Sep 9 2016

“Watchin’ and Listenin'”

wy-yellowstone-np-grand-prismatic-springLast night I decided it was time for me to reread C. S. Lewis’ classic series The Chronicles of Narnia.  I began with the first book, The Magician’s Nephew.  It is in this volume that Lewis tells the story of the founding of Narnia.  It will be obvious to most people that Lewis’ tale parallels to a certain degree the Creation story found in Genesis 1.

wy-yellowstone-np-lower-falls-vThe beginnings of Narnia are witnessed by a handful of humans from earth and a wicked witch that have travelled through time and space by using some magic rings. They all witness the arrival of the lion Aslan and his singing the new world into creation.  They do not, however, all witness this in the same way.  The two children are in awe of what they see.  The witch ends up running off in fear.  Another character immediately begins to see the potential for making a fortune from what was being created before his very eyes.  After this same character offers a complaint while so many wonderful things were happening all around him a different character says to him, “Oh stow it, Guv’nor, do stow it. Watchin’ and listenin’s the thing at present, not talking.”

I think these words are some a lot of us need to pay heed to when we stand before God and God’s Creation. Even now God’s Creation continues to unfold all around us.  Like the characters in the book, we too are witnesses of God’s ongoing Creation.  The Bible makes it clear that God is not finished with the work He started long ago.  God is creating still.  As we witness this ongoing work we would be wise to do more watching and listening than talking.  We’ll see, hear, and learn a lot more that way.

wy-yellowstone-np-giant-geyserA couple of weeks ago Rob Sheppard came to visit me and I was reminded how lax I had become in listening to Creation. Living near Los Angeles, California, Rob does not get to hear the sounds he was hearing where I live.  He opened the window in our guest room so he could hear the crickets and cicadas.  When we walked through John James Audubon State Park he commented on the sounds of the forest.  All of the sounds he pointed out were common ones that I no longer really pay attention to.  I guess I’ve come to take them for granted.  That is not good.  In order to get the most out of God’s “Other Book” I need to do more “watchin’ and listenin’.”  I suspect a lot of people do.  Perhaps recognizing that is a first step in moving toward a greater experience of God through Creation.  I hope so anyway.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above at Yellowstone National Park.  This is one spot where God’s ongoing work of Creation seems pretty obvious.)


Sep 2 2016

Sharing

_DSC9709People love hummingbirds. I’m not so sure, however, that the two hummingbirds I have visiting my feeders love each other.  I’ve been watching them the past few weeks and one of the two absolutely will not let the other one feed.  If it sees the other hummingbird anywhere close to the feeders it will dive bomb it and harass it until it leaves.  What I find interesting about this is the fact that I have two feeders.  There is more than enough sugar water available for them.  Each bird could have its very own feeder but the dominant bird doesn’t want to share.  Aren’t you glad that we humans aren’t like that?

As I’m sure you already know, that last line was written “tongue in cheek.” I am afraid the hummingbird behavior I’ve been observing recently is not all that different from the human behavior we observe from time to time between nations, in the halls of Congress, in places of business, and even in churches.  Selfishness and greed have a way of raising their ugly heads just about anywhere you look.  Fussing and fighting, well-known side effects of selfishness and greed, have a way of breaking out wherever humans interact.  In fact, it seems like this has become the norm rather than the exception.

_DSC9702God certainly had a different plan for us. In Psalm 133:1 David said “How good and pleasant it is when brothers [and sisters] live together in unity.”  That is God’s goal for us and should be our goal as well.  If that is going to take place we must learn to share.  The Scriptures certainly have a lot to say about sharing.  Hebrews 13:16 says “And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” One of the messages John the Baptizer delivered was: “If you have two shirts, give one to the poor. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry.” (Luke 3:11)  The writer of First John raised this poignant question, “If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion how can God’s love be in that person?” (3:17)  Luke described the early church this way: “All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 4:32)

_DSC9667My hummingbird’s refusal to share could prove quite detrimental to the other bird. Our failure to share, likewise, can come with dire consequences.  In some instances it is truly a life or death matter.  As children we often received instructions on the importance of sharing.  Here lately, I’m thinking we may all need a refresher course.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown here in my yard the last couple of days.)


