Jan 5 2017

Christmas and Creation

_dsc3553“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1:14

Today is the twelfth and final day of the Christmas season. When you add the four weeks of Advent to the twelve days of Christmas, and then tack on all the pre-Advent weeks of Christmas decorations, music and commercials, Christmas seems to last forever these days.  I hope it has been a joyful and blessed season for you and before we officially leave it I’d like to pause one more time to consider the significance of the Incarnation.

a_dsc8008In today’s “Daily Meditation” by Richard Rohr he makes the claim that Christmas for many is an even bigger celebration than Easter. It would be hard to deny that claim.  In fact, I’ve often wondered why we go all out in our celebration of Christmas but seem rather subdued when it comes to Easter.  Rohr offers one reason.  He says “because for God to be born as one of us in this world among the animals and in a poor family shows that humanity is good, flesh is good, and this world is good!”  I’m not sure Rohr’s reason fully justifies the disproportionate celebration Christmas receives over Easter but he does point to an often forgotten truth that was made manifest when God took on human flesh that first Christmas. By entering this world and actually becoming a part of this world God revealed the goodness of Creation and humanity itself.  This goodness was already affirmed in the Genesis 1 account of Creation but by taking on human flesh and living in the midst of this Creation God affirmed their goodness on a whole new level.

Contrary to various philosophies that have dominated human thinking at times, this world is good and life in this world is as well. The birth of Jesus Christ offers proof of this.  If the world and life were not sacred prior to Jesus’ birth—and I believe that they were—they certainly were afterwards.  In a definitive way God added God’s stamp of approval on both when Jesus was born.

a_dsc1403At the end of today’s “daily meditation” Rohr says “Christ is both the Alpha and the Omega of history (Revelation 1:8), naming it correctly at the very start and forever alluring it forward. Love is both the cause and the goal of all creation. This is a meaningful universe, and meaning is what the soul needs to thrive.”   God’s love revealed at Christmas, and certainly Easter too, does in fact give meaning to the universe and life itself.  It also serves as a useful reminder that God is as much a part of this earth and this life as God is of heaven and the life to come.  I’m afraid far too many of us fail to recognize this.  If we fully understood this truth we’d be singing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” not just at Christmas but year round.

–Chuck

(I took the first and third image in Henderson County, KY., and the middle image at Yellowstone National Park.)


Oct 26 2016

Nature’s Call to Worship

_dsc0868Currently I’m teaching a study on the Book of Revelation at the church I serve. This week the focus is on chapter four where John is given a glimpse of the worship going on in heaven.  John records what he saw and among the things he glimpsed were “four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes.”  (v. 6) He goes on to say “The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle.”  (v. 7)  These four creatures, we are told, offered God worship day and night, continually saying “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (v. 8)

dnp-grizzly-2eSeveral scholars believe the four creatures John saw stand for the four parts of the animal kingdom. The lion represented wild beasts, the ox represented domesticated animals, the human face represented humans and the eagle represented birds.  The lion’s nobility, the ox’s strength, the human’s wisdom and the eagle’s swiftness likely played a role in their selection.  Each creature has preeminence in its own particular sphere and yet each give preeminence and worship to God, their Maker.  Here we find a reminder that all of Creation was made to worship God.  It is not humans alone that worship God; all that God has made joins together in offering the Creator praise.

In the verses that follow we learn that when the four creatures give glory, honor and thanks to God that others gathered around God’s throne fall down before God and join them in offering their own worship. Specifically, twenty-four elders are mentioned and they too sing a hymn of praise to God: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.” (v. 11)

_ces4447I would not be so bold as to say I understand all the particulars of worship in heaven but I do find a parallel here with my own experience. It is noteworthy that the twenty-four elders offer their praise after watching the four living creatures offer theirs.  The actions of the creatures somehow move the elders to join in the worship.  I have experienced that pattern myself.  As I have watched various creatures do what God created them to do, and thus offer God praise, I have found myself moved to offer praise to the Creator as well.  It was as though the creatures I was observing led or called me into worship.  Watching an eagle soar has done this for me.  So has observing a grizzly bear forage and a mountain goat climb rocks.  Hearing a bull elk bugle in the fall has served as a call to worship for me on more than one occasion.  Even spending time with comical prairie dogs has lifted my spirits and moved me to offer God worship.  So maybe all of Creation was not just made to worship God but also to lead the rest of us to do the same.  The question is, are we following in their steps as the twenty-four elders do in heaven.  I hope the answer is Yes.

