Dec 19 2015

Can We Help Bring Joy to the World?

_DSC2996“Joy to the world, the Lord is come!”  These words are found at the beginning of one of the most beloved Advent/Christmas hymns.  They are soon followed by a refrain that includes the phrase “let heaven and nature sing.”   It would seem that the writer of this hymn, Isaac Watts, believed that Christ’s coming was meant to bring joy to all of Creation.  This is further indicated in the second verse where he talks about “fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy.”  There’s no way I could ever prove it but I do believe that all of nature joins together in offering praise to the Creator.  I also believe that the same Jesus who came to bring joy to people like you and me likewise longs for there to be joy in all aspects of his Creation.  The God who created the world is a God of great joy and this same God longs for joy to be found throughout Creation.

_DSC5464Joy has been the theme of the Advent season this past week. I’ve paused a couple of times these past few days to wonder just how much joy the rest of Creation experiences these days.  When we stop and consider the impact humans have had on the earth it does, in fact, make you wonder.  Does air and water pollution hinder Creation’s joy?  Does ever increasing species decimation and destruction of the rain forests cause Creation to experience less joy?  Are the effects of climate change at this very moment diminishing the joy that Christ intended for his Creation?  Can we even still sing “joy to the world (Creation), the Lord is come” or expect heaven and nature to sing?

e_DSC3071Despite what we humans have done to harm the earth and rob it of its intended joy, I still believe that when we stop and consider the coming of Christ long ago there remains cause for “the world” to rejoice and sing. The hope, peace and joy of the world remain tied to the first advent of Jesus.  More specifically, they remain tied to the love he both taught and made manifest throughout his life on earth.  John 3:16 reminds us that “God so loved the world He gave His only Son.” Here is a needed reminder that God’s love for the world (and those who inhabit it) was the primary reason Jesus was born the first Christmas.  If we and the rest of Creation can remember this and reflect on the incomprehensible love that brought Christ into the world there will always be joy.

e_DSC3341But as we consider love, the theme for the fourth week of Advent, this coming week, I would suggest that there is to be found in Christ’s teachings a word that has the potential to bring further joy to the rest of Creation. When Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was he responded with a twofold answer.  He said, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and with all of your soul, and with all of your mind and with all of your strength.” Then he added, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:30-31)  Jesus made sure we understood that what is most important of all is loving God and loving others.  If we will take seriously his words it would make an incredible difference in how we relate to the rest of Creation.  Think about it…

If we truly love God we are not going to abuse that which God has made. Recognizing that the earth is, in fact, the work of God’s hands and belongs first and foremost to God, we will realize its sacredness and also the need to be diligent stewards of it.  If we sincerely love God how could we ever trash the work of God’s hands?  How could we take that which belongs to God and treat it as though it was ours to do with as we please?  Furthermore, if we honor Jesus’ words to love our neighbor as we love ourselves will that not also affect how we view and use the world’s resources?  Our stewardship of the earth starts to look different when we begin to see it as a means of loving others.  The bottom line is no longer what I want or what I can get or how much money I can make off of the earth’s resources.

e_DSC3161I realize it may sound too simplistic but I would argue that if we took Jesus’ words seriously it would result in a much healthier planet.  And perhaps, if we did a really good job of it, we might actually get to hear “heaven and nature sing.”

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above near my home in Henderson, Kentucky.)


Apr 17 2015

The Circle of Love

Clingman Dome sunset (h) crThis past week Rob Sheppard was here doing a photography workshop for John James Audubon State Park.  Once the workshop was over we had some time to run around and visit some of my favorite places in the area.  One of those places is New Harmony, Indiana.  Once the site of an utopian experiment it is now something of a living museum.  The Roofless Church is located there and a number of historic buildings.  In New Harmony you will find a memorial garden honoring Paul Tillich and a number of other impressive gardens.  New Harmony also features a couple of labyrinths.

AGPix_summers402_0387_Lg[1]Labyrinths have been used for centuries as a tool for prayer.  I took Rob to one labyrinth that is modeled after the famous one located at the cathedral at Chartres.  While we were there I noticed a sign I don’t remember seeing before.  On that sign was the following quotation attributed to Black Elk: “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.  The moon does the same, and both are round.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”

I remember from some previous studies that circles were very important to Native Americans.  Some believed that natural arches continued underground and formed circles.  Medicine wheels also played an important role in some tribes.  Black Elk’s words remind us that there are many examples in nature where the Creator has utilized circles—the earth, stars, wind, nests, the sun and moon, and the seasons.

_CES7969I like to think that a circle also portrays the love of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures.  The Bible declares that “God is love” and I believe that God’s love encircles or encompasses everybody.  I also happen to believe that you and I are supposed to love as God has loved us.  At our recent Maundy Thursday service, where we paused to remember Jesus’ “new commandment” which tells us that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us, I used a passage from a poem by Edwin Markham as part of my message: “He drew a circle that shut me out–heretic , rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!  I do, in fact, think God likes circles and that when it comes to love He expects us to draw a circle that will take everyone in, even our enemies.

