Jun 20 2012

What’s Your Plan?

Later today summer will officially arrive.  I say “officially” because the heat and humidity associated with summer arrived prematurely in southeastern Kentucky.  This time of year I don’t get outdoors any more than I have to.  I find the heat and humidity too oppressive.  For me summer is a great time for reading and reflection.  I plan to do plenty of both.

A number of years ago Mary Oliver wrote a poem called “The Summer Day” where she did some reflecting of her own.  I share this incredible poem with you here:  “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?  This grasshopper, I mean—the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.  Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.  Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.  I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.  I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.  Tell me, what else should I have done?  Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I’ve written in the past of my love for Oliver’s poetry.  I admire her attentiveness to nature and things spiritual.  I especially admire the way she often joins the two together.  In this poem Mary’s thoughts of nature lead her to think of both the brevity and meaning of life.  Paying attention to God’s Creation can have that effect on you.  Even a cursory look at nature may cause a person to ponder some of life’s most important questions.  Without a doubt, the question Mary Oliver asks at the end of her poem is one of these questions.

How would you answer Mary?  What do “you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  So much hinges on a person’s response to this question.  If you haven’t stopped lately to consider this question I urge you to do so now.   As Oliver’s observations of nature revealed, we won’t be here forever so we need to make sure that we make what time we do have count.  The apostle Paul said much the same thing when we spoke of “redeeming the time” or “making the most of every opportunity” in Ephesians 5:16.  Both books of Scripture—the Bible and Creation—call for us to examine our lives and to make sure that we have a plan to make the most of the one life we have to live.  What is your plan?

–Chuck

(I photographed the black bear in the Smokies and the katydid in my yard.)


Jun 3 2012

Being A Good Host

It’s the season for company at our house.  Last week we were blessed to have my younger sister and her family come spend some time with us.  Later this evening my wife’s niece and her daughter will arrive.  In between these two family visits we’ve had a good bit of other company; the kind nature provides.  A few days ago my wife found a baby mockingbird that had decided to leave its nest sitting in one of our bushes.  It was a beautiful little specimen and we enjoyed spending some time watching it.  There’s also been a rabbit that’s been paying regular visits in our back yard.  Yesterday two mourning doves settled in on the railing of our porch deck.  I spent quite a bit of time with them and immensely enjoyed their company.  And then there’s been another frequent guest.  We haven’t seen him because he always stops by while we’re sleeping but this raccoon has decided our trash can has some of the best leftovers in the neighborhood.

Not all of our guests the past couple of days have been fauna.  We have also had several beautiful flowers pay us a visit.  There’s a rose bush with a few blossoms on one side of the house and some pretty yellow day lilies on the other side.  My favorite floral guests, however, have been the numerous magnolia blossoms that have popped up on the tree beside our driveway.  Every day a new guest arrives.  It’s been wonderful!

I truly do feel blessed by all the company we’ve had.  Whether they have been family, flora or fauna, they have all added much enjoyment and beauty to my life.  They keep reminding me of the wonders of God’s Creation.  Long ago the Psalmist declared “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (139:14)   I, too, recognize “full well” that God’s works are wonderful, but I keep being amazed by just how wonderful they are.

A number of times I have shared with you quotations from one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver.  Mary teaches through her poetry the importance of paying attention to what is around us.  This is something we all need to work on.  Many times we fail to notice that which is close by or, even worse, right in front of us.  We ought to be more observant.  In fact, I believe God expects us to be.

Maybe we could learn to become more observant and attentive if we started viewing both the people and things around us as guests.  Most of us do a good job of paying attention to the guests who visit our homes.  We typically do not ignore them, so why should we ignore our non-human guests? There’s no reason to be rude to them.  I want to encourage you to be a good host to all the guests God brings your way.  Pay attention to them.  Learn from them.  Enjoy their company.  It will make a difference, I promise.

–Chuck

(All of the pictures above were taken in our yard over the past few days.)


