May 21 2015

John Muir and the Sanctity of All Life

_DSC1296Last week when I was flying to Denver I spent some time reading a wonderful book called The Contemplative John Muir.  It is a collection of quotations from the great conservationist that reveal the spiritual side of Muir.  One of the things I quickly noticed was that long before there was an animal rights movement John Muir was affirming the importance and value of all creatures as part of God’s Creation.  At one point he wrote: “Godlike sympathy grows and thrives and spreads far beyond the teachings of churches and schools, where too often the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered, or enslaved.”  Muir believed that all creatures had worth, and thereby rights, simply because they were made by the Creator and I fully agree with him.

_DSC0799Muir, however, did not believe that it was just animals that had worth.  In his view all of Creation had great value because, once again, it was created by God.  It bothered him that things like lichen were considered “a low form of life.”  He said all forms, “high and low, are simply portions of God radiated from Him as a sun, and made terrestrial by the clothes they wear, and by the modifications of a corresponding kind in the God essence itself.”  Muir went on to say, “Rocks and waters, etc., are words of God and so are people.  We all flow from one fountain Soul.  All are expressions of one Love.  God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating and fountainising all.  The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.”

_DSC7992Muir says concerning the typical human way of seeing things, “How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies!  How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation!  With what dismal irreverence we speak of our fellow mortals!  Though alligators, snakes, etc., naturally repel us, they are not mysterious evils.  They dwell happily in these flowery wilds, are part of God’s family, unfallen, undepraved, and cared for with the same species of tenderness and love as is bestowed on angels in heaven or saints on earth.”

_DSC1958I realize that not everyone will concur with Muir’s sentiments but I do believe that his way of thinking is theologically sound and that if followed would lead to a much more respectful approach to all that God has made.  Such an approach is desperately needed at this particular time.   The world needs a more life-affirming view of the Creation.  In many ways the preservation of the world is dependent on our developing a greater respect for all forms of life.  The preservation of humankind may also be dependent on this.  Albert Schweitzer once said, “Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives.” 

I hope that we can begin to move toward a view of the sanctity of all life on earth and that this view will lead us to be better stewards of God’s Creation and a kinder species as well.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Colorado National Monument, the second one at Rifle Falls in Colorado, the third one at Everglades NP, and the final one at Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP in Colorado.)


May 15 2015

Ponderings From Denver

CO Rocky Mountain high country 046This week I have been in Denver, Colorado, for the Festival of Homiletics. It’s been a great week and I’ve had the chance to hear many wonderful speakers. It has been interesting to hear how many of them made mention of Christianity’s need to reconnect with the earth and to be better stewards of the environment.   It was wonderful to hear John Philip Newell speak once again at the event.  His writings and prayers have helped deepen my spirituality and connected it more to the earth. Other speakers, like Brian McClaren, indicated that the future health of the church will be determined, in part, by our willingness to take the sacredness of the earth more seriously. Speaker after speaker called us to honor God’s Creation.

CO Rocky Mountain NP tundra 003Wednesday I attended John Philip Newell’s workshop on “The Rebirthing of God.” It was held in a Lutheran Church and I was impressed with the way the pulpit area was decorated with rocks and plants.  At the end of the session Philip asked us to meditate on the Psalmist’s words, “Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary.” (Ps. 96:6)  The stones gathered around the altar aided the meditation. Yesterday morning I attended a worship service held in a Methodist Church that gave careful attention to nature. We were invited to spend some time in silence at the beginning of the service. While we all remained quiet the recorded sounds of a bird singing were played. We then sang a song I had never heard before that deeply moved me.

The song we sang is called “Touch the Earth Lightly” and was written by Shirley Erena Murray. Here are the words to three of the verses: “Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care; gifts of great wonder, ours to surrender, trust for the children tomorrow will bear.  Let there be greening, birth from the burning, water that blesses, and air that is sweet.  Health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children, regeneration that peace will complete. God of all living, God of all loving, God of the seedling, the snow, and the sun, teach us, deflect us, Christ reconnect us, using us gently, and making us one.”

