Jul 9 2016

Intimations of the Divine

e_CES3228This past week I had the privilege of spending some time with my friend Rob Sheppard exploring parts of central California. I very much enjoyed Rob’s company.  I also enjoyed the company of Abraham Joshua Heschel.  I happened to take with me a copy of Heschel’s book I Asked for Wonder.  This is an anthology of several of the famous rabbi’s spiritual quotes.  The very first quotation cited is worth the price of the book: “God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” But Heschel has much more to say and he often points to our spiritual connection with nature.  For example, he writes “We can never sneer at the stars, mock the dawn or scoff at the totality of being.  Sublime grandeur evokes unhesitating, unflinching awe.  Away from the immense, cloistered in our own concepts, we may scorn and revile everything.  But standing between earth and sky, we are silenced by the sight…”  I have to admit that when I took this image of the Milky Way near Lake Isabella I could not help but stand in awe at the work of God’s hands.

e_CES3330Heschel has more to say about awe. “Awe is an intuition for the dignity of all things, a realization that things not only are what they are but also stand, however remotely, for something supreme. Awe is a sense for the transcendence, for the reference everywhere to mystery beyond all things.  It enables us to receive in the world intimations of the divine,…to sense the ultimate in the common and the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.  What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.”  As I looked up at the giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Forest I sensed what Heschel was talking about.  For those with eyes to see there truly are “intimations of the divine” all around us in nature.   And as Heschel points out, these intimations can be found not just in the giant and dramatic aspects of nature but also in “the common and the simple.”

e_CES3486In still yet another quote Heschel says “Out of the world comes a behest to instill into the air a rapturous song for God, to incarnate in stones a message of humble beauty, and to instill a prayer for goodness in the hearts of all men.” Spending extended periods of time out in nature I did in fact sense the call to offer a song of praise to God.  I felt like shouting with the Psalmist, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless His holy name.” (Psalm 103:1)  I could understand why being in God’s Creation can instill one to pray “for the goodness in the hearts” of all people.  At this particular moment there definitely is a need to offer such prayers.

I always learn a lot when I travel with Rob but I’m thankful that on this trip we had the companionship of Abraham Joshua Heschel and for the many wonderful truths conveyed to us through his words.  I look forward to further travels with both in the future.

–Chuck

(I took the three images used here on my trip this past week.)


Jul 27 2014

Seeing the Light in Darkness

e_DSC4090I spent the past week at the Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico.  It was an incredible experience on numerous levels.  I enjoyed learning from John Philip Newell as he talked about his new book, The Rebirthing of God.  He and his wife, Ali, also led in worship each morning and evening.  The services were spiritually uplifting.  The landscape around the Ghost Ranch was also incredible.  I have traveled extensively around the Desert Southwest and without a doubt this was some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen there.  Each day I had a chance to get out and do some photography in the area.  This, too, proved to be spiritually uplifting.  I always seem to sense God’s nearness in the desert for some reason.

e_DSC4584One very pleasant surprise for me at the Ghost Ranch was the night skies.  Two nights the skies were completely clear and those nights I witnessed the glory of the heavens as never before.  The Milky Way seemed almost close enough to touch.  I was in total awe.  The words of the Psalmist kept coming to mind: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place; what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (8:3-4)  I did indeed feel humbled beneath the vastness of the heavens above but at the same time I recognized that the One who made those stars dwelt within me and was close by.  The transcendence and immanence of God was apparent at one and the same time.  I could not help but offer my worship to the Maker of heaven and earth.

e_DSC4596Each morning as a part of our workshop we were asked to go outside and spend twenty minutes in silence.  On the day following my close encounter with the Milky Way I spent my twenty minutes laying down on a large stone beside a giant cottonwood tree looking up at the sky.  The sky was a beautiful blue, punctuated with fluffy white clouds.  After a while it dawned on me that I was looking up in the same area I beheld the stars the night before and that those stars were still there extending their light.  Because of the brightness of the sun the stars could not be seen but they were there nonetheless.  This was, of course, something I already knew, but it did drive home a truth that I had not pondered previously—some manifestations of God’s glory can only be experienced in darkness.

