This past Friday I got to spend an entire day photographing. Although I was able to photograph a variety of subjects the day began and ended taking pictures of waterfalls. It started with a beautiful waterfall called Creation Falls in the Red River Gorge National Geological Area. It concluded at another pretty waterfall, Broken Leg Falls, in the Daniel Boone National Forest. The two waterfalls are very different but both are quite scenic and made delightful photographic subjects.
On my way home I kept thinking about how the two waterfalls were both lovely but that their very different names seemed to affect my experience and enjoyment while in their presence. The name “Creation Falls” put me in a contemplative mood and made me mindful that Creation was putting on a show for me. It made me mindful of the Creator’s presence and prompted words of praise and thanksgiving.
The name “Broken Leg Falls,” however, had a different affect on me. I’m not exactly sure how this falls got its name but after taking the perilous trail down to the bottom to photograph it I think I have a clue. This waterfall was delightful to behold but for some reason its name bothered me and dampened my mood. I confess I have the same feeling whenever I visit Dog Slaughter Falls near Corbin, Kentucky. Shakespeare may have believed that a rose by any other name would have smelled just as sweet but I’m not convinced that names don’t influence how we feel about things or experience them.
On visits out West I have photographed Devil’s Tower in Wyoming and Devil’s Canyon in Montana. In both places I couldn’t help but wonder what the devil had to do with either one. Both the tower and the canyon are majestic examples of God’s Creation and deserve better names. Why do so many places have the “Devil” added to it? (The only place I’ve thought it appropriate was the “Devil’s Golf Course” in Death Valley National Park. If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean.)
Names are very important. The Scriptures certainly back this up. In biblical times place names and people’s names typically told a story. Names also were more than what someone might call you. Names represented one’s character. In fact, in numerous cases when a person’s character changed he received a new name. Abram becomes Abraham. Jacob becomes Israel. Simon becomes Peter. Saul becomes Paul. Names make a difference. They did then; they do now.
Obviously, I cannot change the name of places I feel deserve a better moniker. I’d like to, but I cannot. I guess this boy born half way between Possum Trot and Monkey’s Eyebrow will just have to accept that some of God’s wonders have gotten stuck with rotten names and try not to let it interfere with my enjoyment of those wonders. It won’t be easy but I’m going to try. Wish me luck…
(Top image: Creation Falls. Bottom image: Broken Leg Falls.)
*Editor’s Note: This week marks the second anniversary of Seeing Creation. Rob and I want to thank all of you who take the time to read our reflections and for the encouragement you have given us these past two years.
Yesterday I received a nice reminder. When I came home from work I was getting ready to enter the house when something caught my attention. On the edge of our driveway (which is on a hill) I saw a small object rise momentarily and then fall. I wasn’t quite sure what I had just seen so I went to look and see. Come to find out it was a young mockingbird that was not yet able to fly. I’m not exactly sure how it got on the edge of the driveway to begin with but apparently when it saw me come home it was spooked and tried to fly. It instead tumbled a short distance where I found it resting unharmed.
I immediately went into the house to get my camera so that I could photograph the young bird. As I started to take some pictures I heard a ruckus above me. The bird’s mother was sitting in a nearby tree and didn’t seem to be happy about my being so close to her chick. I hurriedly took my pictures and left.
While all of this was going on I couldn’t help but think of a passage of scripture found in Luke 12:6. Here Jesus says, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God?” In this same setting Jesus went on to say, “Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (v. 7) As I thought of this passage I realized that I was not the only one who saw the little mockingbird fall. So did our heavenly Father. Jesus made it abundantly clear that God is concerned for all of his Creation, even tiny birds that tumble off of driveways in Pikeville, Kentucky.
Thinking of Jesus’ words I was also given the wonderful reminder that the God who cares for sparrows and mockingbirds also cares for me. Jesus made sure that we understood that we humans are very special to God and that if we can remember that He loves even the little creatures we can rest assured He loves and cares for us.
The whole point in Jesus sharing these words was to offer an encouraging word. Because of our Father’s love we do not have to live our lives in fear. We can have confidence that we live under our Creator’s watchful eye. We can find great peace and joy knowing that we are loved. A nice reminder indeed!
(The bird in the two images above is the one described in today’s entry.)