CO Aspen aspens v 065At still yet another session in the festival there was an inter-faith dialogue between John Philip Newell, a rabbi and a Muslim.  All three mentioned how their faith tradition honored and valued Creation. It was clear that recognizing the sacredness of the earth and caring for it is something that could draw groups which are quite different together. Considering the conflict we see in the world it would seem that this would be a good area for us to focus on. I truly believe that we must find ways to move beyond our differences and find common ground that will unite us. The earth can literally be that common ground.

More than ever I am convinced of the value of “seeing Creation” as an important link to God.  It can help enhance our worship of the “Maker of heaven and earth,” draw us closer to other Christians as well as those of other faith traditions, and it can also serve as a needed incentive to take better care of this good earth. By focusing on God’s “other Book,” as well as the Scriptures, perhaps we can all experience a “rebirthing of God,” as well as a closer connection with both nature and those around us.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown here on previous trips to Colorado.)


May 6 2015

Gone to the Birds

_DSC9845I guess I’m finally going to have to admit it.  I’ve become a birder.  I never thought that would happen but the evidence is overwhelming.  In recent months I’ve spent over $100 on bird books,  attended three programs on birds, and spent a small fortune on bird seed and other birding supplies.  I’m currently reading a fascinating book on bird language called What the Robin Knows by Jon Young.  I’ve started keeping my long lens in the car so that if I come across a good opportunity to photograph a bird I’ll be ready.  I’ve even been listening to recordings of bird sounds so I can better identify the birds I’m hearing around me.  I haven’t reached the obsessed stage yet but I’m afraid it’s coming.

_DSC9904I’ve always liked birds.  Don’t most people? I’ve enjoyed taking pictures of them for a number of years.    Yes, I’ve liked birds for a long time but it wasn’t until I moved back to western Kentucky a couple of years ago that I really started getting interested in them.  Where I now reside is by anyone’s definition a birder’s paradise.  It is located on a major flyway and has an abundance of remarkable habitat that draws many birds to the area.  John James Audubon lived here long ago and the area no doubt contributed to his own passion for birds.  A state park that bears his name is located just a mile from my home and it has a plethora of bird species year round.

_DSC9807Having so many species of birds at my back door (literally) has sparked my interest in birds.  I’m still not very good at identifying a good many species and I find distinguishing bird calls to be incredibly difficult and frustrating.  Still, I intend to work on both disciplines and hopefully will make improvements in the coming months.  I have a feeling I’ll never be that good at it but I guess I’m finally ready to officially join the ranks of birders.

_DSC0071Jesus once encouraged his disciples to “look at the birds of the air.” (Mt. 6:26)   Since it is estimated that there are around 10,000 species of birds that may take a while.  He also told a group “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?  Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father.” (Mt. 10:29)  Both biblical passages remind me that we can, in fact, learn much from “the birds of the air.”  The late theologian and preacher John Stott has a wonderful book called The Birds: Our Teachers.  If you are interested in learning spiritual principles derived from observing birds I highly recommend this book.  Perhaps if I pay careful attention I might learn a few lessons as well.

O.k., I feel better getting that off my chest.  Birders of the world (all 22 million of you) take note; you have added one more member to your tribe.  I hope you will accept me and be patient with me.  I have a lot to learn!

–Chuck

(I took the images shown above–northern cardinal, rose-breasted grosbeak, goldfinch and prothonotary warbler over the past week at my home and at Henderson Sloughs WMA.


Apr 29 2015

Bats and God’s Universe

Bats at Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TexasWe’ve all heard the saying, “God moves in a mysterious way.” This is from an old hymn written in 1773 by William Cowper. A well-known author, pastor and theologian from the last century, J. Vernon McGee, put it in a different way, “This is God’s universe and he does things his way. Now, you may have a better way of doing things, but you don’t have a universe.”

Keep that in mind for a moment and let’s look at bats. I have become fascinated by these little creatures. I have photographed them just a few times, but I hope to do more.

Bats are not flying mice or rodents. They are their own group called chiropterans. Bats are hugely varied in different types and species. In fact, almost a quarter of all mammals are bats.

