May 22 2013

Eyes of the Heart

_CES8139I received a book in the mail a few days ago that has brought me a good bit of excitement. It’s called Eyes of the Heart: Photography as a Christian Contemplative Practice and was written by Christine Valters Paintner. I have long felt that there was a spiritual dimension to my photography. I have likened it in the past to a spiritual discipline. That is why I named my photography business Contemplative Images over twenty years ago. Photography has helped me see things in a way I had not prior to picking up a camera. In this new book Paintner gives a voice to my experience.

_CES2657In the introduction the author writes, “Photography as a spiritual practice combines the active art of image-receiving with the contemplative nature and open-heartedness of prayer. It cultivates what I call sacred seeing or seeing with the ‘eyes of the heart’ (Ephesians 1:18). This kind of seeing is our ability to receive the world around us at a deeper level than surface realities.” Later she adds, “Photography as a spiritual practice can help us to cultivate an awakened vision so we begin to really see.”

_CES5257I have often said that my nature photography is at times an act of worship. Paintner agrees with this. She says “Photography can be an act of silent worship. When we see the world with eyes of the heart, we can engage in an act of both reverence and self-expression. We can discover how the living Spirit is being revealed in the world.”

_CES8282As I’ve been reading this book I have rejoiced that someone has been able to put into words what I have felt for so long. The experience has been like finding just the right greeting card that says exactly what you wanted to say to someone but could never have come up with the words yourself. If you own a camera and would be willing to explore how it might be used as a spiritual tool I highly recommend that you purchase and read this book. It is not a book that will teach you how to use a camera (my blogging partner, Rob Sheppard has written plenty of those and I urge you to buy them too), but it will help you to see the world in a different way and this will make you a better photographer in the end. Practicing the principles taught in Paintner’s book will not necessarily help you create award winning images but will instead lead to something far better–a closer connection with God and His Creation.  In the end this book is as much about the contemplative life as it is photography.   It is a book that has the potential to change your life in more ways than one.   That’s saying a lot for a book that only cost me $11.86 on!


(The pictures I’ve used today are examples of my work I’ve come to call “macro therapy.”

Apr 17 2013

Keeping Things in Perspective

BB0096“You shall have no other gods before me.” Exodus 20:3

Bonita and I are spending a few days in Henderson, Kentucky. In a few weeks this will become our new home. We’re both here making preparations for our new jobs. I was asked to teach a Bible study on the parables while I was here and as I was doing some research on Jesus’ story about the Good Samaritan I came across an interesting passage in a book by John Claypool. Claypool offers some important insights I’d like to share with you.

MR 269First, he notes that in the biblical perspective there are only two orders of reality–the uncreated, which has life in itself, and the created, which derives its life from the other. God is the only example of uncreated reality; everything else falls under the second category. Claypool makes this point so as to stress that ultimately God alone is to be worshipped.  He writes: “Everything that derives its life from Another is to be nurtured; only the Lord God is to be worshipped and recognized as Absolute.”  He goes on to say, “If you and I can get the distinction between the two realities clear in our minds and learn to relate appropriately to each of them, this would be ‘the secret of eternal life,’ and the key to fulfilling the destiny that was intended for us.”

Claypool cautions us about making an idol of any created thing.  He says, “Whenever we take something that isn’t God and relate to it in a worshipful stance; that is, expect from it everything that we humans need, such behavior leads to profound disillusionment.” “Mark it down,” he says, “that just as you can never get milk from a statue or wine from a stone, you can’t get your ultimate fulfillment from anything say your divine Source. Whatever on the created side of the line is elevated to a place of worship…is going to leave one profoundly unfulfilled. It doesn’t have in it that for which our hearts ultimately hunger. We were made to live worshipfully toward the uncreated alone.”

UP near Twin Lakes 481I share Claypool’s thoughts with you because I think it is important that we keep things in perspective. All of us are guilty at times of worshipping other people or things–even Creation–rather than the Creator. This is wrong. All the good things we have in life are gifts from God. As Claypool points out, they are to be nurtured but not worshipped.

People like me who dearly love nature are sometimes accused of worshipping the Creation instead of the Creator. I know that one can certainly do this but in my experience my love for nature or Creation only leads me to love God more and increases my desire to worship Him. I fully realize that nature cannot bring me ultimate fulfillment but it certainly does direct my thoughts and passions to the One who can. I hope you can say the same.


