Jan 7 2015

Divine Lessons From a Tree

e_DSC0863Many years ago while in seminary I took a class called The Classics of Christian Devotion.  It turned out to be one of my favorite classes of my entire graduate school experience.  Over the course of the semester the professor, Glenn Hinson, introduced us to many of the true “classics” of Christian literature.  We read and studied works by people like Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Thomas a’ Kempis, William Law, John Bunyan, Thomas Merton and Thomas Kelly.  One of the books that inspired me the most was Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the presence of God.  Brother Lawrence was a seventeenth century monk who earnestly desired an intimate relationship with God and developed a method whereby he disciplined himself to “practice” being aware of God’s presence every possible moment.  He said this eventually enabled him to feel God’s presence just as keenly while he was washing dishes in the monastery as when he shared Holy Communion.

e_DSC5134Earlier today I learned something I did not know about Brother Lawrence.  My friend Michael Boone shared on his Facebook page “R120” a passage from the book 131 Christians Everyone Should Know that tells how a tree played an instrumental role in Brother Lawrence’s spiritual development:  “In the deep of winter, Herman (his name before he was a monk) looked at a barren tree, stripped of leaves and fruit, waiting silently and patiently for the sure hope of summer abundance. Gazing at the tree, Herman grasped for the first time the extravagance of God’s grace and the unfailing sovereignty of divine providence. Like the tree, he himself was seemingly dead, but God had life waiting for him, and the turn of seasons would bring fullness. At that moment, he said, that leafless tree ‘first flashed in upon my soul the fact of God,’ and a love for God that never after ceased to burn.”

I find this to be a fascinating story and also yet one more reminder of how Creation serves as God’s “other Book.”  From the very beginning God has used the world of nature to speak to us.  Creation has many divine lessons to teach us but in order for us to learn these lessons we have to be open to instruction and also careful observers of God’s handiwork.

e_CES0370It is interesting that Brother Lawrence’s experience occurred in “the deep of winter.”  We are in that season now.  As you look around you this time of year what do you see in the natural world that might be offering you divine lessons?  The lesson Brother Lawrence received was a great one indeed but there are many others just as wonderful waiting to be discovered by those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.  We would all be wise to start paying more attention.


(I took the top image in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle image at the Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, and the bottom image at John James Audubon State Park.)

Oct 20 2013

Learning to See God in Creation

_CES9205This past weekend I had the privilege of leading the fall photo workshop at Pennyrile Forest State Park in western Kentucky.  It was a fun event and there were lots of great people on hand.  One of the things that I found exciting was how many children participated in the workshop.  These kids were quite enthusiastic about their photography and were eager to learn.  There were a number of adults who, likewise, seemed eager to learn.  Several of them had purchased nice digital cameras but weren’t sure how to use the features that came on them.  I did what I could to help them grasp a better understanding of how their cameras worked and what they could do with them.

_CES9264Doing the workshop caused me to reflect on my own learning experience with photography.  I purchased my first camera as a teenager and enjoyed taking pictures from the start.  I did not, however, bother back then learning how my camera worked.  Today it seems a miracle I ever got a decent image.  Twenty-one years ago I decided I wanted to become a serious photographer and quickly discovered I had a lot to learn.  There was much to learn about the mechanics of the camera.  There was also a great deal to learn about composition and taking pictures.  Some things could be learned in a book.   Other things required experience or perhaps even a teacher.  I stuck with it and eventually got to the point where I could consistently take good quality images.  I’ll be the first to admit, though, that I still have a lot to learn.  As long as I continue to take photographs I hope I will also continue to grow in my skills and craft.

_CES9218Everyone who wants to learn how to photograph has to start with the basics.  I think the same thing is true with seeing God in Creation.   For me those basics are the recognition that God is the Creator of this world and that God seeks to make Himself known through it.  And just as I believe anyone can learn to take good pictures I believe anyone can learn to see God in Creation.  Like with photography, some will learn how to do so quickly, for others it may take more time, but anyone who truly wants to see and experience God in nature can learn to do so.  Here, too, there are books that can serve as instructional guides.  Reading about seeing God in Creation second hand, however, will only take you so far.  You will also want to get out and gain experience yourself.  Take what you’ve learned in the books you’ve read, or perhaps even on this blog, and then go out and allow God’s Spirit to lead you into your own rich and rewarding experiences.

_CES9320Thomas Merton once said that when it comes to prayer we are always beginners.  I suspect the same thing is true when it comes to seeing God in Creation.  There probably are no “experts” in the field, but we can all grow, over time, to learn and see more and more.  Having good eyes and ears will certainly help but in the end it is the eyes and ears of the heart that matter the most.  I believe God will honor the desire of all those who earnestly seek Him.  The prophet Jeremiah heard God say, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” (29:13)  If we persist in our efforts to see God in His Creation, and do so with all our heart, we can count on having many wonderful experiences and revelations down the road.  That’s not my promise, it’s His.  In the end we will discover that God Himself will be our teacher and that He will make sure to show us the paths that will lead us into His presence.  How cool is that?


(The pictures shown above are some samples of what I took while at Pennyrile Forest State Park this weekend.)


