Jul 27 2014

Seeing the Light in Darkness

e_DSC4090I spent the past week at the Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico.  It was an incredible experience on numerous levels.  I enjoyed learning from John Philip Newell as he talked about his new book, The Rebirthing of God.  He and his wife, Ali, also led in worship each morning and evening.  The services were spiritually uplifting.  The landscape around the Ghost Ranch was also incredible.  I have traveled extensively around the Desert Southwest and without a doubt this was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen there.  Each day I had a chance to get out and do some photography in the area.  This, too, proved to be spiritually uplifting.  I always seem to sense God’s nearness in the desert for some reason.

e_DSC4584One very pleasant surprise for me at the Ghost Ranch was the night skies.  Two nights the skies were completely clear and those nights I witnessed the glory of the heavens as never before.  The Milky Way seemed almost close enough to touch.  I was in total awe.  The words of the Psalmist kept coming to mind: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place; what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (8:3-4)  I did indeed feel humbled beneath the vastness of the heavens above but at the same time I recognized that the One who made those stars dwelt within me and was close by.  The transcendence and immanence of God was apparent at one and the same time.  I could not help but offer my worship to the Maker of heaven and earth.

e_DSC4596Each morning as a part of our workshop we were asked to go outside and spend twenty minutes in silence.  On the day following my close encounter with the Milky Way I spent my twenty minutes laying down on a large stone beside a giant cottonwood tree looking up at the sky.  The sky was a beautiful blue, punctuated with fluffy white clouds.  After a while it dawned on me that I was looking up in the same area I beheld the stars the night before and that those stars were still there extending their light.  Because of the brightness of the sun the stars could not be seen but they were there nonetheless.  This was, of course, something I already knew, but it did drive home a truth that I had not pondered previously—some manifestations of God’s glory can only be experienced in darkness.

While at the Ghost Ranch I finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.  This inspirational work has made me look at darkness in a new way.  She offers many compelling reasons to embrace the darkness, both physical and spiritual.  At one point Taylor writes, “If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running away from is God?”

e_DSC4598I am convinced more than ever that we must learn to approach the dark periods of our life in a new light.  We tend to think of darkness in negative terms but it may well be that the darkness is needed at times for God’s glory to be revealed.  There are lessons that God can only teach us, things that the Creator can only show us, in the dark seasons of our life.  This doesn’t necessarily make those dark seasons easier to endure but it does offer us a glimmer of hope—that in the darkness we may just see a light or manifestation of God that could not be seen otherwise.  The skies above New Mexico and the testimony of many of the saints of history all bear witness that this is true.  When you find yourself in darkness—whether physical, spiritual or emotional—I encourage you to look for that which might not be seen otherwise.  It may just be that it is in the darkness where you will see God the clearest.

–Chuck

(I took the images above at or near the Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico this past week.)


Jul 20 2014

The Rebirthing of God

_CES4997The Rebirthing of God is the title of John Philip Newell’s new book.  Its subtitle is Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings.  This week I will be at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico  taking a workshop with Newell that focuses on this book.  I am certainly looking forward to that.  In the meantime, I’ve been reading the book itself.

In this brand new book Newell speaks of the death of Christianity as we know it and of the need for “the rebirthing of God.”  He believes that this rebirthing is a good thing “pointing to a radical reemergence of the Divine from deep with us.”  In each of the book’s eight chapters Newell discusses something the church needs to reconnect with. Having read a number of his other books I was not surprised to discover that the first thing he believes we need to reconnect to is the earth.  Newell concurs with eco-theologian Thomas Berry that “we need to move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to a spirituality of intimacy with the natural world.”

_DSC2209Reflecting on both the Book of Genesis and the writings of Julian of Norwich Newell notes that we are not only made by God but are also “of God.”  He says “We are made of the Light that was in the beginning.  We are made of the Wisdom that fashioned the universe in its glory and interrelatedness.   We are made of the Love that longs for oneness.”  He sees one of our great needs “the desire to move back into relationship with everything else that is of God.”  This means “choosing to move in harmony with the universe again, knowing the rising of the sun and the whiteness of the moon as part of us, seeing the beauty and wildness of the creatures as expressions of what is also within us, the unnameable and untameable presence of the Divine in all things.  It means growing in awareness of earth’s sacredness, knowing that its moist greenness issues forth directly from the ever-fresh fecundity of God.”

