Apr 26 2016

Seeking Nature’s Forgiveness

_DSC9845“Forgive us our sins…” Luke 11:4

One of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read is The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.  In one portion of this classic the character Father Zossima tells his fellow monks the story of his brother’s, Markel, last days.  Markel, who previously cared little for God or religion had a change of heart.  He began asking for both God’s forgiveness and that of others.  Next he did something no one could have expected, he asked the birds to forgive him.  Here are his words: “Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you.”  Zossima says “None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy.   ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky and I alone lived in shame.  I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all.’ “ When Markel’s mother told him he was “taking too many sins upon yourself” he responded, “Dear mother, my joy, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them.”

_DSC3016I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions lately concerning forgiveness but most of them related to people who had hurt one another. In forty years of ministry I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone speak of asking the birds or nature to forgive them but as I read Dostoevsky’s words again this morning it seemed like what Markel did was something we all need to do.  In so many different ways we sin against Creation on a regular basis.  The birds Markel spoke of have certainly suffered.  At nearby John James Audubon State Park there is a museum that features a lot of items related to Audubon’s life.  One item tour guides invariably point to is a well preserved stuffed passenger pigeon.  At one time there were millions of these birds but today they are now extinct.  I almost feel like the next time I’m there I need to ask its forgiveness.

To some asking a bird or some tree for forgiveness would sound ridiculous but I do not believe that it is at all. When you look at the stress that we have placed on animals as we’ve wiped out their habitat how can you not apologize?  When you see where huge majestic trees have been clear-cut how can you not weep and feel sorry?  When you see fish that have died from pollution dead on the shore how can you not ask for their forgiveness?

B2175In Dostoevsky’s novel Merkel admits that he does not “even know how to love” all of God’s creatures.  Elsewhere in The Brothers Karamazov one of his characters says, “Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.”  It is certainly clear that Dostoevsky believed that we should, in fact, love all of Creation and for good reason—so that we might in turn know and love the Creator.

In any relationship where love is involved there will come a time when we must ask the one we love for forgiveness. If we truly love God’s Creation there will likewise be times when we must say “I’m sorry.”  As I look around me it would seem that time is now.

–Chuck

(I photographed the northern cardinal and indigo bunting in western Kentucky and the raven at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.)

 


Apr 18 2016

It’s God’s World!

_DSC5249Yesterday was Earth Stewardship Sunday at my church. We had a chance to sing hymns and offer prayers that honored God as Creator. We were even reminded during Communion that the bread and wine are gifts of the earth provided by the One who made it.  For my sermon I chose to focus on the words of the hymn “This Is My Father’s World.”  I did this so I could emphasize a very important biblical truth, this world doesn’t belong to you or me.  As the Psalmist boldly declared, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” (24:1-2)  I like the way George McKinney, Jr. put it, “The creation of our Lord does not belong to the rich who possess it nor to the poor who need and want its resources. Neither the greedy nor the needy can claim ownership!”

So many of the environmental problems we face today have resulted from our failure to understand or remember that the earth is not ours to do with as we please. The earth belongs to God.  We do learn in Genesis 2:15 that we have a role to play in God’s Creation and that involves taking care of it.  Unfortunately we have been far more prone to abuse Creation than take care of it.  Many people see the earth and its resources as simply a means for getting rich.  Far too many people abuse the earth’s resources without any concern for others or for those who will come after them.  No wonder we find our planet in the shape it now is.

_DSC5227When I was a teenager I remember a television commercial that featured a lone Native American standing on a high precipice observing the decimation of this country’s natural beauty and as the camera zoomed in you saw a tear falling from his eye. It was a very powerful presentation and got a lot of people’s attention.  I have a feeling that if we could somehow get a close-up look at God’s face these days we might find a similar tear and for the same reason.  In essence, we have trashed the beautiful world God so graciously gave us.  We have failed to be the stewards of Creation God commissioned us to be.

In the final verse of “This Is My Father’s World” the writer says “God trusts us with this world, to keep it clean and fair.  All earth and trees, the skies and seas, God’s creatures everywhere.”  These may just be the words of a hymnist but they echo the teachings of the Bible.  God did, in fact, entrust us with this world, “to keep it clean and fair.”  Our heavenly Father expects us to honor the earth as His creation and to take the steps needed to reverse damage that has already been done and to work to preserve what we can for future generations.

_DSC7790Last week I spoke at the funeral of a friend whose favorite song was “Rocky Mountain High.” He wanted it played at his service so we did.  As I listened to the words one line in particular caught my attention.  It’s the one where John Denver sings “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.” I could relate to that.  I can honestly say my life is richer because I have seen, and here where I live now continue to see on a regular basis, eagles soaring above me.  But not that many years ago there were concerns about whether bald eagles would even exist in this country now.  The effects of the pesticide DDT seriously threatened their existence and had there not been tremendous pressure put on public officials to remove DDT I would likely not have the privilege I do here of seeing eagles on a regular basis.

