Saturday, January 31, 2015

QOTM...*: Mark Buchanan

(*Quote of the Month)

All living things thrive only by an
ample measure of stillness.
                  ~~Mark Buchanan

We’re ‘back home again’ for a few days in John Denver’s Colorado. And though the late January ground is free of snow (except for some very small remnants in heavily shaded places from a modest blast a couple weeks ago), the forecasters say we will get a bit tonight. That’s great. It IS winter after all.

There’s something about snow that settles me. Granted, I dislike clearing a foot or more of it off my driveway, but that doesn’t happen often so I’ll gladly take the bitter with the sweet. But back to that settling impression. I don’t know if it’s the deadening of sound that falling snow or a fresh blanket produces. Or maybe it’s the paling and blanching of winter’s stark lines – the bare tree branches, the blunt edges of rocks, the sharp angles of other land features -- or the purifying whitening of drab, brown ground. Perhaps it’s the near hypnotic effect of watching the flakes come down, like being before some panoramic, big-as-the-horizon lava lamp. Or maybe it has something to do with the forced care of driving, or even walking, that a blanket of fresh snow requires. As I said, I don’t know what it is, but these combined effects always still me deeper than a snowfall stills a southern city. They still me physically, mentally and emotionally, even spiritually. My spirit slows, temporarily more reflective. The only other natural vista that comes close to giving me this blessed impression is being before a body of water.

At any rate, looking forward to the snow tonight has turned my thoughts toward stillness today and its occasional dearth in my life, but its general famine in our culture. Surrounding ourselves as we do with a greater cacophony of sound and flurry of activity than is healthy, we do well to slow down. Our need for generous amounts of still moments is why God gave us sabbath.

I recently read again Mark Buchanan’s The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath. It is winsomely written, and though lacking the philosophical and theological depth of a classic like Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath, I find it an enjoyable and motivating read. Here is the full Buchanan quote, from a chapter called In God’s Time: Stopping to See God’s Bigness:

The root idea of Sabbath is simple as rain falling, basic as breathing. It’s that all living things -- and many nonliving things too -- thrive only by an ample measure of stillness. A bird flying, never nesting, is soon plummeting. Grass trampled, day after day, scalps down to the hard bone of earth. Fruit constantly inspected bruises, blights. This is true of other things as well: a saw used without relenting -- its teeth never filed, its blade never cooled -- grows dull and brittle; a motor never shut off gums with residue or fatigues from thinness of oil -- it sputters, it stalls, it seizes. Even companionship languishes without seasons of apartness.

I need to hear this.

More than that, I need to heed its admonishment, both daily and at other special moments. So we’ll get up into the mountains over the next few days and enjoy the fresh powder. Sure, we’ll hike or snowshoe, doing something active, but I also hope we’ll have a warm enough day that Gail and I can pull out our sling chairs, find a nice place to just sit in the sun, take in the beauty, and be still.

~~RGM, January 31, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Blowin' in the Wind: James Weldon Johnson

(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 have given me joy. I trust they will do the same for you.)

"I'm lonely. I'll make me a world!"

With these words, God first speaks into the lonely chaos of pre-creation, at least according to a poem by James Weldon Johnson. And I like that. 

Johnson (1871-1938) was an author, musician, professor, poet, civil rights activist, diplomat, and early leader of the fledgling N.A.A.C.P. As can be imagined by the variety of things just mentioned, his was a storied, diverse, and celebrated career: the more I read of him the more impressed I become. Check out merely what can be found on Wikipedia about his life and impact, including his experience within what is known as the Harlem Renaissance, and you’ll see what I mean. If you are interested in knowing more of his literary contributions, check out this article.

Among his nearly countless influences, he is credited with writing in 1899 the lyrics of the song Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, a lovely hymn of freedom, for which his musician brother composed the music the following year. It quickly became known as the ‘Negro National Anthem,’ originally written for a celebration of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson was a young school principal at the time, and the words were written in introduction of the honored speaker that day, Booker T. Washington. Thought the song is not the subject of today's blog, you may be interested in hearing it; if so, it's easy to find a YouTube video that features the song, rather powerful.

The Creation, shared here, is from a book of his poems entitled God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, published in 1927. As the title implies, it contains works patterned after traditional African-American preaching styles, and the book is identified often among his most notable literary works. I came across the poem this week while reading the sermon of a friend, and it took me back in a surprising way some thirty-five to forty years to the time I first heard it, used in a sermon by the beloved pastor with whom my wife grew up, J. Robert Hjelm, then of Rockford, Illinois. I can still hear Pastor Bob’s resounding voice quoting it, complete with the twinkle in his eye that lives firmly in my memory.

