Jul 30 2019

Wonder and Awe

“For you make me glad by your deeds, O Lord; I sing for joy at the work of your hands.” Psalm 92:4

While on a road trip with a friend last week he told me about a book by Leigh Ann Henion called Phenomenal: A Hesitant Adventurer’s Search for Wonder in the Natural World.  In this book Henion talks about the importance of wonder for our lives and how it can be found especially in nature.  She chronicles her experiences of wonder visiting migrating monarchs, Hawaiian volcanoes, viewing the northern lights, while on an African safari, and observing a total eclipse of the sun.  Learning about this book has made me think about some of the places where I have experienced wonder and its counterpart, worship, in nature.  Space does not permit an exhaustive list but here are a few.

I have experienced wonder each time I have visited slot canyons in the desert southwest.  When light from above is reflected on the sandstone rock walls the result is pure magic.  Like Henion, I have also experienced wonder and awe observing the northern lights.  Watching the curtains of light move across the Alaskan skies moved me to the depths of my soul.  It was truly a spiritual experience.   I have likewise experienced a deep sense of wonder in Alaska watching giant glaciers calve.  The sights and sounds of this phenomenon inspire me in a remarkable way.   I could say the same thing about walking amidst the giant sequoias and redwood trees of California.

I remember feeling wonder and awe the first time I looked up at the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.  There was something about those mountains that humbled me and made me feel small in more ways than one.  I have also experienced a heightened sense of wonder each time I’ve visited the geyser basins in Yellowstone National Park.  Watching geysers like Old Faithful, Giant, Grand, and Castle erupt thrill both my heart and soul.  The same thing can be said for sunsets I’ve experienced in the Grand Canyon and sunrises on the coast of Maine.

Many times I have been moved to awe and wonder watching wildlife.  It’s happened observing a whitetail fawn take its first steps and coastal brown bears snatching salmon midair at Katmai’s Brooks Falls.  It’s happened while listening to sandhill cranes migrate overhead and while watching humpback whales frolic in the seas.  Getting to see wolves and moose in the wild have likewise provoked wonder and awe.

Henion speaks about how the phenomena she experienced proved to be life-changing.  The things I’ve mentioned have also been life-changing for me.  In each instance I believe I have been able to catch a glimpse of the Divine.  I see each example as a gift of God’s grace.   I sincerely believe that it has been the Creator’s intention all along to show us God through the handiwork of Creation.  Most of the examples I cited are big things but God is also revealed in the small for those with eyes to see.  It might be a tiny delicate wildflower or the wings of a butterfly.  It could even be something so simple and complex as a snowflake.  The truth is, God may be found in all that God has made and when we truly see we cannot help but be moved by wonder and awe to worship.  Wouldn’t you agree?  What natural phenomena have moved you to wonder and awe?

–Chuck


Jun 28 2019

Extinction Is Forever

It seems like every other day I come across another discouraging report concerning the environment.  Recently I read about an assessment made by an United Nations study.  It indicated that “humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as 1 million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival.”  According to Brad Plumer, “in most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20% or more, mainly over the past century.  With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate ‘unprecedented in human history.’  At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in.”

The United Nations report should be a wake-up call for all of us.  Humans are accelerating the rate of extinction by rates unseen before.  This will ultimately affect all of us.  I happen to believe that people of faith should be particularly concerned about this trend.  The Creation story in the Bible affirms the goodness of all that God made. Genesis 1:31 says “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”  There is a divine reason for the existence of every plant or animal.  All play an important role in the web of life.  In First Corinthian 12 the apostle Paul makes a case that the church is like a human body.  He says all the parts have a role to play; all the parts are important.  I would argue that the same thing is true in Creation.  All that has been made is good, is essential for the well-being of the larger body, and has a role to play.  Paul says in the church no one has the right to say to another part “I don’t need you.”  In the same way, we have no right to say that we don’t need certain plants or animals.  That is not our call.  Surely we are humble enough to admit that God is wiser than us.  If we believe the hand of God is behind all living creatures we should be willing to fight for their protection.