–Chuck

(I took the elk and mountain goat pictures on my recent trip to South Dakota.  I took the grizzly image several years ago in Alaska.)


Aug 10 2016

Glints of the Divine

AZ Antelope Canyon 1 near PageIn recent days I’ve been reading Joan Chittister’s book, In Search of Belief.  The book is a careful and thoughtful look at the Apostles’ Creed.  When it comes time for Chittister to discuss God as “Father” it is apparent she has a problem with this appellation.   It’s not that she is opposed to referring to God as Father; instead, she finds it too limiting.  She feels the Church has made a mistake in focusing on just one of the Bible’s many images of God.  She notes that a number of the biblical images come from Creation and feels that these, as well as others, should also be used to give us a fuller and more complete understanding of God.

_CES2470Chittister argues for expanding our metaphors and images of God. She says, “By naming God everything that makes God God, we come daily to see God differently, to see God wholly. More than that, by naming God the sum total of created goodness, we come to see the rest of life differently as well.  In the first place, we see God present to every distinct moment, every separate segment of life.  In the second place, we come to see every distinct moment of life, every gracious mortal being around us charged with that presence.  We come to see every facet of life—all of them, each of them—as glints of the Divine. We get a fuller picture of God.  At the same time, we get a deeper understanding of the sacredness of a creation that shares in this diversity.”

Joan goes on to say, “When we name God fully, all of life becomes an exercise in contemplation. We touch the divine dimensions of ourselves.  We see God everywhere.  We feel divinity everywhere.  We recognize God everywhere.  And, eventually, we become what we think about.  We become what we see, make holy what we touch, make sacred what we are.”

AZ Monument Valley mittens (v) crI appreciate what Chittister says here. Perhaps we have focused too much on just a few images of God when including several more would broaden both our understanding and experience of God and Jesus.  I am especially drawn to the biblical images found in Creation.  Jesus referred to himself as “the light of the world”  and spoke of the “living waters” that came from him.  I remember other nature images appearing in a hymn I sang often as a child: “He’s the Lily of the Valley, the Bright and Morning Star…” Another song referred to God as “the sweetest rose of Sharon.” The Psalmist used nature images to refer to God.  He spoke of God as “a sun and shield” (84:11)  and “the Rock of our salvation.” (95:1)

There are lots of images of God related to nature and if we will regularly reflect on these, especially as we view them in nature itself, we should be able to connect with God in a fuller and richer way.  There truly are “glints of the Divine” all around us!  I encourage you to take Chittister’s lead and begin looking for other metaphors and images that will augment the few the Church has historically chosen to highlight so that you might come to know God in fresh and new ways.  As Joan reminds us, “Clearly, if God is really God, no one name can possibly hold all the allusions, say all the concepts, breathe in one breath all the qualities that are God.”

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Antelope Canyon near Page, Az.; the middle image in Missouri’s Ozark mountains; and the bottom image at Monument Valley in Az.)


Jul 29 2016

Experiencing God in Our National Parks

Yellowstone Lower FallsAmerican’s National Park Service will be turning one hundred years old in just a few weeks. Because I love our national parks so much I cannot let this occasion pass without offering the NPS my congratulations and best wishes.  Since taking up nature photography twenty-four years ago I’ve been blessed to visit most of our national parks.  I’ve also visited scores of other national park units such as national recreation areas, national monuments, national rivers and seashores, etc.  Each of them has had an impact on my life one way or another.  I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for our national parks.

