Apr 20 2014

The Promise of Resurrection

“Our Lord has written the promise of resurrection, not in books alone, but in every leaf in springtime.” –Martin Luther

_DSC3338I love Easter.  To me there is no more glorious day of the year.  Even more, I love the message of Easter.   It is good news—incredibly good news—every single day of the year.  I am thankful for Easter’s message that death does not have the final word.  That is important to me.  I am also thankful for Easter’s message that as the risen Lord Christ is able to be with me at all times and in all places.  That, too, is important to me.  There is yet another message of Easter that I love and treasure.  That is God’s ability to bring good out of the worst of situations.  I am convinced that this is God’s specialty.   What an amazing God it is who can take what happened on Good Friday and turn it into the most wonderful thing that has ever occurred!  God took what certainly looked like a great defeat to the world and made it become a victory like no other.  And the good news is God continues to do the same kind of thing in the lives of people like you and mine.

_DSC3334 flippwsTime and time again I have seen God take bad situations in my life or that of others and use those bad situations to bring good from them.  I’ve seen God do that when people have lost loved ones, when their marriages failed, when they lost jobs, when they sought to end their lives, when injuries were sustained, and when all hope was lost.  Easter reminds us that there is nothing that God cannot use to bring about good, if only we let Him and give Him time to do so. Countless times it has been my faith in God’s ability to do this which has enabled me to hang on.  It has been the hope I have encouraged others to hold on to on many an occasion.

_DSC1403What this hope is, of course, is nothing less than “the promise of resurrection.”  God’s resurrection power was not available to only Jesus.  The Bible makes it clear that this power is the possession of all of God’s children. (Philippians 3:10)  We just need to be reminded of this from time to time.  So perhaps that’s what spring is all about.  As Martin Luther indicated, “in every leaf in springtime” we find a reminder of the promise of resurrection.  I thought about that this morning when I drove into the church parking lot.  Earlier this winter I had photographed a dogwood bud encased in ice right next to our parking lot.  This morning that bud was a beautiful flower.  It had not only survived the cold dark winter, it was thriving.  It was alive.

On this Easter Sunday I encourage you to rejoice in and give thanks for the glorious resurrection of Christ our Lord.  I also ask you to keep in mind that the good news of Jesus’ resurrection is not ancient history.  It is as fresh as the blossoms you see around you today.

–Chuck

(I took the top two images this morning and the bottom one from the same tree in February.)


Mar 29 2014

Sharon’s Harvest

_CES4270I participated in another funeral today.  The woman who died, Sharon Cates, was a remarkable person on numerous levels.  Sharon was a retired school teacher and someone very involved in both her church and community.  For the past 22 years she was a full-time farmer.  She took over the farm when her husband died at a young age.  She expanded the farm and became, as noted in her obituary, an “advocate for local farmers, caretaker of the land, and passionate in teaching children and youth about agriculture with her vegetable garden, corn maze, and pumpkin patch.”  Sharon was also a champion for the poor and a strong supporter of missions.  It came as no surprise to me that our church was completely packed this morning for her funeral service.

_CES7414Jesus once told a parable about a sower who went out to sow seeds. (Mark 4:1-20)  In his story the scattered seeds fell on a variety of surfaces.  Some fell on the hardened path, some on rocky places, some among thorns and some on good soil.  Jesus indicated that how the seed responded was directly related to the surface on which it fell.  Some of the seed died quickly, some began to grow but withered due to shallow soil, some tried to grow but were choked by the weeds, while the seed that landed upon good soil produced an abundant harvest.  For some reason Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand the meaning of his parable so he had to go on and explain it to them.  He told them that the sown seed was “the word,” or what we might call the gospel.  The various surfaces were examples of people’s response to the word. In the end it was only those who heard the word and accepted it that were able to produce a crop—“thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.”

Since Sharon’s death a few days ago I have thought about Jesus’ parable a number of times.  It is quite obvious to me which type of soil she was—she was good soil, very good soil.  The gospel permeated Sharon’s life and it produced a remarkable harvest.  I saw that in her work at the church.  I saw it in her work on the farm.  I saw it in her work in the community.  I saw it in the way she bravely fought a long battle with cancer.

