, but waging a campaign to remove the yoke of violence, hunger, pain, iniquity, and pestilence. I think that is a group good people might want to join, and then they can find out that we are meant to participate with God to bring about a new world.

Let’s Dump Columbus Day and Create…….

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PETITION-ABOLISH-COLUMBUS-DAY-124626215443Almost anyone with a decent education already knows that Columbus did not discover America. Almost everyone knows that the Vikings were the first to set foot in what is now North America in the year 1000, about five hundred years prior to Columbus’ landing around a group of island south of Florida now called the Bahamas.

We know that Columbus and those who followed should be seen as insensitive to the nations they met, and reeked havoc with the people who greeted them with hospitality, or at least curiosity, soon finding out that the people from a far off land with wooden ships were arrogant and greedy souls who had the audacity of claiming land that did not belong to them. Imagine a group of people stepping off a private plane landing in a meadow in the middle of Iowa who after stepping from the plane claiming the land around Dubuque as now belonging to another country; it’s almost laughable, but that’s what happened by people we call explorers. It’s one thing to explore, but its another to exploit. It’s a bad legacy.

There is a recent movement to rename Columbus Day to something paying honor to the indigenous people inhabiting the United States. Though we have much to answer to regarding colonialism, and claiming land killing off a nation of peoples, I’m not sure re-framing Columbus Day is the answer.

Anthropology has said that the people who inhabited North America are best termed “First Nations” because these early travelers came to this land via the Bering Strait when Siberia and Alaska were connected. DNA research says that migration happened in three waves as far back as 25,000 years ago. So, by the time Europeans came into the picture, First Nation peoples were here on this land, and were quite well established. The important fact is that all who came here, no matter what point in history, are immigrants.

I think its time to lay Columbus Day to rest, and to recognize the importance and value of the United States as a nation of immigrants. All of us in this land are immigrants who came to this land over time, and from various waves if migration. My family came to the USA after World War I when Austria-Hungary was broken apart due to war and aggression. Similar stories such as mine can be found over various periods of history.

We, as a people, must set aside a day to recognize the value and importance of immigrants, and to realize that we, as a nation, is strong not from our independence, but our conglomeration of nations who chose to make this land our home, the ever mingling of people of different traditions, and ethnicity which makes us a beacon to the world.

Let’s end Columbus Day and call for a celebration named Immigrant’s Day. Immigrant’s Day, a time to reflect on how we came here, and how we can best serve, and open our hearts and hospitality who seek to make this land their home.

 

 

Liturgical Dance and Three Grecian Urns

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three grecian urnsWhen people know of my background in dance, I am often asked about Liturgical Dancing. I am asked if I’ve ever choreographed dance as liturgy, or would I have interest in forming a liturgical dance troupe? The answer is no to both. I have, however, danced twice as a solo as a part of two different services; a memorial, and the other as part of a Pentecost Sunday moment.

When I had my college dance company, I choreographed a few works which might be seen as sacred. My first piece created for my company was based upon the music of Vangelis “Heaven and Hell.” The concept was not so much a representation of heaven or hell, but had to do with light and dark. One year I staged a dance version taken from the Christmas portion of Messiah, and another time a quartet of dancers moving to the music of Corelli’s Christmas Concerto. I also staged Stravinsky’s “L’Histore du Soldat” a tale about a soldier who sells his soul to the devil, and finally “Chronos”, a work starting with creation, and walk of humanity on the road towards self annihilation.

The works created for my dance company were meant to entertain using the medium of movement performance art as metaphor. Since dance and music are both abstract forms, symbolic meaning, and abstract metaphor can walk hand in hand, or main dans la main.  This is why I struggle with dance incorporated into liturgy. Liturgy is not performance though it may share similar traits and dance is not liturgy even though it may attempt to share, through movement, the symbolic meaning. Unfortunately, when I’ve seen a few attempts are liturgical dance executed by well intentioned dance ensembles, I can’t help but think of the bevy of lovelies from The Music Man performing their tableaux entitled “Three Grecian Urns.”

Years ago I was asked to lead a workshop engaging movement within spirituality. I called the workshop “Movement As Prayer.” The workshop was designed for non dancers so I had to find a way to get people moving in ways which added deeper meaning to the group experience, linking movement with a sense of prayer. One way to do this was to teach physical movements attached to the spoken word without music; this removed a level of abstraction. For example, when a congregation speaks The Lord’s Prayer, a natural flow of speech of rhythm flow occurs. This, I believe, can be used as the basis for movements which enhance and magnify spoken prayer.

Linking movement with the spoken word is not new. In the mid-nineteenth century as missionaries bludgeoned the culture of Hawaii, and as corporations raped the nation of their identity, Hawaiians began to forget their language, they were unable to chant their ancient prayers. From 6 basic movements modern Hula was created as a means to teach their heritage to those who had lost it due to suppression, or had forgotten its deeper meaning. Using hula, words were attached to arm movements as a means to magnify the word making it stronger, and holy (set apart).

Here is an example of the power of movement as a means to amplify words. What you are about to see is powerful. The Hula is named “Kaulana Na Pua” which is the text of a document protesting the takeover of the Hawaiian Nation by the United States. It is a dance of protest. The performance is in both English and Hawaiian, and shares the story, amplified by movement. It shows human dignity in the midst of a people’s absorption. It recounts a petition signed, at that time, by every single person within their nation. Here is the power of movement, and it’s not three Grecian urns:

 

 

 

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