Jul 29 2016

Experiencing God in Our National Parks

Yellowstone Lower FallsAmerican’s National Park Service will be turning one hundred years old in just a few weeks. Because I love our national parks so much I cannot let this occasion pass without offering the NPS my congratulations and best wishes.  Since taking up nature photography twenty-four years ago I’ve been blessed to visit most of our national parks.  I’ve also visited scores of other national park units such as national recreation areas, national monuments, national rivers and seashores, etc.  Each of them has had an impact on my life one way or another.  I can honestly say that I wouldn’t be who I am today were it not for our national parks.

I was introduced to our national parks as a small child when my family visited the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Today I visit them as often as I can.  Just two days ago I was able to pay a return visit to Mammoth Cave National Park.  I keep going back because I benefit so much from them.  Our national parks are incredible repositories of natural beauty that move my soul.  They are places where I often connect to God.  In fact, when I think of some of the parks I’ve visited I think not just of the scenery or wildlife but of the spiritual connections I made there.  Let me give you some examples.

TN Great Smoky Mountains Spruce Flat FallsWhen I think of Denali National Park I remember “the peace of God that passes all understanding.” I have felt a peace there I’ve not quite experienced elsewhere.  When I think of Grand Teton National Park I recall how important humility is in the spiritual life.  Standing before that giant mountain wall I always feel small and humbled.  When I think of Yosemite National Park I think of worship.  John Muir referred to those majestic Sierra mountains as his “temples” and “cathedrals” and they became that for me as well.  I can hardly imagine walking through Yosemite Valley and not singing the “Doxology” or “How Great Thou Art.”  When I think of Yellowstone National Park I find myself reflecting on the mystery of God.  Yellowstone is such a mysterious and magical place.  As with God, there is no comprehending all its wonders.  And when I think of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park I associate it with love. There is a wonderful and abundant diversity of life in this park that is so dear to my heart.  That diversity symbolizes for me the generosity and goodness of God and it serves as yet one more reminder of the divine love that is the source of all that is good.

Yosemite ValleyI could go on making spiritual connections with the many different parks I have visited and photographed. They are all special and they are all important.  We are incredibly blessed to have these national parks and we should, by no means, take them for granted.  I would encourage you in this centennial year of the National Park Service to give them all the support you can.  Visit them as often.  Work to preserve and protect them.  Our national parks are far more than just beautiful and ecologically diverse places, they are special places where God resides and where God can be experienced in some marvelous ways.


(I took the top image at Yellowstone NP, the middle one at Great Smoky Mountains NP, and the bottom one at Yosemite National Park.)

Sep 18 2013

John Muir and the Creator’s Mirror

_DSC6272I was reading excerpts from John Muir’s journals recently.  Doing so made me wish once again that I could have walked a few trails with him.  I don’t think that there have been many who have seen God in Creation better than Muir.  Writing from his beloved Sierras he once wrote about his surroundings: “…every crystal, every flower a window opening into heaven, a mirror reflecting the Creator.”  I like the analogy of nature being like the Creator’s mirror.  Through Creation we are offered a picture of God.  I cannot help but wonder if more people would be prone to turn to God if they realized that in nature we find God’s reflection.  Muir encouraged people to recognize this.  I’m trying to do the same.

Half Dome from Olmstead Point (h) crI often ask people I meet if they have ever read John Muir’s writings.  I’m always a bit disappointed when the answer is no.  Muir may have died ninety-nine years ago but his life and writings remain inspirational for those who take the time to ponder his words.  If you have not read John Muir, consider this sample from one of his journal entries penned while hiking through Yosemite.

“The snow on the high mountains is melting fast, and the streams are singing bank-full, swaying softly through the level meadows and bogs, quivering with sun-spangles, swirling in pot-holes, resting in deep pools, leaping, shouting in wild, exulting energy over rough boulder dams, joyful, beautiful in all their forms.  No Sierra landscape that I have seen holds anything truly dead or dull, or any trace of what in manufactories is called rubbish or waste; everything is perfectly clean and pure and full of divine lessons.  This quick, inevitable interest attaching to everything seems marvelous until the hand of God becomes visible; then it seems reasonable that what interests Him may well interest us.”

