Saturday, October 14, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Nature and Sports (In a Very Random Sort of Way…)

I had an interesting reverie this afternoon while on my daily walk. If I’m not with Gail or someone else and conversing, or alone and conversing with God, I often will try to occupy my mind with something that will help the time pass: nature observations, word or number mind games, shatteringly profound theological thoughts, things like that. Without having thought about it much yet today, in very quick succession I noticed several birds – a blue jay, cardinal, hawk and eagle -- and then realized, in this weird time of the year when pro and college football, postseason baseball, and preseason hockey and basketball all strangely crowd upon each other, that these first few birds I observed were also the names of major American professional sports teams. Sorry, it’s a shame what sports can sometimes do to one’s mind. Then my thoughts moved to U.S. college teams, and while my forty-eight minutes progressed, I began to think of the huge number of cities and schools that had chosen from nature for their team name or mascot, and was surprised by the number. OK, OK, so it’s not the deepest subject for the tight theological mind I possess, but it was an off day. 

So let’s have a little fun with it anyway, no matter how avid a sports fan you are, or aren’t, and play a little trivia game. How many of these nature-based team names do you know the city or university where they play? And in the case of pro teams, what sport? Can you name them all? I doubt it, but see how you do. Those of you who are really good (and I imagine my son Jarrett and three dear sons-in-law will be quite excellent) will quickly find that some nature mascots are represented by more than one pro team, even in different sports, and most are also used by college teams, sometimes many different schools. Can you spot some of those, too? If I were to keep score, I might give a point for each pro or college team you know that shares the same name, but I’ll leave that for the diehards. I’m not going to give answers either, but will be glad to have any of you play with it and see how you do. You can even let me know how many you came up with. (All right, now that I am thinking more carefully, I think Jarrett may kick my sons’-in-laws butts…)

Start with the birds that I first noticed, the Blue Jays, Cardinals (even singular, as in Cardinal, though in at least one case, it’s not referring to the bird, or even a prelate, but simply the color!), Hawks and Eagles. These are easy. What city and sport or university do they represent? There are lots more birds – Raptors and Ravens, Orioles and Owls, Ducks and Hens and Gamecocks, even Penguins and Pelicans. And don’t forget the other raptors, the Seahawks and Falcons. And is there really such a thing as a Jayhawk? My friend Dave would sure say there is…

Of course, mammals are hugely represented. We could start out with Lions and Tigers and (da) Bears, oh my! While on the subject of bears, there are also the Bruins, and look, there’s even a cute little baby animal, my beloved Cubs! (Bear cubs, they are, in case you’re wondering – I wouldn’t want you to confuse my Cubs with lion cubs, badger cubs, raccoon cubs or hyena cubs. Yes, they may be the only sports team in the universe named after an animal baby, but by the way, did I tell you they won the World Series last year? Sorry, I digress…) But we easily move on from there to the Badgers and Bison and Beavers and Bobcats, Rams and Razorbacks, Wildcats and Wolverines and Wolf Pack and Timberwolves, even wolves in Spanish, the Lobos. There are Grizzlies and Gophers and, yes, even Gorillas. How about Cows and Horses? I know of none of these, but there are Bulls, Longhorns and Mavericks, and Chargers, Colts, Broncos and Mustangs. There are no Dogs or Cats either, but the Panthers, Jaguars, Bengals, Lynx, Cougars and (here’s a hard one) Catamounts are all there, as well as the Bulldogs, Huskies, Coyotes, Terriers and Salukis. Nope, no Deer or Elk, Rabbits or Hares, but the Bucks and Stags and Jackrabbits are in.

Reptiles and amphibians are not neglected -- Horned Frogs, Diamondbacks, Gators, Terrapins. The fish are playing, too, at least when they’re not in school: Marlins and Sharks and Rays and Dolphins. (Oh, wait, dolphins aren’t fish. Stick them up there with the mammals...) There are even insects – Bees, Hornets, Yellow Jackets and Monarchs, though I don’t think the latter are of the butterfly variety.

Hey, even the trees get their day in the sun – the Maple Leafs and Timbers, and what do you know, there’s even a nut, the Buckeyes. How appropriate. And water, you ask? Well, there are Whitecaps and Waves.

