Oct 16 2011

A Spiritual Polarizer

There’s a wonderful filter nature photographers use called a polarizer.  Like polarizing sunglasses they cut glare.  This filter can be useful in a number of different situations.  They can make clouds stand out in a sky, make the colors of fall foliage look more saturated, and removed unwanted glare on subjects.  I used my polarizer to do each of these things on my recent trip to New England.  In the picture you see to the left I used a polarizer to cut the glare on the surface of a tide pool so that the items below would be visible.  Without a polarizer you would not be able to see the subject as clearly, as seen in the image below where the subject is only slighltly polarized. 

In this blog Rob and I talk often about the possibility of seeing God more clearly in Creation.  As I was photographing the tide pools in Acadia National Park I found myself thinking it would be nice if we had some kind of spiritual filter comparable to a polarizer, something that would help us see God below the surface of things.  Perhaps there is such a filter.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)   When our hearts are pure we are able to see through the glare created by sin or impurity and see God much more clearly.

I know it’s not a popular thing to talk about sin but the Bible reveals that sin affects each of our lives.  The apostle Paul said, “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”  (Romans 3:23)  He also indicated that “the wages of sin is death.” (Romans 6:23)  It would appear that another one of sin’s “wages” is glare.  Sin keeps us from seeing God in both Creation and others.  It clouds our vision and prohibits a clear view God.

If we want to see more of God we can help ourselves by dealing with the sin we find in our lives.  We will also benefit by striving for a pure heart, one that is truly focused on Christ.  The result will be a truly “blessed” life, one where we are able to see God where we could not before. 


(I took the three images above last week at a tide pool near Otter Cove in Acadia National Park.)

Jul 17 2011

“Think About Such Things…”

This morning I had a chance to preach a message based on Philippians 4:1-9. Toward the end of this text the apostle Paul challenges his readers not to be anxious about anything and suggests that instead they should pray. This, he was convinced, was one of the pathways to “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding.” After saying this Paul offers another suggestion that will go a long way in helping people deal with worry. He challenged the Philippians to refocus their thinking saying, “whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Paul does not give concrete examples of what to think about, just general categories. For that reason we cannot say with certainty whether he might have considered elements of God’s Creation as genuine options. I would suggest that this is a valid option indeed. In fact, for me personally, I am often able to overcome anxiety by thinking about the flora, fauna and landscapes I have viewed in the past or can see in the present.

I won’t try to give corresponding examples from nature for each of Paul’s generalities but will offer a few illustrations that come to mind. If I want to think of something that is “pure” I cannot think of many things more pure than freshly fallen snow. If I need to think of something “lovely” my mind may take me to Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies, to Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, or perhaps to Wonder Lake looking up at Mt. McKinley. I have been blessed to witness countless examples of loveliness in God’s Creation.

If I want to ponder something that is “admirable” here, too, I have limitless options in nature. I may think of the shape, color and scent of many different wildflowers. I may just as well ponder the height, width, circumference and beauty of myriad trees I have seen. I could just as well dwell on the loyal devotion of many different animal species to their young or perhaps the way various creatures are able to adapt to extreme conditions.

When it comes to thinking of things “excellent or praiseworthy” there is once again no shortage of possibilities. I think now of having watched bald eagles soar across the sky, seeing glaciers calve into the sea, being mystified by the swirls and twirls of the northern lights, or the equally magical twists and turns of the desert Southwest’s slot canyons.

I’m sure when the apostle Paul gave his instructions to the Philippians to think on the various generalities he listed that even if he did have in mind things found in the natural world that he also was thinking of other things as well. I just offer to you the suggestion that in God’s Creation we find many examples of items that are right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy. By focusing on these things we may very well be able to overcome some of the worry or anxiety we all inevitably face in life.

(I took the top image at Lower Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. The middle image was taken at Moraine Lake in the Canadian Rockies, while the sheep were photographed at a friend’s farm in Virginia.)

Mar 13 2011

The Power of God

RL 660The power of nature has certainly been on display in recent days.  The scale of the earthquake in Japan this weekend was of historic proportions and actually moved the country eight feet to the east.  The tsunami that followed caused waves so big and powerful that they traveled six miles inland.  Less than a week ago a volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii erupted shooting lava eighty feet into the air.  In the past week tornadoes have also ripped through a number of communities in the United States and late winter storms have caused some cities to come to a standstill.  Other areas of the country have experienced devastating floods following intense rainfall.  Yes, in a short period of time the incredible power of nature has been made manifest to all.

The power of nature is very humbling to humanity.  In the face of earthquakes, tsunamis, tornados, volcanoes and floods we cannot help but feel small.  If we are wise we will stand in awe of the power and forces of nature.  We will be even wiser if we remember that there is a greater power yet.

RL 674Throughout the Scriptures the powers of nature are acknowledged as being great but there is the consistent affirmation that the power of God, the Maker of heaven and earth, transcends nature’s power.  In Job 38 God reminds Job that it was He who “laid the earth’s foundation” and “marked off its dimensions.”  God goes on to inform Job that it was He who “shut up the sea behind doors when it burst forth from the womb” and that it is He who “cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm.”

The Psalmist was wise enough to acknowledge God’s power and how nature is subservient.  In Psalm 148 he calls on the sun, moon and stars “to praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created.”  He goes on to call on the “hail, snow, clouds and stormy winds” to also give praise to God for “his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.”  In the New Testament the apostle Paul summed things up for us: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…” (Romans 1:20)

RL 692I certainly lament all the loss of life and devastation caused by nature’s power in recent days but as I have watched the images on television of the incredible power found in natural forces I have, likewise, been reminded that God—the Source who brought these powers into existence—is a force even greater.  Remembering this has been a source of comfort to me.  It is good to know that the greatest power that exists is the God of Creation and the same God who has assured us through His Son that He is for us and not against us.  And to quote the apostle Paul once again, “if God be for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31)

In Psalm 46 the Psalmist says “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.  Therefore I will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”   Today I give thanks and offer praise to the Almighty God, “our refuge and strength” and encourage you to do the same.