If you are a regular reader of Seeing Creation you know that I write often about the sacredness of the earth.  I, too, feel that Christianity has suffered greatly by setting up a false dichotomy between the spiritual and material world.  This false dichotomy has kept many from being open to experiencing God in the natural world.   This is most strange considering the Biblical insistence that God is certainly to be found in the Creation.

_DSC1465I appreciate the fact that Newell utilizes the teachings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.  He refers to de Chardin as  “the first modern Christian prophet of the sacredness of the universe.”  De Chardin once wrote “at the heart of matter is the heart of God” and “the deeper we move into the mystery of any created thing, the closer we come to the Divine Presence.”  These are things I believe too. De Chardin believed that the Incarnation of Christ “points to the oneness of heaven and earth, the Divine and the human, spirit and matter” and also “reveals the essential sacredness of every person and everything that has been created.”

_CES1384In case you’re wondering, in the remaining chapters of his book Newell goes on to talk about how reconnecting with compassion, the Light, the journey, spiritual practice, nonviolence, the unconscious and love will also be important facets of the rebirthing of God.  I’ve not read the whole book yet but already I have found much encouragement about the future of Christianity in it.  If we would just take seriously this first part, reconnecting to the earth, it would make a world of difference.  I plan to keep pointing others in this direction and ask you to do the same.

–Chuck

(I took the images shown above near my home in Henderson, KY.)


Jul 13 2014

Looking Beyond the Obvious

BeyondObvious1Earlier this summer, I was up in the Great Basin National Park in Nevada with Chuck. This is a wonderful park that is one of the quieter national parks because of its location.  While I did photograph some of the beautiful mountains of the park, I also spent time getting down and dirty with the small critters, the insects and spiders, that live there, as well as the great flowers that were in bloom, too.  Chuck has commented on my predilection to look at the small stuff. I believe these small things can be as unique to a location as the obvious mountains, and as much a testimony of God’s wonder as those mountains, if we are only willing to stop and look.

BeyondObvious7There is no question that this can require a conscious effort because our tendency is often to focus in on the obvious beauty, especially in bold locations like a national park. By looking beyond the obvious, I guarantee you will be rewarded with unique and special moments of wonder and joy that others truly will miss.

BeyondObvious6A cool thing about getting down and dirty with the little things is that you can do it in all sorts of weather and light. The light might just be awful for the distant mountain because of the wrong time of day or the clouds don’t cooperate. Maybe even there is fog blocking your view. Up close, none of this matters! You can always find wonderful opportunities for wonder up close. Light in the wrong direction? Move to the right or left and it changes instantly. Terrible skies? No need to look at them. Gray conditions? That can give an enveloping light for close-up views that allows you to better see details and colors that might be obscured by brighter, harsher light.

BeyondObvious5I think it is significant that Jesus said, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow … even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Matthew 6:28) when talking about people being worried about things like impressing people with clothing and also, “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.” (Matthew 6:26)   He did not say to look at the beautiful mountains and what God does with them, nor did he say to look at the biggest and most dramatic animals. In addition, Christ fed the crowd with a few small fish and loaves of bread (Matthew 14:17-20). He started with small things. Could not Christ have created a feast with much more? Of course, but it was the small things that mattered.

Big things in God’s creation are made up of small things. The big obvious mountains are made up of so many small things, everything from rocks to trees to tiny flowers to spiders to deer to bees and so much more.

BeyondObvious4Big things don’t exist without the small things that they are made of. If our eyes are always looking up at the mountain tops, we will miss discovering much of the wonder of God’s creation right beside us.

