Friday, June 26, 2020

From My Nature Journal: Respite

(I wrote a month ago the blogpost that follows, intending to publish it later that same week. But then the Minneapolis protests and riots broke out, and it seemed to me I needed to write something else that would address the issue of lament and honor the memory of George Floyd. See that post here. My intended subject for last month, however, was respite, and the need for respite is just as pertinent for us all now as then, perhaps more so...)

Respite. What is it? It seems one of those terms that defies the typical Latin architecture of words with the prefix re. To re-spite? No, thankfully not. Webster defines respite as ‘an interval of rest or relief… a putting off or delaying.’ In short, it’s a lull, and, interestingly, it can be a noun, verb or adjective. I don’t know how many words there are that can be all three of those.

Noun, verb or adjective, I wonder if I have ever needed respite more than I do just now.

The coronavirus has added many layers of complexity and grief to what had already been a very challenging ministry season. And in the midst of this unfortunate convergence, Gail and I have come yet again for a short respite to open up our humble little cabin in the northwoods, this old rustic place, this remote and familiar little parcel that is more precious to us than any other acre on earth, likely more precious than it ought to be. But it is, and for twenty-five years has always been, our place of respite. Yet it has also been so much more. It’s a place where we’ve shared intimately with family and friends. A place that holds many of our choicest memories. A place of simple beauty that often takes our breath away. A place for contemplation and reflection where important decisions have been suffered through and made. A place where we seem to make daily discoveries of natural wonder whenever here. And, as a result of just that, a place from which I’ve often written of the wonders of God’s creation for this blog.

Yes, we are remembering to do the social distancing thing so we don’t infect the locals with any germs from the big metropolis of Minneapolis, our current place of ministry service. The county in which our cabin lot sits doesn’t even have a known COVID case. But in the midst of everything being so very abnormal these last two-and-a-half months, it is surprising, almost uncanny, but certainly refreshing how very normal life feels here. Will that be the case a month from now? A year? What, after all, will the new normal be whether, as Dr. Seuss says, ‘here, there or anywhere?’

Which brings me back to my subject. The human spirit needs respite. For heaven’s sake, Jesus the Divine even needed respite, and that not only because, as the theologians say, he was fully man while also being fully God. For even God rested on the Seventh Day of creation.
Somehow, seek a place of respite,
or if not that, at least a moment of
it, for the sake of your soul.

Hmmm. Just now while I am writing, a dear friend has texted me to share an excerpt from a devotional book he’s currently in, one I’ve also often used, though am away from now, Celtic Daily Prayer, by the Northumbria monastic community in Ireland. (Check here for their daily prayer website.) My friend knows we are here for respite and reflection. The entry for May 27 says this:

It is a difficult lesson to learn today, to leave one’s friends and family and deliberately practise (sic -- that’s the Queen’s English!) the art of solitude for an hour or a day or a week… I find there is a quality to being alone that is incredibly precious… One is whole again, complete and round – more whole, even, than ever before.

The devotional also references Psalm 131, with that lovely text:

But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.

Whether you are in a challenging personal or vocational season, or suffering directly or indirectly from the unknowns and imbalances of this virus, or both, may I make a suggestion to you to find some calm and quiet moments with your God who loves you as intimately as the most loving mother? It is not easy to find time for this. But I implore you as I implore myself. Come to Jesus. Find rest. (See Matthew 11:28-30) Somehow, seek a place of respite, or if not that, at least a moment of it, for the sake of your soul. 

~~ RGM, May 27 2020

Saturday, May 30, 2020

From My Nature Journal: Lament

I wrote a blog entry five days ago I had planned to post today. But then all hell broke loose in Minneapolis where we are temporarily living and working, sparked by yet another fatal incident of white on black police brutality. Peaceful protests immediately abounded, but, very quickly, and of course in the cloak of darkness (the typical timing of the prince of darkness), nearby districts exploded in rage. The city weeps. Our nation, already brought to its knees with the rest of the world by the coronavirus, has also erupted both in protest peaceful and fury crazed.

It makes my intended entry seem somewhat untimely today. The entry is certainly not inappropriate to the moment, as it is on the subject of respite, something we are also deeply in need of these days, but we can get to that later, perhaps next week. For now, it is just a time to lament.

My heart is too broken to carefully write at length about lament right now, so may I just call it out? Briefly?