Feb 5 2012

Nurturing Delight

I realize that most eyes are probably focused on the Super Bowl today but I’d like for you to consider the need to focus your eyes elsewhere (not necessarily during the game).  I recently came across a quotation where we find a clarion call to do just that.  Scott Hoezee writes: “…a major part of our Christian vocation should be the nurturing of delight in this universe of wonders—a delight similar to God’s own playful joy in creation, which we see traced for us in Scripture.  This world teems with opportunities for such delight—the question is whether we take the time to notice.”

I appreciate Hoezee’s recognition that seeing Creation is “a major part of our Christian vocation” and also his call to nurture our delight in all God has made. Christians would benefit spiritually if they paid more attention to God’s Creation and nurtured delight in it, but how can we do so?  Two of my favorite writers offer good advice.

One of these writers is John Muir.  From him I have learned that if we are going to nurture delight we must be intentional.  Like a fiery evangelist Muir called people to go to the woods or into the mountains to experience what God’s Creation has to offer.  He encouraged people to leave their fears and worries behind and find peace, joy and delight in nature’s gifts.

The other writer is Mary Oliver.  In many of Oliver’s poems she calls on us to pay attention to the world around us.  That seems pretty obvious but I’ve discovered that it’s easier said than done.  When it comes to seeing Creation and finding God there I fear a lot of us have a form of attention deficit disorder.  We find it hard to stay focused.  We get easily distracted.  If we are going to nurture delight in God’s Creation we must overcome this. 

With these two writers in mind, here are my own thoughts. In order to nurture delight in this universe of wonders we must make a commitment to do just that.  Without this commitment we will neither be intentional nor pay attention.  I would also suggest that the best place to start would be with a prayer to God asking His help on this journey.  Ask Him to open your eyes so that you might see all He wants you see.  Pray that you will not only see but learn all the truths He desires to teach you in His Creation.

Once a person has made the necessary commitment and asked for God’s help he or she should start paying attention.  No matter where you live you are exposed every day to the wonders of God’s Creation.  Slow down and take notice of what’s there.  After you have noticed something, think about what you are seeing.  You might ask yourself a couple of questions.  What can I learn from what I’m observing?  How should I respond to what I see?  Doing this will give God an opportunity to teach you many things.  Doing this will also invariably lead you to worship the Creator.

The final thing I would suggest here is that you periodically make time to be present to Creation’s wonders.  Be intentional by taking a hike in the woods.  Go somewhere that you can watch the sun rise or set.  Sit beneath a tree and meditate.  Find a stream, river or ocean that you can watch and listen to and just be still.  Hold a rock or shell or flower in your hand and pay very close attention to it. 

There are many ways we can nurture delight in God’s Creation.  I encourage you to discover what works best for you and then begin finding both the joy and wisdom that is found in God’s handiwork.  There is so much delight awaiting each of us!

–Chuck

(I took these three images on a trip with Rob to the eastern Sierras.  The top image was made in the Buttermilk Mountains, the second in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, and the third at Mono Lake.)


Aug 31 2011

Living In Creation’s Dawn

Today I’d like to use three “favorites” to remind you of an important truth, that truth being that every day we have a chance to experience anew God’s Creation.  When we think of God creating we typically think of the distant past but in reality the process of Creation is ongoing.  We are all witnesses to God’s ever developing Creation.

One of my favorite writers, John Muir, recognized this.  He once wrote: I used to envy the father of our race, dwelling as he did in contact with the new-made fields and plants of Eden; but I do so no more, because I have discovered that I also live in ‘creation’s dawn.’ The morning stars still sing together, and the world, not yet half made, becomes more beautiful every day.” 

One of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, likewise lives with the recognition that we live in ‘creation’s dawn.”  She writes in “Morning Poem” this observation: “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 is 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.”

One of my favorite hymns has been reminding people of this truth for many years.  It is called “Morning Has Broken.”  Here are the words of this wonderful hymn penned by Eleanor Farjeon:  “Morning has broken like the first morning, blackbird has spoken like the first bird.  Praise for the singing!  Praise for the morning!  Praise for them, springing fresh from the Word!  Sweet the rain’s new fall sunlit from heaven, like the first dewfall on the first grass.  Praise for the sweetness of the wet garden, sprung in completeness where God’s feet pass.  Mine is the sunlight!  Mine is the morning born of the one light Eden saw play!  Praise with elation, praise every morning, God’s recreation of the new day!”

