Dec 19 2015

Can We Help Bring Joy to the World?

_DSC2996“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”  These words are found at the beginning of one of the most beloved Advent/Christmas hymns.  They are soon followed by a refrain that includes the phrase “let heaven and nature sing.”   It would seem that the writer of this hymn, Isaac Watts, believed that Christ’s coming was meant to bring joy to all of Creation.  This is further indicated in the second verse where he talks about “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.”  There’s no way I could ever prove it but I do believe that all of nature joins together in offering praise to the Creator.  I also believe that the same Jesus who came to bring joy to people like you and me likewise longs for there to be joy in all aspects of his Creation.  The God who created the world is a God of great joy and this same God longs for joy to be found throughout Creation.

_DSC5464Joy has been the theme of the Advent season this past week. I’ve paused a couple of times these past few days to wonder just how much joy the rest of Creation experiences these days.  When we stop and consider the impact humans have had on the earth it does, in fact, make you wonder.  Does air and water pollution hinder Creation’s joy?  Does ever increasing species decimation and destruction of the rain forests cause Creation to experience less joy?  Are the effects of climate change at this very moment diminishing the joy that Christ intended for his Creation?  Can we even still sing “joy to the world (Creation), the Lord is come” or expect heaven and nature to sing?

e_DSC3071Despite what we humans have done to harm the earth and rob it of its intended joy, I still believe that when we stop and consider the coming of Christ long ago there remains cause for “the world” to rejoice and sing. The hope, peace and joy of the world remain tied to the first advent of Jesus.  More specifically, they remain tied to the love he both taught and made manifest throughout his life on earth.  John 3:16 reminds us that “God so loved the world He gave His only Son.” Here is a needed reminder that God’s love for the world (and those who inhabit it) was the primary reason Jesus was born the first Christmas.  If we and the rest of Creation can remember this and reflect on the incomprehensible love that brought Christ into the world there will always be joy.

e_DSC3341But as we consider love, the theme for the fourth week of Advent, this coming week, I would suggest that there is to be found in Christ’s teachings a word that has the potential to bring further joy to the rest of Creation. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he responded with a twofold answer.  He said, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind and with all of your strength.” Then he added, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)  Jesus made sure we understood that what is most important of all is loving God and loving others.  If we will take seriously his words it would make an incredible difference in how we relate to the rest of Creation.  Think about it…

If we truly love God we are not going to abuse that which God has made. Recognizing that the earth is, in fact, the work of God’s hands and belongs first and foremost to God, we will realize its sacredness and also the need to be diligent stewards of it.  If we sincerely love God how could we ever trash the work of God’s hands?  How could we take that which belongs to God and treat it as though it was ours to do with as we please?  Furthermore, if we honor Jesus’ words to love our neighbor as we love ourselves will that not also affect how we view and use the world’s resources?  Our stewardship of the earth starts to look different when we begin to see it as a means of loving others.  The bottom line is no longer what I want or what I can get or how much money I can make off of the earth’s resources.

e_DSC3161I realize it may sound too simplistic but I would argue that if we took Jesus’ words seriously it would result in a much healthier planet.  And perhaps, if we did a really good job of it, we might actually get to hear “heaven and nature sing.”

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above near my home in Henderson, Kentucky.)


Nov 18 2015

Learning From Nature Not to Rush

e_DSC3033“I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” Philippians 4:11

For the most part nature is rather predictable.  It has its rhythms and patterns and they remain more or less consistent.  The tides ebb and flow, the moon goes through its cycle of phases, the sun rises and sets at its appointed times, and the seasons change pretty much on schedule.  There are of course some exceptions along the way.  This time last year we had our biggest snow since I moved to Henderson and winter was still over a month away.  All in all, however, nature follows its steady course year after year.  Uninterrupted, nature has its own pace and doesn’t tend to rush things.

e_DSC3171I believe we would be wise to note this attribute in nature and learn as human beings to not always be in such a hurry.  Nature generally takes things slowly while we seem to want to rush everything.  Years ago the country band Alabama had a song with the refrain “I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.”   That could be the theme song for a lot of us.  Whereas nature takes its time, we want to beat time.  The tendency to rush through life keeps us from living in the moment and from experiencing what God has in mind for us here and now.