Finally, there’s a nature category that might have to be called the ‘acts of God’ group: Cyclones and Hurricanes, Earthquakes, Crimson Tide, and Avalanche, as well as the perfect trifecta -- Storm, Thunder and Lightning. There are Flames and Heat and Fire, and we can’t overlook the Suns, though you’re not supposed to look at it. The Stars are still in the Sky. And rocks get their due, at least in the first case a large pile of them, the Rockies; but a small pile will also do nicely, the Nuggets. And in the other big and small sub-category of the acts of God, there are always the Sparks and the Galaxy. Whew. That one’s ostentatious.

OK, now for you nutcases whose marriages or relationships are shaky because of your infatuation with sports, here’s the extra credit paragraph; and if you get any of these, maybe you should check with available night jobs on ESPN. How about the Retrievers, Anteaters, Camels, Roadrunners, Great Danes, Blackbirds, Greyhounds, Ospreys, Leopards, Pride, Foxes, Rattlers, Peacocks, Spiders and Kangaroos? Kangaroos? Don’t you think a case should be made for American teams using only American animals?

So, how did you do? Leaving aside the fifteen in the extra credit paragraph, there are 92 nature-based team names listed, and these include all those in the six major pro leagues and the D1 schools. But did you get 80? Excellent! Even 70? Still quite good! I think I’d’ve only gotten 75 myself before I researched this inane subject, but I still know my four aforementioned and beloved sons will beat me. So what does that make them? Hey, guys, pay more attention to your wives…

Nature names are good names, because nature is good. God made it that way (Genesis 1:31). And nature names surely beat the dumb names like Packers and Red Sox. I mean, what’s a packer anymore, a frequent traveler? And who wears red socks except maybe Pee-wee Herman? Yes, nature names are good.

The Bible also says that nature understands its significant place in the cosmos as well, which cannot always be said for us sports-minded humans. Consider:

Ask the animals – they will teach you,
The birds of the air – they will tell you.
Speak to the plants of the earth and they will inform you,
Even the fish of the sea will declare to you:
Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?
In God’s hand is the life of every living thing,
Even the breath of all humankind. (Job 12:7-10)

So I hope you enjoy this little gamey essay as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it, but I also hope it gives you, if even just slightly, a little more appreciation for nature in the midst of sports. It’s certainly more about sports than it is about nature, but you might find it a fun way to spend a few minutes, or at least to kill a little time on a long walk. Try the quiz and see how you do.

Game on.

~~ RGM, October 14, 2017

Saturday, September 30, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Walking Softly

(It’s going on ten years since I wrote this. I was on retreat at the Sophia Center of Atchison, Kansas, Sister Terese leading a wonderful workshop on Celtic spirituality. She allowed ample time in our weekend for reflection, personal journaling and creative writing, and the following is what bubbled up during an afternoon recess. And by the way, I’ve shared before something written at that same retreat. Check the index above under Celtic Christianity, or find that piece here.)

Walking Softly

Do I walk so gently upon the earth
That the grass springs back quickly from underfoot?

Do I tread lightly as I pass, knowing that what I leave behind
Must be able to also support the weight and lives of those who follow?
            From whence comes my impulse to leave an imprint, to mark territory,
            to insert a sign of my presence, a blaze or initial on a tree,
            a rock cairn, a footprint?

Do I inflict myself upon my environment,
As if my passing that way is intended to leave permanent impact?

Similarly, do I walk humbly among the sons and daughters of God,
Imparting the presence of Christ, or imparting the presence of me?
            From whence comes my impulse to over-perform, or to outperform,
            To exert uncalled influence, influence that is sometimes
            Neither necessary nor truly helpful?