_DSC5465Muir had no trouble seeing God in Creation.  He believed that nature offered us innumerable “divine lessons.”  Throughout Creation he saw “the hand of God” and felt that the Creator was calling us to pay attention to the things He made.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, if you are looking for a guide to help you experience the divine in the world around you, you won’t find a better one than John Muir.  I encourage you to read his works.  Most of his books can be downloaded to electronic readers free of charge.  Reading John Muir’s books won’t cost you a thing but they will make you richer.  Much richer!


(I took all three of the pictures used here in Yosemite National Park.)

Jun 24 2012

Ansel Adams’ Problem & Ours

Like countless other photographers, one of my early sources of inspiration was the work of Ansel Adams.  Even when I knew nothing about photography it was obvious that this man’s work was phenomenal.  I continue to this very day to be inspired by his photographs.

A couple of days ago a friend sent me a link to a website that focuses on Ansel Adams work in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  I have most of Adams’ books and there are very few images from this park in them.  The website I went to indicated why.  Ansel Adams found it difficult to photograph in the Smokies.  In a letter he wrote from these mountains he told a friend, “they are going to be devilish hard to photograph…”  Considering the fact that I have spent more time photographing in this park than any other I found his comment to be quite amusing.  The Smokies are filled with extraordinary beauty; how could the great Ansel Adams find them so difficult to photograph?

I forwarded the link to my blogging partner, Rob Sheppard.  I pointed out to him how I was intrigued by Adams’ comment about photographing the Smokies.  Rob responded to my message by saying,I think Adams definitely was attuned to the West because he grew up there and spent most of his time there.”   If you are familiar with Ansel Adams’ work you know that most of his famous images were, indeed, made in the West.  Yosemite National Park and the Sierra Nevadas are featured prominently in his work.  That was the landscape he knew best and his familiarity with it helped enable him to capture the spirit or essence of that region.

In my note from Rob he went on to talk about how familiarity with a landscape affected his own work.  He wrote, “I think I am only beginning to really ‘see’ the chaparral because I have been photographing it for a few years now.  Georgia O’Keeffe once said “seeing takes time.”  She was no doubt right.  I remember how frustrating it was when I first started traveling out West to photograph.  I was rarely satisfied with the results.  Now, after dozens of trips out West I feel more comfortable and familiar with the environment and it shows in the photographs I take.  The more time you spend in a location truly does make a difference.

I suspect that what is true in photography is also true when it comes to seeing God in Creation.  Here, too, it takes time.  There are not a lot of “burning bushes” out there (see Exodus 3); God seems to make Himself known in much more subtle ways.  This means that we will likely have to spend a good bit of time becoming familiar with our surroundings to see and hear all that God longs to reveal to us.  Certainly God can speak to us anywhere, and we should always be open to that possibility, but it is likely that we will see and hear Him best in our home environment or the places we are most familiar with.  Has that been your experience?


*The link to the website on Ansel Adams and the Smokies can be found at http://knoxart.org/exhibitions/higherground/ansel.html.  You’ll find several rare and unpublished images here.

(I took the top image at Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the middle image of Yosemite Falls at Yosemite National Park, and the bottom image  of Mesquite Dunes at Death Valley National Park.)




Nov 28 2010

Nature’s Chrismons

GSM-trees-and-fog-004Today is the first Sunday in Advent.  We had a Chrismon service at our church this morning.  For those who may not know, Chrismons are symbols that speak of our Lord and God.  The word Chrismon is a combination of the words “Christ” and “monogram.”  Chrismons are used to decorate Christmas trees.  Their purpose is to help congregations and individuals keep their focus on Christ.  The beautiful Chrismons we use were made by members of our church.  We had approximately fifty different Chrismons.  The majority of these were crosses and symbols of the Trinity.  Other symbols included angels, crowns, Chi Rhos, and Iota Chis.  The last two use Greek letters to speak of Christ and Jesus Christ.  There were also symbols from the world of nature—stars, fish, and butterflies.  I really like our Chrismon tree and the way it keeps us focused on the true meaning of the Advent and Christmas seasons.  Christmas is extremely commercialized these days so anything that helps keep our focus on Christ is good.

Yosemite-streamI think that there are plenty of things in the natural world that can serve as Chrismons for us now and throughout the year.  Rocks can serve as a reminder that Jesus is the “rock of our salvation.”  Rivers, ponds and streams can call to mind Jesus’ baptism and the “living water” he came to give.  The sun and stars can remind us of the truth that Jesus is the “light of the world.”  Trees can remind us of the cross on which Jesus died for the sins of the world.   Butterflies can remind us of Jesus’ resurrection and the new life he makes available to all who turn to him.  I could go on and on. 

