Tuesday, November 23, 2021

From My Nature Journal: Returning Thanks

“Let us return thanks."

It is an old phrase. Some of you will remember it and some not, but those who do will recall the context in which it was almost always spoken: just before the prayer was offered for a meal. My family, as likely some of yours, called our mealtime prayer ‘grace.’ So rather than hearing someone say, “Let us return thanks,” typically one would shout out, “Let’s say grace!” Then someone (usually an older brother) would invariably bellow, “Grace!” Mom never let it rest at that, and often gave a flick to the head of the transgressor. 

Good memories, but I still find myself attracted to the formality of the old phrase. Returning thanks. Play with that a bit. When one returns something, typically they’re returning something they’ve received. Technically, that is not the case as this phrase has come down. God gives blessings. We return something else, thanks. Still, it’s a good exchange. I think our heavenly Father actually likes it. 

I’ve often spoken of gratitude being one of seven ‘tools’ every naturalist should have in their toolbox. Frankly, as far as I am concerned it is the most important, so much so that many secular therapists often consider gratitude one of the most healing practices in their toolbox. And when it comes to nature as a powerful spiritual pathway to God, gratitude is an action that can greatly assist us in spanning any perceived or supposed distance between creation and creation’s Creator. 

Think of it this way. When we’re grateful for something, we have developed appreciation for it. Now, we can appreciate things for what they do for us or mean to us, for the pleasure they give or the benefits they provide. But let’s think of the word differently. When something ‘appreciates,’ one of its meanings is that it rises in value to us, it grows in our estimation. If I appreciate something, I can simply be happy I experienced whatever it was, or I can now value or esteem that thing or that experience (or its source) more highly because I have been the beneficiary of its worth. It has come to me as a grace, a gift. When I appreciate a natural thing of beauty and awe, I can either say, “Well, lucky me! Wasn’t that great that I could be in the right place at the right time to see such a thing! What a coincidence!” Or I can say, “What or who can I thank for allowing me the chance to see this wonderful sight?” In short, having encountered this amazing thing, I have realized it has been a blessing to me. Then what?

From my perspective there are two entities to appreciate, value, or highly esteem in this way. First, appreciate what you see for its own sake, not only for what it did for you. Think it not too strange, but if the thing of beauty is alive, give thanks to the animal or flower for expressing the natural beauty, grace or power that its Creator placed within it. And value, steward and treasure the specific creature or creation more because of your encounter with it.

Gratitude. The single-most important 

guideline in the naturalist's guidebook...

Second, and this is a no-brainer by this point, give appreciation, esteem, and thanks to God for
God’s creativity, God’s awesome good-natured inventiveness, God’s playful palette, God’s holy imagination, God’s omnipotent originality, God’s absolute delight in natural diversity. Did you know there are 400,000 known species of beetles? I mean 400,000! Beetles even! I might have chosen butterflies or berries, but beetles? Don’t you think God might have gotten bored after seeing several hundred into existence? That is but one small example off the largesse of God.

Plain and simple: do you want to grow in your skills as a naturalist, an appreciator of nature? Simple gratitude has the capacity to increase one’s perception and enhance one’s natural experiences in profound ways. It’s also not only a healthy way to live a life, but a healthy way to live a faith. Gratitude. The single-most important guideline in the naturalist’s guidebook. 

Let us return thanks.

~~ RGM, November 22 2021

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

From My Nature Journal: The Hard Work Yet to be Done

Life is physical.

Speaking personally and vulnerably, this has seemed especially so to me with arthritis recently flaring up in practically every joint of my body these last couple of months!

But as a nature observer, one of the times that the physicality of life seems most pronounced to
me is at the change of seasons, and, though there are four changes annually in northern climes, it’s the change from summer to fall that astounds me the most. Whether it’s the eye-popping delight of green trees turning red, gold and purple here in the northwoods of Michigan, the taste of a good crisp caramel apple with peanuts, the smell of smoked fish or burning leaves (which have some similarities!), the honking of chevron after chevron of Canada geese heading south, or the tingle of early morning air already in the 30’s, the five senses alone declare the physicality of life. And this is to say nothing of that sixth sense: something in us actually sometimes senses the very physicality of change. 

And yet life is also spiritual. 

