May 29 2019

Reflections on the Smokies Via John Muir

John Muir once said everyone needs “places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.”  For most of my life the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina has been one of those “places” for me.  I recently had a chance to spend a week in the Smokies.  It truly was a healing experience and brought “strength to body and soul alike.”  John Muir never sauntered through the Great Smoky Mountains but he did come relatively close on his 1000 mile walk to the Gulf.  I’ve often wondered how he would have described the mountains that have come to mean so much to me.  I don’t mean to put words in his mouth but I feel what he wrote about other places precisely describes my experience in the Smokies.  For example, writing of his beloved Yosemite Muir wrote: “One seems to be in a majestic domed pavilion in which a grand play is being acted with scenery and music and incense, …all the action so interesting we are in no danger of being called on to endure one dull moment.  God himself seems to be always doing his best here, working like a man in a glow of enthusiasm.”   Muir may well have written these same words about the Smokies had he visited them.

Speaking about one of his favorite places, Muir said “The glory of the Lord is upon all his works; it is written plainly upon all the fields of ever clime, and upon every sky, but here in this place of surpassing glory the Lord has written in capitals.”  These too are words I could have written about the Smokies.  Like Muir, I believe that the glory of the Lord is visible in all of Creation, but there is something special about those ancient mountains that make up the Great Smoky Mountains.  I marvel at the vast species of flora and fauna that make their home there.  I relish time spent alongside its countless streams.  I receive inspiration from its many breathtaking vistas.  I love watching the sun rise and set from its mountain peaks.  Yes, the Smokies is a place where “the Lord has written in capitals!”  The fact that the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is this country’s most visited national park, leads me to believe there are a lot of people who feel the same way about it as I do.

Actually I love all of our national parks and am so grateful they exist.  Muir once said “Wild parks are places of recreation, Nature’s cathedrals, where all may gain inspiration and strength and get nearer to God.”  I agree.  Our parks have so much to offer us.   There are a number of parks that are extra special to me but the Great Smoky Mountains National Park just feels like home.  What park feels like home to you?  Which one, in particular, brings you nearer to God?

–Chuck


Apr 24 2019

Seeing the Earth Through Christ’s Eyes

Having just celebrated both Easter and Earth Day, I want to share with you another portion of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate & Inequality. Francis writes: “The New Testament does not only tell us of the earthly Jesus and his tangible and loving relationship with the world.  It also shows him risen and glorious, present throughout creation by his universal Lordship: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1:20).  This leads us to direct our gaze to the end of time, when the Son will deliver all things to the Father, so that ‘God may be everything to everyone’ (1 Cor. 15:28).  Thus, the creatures of this world no longer appear to us merely under natural guise because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them toward fullness as their end.  The very flowers of the fields and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence.”

Francis’ words help us to realize that there’s more to Easter than Jesus rising from the grave.  That event changed everything, even how we look at the world around us.  In ways we may not fully understand Christ is holding all things to himself and “directing them towards fullness as their end.”  Yes, the world itself was included in God’s plan of salvation and even now waits for the completeness of that salvation.  This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 8.  He speaks of the hope that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (v. 21)  Paul goes on to say, “We know the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (v. 22)

Seeing the rest of creation as recipients of God’s salvation should, as Francis indicates, cause us to see nature in a new light, as “imbued with his radiant presence.”  This should help us realize the sacredness of God’s Creation and remind us that God can be seen in the work of His hands.  I would like to think it would also cause us to give greater respect to the earth and inspire us to be better stewards of it.

Growing up I was taught to pray that I might see others through Christ’s eyes.  I think we should likewise pray that we might view the world through Christ’s eyes.  I have a feeling if we were able to do so things would look quite different.  What do you think?

–Chuck


Mar 29 2019

“A Caress of God”

This year for Lent I gave up desserts once again.  I don’t know why I keep doing that.  I also decided to add some extra reading into my Lenten journey.  One book I chose to read is Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi by Richard Rohr.  The other book is Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home.  I am enjoying Pope Francis’ optimistic outlook on things.  I must confess I’ve been pretty discouraged in recent months.  Perhaps that has something to do with living in America where environmental issues have largely been dismissed or ignored in recent years.  So it was good to hear Francis say “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us.  Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”

In his book, Pope Francis offers a solid theological basis for Creation Care.  I want to share with you a few gems I have found thus far.  Francis writes, “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose.  None is superfluous.  The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us.  Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”  I love that phrase—“a caress of God.”  If we could view the world around us as a caress of God perhaps we would value and honor it more.

In another section Francis writes: “The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety ‘come from the intention of the first agent’ who willed that ‘what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another,’ inasmuch as God’s goodness ‘could not be represented fittingly by any one creature.’  Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships.  We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan.  As the Catechism teaches: ‘God wills the interdependence of creatures.  The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow; the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient.  Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.’”

Surely we would take better care of the earth if we realized that each part of it is a manifestation of God’s goodness and love.  Likewise, if we better understood the interdependence of life on earth it would lead us to be better stewards of Creation.  I’m not sure things will get much better unless we come to grasp the sacredness of the earth and our divine calling to tend to it.

–Chuck


Feb 23 2019

The First Incarnation

Over the years I have benefited from the writings of Richard Rohr.  That happened again this week when I read a series of posts on his “Daily Meditation” site.  There I was introduced to the concept of the two Incarnations.  When Christians hear the word “Incarnation” they typically think of Jesus coming into the world the first Christmas.  Rohr refers to this as the second Incarnation.  What, then, is the first?  That would be the Creation itself.  He says “I want to suggest that the first Incarnation was the moment described in Genesis 1, when God joined unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything.” “Two thousand years ago marks the Incarnation of God in Jesus, but before that there was the Incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and ‘every kind of wild beast’ according to the Genesis creation story.  This is the ‘Cosmic Christ’ through which God has ‘let us know the mystery of God’s purpose, the hidden plan made from the beginning in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:9-10).”

