Dec 2 2016

Some Needful Reminders

_dsc1954In Celtic Prayers from Iona J. Philip Newell offers a series of morning and evening prayers for each day of the week.  In true Celtic fashion, many of the prayers focus on Creation.  I recently came across two of Newell’s prayers in this book that were especially meaningful to me and I want to share them with you.  The first prayer reads: “There is no plant in the ground but tells of your beauty, O Christ. There is no life in the sea but proclaims your goodness.  There is no bird on the wing, there is no star in the sky, there is nothing beneath the sun but is full of your blessing.  Lighten my understanding of your presence all around, O Christ.  Kindle my will to be caring for Creation.”

The second prayer reads: “You are above me O God; You are beneath; You are in air; You are in earth; You are beside me; You are within.  O God of heaven, you have made your home on earth in the broken body of Creation.  Kindle within me a love for you in all things.”

_dsc1477Both of these prayers remind us that God may be found in the world around us. This is an important reminder.  Often I pray the Lord’s Prayer when I am walking or hiking.  I always make an effort to remember that God is with me when I pray.  One way I do this is by pausing after the words “who art in heaven” and adding “and also in [wherever I happen to be].”  I believe God is both transcendent and immanent.  God is both far beyond me and also all around and within me.  Recognizing God’s nearness is important.  The exciting Advent/Christmas message that Christ came as Immanuel—God with us—is important to hold on to at all times.

The other truth Newell’s prayers convey is that God’s Creation is to be loved and cared for. If Creation truly is “God’s Other Book” and reveals to us the glory of God, how can we not love the Creation?  If Creation tells of God’s beauty, proclaims God’s goodness, and is a source of God’s blessing, how can we not long to care for it?  I would encourage you to pray with Newell, “Kindle within me a love for you in all things.”  Likewise, pray “Kindle my will to be caring for Creation.”

_dsc1516I truly believe that working to preserve and protect the Creation is both a religious obligation and an act of worship. I am also convinced that people of faith must now, more than ever, be willing to take a stand for Creation Care.  If we fail to care for the earth we not only fail God, we fail ourselves.  God forbid that should happen.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used above on a recent trip to southern Georgia.)


Dec 3 2015

Peace on Earth?

flipped cardinalI’ve been thinking about peace quite a bit lately.  Unfortunately, my thoughts have centered on its absence rather than its presence.  I sense a lack of peace in our world, in our country, in churches and, yes, even in my own life.  This morning as I was driving to work the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was playing on the radio.  In one of the verses there is found the words, And in despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth I said.  For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men.”  After the madness in San Bernardino yesterday and the attack in Colorado Springs a few days before that I felt there were no truer words.  Hate is incredibly strong these days and does, in fact, mock the songs of “peace on earth” we hear at Christmastime.

e_CES0395When I heard the words of the Christmas hymn this morning it reminded me of another song by my favorite rock band, U2, called “Peace on Earth.”  The first verse says Heaven on Earth, we need it now.  I’m sick of all of this hanging around.  Sick of sorrow.  Sick of pain. Sick of hearing again and again that there’s gonna be Peace on Earth.”  In the last verse Bono sings, “Jesus, this song you wrote–the words are sticking in my throat–Peace on Earth.  Hear it every Christmas time, but hope and history won’t rhyme.  So what’s it worth?  This peace on Earth?”  After each verse of U2’s song there is a chorus that includes the line “Jesus could you take the time to throw a drowning man a line? Peace on Earth.” 

Both songs express my frustration right now.  Where’s the peace?  Is peace even possible?  I’m beginning to have my doubts.  The Christmas songs I’m hearing right now that talk about peace have a hollowness to them.  Even the well-known passage in Luke 2 where the angels upon Jesus’ birth declare “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace…” seems somehow out of place this Advent season, especially considering how much killing is being done in the name of God these days.

e_CES0424To be honest, about the only place I can find peace right now is in nature.  I’m finding it more and more imperative for my mental and spiritual health to get into the woods.  Surrounded by God’s Creation I experience a tranquility that I don’t find elsewhere.  I believe that is not coincidental.  As I experience God’s peace in the woods I’m being led to pray more for peace.  I intend for this to become a greater focus in my prayer life and I hope that is going to happen in a lot of other people’s lives too.  We all need to be desperately praying for and working toward peace right now.