ASP0328Right now a lot of people are in a rush to get to Christmas.  As early as Halloween I was seeing Christmas decorations around town.  What’s the hurry?  Especially considering that Thanksgiving is still a week away.  Might we not want to slow down in the coming days to do what the old hymn says and count our blessings?  According to the liturgical calendar Advent does not even begin this year until November 29.  Why the rush to Christmas?  It seems like in so many areas of life it is when we get ahead of ourselves that we get in trouble.  There may well be blessings we will miss if we start focusing on Christmas too soon.

_DSC2191By paying more attention to nature we may hear God telling us to slow down and take it easy.  We might also find the Creator urging us to develop a more “natural” rhythm for our lives, one where we are content to be fully present where we are and not be always rushing to get ahead to somewhere we would rather be.  When I listen to the waves on a beach, look above at the stars in the sky at night, or simply walk through a forest I get the sense that God is calling us to find our place in this world just like the waves, stars, and trees.  I truly believe our peace is in our place and that we will never fully experience the peace God intends for us if we mindlessly rush through life and are always getting ahead of ourselves.  Perhaps I’m wrong about this but I don’t think so.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above at John James Audubon State Park here in Henderson, KY.)

 


Dec 16 2014

Too Much Darkness

e_CES8771It sure does get dark early this time of year in western Kentucky.  That has been one of my major adjustments since moving here and finding myself in the Central Standard Time zone once again.  A lot of people in this area go to work in the dark and when they get off of work it’s already dark again.  Darkness arrives early and it makes the nights seem so very long.  I don’t like it.  It’s depressing.  It messes with my mind.  And for a few more days it’s only going to get worse.  But there’s the good news, it’s only for a few more days.  The winter solstice arrives next week and slowly, but surely, the hours of daylight will lengthen.

It is knowing that the long nights will not last forever that makes them endurable.  When you have hope of longer and brighter days to come you can bear the shorter and darker days.  That hope sustains you.  That hope sees you through.

DV-moonSuch thoughts seem appropriate during the Advent season.   This time of year we remember how long ago God’s people longed for the coming of a Savior and how the prophet Isaiah declared that one day things would be different.  He wrote, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (9:2)  Ironically, it was a great light that led a group of Magi to the one born to be King of the Jews.  Later, when Jesus began his teaching ministry he announced “I am the light of the world.  Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)  In so many ways Jesus did, in fact, bring light to the world.  During Advent we pause to remember how that light made its entrance.

TB-880Advent, however, is more than just a time for looking back and remembering.  It is also a time for looking ahead.  Before Jesus left this world he promised that he would one day return.  That has not happened yet but we live with the confidence and assurance that someday it will.  That is good news, especially in dark days like these.  And here, by dark days, I am not referring to the shortage of daylight.  All you have to do is watch or read the news and it becomes obvious that a deep darkness pervades much of the world.  Scores of innocent children are murdered while they are at school in Pakistan.  Various groups of people suffer regularly from racial injustice.  Thousands die each day from hunger and poverty related illnesses.  Violence raises its ugly head unrelentingly.  Climate change and pollution threaten the lives of millions.  Yes, there’s a lot of darkness out there.

The darkness around us will not last forever however.  A better day is coming.  In fact, there is a time approaching when there will be no more darkness.  That is something that we are promised in Revelation 21:25.  The one who is the Light of the world will prevail and his kingdom will one day be fully established.   In the meantime, followers of Jesus must never forget that he said we, too, are “the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14)  As long as darkness remains in this world we have work to do, we must let our light shine.  Until the Second Advent takes place we are charged to do all we can to dispel the darkness around us.  I need to be a light for you.  You need to be a light for me.  We need to be a light to all those around us.  It’s what the one born in Bethlehem is counting on us to do.  I pray we will not let him down.

–Chuck

(I took the images used above in New Mexico and California.)


