Dec 26 2018

Learning from the Trees

I have loved trees since I was a little boy. I grew up playing in the woods and I think that has influenced my affection for trees. Since taking up nature photography over twenty-five years ago, there’s no telling how many trees I’ve photographed. They are one of my favorite subjects. I also have quite a few books on trees. Recently I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. It is a fascinating book and I’m learning a lot about trees in it. And about other things as well.

Early in the book Wohlleben makes the case that trees are social beings. He indicates that they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. He goes on to say there are many advantages to trees working together. Wohlleben writes: “A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.”

Being a pastor, I have to admit that these words made me immediately think about the church. As Christians, we can only survive in community with other believers.   There are so many things we cannot do alone and were never meant to. We are meant to live out our faith with others. We are interdependent. Today a lot of people strive to be independent but this doesn’t work in the community of faith. We need each other, just like the trees do. We cannot afford to look out only for ourselves. Our spiritual lives are truncated and diminished when we isolate ourselves from other believers.  We hurt both ourselves and those around us.

Another important parallel is that just as every tree is valuable to the community or forest and worth keeping around as long as possible, every Christian is valuable to his or her community of faith and worth keeping around as long as possible. The apostle Paul made the same point when he talked about the church being like a body made up of different parts. He said all parts have a role to play and are, therefore, valuable and necessary. (See 1 Corinthians 12:14ff) We need to remember this for a lot of reasons. We must affirm the value of all members in our community of faith. We all need each other if we are going to grow and thrive. We all need each other if we are going to accomplish our purpose as a community of faith. Once again, there simply is no place for isolation in the community of faith.

Jesus encouraged us to “consider the lilies” and to pay attention to the birds. I suspect he would also encourage us to pay attention to the trees around us. They have a lot to teach us.

–Chuck


Jul 8 2015

The “Trembling Giant” and the Church

_DSC7241A couple of years ago Rob and I spent some time photographing at Great Basin National Park in Nevada.  As we got to the end of our time there he asked if I minded if we stopped at the Pando forest in Utah on the way back.  I had never heard of it.  He told me of reading about it in one of Jane Goodall’s recent books and how it is a clonal colony of quacking aspens.  Some researchers believe that it is the earth’s oldest living thing, some 80,000 years old.  Intrigued by this we drove to Fish Lake, Utah, and found the forest.  I say “forest” but in reality it is a single tree with a massive underground root system that has produced what appears to be some 47,000 trees springing from that system.  Standing in the midst of Pando it was hard to comprehend how all we saw was part of one thing.

_DSC7235Yesterday I was reading Rachel Held Evans new book, Searching For Sunday, and came across a chapter where she, too, talks about the Pando forest.  She shares the same basic information above but also indicates that a name has been given to this ancient tree, Trembling Giant.  Rachel then goes on to draw some interesting and pertinent analogies between the Pando and the church.  She notes, “At last count, there are nearly as many denominations in Christianity as there are trees growing from Pando.  Each one looks different—beautiful and broken in its own way—but we all share the same DNA.”  She concludes the chapter with these words: “Our differences matter, but ultimately, the boundaries we build between one another are but accidental fences in the endless continuum of God’s grace.  We are both a forest and a single tree—one big Trembling Giant, stirred by an invisible force.”

I really like Evan’s comparison of the Pando and the church.  It makes sense.  The apostle Paul uses a different analogy than Evans in his Corinthian correspondence to make the same point: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”  (1 Cor. 12:12-13)

_DSC7208The main reason I’m writing about this today is I am very concerned about how polarized things are in Christianity these days.  The way many Christians attack one another you would think we were in the midst of a civil war.  Some Christian groups believe that they have a monopoly on truth and that all others are either not Christians or sub-Christian.  The sources of contention are innumerable but include things like how one views the inspiration of Scripture, the age of the earth, the Second Coming, the sacraments, women in ministry, etc.  If you do not agree with some Christians about any of these, or other matters, you are deemed a heretic or worse.