_DSC6059I have no doubt that God wills for us to know and experience peace but it’s just not happening.  Like Bono I’m sick of the sorrow and sick of the pain.  I’m also sick of all the hatred and violence.  I’m sick of the polarization that has infected almost every area of our lives.  I’m sick of hearing about people being killed.  I’m sick of the vitriolic and divisive language I see on Facebook everyday.  If we Christians are going to pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” then we are either going to have to conclude that God isn’t hearing our prayers or we are not doing our part.  I have no doubt it is the latter.  When we pray (or sing) “let there be peace on earth” I wonder if God doesn’t repeat the words back to us—“Let there be peace on earth.”  A major newspaper used the headline today “God Isn’t Fixing This.”  It was a reference to the rash of mass killings lately.  I have a feeling the paper is right.  God isn’t fixing this, God is counting on us to fix it.  We’ll need God’s help to do it but if it’s going to happen it will be up to us–to people like you and me.  I’m hoping the Prince of Peace will inspire, encourage, and equip us to be the peacemakers he called us to be long ago.  If we don’t fulfill this calling I shudder to think what the future holds.

–Chuck

(I took each of these pictures near my home in Henderson, KY.)


Nov 4 2015

Starting the Day Off Right

_DSC2359I have the privilege of teaching a Sunday School class each week. For the past few months we’ve been studying John Ortberg’s book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted.  In our session this past Sunday we were challenged by Ortberg to take seriously the apostle Paul’s injunction, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (Colossians 3:17)  He makes a big deal about Paul saying “whatever you do” and included a number of everyday instances where we ought to consider how we might do things “in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  One of those things was waking up.  How might we begin a new day as Jesus would?  We had a good discussion on this and there are certainly a lot of different things we might do. I happen to believe, however, that the best way we can start a new day is by praying.  I suspect Jesus would concur.  We might begin a new day by simply offering thanks for the gift of another day to live.  We might also offer our gratitude for mercies made new with the rising of the sun. (See Lamentations 3:22-23)  It would also be wise to ask for wisdom and guidance for the tasks ahead of us that day.

_DSC2590Over the years I have also found it helpful to read prayers or devotional thoughts at the beginning of a new day. There are lots of great resources available.  One of my favorite authors is John Philip Newell.  He has written a number of books that provide prayers for both morning and evening.  One of those is Sounds of the Eternal: A Celtic Psalter.  Here are a couple of morning prayers from this volume: “As daylight breaks the darkness of night, as the first movements of morning pierce the night’s stillness, so a new waking to life dawns with us, so a fresh beginning opens. In the early light of this day, in the first actions of this morning, let us be awake to life.  In our soul and in our seeing let us be alive to the gift of this new day, let us be fully alive.” 

Another one of Newell’s prayers reads: “Early in the morning we seek your presence, O God, not because you are ever absent from us but because often we are absent from you at the heart of each moment where you forever dwell.  In the rising of the sun, in the unfolding color and shape of the morning open our eyes to the mystery of this moment that in every moment we may know your life-giving presence.  Open our eyes to this moment that in every moment we may know you as the One who is always now.”

_DSC2545In many of Newell’s prayers he incorporates elements of Creation and uses them to lead us into prayer. This is something each of us can do as well.  I encourage you to pay attention each morning to what is going on in the natural world about you and allow what you see and hear to direct your prayers to the Maker of heaven and earth.  I really can’t think of a better way to start one’s day.

–Chuck

(The pictures shown above are some I’ve taken early in the morning this past week.  The top one was taken in southern Indian’s Hoosier National Forest and the bottom two were taken not far from my home in Henderson, KY.)


Sep 25 2015

A Walk in the Woods

_CES2442The title of this blog may lead you to believe I’m about to offer a review of the current movie, A Walk in the Woods, based on the book of the same name by Bill Bryson.   If that is what you were hoping I’m afraid I will disappoint you, although I will say I thoroughly enjoyed both the movie and the book. Instead I want to use this opportunity to encourage you to take a walk in the woods. For practically my whole life I have enjoyed spending time in the woods. For the last couple of decades I’ve escaped to the woods whenever time allowed to either hike or photograph. It has only been in the last month that I have started making a deliberate effort to walk in the woods every day. I am glad that I’ve done so for a variety of reasons.

