Saturday, June 28, 2014

QOTM...*: C.S. Lewis and the Season of the Aspen

(*Quote of the Month)

Here in Colorado it is the season of the aspen. Elevations above six thousand five hundred feet have come alive with the tree, complimenting the evergreens. Aspens actually are part of a broad and ubiquitous family of trees that show themselves in widely diverse habitats across the United States and elsewhere – including poplar or ‘popple,’ the many varieties of birch, even cottonwoods – a family of trees called populus. Several of them proliferate here, but it’s the aspen most people watch for. They present the first hesitant new green of a mountain spring and later turn golden in September, drawing people to the high country in hordes to behold their lush glory.

Each of these species of trees, however, has one thing in common: their leaves quake. It has to do with the way in which the leaf stem is shaped. Typically, deciduous leaf stems are round; not so populus. Next time you are near one of these trees, get close enough to pluck a leaf and you will find that the stem is actually flattened somewhat. This allows the leaf to pick up even the slightest whisper of a breeze and quiver just a bit (like the difference in flexibility between a short piece of rope and the same length of strap). It’s why one of the colloquial names for aspen is ‘quaking aspen.’ With that leaf in your hand, give it the slightest of shakes and watch it quake. Now multiply that near silent sound by fifty thousand or so, unless it’s a grove (which it usually is), in which case multiply by a million or more! I love the sound. There are aspens next to our backyard deck, and the sound often grabs my attention there or when I hike. Cottonwoods tend to give the loudest rustle as they have the largest leaves.

The rustling of leaves… Is there a lovelier note in the melody of natural music? Some can match it – a robin’s night song, the rhythm of waves, ‘whispering’ pines – but none can surpass it.

I’m glad Clive Staples Lewis knew that sound, as it helped him form the image for a thoughtful reflection that provides my quote of the month:

At present, we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door... We cannot mingle with the splendors we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.

C.S. Lewis… I am surprised it has taken me this long to share a quote from him! A prolific writer of the mid-20th Century, Christian apologist, member of the English faculty at Oxford and then Cambridge, and active colleague in Oxford’s Inklings society (along with Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien and others), he is perhaps most well known for his Chronicles of Narnia, a series of allegorical fantasy tales beautiful in their own right, but really telling the story of God’s redemption of the world. If you have missed it along the way, and especially if you have kids, check your public library for a copy of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and read it aloud; it will capture young and old alike. But his apologetic writing is remarkable as well (The Screwtape Letters, The Problem of Pain, Mere Christianity [voted by Christianity Today the best book of the 20th Century], etc.), all rife with an earthy understanding of the Christian faith and how to express it to those without a Christian worldview.

This particular quote is from Lewis’ well-known sermon, “The Weight of Glory.” At this point, he is reflecting upon the difference between a merely physical understanding of life, and a broader, spiritual one: a person who may not yet appreciate a spiritual worldview might be likened to one who would observe nature from inside a building, without realizing he is on the wrong side of the door. The hope is that the rustling leaves outside might draw us there to observe the splendors available to us if we will only avail ourselves to them. And so our getting ‘out’ may actually be the key to our getting ‘in.’

Jesus himself said, “You know well enough how the wind blows this way and that. You hear it rustling through the trees, but you have no idea where it comes from or where it’s headed next. That’s the way it is with everyone born from above by the wind of God, the Spirit… (John 3:8).”

My friends, listen. A breeze is gently blowing and the leaves are starting to quake. Pay attention to the sound. It’s gentle, but that is the customary character of the voice of God.

~~RGM, June 26, 2014

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Resource: A Sabbath Walk

It has been a while since putting up on my blog what I call a ‘resource’ – a spiritual exercise I have written, classic prayer, or allusion to an historic Christian practice -- something a person might use as a simple devotional exercise either regularly or from time to time. As a resource, I will not only share it here but will add it to the other items on my Resources tab across my masthead.