Psalm 77 has it this way: My cry goes to God! Indeed, I cry to God for help, and for him to listen to me. In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord. My hand was stretched out in the night, and didn’t get tired. My soul refused to be comforted. I remember God, and I groan. I complain, and my spirit is overwhelmed. Selah… My spirit diligently inquires: “Will the Lord reject us forever? Will he be favorable no more? Has his loving kindness vanished forever? Does his promise fail for generations? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he, in anger, withheld his compassion?” Selah…

Yes, I lament. So does creation. Are you remembering that? Yes, creation laments. Creation groans, creation longs for the peace that is only possible through the Prince of Peace. (See Romans 8:22-27)

Creation laments. Creation groans. Creation
longs for the peace that is only possible
through the Prince of Peace…

Perhaps a key for us is in that strange little word selah. In both private and public reading, many gloss over it as if it were a comma out of place or a printing error. Scholars are not even absolutely certain of the meaning of the Hebrew word. It appears very occasionally in the Bible’s Wisdom Literature at the end of a section, and may have been a musical interlude. It may also have been simply a reminder to pause and reflect on what had just been said. Or done.

Even so, it is a selah moment for me. For us. For Minneapolis. For us all. Reflect. Reflect deeply. Bring any pain to the light of day before God. And let it result in a working for justice in the name of Jesus.

To the peaceful memory of George Floyd.

To the prayer that the Prince of Peace will heal. Not only our pain. Not only our failings. Not only our rage. But also our broken and unjust systems.

To the end that ALL God’s daughter’s and sons would “…do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with [their] God.” (Micah 6:8)

Selah.
~~ RGM, May 30 2020

Thursday, April 30, 2020

From My Nature Journal: The Kill Site

There’s a fresh kill site in the field behind the house, just beyond the backyard fence. I’m not yet sure what the remains are, seeing it here from the bedroom window, possibly a flicker taken by a hawk or a mourning dove by an owl. The killer might even have been a coyote, but likely not, as there are too many feathers spread about, and a coyote would have simply wolfed it all down (a curious cross-species morphism).

It’s always a bit humbling to come upon a kill site. Whether a bird near a trail or a mammal in the woods, it arrests my attention and sobers me. Almost always I pause and muse what the struggle must have been like, and in subsequent hikes I often remember the spot, a shrine, as if hallowed by virtue of what took place there.

It was something momentous, something of great drama. But a kill site only? It may seem a one-way loss looking at the carnage left behind, yet in the grand scheme of things there is something equally significant about it for the perpetuation of life. It’s as much a life site as a
kill site. A sacrifice was made, one for the benefit of the other. One surrenders, the other gains. One becomes the sustenance, the other is sustained. One submits, capitulates, loses, gives up, is emptied; the other prevails, triumphs, profits, is built up, filled. One is blessed, the other becomes the blessing.

Death begets life. Sacrifice cedes to vitality.

Oh, sweet Golgotha, the kill site…

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. And since we have been made right in God’s sight by the blood of Christ, he will certainly save us from God’s condemnation. (Romans 5:8-9, NLT)

~~ RGM, From an Old
Post in my Journal

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

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

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.

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 the nature (among other things) 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.
~~ RGM, March 31 2020

Saturday, February 29, 2020

From My Nature Journal: So What’s a TCO?

And now, from the 'It Might Give a Whole New Meaning to the Phrase New Moon' category, it appears that our earth has a new traveling partner, at least for a while.

I saw in the news earlier this week that a second moon has been discovered in the Earth’s gravitational system, a discovery at the Catalina Sky Survey that took place only two weeks ago, February 15. What’s the Catalina Sky Survey? According to the Internet, it's "a NASA-funded project supported by the Near Earth Object Observation Program (NEOO) under the Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), based at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Lab in Tucson, Arizona." All those abbreviations make it sound pretty important. Who knew? Essentially, their job is to discover comets and asteroids. And since at least one of those programs is there to recognize threats to our earthly existence, I guess that's a good thing, though I often think that would be a way better way to go than our destroying ourselves (either militarily or environmentally), which we sure seem bent upon sometimes...


The article's title is what grabbed my attention: Earth Captures Object Temporarily, Possible Mini-Moon. It's not very large, this object, somewhere only between six and eleven feet in diameter, so it can hardly be compared to Ol' Luna, but it's finding a chaotic path through our gravitational system, influenced by both Earth's and moon's pulls. It has even been given a name. 2020 CD3. Cute, hey> Leave it to NASA. Additionally and amusingly, we find it has been hanging around the vicinity for two or three years by now, which also gives us a great boost of NASA confidence. Lots of asteroids actually fly by Earth, though, and the only reason it's being considered a mini-moon at this point is that it has been hanging around so long. But astronomers feel it will eventually 'tire' of sticking around here and get back within a few weeks to its heliocentric (sun-centered) orbit, being flung somewhat differently as a result of its 'close encounter of the Earth kind.' 

This kind of thing is not that rare. It happened about thirteen years ago as well, an object adoringly named 2006 RH120, rotating Earth for eight months or so before it was jettisoned. But here’s the interesting thing to me: this phenomenon has a name, and that’s where my title comes in. In the astronomy field, these bodies are called Temporarily Captured Objects, or TCOs.

