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.


Jun 26 2016

Nature’s Saints

_DSC0843As noted a few weeks ago, recently I have been rereading a number of Thomas Merton books. Earlier this week I started reading New Seeds of Contemplation once again.  I soon came across a fascinating section where Merton talks at length about how created things give glory to God simply by doing what they were created to do.  Merton says, “A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him.  It ‘consents,’ so to speak, to His creative love.  It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree.” Later he adds, “…each particular being, in its individuality, its concrete nature and entity, with all its own characteristics and its private qualities and its own inviolable identity, gives glory to God by being precisely what He wants it to be here and now, in the circumstances ordained for it by His Love and His infinite Art. The forms of individual characters of living and growing things, of inanimate beings, of animals and flowers and all nature, constitute their holiness in the sight of God.”

_DSC1246In what follows Merton gives several examples of things in nature that give glory to God simply by being what they were created to be. He writes, “The pale flowers of the dogwood outside this widow are saints. The little yellow flowers that nobody notices on the edge of that road are saints looking up into the face of God.  This leaf has its own texture and its own pattern of veins and its own holy shape, and the bass and trout hiding in the deep pools of the river are canonized by their beauty and their strength.  The lakes hidden among the hills are saints, and the sea too is a saint who praises God without interruption in her majestic dance.  The great, gashed, half-naked mountain is another of God’s saints.  There is no other like him.  He is alone in his own character; nothing else in the world ever did or ever will imitate God in quite the same way.  That is his sanctity.”

Later in this chapter Merton goes on to talk about how humans are different from the rest of Creation. He says, “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny. We are free beings and sons of God.”  He goes on to indicate that the secret of our identity is “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”

_DSC0755The uniqueness of humans makes for an interesting topic but that is not what I want to focus on here. Merton’s words about the rest of Creation proclaiming God’s glory, something David also said in Psalm 19:1, caused me to ponder why we don’t pay more attention to the “saints” all around us.  If the trees and their leaves bear witness to God why do we not sit and contemplate them more?  The lakes and sea, along with the fish that swim within, also offer God praise and reflect or imitates God’s glory.  If that be so, why do we not pause long enough to join in the chorus and soak in the glory of God?  I know we are supposed to seek God in others but as Merton wisely points out, humans offer an imperfect reflection of God’s glory.  Nature, however, lacking free will, offers that glory perfectly.  Realizing that makes me think I need to be paying even more attention to the glorious revelation found in Creation than I already do.  The witness of the “saints” is just waiting to be discovered by those willing to slow down and pay attention.


(I took the pictures shown above on a trip a few years ago to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)

Jun 6 2012

The Shadow of God

Anne Morrow Lindbergh once wrote, “I don’t see why I am always asking for private, individual, selfish miracles when every year there are miracles like white dogwoods.”  After spending quite a bit of time this past week photographing the white blossoms on the magnolia tree in our yard, I can see how Lindbergh wrote what she did.  The magnolia blossom is a wondrous delight to behold from a distance but an even greater joy to look at close up.  As I pointed my macro lens at a single blossom (all of the pictures shown here were taken of the same flower) I found myself amazed at its outstanding beauty.  In fact, I wondered how one tree could produce so many exquisite flowers.

I also have to admit that while photographing this blossom I sensed the presence of God.  Maybe it was the flower’s white color, symbolizing purity and holiness.  Maybe it was the cone’s golden color, representing royalty.  Or perhaps it was simply the overall beauty of the flower itself.  I am convinced that there is a connection between God and beauty.

I am certainly not the only one who has felt this connection.  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting—a wayside sacrament.”  Gabriela Mistral said something similar; she said beauty “is the shadow of God on the universe.”  In the magnolia blossom it is easy to see God’s handwriting, not difficult at all to sense the shadow of God.

Long ago Confucius noted “Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.”  I suspect he is right.  Most people would likely acknowledge that magnolia flowers are beautiful, but I’m not sure they can know just how beautiful without doing what I did—getting close to them and carefully observing their features.   Even with magnolia blossoms it takes some effort and time to truly appreciate their beauty.  In other things their beauty might not be obvious at all, but if we will take the time to look closely at them and study their purpose, we will come to see the beauty that is inherent in each thing God has created.

No one ever said “seeing Creation” is easy work (at least, I don’t think they have).  It is instead a spiritual discipline that requires much effort and a good deal of time.  It is, however, worth the effort because it enables one to see the beauty that lies in everything.  It is worth the effort because it allows us to read God’s handwriting and sense His shadow on the universe.  I plan to keep working on seeing Creation and I hope you will as well.


Mar 7 2012

Caring “A Whole Awful Lot”

Last night my wife, mother and I went to see “The Lorax,” the new movie based on the book of the same title by Dr. Seuss.  It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that I loved it. In a fun and good-natured way it drives home many lessons related to Creation Care.  Perhaps its strongest message is that one person can make a difference.  It also stresses the fact that until a person truly cares about something, he or she is not likely to make a difference.  In both the movie and the book you’ll find the words: “UNLESS someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

From what I’ve read “The Lorax” has done exceptionally well at the box office.  I find that encouraging.   I’ve even seen on Facebook where people have said after watching the movie they wanted to go plant a tree.  (For the uninitated, the movie and book imagine a world where all the real trees have been destroyed.) Wouldn’t it be great if lots of people did just that?  I’d like to think that this presentation of Dr. Seuss’ book will cause people not typically receptive to environmental issues to be more open to them.  It certainly has that potential.

