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


Mar 29 2019

“A Caress of God”

This year for Lent I gave up desserts once again.  I don’t know why I keep doing that.  I also decided to add some extra reading into my Lenten journey.  One book I chose to read is Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi by Richard Rohr.  The other book is Pope Francis’ 2015 Encyclical on Climate Change and Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home.  I am enjoying Pope Francis’ optimistic outlook on things.  I must confess I’ve been pretty discouraged in recent months.  Perhaps that has something to do with living in America where environmental issues have largely been dismissed or ignored in recent years.  So it was good to hear Francis say “The Creator does not abandon us; he never forsakes his loving plan or repents of having created us.  Humanity still has the ability to work together in building our common home.”

In his book, Pope Francis offers a solid theological basis for Creation Care.  I want to share with you a few gems I have found thus far.  Francis writes, “Our insistence that each human being is an image of God should not make us overlook the fact that each creature has its own purpose.  None is superfluous.  The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us.  Soil, water, mountains: everything is, as it were, a caress of God.”  I love that phrase—“a caress of God.”  If we could view the world around us as a caress of God perhaps we would value and honor it more.

In another section Francis writes: “The universe as a whole, in all its manifold relationships, shows forth the inexhaustible riches of God. Saint Thomas Aquinas wisely noted that multiplicity and variety ‘come from the intention of the first agent’ who willed that ‘what was wanting to one in the representation of the divine goodness might be supplied by another,’ inasmuch as God’s goodness ‘could not be represented fittingly by any one creature.’  Hence we need to grasp the variety of things in their multiple relationships.  We understand better the importance and meaning of each creature if we contemplate it within the entirety of God’s plan.  As the Catechism teaches: ‘God wills the interdependence of creatures.  The sun and the moon, the cedar and the little flower, the eagle and the sparrow; the spectacle of their countless diversities and inequalities tells us that no creature is self-sufficient.  Creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.’”

Surely we would take better care of the earth if we realized that each part of it is a manifestation of God’s goodness and love.  Likewise, if we better understood the interdependence of life on earth it would lead us to be better stewards of Creation.  I’m not sure things will get much better unless we come to grasp the sacredness of the earth and our divine calling to tend to it.

–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


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.)