May 26 2020

Earth as the Original Spiritual Directors

One of the benefits of being retired is having more time to read the books I want to read.  One I recently completed is called Earth, Our Original Monastery by Christine Valters Paintner.  The subtitle of the book is “Cultivating Wonder and Gratitude Through Intimacy With Nature.”  In this delightful book Paintner speaks of Earth as the original cathedral, the original Scriptures, the original saints, the original spiritual directors, the original icon, the original sacrament, and the original liturgy.  I learned something from her chapters on each of these, but was particularly intrigued by her discussion of Earth as the original spiritual directors.

I have never had what most would technically consider a “spiritual director.”  Needless to say I have had many influence my spiritual journey but I never pursued a personal spiritual director to help me out.  I suspect I would have benefited had I done so.  But Paintner argues that not all spiritual directors are human.  The Earth—plants, animals, rocks, the seasons, etc.—has always been there to offer us spiritual guidance.  She quotes the Irish monk St. Columbanus, “If you want to know the Creator, understand created things.”  The more contemporary monk, Thomas Merton said “How necessary it is for monks to work in the fields, in the sun, in the mud, in the clay, in the wind: these are our spiritual directors and our novice-masters.”  Paintner says “Merton knew that the true mentor of the soul was nature itself.  The fields, sun, mud, clay, wind, forests, sky, earth, and water are all companions for our own inner journeys.  The elements of water, wind, earth, and fire offer us wisdom and guidance.  They are the original soul friends.  Air is the gift of breath we receive each moment, the rhythm of life that sustains us.  Fire is the gift of life force and energy, and we might call to mind St. John of the Cross’s image of God as the living flame of love that burns in each of our hearts.  Water is the gift of renewal and replenishment, and we might call to mind the ritual of baptism as a call to claim our full gifts, or the blood that flows through our veins.  Earth is the gift of groundedness and nourishment.”

Reflecting on the teaching of Teilhard de Chardin Paintner says, “Through every rock, every bird, every flower, and every creature, God enters into intimacy and communion with us.  This is how God’s wisdom is revealed, and we would do well to listen for their spiritual direction.”  I am convinced that Paintner is on to something here.  All of us have been graciously given a variety of spiritual directors in nature.  The question is, are we paying attention to these directors?  If this whole concept sounds strange to you, perhaps it will help to remember that Solomon encouraged us to pay attention to the ants (Proverbs 6:6-8) and Jesus said we should consider the birds and lilies (Matthew 6:26, 28).  The Bible itself points us to nature as a spiritual director.

If we can accept the truth that God is speaking to us through nature, hopefully it will cause us to begin paying more attention to the world around us.  I have no doubt that I have missed many lessons over the years because I was not paying attention.  At this point in my life I am trying to be more attentive.  What does this entail?  Paintner says “Cultivating contemplative presence to the natural world means growing in intimacy with creation so that the intimacy becomes a way of mutuality, in which we recognize that nature is not just there for our benefit but has intrinsic value apart from us and our needs.  Mutuality means that we listen to what nature has to say to us.  We allow our hearts to be opened by encounters there.”

I encourage you, and myself, to listen more carefully to what the Creator has to say to us through the Creation.  In doing so, may our hearts be more fully opened to the wonder and mystery of God.  Let us all take advantage of the spiritual directors God has given us.  What fools we will be if we don’t.

–Chuck


Apr 30 2020

A New Season

“There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”  Ecclesiastes 3:1

It has been a beautiful spring here in western Kentucky.  The redbuds were beautiful this year and the dogwoods magnificent. The daffodils came early and added a splash of color to the bleak landscape.  Now the trees are showing off their many shades of green.  I love spring!  Spring, however, does not last.  All too soon summer will arrive, then fall and then winter.  After that the cycle will repeat itself.  Seasons come, seasons go.

Just as God created the world with more or less definable seasons, there seems to be seasons in our human journey.  We have seasons characterized by new beginnings.  We have seasons characterized by growth.  We have seasons of decline.  We have seasons of ending.  And as with the natural seasons, the seasons of our lives often repeat themselves.  A time of ending will often usher in a time for new beginnings.  It’s all a part of this wonderful journey we call life.

I currently find myself at a seasonal transition.  In just four days I will be retiring.  After forty-four years as a minister I am stepping down from full-time church work.   This is an ending that comes with a lot of mixed emotions.  I am sadder than I thought I would be.  There is much I am going to miss about being a pastor. At the same time I find myself elated by this ending.  There is much I am not going to miss about being a pastor.  I am ready for a new beginning.  Or at least I think I am.  Who knows what the future holds?  I can only trust that the One who has guided me thus far will guide me until the end.

