Oct 22 2015

“The Right Place”

f_DSC0464If you’re a longtime reader of this blog you know I am a big fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Whenever she publishes a new book I find cause for celebration.  Last week I celebrated the release of her newest collection of poems, Felicity.  You can easily read through this book in one sitting but I wouldn’t suggest that.  Oliver’s poems are to be savored and contemplated.  I especially like the ones where her love for nature and God merge.

f_DSC0415One of the poems in this new collection is called “Leaves and Blossoms Along the Way.” It begins, “If you’re John Muir you want trees to live among. If you’re Emily, a garden will do.  Try to find the right place for yourself.  If you can’t find it, at least dream of it.”  I like the idea of trying to find “the right place” for you.  Muir did, Emily Dickenson did, and so can you and I.  It’s interesting how different people are drawn to various landscapes or things.  We do not all connect to the same thing but it seems as though we all connect to something in the natural world.  How could we not?  I connect to a lot of things.  I no longer live near mountains but I will always love them.  I will visit them when I can.  And when I can’t, I can always dream.  Thankfully, I also find a connection with trees and there are lots of wonderful trees in my area, some right outside my door.  These trees offer me a special connection with God’s Creation.  What is your right place?

f_DSC9745Later in this poem Oliver writes “God, or the gods, are invisible, quite understandable. But holiness is visible, entirely.”  Here the poet makes a wise observation.  We are not able to see God with our eyes; for many reasons that is just not possible.  Still, we are able to see a reflection of the divine, God’s holiness, in a variety of places.  Certainly it can be seen in some special people from time to time but God’s holiness is always evident in the Creation. “In the beginning” a holy God spoke the world into existence and declared it good (Genesis 1).  That world, the parts not marred by humankind, is still good and bears witness daily to the holiness of its Maker.  For me, holiness is most readily seen in God’s handiwork.  It is through God’s Creation that I can visibly see the invisible God’s holiness on a regular basis.

In many parts of the country this is the peak season for fall foliage. I hope you will make a special effort to take a close look at and enjoy the delightful colors of autumn.  As you do so, make sure to offer a word of thanks to the Creator for this annual display of divine holiness.  Wherever you happen to be, make it the “right place” to commune with God.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above on my recent trip to central California.)


Jul 18 2015

Thank God for Parks!

_DSC6560I have had the chance the past couple of days to spend time wandering around and photographing Cuyahoga Valley National Park. This amazing park is located just south of Cleveland, Ohio. I visited here a couple of years ago and jumped at the opportunity to come back when I had to come up this way for our denominational meeting. This national park started out as a National Recreation Area in 1974.  It was made a national park in 2000. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is a gorgeous natural area. It has a river that runs through it, marshlands, forests, waterfalls, lakes and lots of wildlife. The area also has a rich cultural history.

_DSC6674One of the things that I’ve been impressed with on this trip is the many ways people make use of the park. Lots of people make use of the Towpath Trail. This wide path follows the historic Ohio and Erie Canal route. On it you’ll find people of all ages running, riding a bike, or just taking a leisurely stroll. There is also a train you can ride through the park. In some of the park’s lakes I saw people fishing. I’ve also noticed a number of horse trails. And then, of course, there are folks like me who find the park a great place to capture images of God’s beautiful and awesome Creation.

_DSC6695As I’ve traveled around the park the last couple of days I have found myself giving thanks that we have places like this in our country. Anyone who knows me is aware that I am a huge fan of our national park system. I have spent the last twenty-three years visiting and photographing as many of them as I can. A lot of our national parks are located in isolated areas and people have to travel a good bit to get to them. Cuyahoga Valley National Park is unique in that it is located in an urban area. This park is easily accessible to a large number of people. From what I can see, lots of people from this part of the country take advantage of this treasure. Good for them!

On the official park map/brochure there is a quote by James Snowden Jackson that says, “I have admired the rugged fiords of Norway and the bald peaks of Yosemite. But I gain strength each day at home from the beauty of our own Cuyahoga Valley.”  For some reason this reminds me of my favorite John Muir passage: “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”  I’m sure there are some that would have preferred to see the Cuyahoga Valley developed instead of preserved as a national park but this area and our country is richer because it has been set aside and protected.

_DSC6838Obviously not every community can have a national park nearby but thankfully most cities and towns do have local parks, or perhaps even a state park close by. I feel very blessed to have John James Audubon State Park just a mile from my home. The city of Henderson, Kentucky, where I live has a number of delightful parks and Henderson County does as well. These parks are not just places for recreational activities, they are as Muir indicated, places where we can spend time with God and experience nature’s healing powers.  More and more studies are revealing the health benefits of just being outdoors. I believe there are spiritual benefits as well.

If you have a park close to where you live I hope that you will take advantage of it and visit it frequently. If you don’t I hope you get one someday. Wherever we live, regardless of whether there is a park nearby, we can all find ways to enjoy the outdoors. We can even create our own mini-parks right at home. The important thing is to find a way to reconnect with nature and with the One who has so graciously provided it for us.

