Jul 9 2016

Intimations of the Divine

e_CES3228This past week I had the privilege of spending some time with my friend Rob Sheppard exploring parts of central California. I very much enjoyed Rob’s company.  I also enjoyed the company of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I happened to take with me a copy of Heschel’s book I Asked for Wonder.  This is an anthology of several of the famous rabbi’s spiritual quotes.  The very first quotation cited is worth the price of the book: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” But Heschel has much more to say and he often points to our spiritual connection with nature.  For example, he writes “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being.  Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe.  Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything.  But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight…”  I have to admit that when I took this image of the Milky Way near Lake Isabella I could not help but stand in awe at the work of God’s hands.

e_CES3330Heschel has more to say about awe. “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.  It enables us to receive in the world intimations of the divine,…to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.  What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.”  As I looked up at the giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Forest I sensed what Heschel was talking about.  For those with eyes to see there truly are “intimations of the divine” all around us in nature.   And as Heschel points out, these intimations can be found not just in the giant and dramatic aspects of nature but also in “the common and the simple.”

e_CES3486In still yet another quote Heschel says “Out of the world comes a behest to instill into the air a rapturous song for God, to incarnate in stones a message of humble beauty, and to instill a prayer for goodness in the hearts of all men.” Spending extended periods of time out in nature I did in fact sense the call to offer a song of praise to God.  I felt like shouting with the Psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name.” (Psalm 103:1)  I could understand why being in God’s Creation can instill one to pray “for the goodness in the hearts” of all people.  At this particular moment there definitely is a need to offer such prayers.

I always learn a lot when I travel with Rob but I’m thankful that on this trip we had the companionship of Abraham Joshua Heschel and for the many wonderful truths conveyed to us through his words.  I look forward to further travels with both in the future.

–Chuck

(I took the three images used here on my trip this past week.)


Jun 26 2016

Nature’s Saints

_DSC0843As noted a few weeks ago, recently I have been rereading a number of Thomas Merton books. Earlier this week I started reading New Seeds of Contemplation once again.  I soon came across a fascinating section where Merton talks at length about how created things give glory to God simply by doing what they were created to do.  Merton says, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him.  It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to His creative love.  It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.” Later he adds, “…each particular being, in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what He wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by His Love and His infinite Art. The forms of individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God.”

_DSC1246In what follows Merton gives several examples of things in nature that give glory to God simply by being what they were created to be. He writes, “The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this widow are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God.  This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.  The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.  The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints.  There is no other like him.  He is alone in his own character; nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same way.  That is his sanctity.”

Later in this chapter Merton goes on to talk about how humans are different from the rest of Creation. He says, “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. We are free beings and sons of God.”  He goes on to indicate that the secret of our identity is “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”

_DSC0755The uniqueness of humans makes for an interesting topic but that is not what I want to focus on here. Merton’s words about the rest of Creation proclaiming God’s glory, something David also said in Psalm 19:1, caused me to ponder why we don’t pay more attention to the “saints” all around us.  If the trees and their leaves bear witness to God why do we not sit and contemplate them more?  The lakes and sea, along with the fish that swim within, also offer God praise and reflect or imitates God’s glory.  If that be so, why do we not pause long enough to join in the chorus and soak in the glory of God?  I know we are supposed to seek God in others but as Merton wisely points out, humans offer an imperfect reflection of God’s glory.  Nature, however, lacking free will, offers that glory perfectly.  Realizing that makes me think I need to be paying even more attention to the glorious revelation found in Creation than I already do.  The witness of the “saints” is just waiting to be discovered by those willing to slow down and pay attention.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above on a trip a few years ago to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)


Jun 15 2016

Hope Trumps Despair

_DSC6423Recent events in the news have a lot of people upset and wondering “what is this world coming to?” The massacre in Orlando, in particular, causes one to question the sanity of humankind. How could anyone do such a horrible thing? Of course, the Orlando tragedy is just one of many mass killings we’ve witnessed and the madness of the world can be seen in so many other places. It can be seen in the genocide taking place in Africa, the Syrian refugee crisis, our mistreatment of God’s good earth, terrorist attacks all around the globe, and ongoing racism–just to name a few.  It’s almost enough to want to shout, “Stop the world; I want to get off!”

_DSC7438I will admit that what we see on the news and all around us is enough to lead one to despair. I do not think, however, that is the path we ought to take. In all the dark places I mentioned above there is light to be found. In aftermath of the Orlando shooting thousands upon thousands have responded in love by donating either money or blood.  There are lots of people fighting genocide wherever it can be found.  Although many countries have refused to take in the Syrian refugees lots of other countries have welcomed with open arms those in need of refuge.  Even though we have treated the earth harshly and ended up with lots of environmental woes, countless groups work daily to battle these woes and to improve the health of this planet.  Many people are hard at work each day battling terrorism and the root causes that contribute to it.  Likewise many recognize the injustice that comes with racism and fight diligently to establish “liberty and justice for all.”  The efforts of good people to overcome evil give me cause not to despair.  In fact, they give me hope that things can be better.