Unless one wants to read something into the fact that the Lorax descends and ascends from the heavens, there’s really no religious emphasis in the movie.  Since the movie is based on the book I didn’t expect there to be.  Still, one can read (or watch) between the lines and see an affirmation of Creation.  It stresses that it is the natural world, and not the artificial one, that is life-giving.

I especially liked the song “Let It Grow” in the movie.  It comes at the climax of the film when the people of Thneedville choose to let the last truffula seed grow.  As the song filled the theatre I found myself wishing this sentiment would spread to the masses.  God’s Creation is good and should be both nurtured and preserved.  And it should be nurtured and preserved, as I’ve stated numerous times at this site, not just because it sustains us and is beautiful but because it was created to bring glory to God.

I still think that in the end this is the greatest reason for us to care about nature and the environment.  The other reasons are no doubt important, too, and lead me to be concerned, but it is the God-connection that makes me care “a whole awful lot.” If more Christians would choose to care a whole awful lot things would get better.  Wouldn’t they not?


(I took the top image of giant sequoias in California’s Sequoia National Park.  I photographed the forest scene shown in the second picture in Kentucky’s Daniel Boone National Forest.)


Oct 26 2011

The Tree of Life

Earlier this week I had to make a trip to Tennessee to preside at a funeral.  The road trip was an enjoyable one because the parkway and interstate I travelled were lined with beautiful trees showing off their fall foliage.  It truly was a marvelous sight to behold.  I found myself offering thanks for trees time and time again.  The trip also caused me to think of the important role trees play in the Bible.

Trees play an important part in many different places in the Scriptures.  This is certainly true in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.  In the first account of Creation (chapter 1) fruit bearing trees are created on the third day and after humans are created on the sixth day God says “I give you…every tree that has fruit with seed in it.  They will be yours for food.”  (v. 29)  In the second account of Creation (chapter 2) we read, “And the Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.”  (v. 9)  After this we are told “In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”  The first humans were prohibited to eat from the latter but in Genesis 3 we read that both Adam and Eve partook of the forbidden fruit and sin became a part of man’s and earth’s story.  Because of the first couple’s rebellion they were expelled from the Garden of Eden.  Genesis 3:24 appears to indicate that one reason for this expulsion was to deny them access to the tree of life.

The “tree of life” reenters the Biblical story in the Book of Revelation.  In the last chapter of the Bible the tree of life is shown to be a part of the New Jerusalem that will come at the end of time.  John writes, “On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.  And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  No longer will there be any curse.” (22:2-3)  It appears quite significant that the tree of life is part of the story of both “paradise lost” and “paradise found.”

Between the two appearances of the “tree of life” there is another very important tree mentioned.  It, too, might be called the “tree of life” for this is the “tree” upon which Jesus Christ was crucified.  I realize that most people do not associate the cross with a tree but the biblical writers and early Christians certainly did.  First Peter 2:24 says Jesus “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.”  The apostle Paul makes the same association in Galatians 3:13.  The Cross of Calvary is clearly seen to be the tree of life or salvation.

Several years ago Shel Silverstein wrote a delightful book called The Giving Tree.  It’s the story of how a tree gave and gave of itself.  As we look at the role of trees in the Bible it is clear that God really did make them for giving.  They provide us fruit and nuts.  They lend shade for us when it is hot and they also operate as nature’s pollution fighter.  Trees supply wood for buildings and fuel for heat.  They also furnish a feast for the eyes—something made especially manifest in autumn. 

As you get a chance to observe the trees around you I hope you’ll offer thanks to God for the gift of trees.  They truly are life giving.  I also hope you’ll allow the trees you see to remind you of the life giving tree found in the Cross of Jesus and of the “tree of life” that awaits his followers at the end of time.  When it comes to trees, we really do have a lot to be thankful for!


(I took the top and bottom images in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado.  The middle picture was taken in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.)

Jun 14 2011

Feeling Small

Rob and I are photographing together this week in northern California. We have been concentrating on the magnificent redwood groves found in the area. Walking amongst these incredibly large trees has a way of making you feel quite small. I actually feel a sense of reverence in the presence of these giant specimens. Rob and I have paused many times just to express our sense of wonder and awe at the beauty of God’s Creation found here. In the forest here I, too, feel “hints of gladness.” The giant trees lift my spirits and bring me joy. They point me to the One who created this world. They also remind me of how trees play a vital role in the Scriptures from beginning to end. Mary Oliver talks about how she can almost say the trees save her and I understand what she means. They bring peace in a troubled world. But the Bible connects trees and salvation even more closely when it points us to the Cross upon which Jesus died for the sins of the world. As much as I am humbled and made to feel small by the redwoods of California, the Cross humbles me even more. It is there, more than anywhere else, I see God’s greatness and my smallness. It is there, more than anywhere else, I see the love of God.


 (Both of the images above were taken at Humboldt Redwoods State Park yesterday.)

While in the redwood groves yesterday I thought about a poem I recently came across in Mary Oliver’s book, Thirst. It is called “When I Am Among Trees.” She writes: “When I am among the trees, especially the willows and the honey locust, equally the beech, the oaks and the pines, they give off such hints of gladness. I would almost say that they save me, and daily. I am so distant from the hope of myself, in which I have goodness, and discernment, and never hurry through the world but walk slowly, and bow often. Around me the trees stir in their leaves and call out, ‘Stay awhile.’ The light flows from their branches. And they call again, ‘It’s simple,’ they say, ‘and you too have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled with light, and to shine.'”