–Chuck

(The pictures shown here are ones I’ve taken the past few days at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.)


May 28 2015

Carrie Newcomer and the Titmouse

_DSC9779In last week’s post I talked about the sanctity of all life and reflected on some wonderful quotations from the writings of John Muir.  Having done so I want to say that it is one thing to affirm the sanctity of all life; it is another thing to put this affirmation into practice.

Recently I was introduced to the music of folk singer Carrie Newcomer.  I was given one of her CDs for my birthday in April and really liked what I heard.  A couple of weeks ago it just so happened that Carrie was present at a conference I was attending in Denver and did a concert for the group.  I thoroughly enjoyed her performance and was impressed not only with Carrie’s beautiful voice but with the way she crafted the words in the lyrics of her songs.  When I discovered she had also published a book of her poetry and essays I knew that I had to get it.

_DSC5430The title of Carrie’s book is A Permeable Life.  One of the poems included in this volume is called Titmouse and in my estimation puts flesh on what it means to affirm the sanctity of all life.  “On the bitter winter ground I found a small grey titmouse with a broken wing.  As I stopped to consider how I might help her, it became apparent that something else was also broken inside her, and that she was dying.  It is the way of the world, one animal will eat another animal, and all animals, (including the human kind), eventually go back into the earth.  And yet I could not leave her there, to die alone in the snow.  I cradled her in my mittened hands and warmed her with my breath, trying to make her as comfortable as possible.  I hummed to her and breathed a silent prayer to the god of snow and spring and small birds.  After a while, her eyes drifted closed.  She did not struggle or appear afraid.  She was beyond that now, she was just infinitely tired and wise, in the way that things approaching a great mystery are often wise.”

I am deeply touched by the way Carrie was moved with such compassion that she felt compelled to “not leave her there, to die alone in the snow” and how she went on to seek to warm the little creature, to hum to her and pray for her as well.  Carrie’s actions make me recall Jesus’ words found in Matthew 10:29—“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care.”

_DSC0353There is plenty of evidence in the Scriptures to reveal that God does, in fact, care for all of His creatures.  If God cares for them all then so should we.  How might we actually care for them?  I can think of a lot of ways but I do believe that when I hear that question raised in the future I will think of a certain poem by Carrie Newcomer.

–Chuck

(I photographed the titmouse, goldfinch and killdeer chick all in Henderson, Kentucky.)


May 21 2015

John Muir and the Sanctity of All Life

_DSC1296Last week when I was flying to Denver I spent some time reading a wonderful book called The Contemplative John Muir.  It is a collection of quotations from the great conservationist that reveal the spiritual side of Muir.  One of the things I quickly noticed was that long before there was an animal rights movement John Muir was affirming the importance and value of all creatures as part of God’s Creation.  At one point he wrote: “Godlike sympathy grows and thrives and spreads far beyond the teachings of churches and schools, where too often the mean, blinding, loveless doctrine is taught that animals have neither mind nor soul, have no rights that we are bound to respect, and were made only for man, to be petted, spoiled, slaughtered, or enslaved.”  Muir believed that all creatures had worth, and thereby rights, simply because they were made by the Creator and I fully agree with him.

_DSC0799Muir, however, did not believe that it was just animals that had worth.  In his view all of Creation had great value because, once again, it was created by God.  It bothered him that things like lichen were considered “a low form of life.”  He said all forms, “high and low, are simply portions of God radiated from Him as a sun, and made terrestrial by the clothes they wear, and by the modifications of a corresponding kind in the God essence itself.”  Muir went on to say, “Rocks and waters, etc., are words of God and so are people.  We all flow from one fountain Soul.  All are expressions of one Love.  God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating and fountainising all.  The universe would be incomplete without man; but it would also be incomplete without the smallest transmicroscopic creature that dwells beyond our conceitful eyes and knowledge.”

_DSC7992Muir says concerning the typical human way of seeing things, “How narrow we selfish, conceited creatures are in our sympathies!  How blind to the rights of all the rest of creation!  With what dismal irreverence we speak of our fellow mortals!  Though alligators, snakes, etc., naturally repel us, they are not mysterious evils.  They dwell happily in these flowery wilds, are part of God’s family, unfallen, undepraved, and cared for with the same species of tenderness and love as is bestowed on angels in heaven or saints on earth.”

_DSC1958I realize that not everyone will concur with Muir’s sentiments but I do believe that his way of thinking is theologically sound and that if followed would lead to a much more respectful approach to all that God has made.  Such an approach is desperately needed at this particular time.   The world needs a more life-affirming view of the Creation.  In many ways the preservation of the world is dependent on our developing a greater respect for all forms of life.  The preservation of humankind may also be dependent on this.  Albert Schweitzer once said, “Anyone who has accustomed himself to regard the life of any living creature as worthless is in danger of arriving also at the idea of worthless human lives.” 