– Rob


Jul 6 2014

Fresh Encounters With Beauty

_DSC1130“For you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord; I sing for joy at the work of your hands.” (Psalm 92:4)

_DSC1834Today my heart is filled with gratitude for the beauty of God’s Creation.  Over the past week I had a chance to make numerous visits to Henderson Sloughs Wildlife Management Area.  During these seven days I discovered a couple of new places that turned out to be truly special.  One was a vast area, mostly dry this week, covered with tens of thousands of lotus plants in bloom.  It was a spectacular sight, to say the least.  I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it before.  It was so beautiful I went back three days in a row so I could photograph it in different types of light.

_DSC1622_DSC1622_DSC2181_DSC2181_DSC2176Later in the week I came upon yet another new spot in the Sloughs.  This place was a wetland that also contained numerous lotus flowers.  The difference between this location and the previous one is that the lotus flowers here were surrounded by a sea of purple pickerelweed.  The panoramic view here was stunningly beautiful.  It, too, called for multiple visits to do photography.

_DSC1622_DSC1622_DSC1622_DSC2181Because I have visited so many national parks and other popular scenic areas it is hard to find scenes now that blow me away.  I have seen so much beauty it’s hard for me to be impressed at times.  The two spots I visited this week were definitely exceptions.  Being at both spots filled me with joy, awe and wonder.  I felt blessed just to witness such beauty.  I felt doubly blessed knowing that both places were only about twenty minutes away from where I live.

_DSC1834_DSC2181_DSC2181Before long both places will lose the beauty I beheld this past week.  The lotus flowers and pickerelweed blossoms will fade away and not be seen for another year.  Many of nature’s best shows are short-lived.   How grateful I am that I got to witness the show this year!  Knowing that the show will be repeated next year gives me something to look forward to.  I certainly don’t want to miss it.

One of the sad and ironic things about the two places I’ve described for you is that very few people even know about them.  Neither place is all that difficult to get to but they do require a bit of effort to view.    It doesn’t help that neither can be seen from the road.  I lament that so few people got to view this manifestation of God’s glory but I know that the handful of people who did witness the view were blessed by what they saw.

_DSC2181_DSC1834_DSC1834_DSC1834_DSC1834_DSC1834_DSC1834_DSC1834_DSC0969_DSC1834_DSC1857_DSC1857_DSC1857All of this got me to thinking that there are no doubt countless such places across the globe.  Places of immense beauty that few people, if any, ever get to witness.  Does that mean that all this beauty goes to waste?  I think not.  I believe that the beauty we behold in the world around us is not just for our pleasure but for the Creator’s as well.  It is obvious that God delights in beauty.  God finds joy in the beauty of His handiwork whether we or anyone else notices.  I find that thought comforting but am quite certain that God’s desire is to share this beauty with us.  This beauty rejuvenates us, inspires us, and enriches our lives.  This beauty offers us a glimpse into the heart of God and reveals a love that knows no limits.  This beauty, as I said at the beginning, is enough to fill one’s heart with gratitude.  Oh yes, after this past week my heart is full!

–Chuck


Jun 29 2014

Lunar Spirituality

DV-moon“If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,’ even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.” Psalm 139:11-12

e_CES2439Barbara Brown Taylor has long been considered one of America’s best preachers.  She also happens to be a very good writer.  I am currently reading her newest book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.  In this delightful book Taylor offers a positive take on darkness and speaks of its many benefic.  One of the things she does here is contrast “solar spirituality” with “lunar spirituality.”  She says full solar spirituality “deals with darkness by denying its existence or at least depriving it of any meaningful attention” and “focuses on staying in the light of God around the clock, both absorbing and reflecting the sunny side of faith.”  She goes on to say you can recognize a full solar church “by its emphasis on the benefits of faith, which include a sure sense of God’s presence, certainty of belief, divine guidance in all things, and reliable answers to prayer.”  All of this sounds good on the surface but Taylor says what these churches seem to lack is the skill for operating in the dark—a darkness that invariably invades each of our lives.

Barbara Brown Taylor claims to lack the gift of solar spirituality and says her gift is, instead, “lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.” She talks about how the moon changes shape constantly and as such “the moon is a truer mirror for my soul than the sun that looks the same way every day.”  Things do not appear as clear or certain in a lunar spirituality but that does not mean it is any less real or genuine as solar spirituality.  For many, me included, it just seems more true to my experience and to reality.