Of course, it is my faith in God more than anything else that sustains my hope and keeps me from succumbing to despair. There are many Bible verses that speak of the hope we must cling to.  Jeremiah 29:11 says “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Isaiah 40:31 says “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  In Hebrews 10:23 we are challenged, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”  First and foremost, it is the love and faithfulness of God that give me hope.

In the Chalice Hymnal there is a hymn by Georgia Harkness called Hope of the World. In the first couple of verses Harkness offers a prayer we all might pray at this particular time: “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion: speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent; save us, your people, from consuming passion, who by our own false hopes and aims are spent. Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven, bringing to hungry souls the bread of life: still let your Spirit unto us be given to heal earth’s wounds and end its bitter strife.”

_DSC6569For eons the rainbow has been viewed as a sign of hope. I saw one a couple of evenings ago and found its appearance timely.  When I arrived at my office today our church flower garden was full of Easter lilies. They were planted after the Easter service in March and are blooming again.  I saw this also as a sign from nature indicating that there is always hope. Christians are an Easter people and the message of Easter is predominantly that of hope. So whether you are despairing over the world, our country, your church, your family, or your own life, let it be known that there is and always will be hope. My prayer for you is the same as that the apostle Paul offered in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

–Chuck

                                                                                                  


Jun 8 2016

God’s Tides

tide pool 2

“The hand of God has turned the tide!” Psalm 118:16a MSG

Twelve years ago Bonita and I spent a week on a chartered fishing boat in southeast Alaska. We, along with two other couples, had a great time photographing some of God’s finest work. One of the things being on the boat that long did for me was remind me of the tremendous power of the tides. At one point on the trip I was on shore photographing some beautiful tide pool scenes when my friends began to express concern for me. Due to my position, I could not tell that the tide had come back in and that I was now separated from the rest of the group and the boat. I should have known better. Season after season, day after day, the tides come in and go out. They do exactly what God intended them to do when He created the world.

boat 1While on the trip I read a book called Sea Edge by Phillip Keller. In one of the chapters he draws some insightful parallels to the tides and God’s work in our own lives. Here’s what he had to say: “There just have to be times, when in His own gracious, irresistible concern, He comes flooding over my little life. There are occasions when the ‘high tide’ of His powerful presence needs to inundate my soiled and shabby soul. There are days when more than anything else I must have that sublime sense of His Spirit sweeping into every secret cove and inlet of my life. The world is so much with me. The careless hand of man, the cruel ways of our society, the thoughtless acts and omitted courtesies of my contemporaries leave a legacy of hurts and sorrow and wreckage in my life–the black rocks of rising anger, the hard jagged reefs of dark resentment, the flotsam and jetsam of ill will that clutter my character. Only Christ can change all this. Only He can alter the contours of my disposition. Only He can displace the debris of my soul with the surging newness of His own person. There must be an exchange of His life for mine–of His desires for my, otherwise, selfish impulses. It is He, who in the high tide of His relentless patience and perseverance, presses in upon my person. I cannot, dare not, keep Him out. It is His eternal, sure in-coming, as inexorable as the rising tide, that gives hope for covering all the corruption and defilement of my days. As the full weight of the sea currents change and shape the coast, so Christ, in control, recreates me as a man. He alters the contours of my character and conduct.”

tide pool 1Today I give thanks for the relentless tides that pound and shape the coastlines all around the world. Even more, I offer my praise and thanksgiving to a wonderful Savior who works just as relentlessly in your life and mine to make something beautiful out of our lives. Experiencing God’s “tides” may not always be a pleasant experience but they are always needful. As Keller points out, only God can “alter the contours of my disposition” and only God can “displace the debris of my soul with the surging newness of His own person.” God’s tides may not come in the predictable rhythms of nature’s tides but they do indeed come. When they do our job is to let go and let God bring us what we need and, at the same time, take away what we don’t. There’s no reason to be surprised by their coming. In fact, we should live our lives in anticipation of them and with gratitude for the role they play in our lives.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown here on the boat trip through southeast Alaska.)