What is so crazy about this is we are all one Body.  We’re like the trees Rob and I saw at the Pando forest.  What we saw with our eyes appeared to be a bunch of different trees but in reality was one living organism.  There’s no way the various churches or denominations in the world are going to agree on everything.  I’m not even sure they should.  I’m convinced our diversity should be honored and celebrated.  God is bigger than all of us combined so how could any one group get it all right?

_DSC7309I wish somehow, someway, we would quit focusing on what separates us as Christians and concentrate on what we have in common.  As the New Testament boldly affirms “there is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)  Just hours before he was crucified Jesus prayed earnestly that his followers “might be one.” (John 17:21)  I don’t believe he expected us to all be or think exactly alike but we are to live our lives cognizant of the fact that in him we are all one.  Another thing Jesus sought to make clear before his death was that his followers should be known first and foremost by their love for one another.  He said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 35)  My hope and prayer is that followers of Christ will learn to set aside their differences, focus on what they have in common, and actually present a unified witness to the world that is characterized by love.  Is that too much to ask?  Jesus didn’t think so.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown here at the Pando forest in Utah.)


Nov 19 2014

The Roofless Church

_DSC2921This past weekend my wife and I went over to New Harmony, Indiana, to spend the night.  I had visited this historic community once before but was glad for the chance to go back.  New Harmony was the site for two utopian experiments in the nineteenth century.  Although those experiments failed today New Harmony is one of the most spiritual places I’ve ever visited.  I would use the Celtic phrase “thin place” to describe it as the veil separating earth and heaven seems especially thin there.

_CES2121One of the reasons I was looking forward to going back was the fact that I had learned a good bit more about New Harmony, and especially the Roofless Church, in John Philip Newell’s latest book, The Rebirthing of God.  In an early chapter of that book Newell deals at length with the spiritual significance of the Roofless Church and also a particular sculpture found there by the sculptor Jacob Lipchitz called “The Virgin” or “The Descent of the Holy Spirit.”  The Roofless Church, as the name implies, is a church without a roof. It was built by the Robert Lee Blaffer Trust and was dedicated in 1960.  A brochure on the site says the building was created “for an interdenominational church with the concept of one roof, the sky, to embrace all worshipping humanity.” As far as I know no regular services are held in the Roofless Church but it certainly provides a worshipful experience for those who choose to visit it.  It also offers a needed reminder that not all churches or places of worship can be found under a roof.

_CES2074In many ways Creation itself serves as a “roofless church,” or at least it does for me.  I often sense God’s presence when out in the open watching the clouds float by or gazing up into the starry heavens.  Viewing Creation as The Roofless Church reminds us that God cannot be put in a box.  It, better than any building, points to the transcendence of God.

_CES2050Over the years I have been blessed to visit many of the most beautiful churches ever constructed.  I’ve been to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, St. Peter’s in Rome, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Stephen’s in Vienna and the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.  All are majestic and awe-inspiring structures but none compare to the majesty and beauty of Creation.  No ecclesiastical building I have visited or worshiped in draws me into God’s presence the way nature does.  I am certainly grateful for nice roofed churches to worship in but it is the “roofless church” of Creation that I find most conducive for worship.

I wish more people would begin to look at Creation as The Roofless Church.  It might just lead them to worship more often.  It might also motivate them to take better care of this “church.”  In most churches I’ve served the members take great pride in their buildings and go to great length to keep them clean and operable.  If we viewed the earth as The Roofless Church I’d like to think we would offer it more respect and do all we can to keep it clean and healthy.

If you’ve never visited the Roofless Church in New Harmony I hope you get the chance to do so someday.  Even more so, I hope you will begin to view the world around you as The Roofless Church and take advantage of the opportunities it affords you to offer the Creator your worship and praise.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used above at New Harmony last weekend.)


Nov 13 2013

Finding Grace in Nature

AZ-Canyon-de-Chelly-Spider-Rock-(v)There is a scene in the movie, “O God,” where God (played by the cigar smoking George Burns) sends a message to a televangelist and tells him that He’d prefer that he not try to speak for Him anymore.  I have a feeling that the real God would like to send that message to a lot of folks today.  Certainly not everyone who claims to speak for God actually does.  I was reminded of that yesterday when I read a message on Facebook by one of my favorite natural history writers, Craig Childs.  Craig, who has authored numerous award winning books, wrote: I was once in a church where they told me to shun the world of things, the world of decay and physicality. They said to think only of the immortal afterworld, a place I could not see or touch. Even then, I believed they were wrong. I was too in love with wind and rivers and rock.”