I was introduced to our national parks as a small child when my family visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today I visit them as often as I can.  Just two days ago I was able to pay a return visit to Mammoth Cave National Park.  I keep going back because I benefit so much from them.  Our national parks are incredible repositories of natural beauty that move my soul.  They are places where I often connect to God.  In fact, when I think of some of the parks I’ve visited I think not just of the scenery or wildlife but of the spiritual connections I made there.  Let me give you some examples.

TN Great Smoky Mountains Spruce Flat FallsWhen I think of Denali National Park I remember “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” I have felt a peace there I’ve not quite experienced elsewhere.  When I think of Grand Teton National Park I recall how important humility is in the spiritual life.  Standing before that giant mountain wall I always feel small and humbled.  When I think of Yosemite National Park I think of worship.  John Muir referred to those majestic Sierra mountains as his “temples” and “cathedrals” and they became that for me as well.  I can hardly imagine walking through Yosemite Valley and not singing the “Doxology” or “How Great Thou Art.”  When I think of Yellowstone National Park I find myself reflecting on the mystery of God.  Yellowstone is such a mysterious and magical place.  As with God, there is no comprehending all its wonders.  And when I think of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I associate it with love. There is a wonderful and abundant diversity of life in this park that is so dear to my heart.  That diversity symbolizes for me the generosity and goodness of God and it serves as yet one more reminder of the divine love that is the source of all that is good.

Yosemite ValleyI could go on making spiritual connections with the many different parks I have visited and photographed. They are all special and they are all important.  We are incredibly blessed to have these national parks and we should, by no means, take them for granted.  I would encourage you in this centennial year of the National Park Service to give them all the support you can.  Visit them as often.  Work to preserve and protect them.  Our national parks are far more than just beautiful and ecologically diverse places, they are special places where God resides and where God can be experienced in some marvelous ways.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Yellowstone NP, the middle one at Great Smoky Mountains NP, and the bottom one at Yosemite National Park.)


Jun 15 2016

Hope Trumps Despair

_DSC6423Recent events in the news have a lot of people upset and wondering “what is this world coming to?” The massacre in Orlando, in particular, causes one to question the sanity of humankind. How could anyone do such a horrible thing? Of course, the Orlando tragedy is just one of many mass killings we’ve witnessed and the madness of the world can be seen in so many other places. It can be seen in the genocide taking place in Africa, the Syrian refugee crisis, our mistreatment of God’s good earth, terrorist attacks all around the globe, and ongoing racism–just to name a few.  It’s almost enough to want to shout, “Stop the world; I want to get off!”

_DSC7438I will admit that what we see on the news and all around us is enough to lead one to despair. I do not think, however, that is the path we ought to take. In all the dark places I mentioned above there is light to be found. In aftermath of the Orlando shooting thousands upon thousands have responded in love by donating either money or blood.  There are lots of people fighting genocide wherever it can be found.  Although many countries have refused to take in the Syrian refugees lots of other countries have welcomed with open arms those in need of refuge.  Even though we have treated the earth harshly and ended up with lots of environmental woes, countless groups work daily to battle these woes and to improve the health of this planet.  Many people are hard at work each day battling terrorism and the root causes that contribute to it.  Likewise many recognize the injustice that comes with racism and fight diligently to establish “liberty and justice for all.”  The efforts of good people to overcome evil give me cause not to despair.  In fact, they give me hope that things can be better.

Of course, it is my faith in God more than anything else that sustains my hope and keeps me from succumbing to despair. There are many Bible verses that speak of the hope we must cling to.  Jeremiah 29:11 says “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”  Isaiah 40:31 says “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”  In Hebrews 10:23 we are challenged, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.”  First and foremost, it is the love and faithfulness of God that give me hope.