Gentle and Holy Lord, lead me to walk softly upon your earth and among your people,
Leaving everywhere the fragrance of You. Amen.
~~ RGM, September 27, 2017,
from an earlier entry in
my nature journal

Saturday, September 2, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Our Eclipse Adventure, Part 2 (With an Assist From St. Augustine)

All right, part two…

A multiple-image collage photo from my friend Lee in Kansas City
Last week when I wrote on our experience with The Great American Eclipse 2017 (leave it to Americans to name and market ‘their’ eclipse!), I realized by the end of my first page how long the piece might get. I mean, I was already up to seven hundred words and the eclipse was still hours off! Two single-spaced pages later, and by the time I was finished just telling about the experience, without even having taken opportunity yet to reflect on it, I could see the post was going to likely be the longest I’d ever put up. But the words had just kept flowing as I thought back on it. (If you didn’t see that post, hit this link.)

So it was about that time in my writing that I realized I wasn’t going to get everything I wanted to say into a single post. Yes, it’s MY blog and I can do anything I want! But it was just getting too long for comfortable reading. I felt I still had a lot to say, thus, today’s second installment…

Now, I don’t think the length was necessarily because I am longwinded. I DO try to be very intentional with my words (though I confess I can often end up preaching longer than I probably should). But it wasn’t longwindedness. I was caught up in something, something beautiful, a grand, even humbling, natural delight (not so different from preaching after all). I was swept up in the writing just as I had been swept up in the experience earlier that week, and the words flowed casually as I relived it.

But I stopped at that point last week, wanting to do some more thinking this week about just why it jazzed me so much, and that for a couple reasons. First, for me, I knew it had much more to do with something other than the phenomenon itself, and I wanted to drill down on that a little bit more. Most of you who regularly read this blog are like me in that you find nature an important spiritual pathway to God. I’ve written on this subject before, and that not infrequently. It is implicit in everything I write here and bears direct repeating from time to time. But second, I wanted to do more thinking for the benefit of those of you who may only slog through this blog because you’re my friend, who may not necessarily find nature to have this impact on you. I’m not trying to convince anyone that nature OUGHT to be something that leads you to God. That all depends on how God has wired you. Maybe it’s music, activism, philosophy, friendship, poetry, asceticism or contemplation that draws you deep toward the Divine. But I believe there is a spark of something in every created soul that can draw them to God-conscience, if they are willing.

I believe there is a spark of something
in every created soul that can draw
them to God-conscience… Creation
love, for me, is about God love.

Naturalists, even those who are Christ followers, can get excited about the simplest of things, so much so that some others may consider it a little whacked out. Now, a total eclipse is certainly not a minor thing, nor a simple one. There are actually good odds that ours might be the only sun and moon system in the universe where such a thing can happen. But that is not relevant. Naturalists can still wax inordinately long about the plainest of things or observations. They can be driven to huge efforts over what might seem to others minutiae. What’s the big deal about a unique mushroom, a stunning butterfly, a sunset, an action of an animal one has never observed even after a lifetime of observation? I’ll tell you what’s the big deal. At least for the Christian naturalist, it reminds her of creation, and in reminding her of creation, it reminds her of her Creator. Creation love, for me, is about God love, for the same reason that a gift presented to me by a beloved one is little about the gift and everything about the love.

I mean, why would two people travel seven hundred miles out of their way to observe a two-minute twenty-three second event?

Because it represents something far more than even its spectacular display, than even that it might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As a Christian high schooler from the church I am serving described it, who saw totality with friends in eastern Oregon, “It was totally epic!” Thanks, Jacob. Great phrase for a total eclipse. I’m sorry I did not come up with it. And I couldn’t agree more.

I don’t expect some people to get this, but it touches on the way I and many others tick. Others may not understand it. But many do not understand God love either. Perhaps attention to nature could help here.

God love. This brings me to our friend St. Augustine, one of the first great theologians of the church, who lived in the 4th and 5th Century A.D. He was an apologist, a defender of the Christian faith in a world similarly bent on self-destruction as our day. But he was “asked whereon he rested his claim” of faith, in the words of an old Swedish hymn. For him, it led him to reflect on just what it is he loves when he loves his God. Now, mind you, Augustine was a very sensual man, something made starkly clear from his writings regarding his conversion, so listen for the sensate words in this testimony, every one of the five senses referenced. Here it is, St. Augustine on “What do I love when I love my God?”