I wouldn’t blog these thoughts over these nearly nine years past if I did not believe this was so. Most of you who share these musings with me also find in nature a simple and beautiful pathway to God, though some of you might not describe it in quite that same way. God has created a lovely universe. The ancient Psalmist said it very well: “Your works, God, are wonderful, and my soul knows that very well (Psalm 139:14).” Yet, while holding precious God’s creation and committing to its care as its responsible ‘keepers,’ or stewards, it is of course not creation that we revere but the Creator. 

To me, these two simple declarations are to state the obvious. Life is physical. Life is spiritual. I typically write of elemental things. 

It is, however, as these two realities converge – the physicality of life and the spirituality of life – that deeper learnings and yearnings present themselves. Just as there is something in the physicality of creation’s beauty, awe and majesty that leads me to contemplation of spiritual realities, there is also somehow something in my arthritis for me to contemplate spiritually. Where is God when we are in pain? Is there anything possibly redemptive when one suffers? These are questions that have vexed many through the eons, and the answer that God is right there with us in our pain, while true, is not always that satisfying. 

Covid-19 has ravaged the world these past eighteen months, and the flourishing of variants present anew the prospect that we are not quite beating this thing as we had anticipated. The work that is still before us in our country to address racial conciliation and righteousness is as daunting as it is necessary. Our hyper-charged political climate and its absence of civil discourse has become such that the commonweal is neither common nor well. Each of these will require tremendous physical and emotional sacrifices and effort to overcome. And yet none of that can begin to be accomplished without the work of the spirit, both the God-given human spirit and the Holy Spirit, calling upon the mercy of God to empower our most creative spiritual resources. The physical beauty of God’s creation can belie the ugliness of the challenges we face, can play a part in its healing.

But we need the holy. And we need to remember, as Anne Lamott said in a recent National Geographic article, “The holy is not a spectacle… It is more often felt in small graces and blessings, although you do have to be paying attention to catch the momentousness. It’s around us, above us, below us and inside us all the time. It’s here, but often we’re not. Life wants to keep reminding us of its sacred self, but we have to open our eyes and hearts.”

Let’s put all of our resources to work, both physical and spiritual, to meet the challenges before us. 
~~ RGM, September 28, 2021 

Monday, July 26, 2021

From My Nature Journal: Holy Ground

I’ve heard it said that one’s time on earth is filled with glory when one can look at everything as if they were seeing it for the very first time or the very last. Thus is a naturalist’s life filled with joy, but I think the same might be true for anyone who lives by this philosophy.

Gail and I were walking late one May evening just before sunset in rural Coupeville’s Rhododendron Park, a little-known, county-owned gem with towering Douglas firs and enormous coastal rhododendrons, some twenty and thirty feet tall as they stretch up and out for pockets of sunlight beneath the dense conifer canopy. The park has been one of our favorite mid-spring walks, being as it is just chock full of Washington’s ‘rhodie’ state flower.

Our attention was caught by what at a distance appeared to be a stump on fire, and it resolved itself as we approached into a hollow trunk remnant just coincidently catching the very last of a direct sun ray from the west, standing out in the forest darkness. It became for us almost a literal ‘burning bush,’ a gift of God’s grace, and provided yet another reminder that all of God’s masterful creation is holy ground. 

…One’s time on earth is filled with glory when one

can look at everything as if they were  seeing

it for the very first time or the very last.

…There the angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in a blazing fire from the middle of a bush. Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up. “This is amazing,” Moses said to himself. “Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it.” When the LORD saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” “Here I am!” Moses replied. “Do not come any closer,” the LORD warned. “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your fathers —the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God. (Exodus 3:2-6)

~~ RGM, July 15, 2021

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

From My Nature Journal: “So Will I (100 Billion X)”

(NOTE, June 29, 2021: As we continue to exit pandemic mode these days, I am sensing the leading to repost a piece I shared last year in March at the pandemic’s outset. I feel it is almost a ‘checkup,’ an assessment of sorts, to see if the things I wrote then remain true now that we have seemingly endured the worst that COVID-19 could do. Its losses were many, of course, and we mourn every one of them, but we are finally able to more fully assess our losses and move forward. One caveat, however: at the time I wrote it, we were in a very unique Lent and pre-Easter season. Though that is not the case now in June of 2021, the Lenten framing continues to have special meaning to me.)

