Nov 30 2018

Landscapes and Prayer

I recently started reading John O’Donohue’s book, Walking in Wonder: Eternal Wisdom for a Modern World.  In the opening chapter I found some words about landscape that resonated with me.  I suspect they will with many of you as well.  O’Donohue writes: “I love mountains. I feel that mountains are huge contemplatives.  They are there and they are in the presence up to their necks and they are still in it and with it and within it.  One of the lovely ways to pray is to take your body out into a landscape and to be still in it.  Your body is made out of clay, so your body is actually a miniature landscape that has got up from under the earth and is now walking on the normal landscape.  If you go out for several hours into a place that is wild, your mind begins to slow down, down, down.  What is happening is that the clay of your body is retrieving its own sense of sisterhood with the great clay of the landscape.  Water in a landscape is a fascinating thing as well.  I often think that water is the tears of the earth’s joy and sadness.  Every kind of water in a landscape has a different kind of tonality and a different kind of presence to it…  I also think that trees are incredible presences.  There is incredible symmetry in a tree, between its inner life and its outer life, between its rooted memory and its external active presence.  A tree grows up and down at once and produces enough branches to incarnate wild divinity.  It doesn’t limit itself—it reaches for the sky and it reaches for the source, all in one seamless kind of movement.  So I think landscape is an incredible, mystical teacher, and when you begin to tune into its sacred presence, something shifts inside you.” 

O’Donohue goes on to say, “One of the lovely developments in consciousness…is this dawning recognition that we are guests of the universe, and that landscape was the firstborn of creation and was here hundreds of millions of years before us. It knows what is actually going on.  To put it in a theological way, I feel that landscape is always at prayer, and its prayer is seamless.  It is always enfolded in the presence.  It is a high work of imagination, because there is no repetition in a landscape.  Every stone, every tree, every field is a different place.  When your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is to actually be here.”

I appreciate what O’Donohue has to say and can relate to it. I believe God does make Himself known through the Creation.  All of God’s works bear the mark of the Creator.  This includes the landscape.  This helps explain why many of us find ourselves closest to God in nature.  It also explains why prayer seems to come easier for us when we are out in nature.  Is it too much to believe that rest of Creation prays alongside us and contributes to our prayer?  O’Donohue specifically mentions mountains, water and trees as elements of the landscape that draw him to the presence of God.  These three elements have contributed much to my own experience of God as well.  I don’t think that is a coincidence.  In the Scriptures God is often found in mountains, water and trees.

If only we had eyes to see we would discover God all around us, in all the different parts of the landscape. And O’Donohue is right, “when your eye begins to become attentive to this panorama of differentiation, then you realize what a privilege it is actually to be here.”  What a privilege indeed!

–Chuck

(I took the images shown above on a recent trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.)


Nov 8 2017

Discovering the Presence of God in Nature

_DSC6845I’ve recently come across two quotations from a couple of my favorite spiritual writers—C. S. Lewis and Thomas Merton. The subject matter is amazingly similar.  Lewis writes, “We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him.  He walks everywhere incognito.  And the incognito is not always hard to penetrate.  The real labor is to remember, to attend.  In fact, to come awake.  Still more, to remain awake.”  I’m not sure where all Lewis had in mind as places where we can find God incognito but I have no doubt he would have included nature.  The Scriptures are clear that God’s presence can be found in Creation.  This, in fact, seems to be one of God’s best hiding places.  But for those with eyes to see and ears to hear it is not hard to discover God there.  But Lewis is right, the difficult part is remembering to “attend” or pay attention.  It takes great discipline to become and “remain awake.”

_DSC6725How, then, can we pay better attention and learn to remain awake? One answer is prayer.  Thomas Merton, who I am convinced did a good job of paying attention and remaining awake to God in nature, prayed a prayer that no doubt helped.  It reads, “Let me seek, then, the gift of silence, and poverty, and solitude, where everything I touch is turned into prayer: where the sky is my prayer, the birds are my prayer, the wind in the trees is my prayer, for God is all in all.”  If we turn to the world in silence and solitude, with a poverty of spirit, it will be impossible not to experience the presence of God.  Like C. S. Lewis, Merton believed God could be found everywhere and when one comes to see God in all places and spaces then all the world becomes a prayer.

Merton mentioned the sky, the birds, and the wind in the trees as personal forms of prayers. What parts of nature have become prayers for you?

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above on a trip last month to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)


Apr 17 2017

There’s Always Something…

_CES4895Recently I had a chance to go to California and spend a week photographing with Rob Sheppard. It turned out to be a marvelous trip.  Everywhere we went there seemed to be something special waiting for us to explore and photograph.  Numerous times I found myself saying “Wow!”  Even more often I would catch myself saying “Thank you!” to God for the blessing of getting to see what I saw.  There were several adorable sea otters that we were able to spend time with around Morro Bay.  We also had many opportunities to enjoy this year’s super display of wildflowers.  At Carrizo Plains National Monument we saw wildflowers flowing across thousands of acres and even into the mountains.  It was a marvelous sight to behold.  We spent a good bit of time along the central coast of California and the beauty there likewise called for countless expressions of gratitude.  I felt incredibly blessed to see all I did.

A few days ago I was looking at a book I own which happens to be a collection of “famous prayers.” I came across one prayer that helped remind me that for those with eyes to see there are always blessings in nature waiting to be seen.  The prayer spoke to me and perhaps it will to you as well.  It was penned by John Oxenham and is taken from “A Little Te Deum of the Commonplace.”

_DSC3216“For all the first sweet flushings of the spring; The greening earth, the tender heavenly blue; The rich brown furrows gaping for the seed; For all thy grace in bursting bud and leaf… For hedgerows sweet with hawthorn and wild rose; For meadows spread with gold and gemmed with stars, For every tint of every tiniest flower, For every daisy smiling to the sun; For every bird that builds in joyous hope, For every lamb that frisks beside its dam, For every leaf that rustles in the wind, For spring poplar, and for spreading oak, For queenly birch, and lofty swaying elm; For the great cedar’s benedictory grace, For earth’s ten thousand fragrant incenses, Sweet altar-gifts from leaf and fruit and flower… For ripening summer and the harvesting; For all the rich autumnal glories spread—The flaming pageant of the ripening woods, The fiery gorse, the heather-purpled hills, The rustling leaves that fly before the wind and lie below the hedgerows whispering; For meadows silver-white with hoary dew; For sheer delight of tasting once again that first crisp breath, of winter in the air; The pictured pane; the new white world without; The sparkling hedgerows witchery of lace, The soft white flakes that fold the sleeping earth; The cold without, the cheerier warm within… For all the glowing heart of Christmas-tide, We thank thee, Lord!”

_CES5080Oxenham is right, there is always something in God’s Creation to catch our attention and elicit our praise and thanksgiving. Needless to say, some things catch our eyes or attention quicker than others but if we will really pay attention we will find plenty to give thanks for no matter where we are or what time of the year it happens to be.  What are you seeing right now that leads you to offer a prayer of thanksgiving?

–Chuck

(I took the three pictures shown above on my recent trip to California.)


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.)