 


Jun 1 2016

Still Learning from Thomas Merton

_CES6986I have been a fan of the writings of Thomas Merton for almost forty years. I consider him one of my spiritual mentors even though I never met him.  Merton has been dead close to fifty years but through his many books he continues to speak to me.  Over the past few days I’ve come across two passages from his writings that have moved me deeply.  I am currently rereading Thoughts in Solitude and read this word on gratitude a few nights ago: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us–and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6979Although Merton does not speak specifically of nature in this passage it made me think of my experience of God through Creation. Over the years I have come to see “the Love of God” in everything that God has made.  All around us is the evidence of God’s love.  The air we breathe, the clouds that float by overhead, the trees waving their branches, the birds singing their songs…all of these are expressions of God’s love for you and me.  I appreciate Merton’s clarion call to be grateful for God’s overtures of love.  He is right; we should not take anything for granted, never be unresponsive to the divine gifts of love we receive, and live in complete wonder and awe of the goodness of God.  In many ways, but especially in nature, I have experienced the goodness and love of God “not by hearsay but by experience.” And, yes, “that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6936The other passage by Merton I came across showed up on a Facebook page earlier today that features daily sayings of the late Trappist monk. This one originated in what is perhaps my favorite Merton book, No Man Is An Island.  Merton wrote: “Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. . . . It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all out fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.”

_CES6956In this passage I was convicted of the inner and outer noise in my life which keeps me from fully experiencing “the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea.” I was convicted of my busyness—usually taking pictures—that frequently robs me of the peace and tranquility that God’s Creation is meant to give us.   I was convicted of my illogical need for speed even when outdoors and how important it is for me to slow down if I want to enjoy the “immense graces” God provides those who will “be still.”  (Psalm 46:10)  I was convicted of the fact that I’m guilty of thinking I know what’s going on around me when in reality that’s an illusion and I have so very much yet to learn.

I don’t know if you are a fan of Thomas Merton’s writings or not, but sometimes I think I’d be lost without them.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used here on a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani  in central Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived most of his adult life.)


May 27 2016

Focusing on What We Have in Common

a_DSC6135Recently I preached a sermon to my congregation on the need for unity among believers. These days it seems like those who have been explicitly called to love one another and to work together for the kingdom of God spend an inordinate amount of time time fussing and fighting.  This happens in both individual churches and also denominations.  Sometimes the things that divide Christians are admittedly quite significant but most of the time it seems to be more petty or superficial things that cause divisions.  Some will argue whether we should use “trespasses” or “debts” when reciting the Lord’s Prayer.  Others become upset if the pastor does (or doesn’t) wear a robe.  In my forty years of ministry I have been appalled by some of the things I’ve seen churches fight over.

_DSC8801In the message I preached on unity one of the things I suggested as a solution to the divisiveness that hurts our life and witness as Christians is to focus more on what we have in common instead of on what we disagree about. Although it tends to be the differences that cause the trouble, the truth is in most churches the members have far more in common than things that divide them.  The apostle Paul reminds us that we have “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:5-5)  We might also acknowledge that we have one hope and the same calling to love God above everything and to love our neighbors as ourselves.  If we could just pause to remember that we have far more in common than we have differences it would go a long way in helping to restore and maintain unity in the church.

The conflict and divisiveness I see in churches these days can also be seen in many other venues. America itself is very much a divided nation these days and the number of things we are divided over is legion.  The current presidential race definitely showcases this divisiveness.  Internationally, we also see conflict and divisions on both large scales and small.  We may all be part of the one human race but we certainly do not agree on a lot of things.

CR Jasper NP Mt Edith St Clair 330In a church setting disunity and divisiveness can lead to tension within the fellowship or perhaps even church splits. On the larger scale, conflict and divisiveness within and between nations can erupt into riots and protests, and perhaps even war.  The stakes are high when disunity and divisiveness prevail, whatever the setting.

I mentioned that one of my suggestions for creating peace in the church was to try to focus on what we have in common instead of our differences. I think that would help also on a national and global level.  Political parties need to do this.  Entire nations need to do this.  And there will always be things people can agree on.  There will always be things they share in common.  One obvious and very important common denominator for all groups is the very earth we all share together. Surely we can all agree that since the earth is our home it is important that we take good care of it.  We may draw up  political borders but in the end this “pale blue dot” is home to all of us.  We share the same atmosphere and breathe the same air.  We are all dependent on the same sources of water—our rivers, lakes and oceans.  We must all depend on the same web of life.  We all live here and we all die here.

web-and-dewNow would be a good time for us to pay heed to the wise words spoken by Chief Seattle: “Teach your children what we have taught our children—that the earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.  If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.  This we know, the earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.  This we know, all things are connected like the blood which unites one family.  All things are connected.  Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and daughters of the earth.  We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it.  Whatever we do to the web we do to ourselves.”  It is my hope and prayer that before it is too late we humans will begin to focus more on what we have in common and not on that which separates us.  And I’m not sure there’s a better place to start than this place we all call home.

–Chuck

(I took the first image at Yosemite NP, the second and fourth image at Henderson Sloughs WMA, and the third image at Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada.)