When I pause to remember that the circle of God’s love included me I feel both obligated and inspired to love others too. I hope you’ll think about that when you happen to come across one of the many circles that can be found in nature. Perhaps one reason God used so many circles was He knew we would need the reminders.

–Chuck

(I took the top image in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle one in Middlesboro, KY, and the bottom one in Henderson, KY.)


Dec 22 2013

“Man and Beast Before Him Bow”

DSC_0130It is the Fourth Sunday of Advent.  That means Christmas Day and the Twelve Days of Christmas will soon be here.  For a number of reasons this holiday season has been very different for me.  One of the main reasons is my wife and I are still living in temporary housing.  It is a much smaller place than we have been used to and because of that we have done far less decorating than usual.  I won’t lie; I miss not seeing the decorations and trees I’ve been used to seeing for several years.  Still, it has been an enjoyable journey through the weeks of Advent.  More important to me than the decorations of Christmas is the music of this holy season.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of my Christmas CDs are still packed up at my home in Pikeville but I have nonetheless had plenty of opportunities to listen to the carols I love so much.  I don’t mind secular Christmas music but I tend to listen mostly to the songs that actually relate to our Savior’s birth.  So many wonderful songs have been written over the years that help us better grasp the meaning of Jesus’ coming into the world.

DSC_0117For some reason this year I’ve picked up on the number of songs that speak of animals being present at the Bethlehem stable.  It’s interesting how many do this, despite the fact that the Scriptures never directly indicate any were present.  Over the years we have simply assumed if there was a feeding trough, or manger, present for Mary to lay her child in that there must have been animals too.

My wife started collecting pieces of the Willow Tree nativity set a few years ago.  The pieces are not cheap so she’s been trying to add to it each year.  Yesterday I gave her an early Christmas present that included a shepherd from the series, along with a camel and two sheep.  With these additions we now have seven animals in our crèche.  I have to admit I like it better now that it has the additional animals.  It seems to me they belong there.

_CES2529One of the reasons I like the inclusion of animals in nativity scenes is that I believe they are an important part of Creation and that it only seems appropriate that when the Creator entered the world that they would be there to greet him.  The first chapter of John’s Gospel declares that on the first Christmas “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (v. 14)  It also says that “through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” (v. 3)  How very natural it would be to have both “man and beast” present to welcome the one who made us all.  When you add the apostle Paul’s thoughts found in Romans 8 that through Christ “the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God”  (v. 21) the presence of animals makes even more sense.  At the stable they could welcome not only their Creator but the one who would bring redemption to all Creation.

The theme for the Fourth Sunday of Advent is love.  Certainly we focus primarily on God’s love revealed to us through the birth of His Son but hopefully that theme can be broadened to remind us that all of Creation—humans and animals alike—owe Christ their love and adoration.  It may appear as utter nonsense or sentimentality to you but when I envision the animals gathered near the Christ Child I see them offering him just that, their love and adoration.  Their presence also calls me to question whether the rest of us will do the same.  I pray we will.

–Chuck

(I took the top two pictures at Land Between the Lakes and the bottom one here where we are staying.)

 


Nov 17 2013

Enwrapped in Love

_CES1488I try hard not to sound preachy on this site.  I’m sure there are times I do not succeed but since I am a preacher I guess one could expect that.  If today’s entry does sound preachy there’s a reason for it.  This was part of the message I preached at my church this morning.  The sermon was called “Can God Love Someone Like Me?”  I spoke of three places where we find evidence of God’s love for each of us—the Scriptures, Creation, and in Jesus’ sacrificial death on the Cross.  Below is the section on Creation:

_CES7636“In addition to the testimony and promises of the Bible, we might also note that the world is filled with signs of God’s love and acceptance.  All around us in God’s Creation are hints and evidence of God’s love for us and His desire for us to be full of joy.  These signs show us that God’s love surpasses what we can comprehend.  If we look at these signs closely and meditate upon them, not only will we find ourselves saying with the Psalmist, ‘What is man that thou art mindful of him?’ but we would also cry out, ‘How great thou art!’

Long ago Meister Eckhart said, ‘Every creature is a word of God and a book about God.’  I’m convinced he is right and that the subject of those books is love, God’s incredible love for you and me.   Another great Christian writer, Julian of Norwich, said ‘Everything is enwrapped in love and is part of a world produced not by mechanical necessity but by passionate desire.’  If only we had eyes to see we would recognize that we are surrounded by a beautiful world which is literally filled to the brim with the evidence of God’s love.  Everything—from the singing birds to the babbling brook, from the tiny acorn to the majestic oak, from the smallest flower to the tallest mountain—yes, everything that God has created reveals His love for us.”

_CES1364I wish more people realized just how much God loves them.  I say that because so many people do, in fact, wonder if this could possibly be true.  For me the evidence is overwhelming; God does indeed love each of us more than we could ever imagine.  That love is not based on our behavior at all.  It is instead a gift bestowed upon us because it is God’s nature to love.  You and I can love others but we can also choose not to love.  God, however, cannot not love us.  Why?  Because “God is love.” (1 John 4:8)  Furthermore, the apostle Paul declared “I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

_CES0629I am very grateful for God’s love.  We all should be.  I hope each day you will open yourself up to the unconditional love of God.  Julian of Norwich said “The greatest honor we can give to Almighty God is to live gladly because of the knowledge of his love.”  With that in mind I encourage you to embrace the love of God and live gladly.  Recognizing that we are lavishly loved by the Maker of heaven and earth, how could we not?