_DSC9450There are certainly physical benefits that come from walking in the woods. I desperately need to lose some weight and this was what originally led me to begin walking every day at nearby John James Audubon State Park. I have a treadmill at my home but I’ve never been able to use it regularly for long periods of time, primarily because I find it terribly boring. I always dreaded getting on the treadmill. Walking in the woods has proven to be an altogether different story. I look forward to my time there each day. I’ve already lost ten pounds and am hoping that I’ll be able to lose a lot more.   Losing weight, however, is only one physical benefit of walking in the woods. Various studies have shown doing so may help prevent cancer and that the scents of the forest (think pine, fir, cedar and cypress trees) can help reduce stress. I’m not sure I understand how but some studies suggest walking in the woods aids memory retention and learning. Another study indicates that walking in the woods helps lower blood pressure to a greater degree than walking in an urban setting.

_CES2453There are also mental health benefits to be gained by taking a walk in the woods. Earlier this year a study led by Gregory Bratman was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that indicated that walking in the woods, even for a short duration, can decrease the pattern of thinking that is associated with the onset, in some cases, of mental illness like depression. The focus of this study was rumination, that pattern many of us have of reminding ourselves of all the bad things that are going on in our life. The study revealed that there is a change in brain activity that occurs when people walk in a natural setting that does not occur in an urban setting that is quite beneficial to mental health.

_CES7688In addition to having both physical and mental benefits, I have discovered that a walk in the woods also has spiritual benefits. Like many others, I feel a closeness to God when I am in the woods. Being surrounded by God’s Creation leads me to a greater awareness of the Creator’s presence. I have also found that the time I have alone in the woods as I walk is a great time to pray. My walks typically last between forty minutes and an hour. Most of that time is spent praying. In my everyday work life I find it hard to set aside that much time to pray. Thus, by walking in the woods my prayer life has been enhanced. Furthermore, as I have noted in another recent blog, I find that there are lots of spiritual lessons to be learned just by observing God’s Creation. With good reason both the wise writer of Proverbs (6:6, 30:24ff) and Jesus himself (Matthew 6:26, 28) encouraged us to pay attention to the natural world around us.

_CES7623With all of this in mind, I do want to encourage you to take a walk in the woods. I realize that may not be possible for everyone but if you are physically able and have access to a good natural setting to walk in do it. There are physical, mental and spiritual benefits just waiting for those who will take the time to do so. That I know for a fact.

–Chuck

(In order to get the full benefits of my daily walks in the woods I do not take my camera with me.  The pictures used above are, however, images I’ve captured at John James Audubon State Park here in Henderson, KY, and are typical of what I see each day.)


Sep 11 2015

Nature and Prayer Revisited

_CES2962I have a personal library of about 18,000 books. If I had to eliminate all but two I know which ones I would choose—a Bible and a hymnal. Hymns have played a vital role in my spiritual development and I’d be lost without them. Yesterday I was flipping through the hymnal my church uses (the Chalice Hymnal) and discovered a hymn I don’t remember seeing before. It is called God, Who Touches Earth with Beauty. This hymn, written by Mary S. Edgar, does a beautiful job of joining the themes of God, Creation and prayer together.  Here are the words: “God who touches earth with beauty, make my heart anew. With your Spirit recreate me pure and strong and true. Like your springs and running waters, make me crystal pure. Like your rocks of towering grandeur, make me strong and sure. Like your dancing waves in sunlight, make me glad and free. Like the straightness of the pine trees let me upright be. Like the arching of the heavens, lift my thoughts above. Turn my dreams to noble action, ministries of love.”

I think Edgar’s hymn can serve as a useful guide for “seeing Creation.” Throughout nature she finds things that direct her thoughts to God and she uses these images to inform and structure her prayers. Springs, running water, rocks, waves, and trees are all seen as visual aids for prayer.  In this hymn Edgar views God as someone who not only creates beauty but has the power to make our hearts anew.   She petitions the Creator to recreate her “pure and strong and true.” This is certainly a noble prayer. She also seeks greater purity and strength, an upright life and more lofty thoughts. I especially like her plea that God would turn her dreams to “noble action, ministries of love.”