Dec 3 2014

Things As They Should Be

RGG3519It is no secret that I love the outdoors.  I think I’m happiest and most at peace when I am in a nice natural setting.  There are lots of reasons for this.  First and foremost, I feel close to God when I’m surrounded by the work of the Creator’s hands.  Second, I delight in the beauty, mystery and variety to be found in Creation.  Third, I feel nature has a lot of lessons to teach us, many of them spiritual in nature.  If you are a regular reader of this blog you know that these are the three themes I tend to focus on most.

SFNF5134Today I thought of another reason why I enjoy being outdoors in nature so much.  There, for the most part, things are as they are supposed to be, things are as God intended.  I don’t find that scenario many other places in my life.  Not in my personal life, not in my church, not in my community, not in my state or country.  In so many areas things are not as they should be but in nature–at least where humans don’t adversely interfere–we see God’s plans being fulfilled day after day.  The mountains, rivers, lakes, valleys, coast or desert do what they are supposed to day after day.  The flora and fauna that live there do the same.  So do the rocks and minerals.  And because nature affords us this rare opportunity to be where things are as they should be I find peace and comfort there.

The reason we don’t see things as they should be in many other arenas is, of course, the fact that we humans have been granted an incredible gift called free will.  We get to choose whether we will live in the way God intended for us or choose a different path.  Apparently God chose to give this gift to us so that our relationship to Him would not be a forced one. (If we have no choice but to love God then it is no longer a relationship based on love.)  Considering all the discord, strife and injury that has resulted from our misuse of free will I can’t help but wonder if God wishes at times He had set things up a different way.  Today the order, harmony, and justice God must have desired is very hard to find.

SFNF4352That’s why it helps me to get out in nature on a regular basis.  I find solace being someplace God’s will is actually done.   Being in nature and observing all of this also serves as a reminder to me (and hopefully others) that things work so much better when we choose to follow God’s plan and purpose for our lives.  It is when we are selfish and greedy that we make bad choices that hurt us, those around us, and Creation itself.

GR4138The good news in all of this is that we can learn from nature and our past mistakes.  We can, in fact, be wiser in the future and strive more diligently to do God’s will.  Jesus taught us to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  He also modeled this when he prayed repeatedly in the Garden of Gethsemane “Not my will but yours be done” to his heavenly Father.  I am convinced that the peace I find in nature can be found elsewhere, but not without our learning to seek first the kingdom of God.   I know I have no control over whether others do this but I do have a good bit of control over whether I do.  And so do you.  As we journey through this Advent season please join with me in praying that God’s will shall be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used above earlier this year on a trip to New Mexico.)


Dec 22 2013

“Man and Beast Before Him Bow”

DSC_0130It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  That means Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas will soon be here.  For a number of reasons this holiday season has been very different for me.  One of the main reasons is my wife and I are still living in temporary housing.  It is a much smaller place than we have been used to and because of that we have done far less decorating than usual.  I won’t lie; I miss not seeing the decorations and trees I’ve been used to seeing for several years.  Still, it has been an enjoyable journey through the weeks of Advent.  More important to me than the decorations of Christmas is the music of this holy season.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of my Christmas CDs are still packed up at my home in Pikeville but I have nonetheless had plenty of opportunities to listen to the carols I love so much.  I don’t mind secular Christmas music but I tend to listen mostly to the songs that actually relate to our Savior’s birth.  So many wonderful songs have been written over the years that help us better grasp the meaning of Jesus’ coming into the world.

DSC_0117For some reason this year I’ve picked up on the number of songs that speak of animals being present at the Bethlehem stable.  It’s interesting how many do this, despite the fact that the Scriptures never directly indicate any were present.  Over the years we have simply assumed if there was a feeding trough, or manger, present for Mary to lay her child in that there must have been animals too.

My wife started collecting pieces of the Willow Tree nativity set a few years ago.  The pieces are not cheap so she’s been trying to add to it each year.  Yesterday I gave her an early Christmas present that included a shepherd from the series, along with a camel and two sheep.  With these additions we now have seven animals in our crèche.  I have to admit I like it better now that it has the additional animals.  It seems to me they belong there.

