The season of Advent, which begins today, is filled with angels. Christians everywhere will recall the angel Gabriel announcing Jesus’ birth to Mary and how a chorus of angels sang the night Christ was born. This past week I had a message from an Angel too. Before you conclude I’ve lost it, Angel is the name of one of my church members. She and her family moved to southeast Kentucky last year from Michigan. Recently I sent Angel and her husband some of the pictures I took in Michigan last month. In an e-mail she responded to them by saying, “You have an amazing gift in capturing beauty that so many of us walk by during the hustle of life. When I stop and think about it I’m not sure that what we are hustling to is more important than what we are missing. In general it isn’t! I haven’t seen my laundry go anywhere when I stop to smell the roses or watch the kids have 10 more minutes of fun.”
I appreciated Angel’s kind words about my photography but was even more moved by the words that followed. Often we really do miss out on “seeing Creation” because of “the hustle of life.” We don’t think we have time to pay attention to the wonders of God’s Creation around us. In my opinion, if we are too busy to do this we are just too busy. Angel’s right, a lot of the things we think are so urgent really aren’t.
The Advent season is for many of us the busiest time of the year. There are so many demands on our time and energy during this season. I hope in all the hustle of buying and receiving gifts these coming weeks you will not fail to take notice of some of the delightful gifts God has given us in the world of His Creation.
(I took the picture of maple leaves in snow shown above last month in Michigan.)
Today I am heading to western Kentucky in order to spend Thanksgiving with my family. It will be a long drive but getting to see family and friends makes it all worthwhile. Like you, this Thanksgiving I have much to be thankful for. I would be amiss if I didn’t say thanks to those of you who take the time to read this blog. It is a blessing for both Rob and I to be able to share various thoughts on God and nature with you.
Since we are on the eve of Thanksgiving Day I want to share with you a Thanksgiving prayer by Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch is remembered today as the father of the social gospel in America. Here is his prayer:
“O God, we thank you for this earth, our home, for the wide sky and the blessed sun, for the salt sea and the running water, for the everlasting hills and the never-resting winds, for trees and the common grass underfoot. We thank you for our senses by which we hear the songs of birds, and see the splendor of the summer fields, and taste of the autumn fruits, and rejoice in the feel of the snow, and smell the breath of the spring. Grant us a heart wide open to all this beauty; and save our souls from being so blind that we pass unseeing when even the common thornbush is aflame with your glory, O God our creator, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.”
This prayer means a lot to me and voices well my own thanksgiving. Rauschenbusch’s prayer reveals that he cared deeply not just for the poor and oppressed, but for Creation as well. He lived decades before the advent of the environmental movement but I sense that had he lived in our own time that he might have viewed Creation as being oppressed and in need of liberation.
Those of us who will give thanks tomorrow for God’s glorious gift of Creation must recognize that it is not enough to just give thanks; we must also do all we can to care for and preserve God’s good earth so that future generations can pause on Thanksgiving Days as well and pray a prayer like that above.
(The picture above was taken a couple of years ago at Thanksgiving while I was home visiting my family. The location is Bacon Creek in the Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area.)
This weekend I had the privilege of taking part in a retreat sponsored by the Green Chalice, an environmental group which is part of the Christian Church in Kentucky. The retreat was held at Rough River Dam State Park in western Kentucky. It will not surprise you to learn that I took my camera with me. I knew this was not the prettiest time of the year but was hoping I might still find something to photograph.
When I got to the park things were pretty barren. What made matters worse is that there have been a lot of houses built around the lake which is the centerpiece of the park. It quickly entered my mind that it was probably a waste bringing all my camera gear.
When I walked down to the lake shore Friday afternoon the light was nice but it seemed like everywhere I pointed my camera there was a house in the picture. Eventually I spotted a cedar tree sitting atop a rock cropping and pointed my lens upward so that no houses could be seen. The image above was the result. The following morning I got up for sunrise and discovered that a heavy fog had settled on the lake. As a result the houses on the lake could not be seen. This enabled me to get the image below of the same tree.
Reflecting on my photographic experience at Rough River Dam S.P., I was reminded that there are a lot of things that can distract us from seeing the beauty of God’s handiwork. At times we will have to work hard to find and take in the beauty that is there. At other times we may just have to wait for conditions to change.
This parallels my experience with God. Although God is always there many times I find it hard to “see” Him due to all of the distractions in my life. I’ve learned that if I will discipline myself to “look upwards” so that the distractions are removed it increases the chance of my experiencing God in that moment. There are other times, however, when seeing God is not difficult at all. It’s almost like He graciously removes all distractions. I have to admit that the former is my more common experience; it usually involves some effort on my part to see and experience God. I do not complain this is so because either way it is a miracle to me that the Maker of heaven and earth desires to make Himself known to us. He truly is an awesome God!