_DSC9559Even though I’ve written about using nature as an aid to prayer before, I want to encourage you to consider once again how doing so can be beneficial. Recently I’ve been walking a couple of miles each day in the woods at our local state park. The trail I walk runs through a beautiful dense forest; there are trees everywhere.  A couple of days ago I found myself contemplating the trees.  I thought about how trees filter the air for us and provide shade.  Some produce food for us, others offer lumber or firewood. I can’t think of too many things that are more useful than a tree. Thinking about that, I asked God to make me useful too.

I also thought about the root systems of trees as I walked through the forest. Some trees send their roots deep into the ground while others spread them wide in more shallow soil. The trees that survive wind storms best are those with roots that run deep. Thinking about this I asked God to help me develop deep roots, or a strong foundation, that will enable me to endure the storms of life.

_DSC1366No matter where you live there are natural objects that can assist you in your prayer life if you will just pay close attention and listen for the Spirit’s promptings. This can happen as you drive your vehicle, take a walk, look out your window at home, or sit in a park. I’ve never encountered anyone who said they were satisfied with where they are in their prayer life. Perhaps this is what prompted Thomas Merton to once say when it comes to prayer we are all beginners. If you would like to strengthen or enhance your prayer life, let me suggest you consider intentionally using God’s Creation as a visual or audio aid. I have a sneaky suspicion this has been God’s intention for us all along.  And while you’re at it, make sure to offer thanks to the God who “touches earth with beauty.”

–Chuck

(I took the first image in the Ozarks and the bottom two in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)


Aug 7 2015

A Prayer for Creation

_DSC6890The two major concerns that are the focus of this blog, Seeing Creation, are nature and spirituality. My strong conviction, as most of you already know, is that the two go together. For most people a major component of spirituality is prayer. I wonder, however, how many people include nature or Creation as part of their prayers. Recently I came across a prayer in the book Earth Prayers that shows us how we might pray for God’s Creation. It is a beautiful prayer that many of us ought to consider praying.

_DSC7616“How much of Earth’s atmosphere must we contaminate? How many species must we abuse and extinguish?  How many people must we degrade and kill with toxic wastes before we learn to love and respect your Creation, before we learn to love and respect our home?  For our wrongs, Lord, we ask for forgiveness.  In sorrow for what we have done we offer our repentance. We pray that our actions toward You and Your Creation are worthy of our repentance, that we will so act here on earth that heaven will not be a shock to us. We promise to reverence Your Creation as a gracious gift entrusted to us by You, our God. We promise anew to be stewards and not pillagers of what You have entrusted to us. Creator God, You have given us every reason to learn and promote this wisdom of lives lived in harmony with Creation. May we, your servants, increasingly serve.  May we, your servants, increasingly come to love Your Creation as we increasingly come to love You, through Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.”

The questions that are offered at the beginning of this prayer deserve our attention–“How much of Earth’s atmosphere must we contaminate?”  Politicians debate even now whether clean air and water or business profits should be our primary concern. From God’s perspective is this even debatable?  The recent publicity over the killing of the lion known as Cecil has many raising the same question addressed in the prayer: “How many species must we abuse and extinguish?”  In a recent blog I wrote about environmental racism which resonates with the question, “How many people must we degrade and kill with toxic wastes…?”

_DSC7000The book, Earth Prayers was published in 1991 and in it this prayer is attributed to the North American Conference on Christianity and Ecology. If it was being penned today, I suspect other questions might be added to the ones already included. Perhaps one would ask “How many scientific studies must be conducted before we recognize the impending danger of Climate Change and start to make changes to counter it?”

Appropriately, the prayer not only raises questions but includes confession and repentance. Confession is important.  We need to admit to God that we have not been good stewards of Creation. Repentance is perhaps even more important.  We must mend our ways.  Just saying we are sorry won’t cut it; we have got to be willing to change our ways and do what we can to care for the Earth.

_DSC6976My hope is that all those who read this prayer will make the same promise to reverence God’s Creation “as a gracious gift entrusted to us” and to “be stewards and not pillagers” of what God has entrusted to us. I also hope, as stated in the prayer, that we will all come to love God’s Creation as we increasingly come to love God.

If you are not currently including Creation in your prayers now would be a good time to start and the prayer I’ve just shared with you wouldn’t be a bad one to begin with.

–Chuck

(The first, third and fourth images were taken at Cuyahoga Valley National Park.  The deer was photographed in my yard in Henderson, KY.)