What do I love when I love my God? It is not physical beauty or temporal glory or the brightness of light dear to earthly eyes, or the sweet melodies of all kinds of songs, or the gentle odor of flowers and ointments and perfumes, or manna or honey, or limbs welcoming the embraces of the flesh; it is not these I love when I love my God. Yet there is a light I love, and a food, and a kind of embrace when I love my God – a light, voice, odor, food, embrace of my innerness, where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lesson, where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That’s what I love when I love my God.

So for me, and perhaps millions of others who find in nature a spiritual pathway. That’s what I also love when I love God’s creation. There’s something there -- a Divine mystery, attraction, self-disclosure, welcome, revelation – that words can hardly befit.

So there you have it. Thanks for your patience with my meager musings. I’m not a theologian, nor an apologist, but I do know what love is.

~~ RGM, August 28, 2017

Saturday, August 26, 2017

From My Nature Journal: Our Eclipse Adventure

If you’ll allow me to mix my metaphors for just a moment, Gail and I chased what was looking more and more like the proverbial wild goose early this week, hoping we would not end up being skunked. But we considered it a goose worth chasing, and, gratefully, the skunk didn’t show.  Besides, it was only 700 miles out of our way, and it occurred to us both (since we had the time) that some things were just worth trying: and so, from responsibilities in northern Iowa on Sunday, we headed south to see if we could be lucky enough to find clear skies in the path of totality of Monday afternoon’s Great American Eclipse 2017. Crazy? Maybe. But I don’t know, how often does one get to do anything associated with the word totality?

We knew it would require the better part of two days, including a night sleeping in the car -- since every hotel room for miles around had been booked for months. We also knew the forecast was not favorable to our hopes. We’d followed the weather for days, hoping to know if we might take the chance and go down. But the appointed day’s weather predictions, expected the week before to be sunny all across the Midwest’s path, became murkier and murkier (read: cloudier and wetter) the closer the time came. But even the chance to see a possible once-in-a-lifetime event made the effort worth it.

Now, there were a lot of places we could go from northeast Iowa. The path, after all, had huge dimensions – a whole continent wide on the one hand, from sea to shining sea, and a seventy-mile wide north/south swath all along the way. But rain systems were building from both the west (in Kansas) and the southeast (in Kentucky), squeezing the middle states of Missouri and Illinois, and there were limits to how far we thought we’d be willing to travel. Wyoming? Their western skies were typically clear, but no. A friend was going there, and I wished him well. Not Nebraska either, both of these just too far given our other plans.  So we played the percentages. Northwest Missouri? No, we had already ruled that out by Saturday, seeing that rain was very likely there on Monday. (That ended up a good decision. Have you heard that Kansas City got flooded?) It left us with southeast or central Missouri and southern Illinois, any of which were south of where we were in Iowa, so we headed that way after church, checking the weather percentages throughout the afternoon to see which way we would eventually turn. By Sunday evening as we approached St. Louis, southern Illinois held the better percentages – still iffy, but better than Missouri – so we pointed the car in a southeast direction.

We felt like storm chasers, but we were actually chasing the sun.

We felt like storm chasers, but we
were actually chasing the sun…

We arrived not long before midnight in Marion, Illinois, our goal for the overnight. Having heard that Walmarts generally allow campers to pass a night in their parking lots, we thought it a likely and safe place to flop. So, apparently, did hundreds of others, also spending the night in their assorted cars, vans, pickups and motorhomes, with more showing up by the minute. Some shared a party atmosphere with friends, most were quiet. After one final weather check (yes, it still said mostly cloudy with 20% chance of rain), we hunkered down and tried to get some sleep. About 4:30am, after various commotions of barking dogs, inadvertent car alarms, slamming doors and growling diesel engines, a young man mercifully knocked on our window and said the manager had asked us all to move along. Since the sun was not yet up, we looked for a parking spot at a nearby truck stop but didn’t find one, then grabbed one we found at a McDonald’s next door and dozed some more. Still, we couldn’t help but look up along the way and notice that the sky at least looked promising; the main event was nearly nine hours off, however, so no use in getting our hopes up…

