Jun 21 2017

Taming the Tongue

SM509Deadly wildfires are in the news again. In central Portugal a large forest fire has claimed over sixty lives and has yet to be contained.  At first the fire was thought to originate with a lightning strike but a BBC report today indicates that a “criminal hand” might have actually caused the massive fire.  We know from history that it doesn’t take much to start a giant forest fire.  A single match or a carelessly discarded cigarette can start a blaze that takes lives, destroys homes, kills wildlife and devastates a forest.  That is why we must be very careful when handling such objects.

I thought of the Portugal fire as I was studying the third chapter of the book of James this week. In this section James talks about the deadly potential of the tongue.  He notes that though the tongue is small it has a way of directing or controlling our lives.  James compares the tongue to a bit that controls a large horse and to a relatively small rudder that directs a giant ship.  Then James says “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body.” (vs. 5-6)

e_DSC7161The graphic images that are being shown of the forest fire in Portugal are not only a reminder of the dangers of fire, they are also powerful reminders of the dangers of the tongue. The words we use can, like fire, be deadly.  They can hurt people and destroy lives.  As a child I remember learning the rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”  Whoever came up with this saying was an idiot!  Careless and harmful words can cause wounds that hurt worse and last longer than those caused by sticks or stone.  Most of us can bear witness to that.

James declares that “all kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and creatures of the sea are being tamed and have been tamed by man, but no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (vs. 7-8)  This is a sad commentary on our state but who could deny it is accurate?  Perhaps we’ll never be able to fully tame the tongue but surely we can do better than we have. I certainly hope so.  In so many arenas our language has become caustic and vitriolic.  People get hurt every day.

_CES0880Obviously I cannot control what others say but I do have some control over what I say. So do you.  Let us, therefore, choose to speak words that encourage, help, comfort and heal, not words that hurt, discourage and tear down others.  Long ago the Psalmist offered this prayer: “Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips. Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil.” (141:3-4)  If we would be willing to offer this prayer at the beginning of each day, I can’t help but believe it would go a long way in eliminating a lot of needless and harmful words.  Smokey the Bear used to say “Only you can prevent forest fires.”  James would have us understand that same thing holds true for the verbal ones.


Sep 8 2013

Bristlecone Pine and Whose Values Anyway?

SC Bristlecone-03This summer I was privileged to spend a couple of days in the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. For me, this is a spiritual place, a place that enhances my connection to God. There is something about being among and photographing trees that are thousands of years old in a place hard to access high on the mountains. There were some people in the Patriarch Grove, but I have never seen this place crowded because the road into the grove is a long, narrow, winding mountain road filled with sharp rocks that threaten tires. It can take up 45 minutes to traverse the 12 miles from the end of paved road to the Patriarch Grove.

Once there, I wandered among the striking trees, feeling honored to be there photographing them. That might seem odd if you have never been there. After all, how can you be honored by trees that don’t think? I felt honored to be in a special place of God’s creation. I stayed until after dark and even played a bit with star photography and the trees.

SC Bristlecone-01These trees live under difficult and challenging conditions. They grow in a soil too harsh for other trees, plus these trees deal with a short growing season high in mountains, severe winter conditions, and low annual rainfall. Bristlecone pine can live with only 10% of their bark left. They grow so slowly in the dry conditions and a very short growing season that their wood becomes extremely dense and resistant to mold, fungi and insects. Bristlecone pine grow in other areas more normally, but here, they handle the conditions quite well.

Now I have heard people say that these trees grow in spite of inhabitable conditions, that they are survivors against the odds. I can’t agree with that. I think that diminishes God’s creation. It implies man’s values rather than God’s values. These conditions may be inhospitable to man, but obviously they are not inhospitable to these amazing trees that hold adaptations for the conditions. Would God feel sorry for these trees growing in “inhospitable conditions”? I don’t think so. They are part of God’s creation, not man’s creation. Oh, those poor trees with only 10% of their bark left! Not really. That’s man’s values. These trees are smartly attuned to the difficult conditions for any other tree.

SC Bristlecone-02It seems to me that we want to attach our values to many things in nature without wondering what is God’s will. The Rim Fire in California near Yosemite is another example. It certainly is troublesome when it threatens people, but on the other hand, it is not going to “destroy” Yosemite, as I have heard news people say (“the Rim Fire threatens to destroy large areas of Yosemite”). We are beginning to understand that fire is actually a part of nature, a part of the world that God made. In some areas, such as Yosemite and its surroundings, fire has always been part of the environment, the ecology, God’s creation. In fact, much of Yosemite is quite unlike what it looked like when the white man first came there and started suppressing fires. Fire in such places is only “bad” from our perspective, not necessarily from God’s. Smokey the Bear came not from God, but from lumber interests that wanted the forests “protected” to protect “their” trees and any potential income they could get from them. In Proverbs 3:5, it says, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” (NIV) I also like the translation in The Message: “Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure everything out on your own.”

