Jan 25 2019

Whichever Way We Turn

“My heart says of you, ‘Seek his face!’  Your face, Lord, I will seek.” Psalm 27:8

There are a number of places in the Scriptures where we are encouraged to seek God’s face.  To seek God’s face is to seek God.  But just where are we supposed to look.  In his beautiful book, Praying with the Earth, John Philip Newell encourages us to look for God’s face in the world around us.  He writes: “Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face in the light of the moon and patterns of stars, in scarred mountain rifts and ancient groves, in mighty seas and creatures of the deep.  Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face, O God, there is your face in the light of eyes we love, in the salt of tears we have tasted, in weathered countenances east and west, in the soft skin glow of the child everywhere.  Whichever way we turn, O God, there is your face, there is your face among us.”

Whereas some would say God’s face cannot be seen, others would posit that God’s face is everywhere for those with eyes to see.  One of those persons who was able to see God everywhere was the recently deceased poet, Mary Oliver.  I would love to have eyes like Mary Oliver had.  I believe she saw God’s face in trees, flowers, birds, her beloved dogs, snakes, otters, deer, and children.  I believe she saw God’s face whichever way she turned.

I want to share with you a poem from my favorite Mary Oliver book, Thirst.  It’s called “Making the House Ready for the Lord.”  “Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but still nothing is as shining as it should be for you.  Under the sink, for example, is an uproar of mice—it is the season of their many children.  What shall I do?  And under the eaves and through the walls the squirrels have gnawed their ragged entrances—but it is the season when they need shelter, so what shall I do?  And the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow; what shall I do?  Beautiful is the snow falling in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly up the path, to the door.  And still I believe you will come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox, the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know that really I am speaking to you whenever I say, as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.”

Mary Oliver’s poems, along with John Philip Newell’s prayers, John Muir’s writings, and the Scriptures themselves, have taught me that God’s face can be seen in the world of nature and in the faces of those closest to me.  I am very grateful to have had such good teachers.  They have affected how I look at things and how I photograph.  They have enabled me to see far more than I would have otherwise. Admittedly, I still do not see all I could or all I hope to, but I have seen enough to conclude that the face of God is indeed everywhere and that it is beautiful—more beautiful than the tongue can tell.

–Chuck


Oct 13 2016

What’s So Bad About the Badlands?

_ces3871What’s so bad about the badlands? That’s the question I kept asking myself last week while visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota.  Why call such a beautiful land “bad”?  My guess is that early settlers found the terrain difficult to traverse or perhaps not conducive to grazing cattle.  But do these things warrant calling the land bad?  I don’t think the bison I saw there would call it bad.  Neither would the thousands of prairie dogs found in the region.  Nor would the pronghorn antelope or bighorn sheep say this was a bad place to live.  Even the countless meadowlarks I saw there sang as if they had no complaint about the land about them.

_dsc0673Humans seem to have a tendency to give value to things primarily as they relate to themselves. A fancy word for this is anthropocentrism.  If something benefits us it is considered good; if it does not we deem it bad.  We may have a tendency to look at things this way but I don’t think God does.  For some reason we often forget that God declared in Genesis 1 that all that He made is “good.”  Perhaps we have trouble finding the good at times from a human perspective but that does not mean such things do not have an inherent goodness about them.  All of the earth is valuable and good because it was created by and belongs to God. In one of her poems Mary Oliver says “You cannot cross one hummock or furrow but it is His holy ground.”  The badlands are no exception.

_dsc0467As I enjoyed the beauty and diversity of Badlands National Park and pondered why they got the designation “bad-lands” I thought of the story in the Book of Acts where Peter has a vision where “he saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.” (10:11) In that sheet were all kinds of animals and Peter heard a voice that instructed him to kill and eat what he saw.  Since many of the species were ceremonially unclean animals and forbidden by Jews for eating Peter protested and said he had never eaten anything impure or unclean.  At this point Peter heard a heavenly voice tell him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” (10:15)   Perhaps we stand in need today of a new vision where we are reminded that there are no bad lands.  If we are going to be good stewards of the earth it would certainly help if we recognized the goodness of the land.  Wouldn’t you agree?

–Chuck


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.)


Feb 4 2015

Bowing Continuously

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker.”  Psalm 95:6

_DSC1272_DSC1272b_CES0270ABPF-066As most of you know, I am a big fan of Mary Oliver’s poetry.  In Oliver’s newest book, Blue Horses, there is a poem called “Forgive Me.”  It reads: “Angels are wonderful but they are so, well, aloof.  It’s what I sense in the mud and the roots of the trees, or the well, or the barn, or the rock with its citron map of lichen that halts my feet and makes my eyes flare, feeling the presence of some spirit, some small god, who abides there.  If I were a perfect person, I would be bowing continuously.  I’m not, though I pause wherever I feel this holiness, which is why I’m often so late coming back from wherever I went.  Forgive me.”

In this poem I sense a call to pay more attention to God’s presence in our everyday surroundings.  I also see here a word of caution.  If we are not careful we will spend too much time seeking God in lofty matters we cannot really understand, like angels, and thereby miss revelations of the divine in the more common things we can comprehend.  Finding God through the Creation is a theme that runs through many of Oliver’s poems.  She seems to discover God in places most of us wouldn’t even think to look—mud, roots, rocks, lichen.  I have often wished I could see the world through Mary Oliver’s eyes.

ANP 0431ANP 0431_CES4270Oliver sees God in so many places that she says if she were a perfect person she would constantly be bowing.  Bowing, of course, is the proper thing to do when one encounters God.  The One who made this world and who can be found within it deserves our worship and praise and would receive it continuously if we were actually able to see the evidence of the divine in everything around us.

