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

Friday, February 26, 2021

From My Nature Journal: Uitwaaien

Ebey's Landing State Park beach, bluff in background
Had a white-knuckle winter walk at dusk last evening along the beach at Ebey’s Landing State Park -- stinging winds, fifty and sixty mile-per-hour blasts, car-sized waves, gale warnings on sea, high wind warnings on land. Recalling similar balance-challenging walks like that from butte tops in central Colorado, gusts seemed to penetrate through my body, clothes flapping, ears splitting, skin tingling. As long as I’m safe from hypothermia, I’ve always experienced winds like this as exhilarating, refreshing, even spirit cleansing.

Who knew that the Dutch had a word for that, and with characteristic vowel-rich Dutchness to boot!

I receive a daily word of the day on my phone from, and it surprises me, for an English language dictionary, how often these can be foreign-language terms. I’ve certainly never heard most of them in conversation! The word is uitwaaien, only three consonants in the nine letters. Wouldn’t THAT be a way to use up all those vowels at the end of a Scrabble game! 

First, try pronouncing it. Uitwaaien. 

If you came up with out-vine, you’d be correct. I wasn’t even close. And here’s the definition: the Dutch practice of jogging or walking into the wind, especially in the winter, for the purpose of feeling invigorated while relieving stress and boosting one’s general health. I can’t say that I disagree with the concept at all. But does that mean that the return walk is stressful and depressing? Probably not, just watch your balance, especially on a bluff or cliff trail. 

Last night, as often before, the powerful impression for me as a Jesus-follower is wind as the piercing breath of God’s Holy Spirit, blowing through me, flowing through me, enlivening, quickening, enervating, purging. “The breath of heaven,” I say. Some would say, “It’s just wind!” On the contrary, with this I do disagree, having often experienced the synergies of spiritual realities and natural wonders. Why ever would one think that God doesn’t routinely communicate through both the simple and grand things of his natural world? God is an artist, a master designer, with much to teach through his works. 

In this particular case, I’m reminded of the words of an old hymn:

Breathe on me, breath of God.

Fill me with life anew,

That I may love what Thou dost love

And do what Thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, breath of God

‘Til I am wholly Thine,

Until this earthly part of me

Glows with Thy fire divine.

~~ Edwin Hatch, 1878

The NOAA high wind warning last evening has downgraded to an advisory overnight, but perhaps I’ll get out later today for another go at it, and this time maybe even go up the bluff, careful for my footing.

Get outside. Or, shall I say, “Get uitwaaien.” My mother always said there was a little Dutch in us kids anyway.

~~ RGM, February 26, 2021

Thursday, January 7, 2021

From My Nature Journal: Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Are you afraid of the dark? Fear of the dark is a natural and normal fear in child development, but there are some for whom this fear is more intense or long-lasting. Nyctophobia is the technical term for an excessive fear of this type, one that can sometimes cause severe and irrational repercussions of anxiety or depression in one’s everyday life. 

Now, the truth is that there are two kinds of darkness, the literal kind and the figurative sort. Both have potential impact for excessive fear. On the figurative side, you and I have been witness to both reasonable and irrational fear in our experience of 2020’s triple whammy: the pandemic and its very real losses, the appropriate and inappropriate social unrest surrounding calls for racial justice, and our contentious national election and its aftermath. But these fears do not necessarily evaporate with the change of a calendar page, much to the disagreement of many recent pundits and wishers. There is nothing fundamentally magical about the change from 11:59pm on December 31 of one year to 12:01am on January 1 of the next, except in our minds; and the latter is not necessarily a bad thing at all. We need hope. We need fresh starts. I would even go so far as to say that one cannot live healthily without these. They can even be gifts from God.