By six the sun had risen, the doze was over and the adrenaline started kicking in. The packed McDonald’s offered the pleasure of hot coffee, and it was finally time to hit the nearby county roads to find a good viewing spot with a trillion other tree-hugging Americans. The sky was blue and the sun shone brightly through a high cirrus ceiling. Cloud cover maps showed us that our afternoon chances were better the further south and east we went so we headed that way. By 7:30 we had found our place – out in the country in the parking lot of the Cana Baptist Church, corner of Canaville Road and Illinois 166, near Creal Springs, Illinois. Hey, it’s a church and I’m a pastor; nobody’s going to ask us to leave. And nobody did. A huge maple tree gave shade, which was nice because we knew it was going to be over 90 degrees in that shade within minutes. Gail climbed into the backseat again to sleep some more, and I settled down in a lawn chair with a book, too buzzed to rest. It was nearing the reckoning.

The first words out of Gail’s mouth a couple hours later: “Uh-oh, puffy clouds are building in the west.” I knew. I had seen that the clouds were moving almost due east and told her that was why I wanted to park at a crossroads with room to go in every direction. If the sky hadn’t completely clouded over by the time of the big show, we could jump in the car at the moment of truth and backrun it. Yes, a man makes plans. For better or worse, often the latter.

Huge dark clouds started forming by 11, but the sun shone brighter and brighter in between them. It was going to be close, a crapshoot. We both got a bit giddy and I told Gail I already really loved this adventure whether we got to see the eclipse or not. She agreed. Several other cars joined us, appreciating our good taste in spot-picking. It included a car full of middle-aged women from Champaign (appropriate) who quickly spread a quilt and brought out the wine glasses. They asked if I’d take a photo of them all with their ‘silly’ eclipse glasses on, then another holding their wine glasses irreverently in front of the Cana Baptist Church sign. I obliged, and told them that Jesus had often been a bit irreverent himself.

First contact, 11:53am, the sun begins its end run around the moon’s backside. Clouds are thick, but small breaks still separate them. It is going to be almost an hour and a half to totality, maybe things will change by then. Clouds, clouds and more clouds. I begin timing them, seeing how long a cloud the size of my spanned hand at arm’s length blocks out the sun; I’m testing for that possible backrun. A man makes plans, you know. And every time the sun breaks through between clouds, we of course find more of it moon-blocked. Finally, we see a huge stretch of blue sky coming beyond just several more large clouds. Hope. By 12:45 that large stretch of open sky reaches the sun. Since we know totality will last from 1:20:45 to 1:23:08, could that sky possibly hold for just 38 more minutes? Please?

By now, the light is eerie, actually darkening in a strange way, almost like when the full sun begins to slide behind a fierce mountain crag, but different. With each passing minute, the weird grayness increases. 1pm. Twenty minutes to go. The open sky still graciously yawns, and our jaws begin to ache from the smiles plastered on our faces. We’re going to see it after all! Celebration. Lump in the throat. A high cirrus cloud passes over the sun, barely making an impact. Gail notices that though it is still fairly bright and it is 91 degrees, the sun’s heat is no longer felt on the skin. We observe different things, trying to take it all in. I see a strange shadowy glow in the sky to the west. She sees a raptor acting strangely, then points out her first view of Venus to the west of the sun. I had told her to watch for it. But it’s not totality yet. By about 1:16 I hear dogs barking oddly, and by 1:18 crickets start to chirp. Taking as broad a view as possible, one can actually see the darkness advance, not as if by a shadow approaching, but by a light dimming, which of course it is. 1:20, it’s just seconds away now. Our unprotected eyes are not yet watching the sun but the earth, and we finally look up to see the sights we’d only ever seen in photos – first the diamond ring effect, that last moment before totality when the tiniest bit of sun still shines from around the moon’s far eastern flank, and then, finally, what we longed to see with naked eye, second contact and the corona glow. We’re in totality, the main event. The corona is star of the show. The moon’s shadow is upon us for the next two minutes plus. I struggle a bit with the camera and Gail, wise woman, says to forget it, just watch. So we do.