As a group, bats eat a huge range of food. Most people know they eat insects, and a large portion of bats do. But different species eat fruit, nectar, and all kinds of animals from frogs to fish to even scorpions and much more. But even the insect eaters specialize in different ways of eating. Some catch insects on the fly, which we all know. But some work from perches to catch larger insects. Others flutter through trees and along the ground and pick off their prey from branches and rocks. As you can probably guess, this means bats come in all sizes, from the tiny bumblebee bat of SE Asia that is a little over an inch long and weighs less than an ounce to the big flying fox fruit bats of Australia that have a wingspan of nearly six feet and weigh over three pounds.

Even the bats that catch insects are different. Some fly high over vegetation to catch insects there, others work dense woods to find insects there, and still others change the times at night that they fly in order to catch certain insects.

Bats fly differently, too, which makes sense when you think about their variety of size and food. Some fly slowly and do a lot of fluttering. Some are speedy fliers who zoom through the air. Others have the ability to hover and fly through the tight spaces of a tree while chasing insects. Each bat flying style means that bats have different sizes of wings in relation to their bodies, from long and tapered to short and rounded.

Bats at Congress Avenue Bridge, Austin, TexasWe all know about bats in caves, but that is not all bats, and some bats only use caves to hibernate. Bats like the Mexican freetailed bat will use bridges, which is what is seen in the photos here from Austin, Texas. Many bats roost in trees – fruit bats of Africa will fill a large tree as they roost there. Different species of bats in North America will use old woodpecker holes, openings in trees from dead branches, spaces under loose bark, and even hang from branches looking like a bunch of dead leaves. There are bats in the tropics that will find insect holes in bamboo and roost inside the bamboo. There are even bats there that will chew the central stem of a palm large leave so that it folds over like a tent and roost there.

Some thoughts about their amazing echolocation skills: Bats put out high pitched sounds that we cannot hear. This bounces off prey like a fish finder bounces off fish hidden in waters below. With these echolocation skills, some bats can discern things as small as a human hair. This does not mean bats cannot see, however. Bats can see just fine, and some have extremely good eyesight to enable them to find specialized prey. And they do not get into people’s hair!

To me, all of this and more is absolutely amazing. I really had no idea, and I think that is true of most people. After all, bats are mostly out at night and spend much of the day hidden away.

Austin, TX batsYet God is fully aware of bats and who they are, even if we aren’t. What an incredible Creator to have made bats with such diversity that they can use the night in many different ways to adapt to food and life at that time.

Sometimes I have heard people say that they do not understand why a certain animal exists, or maybe worse, they consider life they don’t know to be unimportant. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that God made life only FOR man. Genesis talks about creation as an act of God apart from man and that God saw it was all good.

This is indeed God’s world and we share it with all of his creations, including bats. Just knowing what amazing life God has created and allowed, apart from man, says a lot about how important it all is, and why it is all worth caring for.

– Rob


Apr 22 2015

Honoring your Father and Mother on Earth Day

_DSC7241Generally, if someone asked me what I was doing forty-five years ago today I wouldn’t have a clue.  If you were to ask me that today  however I could answer your question.  Forty-five years ago today I was participating in the first Earth Day activities.  I distinctly remember getting to go outside with my fellow students at Lone Oak Middle School and pick up trash.  Today I observed Earth Day a bit differently, I spent some time volunteering at a community garden.

WY Yellowstone NP Grand Prismatic SpringIf you are a regular reader of this blog you will not be surprised to learn that I am a big fan of Earth Day.  I got excited about it on the very first one forty-five years ago and my excitement has only increased over the years.  I think it’s awesome that every April 22 people pause to remember what a wonderful planet it is we live on and how we all have a responsibility to take care of it.  Of course, I’m one of those who thinks every day should be Earth Day but I realize that’s not realistic.  Hopefully by observing Earth Day one day each year people will, in fact, begin to think more regularly about how they can better care for the earth.

