Aug 19 2012

Take Off Your Shoes

Have you walked barefoot outdoors lately?  It’s not something we do much anymore.  For a number of reasons most of us typically have shoes or sandals on whenever we walk outside.  We may, however, want to make an exception from time to time.  This is something Philip Newell talks about in his books, A New Harmony and The Book of Creation.  He suggests that doing so could prove beneficial for seeing Creation.

Newell writes: “We all know what a difference it can make to be barefooted.  To feel the soft moisture of grass beneath our feet opens a new awareness in us.  It can allow us to see life with a different perspective.  The same, of course, can be said about walking on rough terrain.  To expose our feet to stony ground also leads to new awarenesses!  A heightened sense of the earth on which we walk is not just about pleasurable experiences.  It is about knowing and reverencing the creation of which we are a part.”

It would seem that many of us are cheating ourselves out of a more intimate relationship with Creation by always wearing shoes outdoors.  When our feet are covered we cannot feel the earth and we lose a degree of connection with it. As strange as it might sound, by always wearing shoes or sandals we limit our vision of Creation.  Certainly I am not proposing that we all dispose of our footwear but I would suggest that it might not be a bad idea from time to time to take off our shoes and socks and really feel the earth beneath your feet.  Since reading Philip’s books I have intentionally done that a number of times.  It really does make a difference!

Going barefoot outside periodically may help us to remember our connection to the earth and our call to be good stewards of it.  The great psychologist Carl Jung once wrote, “When you walk with naked feet, how can you ever forget the earth?”  Many of our current environmental problems have come about because we have, indeed, forgotten the earth.

Stepping outdoors without shoes might likewise help connect us to our Creator.  Exodus 3 records the story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.  As Moses approached the burning bush God called his name and then said “Do not come any closer.  Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” (v. 5)  Several years ago while studying in Israel I visited the famous Islamic shrine called the Dome of the Rock.  Before entering the shrine everyone had to take off their shoes.  Such a holy place required such reverence.

If you find yourself out in the yard or on a hike and you come to sense the nearness of God perhaps that would be a good time to stop and take off your shoes for a moment.  Or just do it from time to time to remind yourself that this world we live on truly is sacred.  It was made by God and He declared it to be good.  This earth should be considered holy, if for no other reason, because years ago God chose to inhabit it when He sent Christ into the world.

In all seriousness I encourage you to go walk barefoot in the park, to slip your naked feet into a stream, or to take your shoes and socks off and stand upon a bare rock.  Doing so may reconnect you to your childhood but even better, doing so may reconnect you to our Creator and the good earth.


(Sorry, I have no pictures of bare feet.  I took the top image at Dolly Sods Wilderness Area in West Virginia, the middle image at Acadia National Park, and the bottom image on a forst trail in the Pacific Northwest.)

Aug 5 2012

Thank the Lord for the Nighttime

From time to time I hear Neil Diamond singing “Thank the Lord for the nighttime” on the radio.  Although it is for totally different reasons than he suggests in the song, I have learned from my studies of Celtic Spirituality that giving thanks for the nighttime is actually a very good thing to do.  I realize that a lot of people find nighttime frightening, but it, too, is a part of God’s Creation.  Genesis 1:3-5 says “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.  God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.  God called the light ‘day,’ and the darkness he called ‘night.’”  Later in the same chapter we read that God made “lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night.” (v. 14)

For most of us night is a time for sleeping and rest.  When it grows dark we turn out the lights and go to bed.  We may sleep during the night but life goes on.  In fact night is the most active time for much of Creation.  Nocturnal creatures hunt and feed while we sleep.  The bright light of the sun that we need to operate is not so critical for them; the light of the moon and stars is sufficient.

The ancient Celts recognized the value of the moon in ways we typically do not.  They often spoke of the moon in their evening prayers.  In the Carmina Gadelica one such prayer begins, “Bless to me, O God, the moon that is above me.”  Another includes the sentence, “Holy be each thing which she [the moon] illumines.”  Commenting on this latter phrase, Philip Newell says the Celts didn’t think the moon made things holy, “but rather that in her light the holiness of each thing is more readily perceived.”  Newell goes on to suggest, “We need to rediscover ways of experiencing the light of the night, for it can open in us perceptions that are complementary to seeing by the light of day.”

I wonder if we are not missing out on much of what God has to say to us through His Creation by ignoring what goes on at night.  Do our observations of the earth have to cease once the sun goes down?  The Psalmist apparently didn’t think so.  In Psalm 8 he wrote, “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?” (vs. 3-4)   His observations of the night sky led him to awesome wonder and praise.  Our observations of the world around and above us at night might very well do the same.

I love the stillness of the night and the coolness that usually comes with it.  I love the shadows and silhouettes nighttime brings.  I love the sounds of nature you hear only at night.  And, like the Psalmist, I love looking at the moon and stars above.  These things help me feel closer to God.   They help me sense His presence.

I encourage you to look for ways you can enjoy nature at night and the revelations of God that come with it.  I’ll close with a prayer Philip Newell includes in his beautiful little book, Celtic Benediction“Glory to you, O God of the night, for the whiteness of the moon and the infinite stretches of dark space.  Let me be learning to love the night as I know and love the day.  Let me be learning to trust its darkness and to seek its subtle blessings.  Let me be learning the night’s way of seeing that in all things I may trace the mystery of your presence.”


(I took the top image at Death Valley National Park, the star trails in Kentucky, and the moonlit landscape at Big Bend National Park.)


