Jul 9 2016

Intimations of the Divine

e_CES3228This past week I had the privilege of spending some time with my friend Rob Sheppard exploring parts of central California. I very much enjoyed Rob’s company.  I also enjoyed the company of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I happened to take with me a copy of Heschel’s book I Asked for Wonder.  This is an anthology of several of the famous rabbi’s spiritual quotes.  The very first quotation cited is worth the price of the book: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” But Heschel has much more to say and he often points to our spiritual connection with nature.  For example, he writes “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being.  Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe.  Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything.  But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight…”  I have to admit that when I took this image of the Milky Way near Lake Isabella I could not help but stand in awe at the work of God’s hands.

e_CES3330Heschel has more to say about awe. “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.  It enables us to receive in the world intimations of the divine,…to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.  What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.”  As I looked up at the giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Forest I sensed what Heschel was talking about.  For those with eyes to see there truly are “intimations of the divine” all around us in nature.   And as Heschel points out, these intimations can be found not just in the giant and dramatic aspects of nature but also in “the common and the simple.”

e_CES3486In still yet another quote Heschel says “Out of the world comes a behest to instill into the air a rapturous song for God, to incarnate in stones a message of humble beauty, and to instill a prayer for goodness in the hearts of all men.” Spending extended periods of time out in nature I did in fact sense the call to offer a song of praise to God.  I felt like shouting with the Psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name.” (Psalm 103:1)  I could understand why being in God’s Creation can instill one to pray “for the goodness in the hearts” of all people.  At this particular moment there definitely is a need to offer such prayers.

I always learn a lot when I travel with Rob but I’m thankful that on this trip we had the companionship of Abraham Joshua Heschel and for the many wonderful truths conveyed to us through his words.  I look forward to further travels with both in the future.

–Chuck

(I took the three images used here on my trip this past week.)


Jun 26 2016

Nature’s Saints

_DSC0843As noted a few weeks ago, recently I have been rereading a number of Thomas Merton books. Earlier this week I started reading New Seeds of Contemplation once again.  I soon came across a fascinating section where Merton talks at length about how created things give glory to God simply by doing what they were created to do.  Merton says, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him.  It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to His creative love.  It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.” Later he adds, “…each particular being, in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what He wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by His Love and His infinite Art. The forms of individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God.”

_DSC1246In what follows Merton gives several examples of things in nature that give glory to God simply by being what they were created to be. He writes, “The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this widow are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God.  This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.  The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.  The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints.  There is no other like him.  He is alone in his own character; nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same way.  That is his sanctity.”

Later in this chapter Merton goes on to talk about how humans are different from the rest of Creation. He says, “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. We are free beings and sons of God.”  He goes on to indicate that the secret of our identity is “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”

_DSC0755The uniqueness of humans makes for an interesting topic but that is not what I want to focus on here. Merton’s words about the rest of Creation proclaiming God’s glory, something David also said in Psalm 19:1, caused me to ponder why we don’t pay more attention to the “saints” all around us.  If the trees and their leaves bear witness to God why do we not sit and contemplate them more?  The lakes and sea, along with the fish that swim within, also offer God praise and reflect or imitates God’s glory.  If that be so, why do we not pause long enough to join in the chorus and soak in the glory of God?  I know we are supposed to seek God in others but as Merton wisely points out, humans offer an imperfect reflection of God’s glory.  Nature, however, lacking free will, offers that glory perfectly.  Realizing that makes me think I need to be paying even more attention to the glorious revelation found in Creation than I already do.  The witness of the “saints” is just waiting to be discovered by those willing to slow down and pay attention.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above on a trip a few years ago to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)


Jun 8 2016

God’s Tides

tide pool 2

“The hand of God has turned the tide!” Psalm 118:16a MSG

Twelve years ago Bonita and I spent a week on a chartered fishing boat in southeast Alaska. We, along with two other couples, had a great time photographing some of God’s finest work. One of the things being on the boat that long did for me was remind me of the tremendous power of the tides. At one point on the trip I was on shore photographing some beautiful tide pool scenes when my friends began to express concern for me. Due to my position, I could not tell that the tide had come back in and that I was now separated from the rest of the group and the boat. I should have known better. Season after season, day after day, the tides come in and go out. They do exactly what God intended them to do when He created the world.