Those who fought the battle to eliminate DDT made a difference. If we are going to take earth stewardship seriously, we need to be looking for places where we can make a difference too.  Got any ideas?

–Chuck

(I took the top two pictures on a recent trip to southeast KY.  The eagle was photographed near where I live in western KY.)


Apr 1 2016

Some Wise Words from Jesse Stuart

_CES2470When I was a teenager my father had a heart attack. Following his open heart surgery a neighbor stopped by and gave my Dad a copy of a book he thought would be helpful.  My father was not much of a reader and I don’t think he ever got around to reading the book but for some reason I still remember the name and author of that book.  It was The Year of My Rebirth by Jesse Stuart.  Jesse Stuart was a well-known Kentucky author and when I got older I read several of his books.  When I had my own heart attack and surgery recently I remembered the book that had been brought to my father and ordered a copy.  I am so glad I did.  In this book Stuart writes about his own heart attack in 1954 and the book ends up being a journal of his year of recovery.  He writes a lot about nature and faith, the two things we try to focus on in this blog.  In once section of the book Jesse Stuart offers a reflective piece of advice to his readers.  I want to share that advice with you here.

_CES2962“If a man continues to think in low terms, he will soon be living just at the level of his thoughts.  Man should listen to a piece of fine music each day, he should read a good poem, story, or novel.  And it will profit him to read a portion of the Old or New Testament each day.  These were the things I had time to do now.  One should look for the beauty in the daisy petal in the pasture field instead of looking over his fine breed of cattle and calculating how much a pound they will average.  One should stop and listen to the spring winds in the April leaves.  One should love the touch of the eternal dirt from which we are all created, and the beauty of a star in the sky, and the sad refrain of winter winds in the dead leaves.  One should see beauty in the fluffy flakes of snow falling in barren timber and, in another season, the aroma of different wild flowers, the lean shape of blossom and leaf.  There is so much to elevate our thoughts in each of our private worlds that we should never stoop to thoughts of despising, hurting, cheating, taking advantage of our fellow man.”

_DSC3211Stuart’s rural pastoral setting may be foreign to you but there is wisdom here for all of us. What we think about, what we focus on day by day, truly does make a difference in our character and how we live our lives.  Stuart’s words remind me of the apostle Paul’s admonition to the Philippians, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable —if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (4:7-8)  Interestingly, Stuart urged us in this passage to pay attention to God’s two books—the Scriptures and Creation.  He felt that by paying more attention to these we would be far better off.  I couldn’t agree more.

In the final sentence of the passage quoted Stuart describes a scenario we are all too familiar with today, one where people despise, hurt, cheat and take advantage of one another. This is not what God intended for us. This is not how we are meant to live.  Stuart suggests that the way to move beyond this is to direct our thoughts in a more positive direction.  And he’s right; there truly is “much to elevate our thoughts in each of our private worlds” and we should be moving our thoughts in that direction.  So today I, along with the late Jesse Stuart, would urge you to put your focus where it ought to be—on God’s two books.  If more of us made an effort to do so I can’t help but believe it would truly make a difference.

–Chuck

(The pictures I’ve used here were taken in the Ozark Mountains in April a few years ago.)


Mar 14 2016

Spring, Heart Surgery and Creation Care

Westerm-CottontailSince my recent heart attack and bypass surgery my time outdoors has been quite limited. I walk in our neighborhood when the weather permits and get out otherwise only to go to rehab or make a quick trip to the office. Even with the limited exposure to the outdoors it is apparent that spring is currently making its presence known. Jonquils are in bloom, redbuds are starting to bud, and a number of wildflowers are emerging. It doesn’t look like I’ll be able to get out and photograph the wonders of early spring this year but I still find much comfort and joy in the return of spring.

flowerSpring is a time of renewal and restoration. After winter’s cold and darkness spring gives us hope of better days to come. It brings the promise of longer days, rising temperatures and an explosion of color.   This year I find myself looking at spring differently.   Due to my health issues I see myself not just as an observer of spring but also as a participant in the cycle of spring. Like the world of nature, my body is going through a period of renewal and restoration. Following surgery my body is going through a season of healing. Although I still have a bit of pain and discomfort I live with the hope of better days to come.

Viewing myself as a participant of spring has caused me to also do some thinking about being a part of Creation itself. Even though we don’t admit it often we humans are just as much a part of Creation as flowers, birds, trees, and the rivers around us are. We owe our existence to God. One biblical writer declared that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made.”  (Ps. 139:14)  It would be difficult for someone to debate that truth.   Like everything else, we were made by God and for God. Like the rest of Creation God made us in such a way that we can fulfill our divine purpose.  God made our bodies so that we can be and do what God planned for us.

robin 1I write often at this site about the need for us to be good stewards of God’s Creation.  What a lot of us may have forgotten is that our own bodies are a part of that Creation and that we must be good stewards of them too. I will confess I have not been a very good steward of my own body. Over the years I have not taken very good care of it. I have failed to eat right, exercise properly, and get the rest my body needed. When I had the episode with my heart a few weeks ago I did not ask “Why me?” I knew it was my own fault. I had no one to blame but myself.   I had not been a very good steward of the one part of Creation I have the most control over and I paid the price.

