“See to it that no one misses the grace of God.” Hebrews 12:15
Last night I started reading Max Lucado’s newest book, Grace. On the very first page Lucado writes: “Grace is God’s best idea. His decision to ravage a people by love, to rescue passionately, and to restore justly—what rivals it? Of all his wondrous works, grace, in my estimation, is the magnum opus. Friendship is next. Friends become couriers of grace, conduits of heaven’s grace.” I concur with what Max says; grace truly is “God’s best idea.” God’s grace is amazing! I would also have to agree that friendship is another one of God’s best ideas. I cannot imagine living my life without the friends God has blessed me with.
As I read the first few chapters of the book last evening I found myself thinking about how God’s grace is revealed in Creation. In fact, I pondered how the creation of the world was an act of grace. Grace is often defined as “God’s unmerited favor” and surely we can see God’s favor written all over Creation. The fact that we did not merit or deserve what God has provided goes without saying.
I believe that beauty itself is an act of divine grace. Everything that God created has a purpose; it is there for a reason. But why did God throw in so much beauty into the mix? Grace. As a God of grace and love God chose to make many things not just useful but beautiful. While the various aspects of nature fulfill their purpose we get to find pleasure and enjoyment from them. Trees and flowers are good examples. So are clouds and rivers and birds. You could go on and on. Everywhere we look we find God’s grace made manifest.
The air we breathe is a gift of God. The sun that gives us light and warmth is a gift of God. The rain that falls to the earth is a gift of God. The moon and stars that brighten the night are a gift from God. Every plant (even those some call “weeds”) and every animal (large or small) is a gift from God. God did not have to create any of these. So why did He? Grace.
Yes, I know that the clearest revelation of God’s love and grace is found in the gift of His Son, Jesus Christ, but we will miss so many examples of God’s amazing grace if we fail to see and recognize that same grace revealed in the world His Son created. Feeling the need for a little more grace today? Just look around you.
(Having been inspired by my friend Stan Burman’s pictures from Colorado this past week I decided to illustrate today’s blog with some images I took with him in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado a few years ago. I took the top image at Kebler Pass and the bottom two at Owl Creek Pass.)
Over the years I’ve heard people say to others about a deceased loved one, “Don’t you know he (or she) is smiling down upon you now?” These words are usually spoken after someone has accomplished something and are meant to be comforting to the person who receives them. Theologically, I’m not even sure such a thing is possible. Can those in heaven really see what we’re up to? I find that unlikely. Still, I understand the sentiment. There are times I’d like to think that my father or grandmothers were looking at me and had a smile on their face. I’d like to think they were pleased with who I am and what I have done with my life.
Although I have serious doubts about my deceased loved ones being able to “smile down upon me” I do believe God does that all the time. When we see loved ones we cannot help but smile and since we have it on good biblical authority that God loves each and every one of us immensely, then how can we not picture God smiling when He looks at us? O, I know some think God is more likely to have a frown on His face when He looks at them but they simply don’t understand God’s love and grace. By sending Jesus Christ God made it clear once and for all that we are loved. (John 3:16) For me that is proof enough that God smiles when He looks at me.
But there is more proof waiting. Robert Underwood Johnson, a close friend of John Muir, once wrote “To some, beauty seems but an accident of creation: to Muir it was the very smile of God.” I’ve read enough of Muir’s writings to know that this is true. Muir saw God’s love in all of His Creation and marveled that others did not see it there as well.
If we accept the concept of beauty being “the very smile of God” then we must conclude that God is not only “smiling down upon us” but smiling all around us too. In beautiful trees and flowers, rivers and lakes, mountains and valleys, birds and butterflies, in all beauty, we experience the smile of God. In these same things we experience the love of God.
I mentioned earlier that it would be nice to think my father or grandmothers were smiling down upon me, but even better is the thought that my heavenly Father smiles upon me. And if Muir is right, and I believe that he is, then we have countless reminders all around us every day that we are loved. Those reminders should bring us much comfort and joy. I would even dare say that those reminders should bring a smile to our own face for in the presence of so much love and beauty how could it not?