–Chuck

(I took all four of the images above over the past few days here in Henderson County, Kentucky.)


Sep 29 2013

Loving All of Creation

April-inset-screech-owl-h-0014Everyone knows that repetition is a key tool for teaching or learning.  The more we read or hear things the more likely we are to remember them.  Repetition is often used by speakers and writers to give added emphasis to something they are trying to convey.  If a sentence or word is repeated twice within a short period of time most people are likely to notice.  If it is repeated three times then you are pretty much assured that everyone will notice.  I thought about that this morning as I read Psalm 145:8-19 to the congregation I serve.  Within these twelve verses the Psalmist declares three times that God has compassion or love on all that He has made.

Breaks-Interstate-Park-fall-191The fact that this thought is repeated three separate times leads me to believe that the biblical writer felt this was a truth that desperately needed to be heard. For whatever reason, David believed people needed to understand that God’s love extends to not just humans but to everything in Creation, to all that He has made.  This would mean that God loves the fish in the sea, the birds of the air and all the other animals in the world.  It would mean that God cares for all living plants and even inanimate objects.  There is not a thing God made that He does not have compassion on.

bisonThis message may be three thousand years old but it is still very much a message that people need reminding of.  I can only speculate but my suspicion is that humans are far more anthropocentric today than they were in David’s time.  Humans, by necessity, were more connected to nature then.  Today that connection is not as strong so we tend to think it’s all about us.  Certainly God does love us, the Bible makes that abundantly clear, but as seen in Psalm 145 God also loves and cares for the rest of His Creation as well.  Verses 15-16 of this Psalm say “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them food at the proper time.  You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing.”   God’s compassion is seen here to be not just a warm fuzzy feeling but an action.  He has provided food for all living creatures; it is His longing to satisfy the desires of every living thing.

_CES8682If God loves and cares for all of Creation, shouldn’t we?  The answer to me seems obvious.  Yes, we should share God’s concern for the rest of Creation and our compassion for what God has made must be much more than a feeling.  It should show itself by our actions toward the rest of the world.  If there is no action then the true love is absent.

There are a variety of ways we can share God’s love and compassion for Creation.  Most likely you already have a few ways in mind yourself.  The important thing is that we not just talk a good talk but actively show compassion for the rest of Creation.  God shows His love for that which He has made every day in countless ways.  Reading Psalm 145 I get the feeling He could use some help from the rest of us doing the same thing.  Will you give it a try?  I hope you will and that you will encourage others to do so too.

–Chuck

(I took the screech owl in Middlesboro, KY; the river scene at Breaks Interstate Park, the bison at Land Between the Lakes in western Kentucky, and the dragonfly at Henderson Sloughs Wildlife Management Area near Henderson, KY.)


May 23 2012

It’s All About Love

Twice recently I’ve come across an interesting story about Julian of Norwich, a Christian mystic born around 1342.  Julian tells the story herself in the following words. “God showed me in my palm a little thing round as a ball about the size of a hazelnut.  I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and asked myself: ‘What is this thing?’  And I was answered: ‘It is everything that is created.’  I wondered how it could survive since it seemed so little it could suddenly disintegrate into nothing.  The answer came: ‘It endures and ever will endure, because God loves it.’  And so everything has being because of God’s love.”

Part of me would love to know what the little round thing was that Julian found in her hand that day but in the end that’s not important.  What is important is what God revealed to Julian of Norwich.   I cannot speak with authority on the meaning of what God said to her but it appears to me that He was making it clear that every single thing He has made is important and that the basis of everything He has made is love.

You and I exist because of God’s love.  The trees of the forests and the birds in the air exist because of God’s love.  Likewise, rocks, flowers, streams, hills, and all creatures great and small owe their existence to the love of God.  There is no part of Creation that cannot trace its origins to the same source.

None of this should surprise us when we recall the Bible says “God is love.” (First John 4:16)  Since love is God’s essence or nature it only makes sense that love is the force behind everything He does.  John 3:16 declares, “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.”  Just as love was the basis for God sending Christ into the world, love was the basis for the creation of that same world.  It truly is all about love!

Knowing that I was created and exist because of God’s love brings me comfort, purpose and meaning.  It should you as well.  We must, however, take it a step further.  Knowing that everyone else and everything else also have as their basis for existence God’s love, this forces us to look at them differently.  It challenges us to look for and find God’s love in them.   Are you up to that challenge?  Am I?  I hope so because there seems to be a whole lot riding on the outcome.  The world itself will continue to exist as long as God desires for it to, but what kind of world it will be shall be determined largely by how we look at people and things, and by what we do.  By loving all that God loves it truly can be a better place!  It doesn’t take a mystic to see that.

–Chuck

(I took the top picture at Redwood National Park; the middle one at Acadia National Park; and the bottom one at Olympic National Park.)