Friday, May 30, 2014

QOTM...*: Elizabeth Barrett Browning

(*Quote of the Month)

Earth's crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit ‘round it and pluck blackberries.

~~Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1856,               
From the Poem Aurora Leigh             

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) was a 19th Century British poet with great influence on both sides of the Atlantic. An outspoken proponent of key social issues in England and the United States, such as the abolition of slavery, and support for women's rights and child labor laws, Barrett Browning's overall work transcended her prolific poetry. Still, both her social conscience and her writing were deeply influenced by her strong Christian faith, believing that Christianity itself was essentially the 'glorified poetry' of God. She became the wife of poet Robert Browning, six years her junior, long after her own career and wide popularity had been established.

Often including literary images in her writing that evoke her love for nature, she may have been influenced by the early stirrings of the Transcendentalist Movement in America, though her initial work preceded it by some years. The quote is taken from her poem Aurora Leigh, in which she unfolds the story of a strong woman writer whose experience roughly parallels her own; of course, the quote also draws an allusion to the Biblical account of Moses at the burning bush, with the character and author inferring that God's presence is more available to us in nature than we often comprehend. 

~~ RGM, May 30, 2014     

Saturday, May 24, 2014

From My Nature Journal: Wild Thing

The lake is alive tonight. Bass jump in blackwater, trout rise to dimple the surface, bats hit the water’s face and flit every-which-way to the lure of riparian treats. The very water itself, nearly smooth as glass but for the animal disturbance, seems a wild thing.

What is it about wild that makes it so? It matters not if it’s a fish in a Northwoods lake, a mountain goat in the Rockies, a brown bear on the Katmai Peninsula, or a field mouse in the backyard – the concept is the same: wild is… well, wild.

Size is irrelevant. Timid as a mouse? Tell that to its prey. Meek as a lamb? Coddle a young bighorn sheep and then weigh in on that. In fact, it is estimated that, ounce for ounce, the most ferocious of wild creatures is the diminutive weasel, often taking on quarry many times its size. In short, no matter the mass, if something is wild one had better watch out.

Maybe that’s it, the seeming ferocity. We tend to think of something as ‘wild’ if it possesses the capacity to harm us. If it can bite, sting, lance, claw, poison, clobber or eat me, it has my respect. But even ferocity is an anthropomorphic illusion. A lion, even a ‘man-eating’ one (!), is not ferocious when it does what it does; it is simply gaining its sustenance the only way it knows. That is no fiercer than any hunter gathering game, including my beloved and gentle brothers and sons-in-law. And forget the idea of a domesticated animal being any safer; statistics say that one hundred times more people are killed by cows each year than by sharks.

Or if not ferocity, perhaps it’s the unpredictability of a creature, at least from homines sapientes’ perspective (did you know that homines sapientes is the plural of homo sapiens?) No one who has ever tried to catch a rabbit, get a hook out of a wriggling trout’s mouth, break a horse, or coax a chipmunk with a peanut, can deny the complete cluelessness that can surround the experience, the absolute and comprehensive inability to foresee even a small bit of what the animal is going to do. No sooner do we think we have the creature figured out than we’re left standing there feeling silly,
taken, had, baffled. Or bitten. We are reminded   
what wild is.

We live cultivated, reasonable lives; wild is devoid of any such reasoning sense. It acts by pure intuitive instinct without recourse to the power of logic. Wild is mysterious. It cannot be quantified, qualified or stereotyped, and almost defies definition. One does not need ‘wilderness’ to see it. It 

No sooner do we think we have the creature 
figured out than we’re left standing there
feeling silly, taken, had, baffled. Or bitten...

is raw, natural, intense, enigmatic, intentional, uncultivated, inhospitable, full of wonder and beauty, innate, uncongenial, powerful, transcendent, volatile, inscrutable. It is inhuman but not inhumane, strange but strangely common, subtle but obvious, intricate yet simple, intangible yet easily observable.

Wild is wild. It is also one of the marvels, perhaps even one of the attributes, of the Creator.

The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it. (Psalm 24:1)

I know all the fowls of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are mine. (Psalm 50:11)

I will make for you a covenant on that day with the wild animals, the birds of the air, and the creeping things of the ground… And I will make you lie down in safety. (Hosea 2:18)

~~RGM, from an earlier journal entry, 
adapted for my blog May 23, 2014

Saturday, May 17, 2014

POTM...*: The Gift

(*Photo of the Month)

OK, I have been asked about these two photos several times, but don’t think I’ve ever yet taken the opportunity to share them together; so I thought I’d post them this week as my photo(s) of the month.

I’ve heard it said that good photographs are not ‘taken,’ they are given, even granted as a gift. With what I believe about the gifts of nature from our good God, I truly do find that there are special photos we’ve shot that we more accurately see as being gifts from God. This pair is one such example.

