Sep 9 2016

“Watchin’ and Listenin'”

wy-yellowstone-np-grand-prismatic-springLast night I decided it was time for me to reread C. S. Lewis’ classic series The Chronicles of Narnia.  I began with the first book, The Magician’s Nephew.  It is in this volume that Lewis tells the story of the founding of Narnia.  It will be obvious to most people that Lewis’ tale parallels to a certain degree the Creation story found in Genesis 1.

wy-yellowstone-np-lower-falls-vThe beginnings of Narnia are witnessed by a handful of humans from earth and a wicked witch that have travelled through time and space by using some magic rings. They all witness the arrival of the lion Aslan and his singing the new world into creation.  They do not, however, all witness this in the same way.  The two children are in awe of what they see.  The witch ends up running off in fear.  Another character immediately begins to see the potential for making a fortune from what was being created before his very eyes.  After this same character offers a complaint while so many wonderful things were happening all around him a different character says to him, “Oh stow it, Guv’nor, do stow it. Watchin’ and listenin’s the thing at present, not talking.”

I think these words are some a lot of us need to pay heed to when we stand before God and God’s Creation. Even now God’s Creation continues to unfold all around us.  Like the characters in the book, we too are witnesses of God’s ongoing Creation.  The Bible makes it clear that God is not finished with the work He started long ago.  God is creating still.  As we witness this ongoing work we would be wise to do more watching and listening than talking.  We’ll see, hear, and learn a lot more that way.

wy-yellowstone-np-giant-geyserA couple of weeks ago Rob Sheppard came to visit me and I was reminded how lax I had become in listening to Creation. Living near Los Angeles, California, Rob does not get to hear the sounds he was hearing where I live.  He opened the window in our guest room so he could hear the crickets and cicadas.  When we walked through John James Audubon State Park he commented on the sounds of the forest.  All of the sounds he pointed out were common ones that I no longer really pay attention to.  I guess I’ve come to take them for granted.  That is not good.  In order to get the most out of God’s “Other Book” I need to do more “watchin’ and listenin’.”  I suspect a lot of people do.  Perhaps recognizing that is a first step in moving toward a greater experience of God through Creation.  I hope so anyway.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown above at Yellowstone National Park.  This is one spot where God’s ongoing work of Creation seems pretty obvious.)


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.)


Oct 12 2015

“The Incomparable Sanity”

e_DSC9538It is good for us when we are young because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest…  It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there.”  Wallace Stegner

For the past week I have been in California traveling with my friend, Rob Sheppard. We have covered a lot of territory during this time. We have driven through the Mojave desert, wandered around the mountains and valleys of the eastern Sierras, visited Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks on the west side of the Sierras, and traveled farther westward to take in Pinnacles National Park. We saw first light on Mount Whitney from the Alabama Hills, watched a glorious sunrise from high on Onion Valley, walked reverently among the ancient bristlecone pine trees high atop the White Mountains, and marveled at the truly giant sequoias in the park that bears their name. At Pinnacles National Park we got to see a plethora of wildlife and enjoy the scenic beauty of our newest national park.  Without a doubt we  have been blessed!

e_DSC0793The words of Wallace Stegner that begin this blog I saw on a wayside exhibit at Kings Canyon National Park a couple of days ago. They concern Stegner’s view of wilderness and why he thought preserving and experiencing it is important for both young and old alike. Even though I certainly fall in the “old” category when it comes to age, I still find wilderness necessary because of “the incomparable sanity” it brings me in a world which sometimes seems mad. Recent school shootings, terrorist attacks, the craziness that comes with each political season, and a lot of other things I could mention. makes me at times want to stop the world and get off. Every time I read the news or watch it on television here lately I get either angry, depressed or discouraged.

e_DSC9655Spending a week in wilderness settings has helped put things in perspective a bit. Walking amongst bristlecone pine trees that have been around over four thousand years and looking up at giant sequoias that tower to the skies has a way of doing that. In the wilderness one finds a peace and quiet that is next to  impossible to experience in the regular hustle and bustle of everyday life. Walking in the woods and observing the miracles of God’s Creation has a way of restoring peace and rekindling one’s faith. At least it does for me. And I honestly believe that God intended this to be true for everyone else. The awesome Creation we have been blessed with was not made just to provide for our physical needs; God ordered the natural world so that spiritual needs might be met as well. That’s why in Psalm 23 David writes about God making him lie down in “green pastures” and leading him beside “still waters.” I also get the impression that’s why Jesus during difficult times in his life often got away from everyone and communed with God in “lonely places.” In the beginning God declared the goodness of Creation and that goodness is seen, in part, in the therapeutic and spiritual benefits it provides us all.

e_DSC0138I’ll not elaborate here on the second part of Stegner’s words but I happen to believe it to be true. Now that I am “old” or older I find myself just grateful knowing that there are wilderness areas still available for people like me who sometimes find this world to be anything but sane.  I just hope we can preserve such places for future generations.  I have a feeling they are going to need them…

–Chuck

(The pictures used above are some I took this past week in California.)