(Grand Teton National Park)
I got the idea for the Sabbath Walk several years ago from a my friend Debbie in my spiritual direction training cohort, have developed it further, and have used it numerous times for participants in retreat settings. In those venues, I have printed what follows on a single sheet and given it to retreatants for a morning prayer experience. Feel free at any time to print from my blogs anything you can use devotionally to share with others, but a quick reference to the blog site would be appreciated – I am always pleased to get these writings into the hands of others who find nature an important spiritual pathway. If you have any difficulty printing it from the blog’s format, send me a message with your email address, and I will forward you a nicely formatted, easily printable PDF.

Here is the resource. Enjoy!
~~ RGM, June 16, 2014

A Sabbath Walk

A Sabbath Walk is a simple opportunity for an unhurried walk outdoors, paying attention to what is around you, giving thanks to God for God’s blessings and wonders. It is a walk without particular purpose, or need for revelation or insight. It is simply a time to commune with God as did Adam and Eve in the Garden.

It actually becomes a saunter. One of the etymologies of the word saunter infers that it comes from the Latin sancta terra, or holy earth. In the Sabbath Walk one slows down, recognizes the presence of God, lets their soul catch up with them, sees what God has to give by acknowledging the beauty of creation.

Combined with a simple Lectio Divina, especially when using texts that highlight or reference the natural world, the walk can take on another character altogether. Consider, for example, the following text, and see what phrase jumps off the page for you. Mentally underline it.

Psalm 121, A Song of Ascents

(1) I will lift up my eyes to the mountains;
From whence shall my help come?

(2) My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.

(3) He will not allow your foot to slip;
He who keeps you will not slumber.

(4) Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.

(5) The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade
on your right hand.

(6) The sun will not smite you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

(7) The LORD will protect you from all evil;
He will keep your soul.

(8) The LORD will guard your going out
And your coming in from
This time forth and forever.

Choose the phrase that speaks to you, then allow the scripture to go with you as you walk. Go slowly and silently without trying to get anywhere. Let your interests and your God guide you. You may be drawn to an object, a fragrance, a view. Stop and linger as you like. Whether the things you see are large or small, spectacular or commonplace, one marvels at the wonder of communing with the Creator of all of this! Reflect on your scripture and let it bring you back to the moment. Ask God what it is in that phrase that has drawn you. Commit it to God.  When you begin to sense your time of reflection coming to an end, read the whole passage again and close with a prayer, spoken aloud if you can.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

POTM...*: Screeeeeech...

(*Photo of the Month)

OK, someone who is a better birder than I will have to help me out here. Gail and I came across this little character while we were hiking one of the Aguirre Springs trails on BLM land on the east side of New Mexico’s Organ Mountains on Mother’s Day, the Pine Tree Loop to be exact. About half way in, he came out of a thicket and perched himself on a tree not ten yards away. Over about ten minutes we stood and watched, took some photos as best we could in low light, then moved in to about five yards and took some more before he had had about enough of us and departed.

As best we can tell it is either a Mexican or Mojave Screech Owl, certainly a Western Screech of some kind, maybe seven inches in height. It’s not a Burrowing or Pygmy, so that’s where we’ve had to leave it.

The trail is a lovely one, about four and a half miles in length with a thousand foot elevation gain. About a week after we hiked it, the news came through that the President had just signed new legislation designating the Organ Mountains - Desert Peaks National Monument; not sure if it takes in the Aguirre Springs area (I’ve not yet been able to find a map of the proposed monument anywhere), but wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

Jesus it was who said, “Consider the
birds of the air…” We’re doing our 
best to obey him on that point.

Screech owls are interesting little critters, very common but not often seen. Where we vacation in Michigan, Eastern Screech are said to be the third most common owl behind Great Horned and Barred, both of which we hear often and see occasionally, but we’ve not seen a Screech. Will have to become more familiar with the call, so we may ‘see’ it that way. (A naturalist’s rule: hearing is another way of seeing.) From what I can tell, one of its calls sounds very much like what we have assumed to be tree frogs, so maybe we have heard it without knowing.