Gail took them three years ago while we were vacationing in Michigan. The subject is a whitetail fawn, of course, at least in one photo; the fawn, it seems, may provide the backdrop for the subject in the other. It depends on how you look at it.

We have stumbled across resting fawns in the woods, in our Michigan yard, in a neighbor’s shed, even had one plop down right on the highway one time as it crossed and we approached; needless to say, we pulled over, went back and got it off the road. In each of these cases we never saw the doe. Adult whitetails will frequently leave their newborns in order to go and make their necessary browsing circuits; and since a fawn is relatively scent-free, and sits stock still as it rests, a predator can pass within feet of it and not take notice. (Hmmm… stillness and the ability to be hidden from the predator… Now that might actually preach some time…) The fawn’s spots even provide camouflage in the process, breaking up the patch of tawny brown quite well.

This one, however, no longer young, was on the move with its mother nearby, and Gail just happened to be in the right place at the right time to receive the gift. We have been grateful for the photos ever since.

It was naturalist John Muir who said:

…A single day in so divine an atmosphere of beauty (as God’s good earth) would be well worth living for. And at its close, should death come without any hope of another life, we could still say, “Thank you, God, for the glorious gift!” and pass on.

~~RGM, May 16, 2014

P.S. If you love deer as much as I do (it’s actually my favorite animal to see in the wild, in spite of its ubiquity), hit this link to return to a blogpost I did on deer some time ago.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Blowin' in the Wind: "Indescribable" by Laura Story, And the Enigma of Suffering

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

OK, this song has been around for over ten years, but in singing it again in church this past Sunday I could put off no longer finally addressing it here on my blog. Its lyrics and music are by Laura Story, but it was popularized by Chris Tomlin in his 2004 album Arriving. And given the unfortunate ‘flash in the pan’ nature of some popular CCM, Indescribable has showed itself to possess the staying power marked by a truly great song. Hit this link to listen to it while you read on. And here are the lyrics so you don’t have to watch them on the YouTube video (unless you want to – there IS some nice nature photography there but the lyric display is a little distracting).

From the highest of heights to the depths of the sea,
Creation's revealing Your majesty;
From the colors of fall to the fragrance of spring,
Every creature unique in the song that it sings,
All exclaiming,

Indescribable! Uncontainable!
You placed the stars in the sky
And You know them by name!
You are amazing, God!
All powerful! Untamable!
Awestruck we fall to our knees
As we humbly proclaim:
You are amazing, God!

Who has told every lightning bolt where it should go?
Or seen heavenly storehouses laden with snow?
Who imagined the sun and gives source to its light,
Yet, conceals it to bring us the coolness of night?
None can fathom.

Indescribable! Uncontainable!
You placed the stars in the sky
And You know them by name!
You are amazing, God!
All powerful! Untamable!
Awestruck we fall to our knees
As we humbly proclaim:
You are amazing, God! You are amazing, God!

Indescribable! Uncontainable!
You placed the stars in the sky
And You know them by name!
You are amazing, God!
Incomparable! Unchangeable!
You see the depths of my heart
And You love me the same.
You are amazing, God! You are amazing, God!

(not our photo)
All right, it’s a good song. The lyrics are strong, the music memorable, and it grabs nature nuts like me. But I’ll tell you why I’ve had such a hard time writing on it, sometimes even singing it: it’s the first line of the second verse -- I’ve a friend who was actually struck by lightning and almost killed, that left him impaired, and the first time I sang it after that happened I could hardly hold my composure when we got to that line. I had not thought about it quite like that before, and could only imagine what my friend would think about it. And every time I have sung it since I cannot fail to think of him.

Now, this is not a place for a full discussion on theodicy, but, for me, the song surely raises the issue. And with the new tornado season in full swing of late, and newspapers and websites eagerly reporting every single natural disaster that occurs around the world, it brings up the stark reality that nature is not all sweetness and light, chirping birds and spring tulips. It also has the power to destroy farms, towns, villages and cities and the people that occupy them.

When Gail and I visited Japan in March, it was revealing to us to see how intimately the entire culture lives in consciousness (not necessarily fear) of earthquakes, and particularly of the ongoing suffering resulting from the tsunami that slammed its eastern seaboard in 2011. Besides lightning, earthquakes and tsunamis, there are floods, volcanoes, hurricanes, tornados, straightline winds, mudslides, asteroids, meteorites, wildfires, avalanches, droughts, hailstorms, and all kinds of other natural whatnot considered ‘acts of God.’ One can carry this all the way down to mosquito bites. (Interesting how sunsets, refreshing rain, night and day, the miracle of agriculture, the wonder of childbirth and all the other beauties of nature are not spoken of similarly as God’s acts; guess God only gets the credit when things go badly.)

