Dec 26 2018

Learning from the Trees

I have loved trees since I was a little boy. I grew up playing in the woods and I think that has influenced my affection for trees. Since taking up nature photography over twenty-five years ago, there’s no telling how many trees I’ve photographed. They are one of my favorite subjects. I also have quite a few books on trees. Recently I’ve been reading The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben. It is a fascinating book and I’m learning a lot about trees in it. And about other things as well.

Early in the book Wohlleben makes the case that trees are social beings. He indicates that they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors. He goes on to say there are many advantages to trees working together. Wohlleben writes: “A tree is not a forest. On its own, a tree cannot establish a consistent local climate. It is at the mercy of wind and weather. But together, many trees create an ecosystem that moderates extremes of heat and cold, stores a great deal of water, and generates a great deal of humidity. And in this protected environment, trees can live to be very old. To get to this point, the community must remain intact no matter what. If every tree were looking out only for itself, then quite a few of them would never reach old age. Regular fatalities would result in many large gaps in the tree canopy, which would make it easier for storms to get inside the forest and uproot more trees. The heat of summer would reach the forest floor and dry it out. Every tree would suffer. Every tree, therefore, is valuable to the community and worth keeping around for as long as possible.”

Being a pastor, I have to admit that these words made me immediately think about the church. As Christians, we can only survive in community with other believers.   There are so many things we cannot do alone and were never meant to. We are meant to live out our faith with others. We are interdependent. Today a lot of people strive to be independent but this doesn’t work in the community of faith. We need each other, just like the trees do. We cannot afford to look out only for ourselves. Our spiritual lives are truncated and diminished when we isolate ourselves from other believers.  We hurt both ourselves and those around us.

Another important parallel is that just as every tree is valuable to the community or forest and worth keeping around as long as possible, every Christian is valuable to his or her community of faith and worth keeping around as long as possible. The apostle Paul made the same point when he talked about the church being like a body made up of different parts. He said all parts have a role to play and are, therefore, valuable and necessary. (See 1 Corinthians 12:14ff) We need to remember this for a lot of reasons. We must affirm the value of all members in our community of faith. We all need each other if we are going to grow and thrive. We all need each other if we are going to accomplish our purpose as a community of faith. Once again, there simply is no place for isolation in the community of faith.

Jesus encouraged us to “consider the lilies” and to pay attention to the birds. I suspect he would also encourage us to pay attention to the trees around us. They have a lot to teach us.


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.)

Aug 22 2012

We, Too, Have a Purpose

Last night I was reading a book that talked about how God made everything in Creation for a purpose.  This is a thought that has been addressed in this blog several times.  We have affirmed that everything God made is good and serves a purpose whether we realize what that purpose is or not.  We have also noted numerous times that there is a “web of life” and that everything is connected one way or another.  Somehow everything that God has created makes that web possible, which again means everything God has made is good.

I was thinking about all of this when it dawned on me that from time to time we need to reverse our thinking and let these same truths remind us that we, too, have a purpose in life.  Recognizing that everything else in nature has its purpose should help us see and remember that there is meaning and purpose in our lives as well.  I happen to believe that this is very important.  Unfortunately, many people today live their lives wondering why they are here or whether their life has any purpose.  The Scriptures declare that we are not here by accident and that every one of us has a purpose.  Like snowflakes we are all unique and that means God’s plan for our life will, likewise, be unique.  God’s plan for you and me will not be exactly alike.  Still, the Bible does indicate a number of areas where God’s purpose for us is the same.  I’ll mention here just two.

First, as members of the human race we are all called to care for the earth.  Genesis 2:15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”  Today we all share Adam’s task.  We, too, are called to be good stewards of the earth.  That is part of our purpose.

Second, we are all called to do good works.  In his letter to the Ephesians Paul says, “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (2:10)   You and I were not created to just hang out here on earth and have a grand time.  No, we were created to do good works.  We were placed here to serve one another and to help care for the earth.  We were created to make a difference.  It is here where our paths might diverge.  God may intend for you to focus on some particular need and me another.  If we all focused on the same thing many needs would go left unmet.  That’s why it is important that once we realize that we do have a divine purpose in life that we seek to discover what that particular purpose is for us and then fulfill it.

God has made everything for a purpose.  A careful observation of nature reveals this.  Everything but humans fulfills their purpose automatically.  We humans are different; we were granted free will.  That means we can choose to fulfill our purpose or we can choose not to.  Needless to say, many people choose not to fulfill their divine calling.  Most of the problems we see in the world today stem from people’s failure to be faithful to God’s will for their lives.  That’s the bad news.  The good news is there is hope for a better world because we still have the free will to choose to do what is right and fulfill our purpose.  Both God and Creation call us to do just that.  The question is, will we?



Aug 12 2012

Nature’s Dictionary

One of the primary reasons Rob and I started this blog site over three years ago was to help people see God in and through His Creation.  Both the Old and New Testament teach us that God makes Himself known through the world He has made.  Our lives are enriched spiritually by contact with nature.  Creation is, in fact, one of God’s primary ways of speaking to us.

This past week, while reading Psalm 36, I was reminded that Creation also helps us speak to God.  Pay close attention to the references to nature used in the Psalmist’s prayer: “Your love, O Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies.  Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your justice like the great deep.  O Lord, you preserve both man and beast.  How priceless is your unfailing love!  Both high and low among men find refuge in the shadow of your wings.  They feast on the abundance of your house; you give them drink from your river of delights.  For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light.” (vs. 5-9)

Here we see how nature not only reveals God to us but also gives us a means by which to speak of God’s greatness and our experience of Him.  Whether we are speaking directly to God in prayer or talking about God to others nature equips us with metaphors and images that enable us to describe more adequately our feelings.  The sky helps us describe the great scope of God’s love.  The mighty mountains give us a way to portray God’s righteousness. The ocean depths illustrate the extent of God’s justice. The wings of a bird provide us with a way to depict God’s protection.  God’s storehouse of treasures can be conveyed as a river of delights.  The gift of life itself can be viewed as a fountain.