We cannot possibly understand the immensity, the mystery of God, the wisdom of His creation, but then we can trust in God’s wisdom. When things grow in unique places, like the bristlecone pine, that does not mean they are suffering or any better or worse than any other part of God’s creation. They simply are and they are a beautiful part of that creation. When natural events like fires occur, they are disasters only in our eyes, not necessarily in God’s. And I will be a little harsh about people, too. Building a home in an area that burns and then getting upset it burns is kind of counter productive, and then blaming God for not protecting people is a bit odd.

There is an old story that has a number of forms about a man who expects God’s help. In one form, he desperately needs money because he has lost his job and has big medical bills. He prays to win the lottery. The lottery comes and goes – he wins nothing. He tries again, praying more fervently, prostrating himself on the ground. He wins nothing. Really desperate now, he spends all day and night praying non-stop before the next lottery. And again, he wins nothing. He rails against God, “Why have you forsaken me?” God replies, “It would help if you bought a lottery ticket.”

And it helps if we treat nature as part of God’s values, not ours. We cannot expect to do things the way we want to, based on our values, like the man wanting to win the lottery, if we do not follow God’s will and His values.

— Rob

Feb 9 2011


RRG Auxier Ridge 221Last night I had a chance to go to Lexington to see the University of Kentucky play Tennessee in basketball.  As a diehard U.K. fan this was a real treat for me.  The drive to Lexington and back is a pretty one.  At one point the road skirts one of my favorite places to photograph in Kentucky—the Red River Gorge National Geological Area.  As I drove through this area yesterday, and then again this morning,I couldn’t help but recall my last photo trip there and what happened shortly thereafter.

RRG Auxier Ridge 212Having been inspired by the beautiful images of Auxier Ridge taken by my friend John Snell, I decided in October to visit this incredible area of the Red River Gorge located in the Daniel Boone National Forest.  A friend and I left Pikeville early so that we could hike the two miles to the ridge for sunrise.  It was an incredible morning!  Fog lay in the valleys and as the sun began to rise there was glorious light cast on the colorful autumn foliage and sandstone ridges.  I was able to take numerous images I really like that day.  As the morning wore on we soon noticed that there was smoke rising from a number of campsites in the valley.  This caught our attention because due to a recent drought there was a fire ban in the Gorge at the time.

A couple of days later I learned that a fire broke out in the Gorge as a result of one of these illegal fires.  An estimated 1,650 acres of some of Kentucky’s most beautiful scenery was torched.   The trail to Auxier Ridge remains closed to this day  and will be dangerous for a long time to come.  Eventually the forest will recover but not in my lifetime.  This makes me sad. I’m sad for myself but also for all the other people who will not have the chance to view what I did this past October.

The Auxier Ridge fire reminds us that our actions do have consequences.  This fire should never have happened.  It’s not surprising it did, however, for it has been estimated that over 200 illegal fires were lit during the ban in the Gorge.   How could that many people be that selfish or irresponsible?

RRG Double Arch 242I ask this question and yet millions of people are treating the earth today in the same exact selfish and irresponsible way.  We have developed a mindset that anything that benefits “me” is permissible.  We feel we can pretty much do with the earth anything we want.  This past Sunday we read in my church Psalm 24:1 which says, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.”  We really do need to remember that the earth is the Lord’s, not ours.  At a Creation Care workshop this past Saturday in Frankfort, KY, I heard Matthew Sleeth speak on our responsibility to the earth.  He asked if God were to give us a brand new car to borrow would we bring it back to him later on all beat up and battered?  Or would we try to take care of it?  I think the answer is obvious and, yet, we are constantly beating up the earth as though it were not a wonderful gift from God on loan to us.  I’m angry at those who caused the fire in the Red River Gorge this past fall.  There’s no excuse for their selfishness and irresponsibility.  But what my drive to Lexington and back has also reminded me of is that there is no excuse for my own selfishness and irresponsibility when it comes to seeing Creation as God’s gift to us and my call to be a faithful steward of it.  We simply cannot continue to live and act as though there are no consequences to our actions!


(I took these images of Auxier Ridge this past October; the day the fire started.)

