Saturday, December 28, 2013

QOTM...*: Peace

(*Quote of the Month)

                          Keep within me
               a stillness
               as deep and sweet
               as a forest's
               in mid of winter.
                               ~~Alistair MacLean, Hebridean Altars

Says the Psalmist, speaking the words of the Almighty, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10).

In my estimation there may be nothing in nature that epitomizes stillness more than a snow-shrouded winter wood. We were able to enjoy a bit of that this week during our holiday visit with family in Minnesota. Having brought our snowshoes along in the event the snow would be deep enough to do some shoeing, we were not disappointed; it was a veritable winter wonderland. Gail and I also get to enjoy lovely forest environments blanketed in snow just several miles west of our Colorado home.

The quotation is from a 1937 collection of Celtic prayers, sayings and blessings, titled Hebridean Altars: The Spirit of an Island Race, by Scottish historian Alistair MacLean. (Interestingly, this is a different Alistair MacLean than the prolific Scottish novelist who wrote The Guns of Navarone; I had thought they were the same man!) Altars is a classic in Celtic spirituality and includes quotes the historian MacLean gathered from the Outer Hebrides, the rough islands on the northwest of Scotland facing the North Atlantic. It may be that he also gleaned some of his material from the earlier and more voluminous Carmina Gadelica of Alexander Carmichael published in 1900.

I love the quote, though. Of course, the simile’s main evocative purpose is not to reference the woods but rather the inner peace also spoken of in the Psalm 46 Bible verse. That feeling of repose or tranquility would be a welcome sense for us all to enjoy as the Christmas season winds into the New Year. May you know, and know well, the peace of God that transcends all understanding (Philippians 4:7).
~~RGM, December 27, 2013

Friday, December 20, 2013

From My Nature Journal: Solstice and its Illogical Contradiction

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 daylight of the year. (Want to see how the earth works? Click here.)

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 a 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 trumps 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.
               (from Hark, The Herald Angels Sing 
               by Charles Wesley, 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 journal entry
that I wrote on December 21, 2012

Friday, December 13, 2013

POTM...*: Nature and the City

(*Photo of the Month)

Although it is only a quick photo off of a phone camera, Gail and I took this early this month while in Chicago. And though the focal image is not strong (it was a foggy day, after all), the mental image is.

It is, of course, the famous Windy City skyline (IMNSHO the most beautiful skyline of American cities) taken above prairie plants. It reminded me of something about which I had been thinking of writing.

A beloved relative who shares a love for nature with me told me once, “You are so lucky you can live in a beautiful place to enjoy nature.” I told her that nature’s beauty and bounty is nearly everywhere if one has a patient eye to see it, or a broader definition to recognize it, and that she herself was surrounded by far more than she realized. (She, too, was from Chicago, and in fact lived within a five-minute drive of one of my favorite childhood Forest Preserves!) The place represented in the photo is one such example among the many we have enjoyed in the Chicagoland area.

This one is small, barely known except by birders, but it also enfolds the last natural sand dune habitat within city limits. It is the Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary located at the east end of Montrose Avenue (4400 North) on Lake Michigan. Quickly accessible from the vast Montrose Beach/Montrose Harbor parking area, it is additionally known colloquially among naturalists as “The Magic Hedge” for its charmed attraction of birds of all kinds that frequent the various central flyways, especially during migrations and in winter. The Audubon Society has even designated it as one of our country’s critical IBA’s, or Important Bird Areas. Many of these are in major metropolitan environments.

Nature’s beauty and bounty is
nearly everywhere if one has a
patient eye to see it, or a broader
definition to recognize it...

So, can one enjoy nature in the city? I certainly believe so! Set me in a room with a window that gives me eyeshot of a tree or the sky and I’ll be happy! But as I mentioned to my relative, it’s out there -- we just might need to be a little more diligent in seeking it out. My sister Carolyn is actually my hero and inspiration in this regard. A life-long naturalist and birder, she has introduced us to more natural areas in Chicago than I could count! Years ago she familiarized me with a fantastic organization called Chicago Wilderness, which ran an excellent printed magazine of the same name from 1997-2009, all of which is archived and freely available to any who would like to access it. It is just one more indication that urban nature is available to those who seek it. I’ll never forget the article I read years ago (Time Magazine? Audubon?) about the dozens of bird species a birder counted one afternoon while attending (and ostensibly watching) a Chicago Cubs baseball game at Wrigley Field!

People tend to define natural beauty way too narrowly -- mountains, lakes, shorelines, forests, __________ – fill in your own blank. Interestingly, I think we too often do this with God as well, that is, define God way too narrowly, or at least define God’s control over or interest in our lives too narrowly.

Let’s open our eyes. Let’s see God in God’s bigness, avail ourselves to God’s surprises. And let’s see the beauty and diversity of God’s creation similarly. In both, the possibilities are endless. 

~~RGM, December 11, 2013
P.S. Coming up next week? Something from my nature journal on Christmas and the winter solstice…

Friday, December 6, 2013

Blowin’ in the Wind: A Nature Hymn in a Surprising Place…

(Blowin’ in the Wind is a regular feature on my blog highlighting an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things –pieces I have not written but that inspire me. I trust they will do the same for you.)

It is another of the truly great Christian songs of all time – "Joy to the World" – with music and lyrics written 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 Philadelphia 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. 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, absolutely 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 theology, actually. 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: Jesus said that if the people failed to praise him, the very rocks would not be able to hold back (Luke 19:40); Isaiah said that the trees of the field would clap their hands as God led us forth with such joy (Isaiah 55:12); and 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 that came to the world with Adam and Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, and the salvation of the promised Messiah is the curse’s breaking 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 will sing this song lustily this season, thrilled with these thoughts. As you sing it, too, imagine all of creation joined in praise along with you!

Blessed Advent!
~~RGM, December 6, 2013