boat 1While on the trip I read a book called Sea Edge by Phillip Keller. In one of the chapters he draws some insightful parallels to the tides and God’s work in our own lives. Here’s what he had to say: “There just have to be times, when in His own gracious, irresistible concern, He comes flooding over my little life. There are occasions when the ‘high tide’ of His powerful presence needs to inundate my soiled and shabby soul. There are days when more than anything else I must have that sublime sense of His Spirit sweeping into every secret cove and inlet of my life. The world is so much with me. The careless hand of man, the cruel ways of our society, the thoughtless acts and omitted courtesies of my contemporaries leave a legacy of hurts and sorrow and wreckage in my life–the black rocks of rising anger, the hard jagged reefs of dark resentment, the flotsam and jetsam of ill will that clutter my character. Only Christ can change all this. Only He can alter the contours of my disposition. Only He can displace the debris of my soul with the surging newness of His own person. There must be an exchange of His life for mine–of His desires for my, otherwise, selfish impulses. It is He, who in the high tide of His relentless patience and perseverance, presses in upon my person. I cannot, dare not, keep Him out. It is His eternal, sure in-coming, as inexorable as the rising tide, that gives hope for covering all the corruption and defilement of my days. As the full weight of the sea currents change and shape the coast, so Christ, in control, recreates me as a man. He alters the contours of my character and conduct.”

tide pool 1Today I give thanks for the relentless tides that pound and shape the coastlines all around the world. Even more, I offer my praise and thanksgiving to a wonderful Savior who works just as relentlessly in your life and mine to make something beautiful out of our lives. Experiencing God’s “tides” may not always be a pleasant experience but they are always needful. As Keller points out, only God can “alter the contours of my disposition” and only God can “displace the debris of my soul with the surging newness of His own person.” God’s tides may not come in the predictable rhythms of nature’s tides but they do indeed come. When they do our job is to let go and let God bring us what we need and, at the same time, take away what we don’t. There’s no reason to be surprised by their coming. In fact, we should live our lives in anticipation of them and with gratitude for the role they play in our lives.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown here on the boat trip through southeast Alaska.)

 


Jun 1 2016

Still Learning from Thomas Merton

_CES6986I have been a fan of the writings of Thomas Merton for almost forty years. I consider him one of my spiritual mentors even though I never met him.  Merton has been dead close to fifty years but through his many books he continues to speak to me.  Over the past few days I’ve come across two passages from his writings that have moved me deeply.  I am currently rereading Thoughts in Solitude and read this word on gratitude a few nights ago: “To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us–and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful man knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6979Although Merton does not speak specifically of nature in this passage it made me think of my experience of God through Creation. Over the years I have come to see “the Love of God” in everything that God has made.  All around us is the evidence of God’s love.  The air we breathe, the clouds that float by overhead, the trees waving their branches, the birds singing their songs…all of these are expressions of God’s love for you and me.  I appreciate Merton’s clarion call to be grateful for God’s overtures of love.  He is right; we should not take anything for granted, never be unresponsive to the divine gifts of love we receive, and live in complete wonder and awe of the goodness of God.  In many ways, but especially in nature, I have experienced the goodness and love of God “not by hearsay but by experience.” And, yes, “that is what makes all the difference.”

_CES6936The other passage by Merton I came across showed up on a Facebook page earlier today that features daily sayings of the late Trappist monk. This one originated in what is perhaps my favorite Merton book, No Man Is An Island.  Merton wrote: “Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else. They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness. The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. . . . It is the silence of the world that is real. Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all out fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.”

_CES6956In this passage I was convicted of the inner and outer noise in my life which keeps me from fully experiencing “the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea.” I was convicted of my busyness—usually taking pictures—that frequently robs me of the peace and tranquility that God’s Creation is meant to give us.   I was convicted of my illogical need for speed even when outdoors and how important it is for me to slow down if I want to enjoy the “immense graces” God provides those who will “be still.”  (Psalm 46:10)  I was convicted of the fact that I’m guilty of thinking I know what’s going on around me when in reality that’s an illusion and I have so very much yet to learn.

I don’t know if you are a fan of Thomas Merton’s writings or not, but sometimes I think I’d be lost without them.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used here on a visit to the Abbey of Gethsemani  in central Kentucky where Thomas Merton lived most of his adult life.)


