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.)

May 16 2012

Brother Sun, Sister Moon

Some of the most famous words attributed to Francis of Assisi are the following: “All praise be yours, my Lord, through all that you have made, and first my Lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and light you give to us through him.  How beautiful he is, how radiant in all his splendor!  Of you, Most High, he bears the likeness.  All praise be yours, my Lord through Sister Moon and stars; in the heavens you made them bright and precious and fair…”

I suspect many would view St. Francis’ words as whimsical or strange.  Who goes around calling the sun her “brother” or the moon his “sister”?  Not many, I suppose, but I’ve come to appreciate the way Francis and others over the centuries have viewed various elements of God’s Creation as family members.  In fact, I wonder at times if some of our environmental woes may have been averted if we had not lost grasp of our familial connection to the rest of the earth.  Everything that exists—the sun, moon, earth, plants, animals, humans—has the same source, God.  We all come from God and we all belong to God.  That makes us family, does it not?

Two key ingredients in any healthy family are love and respect.  I am very thankful to be a part of a family where these two virtues are abundant.  Where these virtues are absent trouble is inevitable.  This is true not just for our immediate family but also for our extended family that includes all of Creation.   Every person and every thing that God has made deserves our love and respect.  If we do not extend them this there will be trouble.  You can count on it.

The rest of Creation is due our love and respect, if for no other reason, because God made it and it manifests His glory.  St. Francis’ words cited above reveal his belief that praise comes to God through all that He has made.  Note carefully his words “through all.”   Recognizing that all of God’s Creation should be viewed as family helped Francis see the beauty inherent in God’s handiwork.  This beauty, in turn, led him to offer his worship and praise to the Maker of heaven and earth.

Each day and each night we have visual reminders in the sky of God’s goodness and love.  Let us give thanks for “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon” for the light—both physical and spiritual—they shine upon us.  Let us also join with them in offering our praise to “the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17).  It’s a wonderful thing, after all, when families can do things together…


(I photographed the sunrise and moonset shown above a couple of weeks ago in Big Bend National Park.)


Nov 6 2011

Blessing the Animals

This morning at church we sang a hymn that begins with the words, “All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice and with us sing; Alleluia!  Alleluia!”  This hymn was written by Francis of Assisi.  Francis was known for his love for animals and it is said he often preached to them.  He saw them as his brothers and sisters.  Many continue to recognize our spiritual kinship to the animals we share this planet with.  In fact, this recognition has led several churches to have an annual blessing of the animals on St. Francis’ Feast Day, October 4.  People bring their pets, large and small, to a church or designated location and they receive a blessing from a minister.  When I lived in Middlesboro, Kentucky, I took our dog to such a service and had her blessed. 

I suspect a lot of people would think blessing animals to be sentimental nonsense but I cannot help but believe that this is a wonderful practice.  Like us, these animals were created by God.  In Genesis 1 we read “And God said, ‘Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds: livestock, creatures that move along the ground, and wild animals, each according to its kind.’  And it was so.  God made the wild animals according to their kinds, and all the creatures that move along the ground according to their kinds.  And God saw that it was good.”  This passage reminds us not only that God created the animals but that He also declared them to be good.  They were His idea and each plays a role in His Creation.  As such, they deserve to be blessed.

I really don’t know if anything special happens to the animals when they are blessed but I’m pretty sure that something happens to us.  We hopefully come to realize our kinship with the rest of Creation and also our responsibility to care for those God called “good” and St. Francis called his “brothers and sisters.”  My wife and I have a dog that we got from an animal shelter after it had been abused and abandoned.  Sierra has brought Bonita and I much joy.  I honestly see her as a blessing from God.  I can only hope she thinks the same when she looks up at me.


Oct 27 2010

The Source of Life

CVSP deer 704The Prologue to John’s Gospel (vs. 1-18) is an incredible passage of Scripture.  Last week I noted how John makes his claim here that Jesus (the “Word”) is one with God and is the Creator of all things: “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  (v. 3) In the next verse John follows this up by saying that Jesus is the source of all  life: “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”  As Leon Morris points out, “It is only because there is life in the Logos that there is life in anything on earth at all.  Life does not exist in its own right.  It is not even spoken of as made ‘by’ or ‘through’ the Word, but existing ‘in’ Him.”

For Christians it is important to understand that Jesus is the source of both Creation and life.  It is because of him that everything exists; it is because of him that everything has meaning.  I agree with what William Hull says in his commentary on the Fourth Gospel: “…every person ought to see that God is the powerful and thoughtful creator of the universe in the light of the miracle of life which abounds in human experience.” 

If we understood Christ to be the source of all life perhaps we would have a greater respect for life—all of it.   Furthermore, understanding that life is not a given but a gift, perhaps we would also have a greater appreciation for life—all of it. 

Dolly Sods 648It is because I believe that Jesus is the source of all life I affirm that all creatures and plant species are important.  Christ’s desire was for them to have life, just as it was his desire for us to have life.  It is also because I believe that Jesus is the source of all life that I feel a kinship with the rest of Creation—I share a common Maker with them and, like them, owe my very existence to him.  It is this kinship with the rest of Creation that led Francis of Assisi to refer to various animals as his “brothers and sisters.”

Today I join with the author of the Fourth Gospel in offering praise to Christ for being my Maker and the Source of all life.  I encourage you to join in with us.


(Both the whitetail deer and aster images were taken earlier this month in West Virginia.)

Jul 7 2010

Nature’s Trail

SNP-AT-089I have long been drawn to the life and teachings of Francis of Assisi.  Yesterday I took some time to listen to a lecture on Francis.  It was noted in this lecture that Francis believed that nature was a trail that led to God.  His thinking was that like following footprints in the snow can lead you to the one who left the prints, if you follow the footsteps of Creation they will lead you to the Creator.  This line of thinking is consistent with what the apostle Paul wrote in Romans 1:20:  “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

Francis’ belief that Creation led one to God no doubt contributed to his well-known love of nature.  It is what enabled him to write the Canticle of Brother Sun.  In this hymn Francis offers supreme praise to the “Most High, all powerful, good Lord.”  He then goes on to say, “Praised be You, My Lord, with all your creatures, especially Brother Sun…”  This is followed by praise for Sister Moon, Brother Wind, Brother Fire, Sister Water,  and Sister Mother Earth “who sustains and governs us, and produces varied fruits with colored flowers and herbs.”

In the lecture I listened to it was noted that in this hymn Francis mentions the four classical elements of nature: earth, wind, fire and water.  This could have been his way of claiming that all of Creation sings forth the glory of God.  In all that God has made we can find steps that lead us to Him.

If we could somehow adopt Francis’ view of nature’s trail leading to God it would greatly enhance our spiritual journey.  We might learn to pay more attention to God’s “other book” and be drawn closer to Him.  Adopting Francis’ view would also lead us to appreciate Creation more and instill within us a desire to be better stewards of the Earth.  This twelfth century saint has much to teach those willing to learn.


(The image above was taken a few summers ago on the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park.)