_CES8928Sharon’s farm produced what many would consider the best vegetables in Henderson County.  I know vegetables were her focus but when I think about her real harvest I think of fruit—the fruit of the Spirit.  In Galatians 5:22-23 the apostle Paul wrote “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”   These are the things I saw produced in Sharon’s life and they are the things I will remember her for.

Today I not only thank God for Sharon’s example, I am challenged by it.  In the lives of all of us who claim to be Christians there should be a great harvest.  In each of our lives there should be an abundance of the fruit of the Spirit.  Our time here on earth really ought to count and make a difference.  In the future when I pause to think about the difference one person can make, one of the persons whose life I will have to consider is Sharon Cates.  Her body, like a seed, now rests in the ground but I have a feeling the life she lived will continue to produce a harvest for years to come.

–Chuck

(I took each of the above pictures in Henderson County.  Unfortunately, none of them were taken at the Cates Farm.)


Feb 23 2014

Through the Eyes of Love

_DSC0672In the book, Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, you will find a prayer penned by Brian McLaren.  I’ve been reading Brian’s books for a number of years and have had a chance to hear him speak a couple of times.  I know he shares with me a common love for God and nature so I was excited to discover this prayer recorded in Holy Ground.  The prayer is too long to include in its entirety here but I do want to share the final portion of it with you:

_DSC1522“We thank you, God,  for speaking to our world through Jesus.  He told us that,  just as you care for every sparrow, you care for us.  He reminded us that you give the wildflowers their natural beauty and you wish to clothe us with beauty in a similar way.  He taught us that wisdom is hidden in the growth of the smallest seed, in the turning of seasons, in every corner of your amazing creation.  He taught us to see every creature as beloved by you, God our Creator, and he called us to live with your love pulsing in our hearts.  So let us learn to see and love this good Earth as Jesus did, and to care for it and enjoy it and rejoice in it, so that the Earth may indeed be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”

I like the way Brian summarizes Jesus’ teachings in this prayer but there is something else here that caught my attention.  It is found in his last petition where he prays that we might “see and love this good Earth as Jesus did.”  Needless to say we talk a lot on this site about seeing Creation and also about loving it but I’m not sure I’ve ever given much thought to how Jesus actually saw and loved it.  Obviously, as Brian makes clear, Jesus saw Creation as a source of God’s revelation, but how did the world look to Jesus through his own eyes?

_DSC0408I suspect that Jesus saw far more than we tend to.  I imagine, for example, that he noticed the small and “ordinary” things of nature that we often pass right by without a second glance.  I can picture Jesus taking the time to soak in the beauty that surrounded him and meditating on what he saw.  No doubt Jesus looked at the flora and fauna, the geography and geology, about him with an understanding like no one else who has ever lived.  Ultimately, however, it’s hard for me to imagine just how Jesus looked at the world.  Here’s why…

_DSC0752In the Prologue to John’s Gospel we are told both that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” and that “through him all things were made.” (1:14, 1:3)  It is impossible for me to comprehend the Word (God) becoming flesh; to try to grasp what it was like for the Creator to live in and look at the Creation is equally impossible.  I would imagine, however, that Jesus looked upon His own handiwork with great delight.  What he had created “in the beginning” as “good” was still good.  Perhaps the joy he felt in making all things was renewed and experienced again as he looked upon it all through human eyes.  The one thing I believe I can say with certainty is that Jesus saw the world he had created through the eyes of love.

I doubt that it is fully possible for us to see the earth as Jesus did but I know that if I could I would be even more grateful for it than I am now and would not be able to look at anything without wonder and awe.  It would be love at first sight, and second sight, and third sight…  As Brian McClaren prayed, I think I would also “care for it and enjoy it and rejoice in it” in ways I’ve not yet done.  For that reason I intend to make Brian’s prayer my own and encourage you to do the same.

–Chuck

(I took the four images above recently at a county park near my home.)


Feb 19 2014

The Two Books’ Purpose

HS5339Not long ago, while reading James B. Hunt’s book on John Muir’s 1000 mile walk to the Gulf called Restless Fires, I was reminded of a delightful story concerning Muir’s encounter with a blacksmith in Tennessee.  When the two met the blacksmith asked Muir what he was doing in that area.  In the journal Muir kept on his journey he recorded the words that followed: “I replied that I was looking at plants.” “Plants?  What kind of plants?”  “Oh, all kinds; grass, weeds, flowers, trees, mosses, ferns,–almost everything that grows is interesting to me.” “Well, young man…you mean to say that you are not employed by the Government on some private business?”  “No, I am not employed by anyone except just myself.  I love all kinds of plants, and I came down here to these Southern States to get acquainted with as many of them as possible.”

