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


Nov 30 2018

Landscapes and Prayer

I recently started reading John O’Donohue’s book, Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World.  In the opening chapter I found some words about landscape that resonated with me.  I suspect they will with many of you as well.  O’Donohue writes: “I love mountains. I feel that mountains are huge contemplatives.  They are there and they are in the presence up to their necks and they are still in it and with it and within it.  One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into a landscape and to be still in it.  Your body is made out of clay, so your body is actually a miniature landscape that has got up from under the earth and is now walking on the normal landscape.  If you go out for several hours into a place that is wild, your mind begins to slow down, down, down.  What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of sisterhood with the great clay of the landscape.  Water in a landscape is a fascinating thing as well.  I often think that water is the tears of the earth’s joy and sadness.  Every kind of water in a landscape has a different kind of tonality and a different kind of presence to it…  I also think that trees are incredible presences.  There is incredible symmetry in a tree, between its inner life and its outer life, between its rooted memory and its external active presence.  A tree grows up and down at once and produces enough branches to incarnate wild divinity.  It doesn’t limit itself—it reaches for the sky and it reaches for the source, all in one seamless kind of movement.  So I think landscape is an incredible, mystical teacher, and when you begin to tune into its sacred presence, something shifts inside you.” 

O’Donohue goes on to say, “One of the lovely developments in consciousness…is this dawning recognition that we are guests of the universe, and that landscape was the firstborn of creation and was here hundreds of millions of years before us. It knows what is actually going on.  To put it in a theological way, I feel that landscape is always at prayer, and its prayer is seamless.  It is always enfolded in the presence.  It is a high work of imagination, because there is no repetition in a landscape.  Every stone, every tree, every field is a different place.  When your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is to actually be here.”

I appreciate what O’Donohue has to say and can relate to it. I believe God does make Himself known through the Creation.  All of God’s works bear the mark of the Creator.  This includes the landscape.  This helps explain why many of us find ourselves closest to God in nature.  It also explains why prayer seems to come easier for us when we are out in nature.  Is it too much to believe that rest of Creation prays alongside us and contributes to our prayer?  O’Donohue specifically mentions mountains, water and trees as elements of the landscape that draw him to the presence of God.  These three elements have contributed much to my own experience of God as well.  I don’t think that is a coincidence.  In the Scriptures God is often found in mountains, water and trees.

If only we had eyes to see we would discover God all around us, in all the different parts of the landscape. And O’Donohue is right, “when your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is actually to be here.”  What a privilege indeed!

–Chuck

(I took the images shown above on a recent trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.)


Sep 28 2018

The Weighty Season

Autumn officially arrived last week so I thought this would be a good time to share one of my favorite Wendell Berry “Sabbath Poems.” This one can be found in his book, A Small Porch.

“Again the air is full of falling: the falling of leaves in the weighty season that brings all home again to the lowly miracle from which they came. Nature, the mother and maker, requires that life take form, enflesh itself in the shapes and habits of the world’s unnumbered kinds.  And then she requires each one at last to shed its guise, giving up its matter to the life to come.  Think of a world of no fall, no gravity calling downward, homeward, bringing all by the light uprisen down to rest in the resting land–a world, instead, where all that dies would fly upward and outward, nameless and alone.  How sterile then would be the earth, seasonless the year.  The year is the showing forth of the heavenly love that is the being of the present world.  The leaves, opening and at last falling, hold a while the beauty of God who made them by the work and care of Nature, His vicar and our mother.  His only is the light of which all things are made, the beauty that they are, the delight that is our prayer.”

 There are many things I like about this poem about the “weighty season” we call fall. I appreciate the way Berry alludes to the cycle of the seasons and the cycle of life itself.  There is indeed a rhythm to life that comes from the hand of the Creator.  Like Berry, I cannot imagine life without this intrinsic cycle.

I especially appreciate the notion expressed that “the year is the showing forth of the heavenly love…” With each passing day we have the opportunity to experience anew the love of God.  That love may be experienced numerous ways but one of the best is through nature.  Even in the falling leaves of autumn we can know God’s love and discern God’s wisdom and ways.  The leave, along with the rest of Creation, “hold a while the beauty of God.”

Berry’s “Sabbath Poem” likewise reminds us that God, who is Light, is the Source of all that is. All of Creation, including us, owes its existence to God.  All of Creation, including us, shares in the Beauty of God.  It is no wonder, then, that all of Creation, including us, becomes “the delight that is our prayer.”