A few days ago I found a prayer in a book called Earth Gospel: A Guide to Prayer for God’s Creation that would be good for all of us to pray:  “Lord, you love life; we owe our existence to you.  Give us reverence for life and love for every creature.  Sharpen our senses so that we shall recognize the beauty and also the longing of your creation, and, as befits your children, treat our fellow creatures of the animal and plant kingdoms with love as our brothers and sisters, in readiness for your great day, when you will make all things new.”  It seems well past time that we began to take species extinction seriously.  If we claim to love and serve the Creator, we will love what has been created too and be willing to do what we can to protect all species.

–Chuck


Apr 24 2019

Seeing the Earth Through Christ’s Eyes

Having just celebrated both Easter and Earth Day, I want to share with you another portion of Pope Francis’ Encyclical on Climate & Inequality. Francis writes: “The New Testament does not only tell us of the earthly Jesus and his tangible and loving relationship with the world.  It also shows him risen and glorious, present throughout creation by his universal Lordship: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross’ (Col. 1:20).  This leads us to direct our gaze to the end of time, when the Son will deliver all things to the Father, so that ‘God may be everything to everyone’ (1 Cor. 15:28).  Thus, the creatures of this world no longer appear to us merely under natural guise because the risen One is mysteriously holding them to himself and directing them toward fullness as their end.  The very flowers of the fields and the birds which his human eyes contemplated and admired are now imbued with his radiant presence.”

Francis’ words help us to realize that there’s more to Easter than Jesus rising from the grave.  That event changed everything, even how we look at the world around us.  In ways we may not fully understand Christ is holding all things to himself and “directing them towards fullness as their end.”  Yes, the world itself was included in God’s plan of salvation and even now waits for the completeness of that salvation.  This is Paul’s teaching in Romans 8.  He speaks of the hope that “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.” (v. 21)  Paul goes on to say, “We know the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” (v. 22)

Seeing the rest of creation as recipients of God’s salvation should, as Francis indicates, cause us to see nature in a new light, as “imbued with his radiant presence.”  This should help us realize the sacredness of God’s Creation and remind us that God can be seen in the work of His hands.  I would like to think it would also cause us to give greater respect to the earth and inspire us to be better stewards of it.

Growing up I was taught to pray that I might see others through Christ’s eyes.  I think we should likewise pray that we might view the world through Christ’s eyes.  I have a feeling if we were able to do so things would look quite different.  What do you think?

–Chuck


Feb 23 2019

The First Incarnation

Over the years I have benefited from the writings of Richard Rohr.  That happened again this week when I read a series of posts on his “Daily Meditation” site.  There I was introduced to the concept of the two Incarnations.  When Christians hear the word “Incarnation” they typically think of Jesus coming into the world the first Christmas.  Rohr refers to this as the second Incarnation.  What, then, is the first?  That would be the Creation itself.  He says “I want to suggest that the first Incarnation was the moment described in Genesis 1, when God joined unity with the physical universe and became the light inside of everything.” “Two thousand years ago marks the Incarnation of God in Jesus, but before that there was the Incarnation through light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, fruit, birds, serpents, cattle, fish, and ‘every kind of wild beast’ according to the Genesis creation story.  This is the ‘Cosmic Christ’ through which God has ‘let us know the mystery of God’s purpose, the hidden plan made from the beginning in Christ’ (Ephesians 1:9-10).”

Although I have long understood Creation to be one of the supreme sources of divine revelation, I had not previously thought of Creation as the “first Incarnation.”  It makes sense to me and if we adopt Rohr’s teaching it helps us look at God differently.  It also causes us to look at the earth differently.  We see it is truly holy.  We see in it the immanence of God.  Such a viewpoint opens the door for us to have a more intimate experience with God and the “Cosmic Christ.”  It helps explain why many of us feel closer to God in nature than anywhere else.  I realize not everyone will buy into this concept of a “first Incarnation.”  Not everyone bought into the idea of the second Incarnation.  But for those with eyes to see and faith to believe God’s presence in Jesus could be seen and felt.  Likewise, for those with eyes to see and faith to believe, God’s presence can be seen and felt in the Creation.

In addition of bringing people into a closer communion with God, I would like to think that looking at Creation as the first Incarnation would move us to revere or honor the earth.  Needless to say, we have not done a very good job of this in the past.  The Cosmic Christ would seem to have fared no better than the earthly Christ.  Understanding the Creation as a visible manifestation of God would hopefully lead us to seek to preserve and protect the earth.  Not doing so might be compared to a second crucifixion.  I do not believe it is going too far to say that failure to love and care for the earth is a failure to love and care for God.