According to Senegalese conservationist Baba Dioum, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught.”
One thing that nature photography does when it is at its best is help people understand more about the world. If you think about it, the idea of saving and protecting God’s world is a pretty big undertaking. Most people have seen relatively little of the world’s nature, God’s creation. Telling someone that they must protect God’s creation is a pretty abstract command.
Photographs give a concrete vision of nature in very specific terms. They give all of us a chance to both share and see more of the natural world. I have never seen a musk ox, for example, but I know what they look like from photographs and am amazed by these creatures of the cold north.
The little creature at the top of this blog entry is a red eft, a terrestrial stage of the Eastern newt, a salamander. Most people never see them, yet they are an important part of the Eastern woods and forests. When people don’t “see” things, those things often don’t exist for them. God may have had special plans for red efts that only He can know, so that is a reason to honor and respect such a creature. But if people don’t know about red efts, then there is no concern for them. Photography helps teach people to see and helps them understand the world.
My prayer is: Dear God, help me to see the world around us as you would have us see it, not as we want to interpret it through our human perceptions. Help me to capture that world in photographs that I can use to help other people see this world, too, so they might give you respect and honor by conserving your creation.
I am currently reading Rick Bass’ newest book, The Wild Marsh. A couple of nights ago I came across a passage that has intrigued me. Rick writes of his religious neighbors lack of understanding of his environmental concerns. He says, “They counsel me that with eternity at stake in the unending afterlife, there is little point or economy in getting so fretted up about clearcuts when our mortal time here is so temporal and the earth is but a proving ground for the far greater and lasting struggle of our souls, our eternal salvation.” It is Bass’ response that has intrigued me. He writes, “But someone…puts the spark and light of peace and joy and worship and awe in my heart when I am far back in the distant mountains, so close to the sky and a scale of time greater than my own brief stay, and that spark tells me that for me, activism is a form of prayer, a way of paying back some small fraction of the blessing that the wilderness is to me, a way of celebrating and protecting that creation, and a way of giving thanks.”
I love the concept of environmental activism being a form of prayer. I had never thought of it in that way before but it makes sense. Standing up for God’s Creation truly is “a way of giving thanks” and, for me, giving thanks is one of the purest and most honorable forms of prayer. In what God has created we find much to be grateful for. Bass is right; wilderness is a true blessing and something worth celebrating and protecting. I just wish more Christians realized this.
Perhaps if we would come to accept Rick’s concept of activism as a form of prayer more of us would take the time to write letters to members of Congress, support groups working to preserve God’s Creation, or make an extra effort to practice the three Rs: reduce, reuse and recycle. It might even give us yet another way to celebrate Thanksgiving this year. Regardless, it is important that we realize that even with eternity in view caring for God’s Creation here and now is critical and a part of our Christian responsibility.
(The picture above of a maple leaf reposing on a white paper birch was taken at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore last month.)
One of Henry David Thoreau’s most memorable words of advice was “Simplify, simplify, simplify.” It is advice that most of us have failed to heed. Our lives would no doubt be more enjoyable and less complicated if we could manage somehow to “simplify, simplify, simplify.”
In nature photography it is a good practice to strive for simplicity too. In his helpful book, Photography and the Art of Seeing, Freeman Patterson writes, “It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of simplicity when making photographs. Simplicity brings order and stability to compositions, no matter how many other objects are present in the picture.” He goes on to talk about how abstracting and selecting make simplicity possible. When I confront a scene in nature the challenge for me is to compose an image which is so simple the viewer can clearly identify the subject. In order to do this I have to choose carefully what I will include and exclude in the image. Beginning photographers often include too much in a scene.
I took the picture above this afternoon. Our next door neighbors have a beautiful Chinese maple which is bright red right now. I wanted to photograph it but found it hard to find a composition that wasn’t too “busy” or complex. I finally spotted the backlit seed and by isolating it with a macro lens got an image I liked.
This practice of simplifying a scene can also be used in a more general sense when “seeing Creation.” The world God has made is vast and complex. Sometimes when I am out in nature I am overwhelmed by what is before me. What I see is too much for me to take in, too much for me to comprehend. When this happens I find that by focusing on smaller pieces of the scene, a bit at a time, it helps me better understand and appreciate the bigger picture. Simplifying our vision can actually enhance our enjoyment of Creation and help us to find God in the midst of it all.