It has been quite some time since I’ve written a post about a nature song. Nature songs? Yes, there are many, old and new, songs that include beautiful or poetic references to the glory of God shown in God’s creation. And since both nature and music are two of my most oft-traveled spiritual pathways, I enjoy it very much when these two paths converge. I’ve written not infrequently along these lines, and they’re some of my favorite posts; check out the index tab called “The Music” -- above if you’re on your computer, or on the pull-down menu if on your phone. 

But I recently came across another lovely song along these lines. It is not new as contemporary songs go, but it was new to me, and eventually I’ll share a couple links to it, one that includes fantastic nature photography, always enjoyable as I listen to nature music, and another a rendition done so well by a young singer in a church. The song is titled “So Will I (100 Billion X),” and proceeds generally along the line that if all of nature sings God’s praise, who are we to hold back from giving God ours?

Now, before I continue, I need to acknowledge the ‘nature’ of our circumstances during these days of physical distancing due to the coronavirus (March, 2020). God’s creation is amazing, and, yes, the virus is part of that natural world system God has created. The virus, along with earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes and the like, are part of the attributed set of so-called ‘acts of God,’ trials we endure on this created celestial orb we call Earth, that hit us randomly and often hit us hard. We’re taking a hard hit right now. These trials are not an indication, as some think, of the lack of God’s care or love for us, but a sign of creation’s (and God’s) dynamic nature. And since all who regularly read this blog understand the important place the natural world plays in our spiritual pursuits, and in the healing of our physical, emotional and spiritual infirmities, isn’t it good of God to provide the beauty and magnificence of nature to be a healing balm for us, even if at the same time something strikes us from the dynamism of that natural world? Nature can hurt, yes, but nature far more often can heal. So it is no wonder that government officials are even urging us, while we physically distance, to be sure to get outside and let nature do its healing work. I urge my readers all the time to do the same. Get outside, and let God speak to you and heal you through his creative majesty.

Nature can hurt, yes, but nature

far more often can heal.

This is one of my motivations in sharing this post at this time. But there’s also a second. 

It is still Lent, in case the virus has caused anyone to forget. The song also has a powerful message of the love of Christ, shown in his passion upon ‘a hill he created,’ a love embraced by many who have responded to God’s invitation. 

So this brings me back to my intent today, sharing (among other things) the nature song, “So Will I.” Published in 2017 by Hillsong United, the creators of so many great praise songs, I am glad to have finally come across it. Here are its lyrics, along with the two recordings I said I’d attach: here and here. It’s not short, so queue it up and hang with it.

God of creation, there at the start before the beginning of time:

With no point of reference You spoke to the dark and fleshed out the wonder of light.

And as You speak, a hundred billion galaxies are born.

In the vapor of Your breath the planets form.

If the stars were made to worship so will I.

I can see Your heart in everything You've made,

Every burning star a signal fire of grace,

If creation sings Your praises so will I.

God of Your promise, You don't speak in vain, no syllable empty or void

For once You have spoken, all nature and science follow the sound of Your voice.

And as You speak a hundred billion creatures catch Your breath,

Evolving in pursuit of what You said.

If it all reveals Your nature so will I.

I can see Your heart in everything You say,

Every painted sky a canvas of Your grace.

If creation still obeys You so will I.

If the stars were made to worship so will I.

If the mountains bow in reverence so will I.

If the oceans roar Your greatness so will I.

For if everything exists to lift You high, so will I.

If the wind goes where You send it, so will I.

If the rocks cry out in silence, so will I.

If the sum of all our praises still falls shy,

Then we'll sing again a hundred billion times.

God of salvation, You chased down my heart through all of my failure and pride.

On a hill You created, the Light of the world abandoned in darkness to die.

And as You speak a hundred billion failures disappear

Where You lost Your life so I could find it here.

If You left the grave behind You so will I.

I can see Your heart in everything You've done,

Every part designed in a work of art called love;

If You gladly chose surrender so will I.

I can see Your heart a billion different ways,

Every precious one a child You died to save.

If You gave Your life to love them so will I,

Like You would again a hundred billion times.