Aug 22 2016

Maintaining the Flow of Justice

_CES3656Last week a friend and I drove over to Hoosier National Forest in southern Indiana to photograph the waterfalls at Hemlock Cliffs National Scenic Trail. Our area had received several days of rain and we thought it would be a good time to check the falls out.  It turned out to be the perfect time to be there.  Both of the waterfalls on the trail had an abundance of water.  I was excited to have the opportunity to photograph the falls because these are seasonal waterfalls.  The only other time I had been on the trail there was only a trickle of water coming over the falls.  I found myself wishing that the falls always looked like they did last week.  It would be wonderful to visit this area throughout the seasons and photograph the beautiful waterfalls but that’s not going to happen.  These falls are dependent on weather systems that will not support this and I have no control over that.

Thinking about the contrast in the water flow between my two visits my mind wandered to the ancient words of the prophet Amos, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (5:24) Most of the streams in the land of Israel, like the falls at Hemlock Cliffs, are seasonal.  The streambeds or wadis remain dry until the rains come.  Soon thereafter they are dry again.  Through the prophet God declared that the justice he saw lacking in the land was meant to flow constantly like a steady river or a never-failing stream.

_CES3672Amos spent his time pointing out to Israel the many places where injustice raised its ugly head. It was obvious that God was not pleased with the way His people had ignored His calls that justice be practiced among all.  Only occasionally was justice practiced. That’s why there was the plea to let justice and righteousness flow on a regular basis.  God’s people, then and now, fall short when justice issues are ignored.

_CES3718I have a feeling that God is still trying to get this message across to people today. We live in a world where injustice continues to be prevalent.  We hear most often about matters pertaining to racial injustice but there are many other arenas where injustice occurs on a regular basis.  It happens in the arena of fair wages, gender discrimination, food distribution, penal incarceration and age discrimination.  As I have written about previously, many environmental issues are justice issues as well.

_CES3749Today Christians cannot afford to remain silent in the face of injustice. If we do we shouldn’t be surprised if God tells us the same thing He did Israel long ago: “I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them.  Away with the noise of your songs!  I will not listen to the music of your harps.  But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:21-24)  No matter how big the crowds, how glorious the music or inspirational the preaching, our worship services are found unsatisfactory to God if we are not at the same time committed to maintaining justice.

I cannot change the weather to make the water flow more freely at Hemlock Cliffs but I can make a difference in whether the river of justice continues to flow, and so can you. May God help us all to do just that.

–Chuck

(I took these images last week at Hemlock Cliffs National Scenic Trail.)


Aug 10 2016

Glints of the Divine

AZ Antelope Canyon 1 near PageIn recent days I’ve been reading Joan Chittister’s book, In Search of Belief.  The book is a careful and thoughtful look at the Apostles’ Creed.  When it comes time for Chittister to discuss God as “Father” it is apparent she has a problem with this appellation.   It’s not that she is opposed to referring to God as Father; instead, she finds it too limiting.  She feels the Church has made a mistake in focusing on just one of the Bible’s many images of God.  She notes that a number of the biblical images come from Creation and feels that these, as well as others, should also be used to give us a fuller and more complete understanding of God.

_CES2470Chittister argues for expanding our metaphors and images of God. She says, “By naming God everything that makes God God, we come daily to see God differently, to see God wholly. More than that, by naming God the sum total of created goodness, we come to see the rest of life differently as well.  In the first place, we see God present to every distinct moment, every separate segment of life.  In the second place, we come to see every distinct moment of life, every gracious mortal being around us charged with that presence.  We come to see every facet of life—all of them, each of them—as glints of the Divine. We get a fuller picture of God.  At the same time, we get a deeper understanding of the sacredness of a creation that shares in this diversity.”

Joan goes on to say, “When we name God fully, all of life becomes an exercise in contemplation. We touch the divine dimensions of ourselves.  We see God everywhere.  We feel divinity everywhere.  We recognize God everywhere.  And, eventually, we become what we think about.  We become what we see, make holy what we touch, make sacred what we are.”

AZ Monument Valley mittens (v) crI appreciate what Chittister says here. Perhaps we have focused too much on just a few images of God when including several more would broaden both our understanding and experience of God and Jesus.  I am especially drawn to the biblical images found in Creation.  Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world”  and spoke of the “living waters” that came from him.  I remember other nature images appearing in a hymn I sang often as a child: “He’s the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star…” Another song referred to God as “the sweetest rose of Sharon.” The Psalmist used nature images to refer to God.  He spoke of God as “a sun and shield” (84:11)  and “the Rock of our salvation.” (95:1)

There are lots of images of God related to nature and if we will regularly reflect on these, especially as we view them in nature itself, we should be able to connect with God in a fuller and richer way.  There truly are “glints of the Divine” all around us!  I encourage you to take Chittister’s lead and begin looking for other metaphors and images that will augment the few the Church has historically chosen to highlight so that you might come to know God in fresh and new ways.  As Joan reminds us, “Clearly, if God is really God, no one name can possibly hold all the allusions, say all the concepts, breathe in one breath all the qualities that are God.”

