Oct 23 2019

Bad News for the Birds

Have you heard the news?  A recent study has indicated that birds in North America are in trouble.  In the past fifty years the total number of birds has declined nearly 30%.  That means over one in four birds have disappeared in North America.  The study, published by the journal Science, reveals that close to three billion birds have been lost during just a portion of my lifetime.  This is tragic news!  Everyone knows that birds play an important role in the various ecosystems they abide in.  They are an instrumental part in the web of life.  Thankfully, not all species have experienced decline but every biome in the United States and Canada has been affected.  The populations of waterfowl, raptors and turkeys have increased significantly.  That is not the case for major families like sparrows, warblers, blackbirds and finches.  Many of our most beloved birds are disappearing at an alarming rate.  Ken Rosenberg, from Cornell Lab of Ornithology, says the bird losses “are a strong signal that our human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.  And that is an indicator of a coming collapse of the overall environment.”

What are the reasons behind the dramatic decline in the bird population?  There are several.  Habitat loss and the widespread use of harmful pesticides are two primary factors.  A decline in the insect population has affected those species that depend on insects for food.  Other causes include climate change, detrimental land use policy, and the weakening of wildlife protection policies.  Even things like window collisions and cat predation have been pointed to as contributing factors for decline.  Knowing the causes for decline is important but doing something about them will require significant effort and changes.  Do we care enough to make these changes?  I believe people of faith should care enough.

About the time I first read the reports about the loss of three billion birds in North America I was studying the story of Noah and the Flood.  I can’t read that story without remembering that God was insistent that the flood not destroy all wildlife.  God instructed Noah to build an ark not just to preserve humans, but all creatures as well.  I found Genesis 7:2-3 to be very interesting.  God told Noah, “Take with you seven of every kind of clean animal, a male and its mate, and two of every kind of unclean animal, a male and its mate, and also seven of every kind of bird, male and female, to keep their various kinds alive throughout the earth.”  It would seem that God made a special effort to preserve the birds—seven pairs of “every kind of bird” were to be placed in the ark.  Could God have a special love and concern for birds?  It would not surprise me if that was the case at all.  We know from the Gospels that Jesus paid careful attention to the birds and encouraged us to do so as well.  Now, especially now, would seem to be a good time to do so.

–Chuck


Sep 29 2019

Rocky Mountain High & Psalm 104

I recently got to spend several days photographing at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.  It was a truly wonderful experience!  This park has so much to offer—majestic mountains, beautiful lakes, abundant wildlife, and stunning vistas around almost every turn of the road or trail.  As is typically the case when I visit our national parks, the trip proved to be a spiritual experience.  For me there is nothing like the beauty of God’s Creation to stir the depths of my soul. I read the words of Psalm 104 while on the trip and they seemed so fitting.  I found myself echoing the opening words, “Praise the Lord, O my soul.  O Lord my God, you are very great; you are clothed with splendor and majesty.”  (v. 1)  How can you view such beauty and not offer praise to the Creator?  We had a number of experiences where we got to see alpenglow on the mountain tops.  This special light reminded me of the Psalmist’s words, “He wraps himself in light as with a garment.” (v. 2)

In the mountains it did, in fact, seem as though God “makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind.” (v. 3)  Looking up at those grand peaks I had to affirm that “He set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” (v. 5)  Viewing the waterfalls and streams in the park it was clear “He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains.” (v. 10)  We photographed birds next to one stream and this seemed to correspond with v. 12, “The birds of the air nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.”  As I photographed a pika and a marmot in the higher region of the park I couldn’t help but think of v. 18, “The high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys.”  Seeing the mule deer emerge at dusk made me think of the words “You bring darkness, it becomes night, and all the beasts of the forest prowl.” (v. 20)   Spending time watching herds of elk I couldn’t help but affirm with the Psalmist “How many are your works, O Lord!  In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” (v. 24)

Having spent a number of days in Rocky Mountain National Park it seemed appropriate to pray “May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in his works.” (v. 31)   It also seemed appropriate to sing.  The Psalmist said “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live.  May my meditation be pleasing to him as I rejoice in the Lord.” (vs. 33-34)  On the last morning of the trip, as I photographed the first light on several peaks, I played John Denver’s song, “Rocky Mountain High,” on my iPhone.  It somehow seemed appropriate.  Even more appropriate, however, are the words of Psalm 104.

–Chuck


Aug 30 2019

America’s Holy Ground

Anyone who knows me well knows I love our national parks.   Hopefully they also know how important my faith is to me.  Recently I came across a new book that encompasses both of these loves.  It’s called America’s Holy Ground: 61 Faithful Reflections on Our National Parks.  The book was written by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer and was published by Chalice Press.  Knowing that many of you who read this blog share my love for the national parks I thought I’d share with you a bit of information about the book.  America’s Holy Ground covers all sixty-one of our national parks.  Although you will find valuable information about each park, this book is not a field guide.  Instead the authors offer a brief devotion or “reflection” on each park. Most parks receive four pages of coverage, some only receive two.  For each park a scripture passage is given and Lyons and Barkhauer choose a one word theme.  Here are some examples of the themes they chose: Grand Canyon—“Grandeur,” Death Valley—“Life,” Crater Lake—“Reflection,”  Big Bend—“Borders,” Great Basin—“Adversity,”  Petrified Forest—“Time,”  Yellowstone—“Faithfulness,” and Yosemite—“Trust.”  Sometimes the themes chosen seem obvious, at other times not so much.