But what measure could amount to Your desire?

You're the One who never leaves the one behind.

This is how Hillsong describes their song: it’s “… about God as an artisan… God as an artist working his masterpiece, a work of art called “love.” And it began with creation and goes through the whole story where it was finished at the cross. And now it continues to be rebirthed and restored in and through us here and now. The whole picture is response. If the stars were made to worship so will I… And the more we thought about it, there were endless metaphors and pictures and things that came back to this response. And maybe nothing better than if you laid your life down, if you gladly chose surrender, so will I. And if you left the grave behind you so will I. To me that’s everything, the entire story of why we’re here and our purpose and what it means to follow Jesus and live for him.” It’s a powerful song proclaiming a powerful and timeless truth.

Besides, if the world ever needed an Easter, and to know what Easter stands for, perhaps that time is now.

(NOTE, June 29, 2021: Yes, it’s still true.)

~~ RGM, Originally Shared March 31, 2020

Monday, May 31, 2021

From My Nature Journal: A Prayer for God's Creation

As a follower of God, I pray a lot. It’s only natural. 

But I was challenged recently in an inadvertent way: as a committed Christian environmentalist, do I pray FOR God’s creation? Hmmm. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I do not often do that. I pray for God’s followers as stewards of God’s creation, and, along with that, for my own creation stewardship. I pray for the church, that it might give better practice and witness to earth care. I pray for a healthy environment for my grandchildren and their grandchildren (and their grandchildren), and, by implication, for all future generations. But do I pray for the earth itself? Do I pray for the blessing of God’s very own handiwork, creatio divina? It’s a nuance that gave me pause.

And then through an acquaintance I came across a prayer for creation published by the Episcopal Church, “A Litany for the Planet,” and though I have not yet been able to discover its source, it struck me strongly that it was a prayer I had been neglecting. So I have begun to pray it, and, as with all good prayer, enter into the practice of joining with God to see it manifest as best I can. It takes me to diverse places of creation care and environmental concern. And so, in the spirit of Francis of Assisi’s "Canticle of the Sun," I offer it here for my readers to pray as well.

“A Litany for the Planet”

On your earth, the garden of life,
     Creator, have mercy.

On soil, that it may be fruitful in all seasons,
     Creator, have mercy.

On rocks and minerals that form the foundations for life,
     Creator, have mercy.

On volcanoes and lava flows that reveal the power of earth’s core,
     Creator, have mercy.

On hills and great mountains; on cliffs, caves, and valleys,
     Creator, have mercy.

On deserts and their hardy creatures,
     Creator, have mercy.

On your waters, which sustain a diverse community of life,
     Creator, have mercy.

On coral reefs, and on the animals, plants, and fish that inhabit them,
     Creator, have mercy.

On ocean deeps, teeming with life; on the open seas and all that travel upon them,
     Creator, have mercy.

On rivers, bringing water to thirsty places,
     Creator, have mercy.

On lakes and streams, home to a diversity of life,
     Creator, have mercy.

On ponds and marshes, cradles of life,
     Creator, have mercy.

On wetlands and estuaries; on rocky coasts and beaches,
     Creator, have mercy.

On islands and atolls, oases and all harsh outposts of life,
     Creator, have mercy.

On glaciers and ice fields, holding the delicate balance of waters,
     Creator, have mercy.

On storms, floods, and tempests, and all fearsome forces of weather,
     Creator, have mercy.

On rains that water the earth, causing plants to sprout and grow,
     Creator, have mercy.

On snow and hail, sleet and winter cold, and on the dormant things that wait for spring,
     Creator, have mercy.

On mists and fog silently watering the ground,
     Creator, have mercy.

On the atmosphere of your planet earth, that it may sustain all that breathes,
     Creator, have mercy.

On winds that carry seeds and spores; on breezes that warm and cool the earth,
     Creator, have mercy.

On lightnings and fires that cleanse and destroy, and on all that lies in their path,
     Creator, have mercy.

On all the ecosystems of your earth and their intricate communities,
     Creator, have mercy.

On forests of many kinds; on trees and shrubs and vines,
     Creator, have mercy.

On grasslands, tundras, and plains, and on their varied plants,
     Creator, have mercy

On ferns and fungi; on spore-bearing and seed-bearing plants,
     Creator, have mercy.