(I took the top image at Big Bend National Park, the middle image at Mt. Rainier National Park, and the bottom image in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)

Feb 10 2013

A Broken Hallelujah

Highland-Hammock-SP-079During our worship service this morning one of our youth sang a song recorded by Mandisa called “Broken Hallelujah.”  I had not heard the song before but was deeply touched by it.  This beautiful song acknowledges that when our hearts have been broken “in a thousand pieces, maybe even more” that it can be difficult to offer God the praise He deserves.  Here are the words to the chorus: When all that I can sing is a broken hallelujah, when my only offering is shattered praise, still a song of adoration will rise up from these ruins.  I will worship You and give You thanks even when my only praise is a broken hallelujah.”  There can be no denying that there are times in each of our lives when it may be hard to praise God but that it is a noble thing when a person offers Him praise nonetheless, even if it is only a broken hallelujah.

On the way home from church I thought about the song and how the words had fit my life on a number of occasions.  It also hit me that there is a sense in which God’s Creation also at times has to offer a broken hallelujah.  The Bible teaches us that all of Creation offers God praise but considering what we have done to the earth perhaps in some places only a truncated or limited offering of praise is possible.  I think of clear-cut areas I’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest, mountaintop removal sites in the southern Appalachians, and areas drained for development in the Everglades.  I think of the polluted rivers and lakes I’ve seen, as well as urban settings covered with smog.  In so many places and in so many ways we have hindered Creation’s ability to offer God praise.

Hazard-926eI would like to think that even in those places where humans have altered the landscape and brought pollution that broken hallelujahs continue to be offered.  I would also like to think that through conservation efforts and by being better stewards of Creation we can help restore some of these areas and enable nature itself to offer a greater offering of praise to its Creator.  In fact, since I have been inspired numerous times by Creation to offer my own praise, I feel obligated to do what I can to help Creation fulfill its own task of worshiping God.  How about you?


(I took the top image at Highland Hammocks State Park in Florida.  The bottom image is a picture I took from an airplane of a mountaintop removal site near Hazard, KY.)

Nov 28 2012

“Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”

The season of Advent begins this coming Sunday.  I’ve noticed a number of bloggers are already addressing themes associated with Advent and Christmas.  For some reason, I’m still stuck on thanksgiving.  This past Sunday I preached a sermon in which I called on people to make thanksgiving a way of life, not just a holiday celebrated once a year.  There are certainly many biblical calls to thanksgiving.  The Psalmist encouraged us to enter God’s “gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.” (100:4)  The apostle Paul commanded the church at Thessalonica to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess. 5:18)  I believe that God deserves all the thanks and praise we can give Him and that living with an attitude of gratitude also makes life much more enjoyable and meaningful.

At the end of our service on Sunday we sang the wonderful hymn, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”  The words to this hymn were written by Henry van Dyke and the music was composed by Ludwig van Beethoven.  I’ve sung this song my entire life but had not really noticed all the references to nature in it until this past Sunday.  The second verse, in particular, is filled with allusions to Creation: “All thy works with joy surround thee, earth and heaven reflect thy rays, stars and angels sing around thee, center of unbroken praise.  Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, flashing sea, chanting bird and flowing fountain, call us to rejoice in thee.”

In one verse van Dyke speaks of our hearts unfolding to God like flowers before the sun above.  In this same verse one finds the plea, “fill us with the light of day.”  Another verse describes God as “well-spring of the joy of living, ocean depth of happy rest!”  In still yet another verse the writer calls on humans to join Creation in joyful praise but also bids “stars of morning, take your part.”

Beethoven’s music, taken from his Ninth Symphony, adds much to this delightful summons to praise.  It is truly a wonderful hymn and does a wonderful job of reminding us how we, along with the rest of Creation, are called to offer God joyful worship.  The Creator deserves not just the praise of His people but the adoration of all He has made!

Even though the Psalmist, and people like St. Francis and Henry van Dyke, called on Creation to give God praise I’m not sure how much we can do to spur the rest of Creation to worship God.  I have a feeling such spurring is actually unnecessary.  Unfortunately, it is we who often must be spurred.  So I want to encourage you to stop and count your blessings, to contemplate the goodness of both the Creator and the Creation, and then do your part in offering God your joyful adoration.  If you need some help doing so, try singing or listening to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee.”  I bet it will help.


(I took the top two images at Redwood National Park in California.  I photographed the chickadee at my home in Pikeville, Kentucky.)

Sep 23 2012

A Natural Partnership

I bought a book recently written by Benjamin M. Stewart called A Watered Garden. It was the book’s subtitle, Christian Worship and Earth’s Ecology, that drew me to it.  I was curious how the author would connect worship and ecology.  In the book’s first chapter Stewart writes, “…ecology and Christian worship both extend outward toward ‘everything,’ to attend to the worth of things, their interconnections with things seen and unseen, and their place in the whole living creation.  Their consideration together in a single theme is no novelty, but rather a natural partnership.  Both are, in fact, ways of seeing everything as part on the one great whole.”