I hope that we can begin to move toward a view of the sanctity of all life on earth and that this view will lead us to be better stewards of God’s Creation and a kinder species as well.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Colorado National Monument, the second one at Rifle Falls in Colorado, the third one at Everglades NP, and the final one at Black Canyon of the Gunnison NP in Colorado.)


Feb 26 2015

“Show Me Your Glory”

e_CES0556In the Book of Exodus there is an interesting exchange between Moses and God recorded in chapter 33.  Moses seems to be pretty frustrated and asks God a series of questions.  It’s obvious that Moses needed some reassurance from God and eventually asked God to show him His glory (v. 18).  God agrees to do so but tells Moses that he will only be allowed to see His back side, not His face.  God placed Moses in the cleft of a rock and covered him with His hand until He had passed by.  God then removed His hand and showed him His back.

_DSC6935There is a very fascinating passage in John Muir’s journals where he takes Moses to task for requesting to see God’s glory.  Muir writes: “Perhaps I do not understand the request of Moses, ‘Show me your glory,’ but if he were here I would like to take him to one of my Twenty-Hill Hollow observatories, and after allowing him time to drink the glories of flower, mountain, and sky I would ask him how they compared with those of the Valley of the Nile and of Mount Pisgah, and then I would inquire how he had the conscience to ask for more glory when such oceans and atmospheres were about him.  King David was a better observer: ‘The whole earth is full of thy glory.’”

I’m not about to fault Moses for asking to see God’s glory but I see Muir’s point and feel it is valid one.  There are times when we feel the need for God to reveal Himself and our hope is that this revelation will take the form of something spectacular.  Like Moses we may even ask for more than we can handle.  I understand the desire to see God’s glory but what Muir has admirably pointed out to us is the fact that God’s glory is always on display all around us.

_DSC1246God’s glory is revealed numerous ways and one of the most accessible places we may experience this glory is in nature.  In nature the Creator’s glory is on full display.  In another passage from John Muir’s journals he says “No wilderness in the world is so desolate as to be without divine ministers.  God’s love covers all the earth as the sky covers it, and also fills it in every pore.  And this love has voices heard by all who have ears to hear.”  For those with eyes to see God’s glory can be seen each and every day.  In nature itself one can experience God’s love wherever he or she happens to be.  King David was right; “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”

Many of us miss seeing God’s glory because we’re waiting for that spectacular display such as Moses experienced in the cleft of the rock.  God rarely makes Himself known this way.  If this type revelation is the only kind that will satisfy us we will likely be disappointed.  I encourage you to open your eyes wide enough to see God’s glory in His Creation.  If you will, I think you will discover that it is quite satisfactory.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at Cedar Breaks National Monument, the middle image at Great Basin National Park, and the bottom image at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.)


Jan 19 2015

Withdrawing From the Cares Which Will Not Withdraw From Us

_DSC0854A couple of days ago I came across the following words by Maya Angelou: “Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares which will not withdraw from us. We need hours of aimless wandering or spates of time sitting on park benches, observing the mysterious world of ants and the canopy of treetops.”  These two sentences spoke to me in a powerful way; they were words I needed to hear.

_DSC1367I found Maya’s call to withdraw “from the cares which will not withdraw from us” to be especially poignant.  In recent weeks I have let some things bother me far more than I should.  I’ve had cares and concerns that I seemed unable to escape no matter how hard I tried.  It was actually comforting to read this poet’s words.  She seemed to understand that there are problems that will not give us a break, troubles that refuse to let us go.  But she also had the wisdom to advise us to find a way to withdraw from these nagging cares.  She knew that in such stressful circumstances you have to find a way to separate yourself from those cares that want to stay attached to you.

_DSC1193I also appreciated Maya’s advice concerning where one might withdraw.  She points us to a number of places in nature to seek relief.  She mentions spending time in a park, observing ants, and looking at the trees.  I’m not sure that there is a better place to turn for relief from the cares that will not withdraw from us than God’s Creation.  John Muir certainly felt this way.  He once said, “Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”  In nature, whether there be mountains or not, we often find that our cares do, in fact, “drop off like autumn leaves.”

I am convinced that God intentionally put therapeutic elements into the Creation to help us all deal with the problems and cares we face in life.  In one of the most beloved passages of the Bible David wrote about how God provided for his needs through nature.  He said God “makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul.” (Psalm 23:2)   In God’s Creation David found the restoration his soul needed.  Countless times that is where I have found what I needed too.

_DSC9763I have long understood the restorative powers of God’s Creation.  What Maya Angelou’s words helped me understand is that it is imperative that I find a way to return to nature when life gets hard and my cares will not let me go.  When I am overly stressed, discouraged or depressed I don’t always feel like getting out but it is precisely at such times I must force myself to get outdoors.  In nature I always find reminders that God is bigger than any problem I might be facing and that God genuinely cares about me.  I may well have cares that will not withdraw from me but when I force myself to withdraw to God’s Creation I discover again and again a God whose love will not let me go and a peace that passes all understanding.  I definitely need to withdraw more often.  How about you?

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used above in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan this past fall.)