Jesus it was who said, “Consider the birds of the air…” We’re doing our best to obey him on that point.

~~ RGM, June 12, 2014

Friday, June 6, 2014

From My Nature Journal: No Big Deal?

One of my kids is studying to become a nurse. If I recall correctly, among Jarrett’s very first classes was one on molecular biology, starting very small. That makes complete sense to me as the foundation point for the study of disease and medicine.

I guess I have come to believe it is one of the basic rules of nature observation as well: get small. Getting small, getting low, never ceases to amaze me in my study of the natural sciences. A square foot of earth becomes a veritable and vast jungle when observed up close. Usually we are more impressed with large things – grand canyons, majestic mountains, tall buildings, redwoods and sequoias, record snowfalls, large stadiums, sweeping vistas, broad rivers. But what of the small? Like a tiny, jewel-like crystal? The trifling fiddlehead fern sprout destined to be a yard wide? The veins of a leaf, the geometric form of molecules or DNA, the myriad colors of grains of sand, a head of wheat, a snowflake, a common guppy, the half-inch cone of a one-hundred-foot hemlock?

There is a wonder, a magnificence, in God’s creation that defies adjectives, indeed that sometimes even defies language at all. Be things large or small, I routinely struggle in these essays to describe the splendors and intricacies I see or the lessons I learn. However, it is interesting that I often find richer and more faithful curricula in paying attention to the small or commonplace things rather than the mighty. (Click here for one of my earliest blogposts last year on the significance of seemingly insignificant things.)

It is almost counterintuitive, because in life and work I have accustomed myself to look for broader pictures. Even in photography, Gail has much more of an eye (patience, more likely!) for macrophotography than I do. I’m the one who tends to compose landscapes, panoramas and scenery; she will usually be the only one of us to get down on the ground on her stomach and elbows and take close-ups of bugs, flowers and whatnot. Doubtless there is symbol there, she with her details and me with bigger picture things; we make for a good team.

Photo Notes…
1. Gail and I thought the larger shell was small
when we picked it up, perhaps a half inch in
diameter. Then we looked more closely at the
shells strewn on the Florida beach and
spotted the smaller one, maybe 1/8 inch at
most. (We’ll often use one of our rings in a
photo for size comparison purposes.)
2. This brilliantly-colored little leaf hopper is
maybe 3/16 inch long, and makes the grains of
sand seem as boulders. A question for my
entomologist friends Kirk or Bill: what kind is it?
It’s from Michigan’s U.P.
3. Note the spiral beauty in a tiny cactus seen in
central Colorado, barely larger than Gail’s wedding rings.
4. This little hermit crab character might be one
the coolest photos of something small I have ever
seen. It was taken by our daughter Sarah and
son-in-law BJ on the Oregon coast, amazing.

Jesus said in Luke 16:10, “Who is faithful in small things I will make faithful in much.” It was David, the runt of the litter, who became Israel’s greatest king; ‘gravitationally-challenged’ Zacchaeus whose home the Savior chose to honor; sparrows nesting in the temple’s eaves that caught the attention of the Psalmist; little children that Christ challenged us to exemplify; Joseph, the little brother, who ends up saving his family from famine; the tongue in James 3, likened to the small rudder of a large ship or a small flame that starts a forest fire; Gideon’s army whom God assured that smaller would be better; the infinitesimal ant that provided a lesson to the wise writer of the Proverbs; even God himself who was incarnated to us as a small baby in a small way in a small place.

So, Lord, teach me always to look carefully -- high and low, large and small -- for sightings of your graces and demonstrations of your truths.

~~ RGM, from an earlier journal entry,
adapted for my blog June 3, 2014

P.S. I remember from my youth seeing a video that demonstrated the common frontiers of vastness and minutiae; it was called “Powers of Ten.” Press here to check it out if you have several more minutes; it’s pretty impressive.