CO-Dallas-DivideI wrote a response back to Craig and told him that I was sorry that he had been exposed to such teaching in the church.  I explained to him that I believe the Bible teaches the importance of the earth and that I view it as a source of revelation of God. I mentioned Jesus’ injunction to “consider the lilies” and to “look at the birds.”  He wrote me back and told me that he knew most religions have “a fundamental reverence for nature” and that he believed there were a number of reasons why some people of faith have a sense of “aversion to the corporeal world.”  He then added this line: I imagine the dichotomy reflects the different kinds of people, those who dread this physical world, and those who find divine grace within it.” 

AZ-Glen-Canyon-NM-Horseshoe-Bend-(v)I suspect Craig is right.  Many people do, in fact, dread and/or fear the physical world.  Perhaps they had bad experiences in their childhood or were taught by grownups early on that there is much in nature that is dangerous and to be avoided.  Even worse, they may have been exposed, as was Craig,  to preaching or teaching in some church where the evilness of this physical world was stressed rather than its goodness and holiness.  They may have heard religious leaders declare that our focus should not be on things of this world but on the world to come.  Regardless of the reason for their fear or dread of nature it makes me sad that this is how they approach or see God’s Creation.  I cannot help but believe that their lives would be richer and their experience of God deeper if they could instead “find divine grace within it.” 

Ironically, the three things Childs said he loved—the wind and rivers and rock—were all things Jesus talked about and used to explain spiritual principles.  I get the impression that these were things that Jesus loved as well.  When Craig walked away from that church I suspect he made the better choice and found more grace than had he stayed.

–Chuck

(I took the three images above in the Colorado Plateau area, the region Craig Child writes so eloquently about.  The top one was taken at Canyon de Chelly National Monument, the middle one in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, and the bottom one near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.)


Jul 25 2012

Creation as a House of Worship

“Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him all the earth.” Psalm 96:9

Where do you worship?  Most Christians, when asked this question, would likely answer “At church.”  That response makes sense since we often call churches “houses of worship.”  It’s where we go on Sundays or some other day of the week to worship God.  I have been going to church my entire life and have spent the last thirty-six years serving in churches.  Needless to say, I spend a lot of time “at church.”  Still, I would be the first to admit that church is not the only place where one can or should worship.  Worship ought to be a part of our everyday lives and by no means should it be limited to one set place.

As I have continued my studies of Celtic Spirituality I have been reminded over and over again that Creation itself is a “house of worship.”  In his excellent work, The Book of Creation, Philip Newell says “The Celtic tradition has a strong sense of the wildness of God.  Like nature it is unrestrainable.  A true worship of God, therefore, can neither be contained within the four walls of a sacred building nor restricted to the boundaries of religious tradition.”

Newell points out how the early Celtic Church “was characterized by patterns of worship and prayer under the open skies.”  He adds, “Earth, sea and sky, rather than enclosed sanctuaries, were the temple of God.”  Eventually the Celtic Christians would, indeed, build actual structures to worship in but they always held on to their conviction that “the holy mystery of God is unbounded.” Because God is everywhere we may worship Him anywhere.  That certainly does not mean that joining with other Christians in a church to worship is not necessary.  There will always be a need for corporate worship.  But hopefully we can learn to see Creation as a house of worship too.

In his first letter to Timothy Paul says he wants people “everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer.” (1 Timothy 2:8)  Perhaps this is just his way of saying everybody should worship God but it would seem it might also mean, “wherever you are, worship God.”  Since God deserves far more worship and praise than we can give Him in the limited time we are at church any given week, it would help us to realize that we are always in a house of worship and that wherever we are it is an appropriate place to give God our praise.

–Chuck

(I photographed the three “houses of worship” shown above at Garden of the Gods in Colorado, Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Portage Glacier in Alaska.)