At the conclusion of each devotion the authors give a series of questions for reflection.  For example, after writing about Everglades National Park (theme—“Preservation”) they ask “In what ways have you participated in the preservation of creation?  Did such an action feel sacred?  Does it change your behavior when you realize the world is an interconnected web of meaning in which you cannot affect part without impacting the whole?”  Most of the questions raised truly are thought-provoking.   Many remind us that we are all called to be good stewards of God’s Creation.

America’s Holy Ground includes nearly 200 color photos.  Many of these were taken by the authors.  The photographs illustrate the parks well and leave you wishing for more.  How do you adequately illustrate a park like Great Smoky Mountains or Yosemite with just two or three photos?   You can’t.

The book closes with a “Benediction,” a collection of spiritual sayings connected to nature.  Among those quoted are Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Wendell Berry, Mary Angelou, Thomas Merton and Theodore Roosevelt.  Following the Benediction there are a few pages for the owner of the book to journal in when visiting the parks.

If you are a person of faith who loves our national parks, this book is for you.  My only complaint about the book is that I wish I had come up with the idea first.:)

–Chuck

(I took the first picture at Mount Rainier National Park, the second at Yosemite National Park, and the third at Joshua Tree National Park.)


Jul 30 2019

Wonder and Awe

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

While on a road trip with a friend last week he told me about a book by Leigh Ann Henion called Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World.  In this book Henion talks about the importance of wonder for our lives and how it can be found especially in nature.  She chronicles her experiences of wonder visiting migrating monarchs, Hawaiian volcanoes, viewing the northern lights, while on an African safari, and observing a total eclipse of the sun.  Learning about this book has made me think about some of the places where I have experienced wonder and its counterpart, worship, in nature.  Space does not permit an exhaustive list but here are a few.

I have experienced wonder each time I have visited slot canyons in the desert southwest.  When light from above is reflected on the sandstone rock walls the result is pure magic.  Like Henion, I have also experienced wonder and awe observing the northern lights.  Watching the curtains of light move across the Alaskan skies moved me to the depths of my soul.  It was truly a spiritual experience.   I have likewise experienced a deep sense of wonder in Alaska watching giant glaciers calve.  The sights and sounds of this phenomenon inspire me in a remarkable way.   I could say the same thing about walking amidst the giant sequoias and redwood trees of California.

I remember feeling wonder and awe the first time I looked up at the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.  There was something about those mountains that humbled me and made me feel small in more ways than one.  I have also experienced a heightened sense of wonder each time I’ve visited the geyser basins in Yellowstone National Park.  Watching geysers like Old Faithful, Giant, Grand, and Castle erupt thrill both my heart and soul.  The same thing can be said for sunsets I’ve experienced in the Grand Canyon and sunrises on the coast of Maine.

Many times I have been moved to awe and wonder watching wildlife.  It’s happened observing a whitetail fawn take its first steps and coastal brown bears snatching salmon midair at Katmai’s Brooks Falls.  It’s happened while listening to sandhill cranes migrate overhead and while watching humpback whales frolic in the seas.  Getting to see wolves and moose in the wild have likewise provoked wonder and awe.

Henion speaks about how the phenomena she experienced proved to be life-changing.  The things I’ve mentioned have also been life-changing for me.  In each instance I believe I have been able to catch a glimpse of the Divine.  I see each example as a gift of God’s grace.   I sincerely believe that it has been the Creator’s intention all along to show us God through the handiwork of Creation.  Most of the examples I cited are big things but God is also revealed in the small for those with eyes to see.  It might be a tiny delicate wildflower or the wings of a butterfly.  It could even be something so simple and complex as a snowflake.  The truth is, God may be found in all that God has made and when we truly see we cannot help but be moved by wonder and awe to worship.  Wouldn’t you agree?  What natural phenomena have moved you to wonder and awe?

–Chuck


Jun 28 2019

Extinction Is Forever

It seems like every other day I come across another discouraging report concerning the environment.  Recently I read about an assessment made by an United Nations study.  It indicated that “humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as 1 million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival.”  According to Brad Plumer, “in most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20% or more, mainly over the past century.  With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate ‘unprecedented in human history.’  At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in.”

The United Nations report should be a wake-up call for all of us.  Humans are accelerating the rate of extinction by rates unseen before.  This will ultimately affect all of us.  I happen to believe that people of faith should be particularly concerned about this trend.  The Creation story in the Bible affirms the goodness of all that God made. Genesis 1:31 says “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”  There is a divine reason for the existence of every plant or animal.  All play an important role in the web of life.  In First Corinthian 12 the apostle Paul makes a case that the church is like a human body.  He says all the parts have a role to play; all the parts are important.  I would argue that the same thing is true in Creation.  All that has been made is good, is essential for the well-being of the larger body, and has a role to play.  Paul says in the church no one has the right to say to another part “I don’t need you.”  In the same way, we have no right to say that we don’t need certain plants or animals.  That is not our call.  Surely we are humble enough to admit that God is wiser than us.  If we believe the hand of God is behind all living creatures we should be willing to fight for their protection.

A few days ago I found a prayer in a book called Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation that would be good for all of us to pray:  “Lord, you love life; we owe our existence to you.  Give us reverence for life and love for every creature.  Sharpen our senses so that we shall recognize the beauty and also the longing of your creation, and, as befits your children, treat our fellow creatures of the animal and plant kingdoms with love as our brothers and sisters, in readiness for your great day, when you will make all things new.”  It seems well past time that we began to take species extinction seriously.  If we claim to love and serve the Creator, we will love what has been created too and be willing to do what we can to protect all species.

–Chuck


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