It’s not as dark as I expected it to be. The only ‘star’ we can see is the brilliant Venus, though there is a large ring of darkness around the eclipse. Perhaps that area of the ecliptic is presently devoid of bright stars, or else the further than average proximity of the moon from the earth is allowing a larger corona than some eclipses, making the sky too bright to see many stars. Perhaps both. I don’t think too long, though, there’s more to experience. We look around. It is very dusky. The Champaign ladies are whooping it up, maybe a little too much wine. Me? I find myself barely breathing, breath taken away by the spectacle. And I notice the day’s winds have died down, too, earth’s breath stolen also from it. Gail points out a sort of soft sunset glow on a horizon, and I turn around to see it on every horizon I can see, the four corners of the earth at the same time. Amazing. But we are taking fast looks at everything because our eyes keep drawing back like magnets to the shining corona, the star of the show. It is mesmerizing, nothing like it in our life experience. The plasma glow is radiant, luminous. The view… One can almost feel its three-dimensionality. I think to myself, “Will Jesus’ return be something like this?” Time seems strangely suspended. We are in another world than our own.

And then just like that, as we stare up, the sun again peeks out, third contact, this time from behind the moon’s western flank, and we see the second diamond ring effect. But we quickly avert our eyes to protect them. Totality is over, the corona gone. Within less than two seconds it is too bright to safely watch. The moon’s shadow has passed us, heading now to South Carolina’s eastern seaboard. There’s a lot of bad weather between here and there, though, yet we’re hopeful along the way that many will be as blessed as us to see it.

Now, with an apology for the length of this post, I need to cut you loose. I’ve more to say, actually, especially regarding just why this experience was so special, have even remembered something St. Augustine said I’d like to share. But I want to think more on that before writing any further. As a result, I’ve just decided to make this post “Our Eclipse Adventure, Part 1!” I’ll try to get to Part 2 in the next several days.

In the meantime, I’d love to hear from others of you who were able to either be in or get yourselves into totality.
~~ Standing Amazed,
RGM, August 25, 2017

Saturday, August 12, 2017

From My Nature Journal: The Cycle

To my right, a brittle and monstrous-looking dragonfly exoskeleton clings to an alder sapling at water’s edge. Like an outgrown pair of overalls, a nymph left it behind weeks ago after climbing from the watery depths and emerging from its skin shell. We often see these lovely creatures fresh out of the lake, having climbed bush, tree trunk, even cabin walls, clinging to their outgrown suit for several hours while they unravel their wings, pump blood into their veins, and finally skitter off to do their barnstorming thing.

I’ve delighted this summer season in the helicopter antics of a particularly large adult that has graced the dock, vigilantly doing its part to relieve me from mosquito peskery. It seems to strike an occasional photogenic pose on the weathered wood while it surveys its hunting grounds, even lighting on me from time to time for a loftier view of its riparian domain. One time it landed on my forearm barely ten inches from my face, cocked its head several times, and stared at me with seeming inquisitiveness through its huge iridescent eyes. Is this the same one that left its used clothing hanging on its alder hook?

Yet now as I watch, a female does her little darner dance low over the water. She will die soon. But now she flits irregularly, dropping her abdomen’s backside quickly to the surface about once every second or two, depositing a fertilized egg with each dip, a seed that will sink to the bottom and, if it survives the weather and hungry fish, will ready itself for its own debut late next spring, perchance climbing this same alder.

The cycle.

Whether all the same insect or not, I see before my very eyes a generation rising and passing, a life cycle in full, miniature to my own. What’s the difference in the grand scheme of things between a summer season and the season of a human lifetime? What’s to say that the passing of time in God’s perspective, before Whose eyes a day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as a day, is any different? This tiny one’s life cycle has its purpose and I mine. Its intention has played itself forward before my eyes, as mine does before God’s. In their proper time, both its biography and my own will be complete.

For the eyes of the LORD move to and fro throughout the earth that He may strongly support those whose heart is completely His. (2 Chronicles 16:9)

As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. But the steadfast love of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children's children, to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments. (Psalm 103:15-18)

~~ RGM, August 11 2017

P.S. I wrote once before on dragonflies, but from a bit more poetic of a perspective. Hit this link to check it out.