There truly is much in nature that can lead us to remember our Creator.  The earth proclaims his glory and bears witness to his love and might.  The apostle Paul would even go so far as to say, “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.” (Romans 1:20) 

The Chrismons we placed on the tree at church today will only be there through the Advent and Christmas seasons.  Nature’s Chrismons, however, are there year round beckoning us to remember and to worship the King of kings and Lord of Lords.  To him be the glory now and forevermore!


(I took the top image at Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.  The bottom picture was taken near Tuoloumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.)

Jun 16 2010

“Galactic Blast”

Yosemite NP 367“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”  Proverbs 22:6

This week the church I serve is having Vacation Bible School.  Our theme is “Galactic Blast: A Cosmic Adventure Praising God”.  The curriculum, produced by Cokesbury, was chosen by our children’s director, Dee Branham.  I’m glad Dee chose to go this route because each night the children are learning that there is a connection between Christianity and the environment.

On the very first night the kids learned about how God created the earth and were reminded that it belongs to Him.  In the sessions that  have followed, the children have learned spiritual truths from God’s Creation.  Each night they have also been given “green tips.”  They are learning practical things even they can do to be better stewards of the earth. 

I grew up going to multiple Vacation Bible Schools every year.  I don’t remember ever being taught that caring for the earth is a part of our Christian calling.  Thankfully, the children coming to our Vacation Bible School this year are being exposed to this important truth.  They are actually learning how to see God in His Creation too.

I don’t know how many churches are using Galactic Blast this year but I hope there are many.  It is imperative that our children learn how important it is that we practice Creation Care.  They, too, need to be taught to look for God in this beautiful and amazing world He has created. 

I do not happen to be a parent but I know the value of recognizing and taking advantage of “teachable moments” with kids.   I happen to believe that we have all been presented a teachable moment with the Gulf oil spill.  Our children see the news, they know what’s going on.  Now would be a great time to share with them God’s concern for the earth and the responsibility we all have to take care of it.  Now would be the ideal time to “train a child in the way he should go…”


(The image above was taken at Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park.)

Apr 21 2010

John Muir

Yosemite-reflection-759Today is the birthday of one of my biggest heroes.  On this date in 1838 John Muir was born in Dunbar, Scotland.  His family would eventually emigrate to the United States and John would become world known for his writings on nature.  Today some refer to him as “the father of the environmental movement.” 

I was introduced to Muir’s writings about twenty years ago.  It would be hard to overestimate the importance of his influence on me.   He, more than anyone else, helped me see the potential for finding or experiencing God in nature.  He believed “every purely natural object is a conductor of divinity” and once wrote, “My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature, to know God’s lurking places, to attend all the oratorios, the operas…in nature.”  I have sought to follow in his steps but fear I fail to see even half of what John did in God’s Creation.

Muir helped me to see that Creation is not something that only happened in the past.  For him, God’s Creation is ongoing: “The morning stars still sing together, and the world, though made, is still being made and becoming more beautiful every day.”  He also reminded me that God continues to care for His Creation: “How apparent  are the love and tenderness of God in the keeping of those dear, delicate plant children of His in places we are wrongly taught to call wild, desolate, deserted!  God’s love covers His world like a garment of light.”

John Muir house 145It was also John Muir who made it clear to me that God’s love is made manifest in His Creation.  He once wrote, “All the fields of God, whether reposing in the garments of winter or of summer, sing of gentleness and love.”  Elsewhere he added, “No wilderness in the world is so desolate as to be without divine ministers.  God’s love covers all the earth as the sky covers it, and also fills it in every pore.  And this love has voices heard by all who have ears to hear.”

Muir’s childhood was steeped in the study of the Scriptures.  Biblical allusions can be found throughout his writings.  It is obvious that he saw the world through the lens of his faith.  I have found him to be a wonderful and trustworthy guide when it comes to “seeing Creation.”  I enthusiastically commend his writings to you.

Happy birthday, John!


(The top image was taken at Muir’s beloved Yosemite National Park.  The bottom image is Muir’s home in Martinez, California. The Muir quotes included in today’s blog were taken from John of the Mountains: The Unpublished Journals of John Muir.  For more information on John Muir visit http://www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/ )