(I took the images above at Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee.  This lake was formed in 1811-1812 as the result of a tremendous earthquake.  The force of the quake was so great that the Mississippi River actually flowed backwards temporarily.)

Mar 2 2011

“Hope Springs Eternal”

Bernheim-Forest-spring-hIt’s a beautiful day here in eastern Kentucky.  When I took my dog out a few minutes ago the sun was shining brightly, the birds were singing and I could see some trees starting to bud.  I realize that Spring has not technically arrived yet but it’s clear it will soon be here.  As I was walking outside the phrase “hope springs eternal” crossed my mind for some reason.   I couldn’t recall where these words came from so I looked it up.  They were spoken by Alexander Pope in his Essays on Man: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast, man never is, but always to be blest.”

When I found the source I also came across several other wonderful quotations that speak of hope.  Emily Dickenson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tunes without the words and never stops at all.”  A more contemporary writer, Anne Lamott, writes “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come.”  Finally, Charles L. Allen wrote “When you say a situation or a person is hopeless, you are slamming the door in the face of God.”

Hope is a very important part of our lives.  It has been said that humans can live about forty days without food, about three days without water, about eight minutes without air, but only one second without hope.  It is literally true; people do not survive long without hope.

nuthatch-In recent days some things have happened that have gotten me down.  I have been both discouraged and frustrated.  I don’t like being in this state but things happen and this is part of life.  Thankfully, I have learned from God’s “two books,” the book of Creation and the book we call the Bible, that bad times don’t last forever.  Most of the trees in my area are bare right now but soon all will be green.  Nature has many reminders that life goes on; things do not remain the same.  The Bible, likewise, is filled with passages that remind us that with God in our life there are no hopeless situations and that one way or another a better day truly does lie ahead.  The apostle Paul went so far as to say “everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Romans 15:4)

Later in Romans 15 Paul shared a blessing with the church at Rome.  He said, “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.” (v. 13)  That is my prayer for you today as well.  In Creation and the Scriptures I have come to see that Alexander Pope is right, hope really does “spring eternal.”


(I took the top picture one spring at Bernheim Forest in central Kentucky.  I took the image of the nuthatch in my yard when I lived in Middlesboro, Kentucky.)

Jan 9 2011

Fire, Thorns & Grace

BRSP 002At the end of December I spent a few days visiting my in-laws in the panhandle of Florida.  While there I drove over to Blackwater River State Park to do some photography.  The picture above is one I took almost as soon as I entered the park.   This scene caught my eye because of the contrast it presented with my last visit to this park a few years ago.  On that trip this same area had just experienced a prescribed burn.  The longleaf pines that live in this area depend on such fires for survival.   On this most recent visit the forest certainly seemed healthy.   Many people have trouble comprehending how fires can be good for a forest but in situations like this they truly are.

About the same time I visited Blackwater River State Park I was preparing to preach a sermon on the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” mentioned in Second Corinthians 12:7.  We do not know for certain the precise nature of Paul’s “thorn.”  Whatever it was, it was excruciatingly painful.  The Greek word translated “thorn” was used to describe a stake upon which one might be impaled.   Paul prayed three times that God might remove whatever was causing him pain but God chose not to.  He told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Rather than be disheartened by this Paul said that he would boast all the more gladly about his weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on him.

BRSP 045Pain and suffering, like fire in a forest, may seem to be a strange blessing but it can be one nonetheless.  I know of few spiritual giants, past or present, who have not had to suffer much.  Pain and suffering has a way of causing one to turn to and rely on God.  When we do so we discover, like Paul, that God’s grace truly is sufficient.   In our weakness we experience God’s power in ways we might not otherwise. 

I confess that God’s ways are often mysterious.  He can use fires to make forests healthier.  He can use pain and suffering to make us stronger and draw us closer to Him.  He truly is an amazing God!


(The bottom picture shows Blackwater River.  Its dark color is caused by tanins.  It is one of the purest sand-bottom rivers in the country.)

Dec 15 2010

The Outstanding Ornament

_CES2195During Vespers tonight I’ll be leading a study on the third chapter of John’s Gospel.   Here we’ll confront perhaps the most familiar passage in the Bible—John 3:16.  It seems quite appropriate to be looking at this particular verse at Christmas time.  Here John affirms, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  At Christmas we celebrate God’s love and the incredible gift of His Son.

While doing some research for tonight’s study I learned that the Greek word used for “world” in this verse has an interesting background.  Apparently the word originally denoted an ornament.  In his commentary on the Gospel of John Leon Morris writes, “The universe with all its harmonious relationships is the outstanding ornament, and thus the term came to be used of the universe at large.” 

_CES2310Some biblical scholars question whether the use of the word “world” in John 3:16 includes the planet earth; they claim that it refers only to human beings.  I see no reason why God’s redeeming love would not include the entire cosmos as well.  In Romans 8 the apostle Paul speaks of “the hope that creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” (v. 21)  God’s gift of His Son was intended for all the world, not just humans; His saving love is extended to all of Creation.

Recognizing God’s love for Creation is important.  If God loved the world so much He was willing to give His only Son for it, then we too should love the world.  This love will include caring for this planet we call home.  Like precious ornaments we place on our Christmas trees must be handled carefully the ornament called “the world” must be tenderly cared for and protected.  God’s love for the world resulted in its salvation spiritually; our love for the world will help save it in other important ways.


(The junco and cardinal I photographed at my house this week also seem like ornaments on trees.)