Aug 3 2014

No Ugly Landscapes

_DSC2766Last night I came across the following quotation by John Muir: “God never made an ugly landscape, so long as it is wild.”  Muir’s words made me smile.  In the past couple of weeks I have stood in the presence of a variety of landscapes.  I’ve looked up at 700 foot tall sand dunes and down into a 565 foot gorge.  I’ve driven through the high Sangre de Cristo (Blood of Christ) mountains and across barren desert flatlands.  I have photographed wildflowers in the sloughs near where I live and wandered amongst some unique geological formations in southern Illinois’ Shawnee National Forest.  The landscapes I have beheld in just this short time have been amazingly diverse and just as amazingly beautiful.

e_DSC3572e_DSC3572RGG3572I’m convinced Muir was right; “God never made an ugly landscape.”  Now there was a time when I would not have said this.  When I was much younger I was quite prejudiced concerning landscapes.  They had to be green or I didn’t like them.  Needless to say this gave me some trouble when I visited the desert.  I also loved  mountains and found it hard to appreciate any landscape that did not include these.  This is another prejudice I’ve been able to overcome.  Once you take the time to visit and truly get to know the various forms of landscape that exist you cannot help but come to the same conclusion as John Muir, there are no ugly landscapes.

All landscapes bear something of the beauty of their Creator.  Admittedly, that beauty is easier to find in some places than others but it is everywhere if you have the eyes to see or are willing to take the time to let that beauty make itself known to you.  Just as we often discover beauty in people we never thought we would once we let go of our prejudices and spend time with them, the beauty of natural landscapes can become clear when we approach them with an open mind and heart and without rushing past or through them.  Since the Bible declares that God makes Himself known through His Creation it is very important that we learn to find the beauty that is present in all wild landscapes.

_DSC5600Some of the prejudices we have concerning landscapes seem to have been imposed upon us.  Many have no desire to visit Death Valley National Park in California just because its name seems to imply a horrible landscape.  That is hardly the case.  Death Valley is beautiful!  Some would not consider visiting Badlands National Park in South Dakota because, after all, it is “bad land.” Wrong again.  In early and late light the beauty of the Badlands will take your breath away.  Titles like these are about as useful as the labels we give people.  They prejudice our thinking and keep us from exploring the beauty that is to be found in such places.

DV-986Muir believed that God made no ugly landscapes but he did not say there are no ugly landscapes.  The fact that he added the words “so long as it is wild” indicate that what ugly landscapes he had beheld were not made that way by God but by the hand of man.  Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed a number of those ugly landscapes myself.  I’ve seen the scars left from mountain top removal and the clear cutting of forests.  I’ve visited many places where natural beauty once was prevalent but now can hardly be found.  Perhaps it was inevitable that this would happen but that makes it no less sad.  In such places the glory God intended to reveal will not be found.

BL7199I feel incredibly blessed to have traveled as much as I have during my life and to have seen so many different types of beautiful landscapes.  Each one has led me to a greater admiration of the Creator and has also taught me things I needed to know about God and myself.  If you’re looking for a good reason to visit some new landscapes, I’m not sure there is a better one than that.


(I took the first image at Great Sand Dunes National Park, the second one at Rio Grande Gorge, the third at Illinois’ Garden of the Gods, the fourth at Death Valley National Park, and the fifth one at Badlands National Park.)

Apr 4 2012

Can Death Valley Be Simply Defined?

Chuck and I enjoyed our visit to Death Valley last week. This is a huge park. It is the largest national park in the U.S. outside of Alaska. Because Death Valley is so open, you can see long distances. You can drive for a while and not see much of a change because of these distances. Chuck gave me a hard time because I kept talking about how big it seemed. I had to wonder what it had been like when early prospectors and settlers came through here with horses and wagons. Those distances must have seemed immense.

But what exactly is Death Valley? Is it just a place of vast space? No. As we spent time in the park, we visited many places. Is Death Valley the mountains around it? Certainly they help define the place, but they are not the place. Is Death Valley the dried lake beds with mud patterns? Part of the place, but not the place. Is Death Valley the strange salt deposits and the patterns they make? Definitely something of the place, but not the place. Is Death Valley the Salt Creek  pupfish who have remarkably adapted to the heat and salt of limited water? Amazing creatures that add to the place, but they are not the place.

Death Valley is all of this and more. It is a place that is far greater than its parts.