The blacksmith found it hard to believe that someone would walk all that way just to study plants.  He told Muir, “You look like a strong-minded man, and surely you are able to do something better than wander over the country and look at weeds and blossoms.  These are hard times, and real work is required of every man that is able.  Picking up blossoms doesn’t seem to be a man’s work at all in any kind of times.” 

fog-in-Cumberland-Gap-hMuir knew the blacksmith was a religious man and eventually asked him, “You are a believer in the Bible are you not?”  The blacksmith readily admitted he was.  At that point Muir reminded him how King Solomon had studied and collected plants and how Jesus told his disciples to “consider the lilies.”  Muir then asked, “Now, whose advice am I to take, yours or Christ’s?  Christ says, ‘Consider the lilies.’  You say, ‘Don’t consider them.  It isn’t worthwhile for any strong-minded man.’”  Looking at things that way the blacksmith had to admit that Muir had a point and perhaps his study of plants was worthwhile.

Muir did indeed have a point.  The study of Creation is not idle work.  Instead, it is important work for those who long to know God through both of His books—the Scriptures and the Creation.  I have written often about Creation being God’s “other book.”  I remain convinced it is just that.  I also believe that like the Bible itself, one must diligently study “God’s other book” in order to trove its treasures and discern its deepest lessons.

fern-gardenI have literally thousands of books in my study.  A large portion of these pertain to the Bible, theology, preaching, ethics, pastoral care, church history, and spirituality.  There are, however, also hundreds of books in my library on natural history.  I have field guides that cover all areas of North America.  I have books on specific animals and plants.  In my library you will find all kinds of resources for better understanding God’s other book.  For me personally, my theological library would be incomplete without them.  In their own way they, too, help me better understand God and His works. Having said that I will hasten to add that having such a collection of books as those you will find in my library does not do me much good if I do not go on to personally experience the God they point to.  Knowing about God and actually knowing God are two different things.  Learning about God through the Bible and Creation is great but it is of limited value unless it also enables one to experience the God both the Bible and Creation point to.

John Muir knew both the Scriptures and the book of Creation well.  You cannot read his writings without coming to the conclusion that he also knew God well.   I intend to follow in his steps and hope you will as well.

–Chuck

(I took the top picture at Henderson Sloughs W.M.A., the middle image at Cumberland Gap N.H.P., and the bottom one at Pine Mountain State Park in Kentucky.)

 


Jan 26 2014

Are Natural Disasters “Acts of God?”

lightningI enjoy music.  I have a rather eclectic leaning, enjoying quite a variety of musical genres.  Still, because of my roots and faith I enjoy church music most.  I listen to both contemporary Christian music and hymns.  Each has a way of moving and inspiring me.  At times, however, I do get distracted by the words.  Part of this is due to my educational background; I spent ten years in graduate school studying theology.  For that reason I listen carefully to the words and sometimes find myself refuting them.  This happened recently when I was singing with a group at church Chris Tomlin’s song Indescribable.  I like Chris Tomlin and also this particular song.  I’ve even used it for one of my multi-media presentations.  But there is one line in the song that really bothers me.  It says God is the one “who has told every lightning bolt where it should go.”  When I sang those words the other night I couldn’t help but cringe for not all that long ago a beautiful and historic church in a nearby town was destroyed by lightning.  I asked the lady sitting next to me if she could imagine how the folks at that church might feel singing those words.  Does God actually aim lightning bolts at certain objects intentionally.  I prefer to think not.

Even in the wonderful hymn I wrote about in my last blog, Isaac Watts’ We Sing Your Mighty Power, O God, we read the words “clouds arise, and tempests blow, by order from your throne.”  Are we to read into these words that when a huge arctic blast covers half of America that this storm was ordered from God’s throne?  Once again, I prefer to think not.