Although I have long understood Creation to be one of the supreme sources of divine revelation, I had not previously thought of Creation as the “first Incarnation.”  It makes sense to me and if we adopt Rohr’s teaching it helps us look at God differently.  It also causes us to look at the earth differently.  We see it is truly holy.  We see in it the immanence of God.  Such a viewpoint opens the door for us to have a more intimate experience with God and the “Cosmic Christ.”  It helps explain why many of us feel closer to God in nature than anywhere else.  I realize not everyone will buy into this concept of a “first Incarnation.”  Not everyone bought into the idea of the second Incarnation.  But for those with eyes to see and faith to believe God’s presence in Jesus could be seen and felt.  Likewise, for those with eyes to see and faith to believe, God’s presence can be seen and felt in the Creation.

In addition of bringing people into a closer communion with God, I would like to think that looking at Creation as the first Incarnation would move us to revere or honor the earth.  Needless to say, we have not done a very good job of this in the past.  The Cosmic Christ would seem to have fared no better than the earthly Christ.  Understanding the Creation as a visible manifestation of God would hopefully lead us to seek to preserve and protect the earth.  Not doing so might be compared to a second crucifixion.  I do not believe it is going too far to say that failure to love and care for the earth is a failure to love and care for God.

There is much to be said for Richard Rohr’s concept of the first Incarnation.  I hope you will give it further thought and that it will lead you closer to the one who is the Light of the world.

–Chuck


Jan 25 2019

Whichever Way We Turn

“My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’  Your face, Lord, I will seek.” Psalm 27:8

There are a number of places in the Scriptures where we are encouraged to seek God’s face.  To seek God’s face is to seek God.  But just where are we supposed to look.  In his beautiful book, Praying with the Earth, John Philip Newell encourages us to look for God’s face in the world around us.  He writes: “Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face in the light of the moon and patterns of stars, in scarred mountain rifts and ancient groves, in mighty seas and creatures of the deep.  Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face, O God, there is your face in the light of eyes we love, in the salt of tears we have tasted, in weathered countenances east and west, in the soft skin glow of the child everywhere.  Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face, there is your face among us.”

Whereas some would say God’s face cannot be seen, others would posit that God’s face is everywhere for those with eyes to see.  One of those persons who was able to see God everywhere was the recently deceased poet, Mary Oliver.  I would love to have eyes like Mary Oliver had.  I believe she saw God’s face in trees, flowers, birds, her beloved dogs, snakes, otters, deer, and children.  I believe she saw God’s face whichever way she turned.

I want to share with you a poem from my favorite Mary Oliver book, Thirst.  It’s called “Making the House Ready for the Lord.”  “Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but still nothing is as shining as it should be for you.  Under the sink, for example, is an uproar of mice—it is the season of their many children.  What shall I do?  And under the eaves and through the walls the squirrels have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season when they need shelter, so what shall I do?  And the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow; what shall I do?  Beautiful is the snow falling in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly up the path, to the door.  And still I believe you will come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox, the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know that really I am speaking to you whenever I say, as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.”

Mary Oliver’s poems, along with John Philip Newell’s prayers, John Muir’s writings, and the Scriptures themselves, have taught me that God’s face can be seen in the world of nature and in the faces of those closest to me.  I am very grateful to have had such good teachers.  They have affected how I look at things and how I photograph.  They have enabled me to see far more than I would have otherwise. Admittedly, I still do not see all I could or all I hope to, but I have seen enough to conclude that the face of God is indeed everywhere and that it is beautiful—more beautiful than the tongue can tell.

–Chuck


Dec 26 2018

Learning from the Trees

I have loved trees since I was a little boy. I grew up playing in the woods and I think that has influenced my affection for trees. Since taking up nature photography over twenty-five years ago, there’s no telling how many trees I’ve photographed. They are one of my favorite subjects. I also have quite a few books on trees. Recently I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. It is a fascinating book and I’m learning a lot about trees in it. And about other things as well.

Early in the book Wohlleben makes the case that trees are social beings. He indicates that they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. He goes on to say there are many advantages to trees working together. Wohlleben writes: “A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.”

Being a pastor, I have to admit that these words made me immediately think about the church. As Christians, we can only survive in community with other believers.   There are so many things we cannot do alone and were never meant to. We are meant to live out our faith with others. We are interdependent. Today a lot of people strive to be independent but this doesn’t work in the community of faith. We need each other, just like the trees do. We cannot afford to look out only for ourselves. Our spiritual lives are truncated and diminished when we isolate ourselves from other believers.  We hurt both ourselves and those around us.

Another important parallel is that just as every tree is valuable to the community or forest and worth keeping around as long as possible, every Christian is valuable to his or her community of faith and worth keeping around as long as possible. The apostle Paul made the same point when he talked about the church being like a body made up of different parts. He said all parts have a role to play and are, therefore, valuable and necessary. (See 1 Corinthians 12:14ff) We need to remember this for a lot of reasons. We must affirm the value of all members in our community of faith. We all need each other if we are going to grow and thrive. We all need each other if we are going to accomplish our purpose as a community of faith. Once again, there simply is no place for isolation in the community of faith.

Jesus encouraged us to “consider the lilies” and to pay attention to the birds. I suspect he would also encourage us to pay attention to the trees around us. They have a lot to teach us.

–Chuck