This made me think a bit about how we see God. Over the years, God has meant many things to me: Christ the Savior, creator of our world, a moral guide, a God of comfort, a God of compassion, a God of guidance, a God who affects my life, and this list could go on and on. All of these things are of God, but none are God. Like Death Valley, God is difficult to comprehend and fully understand.

David says in Psalm 145:3, Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom. And in Isaiah 55:8-9, it is written, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

I think that we often try to contain God in small, understandable bits. I know that I have done that over the years. Yet God cannot be contained in any human-based thoughts. Just as Death Valley is not contained in any one thing, so God is not contained in any one thing, too. I enjoyed Death Valley even though my mind wanted to define it and contain it. When I let go of that idea, the place became bigger in a better way. I was still awed by the space, but I was not as overwhelmed and intimidated by it. I accepted that it was truly beyond my full understanding.

For me, that is also important about how I see God. My scientifically trained mind wants to define and contain God, but when I let go of doing that and simply accept that God is awesome and much more than anything I will ever be able to conceive, I actually find my relationship to God is stronger and more peaceful. My prayer is to simply accept God as God, something far beyond my understanding, but still a key part of my life.

— Rob

Mar 25 2012


Yesterday I had a chance to photograph the highest mountain in the contiguous United States, Mount Whitney.  Later today I will be photographing at the lowest point in the United States, Death Valley.  I find it fascinating that these two extreme points are not very far apart. Sometimes life’s extremes are not that far apart either.  In a single day we may find ourselves moving from deep despair to jubliation or the other way around. We may also find ourselves several places in between.

I noted in my last entry how we have the assurance that God is with us even in the deepest valleys of our lives.  We also have the confidence that He is present with us when we are standing on the proverbial “mountain top” as well.  Thankfully we can likewise affirm that God is with us at all points in between.  In Psalm 139 David asks, “Where can I go from your Spirit?  Where can I flee from your presence?  If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.  If I rise on the wings of dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” (vs. 7-10)

It is interesting that David ties God’s continuous presence to the fact that He is also his Creator.  In verse 13, after he has made it clear that there is nowhere he can go to escape from God’s presence, he says, “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”  Recognizing God as his Maker, and also as his constant Companion, David could not help but worship God.  He said, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” (v. 14)

If we can come to comprehend that God is our Creator, too, and that He is there for us in the extremes of life as well as all points in between, then we will likewise find ourselves offering God our worship and praise.  How could we not? Today you can rest assured that God is with you wherever you are and whatever your circumstances.  If you’re high as Mt. Whitney, rejoice knowing that God is with you and that He shares your joy.  If you’re as low as Death Valley, I hope you’ll find both peace and comfort knowing that you are not alone and that the Maker of heaven and earth both cares for you and is there to help you.


(I took the picture of Mount Whitney yesterday morning.  I took the image of Death Valley several years ago.)

Mar 21 2012


In a few minutes I’ll be heading to California.  Once there I’m hooking up with Rob and we plan to solve all the world’s problems in the next week and also do some photography.  One of the locations where we will be photographing is Death Valley National Park.  I have been there a couple of times before so I’m really looking forward to it.  However, when I’ve told people recently where I’m going they all seem to indicate they have no desire to go there.  Apparently it doesn’t sound like a very inviting place.  But it is!  Perhaps the name itself bothers people but I can assure you that Death Valley is full of life and beauty.

There are lots of references to valleys in the Bible.  No doubt the one that comes to people’s minds first is “the valley of the shadow of death.”  This valley, of course, is mentioned in Psalm 23.  Many people over the years have found comfort in this particular psalm.  At times of death a lot of people turn to it.  They like hearing that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” (v. 4)  I must admit it is, indeed, comforting to know that God is with us in our times of grief and when we die.  Many biblical scholars have noted, however, that the way this verse has been translated may be misleading.  A better translation may be “the darkest valley” instead of “the valley of the shadow of death.”

If we take this alternative translation it expands the meaning.  The Psalmist’s assurance now goes beyond just times of death and dying to any period in our life when we are struggling, any period which we might characterize by “darkness.”  This is, certainly, the truth.  The Bible offers us numerous assurances that God is with us wherever we go and whatever our circumstances.  Jesus promised his disciples before leaving this world that he would be with them always, to the very end of the age. (Matthew 28:20)

I look forward to being in Death Valley in a few days.  While there, I plan to offer thanks for God’s constant presence in my life.  Wherever you happen to be, I hope you will do the same.


(I took the pictures above on previous trips to Death Valley National Park.)