What I hope to do in this next season is spend more time studying and photographing God’s Creation.  I will certainly have more time to do so.  I hope to draw closer to God in this new season of my life.  Sad to say, pastors often spend so much time serving God that they do not have adequate time to commune with God.  I want to spend more time simply being in the presence of God.  That does not mean I do not want to continue to serve.  I do.  I cannot imagine a life that does not include serving others.  I hope to read more, write more, travel more, live more.  I hope to be a better husband.  I hope to be a better friend.  I hope to be a better me.

I am thankful for the four seasons of the year and I find myself now being grateful for the changing seasons of life.  I look forward to seeing what God has in store for me.  To quote Dag Hammarskjold words found in his journal Markings, “For all that has been–Thanks.  For all that shall be–Yes.”

–Chuck


Feb 28 2020

A Call to Gratitude

“Sacrifice thank offerings to God…”  Psalm 50:14

During the season of Lent I usually “give up” something (like desserts) and also try to “take up” something.  I’ve chosen this year to read a number of books.  One of these is Inhabiting Eden: Christians, The Bible, and the Ecological Crisis by Patricia K. Tull.  Early in this book Tull writes about gratitude and Creation.  She says “Gratitude is a most appropriate response for us as inhabitants of this world, a home we neither bought nor paid for nor could ever have designed.”  She goes on to say, “We were intended to draw sustenance from creation’s bounty.  With each breath, we take in God’s provision of air; with each drink, the precious water supply; with each bit of bread, the manna for one more day of love and service.  We can begin to uphold the world that upholds us by recognizing these gifts with gratitude, especially our place in an ordered world that is full and fundamentally good, and our vocation to preserve the goodness and health of this living, teeming, exuberant world.”

I am one who appreciates, admires and marvels over God’s Creation but I’m afraid I’m not always as grateful as I should be.  I fear I may at times take it all for granted.  During Lent (and hopefully beyond) I intend to practice gratitude for the many gifts of God found in Creation. I want to not only notice the flowers, birds, trees and other gifts of God in nature but to give God thanks for them.  Surely, failure to do so is a sin.  The Bible says “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (James 1:17)  Yes, all of Creation is a gift of God and gifts should be acknowledged with gratitude.

The practice of gratitude is a much needed discipline.  It keeps us humble.  It keeps us connected to God.  It brings us joy.  I also happen to believe that gratitude for Creation is a key to caring for the world God has made.  If we are not mindful and grateful for what God has made we will not be prone to work for its preservation.  We will not seek to protect that which we are not grateful for.  Perhaps at the heart of the ecological crisis is the sin of ingratitude.

I hope you will join me during this Lenten season in striving to be more grateful for the work of God’s hands.  Try to find at least one thing in nature each day to give thanks for.  Once you start looking, you’ll be amazed at the bounty of gifts that are there.  There simply is no shortage of God’s blessings to behold!

–Chuck


Dec 30 2019

Respecting the Elderly

For Christmas a dear friend gave me a copy of The Wisdom of Wolves by Jim and Jamie Dutcher.  The Dutchers have devoted much of their lives to studying and photographing wolves.   Throughout this book they share lessons they have learned from wolves over the years.   In one chapter Jamie Dutcher writes about the important role elderly wolves play in the life of the pack.  She believes “the presence of elders is what shapes the very character of a wolf pack” and that “the soul and wisdom of the pack lives in its elders.”  The Dutchers cite evidence that the presence of older wolves are necessary for the survival of packs.  Jamie also concludes that the same is true with humans and society in general.  She writes: “In the developed world, where we prize youth and vigor, always looking toward the next technological advance and all too eager to forget the past, the elderly are often marginalized.  We tend to think of our senior citizens as a group that needs to be cared for but not necessarily venerated.  How often do we acknowledge our elders as ones who remember history firsthand, as the holders of knowledge and experience, as the keepers of our culture?”   In another passage she says “If we don’t look to our elders, we ignore our history and shared experience, and we end up repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  If we truly cherish the young and let our elders be our teachers, we can break the cycle of ignorance and grow together.”

I believe, with the Dutchers, that we do indeed have much to learn from wolves.  If nothing else we can learn from them the importance of respecting and honoring the elderly of our society.  The Scriptures certainly teach us the same lesson.  Job 12:12 says “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days.”  Leviticus 19:32 says “Stand up in the presence of the elderly, and show respect for the aged.”  In 1 Peter 5:5 young men are encouraged to “be submissive to those who are older.”  In numerous passages children are exhorted to honor or respect their parents.

As we come to the end of one year (and decade) and prepare to begin another, I would suggest that one resolution we might all make is to give more respect to our elders.  They truly do have much to teach and offer us.  In humility let us learn from their wisdom.  Let us strive to give them the dignity they deserve.  Wolves are wise enough to recognize the importance of doing so.  Are we?

–Chuck

I took the pictures shown above at Yellowstone National Park.


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