Taylor does a good job of exposing the benefits—spiritual, physical and emotion—of darkness.  She is to be commended for tackling this subject; few would choose or dare to.  In Learning to Walk in the Dark I find a model of the  spiritual journey that resonates with my own experience.  My life and spirit do not seem to be cut out for a solar spirituality.  It is much more in tune with what Taylor calls lunar spirituality.

_CES7969If you are someone more attuned to a solar spirituality you may question those who walk this different path.  I hope you will be careful not to judge too quickly.  In some ways it may take a greater faith to walk this path than those who walk in the sunlight.  Regardless, both paths lead in the same direction.  Here is the good news Barbara Brown Taylor offers: “even when light fades and darkness falls—as it does every single day, in every single life—God does not turn the world over to some other deity.  Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone.  …darkness is not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.”

At one point Taylor asks, “If we turn away from the darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running from is God?”  Since many biblical characters, and the saints that have followed them, found or encountered God in the darkness we might, in fact, miss encountering the divine presence if we avoid the darkness at all cost.  I hope you’ll think about that the next time you look up into the night sky or find yourself enveloped by the absence of light.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Death Valley National Park and the bottom two in Henderson, KY.)


Jun 21 2014

Loving the Ordinary

sassafras“God has made everything beautiful in its time.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

Recently I saw a saying posted on Facebook that went along with my last blog, “Removing the Blinders.”  The saying was “Anyone can love a rose, but it takes a lot to love a leaf.  It’s ordinary to love the beautiful, but it’s beautiful to love the ordinary.”  The source of these words is unknown but they certainly convey a truth that is worthy of our consideration.  We do, in fact, often overlook the ordinary for the beautiful.  That does not mean, however, that there is not much to love and appreciate in the ordinary.

baby-turtleThe saying quoted above spoke to me because I am one who tends to focus on the beautiful, especially when it comes to my nature photography.  I have a propensity to take pictures of those things that are beautiful and extraordinary.  These are the things that thrill and move my soul.  They also tend to be the things that editors buy.  For both reasons I rarely photograph that which is not widely considered beautiful.

mono lake hdr 4My close friend and co-writer, Rob Sheppard, takes a different approach.  When we are out photographing together it seems we seldom take pictures of the same things.  He is quite content to photograph what most people would consider ordinary things.  I remember once being with him at Mono Lake in California.  Neither of us had been there before.  I spent the biggest part of my time photographing the lovely tufa that emerge from the lake.  The scenery at this location is spectacular!  I’m not sure Rob, on the other hand, ever photographed the lake or tufa.  He spent the biggest part of his time photographing a tiny wildflower that he found nearby.  I couldn’t imagine how anyone could choose a small wildflower to photograph over the vast beauty of the lake, tufa and surrounding mountains.

You’d have to check with Rob to get the final answer on why he did this but I do believe that it is related to the saying quoted above.  Anyone can love a rose or Mono Lake but it takes a lot, someone special, to love a leaf or tiny flower.  There are countless photographers like me who love the beautiful; to do so is quite ordinary.  There is a scarcity of those like Rob who have learned to love the ordinary and that makes such people extraordinary.  There is something truly beautiful about people like that.  Perhaps one day I can become one of their tribe.

Rob at Mono Lake not shooting Mono LakeMy personal theology leads me to believe that God loves ordinary people as much as God loves those the world deems “beautiful” people.  It also leads me to affirm the goodness of all of Creation, not just the beautiful parts.  I am convinced that the ordinary—both people and the various aspects of Creation—deserve more of our attention.  In fact, I suspect if we were more spiritually mature we would realize, to quote a well-known Ray Stevens song, that “everything is beautiful in its own way.”  To see the beautiful in the ordinary is to see with the eyes of God and that is a beautiful thing indeed.  It is my hope that more of us can come to view the world and others with the eyes of God.  Wouldn’t that be lovely?

–Chuck

The top two images I took in my yard while living in Middlesboro, KY–a sassafras tree and a common box turtle.  I took the bottom two images at Mono Lake.  I call the last image “Rob at Mono Lake not photographing Mono Lake.”