It is not lost on me that yesterday, January 6, 2021, a day of infamy in our nation’s capitol, was also the Day of Epiphany in the Church Year. Epiphany takes place on the 12th Day of Christmas. It is not the day to receive the gift of ‘twelve drummers drumming’ and the vast human and animal menagerie that goes along with it. Epiphany is the supreme culmination of the celebration of the birth of Christ, and moves us from what might seem to some an idyllic world of cooing baby, young parents, a manger, animals and enthusiastic shepherds, to the very real and dramatic world of truth-seeking, political intrigue, injustice and tragedy represented in the story of the Magi, and that story’s aftermath. Sounds like our world, doesn’t it? That’s because it is. (See Matthew 2:1ff, and please don’t stop at verse 12.) A full understanding of Epiphany moves us away from what might seem the cuddly part of the story -- though the incarnation actually taking place here is in outright contrast to any fluffy sentimentalism – to the realization that this child is now the absolute and definitive Light of the world, Light TO the world, Light FOR the world. And we need that Light, especially in times of darkness.

Which brings me back to yesterday. It is yet another time when I realize how ashamed I can be of this country I love. Darkness has followed into 2021.

It is yet another time when I

realize how ashamed I can

be of this country I love.

But it also makes me realize our need for Epiphany, our need for the light of Christ, but also our need to be the light of Christ in our world. Did you realize that of all Jesus’ great ‘I am’ statements -- I am the Way, I am the Bread of Life, I am the Good Shepherd, etc. – of all these fantastic statements, did you realize that ‘light of the world’ is the only one that Jesus also reflects back (yes, reflects back) upon us? Jesus is the Light of the world. But Jesus also tells us that is what we are. 

Can you and I be light in the darkness? I guess that depends how afraid of the dark we are. 

I learned a new word from our pastor this past Sunday. As a missionary he has been immersing himself for several years in the Scandinavian languages, and shared a word from the Icelandic tongue. The word is rothljos, though I cannot pronounce it, cannot write it in the funky alphabet that Iceland uses, and perhaps have not even gotten the corresponding English spelling correct. But the definition of the word, such an appropriate word for this extreme northern island nation, is ‘all the light that’s necessary,’ or ‘enough light to find your way.’

All the light that’s necessary! Enough light to find your way! I SO like that word’s image, and can come up with nothing in English that approximates it. Iceland is nearly a sun-forsaken place in the dead of winter. Though you may know that Greenland and Iceland are misnamed and should actually switch appellations -- in other words, that Greenland is the real iceland and Iceland far greener than Greenland – Iceland is still a pretty cold place. It’s daylight lasts barely four hours when the solstice turns, and the sun is so low in the sky as to give negligible temperature relief. But as for habitability, Iceland possesses all the light that’s necessary for a people to still thrive. 

You and I can have this sense of panic that there is not enough light of Christ to go around. But there is enough, always enough. We can let the recent darkness swallow us. But even in you and me, God’s sons and daughters, there is enough of Christ’s reflection to go around, always enough. It’s why the Bible says God’s word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path: no matter how dark the surroundings, the light will always go where we go, and can even be a foretaste, a foretelling, of a greater light to come. As our pastor said: when the road is dark, what choice do we have? We have the choice to affirm that Jesus is always enough light to find our way by. 

And, I would add, enough to share…

Where is God in all this darkness? I recently became acquainted with another Taizé song, the title of which, in French, is La Ténèbrae (The Darkness). The Taizé Community shares a lovely and meditative form of worship singing that can touch some at their core. It is often done in full harmony but can certainly be done more simply. Here is a rendition, its hopeful lyrics based on Psalm 139:12: “Our darkness is never darkness in your sight, the deepest darkness bright as the daylight.” This pairs well with the Advent text from Isaiah 9:2, a prophetic text fulfilled in the person of Jesus and shared as an Epiphany text in Matthew 4:16: The people dwelling in darkness have seen a great light, and for those living in the land of deep darkness, on them a light has dawned.

Light a candle, dear people. God’s invitation is here both to see and to do God’s work in this world, even in the midst of its darkness. So light a candle. It will be enough.

~~ RGM, January 7, 2021

Friday, December 25, 2020

From My Nature Journal: A Nature Hymn in a Surprising Place…

Happy Christmas to all!

It is another of the truly great songs of faith of all time – Joy to the World – with music and lyrics by two of the greatest musicians of all time, Georg Fredrik Handel (of Messiah fame) and Isaac Watts. JttW is perhaps the most well known Christmas carol in the English language, and verifiably the most published. My favorite rendition of it happens to be by The Canadian Brass in a recording given to me years ago by my friend Lowell; but since I cannot find that on YouTube, press here to listen to the classic version by the Percy Faith Orchestra. If you’re half asleep, it’ll wake you up. And you have my permission to ignore the cheesy picture.

