Saturday, December 26, 2015

Blowin' in the Wind: Let Heaven and Nature Sing

("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 or give me joy. I trust they’ll do the same for you.)

I’ve written in the past on Isaac Watts’ great Christmas carol, Joy to the World, emphasizing the text’s nature strophes. (Click here for that post.) My favorite lines?

No more let sin and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground:
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found!

As I mentioned in that earlier blogpost, the ‘curse’ is a reference back to Genesis 3 and the punishments Adam and Eve received in consequence of their sin; it is said there that the ground to be tilled by them would be cursed with thorns and weeds as they did so. That curse is now tempered by the Incarnation, where blessings now flow in more than commensurate degree to the struggle. Indeed, let heaven and nature sing!

Though Watts seems to have based his hymn text on Psalm 93, a genre with frequent references to a singing creation, I’ve been studying Isaiah recently and have also found there several references to a heavens and nature that sing. Take for example Isaiah 44:23 -- Sing, you heavens, for the Lord has done it! Shout, you lower parts of the earth! Break out into singing, O forest, all of your trees, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and will glorify himself in Israel. Or consider Isaiah 55:12, one of my favorites – For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands.

G.E. Wright, the great Harvard Old Testament scholar and archeologist, goes so far in his little commentary on Isaiah as to say that one of the prophet’s key themes is his emphasis upon God as sovereign Creator, but it is simply “…the preface to the proclamation of God as sovereign Redeemer. He who has the power to create is Lord and Savior. The creation by God is not set forth as a matter of speculation… It is a means of proclaiming… his mighty acts in history whereby men [sic] may see and know his sovereignty.”

So what do heaven and nature sing? That God’s power and sovereignty have been manifested in a holy birth that makes possible the salvation of absolutely everything – every body, every soul and all of creation.

And that’s something worth singing about.

~~Blessed Christmastide,
RGM, December 25, 2015

Saturday, December 19, 2015

From My Nature Journal: Ho-ho-hum...

Martin Luther said in the 1500’s, “The greater God’s gifts and works, the less they are regarded.” Such could be said of God’s astonishing creation gifts and works, to which, if I remember correctly, Luther was referring at the time. People would do well to pay better attention to creation, both its beauty and its care; therein they might find possible avenues toward greater peace with God, others and themselves. And that’s to say nothing of greater spiritual purpose, well-being, delight and joy.

The greater God’s gifts and works,
the less they are regarded…
~~ Martin Luther, 16th Century

But the same could be said of God’s salvation gifts and works. Fewer and fewer in our western culture, which was founded upon the ethics of the Bible if not the Scriptures themselves, regard God’s incarnation highly, or for that matter, much else having to do with Biblical ethics or salvation history.

I’m usually not a doomsayer or pessimist, actually find the proverbial pony in the room of horse manure quite regularly. But I keep running into things that trouble me at worst, or simply mystify me at best, about our cultural depravity. This morning while checking the news online, I clicked a story about Pope Francis, whom I try to follow;  I like the man, don’t agree with everything he says, but still like him and pray for him. While reading the article, though, some video popped up featuring an unmarried same-sex couple in a sexual escapade, the dialogue complete with the f-bomb. What? I did not ask for this! I’m just trying to read the news. I turned away, but not before my incredulity kicked into highest gear. What is going on here? It’s no wonder a good portion of the world looks askance on the cultural exports of the West, let alone declares holy war against it.

Jesus, in a parable about two men who died, one who went to heaven and one to hell, tells of the one in hell pleading with ‘Father Abraham’ (the parable’s stand-in for God) to send a messenger back to his five brothers to warn them of their danger. In the parable, Abraham says it would be futile; they would disregard both the messenger and the message, remain unimpressed, ‘…even if one were to rise from the dead’ (Luke 16:19-31). Jesus sure got that right.

So, I know I have a choice here, one I am finding I need to make more and more often: I can remain in my incredulity about people’s disregard of God’s various gifts and works. Or I can do something else: I can be God’s person, during Advent and every other season, and seek to fairly and lovingly represent him even in the midst of that disregarding world and the worst that it can offer; and I can share my high regard for the works of God, both his creation works and his salvation works, as long as God gives me voice. Henri Nouwen puts it well:

The central question is: Are the Christian leaders of the future truly men and women of God, people with an ardent desire to dwell in God’s presence, to listen to God’s voice, to look at God’s beauty, to touch God’s Incarnate Word and taste fully of God’s infinite goodness?

Will you please join me in the latter choice?

~~ RGM, December 15, 2015

Saturday, December 12, 2015

From My Nature Journal: Creation Doxology

OK, OK, I know the Doxology is something perhaps best not to mess with. I mean, most of the Christian world sings it, almost as if it might have dropped straight out of the heavens like the Coke bottle in The Gods Must be Crazy. But I confess, I have messed with it. Twice. But before I share my mess, let me give a little background.

What do you know about the Doxology Of course, the Greek word simply means ‘praise words,’ and there are many ‘doxologies’ penned and voiced over the millennia. But I’m thinking of the simple song sung in many traditional and contemporary settings. What do you know about it? Have you thought about that? Who is its author? When was it written and what was the context of its writing? Do you have an idea? (While you think, listen to a couple fine guitar renditions here by Michael Gungor and Gary Lowry, the first more jazzy and very fun to watch, the second more classical.) Many think the text must come from the Bible, or that at minimum it’s one of those ancient songs of praise that goes back a millennium or more. If not that, certainly at least the music must have been composed by one of the great western chorale or oratorio writers like Handel or Bach. But neither would be true. Both text and tune were borne out of relative obscurity.