In the Chalice Hymnal there is a hymn by Georgia Harkness called Hope of the World. In the first couple of verses Harkness offers a prayer we all might pray at this particular time: “Hope of the world, O Christ of great compassion: speak to our fearful hearts by conflict rent; save us, your people, from consuming passion, who by our own false hopes and aims are spent. Hope of the world, God’s gift from highest heaven, bringing to hungry souls the bread of life: still let your Spirit unto us be given to heal earth’s wounds and end its bitter strife.”

_DSC6569For eons the rainbow has been viewed as a sign of hope. I saw one a couple of evenings ago and found its appearance timely.  When I arrived at my office today our church flower garden was full of Easter lilies. They were planted after the Easter service in March and are blooming again.  I saw this also as a sign from nature indicating that there is always hope. Christians are an Easter people and the message of Easter is predominantly that of hope. So whether you are despairing over the world, our country, your church, your family, or your own life, let it be known that there is and always will be hope. My prayer for you is the same as that the apostle Paul offered in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

–Chuck

                                                                                                  


Apr 18 2016

It’s God’s World!

_DSC5249Yesterday was Earth Stewardship Sunday at my church. We had a chance to sing hymns and offer prayers that honored God as Creator. We were even reminded during Communion that the bread and wine are gifts of the earth provided by the One who made it.  For my sermon I chose to focus on the words of the hymn “This Is My Father’s World.”  I did this so I could emphasize a very important biblical truth, this world doesn’t belong to you or me.  As the Psalmist boldly declared, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it; for he founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters.” (24:1-2)  I like the way George McKinney, Jr. put it, “The creation of our Lord does not belong to the rich who possess it nor to the poor who need and want its resources. Neither the greedy nor the needy can claim ownership!”

So many of the environmental problems we face today have resulted from our failure to understand or remember that the earth is not ours to do with as we please. The earth belongs to God.  We do learn in Genesis 2:15 that we have a role to play in God’s Creation and that involves taking care of it.  Unfortunately we have been far more prone to abuse Creation than take care of it.  Many people see the earth and its resources as simply a means for getting rich.  Far too many people abuse the earth’s resources without any concern for others or for those who will come after them.  No wonder we find our planet in the shape it now is.

_DSC5227When I was a teenager I remember a television commercial that featured a lone Native American standing on a high precipice observing the decimation of this country’s natural beauty and as the camera zoomed in you saw a tear falling from his eye. It was a very powerful presentation and got a lot of people’s attention.  I have a feeling that if we could somehow get a close-up look at God’s face these days we might find a similar tear and for the same reason.  In essence, we have trashed the beautiful world God so graciously gave us.  We have failed to be the stewards of Creation God commissioned us to be.

In the final verse of “This Is My Father’s World” the writer says “God trusts us with this world, to keep it clean and fair.  All earth and trees, the skies and seas, God’s creatures everywhere.”  These may just be the words of a hymnist but they echo the teachings of the Bible.  God did, in fact, entrust us with this world, “to keep it clean and fair.”  Our heavenly Father expects us to honor the earth as His creation and to take the steps needed to reverse damage that has already been done and to work to preserve what we can for future generations.

_DSC7790Last week I spoke at the funeral of a friend whose favorite song was “Rocky Mountain High.” He wanted it played at his service so we did.  As I listened to the words one line in particular caught my attention.  It’s the one where John Denver sings “I know he’d be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly.” I could relate to that.  I can honestly say my life is richer because I have seen, and here where I live now continue to see on a regular basis, eagles soaring above me.  But not that many years ago there were concerns about whether bald eagles would even exist in this country now.  The effects of the pesticide DDT seriously threatened their existence and had there not been tremendous pressure put on public officials to remove DDT I would likely not have the privilege I do here of seeing eagles on a regular basis.

Those who fought the battle to eliminate DDT made a difference. If we are going to take earth stewardship seriously, we need to be looking for places where we can make a difference too.  Got any ideas?

–Chuck

(I took the top two pictures on a recent trip to southeast KY.  The eagle was photographed near where I live in western KY.)