Jul 25 2012

Creation as a House of Worship

“Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him all the earth.” Psalm 96:9

Where do you worship?  Most Christians, when asked this question, would likely answer “At church.”  That response makes sense since we often call churches “houses of worship.”  It’s where we go on Sundays or some other day of the week to worship God.  I have been going to church my entire life and have spent the last thirty-six years serving in churches.  Needless to say, I spend a lot of time “at church.”  Still, I would be the first to admit that church is not the only place where one can or should worship.  Worship ought to be a part of our everyday lives and by no means should it be limited to one set place.

As I have continued my studies of Celtic Spirituality I have been reminded over and over again that Creation itself is a “house of worship.”  In his excellent work, The Book of Creation, Philip Newell says “The Celtic tradition has a strong sense of the wildness of God.  Like nature it is unrestrainable.  A true worship of God, therefore, can neither be contained within the four walls of a sacred building nor restricted to the boundaries of religious tradition.”

Newell points out how the early Celtic Church “was characterized by patterns of worship and prayer under the open skies.”  He adds, “Earth, sea and sky, rather than enclosed sanctuaries, were the temple of God.”  Eventually the Celtic Christians would, indeed, build actual structures to worship in but they always held on to their conviction that “the holy mystery of God is unbounded.” Because God is everywhere we may worship Him anywhere.  That certainly does not mean that joining with other Christians in a church to worship is not necessary.  There will always be a need for corporate worship.  But hopefully we can learn to see Creation as a house of worship too.

In his first letter to Timothy Paul says he wants people “everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer.” (1 Timothy 2:8)  Perhaps this is just his way of saying everybody should worship God but it would seem it might also mean, “wherever you are, worship God.”  Since God deserves far more worship and praise than we can give Him in the limited time we are at church any given week, it would help us to realize that we are always in a house of worship and that wherever we are it is an appropriate place to give God our praise.


(I photographed the three “houses of worship” shown above at Garden of the Gods in Colorado, Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Portage Glacier in Alaska.)

Jul 8 2012

“And Would We Be Dumb!”

“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you.” –Job 12:7

The Irish monk Columbanus once said, “If you wish to know the Creator, come to know his creatures.”  Meister Eckhart echoed this thought when he wrote, “Every creature is a word of God and a book about God.”  Other Christians over the centuries have made similar claims.  There is this belief that since God made all the other creatures that inhabit this world, we should be open to the fact that He might have something He would like to teach us through them.

After noting in his volume, The Book of Creation, that Eriugena claimed every creature “can be called a theophany” or manifestation of God, Philip Newell goes on to write: “This is not to say that what is shown in a creature is the essence of God, for God is essentially unknowable.  Rather, what is manifested is an expression of God’s essence.”  Newell adds to this, “God, therefore, is not simply in every creature but is the essence of every creature.  At heart, creation—including our creatureliness—is a showing forth of the mystery of God.”   In everything that God has made we can perceive something of God’s nature and goodness.

In the passage from the Book of Job noted above we are reminded that the animals and birds that surround us can, in fact, teach us about God and His ways.  In order for us to learn from them we must first be humble enough to acknowledge that we do not know it all and that their existence may unlock some of the mysteries of God for us.  Once we have taken that first step we must go on to be good students.  This means learning all we can about the creatures God has made and paying close attention to those we have the privilege of seeing.  By being open to their instruction and through careful observation we may well be able to unlock some of “the mystery of God.”

In the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of hymns and prayers from the Celtic tradition, one woman declares, “Every creature on the earth here below and in the ocean beneath and in the air above was giving glory to the great God of the creatures and the worlds…and would we be dumb!”  One of the things we can learn from our fellow creatures is the necessity of giving glory to the God of Creation.  The animals and birds around us are constant reminders that we, too, are called to worship God.  If we’re looking for lessons to learn, this might be a very good place to start.


(I took the image of the moose above in Alaska, the raccoon in Kentucky, and the wood duck in California.)

Jun 27 2012

The Light of God

Yesterday I started reading Philip Newell’s book, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Sprirituality. I can already tell I’m going to love it. Its seven chapters are divided up by the seven days of Creation. Genesis 1:3-4 says “And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.” This passage is the focus of the first chapter.

Concerning Genesis 1:3-4 Newell says, “To say that light is created on the first day is to say that light is at the heart of life.  It is the beginning of creation in the sense that it is the essence or centre from which life proceeds.  At the heart of all that has life is the light of God.”  Newell makes sure to distinguish the light spoken of on the first day of Creation from the sun and moon that are created on the fourth day.  It is the light created on the first day that makes everything else possible.

Newell goes on to say “the heart of all life is the light of God.”  What he says next I find most intriguing. He claims “The more deeply we move in relation to any created thing the closer we approach ‘the divine brillance’ at the centre.”  In other words, the more we get to know other life forms the more we will come to know and experience the light which comes from God.  This means learning more about the flora and fauna that surround us, not to mention our fellow human beings, can bring us much spiritual benefit.

Even though the Scriptures declare that “God is light” Newell is careful to distinguish the light created on the first day of Creation from God Himself.  He says, “God is always more than that light. Though invisible, it is a created light and can never truly reveal the Uncreated.  God expresses the light of creation into being and yet is beyond creation; he is simultaneously immanenet to the universe and transcendent to it.”

Towards the end of the first chapter Newell draws some practical implications of what he has written.  He says “God is to be found not by stepping aside from the flow of daily life into religious moments and environments, or from looking away from creation to a spiritual realm beyond, but rather by entering attentively the depths of the present moment.” What wonderful advice! I encourage you to give Newell’s words some thought and to begin looking harder and deeper for that light which God spoke into existence the first day of Creation long ago.  As God Himself said, that light is “good.”


(This week I’m in Louisville on a summer mission trip with a group from my church.  We’re helping out at a facility with about 500 elderly residents.  On the grounds there are some nice gardens.  I took the pictures shown above there.)