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.)


Jan 30 2015

A Winter Lesson on Prayer

Zion NP 106Last week my friend, Lon Oliver, gave me a copy of Song of the Sparrow which is a collection of meditations and poems to pray by Murray Bodo.  While flipping through its pages I noticed there was a section on winter called “Grey Days.”  Since we have had more than our fair share of grey days lately in western Kentucky I decided to start reading there.  I’m glad I did because I immediately found the following meditation on snow and prayer.

Arches South Arch 086“There’s something about snow on the landscape, something clean and protective, that insulates the heart and makes you feel secure.  You don’t notice the cold because usually you are inside a house or car looking out.  And in a world of snow quiet subtly seeps into the heart.  The atmosphere for prayer is something like this experience.  There must be silence outside, and the outside world must be somehow removed for the time of your watching.  You then see your world from a new perspective.  And even if it is cold and barren, you view it from the inner warmth of your own heart in union with God, and it looks white and beautiful again. Then you are ready to walk into the white snow made beautiful and warm by your new vision.”

I appreciate Bodo’s words but have to admit that putting them into practice is easier said than done for me.  I find it difficult to “remove” the outside world.  When I attempt to pray I am often so distracted by the outside world that the noise becomes deafening.  I know this is a common experience for many others and that gives me a bit of comfort.

Bryce Canyon 810The exterior world definitely has a way of dominating our interior world.  This keeps us from experiencing true quiet and peace.  It also affects the way we look at things.  Bodo is certainly correct; it should work the other way around.  Our interior world, or spiritual life, should ideally be influencing how we see the outside world.

Thomas Merton, who was born one hundred years ago tomorrow, once said when it comes to prayer we are all beginners.  After all these years I often do, in fact, feel like a beginner.  I realize however, that the approach Bodo writes about is possible and that with time and practice even I can come to the point where though it is cold and barren I see things from the inner warmth of my own heart in union with God.  I hope and pray I get there someday.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures used above while on a winter trip to Utah a number of years ago.)


Sep 28 2014

Praying With Nature in View

20101015_Red River Gorge_081Over the years there have been a number of people who have significantly helped me learn to see and experience God in Creation.  One such individual is John Philip Newell.  Newell has written numerous books on Celtic Spirituality that have been quite influential in my journey.  A couple of months ago I had the privilege of going to the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to participate in a workshop Newell led based on his newest book, The Rebirthing of God.  It was a delightful experience!  I especially enjoyed the morning and evening prayer times that were led by John Philip Newell and his wife, Ali.  They did a wonderful job of combining God’s two books–the Scriptures and Creation–during these times of prayer. This is something that I think that needs to be done more often.

In 2000 Newell published a beautiful little book called Celtic Benediction.  It is a collection of morning and evening prayers that Newell composed.  I highly encourage you to consider purchasing a copy.  After reading a couple of sample prayers below, I suspect you will want to do just that.

Raven Rock fallA Morning Prayer: “I watch this morning for the light that the darkness has not overcome.  I watch for the fire that was in the beginning and that burns still in the brilliance of the rising sun.  I watch for the glow of life that gleams in the growing earth and glistens in sea and sky.  I watch for your light, O God, in the eyes of every living creature and in the ever-living flame of my own soul.  If the grace of seeing were mine this day I would glimpse you in all that lives.  Grant me the grace of seeing this day.  Grant me the grace of seeing.”

An Evening Prayer: “In the infinity of night skies, in the free flashing of lightning, in whirling elemental winds you are God.  In the impenetrable mists of dark clouds, in the wild gusts of lashing rain, in the ageless rocks of the sea you are God and I bless you.  You are in all things and contained by no thing.  You are the Life of all life and beyond every name.  You are God and in the eternal mystery I praise you.”

e_DSC6673Prayers such as these, as well as the ones we offer from our own heart, can often be enhanced by praying outside or looking outdoors.  There is so much in nature that can help us better connect with the Creator.  If you are not accustomed to doing so, I encourage you to pray from time to time with God’s Creation in view.  It has made a difference in my life.  I can’t help but believe that it will in yours as well.

–Chuck 

p.s. Recently John Philip Newell has begun using some of my images to complement his prayers on his Facebook page.  I consider this a great honor and have enjoyed seeing how well the images enhance the beautiful prayers Newell has penned.  If you are on Facebook I encourage you to “like” his page, as well as that of his non-profit organization, Heartbeat: A Journey Toward Earth’s Wellbeing.

(I took the top image at Red River Gorge Geological Area and the middle one at Kingdom Come State Park.  Both of these are in eastern Kentucky.  The bottom image was taken near Great Basin National Park.)


Feb 23 2014

Through the Eyes of Love

_DSC0672In the book, Holy Ground: A Gathering of Voices on Caring for Creation, you will find a prayer penned by Brian McLaren.  I’ve been reading Brian’s books for a number of years and have had a chance to hear him speak a couple of times.  I know he shares with me a common love for God and nature so I was excited to discover this prayer recorded in Holy Ground.  The prayer is too long to include in its entirety here but I do want to share the final portion of it with you:

_DSC1522“We thank you, God,  for speaking to our world through Jesus.  He told us that,  just as you care for every sparrow, you care for us.  He reminded us that you give the wildflowers their natural beauty and you wish to clothe us with beauty in a similar way.  He taught us that wisdom is hidden in the growth of the smallest seed, in the turning of seasons, in every corner of your amazing creation.  He taught us to see every creature as beloved by you, God our Creator, and he called us to live with your love pulsing in our hearts.  So let us learn to see and love this good Earth as Jesus did, and to care for it and enjoy it and rejoice in it, so that the Earth may indeed be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”

I like the way Brian summarizes Jesus’ teachings in this prayer but there is something else here that caught my attention.  It is found in his last petition where he prays that we might “see and love this good Earth as Jesus did.”  Needless to say we talk a lot on this site about seeing Creation and also about loving it but I’m not sure I’ve ever given much thought to how Jesus actually saw and loved it.  Obviously, as Brian makes clear, Jesus saw Creation as a source of God’s revelation, but how did the world look to Jesus through his own eyes?

_DSC0408I suspect that Jesus saw far more than we tend to.  I imagine, for example, that he noticed the small and “ordinary” things of nature that we often pass right by without a second glance.  I can picture Jesus taking the time to soak in the beauty that surrounded him and meditating on what he saw.  No doubt Jesus looked at the flora and fauna, the geography and geology, about him with an understanding like no one else who has ever lived.  Ultimately, however, it’s hard for me to imagine just how Jesus looked at the world.  Here’s why…

_DSC0752In the Prologue to John’s Gospel we are told both that “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” and that “through him all things were made.” (1:14, 1:3)  It is impossible for me to comprehend the Word (God) becoming flesh; to try to grasp what it was like for the Creator to live in and look at the Creation is equally impossible.  I would imagine, however, that Jesus looked upon His own handiwork with great delight.  What he had created “in the beginning” as “good” was still good.  Perhaps the joy he felt in making all things was renewed and experienced again as he looked upon it all through human eyes.  The one thing I believe I can say with certainty is that Jesus saw the world he had created through the eyes of love.

I doubt that it is fully possible for us to see the earth as Jesus did but I know that if I could I would be even more grateful for it than I am now and would not be able to look at anything without wonder and awe.  It would be love at first sight, and second sight, and third sight…  As Brian McClaren prayed, I think I would also “care for it and enjoy it and rejoice in it” in ways I’ve not yet done.  For that reason I intend to make Brian’s prayer my own and encourage you to do the same.

–Chuck

(I took the four images above recently at a county park near my home.)