_CES2529One of the reasons I like the inclusion of animals in nativity scenes is that I believe they are an important part of Creation and that it only seems appropriate that when the Creator entered the world that they would be there to greet him.  The first chapter of John’s Gospel declares that on the first Christmas “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (v. 14)  It also says that “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (v. 3)  How very natural it would be to have both “man and beast” present to welcome the one who made us all.  When you add the apostle Paul’s thoughts found in Romans 8 that through Christ “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”  (v. 21) the presence of animals makes even more sense.  At the stable they could welcome not only their Creator but the one who would bring redemption to all Creation.

The theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is love.  Certainly we focus primarily on God’s love revealed to us through the birth of His Son but hopefully that theme can be broadened to remind us that all of Creation—humans and animals alike—owe Christ their love and adoration.  It may appear as utter nonsense or sentimentality to you but when I envision the animals gathered near the Christ Child I see them offering him just that, their love and adoration.  Their presence also calls me to question whether the rest of us will do the same.  I pray we will.

–Chuck

(I took the top two pictures at Land Between the Lakes and the bottom one here where we are staying.)

 


Dec 15 2013

Where’s the Joy?

Elkmont 184It’s the third Sunday of Advent and today’s theme is joy.   The theme of joy is so special in the Advent calendar that the candle that is lit on this day is not purple like the others but pink.  Joy is certainly a central part of the Christmas story. It was, after all, a song of joy that permeated the skies above Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth.  The angels announced that evening “good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10)  Two thousand years later I can’t imagine going through the season without singing “Joy to the World!”

prairie-dogs-172Still, as I mentioned last week regarding peace, there are times when I cannot help but wonder where that joy is that the angels spoke of and we sing about each year.  Exactly how much joy do you see around you?  How much joy do you find within you?  I believe people want to live joyful lives but this doesn’t seem to be all that common these days.  Why?

BSF-Yahoo-Falls-Years ago I heard someone say that the letters of the word “joy” can help us discover the secret of experiencing joy.  He said the key to joy is putting Jesus first, Others second and Yourself third.  I think there is some truth to this.  When we live our lives selfishly, putting ourselves before Christ and others, it does not lead to happiness or joy.  True joy comes when we live humbly and with proper perspective.  That perspective includes the recognition of the supremacy of Christ and the importance of others.  Unfortunately, you rarely hear this taught.  All forms of media seem to emphasize the importance of putting yourself first.  The fact that so many people have bought into this lie helps explain the absence of joy in a lot of people’s lives.

It is my own experience that I am, indeed, most joyful when I am living the life God has called me to live and serving others.  My joy diminishes in relationship to how much I exert my own will over that of God’s and my own interests over that of others.  Even though I know this to be true, it does not mean that I always live as I should or put others before me.  I fail often and when I do I invariably feel the absence of joy.

Buttermilk-Mountains-flowersI do, in fact, find my greatest joy in my relationship with God and in serving others but I will also acknowledge, as I did last week pertaining to peace, that I find a great deal of joy in God’s Creation.  Time in nature is one of the almost fail-proof sources of joy in my life.   Whether it’s looking at wildflowers, watching wildlife, observing beautiful vistas or contemplating waterfalls I always experience delight and joy in the natural world.  I have a feeling I’m not the only one who has this same experience.  I say that because I sincerely believe that God’s Creation is meant to be a source of joy for each of us.  The sad thing is a lot of people don’t realize this and for that reason miss out on one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

When I raised the question last week, “Where’s the peace?” I answered that for me it’s found primarily in my relationship with God and His Creation.  Today, as I raise the question, Where’s the joy?” I must give the same answer.  So once again I offer thanks for Christ and the world he created,  and also for the joy I find in each.  If you feel the same, I encourage you to give thanks too.

–Chuck

(I took the first image in the Great Smoky Mountains, the second in Wyoming, the third in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest, and the fourth one near Bishop, California.)