Jun 23 2013

The Answer Center

Akaka Falls 213Yesterday I was driving into town when I saw a long line of people in front of a building.  As I got closer I looked to see what the building was.  The name on the front of it was “The Answer Center.”  When I saw this I couldn’t help but chuckle.  It made sense that a place where you can get answers would have a long line in front of it.  In fact, I was tempted to get in line myself.

CSP3967In this life we all have questions we’d like answers for.  One question many people ask is “what is the secret to happiness?”  Happiness tends to be one of humankind’s primary goals.  Everyone wants to be happy.  So what is the answer to the secret of happiness?  Shortly before seeing the line in front of the building yesterday I had pulled out one of my favorite Thomas Merton books, No Man Is an Island.  I was flipping through the pages when I came across a passage I had underlined a number of years ago.  It reads: “It is for this that we account ourselves happy when we know His will and do it, and realize that the greatest unhappiness is to have no sense of His purposes or His designs either for ourselves or for the rest of the world.”

I happen to believe that there are answers indeed to be found in Merton’s words.  If people want to experience true happiness they must come to know God’s will for their lives and do it.  If a person doesn’t have a sense of God purpose or design on his or her life it creates both confusion and unhappiness.  Our happiness is dependent on fulfilling God’s purpose for our lives.  It’s as simple and as complicated as that.

I would have you note, however, that Merton also points out that it is imperative that we also have some sense of God’s purposes and designs “for the rest of the world.”  I’ve read enough of Merton to know that he would include in this God’s purposes and designs for Creation.  He knew that if we do not understand God’s intention for Creation then it will affect our happiness.  How could it not?  If we do not have a clear sense of the role the world or Creation has to play in God’s design then we are likely to miss out on much in life.

LAV 837I have written several times about how the chief purpose of both humankind and Creation is to bring glory to God.  Recently I pointed to an important passage in Colossians 1 where we are told that the world was created by and for Christ. (v. 16)  In my own life I have discovered that I am most unhappy when I am centering everything on me.  There’s a reason for that.  The world does not center on me; it centers on Christ.  If we keep trying to make everything about us then we will remain unhappy.  But if we will live out our lives in the recognition that we, along with Creation itself, exist to bring glory to God it will end up bringing us a joy and happiness we will find nowhere else. 

In Merton’s words I find the “answer center’ I need.  Perhaps you will too.


(I took the top image of Akaka Falls in Hawaii, the middle image at Custer State Park in South Dakota, and the bottom image of lavendar on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

Sep 5 2012

Silence is Golden

“For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.”  Psalm 62:5 (ESV)

Yesterday I came across two different passages about noise and silence.  The first one I discovered while looking through Thomas Merton’s book, No Man is an Island.   The second one I discovered in a posting from “R120”on Facebook.  It is a passage from another one of my favorite writers, Henri Nouwen.  I want to share these two passages with you today and then make a couple of observations.

Merton wrote: “Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else.  They constantly defile the silence of the forests and the mountains and the sea. They bore through silent nature in every direction with their machines, for fear that the calm world might accuse them of their own emptiness.  The urgency of their swift movement seems to ignore the tranquility of nature by pretending to have a purpose. The loud plane seems for a moment to deny the reality of the clouds and of the sky, by its direction, its noise, and its pretended strength.  The silence of the sky remains when the plane has gone.  The tranquility of the clouds will remain when the plane has fallen apart.  It is the silence of the world that is real.  Our noise, our business, our purposes, and all our fatuous statements about our purposes, our business, and our noise: these are the illusion.  God is present, and His thought is alive and awake in the fullness and depth and breadth of all the silences of the world.”

Nouwen wrote: “Few of us can fully appreciate the terrible conspiracy of noise there is about us, noise that denies us the silence and solitude we need for this cultivation of the inner garden. It would not be hard to believe that the archenemy of God has conspired to surround us at every conceivable point in our lives with the interfering noises of civilization that, when left unmuffled, usually drown out the voice of God. He who walks with God will tell you plainly, God does not ordinarily shout to make Himself heard. As Elijah discovered, God tends to whisper in the garden.”

These two passages speak of the importance of silence in the spiritual journey and also to how difficult it can be to actually experience silence.  The world we live in is filled with noise.  Whether you live in a rural setting or an urban one there’s a lot of noise to contend with.  Needless to say, most of this noise is necessary.  The machines and appliances we use and enjoy all make noise.  The problem is this noise can, if we are not careful, keep us from hearing God’s “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12) and seeing Him in the world around us.

Over the centuries many of the masters of Christian spirituality have written about the importance of silence in the spiritual life.  They concur that we all need periods of silence and solitude in order to commune with God.  Experiencing silence, however, does not necessarily come easy.  Some people do everything they can to avoid silence.  I run across such people on a consistent basis.  Many people actually fear silence because there is something about silence that forces them to look within and to matters of the soul.  They intentionally fill their lives with noise so that they do not have to think of these things. Such people need to realize that silence is a vital component of the spiritual life.

