In my last entry I alluded to Jesus pointing to the birds of the air as a reminder of God’s providence and care. The passage I had in mind was Matthew 6:25-27 where he says, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more important than food, and the body more important than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?”
Someone by the name of E. Cheney wrote a simple poem that addresses this: “Said the robin to the sparrow, ‘I should really like to know why these anxious human beings rush about and worry so.’ Said the sparrow to the robin, ‘Friend, I think that it must be they have no heavenly Father such as cares for you and me.’” This cute rhyme, like Jesus’ questions to his followers, challenges us to examine our faith. Do we really believe that there is a God? And if so, can we trust Him to take care of us?
In the Gospel of Luke Jesus mentions birds again, this time sparrows. He says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God.” The conclusion he draws from this is, “Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Luke 12:6-7)
I think of Jesus’ teachings today as we prepare to enter a New Year. As I’ve listened to or watched the news lately it’s clear that many people are looking ahead to 2010 with fear and anxiety. Perhaps now is a good time to pause and remember that the same God who cares and provides for the birds we see all around us will, no doubt, care and provide for us in the year to come.
Feeling nervous about the year to come? Jesus says, “Look at the birds of the air…”
(I photographed this lovely sparrow at my home here in Pikeville.)
For many people Christmas is now history, but in reality it has just begun. In the liturgical calendar Christmas is actually a twelve day celebration that begins on Christmas Day. This idea is reflected in the popular song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” There is, however, far more going on in this song than many people suspect. For many years it has been used as a teaching device for Christians.
Throughout the song various gifts are mentioned, most of these gifts coming from nature. The “true love” who offers them is God. The very first gift mentioned, “a partridge in a pear tree,” represents Jesus himself. He is presented as a mother partridge that feigns injury to decoy predators from her helpless nestlings. The “two turtle doves” represent the Old and New Testaments, which together bear witness to God’s revelation of Himself throughout history. The “three French hens” are symbolic of the three theological virtues: faith, hope and love. The “four calling birds” represent the four Gospels—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
You can easily learn of the other meanings by doing a Google search; the point I want to make here is that for those who are steeped in the Scriptures and theology one can find many images in nature that will help them stay focused on God. I realize that for some this might seem strange and far-fetched. It is, however, a practice that we find consistently used in the Bible. Nahum, for example, looked at the clouds as the dust of God’s feet (Nahum 1:3), while Jesus pointed to the birds of the air and the flowers in the fields as reminders of God’s providence and care (Matthew 6:25-34).
In my blogs I often point out how God’s Creation has a way of pointing us to the Creator. The likelihood of this happening can be enhanced as we pay more attention to how Scripture itself connects God and nature. That is one reason I find the version of the Bible put out by HarperOne called The Green Bible so helpful. It places in green type the various allusions to nature in the Scriptures. If you want to experience more of God in His book of nature it will pay you to spend more time in His other book, the Bible.
(Since I’ve never photographed a partridge in a pear tree, I share with you today a ruffed grouse sitting in snow.)
It’s Christmas Eve! Tonight we celebrate the birth of our Savior, Christ the Lord. This is truly a special time. Late this evening folks will meet at the church I serve for a candlelight Christmas Eve service. We will gather in a beautiful, warm and safe sanctuary to remember the events of the first Christmas but the fact that we will be in a “beautiful, warm and safe sanctuary” will stand in quite a contrast to what Mary and Joseph experienced long ago. I doubt if the place where Jesus was born was any of these things.
The stable in Bethlehem may have been little more than a small cave. There would likely have been more animals (domestic and wild) present for Jesus’ birth than persons. The one who created the world would take his first breath surrounded by all that he made—the animals, the hay, the stars above. Trees would have made possible the manger he was placed in and it would have been nature, too, that provided the material for his “swaddling clothes.” Mary and Joseph were not the only ones to welcome the world’s Savoir, Creation embraced him as well. That would be only fitting for as the apostle Paul later wrote, “all things were created by him and for him.” (Colossians 1:16)
As humans, we are included in Paul’s “all things.” We, too, were created by Christ and for Christ. His coming into the world opened a way by which we might enter into a personal relationship with the Maker of heaven and earth. It is for this very reason we celebrate Christmas. This night truly is different; it is a “holy night.”
I’d like to close this Christmas blog with the words of Christina Rossetti’s carol, In the Bleak Mid-Winter: “What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb; if I were a wise man I would do my part; yet what can I give Him; give my heart.”
(I used the image above on this year’s Christmas card. It was taken at Breaks Interstate Park, about 35 miles from my home.)
Today is the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Over the ages people have celebrated the winter solstice because it indicated that more light would soon be returning and that darkness would not prevail. It is not without reason that we celebrate Christmas at approximately the same time. In reality, we have no idea what time of the year Jesus was actually born. Some speculate that a spring date is more likely. Still, the church chose to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25, in essence, to “Christianize” a pagan holiday.