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Antelope Canyon near Page, Az.; the middle image in Missouri’s Ozark mountains; and the bottom image at Monument Valley in Az.)


Jul 29 2016

Experiencing God in Our National Parks

Yellowstone Lower FallsAmerican’s National Park Service will be turning one hundred years old in just a few weeks. Because I love our national parks so much I cannot let this occasion pass without offering the NPS my congratulations and best wishes.  Since taking up nature photography twenty-four years ago I’ve been blessed to visit most of our national parks.  I’ve also visited scores of other national park units such as national recreation areas, national monuments, national rivers and seashores, etc.  Each of them has had an impact on my life one way or another.  I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for our national parks.

I was introduced to our national parks as a small child when my family visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today I visit them as often as I can.  Just two days ago I was able to pay a return visit to Mammoth Cave National Park.  I keep going back because I benefit so much from them.  Our national parks are incredible repositories of natural beauty that move my soul.  They are places where I often connect to God.  In fact, when I think of some of the parks I’ve visited I think not just of the scenery or wildlife but of the spiritual connections I made there.  Let me give you some examples.

TN Great Smoky Mountains Spruce Flat FallsWhen I think of Denali National Park I remember “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” I have felt a peace there I’ve not quite experienced elsewhere.  When I think of Grand Teton National Park I recall how important humility is in the spiritual life.  Standing before that giant mountain wall I always feel small and humbled.  When I think of Yosemite National Park I think of worship.  John Muir referred to those majestic Sierra mountains as his “temples” and “cathedrals” and they became that for me as well.  I can hardly imagine walking through Yosemite Valley and not singing the “Doxology” or “How Great Thou Art.”  When I think of Yellowstone National Park I find myself reflecting on the mystery of God.  Yellowstone is such a mysterious and magical place.  As with God, there is no comprehending all its wonders.  And when I think of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I associate it with love. There is a wonderful and abundant diversity of life in this park that is so dear to my heart.  That diversity symbolizes for me the generosity and goodness of God and it serves as yet one more reminder of the divine love that is the source of all that is good.

Yosemite ValleyI could go on making spiritual connections with the many different parks I have visited and photographed. They are all special and they are all important.  We are incredibly blessed to have these national parks and we should, by no means, take them for granted.  I would encourage you in this centennial year of the National Park Service to give them all the support you can.  Visit them as often.  Work to preserve and protect them.  Our national parks are far more than just beautiful and ecologically diverse places, they are special places where God resides and where God can be experienced in some marvelous ways.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Yellowstone NP, the middle one at Great Smoky Mountains NP, and the bottom one at Yosemite National Park.)


Jul 9 2016

Intimations of the Divine

e_CES3228This past week I had the privilege of spending some time with my friend Rob Sheppard exploring parts of central California. I very much enjoyed Rob’s company.  I also enjoyed the company of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I happened to take with me a copy of Heschel’s book I Asked for Wonder.  This is an anthology of several of the famous rabbi’s spiritual quotes.  The very first quotation cited is worth the price of the book: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” But Heschel has much more to say and he often points to our spiritual connection with nature.  For example, he writes “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being.  Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe.  Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything.  But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight…”  I have to admit that when I took this image of the Milky Way near Lake Isabella I could not help but stand in awe at the work of God’s hands.

e_CES3330Heschel has more to say about awe. “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.  It enables us to receive in the world intimations of the divine,…to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.  What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.”  As I looked up at the giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Forest I sensed what Heschel was talking about.  For those with eyes to see there truly are “intimations of the divine” all around us in nature.   And as Heschel points out, these intimations can be found not just in the giant and dramatic aspects of nature but also in “the common and the simple.”

e_CES3486In still yet another quote Heschel says “Out of the world comes a behest to instill into the air a rapturous song for God, to incarnate in stones a message of humble beauty, and to instill a prayer for goodness in the hearts of all men.” Spending extended periods of time out in nature I did in fact sense the call to offer a song of praise to God.  I felt like shouting with the Psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name.” (Psalm 103:1)  I could understand why being in God’s Creation can instill one to pray “for the goodness in the hearts” of all people.  At this particular moment there definitely is a need to offer such prayers.

I always learn a lot when I travel with Rob but I’m thankful that on this trip we had the companionship of Abraham Joshua Heschel and for the many wonderful truths conveyed to us through his words.  I look forward to further travels with both in the future.

–Chuck

(I took the three images used here on my trip this past week.)