Others desire silence but find it hard to obtain.  Here’s where I think nature can be of great help.  Although you will rarely, if ever, find complete silence in nature you will often find in God’s Creation a refuge from the noises that tend to distract us at home or in the workplace.  I realize that not everyone has easy access to quiet natural areas but many of us do.  We need to take advantage of these places.  In the stillness of Creation we can see and hear God in ways that might not come so readily elsewhere.

I encourage you to be intentional about seeking silence in your life, whether that be outdoors or indoors.  In my experience, silence truly is golden.  It is of the utmost value because it helps me experience more fully my wonderful God and Savior.


p.s. If you are on Facebook I would encourage you to search for and “like” the site “R120.”  Michael Boone posts wonderful inspirational quotes about nature at this site on a regular basis.  In case you’re wondering,  R120 stands for Romans 1:20.

(I took the top image at Big Bend National Park, the middle image at Death Valley National Park, and the bottom image at Jackson, New Hampshire.)

Sep 18 2011

Still Crazy After All These Years

“First of all, we must be present to ourselves.” –Thomas Merton

I have a trip coming up in a couple of weeks to Maine.  I love New England in the fall and am really looking forward to returning to that beautiful part of our country.  I’ve pulled out all my travel books for the areas I plan to photograph and even ordered a few more.  This is all well and good.  It’s what I should be doing prior to a photo trip.  But while all this is going on I’ve already started planning a trip to New Mexico later in the year.  Now I have not only books on Maine lying around the house, I’ve got books and maps of New Mexico scattered about as well. 

This may sound crazy but I’m having trouble focusing on the Maine trip because I’ve been thinking more about the New Mexico adventure.  Part of the reason may be that I will be revisiting sites in Maine I have already photographed, whereas in New Mexico I plan to visit several areas I’ve never visited.  Still, you would think I’d be able to focus on the trip that comes first.

What is even crazier is due to all of my planning and looking forward to the trips which are yet to come I have hardly paid notice to what’s going on in the natural world around me here and now.  Midweek I received a book in the mail from my blogging partner, Rob.  Interestingly enough, the subtitle of the book is “Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have.”  I had already started thinking about the madness of my always looking ahead and not living in the moment so when I got this book I felt compelled on Friday to go outside and see what was happening in my own yard.  The pictures you see here were all taken in my yard that day over about a twenty minute time frame.  When I made the effort to look there was plenty of beauty all around me.  It didn’t require any research or maps, no plane tickets or rental cars.  All it took was a deliberate act of living in the moment right where I was.

So, yes, I’m still crazy after all these years, but hopefully I’m learning.  And what I have written about here today goes far beyond just photography or viewing nature.  I fear that many of us miss out on much that God wants to show or tell us  day by day because we are too focused on either the past or the future.  The Psalmist declared, This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  (Psalm 118:24)  Yesterday is gone and tomorrow may never come.  This day, today, is a gift from God.  My primary job is to make the most of it.  I should strive to use all of my senses today to enjoy God’s Creation.  I should strive with all I have this day to love God and those around me.  Today, I should strive to live in the moment and be fully present.  And unless you’re crazy, so should you.


Jul 10 2011

An Attitude of Gratitude

This past Wednesday I shared some words with you from the end of a chapter in Thomas Merton’s book, No Man Is An Island. Actually those words weren’t at the very end of the chapter–just real close. At the very end Merton discusses the importance of gratitude and it’s role in seeing God in His Creation. He writes, “If we are not grateful to God, we cannot taste the joy of finding Him in His creation. To be ungrateful is to admit that we do not know Him, and that we love His creatures not for His sake but for our own.”

I think Merton is on to something here. We miss so much when we fail to live our lives with an attitude of gratitude. If we do not live our lives each day in the awareness that everything is a gift of God and an expression of His goodness we will miss the full blessing of His gifts. We may see a tree, flower or animal and be thankful for it but if we don’t also see in that same tree, flower or animal an expression of God’s love then our thanksgiving is not complete and we miss the full joy God intended.  

We are also reminded that ultimately we should love Creation for God’s sake instead of our own. The Bible indicates that the world was created for God’s glory.  We tend to think it is all about us but Paul says in First Corinthians 8:6 “yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him.” The world was made by God and for God. Yes, it brings us great delight and meets our needs in many ways, but if we fail to see that it exists first and foremost for His glory then we fail to see things as they are and also fail to appreciate things as we should. Our gratitude is intensified when we recognize this vital truth and we come to love Creation for God’s sake, not just our own.

In the final sentence of the chapter Merton says “Gratitude shows reverence to God in the way it makes use of His gifts.” I encourage you to give some thought to these words. What he says is true of our own personal gifts but it is also certainly true of the gift of Creation. If we are genuinely grateful for the world God has made it will be revealed not necessarily in how often we say “thank you” but in how we make use of this wonderful gift. Gratitude and Creation Care are intimately connected. I fear too many people have forgotten this or have not been made aware of the connection. Those who are most grateful for the natural world are the ones who are striving to be good stewards of it. According to Merton, they are also the ones showing the most reverence to God.


(I photographed the western chipmunk above in Oregon. The grizzly cubs were photographed at Katmai National Park in Alaska.)