May 18 2016

Careless in the Care of God

_DSC5775In Eugene Peterson’s amazing translation/paraphrase of the Bible, called The Message, Matthew 6:26 reads “Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God.  And you count for more to him than birds.”  Ken Gire once wrote a wonderful response to this.  He said: “’Careless in the care of God.’  And why shouldn’t they be?  For their food, He provides insects in the air, seeds on the ground.  For their search for food, He provides eyes that are keen, wings that are swift.  For their drinking, He provides poolings of rainwater.  For their bathing, He provides puddles.  For their survival, He provides migratory instincts to take them to warmer climates.  For their flight, He provides bones that are porous and lightweight.  For their warmth, He provides feathers.  For their dryness, He provides a water-resistant coating.  For their rest, He provides warm updrafts so they can glide through the air.  For their journey, He provides the company of other travelers.  For their return, He provides the companionship of a mate.  For their safety, He provides a perch in branches far from the reach of predators.  For their nest, He provides twigs.  And for every newborn beak, He provides enough worms so that they can grow up to leave the nest and continue the cycle of life.  It’s no wonder they’re so free from the cares of this world.  The wonder is, if we count more to Him than birds, why aren’t we?”

_DSC5759When I read these words earlier this morning I have to admit I was convicted. Lately I’ve been worried about a lot of things and the word “careless” would definitely not describe me at this point in my life.  Jesus’ instructions to “look at the birds” was one of his ways of trying to get his followers not to worry so much.  He encouraged them to look around and pay close attention to the birds and the wildflowers that grew nearby.  Both, he said,  serve as reminders that God takes care of them and provides what they need.  Jesus then informed these followers that God cares even more for them and they shouldn’t worry, for if God meets the needs of the birds and flowers God will assuredly meet their needs as well.

_DSC3499I love the way Ken Gire lays out for us the many ways God provides for the birds. He lists so many ways and I’m sure others could be added to his list.  Surely the recognition that God goes out of His way to care for the birds ought to be enough to make us pause when anxious thoughts come our way.  Hopefully it will help me worry a whole lot less and move me to the point where I am “careless in the care of God.”

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above at Henderson Sloughs Wildlife Management Area.)


Apr 26 2016

Seeking Nature’s Forgiveness

_DSC9845“Forgive us our sins…” Luke 11:4

One of the most powerful novels I’ve ever read is The Brothers Karamazov by the Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky.  In one portion of this classic the character Father Zossima tells his fellow monks the story of his brother’s, Markel, last days.  Markel, who previously cared little for God or religion had a change of heart.  He began asking for both God’s forgiveness and that of others.  Next he did something no one could have expected, he asked the birds to forgive him.  Here are his words: “Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me, because I have also sinned before you.”  Zossima says “None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy.   ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky and I alone lived in shame.  I alone dishonored everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it all.’ “ When Markel’s mother told him he was “taking too many sins upon yourself” he responded, “Dear mother, my joy, I am weeping from gladness, not from grief; I want to be guilty before them, only I cannot explain it to you, for I do not even know how to love them.”

_DSC3016I’ve been involved in a lot of discussions lately concerning forgiveness but most of them related to people who had hurt one another. In forty years of ministry I’m not sure I’ve heard anyone speak of asking the birds or nature to forgive them but as I read Dostoevsky’s words again this morning it seemed like what Markel did was something we all need to do.  In so many different ways we sin against Creation on a regular basis.  The birds Markel spoke of have certainly suffered.  At nearby John James Audubon State Park there is a museum that features a lot of items related to Audubon’s life.  One item tour guides invariably point to is a well preserved stuffed passenger pigeon.  At one time there were millions of these birds but today they are now extinct.  I almost feel like the next time I’m there I need to ask its forgiveness.

To some asking a bird or some tree for forgiveness would sound ridiculous but I do not believe that it is at all. When you look at the stress that we have placed on animals as we’ve wiped out their habitat how can you not apologize?  When you see where huge majestic trees have been clear-cut how can you not weep and feel sorry?  When you see fish that have died from pollution dead on the shore how can you not ask for their forgiveness?

B2175In Dostoevsky’s novel Merkel admits that he does not “even know how to love” all of God’s creatures.  Elsewhere in The Brothers Karamazov one of his characters says, “Love all God’s creation, both the whole and every grain of sand. Love every leaf, every ray of light. Love the animals, love the plants, love each separate thing. If thou love each thing thou wilt perceive the mystery of God in all; and when once thou perceive this, thou wilt thenceforward grow every day to a fuller understanding of it: until thou come at last to love the whole world with a love that will then be all-embracing and universal.”  It is certainly clear that Dostoevsky believed that we should, in fact, love all of Creation and for good reason—so that we might in turn know and love the Creator.

In any relationship where love is involved there will come a time when we must ask the one we love for forgiveness. If we truly love God’s Creation there will likewise be times when we must say “I’m sorry.”  As I look around me it would seem that time is now.

–Chuck

(I photographed the northern cardinal and indigo bunting in western Kentucky and the raven at Bosque del Apache NWR in New Mexico.)