It is only in recent years, however, that I have appreciated the nature verses. 

The nature verses? Yes. Perhaps something was lost to me in the song’s familiarity, or in the simple joy of singing something so magnificent at such a wonderful time of the year. But the more I ponder the nature verses the more astounding the song seems to me, brilliant lyrics. Enjoy the whole prayer of praise, but note especially the lyrics highlighted:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Let earth receive her king.

Let every heart prepare him room

And heaven and nature sing!


Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!

Let all their songs employ,

While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains

Repeat the sounding joy!


No more let sins and sorrows grow,

Nor thorns infest the ground:

He comes to make his blessings flow

Far as the curse is found!


He rules the world with truth and grace,

And makes the nations prove

The glories of his righteousness

And wonders of his love!


It is really good creation theology. The last line of the first verse reminds us that all of heaven and all of nature join in the celebration. In other words we sing and, somehow, all creation sings with us. On the day that we call his Triumphal Entry, celebrated on Palm Sunday, Jesus said that if the people failed to praise him the very rocks would not be able to hold back (Luke 19:40); prophet Isaiah said that the trees of the field would clap their hands as God led us forth with such joy (Isaiah 55:12); and the Apostle Paul said that all of creation even waits as on tiptoe to see the marvelous coming of the King of Kings (Romans 8:19)

And what’s that in verse three about a curse? You have to go all the way back to Genesis 3 for that one: the curse is the woe to the world that came with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. But the stanza goes on to assure us of the salvation of the promised Messiah, and the breaking of the curse as ‘far as the curse is found.’ Add to all this the fact that Watts was said to have had Psalm 98 in mind when he wrote it, and it is no wonder that the lyrics have lost nothing of their richness over the three centuries since their writing.

I don’t know about you but I sing this song lustily each season, thrilled with these thoughts. It is one of the songs I find myself most looking forward to every year. As you sing it, too, imagine all of creation joined in praise with you, and you’ll have the theology down pat!

Blessed Christmas!

~~RGM, December 25, 2020

Sunday, November 22, 2020

From My Nature Journal: Drama in the Woods?

Am up in the Northwoods for a short solitude retreat. There is quite a lot to think and pray through these crazy days, so, though the thought came up rather spontaneously, the decision has been a good one. Holing up at our little Upper Peninsula cabin, already closed for the winter, I’m hauling water indoors for utility, cleaning and cooking and hauling my body outdoors to use the outdoor plumbing, AKA our old ramshackle outhouse. Frankly, I’m glad the old thing is still there for such a time as this. 

Winter is still officially more than a month away, but one would hardly know it by looking outside. Yesterday brought blizzard conditions with several inches of snow and winds gusting over forty miles per hour. Temps are bottoming out overnight in the mid-teens and the lake is starting to freeze at its sheltered edges. But the little place is cozy and warm, and I feel blessed in a thousand ways. 

With the fresh snow on the ground, I took a detour from my daily outdoor walking circuit and cut into the woods on a slender four-wheeler trail, the snow of which had not been disturbed, not by humans at least, just to see what I could see. Am not here very often with new snow on the ground, and my friend Ed has told me of the delights of identifying animal tracks in fresh snow. I was not disappointed, far from it. 

I was first simply stunned by the amount of tracks there were to see, and all since the snow
stopped falling just last evening. These woods have been a busy place. There had been field mice and red squirrels. Fox tracks crisscrossed everywhere, following rabbit tracks that multiplied like, well, rabbits. Deer tracks were ubiquitous, large and small, then something I could only guess had been a porcupine. Several times I saw tracks of what might have been a small weasel or ermine. There was even a pile of bear scat in the middle of the trail as big as a dinner plate, but it must have been set down before the snow as there were no tracks nearby. Though I couldn’t be certain, it looked like a lone wolf had coursed through, but the paw prints were so blown over that it was hard to tell. The coolest track I came across was some kind of bird – Owl? Hawk? – that had hit the ground to snatch something and left its full wing imprints in the snow. Sure enough, I did a little checking and found from the right a set of rabbit tracks that met an abrupt ending, certainly that little creature’s ‘end of the trail.’ 