I cannot help but agree that worship and ecology form a natural partnership.  When I spend time in nature, or even just study about it, I am often moved to offer worship to the God of Creation.  My love and appreciation for nature has long been a vital part of my life and spirituality.  For me, nature and the study of ecology are conducive to worship.

Any observant student of the Scriptures realizes that nature has played a pivotal role in worship from the very beginning.  God first makes Himself known to humans in a garden setting and there they learn that He is worthy of worship.  From Genesis to Revelation there are countless instances where nature comes into play, one way or another, in God’s revelation of Himself and in humankind’s response of worship.

In our worship service at church this morning there was no special emphasis but I noticed that the connection between worship and nature made a number of appearances.  The first hymn we sang was “How Great Thou Art.”  The words of the second verse are: “When through the woods and forest glades I wander, and hear the birds sing sweetly in the trees; when I look down from lofty mountain grandeur and hear the brook, and feel the gentle breeze; then sings my soul, my Savior God to thee, how great thou art, how great thou art!”  Shortly after this hymn we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together asking that God’s name be hallowed and that His kingdom come and His will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.”

In the children’s sermon the kids learned about how God used Moses to part the sea so the Hebrews could escape the pursuing Egyptians.  Among other things, this story teaches that God is Lord and Master of Creation.  Following the offering we sang together the “Doxology”: “Praise God from whom all blessings flow; praise Him all creatures here below; praise Him above ye heavenly host.  Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”  Here we are reminded that God is the Giver of all good gifts and that we, along with “all creatures here below” are called upon to praise Him.


The sermon I preached focused on Hebrews 11.  Although I did not talk about this particular verse we all read together the words: “By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command…” (v. 3)  In a chapter that highlights the importance of faith and faithfulness we were reminded that a central belief for Christians is the affirmation of God as Creator.

We ended our service today by singing a chorus based on Psalm 118:24.  “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  Here again was one last reminder that every day is a gift from God and that He is to be honored and worshipped as the Creator.

Perhaps there are some Sundays when we don’t have quite so many overt references to God and nature but it’s almost impossible to imagine a worship service without the connection being made in some form or fashion.  They are, after all, natural partners.


(I took the top image at Broke Leg Falls in Kentucky and the bottom two images in northern California.)

Jul 25 2012

Creation as a House of Worship

“Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him all the earth.” Psalm 96:9

Where do you worship?  Most Christians, when asked this question, would likely answer “At church.”  That response makes sense since we often call churches “houses of worship.”  It’s where we go on Sundays or some other day of the week to worship God.  I have been going to church my entire life and have spent the last thirty-six years serving in churches.  Needless to say, I spend a lot of time “at church.”  Still, I would be the first to admit that church is not the only place where one can or should worship.  Worship ought to be a part of our everyday lives and by no means should it be limited to one set place.

As I have continued my studies of Celtic Spirituality I have been reminded over and over again that Creation itself is a “house of worship.”  In his excellent work, The Book of Creation, Philip Newell says “The Celtic tradition has a strong sense of the wildness of God.  Like nature it is unrestrainable.  A true worship of God, therefore, can neither be contained within the four walls of a sacred building nor restricted to the boundaries of religious tradition.”

Newell points out how the early Celtic Church “was characterized by patterns of worship and prayer under the open skies.”  He adds, “Earth, sea and sky, rather than enclosed sanctuaries, were the temple of God.”  Eventually the Celtic Christians would, indeed, build actual structures to worship in but they always held on to their conviction that “the holy mystery of God is unbounded.” Because God is everywhere we may worship Him anywhere.  That certainly does not mean that joining with other Christians in a church to worship is not necessary.  There will always be a need for corporate worship.  But hopefully we can learn to see Creation as a house of worship too.

In his first letter to Timothy Paul says he wants people “everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer.” (1 Timothy 2:8)  Perhaps this is just his way of saying everybody should worship God but it would seem it might also mean, “wherever you are, worship God.”  Since God deserves far more worship and praise than we can give Him in the limited time we are at church any given week, it would help us to realize that we are always in a house of worship and that wherever we are it is an appropriate place to give God our praise.


(I photographed the three “houses of worship” shown above at Garden of the Gods in Colorado, Bryce Canyon in Utah, and Portage Glacier in Alaska.)