Jan 9 2011

Fire, Thorns & Grace

BRSP 002At the end of December I spent a few days visiting my in-laws in the panhandle of Florida.  While there I drove over to Blackwater River State Park to do some photography.  The picture above is one I took almost as soon as I entered the park.   This scene caught my eye because of the contrast it presented with my last visit to this park a few years ago.  On that trip this same area had just experienced a prescribed burn.  The longleaf pines that live in this area depend on such fires for survival.   On this most recent visit the forest certainly seemed healthy.   Many people have trouble comprehending how fires can be good for a forest but in situations like this they truly are.

About the same time I visited Blackwater River State Park I was preparing to preach a sermon on the apostle Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” mentioned in Second Corinthians 12:7.  We do not know for certain the precise nature of Paul’s “thorn.”  Whatever it was, it was excruciatingly painful.  The Greek word translated “thorn” was used to describe a stake upon which one might be impaled.   Paul prayed three times that God might remove whatever was causing him pain but God chose not to.  He told Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”  Rather than be disheartened by this Paul said that he would boast all the more gladly about his weaknesses so that Christ’s power may rest on him.

BRSP 045Pain and suffering, like fire in a forest, may seem to be a strange blessing but it can be one nonetheless.  I know of few spiritual giants, past or present, who have not had to suffer much.  Pain and suffering has a way of causing one to turn to and rely on God.  When we do so we discover, like Paul, that God’s grace truly is sufficient.   In our weakness we experience God’s power in ways we might not otherwise. 

I confess that God’s ways are often mysterious.  He can use fires to make forests healthier.  He can use pain and suffering to make us stronger and draw us closer to Him.  He truly is an amazing God!


(The bottom picture shows Blackwater River.  Its dark color is caused by tanins.  It is one of the purest sand-bottom rivers in the country.)

Sep 4 2009

Fire and nature

FL-prescribed burnRight now there are some big fires burning outside of Los Angeles. The media wants to make this a Los Angeles fire, but it really isn’t. The big Station fire is mostly burning in the wild areas to the north of the populated areas.

Fire confuses us. On the one hand, it gives us warmth and provides energy for many things. On the other hand, it can quickly burn down a home and or destroy a business.

For some people, fire related to God is seen only as fire from hell, as punishment. Yet fire is also a way that God has spoken to people throughout the Bible, from the burning bush and Moses to I Kings 18:24, “…the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” These are not negative or bad things, but a positive use of fire. Fire is dramatic, but then so can be God. Fire in the wild can be a mesmerizing thing, something wild and uncontrolled by man. Maybe that is why fire has often symbolized God’s speaking to man.

The Station fire has covered 226 square miles. Note I did not say it destroyed that area. It didn’t, no matter what the news media has said. Much of Southern California is chaparral, a landscape that does burn. However, the plants growing there are adapted to recovery from fire. Few woody plants are actually killed. Most resprout quickly after a fire. In addition, there are many plants whose seeds only sprout after fire or smoke.

It would seem that God has made this land to meet specific environmental conditions. Those conditions can mean drought and dry weather, so the plants and animals that live there adapt. Such conditions can also mean fires, so the plants and animals adapt to that, too. For man to be horrified and feel the fires are only destructive is to be man centered, and to me, a bit arrogant that somehow we know better than God what is right for the world.

This is not to say that fires aren’t a problem. A big challenge is how we build homes and businesses into areas that are likely to burn. One answer that short-sighted folks have is to bulldoze the plants, the chaparral instead of appreciating it for the miracle of life in a specific environment. Are we to believe God randomly created chaparral for us to destroy as we desire? Bulldozing chaparral is far worse than fire. The challenge is living with this place with understanding and smart building rather than trying to impose arbitrary man-based ideas on a world that was not made for that. Lives and buildings can be protected through proper community design and fire preparation around homes, not trying to strip the backcountry of native plant communities, ecosystems that have long been adapted to the conditions here.

The fire in the photo here is from a prescribed burn in Florida. Such fires keep the long-life pine/wiregrass ecosystem healthy and less likely to burn inappropriately. Unfortunately, such fires are not appropriate for chaparral as the ecosystem is not the same. Some people want to apply ideas from one area blindly to another rather than understanding how every ecosystem is unique. I believe we need to understand and appreciate God’s world as it is, not make it into something else that is centered on man’s ego. I like the expression I heard the other day that ego is Edge God Out. Our ego can make us believe we know everything about the world and how to control it, but as these fires in Southern California prove, that is far from the truth.

— Rob