Temporarily captured objects. As usually happens with this blog, it’s a phrase like that one that will seize my interest and draw me to a faith parallel. In the spiritual realm, there are a lot of people like this, people whose spiritual attention is gotten, usually in some kind of crisis or time of need, but whose attention is only temporary. I was fascinated by the stories that came out of Hawaii back in January of 2018 when they had gotten that North Korean missile scare, tales of all kinds of people turning to prayer who had never prayed in their lives, prayer to a God they had not even believed had existed. And I prayed for those people at that time that such a thing might actually cause them to stop and think: why did I pray to a God I did not even think was there? But that’s extreme, that sort of Armageddon-ish fright. I think people do this all the time, God temporarily capturing their hearts, but over time, often fairly quickly, moving away from a Son-centered orbit. Actually, I not only think people do this all the time, I see people doing this all the time, and it’s heartbreaking. Temporarily captured objects.

Jesus called it out. He spoke about it in the Parable of the Soils when he explained some of its meaning by saying, ”The seed that fell on the rocky soil is likened to those who receive the Word with joy, but they send down no roots, believe for a while, then fall away in time of trouble. The seed that fell among the thorns are those who heard the Word, and as they go on their way are choked with the cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.” These are the temporarily captured objects. Then there are those of a different nature, of whom Jesus said, ”Those in the good soil? These are they with an honest and good heart, having heard the Word, hold it tightly, and bring forth fruit with patience.”

Lent is upon us, a season in the church’s year that is meant for introspection, for repentance, for consideration of just why you and I needed an Easter. It’s a good time for self-examination, for soul-searching, for contemplation of whether or not we are ‘all in’ with God. And if not, why not?

God has captured me and has never let me go. It is the same with many I know, and it is my prayer he will capture you as well.
~~ RGM, February 29 2010

Sunday, December 22, 2019

From My Nature Journal: Solstice and its Illogical Contradiction


(Today's blogpost is a repeat of one I've done in the past, as things are quite busy right now with work responsibilities and family gatherings. But I do think a lot about this concept this time of year, and it gives me joy. Merry Christmas!)

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Though the day officially launches the season we call winter, it curiously also marks a seemingly contradictory turning point: as of this day in the earth’s annual trek around the sun, the Northern Hemisphere increases its direct angle toward the sun’s rays. Consequently, here in the north, daylight will begin to lengthen starting this very day, as will our hemisphere’s warming, and these two phenomena will continue for the next six months until the summer solstice in June similarly heralds a return to winter. Of course, the opposite of these are true in the Southern Hemisphere: today is their longest day of the year.

It is curious to me that the first day of winter is also the first day of winter’s expiration, its demise. One would think winter’s opening day would portend more of the same with nothing to contradict it, nothing but cold, dark barrenness, bleakness, or as the poet says, earth standing “…cold as iron, water like a stone.” We don’t call it the ‘dead of winter’ for nothing.

But there it is, the illogical and illuminating contradiction: light. Its return mocks winter, scoffs at the cold, derides the bleakness. Each day that follows, the sun rises just a little earlier and sets just a little later. Winter anticipates spring, death foresees life, dark predestines light, cold envisages warmth: these are the paradoxes of the seasonal change we call the winter solstice.

So it is no coincidence that the early church chose to recognize the solstice as the most appropriate time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Now, in actual fact, Jesus’ birth likely took place some time during what we call October. I am not certain how that is surmised, but it has something to do with the timing of Jewish festivals and the typical season a census would have been called by Rome (see Luke 2:1-4), not likely the dead of winter.

But no. Indian Summer, beautiful as it is, just won’t do. To celebrate something as significant as the incarnation a time is needed that makes a statement, a time that belies its context, that refutes the cold, that calls out the stony spiritual stupor right in the midst of its bleak midwinter and long underwear. Solstice. Now there is an appropriate time to celebrate the Light of the world.

To celebrate something as significant as the incarnation, a
time is needed that makes a statement, a time that
belies its context, that refutes the cold, that calls
out the stony spiritual stupor right in the midst
of its bleak midwinter and long underwear.

And so we do. We know there is no life without light. Light begets being, a commonly known biological fact.

The same is true in the spirit world. St. John the Evangelist puts it this way: In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light for humanity. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5). Or later, sharing the very words of Jesus himself, he writes, And Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).” Or take it all the way back to the prophet hundreds of years before Christ. Anticipating the coming Messiah, Isaiah foretold: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned (Isaiah 9:2).

Light dispels darkness, not the other way 'round. Open a door into a dark closet and what happens? Does the darkness come creeping into the room in which you stand? No the opposite holds, and always will. Light outmaneuvers darkness.