_CES0292Oliver indicates this would happen in her own life if she were perfect but is quick to note that she is not.  She, too, misses a lot of God’s manifestations but she is at least wise enough to pause and bow whenever she does sense God’s presence in her surroundings.   She is also wise enough to realize that if pausing to bow and worship the Creator makes one late for something it is still the right thing to do.  In the end there is nothing more important to do and no better way to spend one’s time.

_DSC5435There is an old hymn called “Open My Eyes That I May See.”  It lists a number of things the writer/singer would like to see.  Today it is my prayer that God will open your eyes and mine to see the divine in the common ordinary things of life, and especially in the world of nature.  It is also my prayer that as this request is granted we will actually take the time to bow and worship the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth.

–Chuck

(I took the top image at the Bristlecone Pine Forest in California, the middle image in Henderson County, KY, and the bottom image at Garden of the Gods in southern Illinois.)


Jul 31 2013

Behold the Unexceptional!

Columbus-Belmont-State-ParkMost of the books I own are sitting five and a half hours away.  That has been one of the most frustrating things about the move to my new location.   Our house in eastern Kentucky has not sold yet and we have nowhere here to keep them so if I want or need something there I’m pretty much out of luck.  This situation did cause me to be very selective in what books I did bring to Henderson.  Of highest priority were the volumes I’d need for my work; after that came the books that bring me the greatest pleasure.  It was for this reason I made sure my volumes of Mary Oliver poetry arrived early.  Her poetry moves me as no other poet. I wanted them close at hand.

pine needlesEarlier today I saw where the author Parker Palmer posted a Mary Oliver poem on his Facebook page.  It is a poem from her book Why I Wake Early and is called Mindful.   I’m glad Palmer posted this poem today; I needed it.  Consider Oliver’s words: “Every day I see or I hear something that more or less kills me with delight, that leaves me like a needle in the haystack of light.  It is what I was born for–to look, to listen, to lose myself over and over in joy, and acclamation.  Nor am I talking about the exceptional, the fearful, the dreadful, the very extravagant–but of the ordinary, the common, the very drab, the daily presentations.  Oh, good scholar, I say to myself, how can you help but grow wise with such teachings as these–the untrimmable light of the world, the ocean’s shine, the prayers that are made out of grass?”

RNP-277The thought conveyed at the end of this poem reminds me of the words I cited in my last blog from Oprah Winfrey.  Speaking about nature Oprah said, “sometimes its smallest offerings are the ones that open my soul to its splendor.”   Mary Oliver goes a bit further and encourages us not to miss that which is to be found in the unexceptional, in “the ordinary, the common, the very drab.”  I confess I tend to look for the exceptional, especially when I am photographing.  If something is ordinary, common or drab it typically does not get a second glance from me.  My blogging partner, Rob Sheppard, however, has made a conscious decision to pay more attention to these things and to photograph them as well.  He has written about this a number of times in his other blog, Nature and Photography.  He likes to remind people that these common or ordinary things are part of nature too.

BB173Yes, they are a part of nature too and that also means they are part of God’s Creation.  That alone should be cause enough to broaden my horizons and motivation not to dismiss that which is considered unexceptional by most people.   In the end, is anything God has created unexceptional?  I doubt it.  Throughout Genesis 1 we are told God repeatedly declared Creation to be good–all of it.  Both Winfrey and Oliver mention the joy and delight they receive from these small or common thing.   I suspect I have missed not only that joy and delight but a number of spiritual lessons as well simply due to my propensity to ignore that which is common.  That being so, I think I’ll take Oprah, Mary and Rob’s advice and try to start paying better attention to the unexceptional.  Would you consider doing the same?

–Chuck


Jul 1 2012

Help From Blazing Lilies

When Jesus entered Jerusalem the Sunday prior to his crucifixion the crowds enthusiastically welcomed him.  This welcome bothered the Pharisees.  They told Jesus to rebuke the crowd.  Jesus’ reply was, “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” (Luke 19:40)  In the past I always understood this to mean that if the people ceased their praise then the rocks would have to cry out for them.  I’m thinking now that Jesus may have been reminding the Pharisees of what their very Scriptures declared—that all of Creation offers its praise to God.  Stopping people from praising God would hardly cease the flow of praise that ushers forth every day.  Last night while reading Mary Oliver’s “Morning Poem” I was reminded just how true this is.  Here’s how the poem goes:

“Every morning the world is created.  Under the orange sticks of the sun the heaped ashes of the night turn into leaves again and fasten themselves to the high branches—and the ponds appear like black cloth on which are painted islands of summer lilies.  If it is your nature to be happy you will swim away along the soft trails for hours, your imagination alighting everywhere.  And if your spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than lead—if it’s all you can do to keep on trudging—there is still somewhere deep within you a beast shouting that the earth is exactly what it wanted—each pond with its blazing lilies is a prayer heard and answered lavishly, every morning, whether or not you have ever dared to be happy, whether or not you have ever dared to pray.” 

I want to believe that what Mary writes is true.  I want to believe that we humans are not the only ones offering prayers to God each day.  I want to believe this for a variety of reasons.  One of the main reasons is I would find great comfort in knowing that when my “spirit carries within it the thorn that is heavier than lead,” and finds it hard to offer God the praise He deserves, that God still receives the praise He is due.  I confess that my spirit carries such a thorn now so hopefully there is a blazing lily out there somewhere that can help take up the slack for me.  That would be nice.

–Chuck

(I photographed the top lily last month in North Carolina and the bottom one in New Mexico in May.)