While at the Ghost Ranch I finished reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark.  This inspirational work has made me look at darkness in a new way.  She offers many compelling reasons to embrace the darkness, both physical and spiritual.  At one point Taylor writes, “If we turn away from darkness on principle, doing everything we can to avoid it because there is simply no telling what it contains, isn’t there a chance that what we are running away from is God?”

e_DSC4598I am convinced more than ever that we must learn to approach the dark periods of our life in a new light.  We tend to think of darkness in negative terms but it may well be that the darkness is needed at times for God’s glory to be revealed.  There are lessons that God can only teach us, things that the Creator can only show us, in the dark seasons of our life.  This doesn’t necessarily make those dark seasons easier to endure but it does offer us a glimmer of hope—that in the darkness we may just see a light or manifestation of God that could not be seen otherwise.  The skies above New Mexico and the testimony of many of the saints of history all bear witness that this is true.  When you find yourself in darkness—whether physical, spiritual or emotional—I encourage you to look for that which might not be seen otherwise.  It may just be that it is in the darkness where you will see God the clearest.

–Chuck

(I took the images above at or near the Ghost Ranch in northern New Mexico this past week.)


Aug 25 2013

The Moon and Stars

_CES7969In recent days I’ve had occasion to do some photography of the night sky.  While visiting Michael Boone in Washington State I photographed the Milky Way from his driveway.  It had been a long time since I was able to see that many stars at one time.  A few days ago I saw the beautiful full moon rise as I was walking our dog and quickly ran home to get my camera and telephoto lens so that I could capture an image of it.  It was quite a sight sitting over the neighbor’s house.

_CES1966Both opportunities remind me of something the Psalmist said long ago.  In Psalm 8 David declared, “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (v. 3-4)  There can be no doubt that David felt what so many of us have when viewing the night sky–an incredible sense of smallness.  Had he known what we know today he might have felt even smaller.  There’s no way he could have known then that the moon was 238,900 miles above his Judean home.  Nor would he have have known that there are around 100,000 million stars in the Milky Way alone.  Some recent studies indicate that the total number of stars in the universe might exceed 300 sextillion (that’s 3 followed by 23 zeros).  Still, what David saw and knew was enough for him to feel humbled before the Creator and “the work of your fingers.”

David wondered how the One who put the moon and stars in their place could possibly be mindful of him or care for him.  As he expresses this wonder it is not that he is doubtful that God is mindful of him or lacks concern.  Quite the opposite!  David was very much aware of God’s concern for him; he just found it hard to believe as he gazed into the heavens.  He’s certainly not the only one to have had this problem.  I know that God loves me immensely but when I look up at the heavens at night, or across the Grand Canyon, or at the summit of Mount McKinley I find that knowledge all the more amazing.  I feel so small.  So insignificant.

GC-Imperial-PointIn Psalm 147 it says God “determines the number of the stars and calls them each by name.” (v. 4)  That is unfathomable to me for it means God knows over 300 sextillion stars by name!  In the spirit of David, what blows my mind in light of this is that he knows my name too.  In John 10:3 Jesus talked about how the Good Shepherd “calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.”  The God who knows the stars by name also knows your name and mine.  Elsewhere Jesus added that he even knows the number of hairs upon our head. (Luke 12:7)  That’s pretty amazing, is it not?

I have no doubt that the moon and stars will continue to make me feel small and insignificant at times but they also serve as constant reminders that I am not insignificant at all.  The God who made them knows and loves me.  The God who made them knows and loves you too.  That knowledge is enough to drive a person to his or her knees.  It is at the same time enough to make one stand tall.

–Chuck

(I describe the top two images in the text.  I took the bottom image showing the Grand Canyon from Imperial Point several years ago.)