Jul 8 2015

The “Trembling Giant” and the Church

_DSC7241A couple of years ago Rob and I spent some time photographing at Great Basin National Park in Nevada.  As we got to the end of our time there he asked if I minded if we stopped at the Pando forest in Utah on the way back.  I had never heard of it.  He told me of reading about it in one of Jane Goodall’s recent books and how it is a clonal colony of quacking aspens.  Some researchers believe that it is the earth’s oldest living thing, some 80,000 years old.  Intrigued by this we drove to Fish Lake, Utah, and found the forest.  I say “forest” but in reality it is a single tree with a massive underground root system that has produced what appears to be some 47,000 trees springing from that system.  Standing in the midst of Pando it was hard to comprehend how all we saw was part of one thing.

_DSC7235Yesterday I was reading Rachel Held Evans new book, Searching For Sunday, and came across a chapter where she, too, talks about the Pando forest.  She shares the same basic information above but also indicates that a name has been given to this ancient tree, Trembling Giant.  Rachel then goes on to draw some interesting and pertinent analogies between the Pando and the church.  She notes, “At last count, there are nearly as many denominations in Christianity as there are trees growing from Pando.  Each one looks different—beautiful and broken in its own way—but we all share the same DNA.”  She concludes the chapter with these words: “Our differences matter, but ultimately, the boundaries we build between one another are but accidental fences in the endless continuum of God’s grace.  We are both a forest and a single tree—one big Trembling Giant, stirred by an invisible force.”

I really like Evan’s comparison of the Pando and the church.  It makes sense.  The apostle Paul uses a different analogy than Evans in his Corinthian correspondence to make the same point: “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body.  So it is with Christ.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.”  (1 Cor. 12:12-13)

_DSC7208The main reason I’m writing about this today is I am very concerned about how polarized things are in Christianity these days.  The way many Christians attack one another you would think we were in the midst of a civil war.  Some Christian groups believe that they have a monopoly on truth and that all others are either not Christians or sub-Christian.  The sources of contention are innumerable but include things like how one views the inspiration of Scripture, the age of the earth, the Second Coming, the sacraments, women in ministry, etc.  If you do not agree with some Christians about any of these, or other matters, you are deemed a heretic or worse.

What is so crazy about this is we are all one Body.  We’re like the trees Rob and I saw at the Pando forest.  What we saw with our eyes appeared to be a bunch of different trees but in reality was one living organism.  There’s no way the various churches or denominations in the world are going to agree on everything.  I’m not even sure they should.  I’m convinced our diversity should be honored and celebrated.  God is bigger than all of us combined so how could any one group get it all right?

_DSC7309I wish somehow, someway, we would quit focusing on what separates us as Christians and concentrate on what we have in common.  As the New Testament boldly affirms “there is one body and one Spirit…one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:6)  Just hours before he was crucified Jesus prayed earnestly that his followers “might be one.” (John 17:21)  I don’t believe he expected us to all be or think exactly alike but we are to live our lives cognizant of the fact that in him we are all one.  Another thing Jesus sought to make clear before his death was that his followers should be known first and foremost by their love for one another.  He said, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 35)  My hope and prayer is that followers of Christ will learn to set aside their differences, focus on what they have in common, and actually present a unified witness to the world that is characterized by love.  Is that too much to ask?  Jesus didn’t think so.

–Chuck

(I took the pictures shown here at the Pando forest in Utah.)


Apr 17 2015

The Circle of Love

Clingman Dome sunset (h) crThis past week Rob Sheppard was here doing a photography workshop for John James Audubon State Park.  Once the workshop was over we had some time to run around and visit some of my favorite places in the area.  One of those places is New Harmony, Indiana.  Once the site of an utopian experiment it is now something of a living museum.  The Roofless Church is located there and a number of historic buildings.  In New Harmony you will find a memorial garden honoring Paul Tillich and a number of other impressive gardens.  New Harmony also features a couple of labyrinths.

AGPix_summers402_0387_Lg[1]Labyrinths have been used for centuries as a tool for prayer.  I took Rob to one labyrinth that is modeled after the famous one located at the cathedral at Chartres.  While we were there I noticed a sign I don’t remember seeing before.  On that sign was the following quotation attributed to Black Elk: “Everything the Power of the World does is done in a circle.  The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls.  Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours.  The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle.  The moon does the same, and both are round.  Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were.  The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves.”