What would you think if you went to your eye doctor to have an eye examination and he or she proceeded to run an EKG on you? It probably wouldn’t make sense. What do the eyes have to do with the heart? Physically not much but in the spiritual life there is a close connection. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) Apparently only those whose hearts are pure have a chance of seeing God.
When Jesus said this he did not mean that here on earth we can actually see God with our own two eyes. That is not possible. God told Moses long before that no one could see Him and still live. There are, however, other ways of seeing and that is what Jesus was referring to in this beatitude. He was pointing to an intimate fellowship with God that is possible here and now for those whose hearts are pure.
The heart he had in mind was not the organ of our body that pumps blood throughout the circulatory system. For Jesus the heart was a symbol of one’s total personality. It was inclusive of mind, emotions and will and, therefore, the source of the motives, values and images which shape our life. We sometimes think of the heart as being the seat of emotions. For Jesus it represented much more; it encompassed one’s complete life or character.
Those who can see God are those whose entire life is pure. The word “pure” in this case means to be cleansed and washed. It is also used in the Bible to describe someone who is single-minded. A person is pure if there is no conflict of interest or loyalty in his or her life. A lot of us are not pure in heart because we have divided loyalties. We have yet to commit our lives fully to Christ. Having divided loyalties causes us to be cross-eyed. Our vision is blurred and as a result we cannot see or experience God as we might if we were more focused on Him.
Soren Kirkegaard once said “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” The one thing he said we must will is the will of God. When our hearts are focused primarily on God—and not a hundred different things–we are not cross-eyed but can see things clearly.
I believe all of this relates to seeing or experiencing God in Creation as well. If our hearts are not right—if they are not focused first and foremost on God—it is unlikely we will see God in Creation very often. If, on the other hand, we live lives where our focus is primarily on God then we will see the Creator throughout His Creation on a regular basis. What some of us need to experience more of God in Creation is not better eyesight but a purer heart. For that reason, perhaps we ought to pray with the Psalmist, “Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Psalm 51:10) Truly blessed and joyful are the pure in heart for they shall see God.
(The top image is a cone flower I photographed in Tennessee. The bottom image is a wild rose I photographed in Olympic National Park.)
In the Old Testament there is a story where Moses is leading the Hebrews through the wilderness and they find themselves in great need of water to drink. God tells Moses to strike a nearby rock with his staff. Once he did out of the rock flowed life giving water. (See Exodus 17:1-7 for more details.) In the New Testament we find the apostle Paul writing to the church at Corinth and he reminds them of this same story but he adds a significant twist.
In 1 Corinthians 10:3-4 he said “They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.” Paul’s words are surprising because Jesus, as we know and understand him, was not present with Moses on that particular day. It would be centuries before he would be born in the village of Bethlehem. Still, Paul insists that Jesus was there, that he was the “rock” that provided life for the thirsty Hebrews.
Rob Bell, writing in his new book Love Wins, says “Paul’s interpretation that Christ was present in the Exodus raises the question: Where else has Christ been present? When else? With who else? How else?” Bell goes on to say, “Paul finds Jesus there, in that rock, because Paul finds Jesus everywhere.”
I suspect Bell is right. The great apostle did not look at the world quite as literally as most of us do these days. He was able to see Jesus in places where we do not recognize him. Does that mean Paul was wrong or perhaps even crazy? I don’t think so. This coming Sunday I’ll be preaching a message on Jesus’ beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8) I cannot help but believe that Paul was able to see God in places we don’t because of the state of his heart or soul. I also believe that Jesus’ words imply that as our own hearts are increasingly cleansed and purified that we will begin to see God in places we have not before. Like Paul we can come to see Jesus everywhere—in the rocks and trees, in the person seeking a handout at the busy intersection, in the smile of a child, or perhaps even in the face staring back at us in the mirror.
Today my prayer is the words of the familiar hymn: “Open my eyes, that I may see glimpses of truth thou hast for me; place in my hands the wonderful key that shall unclasp and set me free. Silently now I wait for thee, ready, my God, thy will to see. Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!”
(I took the two images above during my recent visit to the Falls of the Stony in Jefferson National Forest. The bottom image is Upper Falls.)