_DSC3064I love Earth Day because it gives us all a chance to honor our Father and our Mother.  By mother here I mean “Mother Earth.”  I realize that there are some who believe it is pagan to refer to the earth in this way but I hardly believe that to be true.  In so many ways the earth is our mother.  According to the Scriptures we came from the earth.  Genesis 2:7 says “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.”  The earth not only gave birth to us it has continued to nurse, nurture and sustain us.  Here, too, the Bible speaks of the earth’s bounty and how our needs are met by its resources.  Genesis 2 speaks about God placing trees on the earth that were both “pleasing to the eye and good for food.”  (v. 9)  It also mentions a “river watering the garden.” (v. 10)  In more ways than most of us could begin to imagine the earth serves as our mother.  Next month people will pause to honor their mothers on Mother’s Day.  It seems only appropriate that on Earth Day we stop and give honor to Mother Earth.

ME Baxter SP streamEven more important to me, Earth Day gives us a chance to honor our Father, the Maker of heaven and earth.  The Bible is clear in making the claim that the earth exists because God chose for it to exist.  As Creator of the earth this world and all that it contains belongs to God.  (Psalm 24:1)  I like to think of Creation as God’s handiwork.  When we pause on Earth Day to recognize the beauty and value of this planet we honor God.  We affirm with God that the Creation is “good” and that God’s handiwork is something to be admired, treasured and protected.  If we fail to do these things, whether it be Earth Day or not, we fail to honor God.

A major emphasis for Earth Day is caring for and protecting the earth.  For God, this emphasis goes much further back than forty-five years; it goes back to the very beginning.  God’s instructions for the first humans was to “work” the Garden “and take care of it.” (Genesis 2:15)  When we stop and remember our call to be good stewards of the earth we, once again, honor our heavenly Father.  We fulfill the purpose God gave us right from the start.

I hope you have had a good Earth Day.  I also hope that if you haven’t already done so, before the day is over, you’ll find some way to honor your Father and Mother.  Doing so will bring joy to the One who gave us this wonderful planet we call Earth.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used here in Utah, Wyoming, Missouri and Maine.)


Apr 17 2015

The Circle of Love

Clingman Dome sunset (h) crThis past week Rob Sheppard was here doing a photography workshop for John James Audubon State Park.  Once the workshop was over we had some time to run around and visit some of my favorite places in the area.  One of those places is New Harmony, Indiana.  Once the site of an utopian experiment it is now something of a living museum.  The Roofless Church is located there and a number of historic buildings.  In New Harmony you will find a memorial garden honoring Paul Tillich and a number of other impressive gardens.  New Harmony also features a couple of labyrinths.

AGPix_summers402_0387_Lg[1]Labyrinths have been used for centuries as a tool for prayer.  I took Rob to one labyrinth that is modeled after the famous one located at the cathedral at Chartres.  While we were there I noticed a sign I don’t remember seeing before.  On that sign was the following quotation attributed to Black Elk: “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.  The moon does the same, and both are round.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”

I remember from some previous studies that circles were very important to Native Americans.  Some believed that natural arches continued underground and formed circles.  Medicine wheels also played an important role in some tribes.  Black Elk’s words remind us that there are many examples in nature where the Creator has utilized circles—the earth, stars, wind, nests, the sun and moon, and the seasons.

_CES7969I like to think that a circle also portrays the love of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures.  The Bible declares that “God is love” and I believe that God’s love encircles or encompasses everybody.  I also happen to believe that you and I are supposed to love as God has loved us.  At our recent Maundy Thursday service, where we paused to remember Jesus’ “new commandment” which tells us that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us, I used a passage from a poem by Edwin Markham as part of my message: “He drew a circle that shut me out–heretic , rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!  I do, in fact, think God likes circles and that when it comes to love He expects us to draw a circle that will take everyone in, even our enemies.

When I pause to remember that the circle of God’s love included me I feel both obligated and inspired to love others too. I hope you’ll think about that when you happen to come across one of the many circles that can be found in nature. Perhaps one reason God used so many circles was He knew we would need the reminders.

–Chuck

(I took the top image in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle one in Middlesboro, KY, and the bottom one in Henderson, KY.)