So, solstice is here. I look forward to it not only because of Christmas but because it heralds the return of summer. Celebrate the light with me. Proclaim the truth of the Christmas carol:

          Light and life to all he brings,
          Ris'n with healing in His wings.

That's from Hark the Herald Angels Sing, by Charles Wesley, written in 1739. Or, if you prefer, fast forward to Bing Crosby (1963):

          The Child, the child, sleeping in the night,
          He will bring us goodness and light.

Let there be Light!
~~ RGM, From an 
Earlier Blog Entry

Thursday, November 28, 2019

From My Nature Journal: Thanksgiving and the Sunshine Singer


Just in time for Thanksgiving, I'd like to share one of my absolute favorite Swedish hymns from my Covenant denominational heritage. I actually don’t know much about the text’s author, a Salvation Army poet by the name of August Ludvig Storm, except to say that he lived from 1862 to 1914 and resided in Stockholm. The one I want to say more about in this post is the author of the music, Johannes Alfred Hultman. I feel I know the man.

“J.A.” Hultman, as he was publicly known, was a wildly popular musical entertainer among the Mission Friends of Sweden and the USA in the late 19th and 20th centuries. (“Mission Friends” was a common name for early Covenanters, a name I still dearly love and wish we used more often!) Born in 1861 in the poor, central Swedish province of Småland, his family emigrated to the states when he was eight years old and settled in rural Southwest Iowa near Essex. Early vocational ministry found him directing a church choir in Chicago (Douglas Park Covenant), and later pastoring churches in Nebraska and Massachusetts. While pastoring, however, he hooked up with Swedish theologian P.P. Waldenstrom in an 1889 speaking/evangelistic tour, bringing along his small, portable pump organ and providing music for the sessions. His time with Waldenstrom, famous and infamous in the US and northern Europe, marked the beginning of a change that led to Hultman’s taking up a full-time traveling and singing ministry that lasted half a century.

Known everywhere he went as “The Sunshine Singer,” his positive music and gregarious, sincere persona were a perfect fit to bring encouragement to immigrant Swedes, many of whom were rural or inner-city poor. The sunshine moniker came from an experience he had where he had been suspected in his travels of being a bootlegger, carrying alcoholic contraband in his wooden organ case. His response while being inspected? “I don’t deal in moonshine, I deal in sunshine.” (Last time I knew, the organ’s case was still being displayed among the archival artifacts in the vestibule of First Covenant Church of Omaha. I’m not sure of the story behind how it got there, and would love to be schooled. Interestingly, the church I am serving right now, Bethlehem Covenant of Minneapolis, also has an antique, portable and ‘boxed’ pump organ in its vestibule, one that was played by Hultman at the church’s building dedication in 1941.)

Hultman was well known both publicly and privately to have a good-natured humor which included playful self-deprecation. At a time when most traveling musicians supported themselves by selling copies of their music, in much the same way some entertainers do today with recordings, he was often quoted at concerts as saying, “I’ve brought along collections of my music that are available for purchase. The booklets cost a dollar, but I include my photograph as well and that changes the price dramatically, so I sell both for fifty cents.”

Deeply loved on both sides of the Atlantic, Hultman sang and presented evangelistic services continuously from the late 1800s until his death at age 81 in 1942. As I’ve said in the past, I’m something of a sentimentalist when it comes to music, and many Scandinavian texts from my heritage play to that sentiment, including this one. Read it below, and, if you can, celebrate it as a testimony of faith. And if you don’t know it, or if it has been a long time since you’ve heard it, check out this YouTube link.

Here it is, Thanks to God for my Redeemer, text by Ludvig Storm, music by J.A. Hultman:

Thanks to God for my Redeemer,
Thanks for all Thou dost provide.
Thanks for times now but a memory,
Thanks for Jesus by my side.
Thanks for pleasant, balmy springtime,
Thanks for dark and dreary fall.
Thanks for tears by now forgotten,
Thanks for peace within my soul.

Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,
Thanks for what Thou dost deny.
Thanks for storms that I have weathered,
Thanks for all Thou dost supply.
Thanks for pain and thanks for pleasure,
Thanks for comfort in despair.
Thanks for grace beyond all measure,
Thanks for love beyond compare.

Thanks for roses by the wayside,
Thanks for thorns their stems contain.
Thanks for home and thanks for fireside,
Thanks for hope, that sweet refrain.
Thanks for joy and thanks for sorrow,
Thanks for heavenly peace with Thee.
Thanks for hope in the tomorrow,
Thanks through all eternity.

I am told the original Swedish included the word thanks thirty-two times in the three verses. In this English translation by Carl E. Backstrom, it’s only said twenty-seven times, but I think the point is still well taken!

Psalm 30:12 -- That my soul may sing praises to You, O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever!
-- RGM, November 28, 2019