There is always a price to be paid when we fail to be good stewards of God’s Creation. The earth or we ourselves invariably suffer. The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, is a good example of how failure to be good stewards can lead to sickness or death. Elsewhere rivers and lakes, even the oceans, are also being polluted and that pollution is causing ill effects for plants and animals and humans alike. There are countless examples of ways we have failed the earth and are now having to pay the price. We simply cannot treat the earth any way we please and not expect there to be some very serious repercussions.

My current health issues have helped me to see anew the importance of being a good steward of all aspects of God’s Creation. There is a very good chance I would not be alive today if a team of doctors had not intervened and performed the surgery I needed.  In the same way, plants and animals, whole ecosystems, and, yes, even fellow human beings may well die if we do not intervene. May God help us all to intervene where and when we can.

–Chuck

(I took the top picture in Wyoming, the second picture in South Carolina, and the bottom image here in Henderson, KY.)


Mar 2 2016

What’s in a Name?

SC March RS 2

There is somewhat of a debate among nature lovers as to how important names are. Some folk think that names get in the way of appreciating nature. That can be true if you feel you have to know “all the names”, an impossible task. When you see a photo like the one above, you can always think pretty flower even if you don’t know the name.

I happen to think names are important. Names give you context and connection. It is hard to say you love a flower, yet you can say you love California poppies or any other aspect of nature. Knowing the name of something in nature makes that something specific and concrete. You can know exactly what it is then. The flower above is a California poppy. The little native bee next is a green sweat bee.

SC March RS 3

There are two Creation stories in the Bible. The first (Genesis 1) shows what God thought of ALL of His Creation, “And God saw that it was good.”

Many people focus on the relationship of Adam and Eve in the second Creation Story (Genesis 2-4), plus the eating of the forbidden fruit. While those things are obviously important to the story, I find it interesting that the Bible says that God brought the animals to Adam “to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name.”   The story says that nature was not named by God, but God wanted to see how Adam would name it.

The implication is that Adam needed names in order to care about Creation and that the names helped God understand Adam. Names do imply care. As human beings, we are geared to support things we care about, not things we have no feelings for. It is difficult to have feelings for an anonymous person compared to someone we know by name.  In biblical thought, knowing someone’s name implied intimacy.

The same thing happens in nature. Anonymous animals, plants, places don’t get the care that animals, plants, places with names do. Next is a giant coreopsis, a native plant restricted to a small area of the Southern California coast and Channel Islands (and blooming now).

SC March RS 1

It is impossible to know the names of every living thing (some haven’t even been discovered yet).

But it is possible to know that every living thing has a name and is worth caring about.

– Rob


Feb 21 2016

The Strength of My Heart

_DSC7912A few years ago I came across a verse in the Book of Psalms that deeply moved me. It was Psalm 73:26 that says “My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” I’m not exactly sure why the verse came to mean so much to me back then but it takes on even more meaning to me today as I sit in the hospital awaiting open heart surgery tomorrow morning. At this point my physical heart has failed me but God nonetheless remains “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” I cannot deny that it is a very disturbing thing to have a heart attack and then learn that you are in need of four or five bypasses. Those things have a way of turning your world upside down. But one thing I’ve learned is that although my world may have been turned upside down the world itself continues to turn and God remains in control of it. I think the Psalmist must have recognized that too and it is what enabled him to say that though his flesh and heart may fail, “God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” I know, as he knew, that as long as I am on earth it is God who gives me the strength to carry on and that when this life comes to an end it will once again be God who will give me strength to carry on “forever.”

_DSC0890In so many ways the Bible reveals God to be the One who gives us strength and who protects and provides for us at all times, but especially during troublesome times. In a number of instances references to elements of Creation are used to help make the point. In Psalm 46 we read “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains quake at its swelling pride.” (vs. 1-3)  Yesterday, my dear friend, Ken Jenkins, reminded me of another passage that offers this same assurance and encouragement. The prophet Isaiah says “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God.” (43:1-3)

e_CES8881There are countless other biblical references that could be cited here. The overwhelming evidence of the Scriptures is that God loves each of us immensely. God knows the burdens we bear and the trails we are going through. My current heart issues are no secret to God. I have complete confidence that the One who made the heavens and the earth actually is concerned about me and whatever the outcome of my surgery will be that God will see me through to the end. My study of God’s two books, the Scriptures and Creation, teaches me that I am in very good hands. And just in case you didn’t know, so are you.

–Chuck

(I took the baby barred owl image at Corkscrew Swamp in Florida, the second image at Lake Superior in Michigan, and the bottom image at Canyon de Chelly National Monument.)