(I took the magnolia blossom image at my home in Kentucky; the redwood trees in California, and the chukar in Hawaii.)
Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote, “I don’t see why I am always asking for private, individual, selfish miracles when every year there are miracles like white dogwoods.” After spending quite a bit of time this past week photographing the white blossoms on the magnolia tree in our yard, I can see how Lindbergh wrote what she did. The magnolia blossom is a wondrous delight to behold from a distance but an even greater joy to look at close up. As I pointed my macro lens at a single blossom (all of the pictures shown here were taken of the same flower) I found myself amazed at its outstanding beauty. In fact, I wondered how one tree could produce so many exquisite flowers.
I also have to admit that while photographing this blossom I sensed the presence of God. Maybe it was the flower’s white color, symbolizing purity and holiness. Maybe it was the cone’s golden color, representing royalty. Or perhaps it was simply the overall beauty of the flower itself. I am convinced that there is a connection between God and beauty.
I am certainly not the only one who has felt this connection. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting—a wayside sacrament.” Gabriela Mistral said something similar; she said beauty “is the shadow of God on the universe.” In the magnolia blossom it is easy to see God’s handwriting, not difficult at all to sense the shadow of God.
Long ago Confucius noted “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” I suspect he is right. Most people would likely acknowledge that magnolia flowers are beautiful, but I’m not sure they can know just how beautiful without doing what I did—getting close to them and carefully observing their features. Even with magnolia blossoms it takes some effort and time to truly appreciate their beauty. In other things their beauty might not be obvious at all, but if we will take the time to look closely at them and study their purpose, we will come to see the beauty that is inherent in each thing God has created.
No one ever said “seeing Creation” is easy work (at least, I don’t think they have). It is instead a spiritual discipline that requires much effort and a good deal of time. It is, however, worth the effort because it enables one to see the beauty that lies in everything. It is worth the effort because it allows us to read God’s handwriting and sense His shadow on the universe. I plan to keep working on seeing Creation and I hope you will as well.
In Psalm 139 you find these words: “Thou has enclosed me behind and before, and laid Thy hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from Thy Spirit? Or where can I flee from Thy presence? If I ascend to heaven, Thou art there; if I make my bed in Sheol, behold, Thou art there. If I take the wings of the dawn, if I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, even there Thy hand will lead me, and Thy right hand will lay hold of me. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,’ even the darkness is not dark to Thee, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Thee.” (vs. 5-12)
I thought of these words yesterday as I walked through Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. It was my first visit to this famous cave and I have to admit I was very impressed. Both the size and beauty of Carlsbad Caverns is awe-inspiring. I constantly found myself amazed by the work of the Creator’s hand. I also found myself sensing His presence. Far below the earth’s surface I realized that what the Psalmist wrote about long ago is true; there is nowhere you can go to escape God’s presence. His love and grace follow us wherever we go. I concur with the Psalmist, “such knowledge is too wonderful to me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it.”
One of the things that crossed my mind while touring the cave was that all of this beauty existed long before any human being entered it. I cannot believe that it was made beautiful eons ago just so humans could one day enjoy looking at it. I am more inclined to believe that God Himself delights in beauty and, as I have written about recently, He created it for Himself.
Each day when the tourists leave the caverns the lights are all turned off. It is so dark you could not see your hand if you placed it in front of your face. That is the cave’s natural state. Without the artificial light’s illumination no one can enjoy the cave’s beauty, no one but God that is. The Psalmist declared that “darkness and light are alike” to God. He can, and I am confident does, enjoy His handiwork without any light whatsoever. When I ponder these things I cannot help but offer praise and adoration to my God and Savior.
Towards the end of the tour we came upon a formation with the name “Rock of Ages.” I couldn’t help but think how appropriate it was that someone named such a glorious formation this. I hope those who see it will make the connection to the hymn of the same title. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ truly is the Rock of Ages and for that I am eternally grateful.
(I took these images yesterday at Carlsbad Caverns. The bottom image shows the formation, “Rock of Ages.”)