In the final chapter of his book, The Gospel According to the Earth, Matthew Sleeth discusses an unpopular subject, sacrifice. In this chapter he makes a couple of allusions to boats. At one point Dr. Sleeth says “Think of the earth as a ship. It is the only earth we have. If we destroy it, we have nowhere else to go. If the ship is sinking, as ours most assuredly is, we must make difficult choices to save it. Choices that involve sacrifice.”
There can be no denying that our planet is in trouble. There are toxins in the air and in the water almost everywhere you look. Our invaluable rain forests are shrinking at an alarming rate, as are many of the wonderful species God intentionally created. There are lots of problems with few easy answers. Some would argue that there are easy answers but what they ignore is that all of these answers require sacrifice. Because they do, they are not easy. As a general rule people today do not like to make sacrifices.
Earlier in the chapter noted above Sleeth says “Everyone believes that ark building is a great idea once it has begun to rain. The trick is beginning an ark six months before the flood. We can begin building our metaphorical ark by accepting God’s truth and living sacrificially.” From some of the things I have read and seen I’m not convinced “everyone” thinks it’s a great idea to build an ark just because it happens to be raining. Countless people these days live in a state of denial. They refuse to believe that our planet, and we along with it, is suffering due to our poor stewardship of God’s Creation. They see no need to do anything even though it has already begun to flood.
How could anyone be so blind? I’m not sure the issue is blindness as much as it is an unwillingness to sacrifice. And behind this unwillingness to sacrifice stands pride or selfishness. A couple of nights ago I came across this sentence in Thomas Merton’s book, No Man Is An Island: “To consider persons and events and situations only in the light of their effect upon myself is to live on the doorstep of hell.” Too many people today are living on the doorstep of hell. They are living only for themselves. As long as people continue to live this way they will not make the sacrifices necessary to help the earth or to help others.
In his call to discipleship Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” (Matthew16:24) Sacrifice, denying oneself, lies at the heart of following Jesus. There are many ways we can and should live sacrificial lifestyles. One way involves how we live on and care for the earth. We do not follow in the steps of Christ if we fail to take into consideration how our actions affect the earth and those around us. We do not follow in his steps if we fail to make the sacrifices necessary that will benefit not just us but all those around us and the generations that will follow as well.
May God grant each of us wisdom to know what sacrifices we should be making and the courage to make them.
(The top image was taken at Devil’s Canyon Overlook in Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area in Montana. The bottom image was taken at Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming.)
“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…” James 1:17
Yesterday I started reading Mary Oliver’s collection of poems called Thirst and came across a number of jewels. One of my favorites thus far is called “Praying.” Here she writes: “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”
This poem resonates with me because quite often it is the beauty and majesty of Creation that becomes for me “the doorway into thanks.” When I see beautiful flowers I frequently find myself mouthing the words “thank you.” When I have the opportunity to watch wildlife move about I often do the same. When confronted by an exquisite landscape I have been known to break out in song singing the Doxology. There is just something about the beauty of nature that leads me to prayer and thanksgiving.
In one of the classes I teach at church we were discussing yesterday how “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” What one person views as beautiful another may not. When I read Mary Oliver’s poems I get the impression she often finds beauty where many of us don’t. In the poem noted above she mentions “weeds in a vacant lot” and “just a few stones” as being things that might lead one to prayer and thanksgiving. Of course she also reminds us that to find beauty in such places we will have to “just pay attention.” Paying attention is not a strong point for many of us. We’re too busy or too preoccupied with other things to pay attention.
The failure to pay attention is detrimental to our health—both physically and spiritually. If we don’t pay attention where we’re walking we could stumble and fall. If we don’t pay attention to the world around us we might fail to encounter the God who often makes Himself known through His Creation. It is very important that each of us strive to pay attention.
Paying attention will also help us pray better. As we notice more of God’s blessings in the world around us we will find ourselves offering Him thanks more often. We will increasingly find ourselves turning to the Source of all life, the Giver of all good gifts, more frequently. This, of course, is why God made all that He made in the first place–to reveal His glory and to draw us closer to Himself. He desires communion with us and has created a world that is intended to lead us to that sweet communion where we can offer Him our love and gratitude and put ourselves in a position where we might experience “a silence in which another voice [God’s voice] may speak.”
(I took the top image of ferns and violets this past Saturday at the Falls of the Stony in Viriginia. I took the bottom picture at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky a few years ago.)