There are certainly many other places in the Scriptures where nature helps give the biblical writers the words they need to pray to, or speak about, God.  At times you get the impression they would have been lost for words had it not been for what they saw in Creation.  Even Jesus asked us to “consider the lilies” and to “look at the birds” (Matthew 6) when attempting to teach us not to worry and to trust God to take care of our needs.  The apostle Paul, likewise, used imagery of nature throughout his letters to speak of the things of God.  He used things like trees, seeds, and fruit to convey his message.

We are invited to follow in the steps of Jesus, Paul, and the other biblical writers.  We, too, can use our observations of nature to help us pray and to speak about God.   Creation can become like a dictionary for us, providing just the right word we need to express our praise or to convey our thoughts about God.  If you’re not used to doing this I encourage you to give it a try.  You will soon discover that there is no shortage of possibilities.  Why, there are as many possibilities as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand on the shore or fish in the sea or ____________  (you fill in the blank).


(I took the top image of the Pacific Ocean at Point Reyes National Seashore in California; the middle image of the Russell Fork River at Breaks Interstate Park in Kentucky; and the bottom image of Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake at Denali National Park in Alaska.)

Jun 20 2012

What’s Your Plan?

Later today summer will officially arrive.  I say “officially” because the heat and humidity associated with summer arrived prematurely in southeastern Kentucky.  This time of year I don’t get outdoors any more than I have to.  I find the heat and humidity too oppressive.  For me summer is a great time for reading and reflection.  I plan to do plenty of both.

A number of years ago Mary Oliver wrote a poem called “The Summer Day” where she did some reflecting of her own.  I share this incredible poem with you here:  “Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper?  This grasshopper, I mean—the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down—who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.  Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.  Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.  I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.  I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day.  Tell me, what else should I have done?  Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?  Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

I’ve written in the past of my love for Oliver’s poetry.  I admire her attentiveness to nature and things spiritual.  I especially admire the way she often joins the two together.  In this poem Mary’s thoughts of nature lead her to think of both the brevity and meaning of life.  Paying attention to God’s Creation can have that effect on you.  Even a cursory look at nature may cause a person to ponder some of life’s most important questions.  Without a doubt, the question Mary Oliver asks at the end of her poem is one of these questions.

How would you answer Mary?  What do “you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”  So much hinges on a person’s response to this question.  If you haven’t stopped lately to consider this question I urge you to do so now.   As Oliver’s observations of nature revealed, we won’t be here forever so we need to make sure that we make what time we do have count.  The apostle Paul said much the same thing when we spoke of “redeeming the time” or “making the most of every opportunity” in Ephesians 5:16.  Both books of Scripture—the Bible and Creation—call for us to examine our lives and to make sure that we have a plan to make the most of the one life we have to live.  What is your plan?


(I photographed the black bear in the Smokies and the katydid in my yard.)

Jan 15 2012

Creation and Holiness

Can enjoying nature help lead one to be holy?  Perhaps so.  In his book, Consider the Lilies, T. M. Moore makes the argument that since Creation is a form of revelation like the Scriptures then it must have as one of its divine purposes our sanctification.  He explains it this way: “If we are daily more and more conscious of the presence of the Lord around us, and enthralled with the revelation of His glory and grandeur, we will be less inclined to follow those paths that we know to be displeasing to Him.” 

Moore goes on to use God pointing out the many marvels of nature to Job as one of the tools He used to set Job back on the right path.  He writes, “The majesty, beauty, power, and intimate care of God revealed in the things He has made, and daily sustains, brings Job to his knees and turns him from sliding into sin to pursuing holiness before the Lord.  It is reasonable to suppose that disciplining ourselves to discern the glory and grandeur of God in general revelation can have the same benefit for us, thus fulfilling one of God’s purposes in so making Himself known.”

I must admit I had never previously given much thought to the idea of God using Creation to make us holy.  I certainly knew that the beauty and wonder of God’s handiwork often leads me to worship and praise Him but the thought of Creation turning me from sin and toward the pursuit of holiness is something new.  It does, however, make sense and now that I think about it I can see how Creation has operated in this way in my life for many years.

I know from experience that I have often moved towards sin as a result of what someone has humorously called “stinking thinking.”  I suppose in some sense, all sin originates in the mind.  I also know from experience that being outdoors and paying attention to God’s Creation helps me to think more clearly.  When I’m enjoying nature I’m not thinking about money, power or sex—things that often get us moving in the wrong direction.  When I’m enjoying or pondering the wonders of Creation I’m not worrying about the things I tend to worry about.  Worry happens to be something else that leads me in the wrong direction.  In looking back I can now see how many times “seeing Creation” has kept me from “stinking thinking” and thus away from sin.  It has forced my attention time and time again to God and thus toward holiness.

The apostle Paul knew that what we think about will have a profound effect on our lives.  That’s why he said, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Philippians 4:8)  I’m sure Paul had a lot of different things in mind when he gave this list but I cannot help but believe that he would include here the wonders of God’s Creation.  There truly are benefits in thinking about “such things.”


(I took the top image in Zion National Park.  I took the bottom two at Arches National Park.  Both parks are located in southern Utah.)