It was easy for me to imagine the drama that plays out right under our noses every single night and day in the woods. Just to find food amidst a harsh northern Michigan winter must be an incredible feat. But drama? I guess not. To truly call it drama would be to anthropomorphize it, because for animals, it is not drama at all, just the normal way of life. It only seems dramatic from my perspective. 

I am a steward of God’s creation, as are you, but I take joy knowing that God tends to the animals, who seem so very vulnerable to me:

Look at the birds of the air. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. (Matthew 6:26). 

Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. (Luke 12:6)

So since I find myself thinking today with an animal mind, I’m remembering a poem I saved long ago, and if I’m correct, I think it’s from a book of blessings by John O’Donahue called To Bless the Space Between Us. It had this piece in it, entitled “In Praise of Animal Being.”

Nearer to the earth’s heart,

Deeper within its silence:

Animals know this world

In a way we never will.

We who are ever

Distanced and distracted

By the parade of bright

Windows thought opens:

Their seamless presence 

Is not fractured thus.

Stranded between time

Gone and time emerging,

We manage seldom

To be where we are:

Whereas they are always

Looking out from

The here and now.

May we learn to return

And rest in the beauty

Of animal being,

Learn to lean low,

Leave our locked minds,

And with freed senses

Feel the earth

Breathing within us.

May we enter

Into lightness of spirit,

And slip frequently into

The feel of the wild.

Let the clear silence

Of our animal being

Cleanse our hearts

Of corrosive words.

May we learn to walk

Upon the earth

With all their confidence

And clear-eyed stillness

So that our minds

Might be baptized

In the name of [*God’s] wind

And [*God’s] light and rain. 

~~ RGM, November 16 2020

[*The parentheses are mine. I couldn’t resist.]

Saturday, October 31, 2020

From My Nature Journal: The Bible as 'An Outdoor Book'...

With my apology for my frustrating inability to find the time to write lately, I need to get a little assist this week and draw on another Wendell Berry quote I recently ran across.

I’ve just finished a newer book from Zondervan’s Biblical Theology for Life series entitled Creation Care: A Biblical Theology of the Natural World, a 2018 publication by father/son academics Douglas J. Moo and Jonathan A. Moo. It’s pretty good. The book is formatted with many quotable quotes in its margins, and I really liked one by Berry, who has long been one of my faves. Berry, an environmental activist, farmer, poet, essayist and novelist, has appeared in my blog before, one of my heroes. Here’s a link to my first post in which I highlighted him; you can find others through the index tab above, though I confess it has been quite some time since I fully updated my index. I’ll get to that some day.

When Wendell Berry speaks, many Christian environmentalist/naturalist types listen, and he is vastly respected outside the church as well. He’s one of the few voices of faith well known in the larger public sphere who does not embarrass Christians every time he opens his mouth. We need many more of those. I am less familiar with his essays than his fiction and poetry (an FYI shout out for my favorites – one of his poetry collections, A Timbered Choir, and his novel Jayber Crow), but I more often run across quotes from his essays, and value what he says in one about the Bible as a book best read outdoors:

I don't think it is enough appreciated how much an outdoor book the Bible is. It is a ‘hypaethral’ book, such as Thoreau talked about – a book open to the sky. It is best read and understood outdoors, and the farther outdoors the better. Or that has been my experience of it. Passages that within walls seem improbable or incredible, outdoors seem merely natural. This is because outdoors we are confronted everywhere with wonders; we see that the miraculous is not extraordinary but the common mode of existence. It is our daily bread. Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine – which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes.*

Hypaethral. How can you not like a word like that? It’s from the Greek by way of Latin and simply means ‘exposed to the heavens,’ as Berry infers. God’s most awesome cathedral IS outdoors, after all. So it stands to reason that God’s word might best be appreciated there. 

What do you think? I’m reading through the New Testament this fall with several dozen others in our church, so I think I’ll do some of my reading outdoors and see how it feels.