 –Chuck


Jul 29 2018

Light and Love

This past weekend I spent some time reading from the works of John Muir. I always find his writings inspirational but this time especially so.  Consider the following passage I came across:  “Alpenglow is the most impressive of all the terrestrial manifestations of God and suggests the spiritual Love-light in which the flesh-walls of earthy tabernacles are dissolved and everything puts on immortality… The alpenglow is so holy, spiritual; even the inspired atmosphere of the New Jerusalem is inadequate.  When we read, ‘And God said: Let there be light,’ we are too apt to think only of the light of the sun.  But it is not the sun that makes the day, it is Love.  In this Light of light, rocks and seas and everything is not only illumined, but transfigured and fused and changed into religion.”

I find Muir’s connecting of light and love to be quite meaningful and do not recall seeing this connection made elsewhere. The Bible declares that “God is light” (1 John 1:5) and that “God is love” (1 John 4:8) but you usually don’t see these metaphors conjoined as Muir does.  I like the thought that when God said “Let there be light” that one can substitute the world “love” for light.  The beginning of Creation is indeed a manifestation of God’s love.  Light may very well represent God’s love.  If nothing else, it can serve as a perpetual reminder to us that God loves us.  One does not have to experience the alpenglow Muir wrote about to make the connection.  Simply observing the sun in the sky or the play of light on Creation should be enough to remind us of God’s love.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declared, “Let your light shine before others that they may see your good deeds and give glory to your Father in heaven.” (Mt. 5:16) Here, too, it would appear that substituting light for love works quite nicely.  How does one let his or her light shine before others?  Through deeds of love.

I am thankful for John Muir’s insight and definitely plan to give his idea further thought. I encourage you to do the same.

–Chuck


May 29 2018

Let Beauty Sink In Deep

_CES5077Earlier this month I took a photography trip to Arizona and Utah. For reading material while there I carried along Reflections From The North Country by Sigurd F. Olson.  It proved to be a wise choice.  In this book Olson has chapters on solitude, harmony, awareness, beauty, simplicity, wholeness, contemplation, and a number of other interesting topics.  Since I was getting to witness some extraordinary scenery on the trip, the chapter on beauty especially appealed to me.   Olson begins by saying “In nature all things are beautiful.” A bit later he adds, “There is beauty everywhere if one can see and understand its meaning.” When I read these words I could not help but think of Ecclesiastes 3:11 where it says God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” Truly, for those with eyes to see there is beauty to be found everywhere.

_CES5101While I was in Arizona I was blessed to stay with a dear friend who took me to some remote locations where I experienced beautiful sites I had not visited before. At places like White Pockets in Vermillion Cliffs National Monument and a special place called “The Rock Factory” I stood in awe of God’s magnificent handiwork.  In addition to photographing the stupendous scenery and rock formations I also sought to let the beauty before me sink in.  There was a reason for this extra step.  At the end of his chapter on beauty Olson wrote these words: “In a lifetime of seeing beauty in the wilderness, I always feel a lift of spirit and an afterglow of serenity and content. I also know one must take time and wait for the glimpses of beauty that always come, and one must see each as though it were his last chance.”

_CES4875That final phrase struck a chord with me. We must see each expression of beauty as though it could be the last chance we had to do so.  Due to environmental degradation and governmental deregulation some examples of God’s beauty are disappearing.  There are places and things we must enjoy now while we can.  The other truth is none of us know how long we will live and when we witness the presence of beauty we must acknowledge that we may or may not get another chance to behold what we are seeing.  Doing so will cause us to experience beauty in a deeper way.

 

A recent example from my personal life has made me even more aware of this. My mother, a beautiful person, passed away a few days ago.  I got to visit with her just a few days before she died.  I didn’t realize that this would be the last time I would get to see her.  Had I known, perhaps I would have stayed a bit longer, asked a few more questions, or been more effusive with my affection.  But I didn’t know. Of course the truth is none of us know how long we have got to live, nor those that we love, but realizing this fact should cause us to live in the present more, to take advantage of the opportunities we have to show love and gratitude, and to make memories that will last.

_CES5184Trying to do this will make our lives richer. The same principles can and should be applied to our experiences with beauty in God’s Creation.  Let us learn to live in the present more.  Take nothing for granted. Let us learn to enjoy fully our time in special places.  Give thanks for expressions of beauty wherever they appear.  Let us make memories that will sustain us a lifetime.  There may come a time when memories are all we have.  Let beauty sink in deep…

–Chuck