Paducah-storm-cloudsI remember even when I was young having problems with the idea that earthquakes, tornadoes, floods and hurricanes could be considered “acts of God” by insurance agents.  If something bad happened from one of these natural disasters to a person’s home or to a community God got the blame.  It was almost like we all needed insurance just in case God got mad at us and ordered a natural catastrophe.  Is God that fickle and ill-tempered that we must buy insurance to protect ourselves from His fury?  One more time, I prefer to think not.

Actually, in the end it isn’t that I prefer not to think any of these things, I refuse to.  It is in the Scriptures that we come to understand who God is and nowhere is this revelation clearer than when we focus on Jesus.  Jesus once said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14:9) implying that we are to understand who God is by looking at him.  Now according to the New Testament it was Christ who created the world (John 1:3; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Colossians 1:15-16) and he is also the one who sustains it (Colossians 1:17).  If that is indeed true then we can also see that it is highly unlikely that God intentionally sends earthquakes, hurricanes or other natural disasters on innocent, or even not so innocent, people.  That is not something we see Jesus doing during his time on earth.

Bisti 444When we do look at Jesus’ actions we see that his intentions were always to help people, not hurt them.  Everything that Jesus did was based on love.  At one point he was asked by a pair of his disciples if he wanted them to send fire down on a village that had not welcomed him.   Luke tells us that Jesus rebuked them for even asking. (9:56)  That was not his style then.  It is not his style today.

Some have claimed that the various natural disasters I’ve mentioned are the result of evil and not God.  Personally, I have no problem affirming that even things like tornadoes and earthquakes were part of God’s original plan.  All of the “natural disasters” I wrote of earlier have helped form and shape Creation one way or another.  They are “natural wonders” that have served useful and good purposes throughout the ages.  It is just when they affect human life that we tend to see them as disasters.

Hopefully in our conversations and in our songs we can come to affirm both the goodness of God and His Creation while at the same time refraining from the implication that God is behind every lightning bolt that strikes and every storm that rages.  God does in fact rule the universe but it is a rule based first and foremost on love.  If it isn’t an act of love it is not an “act of God.”

–Chuck

(I took the top image near Page, AZ, the middle one in Paducah, KY, and the bottom on in the Bisti Wilderness of N.M.)


Dec 29 2013

The Holly and the Ivy

_CES2786It’s the Fifth Day of Christmas.  I actually enjoy these quieter, less hectic, days of the Christmas season.  There are far fewer distractions and that makes it easier for me to focus on the true reason for Christmas.  There is so much to contemplate when it comes to the Incarnation.  I will never be able to fully grasp the significance of what it meant and means for God to take on human flesh.  I do know, however, that if we focus only on the Christ Child and not the one who would lay down his life for us thirty three years later we miss out on the most important part of the story.  We may like to  focus on the baby in the manger but we must also keep in mind that this child was born to die, to die for you and me.

On December 1 my church had a Hanging of the Greens service.  I had never participated in one, much less led one, so I had to do a good bit of research.  I was surprised by some of the things I discovered.  I knew that the use of holly was commonplace in decorations during the Christmas season but did not know exactly why.  What I learned was that holly and ivy have long been considered signs of Christ’s Passion. Their prickly leaves suggested the crown of thorns, the red berries the blood of the Savior, and the bitter bark the drink offered to Jesus on the cross.

_CES2808I’ve known for a number of years that there was a Christmas carol called “The Holly and the Ivy” but had not paid any attention to the words.  The tune was familiar to me but not the lyrics.  The words to the song point us just as much to the Cross of Jesus as to his manger: The holly and the ivy, when they are both full grown, of all the trees that are in the wood, the holly bears the crown. The holly bears a blossom as white as lily flower, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to be our sweet Savior. The holly bears a berry as red as any blood, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ to do poor sinners good.  The holly bears a prickle as sharp as any thorn, And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ on Christmas Day in the morn. The holly bears a bark as bitter as any gall, and Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ for to redeem us all.”

The use of holly each Christmas now makes sense to me.  Learning all of this, it will be hard for me to not look upon holly bushes the same in the future.  When I see the thorns and red berries I will remember Christ’s love for us revealed at the Cross.  The denomination I am a part of—The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)—happens to practice weekly Communion.  Every Sunday the bread and the wine point us to the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross.  I am very thankful that now I have another reminder, one found in nature.  For those with eyes to see the beautiful holly points us to the greatest love and sacrifice of all.

–Chuck

(I took these images at my home in Pikeville, KY.)