Does God allow suffering? He certainly seemed to in Job’s life. If anyone has ever been ‘struck by lightning’ without dying it was he. But it is significant to me that after Job had lost his possessions, his family and his health, and was in danger of losing the only treasure he had left, his faith, that God called Job to take a good look at nature in order to regain his viewpoint. When Job was at an impasse of understanding, God spoke to him with the reminder, “Was it you who formed this incredible earth?” Nature has the power to hurt, for sure, but it also, exponentially more so, has the power to heal.

There’s no question that suffering is a part of our normal human experience. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have trouble and suffering; but don’t be afraid, I have overcome the world.” Elsewhere he reminded us, “God causes his sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” And though these words may not bring much comfort when in the throes of pain, the inference is that a time will come when we will understand, and, as Job, see it in perspective. Indiscriminate suffering will always be hard for us to grasp, yet there is constantly One who walks with us “…through the valley of the shadow of death,” who understands suffering intimately and bears us on.
Nature has the power to destroy, but
also has the power to take us by a
hand and lead us back to God…

So do I actually believe God has “…told every lightning bolt where it should go?” I guess I do. Nature has the power to destroy, but it also has the power to take us by a hand and lead us back to God when we have experienced destruction in our lives. It’s a double-edged sword to be sure, but it cuts way more gently from one side. Time and again, far more often than not, nature will redeem us from our grief.

And the song? Though I still think of my friend, it doesn’t trouble me any longer to
 sing passionately every single line.                       

~~RGM, May 3, 2014

Saturday, May 3, 2014

How My Blog 'Works'

I am asked from time to time about the different ‘columns’ I do on my blog. So it got me to thinking recently, “Hey, my very first post back in January of 2013 tells of the ‘why’ I do this, and I ended up putting it on my masthead by the title Why this Blog? Maybe it’d be helpful to somebody if I wrote a simple primer about the ‘how,’ and put that on the masthead as well. So that’s what I’m doing this week – I’ll share a simple explanation of how my blog works, and then insert it as a tab. I have a five Saturday month anyway, Saturday being my typical posting day. Next week I’ll get back to God’s
 good creation and I can still get four posts in      
during May.                                                             

If you’re new to this blog, the following may be helpful in order to understand my general approach; it can also help you navigate the site and know what you’re seeing. I utilize four main ‘features,’ each of which is usually done once per month, but not necessarily in this order:

This monthly column features essays from an actual nature journal I have kept over the past several years. When I see something in nature that reminds me of a spiritual parallel, I like to write about it, keeping many of these pieces written out in longhand in a handmade, old fashioned leather-covered journal I bought at a craft sale -- have actually filled the old thing up by now, so the 
newer ones stay on my computer. I guess some 
of them might be akin to the parables of the Gospels, and though certainly not as pithy as Jesus’ stories, the practice becomes a way for me to be attentive to the messages the Creator sends through his creation.

This feature takes little explanation; it’s usually just a photo (or several) of something my wife Gail or I have taken recently, or one we took in the past about the same time of year. On extremely rare occasions I may use something someone else took, especially if it’s a famous photo, but then I will always reference it. I will also say something about the photo’s subject or context.

The most eclectic of my columns, Blowin’ in the Wind is a regular feature consisting of an assortment of nature writings – hymns, songs, excerpts, prayers, Bible readings, poems or other things – pieces I may not have written but that inspire me. I trust they will do the same for you. As with my photo of the month, I will usually include some commentary as well.

Again quite self-explanatory, approximately once per month I’ll put up a simple quote I’ve gathered over the years from things I’ve read, with a comment about the person quoted or the context from which they spoke. This column will also usually include a photo of the person that I have found online, another time when I use photos that are not our own.

And the tabs? Well, these instructions here will make it onto a tab called How it ‘Works.’ As I said earlier, Why this Blog?  brings a reader back to my very first post, in which I explain my reasons for writing. About the Author is the barest of bios, but which can still personalize the writing in such a way as to bring a personality to the page. Resources will include the posts I write or share that offer some sort of a spiritual exercise, or devotional practice, that may be experienced by an individual or a group; there are not many at this point, but I expect to be putting others up in the months ahead. (Feel free to copy and use them whenever and wherever you’d like.) Index is something I update every post, adding minimal key words that can help someone go back and find a post they’re interested in seeing again. And The Music is something of a specialized index for posts that have combined a love for nature with a love for music.

Finally, beyond all this, each blog usually contains links (always bolded and colored) that can be hit to go deeper into a blog’s subject, and the photographs I include can be enlarged for greater clarity by clicking on them.

There you have it, a pretty pedestrian little intro on the methods to my madness. But for me, it's all about this:

I lift my eyes to the mountains -- where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. (Psalm 121:1, 2)

~~RGM, May 2, 2014