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

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