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.

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