I remember from some previous studies that circles were very important to Native Americans.  Some believed that natural arches continued underground and formed circles.  Medicine wheels also played an important role in some tribes.  Black Elk’s words remind us that there are many examples in nature where the Creator has utilized circles—the earth, stars, wind, nests, the sun and moon, and the seasons.

_CES7969I like to think that a circle also portrays the love of God as it is revealed in the Scriptures.  The Bible declares that “God is love” and I believe that God’s love encircles or encompasses everybody.  I also happen to believe that you and I are supposed to love as God has loved us.  At our recent Maundy Thursday service, where we paused to remember Jesus’ “new commandment” which tells us that we are to love one another as Christ has loved us, I used a passage from a poem by Edwin Markham as part of my message: “He drew a circle that shut me out–heretic , rebel, a thing to flout. But love and I had the wit to win: We drew a circle and took him in!  I do, in fact, think God likes circles and that when it comes to love He expects us to draw a circle that will take everyone in, even our enemies.

When I pause to remember that the circle of God’s love included me I feel both obligated and inspired to love others too. I hope you’ll think about that when you happen to come across one of the many circles that can be found in nature. Perhaps one reason God used so many circles was He knew we would need the reminders.

–Chuck

(I took the top image in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle one in Middlesboro, KY, and the bottom one in Henderson, KY.)


Aug 17 2014

My New Hero

_DSC6224I have a new hero now.  It happened by accident a few days ago.  Rob Sheppard and I hooked up in Missouri for a few days of photography in the southwest portion of the state.  We wanted to explore the prairies in the area.  It just so happened that one of the prairies we visited ended up being located quite close to the George Washington Carver National Monument.  Since we were that close by we decided we’d stop in and visit the place.  That decision proved to be a significant one for both of us.

_DSC6217Neither of us knew much about Carver other than he was an Afro-American who became famous for studying peanuts.  I have long used a particular quotation by Carver when I do talks on God and Creation.  He once said, “Nature is an unlimited broadcasting station through which God speaks to us every hour—if we will only tune in.”  Based on that quotation I assumed Carver was a person of faith.  I had no idea just how much so until touring the national monument that bears his name.

_DSC6201George Washington Carver grew up a slave that knew neither his mother or father.  He fell in love with nature as a young boy and in particular was fond of wildflowers.  With great determination he pursued an education, something that was not easy to do for a black person at that time in history.  He was extremely bright and talented.  He had great artistic talent and was also a musician, but he was destined to make an impact on the world through his botanical studies.  The list of his accomplishments is staggering.  In his book on Carver called The Man Who Talks With the Flowers Glenn Clark says “he discovered 300 new uses for the peanut and 150 new uses for the sweet potato and before he was through he had rebuilt the agriculture of the south.”  A movie about Carver’s accomplishment was shown at the national monument and after viewing it Rob and I both marveled that most people know so little about this great man.  His story truly is an amazing and  inspiring one.  It is a story of one who endured great hardship and adversity but overcame it.  It is a story of faith and perseverance.

Had blogs been in existence in his day it wouldn’t surprise me if Carver would not have written one similar to Seeing Creation.  He wrote and spoke often of the close connection between God and nature.  He once said, “nature in its varied forms are the little windows through which God permits me to commune with Him, and to see much of His glory, majesty, and power by simply lifting the curtain and looking in.”  At another time he said, “More and more as we come closer and closer in touch with nature and its teaching we are able to see the Divine and are therefore fitted to interpret correctly the various languages spoken by all forms of nature about us.”

_DSC6206George Washington Carver spent a great deal of time in communion with both God and nature.  He often gave God credit for his many discoveries and encouraged people to get to know both God and nature better.  He urged people to experience nature more, saying, “Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books,  for they speak with the voice of God.”  Once Carver came to look at the world this way he said “never since have I been without this consciousness of the Creator speaking to me through flowers, rocks, animals, plants, and all other aspects of His creation.”

I read a brief biography on Carver last night and it made me even more aware of what a person of faith he was.  His faith in God connected him even closer to nature and also to his fellowman.   He committed his life to studying one and to serving the other.  Carver lived a life characterized by humility and integrity.   He showed the world that faith and science are not opposites but companions.  He showed the world what one person who lives for the glory of God can do.  For all of these reasons and more, I now have a new hero.  How the world could use some more people like George Washington Carver today!

–Chuck

(All four of the pictures used above were taken at the George Washington Carver National Monument this past week.)