This past Sunday Pat O’Hara and I stopped by the visitor center at Acadia National Park. Along the path to the center there are a number of interpretive signs. One in particular caught my eye because it included my favorite saying by John Muir. (You can see a portion of the sign above.) As I read the quote I told Pat “There’s something missing.” For some reason the National Park Service chose to leave out the words “and pray in”. Those words belong where you see the “…”. Pat suggested we type the missing words and tape them on the sign. Perhaps we should have.
It does bother me that the the three words are missing. It bothers me because I feel just as strongly as John Muir did that the beauty of Creation is meant to lead us into communion with God. I feel that places of beauty are conducive to prayer. They certainly are for me.
This week as I have enjoyed the beauty of Acadia National Park I have found myself time and time again offering praise to my Creator for the wonders of nature. I have felt close to my Savior as I’ve walked the trails and stood upon the rocks overlooking the ocean. I have uttered the words “Thank you, Lord” countless times. Yesterday I spent some time at Otter Cove upon the recommendation of Rob. As I sat on the rocks I felt as though God were telling me that He was my Rock of refuge, my strong foundation, and the source of my strength. I was reminded that Christ is the “solid rock upon which I stand” and that “all other ground is sinking sand.” The beauty of Otter Cove ushered me into a sweet time of prayer.
There’s just something about natural places of beauty that move me spiritually, and I know I am not the only one. Muir was exactly right; we all need such places “to play in and pray in.” We need “places where nature
may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul.” That is one reason why I am such a supporter of our national parks and wilderness areas. We need them not just to protect ecosystems, wildlife and unique geographical locations but so that we might have a place to retreat to–beautiful places where we can feel God’s nearness and pray.
I really don’t know why the National Park Service felt it necessary to remove the three words from Muir’s quote. Perhaps it was an effort to be “politically correct,” though I hardly think many, if any, would find the words offensive. Regardless, their omission did not lessen my inclination to pray in Acadia National Park and I would like to think that will be true for others as well.
(I took the bottom two pictures yesterday at Otter Cove in Acadia National Park.)
“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it…” Psalm 24:1
After posting my blog, “Spirituality and Beauty,” this past Sunday I got an e-mail from my good friend, Kenny Faught, who in response to what I had written shared a wonderful story. He wrote: “The post today reminded me of when I was a pastor in Cumberland, KY. An older pastor was with us for the week holding a revival meeting. One day we were walking a trail at Kingdom Come State Park when I realized he had ‘fallen behind’. I did an about-face and walked back to him. He was cradling a tiny flower in his hands, and asked, ‘Do you know why this tiny flower blooms way out here where it will likely never be seen? To the glory of God!’”
This “older pastor” realized something that many of us tend to forget. It’s not all about us. We tend to judge the worth or value—and even beauty—of things by how they affect us. If we benefit from the object or find it pleasing we give it value. If we do not find or see a personal benefit, or do not find it pleasing, we do not consider the object to be of much value or worth.
When Rob and I were photographing in Redwood National Park a couple of months ago we walked a trail in the Lost Creek area. Along the trail there were lots of wildflowers. I suspect most people would have considered the columbine we saw to be quite beautiful. On the same trail we also saw several banana slugs. Here my suspicion is that most people would not have considered this creature beautiful and might even call it “disgusting.” Why? Both are creations of God. Both have their place in the natural world.
Perhaps it is just part of being human that we judge everything from our own particular position. As Christians, however, we must recognize that the world should be viewed from God’s perspective. A lot of folks today need to experience a new “Copernican Revolution.” Copernicus turned the world upside down when he discovered that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around. I think it would turn our world upside down today as well if more of us could come to realize that the world does not revolve around us. The “older pastor” was right; the world exists for “the glory of God!”
I encourage you to give some thought to how you might view things differently if you sought to look at the world through God’s eyes rather than your own. I also encourage you to consider how this might affect how you treat the earth and its resources. If the earth truly is the Lord’s, as the Psalmist indicated, and it exists for His glory, I cannot help but believe that it will, indeed, make a difference in how we see and treat Creation.
(I photographed the columbine and banana slug in June on the trail described above.)