“The heavens proclaim the glory of God, and the skies his craftsmanship. Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make God known.” – Psalm 19:1-2

Get outside.
~~ RGM, October 30 2020 

*Source: Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, Community: Eight Essays (1993)

Friday, August 28, 2020

From My Nature Journal: It Had Been a Good Day for a Naturalist…

Up until the late evening, Monday had been a very good day for an amateur naturalist on vacation.

That morning while sitting at the end of the dock I watched an eagle take a fish from the channel. This natural drama is always exciting to witness, with the eagle coming up empty more often than not. But when it is successful, it is an absolutely remarkable feat of body control, aeronautic timing, beauty, and, if I may wax anthropomorphic, grace.

Later that afternoon on my daily walk, I ran across a beautiful set of fresh moose tracks. A solitary animal had entered County Road 206 from the thick Ottawa National Forest woods to the north, walked west about 75 yards on the rain-softened gravel, then cut abruptly into the woods to the south. I had not seen the tracks the day before, so they were put down sometime the previous evening or early that morning, the times of day these enormous and ungainly animals are most active. And since it had been a long while since I’d seen fresh moose sign around here, I was just very pleased to know they are still around. Some day I may be blessed enough to see one, as have some of our neighbors.

Then that evening after supper, Gail and I took to the water to go scouting the status of the lake’s new loons. We knew the floating platform here in our bay had been successful, with two chicks coming off it on Independence Day, thus receiving the nicknames George and Tom. And though we had heard that the other platform on the lake had not had a successful hatching this year, our kids told us they had seen another adult pair feeding a lone chick further down the lake. Maybe another had come the natural way, from somewhere ashore, though the birds have vastly preferred the platforms in recent years. Sure enough, we spotted the family from our bay on the north end of the lake, where they tend to stay, and the family with the single chick on the south end. Score three chicks this year for Beatons Lake.

And to close out the outdoor portion of the day, the ‘seeing’ that night had been fantastic. Sky watching has always been a particular delight, and the Northwoods never disappoint on a clear night. The Milky Way was brilliant and the constellations and asterisms clear as a bell, with numerous shooting stars and satellites amplifying the sky’s three-dimensionality.

Yes, it had been a good day for an amateur naturalist. But then came my late evening reading, which made me feel like an absolute lightweight, just a naturalist ‘wannabee.’ I’m reading through a book by Jon Young called What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World. It belongs to my sister, who often shares great nature reads with me; but once again, it’s one of those books that make me feel like a know-nothing. After observing and studying nature since childhood, I sometimes think I’m stuck in kindergarten in God’s nature school. The book is about deep observation, in this case, deep birding; it’s the kind of observation that not only allows one to know a lot of things about a species, but even know things about an individual bird, so one may be able to successfully read its cues and clues. Take this for example:

If one day I see a small bird and recognize it, a thin thread will form between me and that bird. If I just see it but don’t really recognize it, there is no thin thread. If I go out tomorrow and see and really recognize that same individual small bird again, the thread will thicken and strengthen just a little. Every time I see and recognize that bird, the thread strengthens. Eventually it will grow into a string, then a cord, and finally a rope. This is what it means to be [a naturalist]. We make ropes with all aspects of the creation this way.

I guess I may not be the naturalist I thought! Have I ever been able to tell one robin from another by the depth of my observation? No! This guy’s birding knowledge puts me to shame. And though I know it’s my personal insecurities at play here, I read this genre to be inspired to go deeper, not to be shamed!!! Still, I’ll persevere. After all, I’m only a quarter of the way through the book. Perhaps there will still be some ‘baby steps’ he’ll share that will be more suitable for a lightweight like me.

For now, I’ll have to be content… that the
first step to being a naturalist is to love…

For now, I’ll have to continue to be content with something I’ve long believed, that the first step to being a naturalist is to love, to love God’s creation. There’s so much to see, so much to know, so much beauty to observe, so much that nature can teach (not the least of which is humility!), all of which leads me to the Creator and to the truth of the Bible:

Ask the animals and they will teach you,
The birds of the heavens and 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 His hand is the life of every living thing,
Even the breath of all humankind.
                                                                                    (Job 12:7-10)
~~ RGM, August 24 2020

P.S. I just shared that Bible passage last week at the memorial service of a dear naturalist friend who recently died. Peace to the memory of my friend Bob, who also knew countless good days enjoying God’s creation.