The tying of the winter solstice and Christmas makes sense theologically. Jesus told us that he was the “light of the world.” Furthermore, John wrote concerning Jesus, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:4-5)
Just as the winter solstice was a hopeful holiday, so is Christmas. We know that because Jesus came there is cause for hope. As Rob indicated in his recent blog, many people today tend to be pessimistic and down on the world. Because of Christmas we know that God is with us here and now and that darkness does not have the last word. This is cause to celebrate!
Although most Christians tend to refer to those who celebrated the winter solstice as “pagans,” I have to admit that I find myself admiring them for their sensitivity to the changing seasons and the return of light. If we hope to see God in His Creation it will help us if we, too, will be more sensitive and in tune to the rhythms and patterns of nature. As the days begin to lengthen in the coming weeks, remember to give thanks that long ago God sent His Son to conquer the darkness that we find in the world and within our souls. In fact, today—being the winter solstice—would be a good time to begin doing just that.
(This past Friday, the last weekend of autumn, we were hit with a “winter” storm here in Pikeville. This caused the birds, like this titmouse, to come calling at our birdfeeder.)
As we approach Christmas, our celebration of Christ’s birth, I believe it is a time of joy, which is reflected in so many Christmas hymns and songs. Yet, for me, I have not always felt joy at this time. This year has been a struggle with a religious leader my wife and I know who has a consistently dour look on the world. To him, the world is broken and only God can fix it. Now there are problems in the world, but it is not the world that is so broken as how people treat each other and the world. God made this world and it is a place of stunning beauty, as Chuck showed us in his last post. I don’t think God is needed to fix places like that, but they are part of the world.
Still, for some reason, I have seemed to see a lot of bad things going on with people’s treatment of each other and the world, and that is sad to me. I have to believe it is sad to God, too. I quit getting the daily paper because it seemed more interested in talking about all the trivial bad things about the world, rather than covering many of the truly great things. I know that many people are doing wonderful things for each other now, but that gets less coverage than another stupid story about Tiger Woods. I get it. He was a jerk and morally broken, but Tiger Woods is not every athlete, nor is he every husband or man. Most people act nothing like him.
Then there has been all of the bickering about climate change. I know there are a lot of good intentioned people who really can’t figure out the truth from all of the misinformation out there. But climate change is not going to affect me and my generation significantly. Anything that does occur will affect my kids and their kids. Maybe climate change will be as bad as some say, maybe not, but I am unwilling to place a bet that could come out very, very bad for future generations — meaning my kids and beyond as well as every other young person. I don’t want to be remembered for giving them an inheritance of a world in worse shape than I had. Somehow, I don’t think God will be particularly happy about that, either. It’s his world we’re playing with.
Yet, this is not a time for depression. It is a time to celebrate the coming of Christ. What is our gift to God for the birthday of his Son? I want to continue to celebrate this world He has made and sing praises for it. I love the world, though of course, we have no other. But still, I love every part of it that God has made, from tiny insects to the Grand Canyon and everything in between. The wild and unruly stand of oaks here live near Los Osos, California. These trees have no “purpose” for man — they aren’t straight for lumber or anything else. Yet they have a beauty about them that speaks softly to me, “This is the world that God has made. Celebrate it in all its forms. Be joyful that you can know a special place of God’s like this.”
A number of years ago my friend, Stan Burman, introduced me to the story of Everett Reuss. Reuss was a writer, artist, naturalist and poet who traveled the southwest, usually alone. He kept a journal of his travels and at one point wrote “I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear.” The last couple of days I have had a chance to look at my images taken last week in the same area Reuss once traveled, southern Utah. In doing so I feel like saying with him, “I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear.”
There are instances in the Scriptures where we are told that no one can look upon God’s face and live. In that face, no doubt, is a beauty that none can bear here on earth. Moses, you may recall, was permitted to see the back side of God and even that fleeting look transformed Moses’ face to the point that the glow there could not be hidden from the Hebrews.
Because I firmly hold that there is a connection between the Creator and His Creation, I think God in His mercy allows us to catch a glimpse of His glory and beauty through nature. Certainly God and nature are not to be viewed as one and the same—that is the error of pantheism—but like Moses we are granted the chance to view a portion of God in what He has made. For those with eyes to see the beauty of the Lord is to be found in the handiwork of His Creation. That beauty is so great that it is almost too much to bear at times.
In just a few days we will celebrate the birth of our Creator and Redeemer. Perhaps one way we could honor this noble occasion is simply to take the time to notice the beauty that surrounds us and to do what we can to preserve it. In doing so we may find ourselves saying with John the Baptist, “From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.” (John 1:16) We may also find ourselves saying with Everett Reuss, “I have seen almost more beauty than I can bear.”
(Both pictures here were taken in Zion National Park last week.)