Hopefully we can all remember each day the privilege we have to live in Creation’s dawn and will make sure that we offer the Creator all the love and praise He deserves.

–Chuck

(I took the top image early one morning at Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains NP.  The middle image of water lilies was taken at Land Between the Lakes NRA in western Kentucky.  I took the bottom image at dawn at Newfound Gap in the Great Smoky Mountains NP.)


Jun 14 2011

Feeling Small

Rob and I are photographing together this week in northern California. We have been concentrating on the magnificent redwood groves found in the area. Walking amongst these incredibly large trees has a way of making you feel quite small. I actually feel a sense of reverence in the presence of these giant specimens. Rob and I have paused many times just to express our sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of God’s Creation found here. In the forest here I, too, feel “hints of gladness.” The giant trees lift my spirits and bring me joy. They point me to the One who created this world. They also remind me of how trees play a vital role in the Scriptures from beginning to end. Mary Oliver talks about how she can almost say the trees save her and I understand what she means. They bring peace in a troubled world. But the Bible connects trees and salvation even more closely when it points us to the Cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world. As much as I am humbled and made to feel small by the redwoods of California, the Cross humbles me even more. It is there, more than anywhere else, I see God’s greatness and my smallness. It is there, more than anywhere else, I see the love of God.

–Chuck

 (Both of the images above were taken at Humboldt Redwoods State Park yesterday.)

While in the redwood groves yesterday I thought about a poem I recently came across in Mary Oliver’s book, Thirst. It is called “When I Am Among Trees.” She writes: “When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily. I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow often. Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, ‘Stay awhile.’ The light flows from their branches. And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say, ‘and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.'”


May 11 2011

The Doorway Into Thanks

“Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights…” James 1:17

Yesterday I started reading Mary Oliver’s collection of poems called Thirst and came across a number of jewels.  One of my favorites thus far is called “Praying.”  Here she writes: “It doesn’t have to be the blue iris, it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones; just pay attention, then patch a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway into thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.”

This poem resonates with me because quite often it is the beauty and majesty of Creation that becomes for me “the doorway into thanks.”  When I see beautiful flowers I frequently find myself mouthing the words “thank you.”  When I have the opportunity to watch wildlife move about I often do the same.  When confronted by an exquisite landscape I have been known to break out in song singing the Doxology.  There is just something about the beauty of nature that leads me to prayer and thanksgiving.

In one of the classes I teach at church we were discussing yesterday how “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”   What one person views as beautiful another may not.  When I read Mary Oliver’s poems I get the impression she often finds beauty where many of us don’t.  In the poem noted above she mentions “weeds in a vacant lot” and “just a few stones” as being things that might lead one to prayer and thanksgiving.  Of course she also reminds us that to find beauty in such places we will have to “just pay attention.”   Paying attention is not a strong point for many of us.  We’re too busy or too preoccupied with other things to pay attention.

The failure to pay attention is detrimental to our health—both physically and spiritually.  If we don’t pay attention where we’re walking we could stumble and fall.  If we don’t pay attention to the world around us we might fail to encounter the God who often makes Himself known through His Creation.  It is very important that each of us strive to pay attention.

Paying attention will also help us pray better.  As we notice more of God’s blessings in the world around us we will find ourselves offering Him thanks more often.  We will increasingly find ourselves turning to the Source of all life, the Giver of all good gifts, more frequently.  This, of course, is why God made all that He made in the first place–to reveal His glory and to draw us closer to Himself.  He desires communion with us and has created a world that is intended to lead us to that sweet communion where we can offer Him our love and gratitude and put ourselves in a position where we might experience “a silence in which another voice [God’s voice] may speak.” 

Pay attention.

–Chuck

(I took the top image of ferns and violets this past Saturday at the Falls of the Stony in Viriginia.  I took the bottom picture at Land Between the Lakes National Recreation Area in western Kentucky a few years ago.)