There is much to be said for Richard Rohr’s concept of the first Incarnation.  I hope you will give it further thought and that it will lead you closer to the one who is the Light of the world.

–Chuck


Jan 25 2019

Whichever Way We Turn

“My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’  Your face, Lord, I will seek.” Psalm 27:8

There are a number of places in the Scriptures where we are encouraged to seek God’s face.  To seek God’s face is to seek God.  But just where are we supposed to look.  In his beautiful book, Praying with the Earth, John Philip Newell encourages us to look for God’s face in the world around us.  He writes: “Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face in the light of the moon and patterns of stars, in scarred mountain rifts and ancient groves, in mighty seas and creatures of the deep.  Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face, O God, there is your face in the light of eyes we love, in the salt of tears we have tasted, in weathered countenances east and west, in the soft skin glow of the child everywhere.  Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face, there is your face among us.”

Whereas some would say God’s face cannot be seen, others would posit that God’s face is everywhere for those with eyes to see.  One of those persons who was able to see God everywhere was the recently deceased poet, Mary Oliver.  I would love to have eyes like Mary Oliver had.  I believe she saw God’s face in trees, flowers, birds, her beloved dogs, snakes, otters, deer, and children.  I believe she saw God’s face whichever way she turned.

I want to share with you a poem from my favorite Mary Oliver book, Thirst.  It’s called “Making the House Ready for the Lord.”  “Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but still nothing is as shining as it should be for you.  Under the sink, for example, is an uproar of mice—it is the season of their many children.  What shall I do?  And under the eaves and through the walls the squirrels have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season when they need shelter, so what shall I do?  And the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow; what shall I do?  Beautiful is the snow falling in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly up the path, to the door.  And still I believe you will come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox, the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know that really I am speaking to you whenever I say, as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.”

Mary Oliver’s poems, along with John Philip Newell’s prayers, John Muir’s writings, and the Scriptures themselves, have taught me that God’s face can be seen in the world of nature and in the faces of those closest to me.  I am very grateful to have had such good teachers.  They have affected how I look at things and how I photograph.  They have enabled me to see far more than I would have otherwise. Admittedly, I still do not see all I could or all I hope to, but I have seen enough to conclude that the face of God is indeed everywhere and that it is beautiful—more beautiful than the tongue can tell.

–Chuck


Dec 26 2018

Learning from the Trees

I have loved trees since I was a little boy. I grew up playing in the woods and I think that has influenced my affection for trees. Since taking up nature photography over twenty-five years ago, there’s no telling how many trees I’ve photographed. They are one of my favorite subjects. I also have quite a few books on trees. Recently I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. It is a fascinating book and I’m learning a lot about trees in it. And about other things as well.

Early in the book Wohlleben makes the case that trees are social beings. He indicates that they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. He goes on to say there are many advantages to trees working together. Wohlleben writes: “A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.”

Being a pastor, I have to admit that these words made me immediately think about the church. As Christians, we can only survive in community with other believers.   There are so many things we cannot do alone and were never meant to. We are meant to live out our faith with others. We are interdependent. Today a lot of people strive to be independent but this doesn’t work in the community of faith. We need each other, just like the trees do. We cannot afford to look out only for ourselves. Our spiritual lives are truncated and diminished when we isolate ourselves from other believers.  We hurt both ourselves and those around us.

Another important parallel is that just as every tree is valuable to the community or forest and worth keeping around as long as possible, every Christian is valuable to his or her community of faith and worth keeping around as long as possible. The apostle Paul made the same point when he talked about the church being like a body made up of different parts. He said all parts have a role to play and are, therefore, valuable and necessary. (See 1 Corinthians 12:14ff) We need to remember this for a lot of reasons. We must affirm the value of all members in our community of faith. We all need each other if we are going to grow and thrive. We all need each other if we are going to accomplish our purpose as a community of faith. Once again, there simply is no place for isolation in the community of faith.

Jesus encouraged us to “consider the lilies” and to pay attention to the birds. I suspect he would also encourage us to pay attention to the trees around us. They have a lot to teach us.

–Chuck