On micro-organisms of endless variety, the complex and the simple,
     Creator, have mercy

On reptiles and amphibians,
     Creator, have mercy.

On four-legged creatures,
     Creator, have mercy.

On two-legged and winged creatures,
     Creator, have mercy.

On many-legged creatures and insects,
     Creator, have mercy.

On mysterious creatures and places unknown to humankind,
     Creator, have mercy.

And on the human family across the globe, of many colors and communities, in kinship with all creation,
     Creator, have mercy. Amen.

~~ RGM, May 31 2021 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

From My Nature Journal: Earth Day -- Reflections of a Steward

“Fill the earth and subdue it,” You said. One of these days I’m going to study my Biblical languages more carefully to learn exactly what You meant by that.

Fill the earth? OK, I get that. There was quite a bit of vacant real estate at the time. But subdue it? Webster defines subdue as ‘to conquer or to bring under subjection.’ I highly doubt subdue is an accurate current rendering of the Hebrew word. It's certainly not befitting of the Biblical concept of earth care.  We talk of animals or land broken, ostensibly domesticated, the wild taken out. We talk of hills and mountains mastered, of wilderness tamed, of entire forests repurposed. Repurposed? Who are we trying to kid? I guess only ourselves it ends up. And, even that, only to our loss at best and our peril at worst. 

Your earth can never be tamed.

As a follower of God, the Bible calls me simply to be a steward of the earth, never its conqueror or vanquisher. Unfortunately, there are many ways in which people have made themselves even worse: earth’s tyrant. But a steward’s role is to care for something their superior has left in their care, and to leave it in at least as good a condition as when they began. 

…A steward’s role is to care for something

their superior has left in their care, and to leave

it in at least as good a condition as when they began.

Yet even as a dedicated steward, I sometimes find I’ve been given responsibility for something over which I often have very limited control. (Hmmm… Sounds like my job sometimes!) And then to that add floods, earthquakes, wildfire, storms, tornados and hurricanes, volcanoes, hail, heat, cold, drought, tsunamis, climate change -- ‘acts of God’ they are called, with a little help from your friends on the last one. Sad how You only ever seem to get the credit for the bad stuff and rarely the good.

A poet has written: 

In a bathtub one is master of his universe.

But a universe in which I am master holds little appeal.

-- Edwin Dobbs

So take Your earth back, God. Give it not to me or any other to subdue. Steward it I gladly will, and do. In fact, I’ll do my best. But You alone are its Master, and mine.

~~~ RGM, April 22 2021

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

From My Nature Journal: A Bloom for the Season

It's called a pasqueflower, a lovely of the high plains, mountain states and north.

Among the very first wildflowers of spring when we lived in the foothills of Colorado, pasqueflowers sometimes even pushed up through snowcover. I took this photo in very early spring some time back. As a cold weather flower, they tend to stay close to the ground, about six inches tall, and often can be found as in this photo in drier, rocky areas that hold the warmth of the late winter sun.

Sometimes confused with tulips, it’s also called the Prairie Crocus, May Day Flower, and appropriately, Easter Flower: those of you who perceive the etymology of words might have guessed the latter. Pasque comes from paschal: ‘of, or relating to, Easter or Passover.’ Picking up on the symbolism within the Jewish celebration of Passover, where a lamb’s blood protected the Hebrew people from the ravages of death (see Exodus 12), Jesus, in 1 Corinthians 5:7, is referred to as our Passover, or paschal, lamb. Though there are other flowers also associated with the blood of Christ (the Rose and Bleeding Heart among them), the Pasqueflower is associated with Easter by the timing of the season.

And so, with those redeemed of Christ throughout nearly two millennia, we pray: 

O Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.

O Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world, grant us Your peace.

Interestingly, though the plant is full of toxins, its derivatives can be used medicinally for birthing/labor issues and certain vision impairments. These uses offer all kinds of possibilities for further spiritual symbolisms, connecting Easter life to our circumstances, if we wanted to go that route.

Finally, kudos to the State of South Dakota and the Canadian Province of Manitoba, both of which had the creative presence of mind to name the Pasqueflower their state/provincial bloom, though known there by different names.

~~ RGM, March 31 2021