The text is from the last stanza of a charming eleven-verse poem written by a 17th Century Englishman, Thomas Ken. Ken was an Anglican priest and instructor of boys at Winchester College, Oxford. He lived at a time when it was considered sacrilegious, or at best tacky, to write new lyrics for sanctioned church hymns, especially if they were not verbatim from scripture. So he wrote this poem -- included in a collection titled Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College, 1674 – with strict instructions that the songs be used only in the students’ rooms for private devotions. This particular poem is entitled Awake My Soul and with the Sun, intended for morning devotions; it is a delightful little poem, filled with instruction for devout living; find the complete eleven-verse text here, worth checking out. But I find it more than curious that a song written to be celebrated privately has now become one of the most well known songs in Christendom! What a sense of humor (and patience) God must have!

And the tune, at least the one most often used? Its composer was even more obscure than Ken. He was Joseph Mainzer, a little known miner turned priest, who, in spite of challenging political life circumstances that caused him to move from Germany to Brussels to Paris to England, was gifted in creating simple tunes that could appeal to the masses because they were so easily learned.

With that as context, maybe I now find less reticence to mess with it, and more confidence in sharing my mess here! I find from my notes that I wrote verses 2-5 below several years ago, while flying somewhere over Iowa on my way back from work in Chicago! That surprised me! I’m not sure what inspired me to do so at such a time, but I guess it just goes to show that one who finds nature an important spiritual pathway can zone out of his surroundings, no matter how incongruous, and tune into another place of meditation while he seeks God! Either that or just how crazy creation lovers are…

Here it is, Creation Doxology:

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him, all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Praise the Creator. Father’s plan:
Imago Dei -- woman, man.
For His good pleasure all are made --
Earth, beast and sky -- the heavens laid.

Praise Christ for Whom the stones cry out,
Trees raise their hands. All nature, shout!
Creation, wait expectantly
On tiptoe or on bended knee!

Praise Spirit, our Emmanuel:
Wind, breath, and life. God’s life to tell,
Calls all to mind, moves as it wills,
Creative wind our spirit fills.

Praise Trinity, the Three-in-One,
God’s Holy Spirit, Father, Son.
All nature sings as Light appears
Telling the beauty of the spheres.                                                

Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.
Praise Him, all creatures here below.
Praise Him above, ye heavenly host.
Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

God’s blessings be yours this Advent day.

~~ RGM, from an earlier entry in my nature journal,
Adapted for my blog December 10, 2015

Saturday, December 5, 2015

On the Journey with Herb Frost: "Tide, Tides and Christmastide"

I’ve begun a new column on my blog these last couple months called On the Journey, through which I’ll periodically feature an essay written by a friend or family member. Of course, it’ll only happen as often as I can convince someone to share some spiritual writing on a nature theme with me! So if you want to take a try at it, or if you’ve done some writing like this in the past you’d like to share with other like-minded seekers of God through nature, be in touch with me and let’s see what we can do...

Just this week, though, I received something from my friend, ministry colleague and former pastor Herb Frost, now pastor of Rochester Covenant Church of Rochester, Minnesota. Though I’d planned something else this week, I decided to postpone it in deference to Herb’s thoughts, especially in light of the news developments these last several days. Additionally, Gail and I are serving this week on support staff at Sonscape Retreats, a renewal ministry for pastors and their spouses to deepen their walk with Christ or sort out their ministry challenges. Herb’s word is a good one for every follower of Jesus, pastors included.

Here is what he writes:

We went to Bodega Bay over Thanksgiving. The house we stayed in overlooked the bay with a full southern exposure. At this time of year, both sunrise and sunset are visible with expansive beauty, inviting the soul into contemplation, reflection and peace.

Down the hill a bit, a short drive or a longer walk, was Bodega Bay itself. A wide bay with aquatic life of the avian and mammalian kind was visible at high tide. In addition to mammalian windsurfers, sea otters were swimming on their backs, sea lions were heard across the water, cormorants, pelicans, cranes and gulls all found life and sustenance from the shallow water. Yet at low tide the mammals were gone, and the birds were bold in their search for food.

A longer drive around the bay and out onto a peninsula called Bodega Head, the waters were no longer sheltered and the waves of the Pacific crashed unabated on the shore. Yet the tides still rose and fell. Of all the rhythms of Creation, how, after all this time, do they still cleanse the beach? Marvelous and wonderful tides…

It makes me wonder: What is the equivalent of a tide in my spiritual life? Isn’t thanksgiving also a rhythmic discipline, an opportunity to experience marvel, wonder and cleansing?

It makes me wonder:
What is the equivalent of
a tide in my spiritual life?

Zechariah prophesies in Luke 1 about his own son, John the Baptist: And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace. (Luke 1:76-79)

The knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of our sins… This also is a repeating, faithful spiritual tide that comes invitationally and unceasingly because of the tender mercy of our God.

As Thanksgiving yields to Advent, and then into Christmastide, may the tides of thanksgiving and forgiveness cleanse us, and guide our feet -- as individuals, as a church and as a nation -- into paths of peace.

Indeed. May these tides wash over each of you, my friends, bringing you peace and perspective in the midst of the daily challenges and griefs of life and Christian service. Thank you, brother Herb.

~~ RGM, December 4, 2015