And as I read this, it’s almost the same twinkle I can imagine in the eye of God as God performs the acts of creation!  Of course, the poem is based on Genesis 1, and it gives me a smile to picture creation in this way. Enjoy!

The Creation
By James Weldon Johnson

And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
“I’m lonely –
I’ll make me a world.”

And as far as the eye could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.

Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said, “That’s good!”

Then God reached out and took the light in His hands,
And God rolled the light around in His hands
Until He made the sun;
And He set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said, “That’s good!”

Then God Himself stepped down –
And the sun was on His right hand
And the moon was on His left;
The stars were clustered about His head,
And the earth was under His feet.
And God walked, and where He trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.

Then He stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And He spat out the seven seas;
He batted His eyes, and the lightnings flashed;
He clapped His hands, and the thunders rolled;
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.

Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around His shoulder.

Then God raised His arm and He waved His hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And He said, “Bring forth! Bring forth!”
And quicker than God could drop His hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said, “That’s good!”

Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that He had made.
He looked at His sun,
And He looked at His moon,
And he looked at His little stars;
He looked on His world
With all its living things,
And God said, “I’m lonely still.”

Then God sat down
On the side of a hill where He could think;
By a deep, wide river He sat down;
With His head in His hands,
God thought and thought,
Till He thought, “I’ll make me a man!”

Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled Him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of His hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till He shaped it in His own image.

Then into it He blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
Amen. Amen.

~~RGM, January 22, 2015

Saturday, January 17, 2015

From My Nature Journal: It's a Big Place out There...

Some have looked at that same sky and have found themselves discounting the existence of a personal God, what with the vastness of the universe and all; maybe a God could exist who created all of this, but he surely could not trouble himself with the minutiae of me. On the contrary, I have always found David’s confession to be my own: I don’t get it, I don’t know why he’d want to do it (except for love’s sake), but somehow, when it comes down to it, God both knows us and cares for us. Of that I am certain.

…Maybe a God could exist who created
all of this, but he surely could not trouble
himself with the minutiae of me.

It’s this constant source of amazement that has made me a skywatcher ever since my youth. In fact, I had cause to celebrate Psalm 8 again just this week while trying to spot Comet Lovejoy last Sunday night.

What always blows me away, however, is just how big it is out there. So I thought I’d blog this week on some of the celestial objects David himself might have been considering, using some illustrations I ran across years ago for which I do not have a source. I’ll start out with this one, an illustration I call “It’s a Big World out There…”

You can see how much larger Earth is than most of the other planets in our solar system. By the way, if you read this post soon, check out the low western sky about an hour after sunset: the incredibly bright ‘star’ is actually the planet Venus, and the tiny and much dimmer light nearby, a little bit lower and to the right, is Mercury. It’s a rare naked-eye evening conjunction of these two inferior planets, and an exceptionally lovely sight while the sunset’s color still hangs tight against the horizon. (An inferior planet is one in our solar system inside Earth’s orbit around the sun.) Get out and see these soon, though, as the show won’t last long. In fact, in my experience, it is really, really hard to see Mercury at all with the naked-eye, especially when it’s not close to something that helps us pin it. Ready for the next one? I call it, “…Or Not!”

The gaseous superior (outside Earth’s orbit from the sun) planets are enormous compared to Earth. It can almost give you an appreciation for why Pluto was demoted from planet status in 2006. Yet I hear that support is gathering that might allow the little guy to make a comeback soon. Stay tuned. Here’s the next one that I title “But Jupiter’s Not So Hot Either...”

We can hardly fathom the size of our favorite star, by volume equivalent to 1.3 million earths. It makes even Jupiter look more like a marble compared to a beach ball. And heat? The sun’s varies, twenty-seven million degrees Fahrenheit at the core and four million in its coolest spots. But you probably know where I’m going next, though. I call this one “…Because It’s a Big Galaxy Out There.”

Our sun is actually on the tiny size as stars go, and exponentially cooler than the hottest. Sirius is the ‘dog star’ in the constellation Canis Major, The Big Dog (yes, there’s also a Little Dog, but he naturally gets no billing…); Sirius is also the brightest true star in the sky (the planets Jupiter and Venus can appear brighter), and can be found to the lower left of winter’s popular Orion the Hunter. Pollux is one of the twin stars in Gemini, The Twins. Arcturus is in the constellation Bootes the Herdsman, and can always be easily found by following the arc of the handle of the Big Dipper when it is high in the sky (“Arc to Arcturus”). We’ve got one more to go, though: “Actually, It’s all Relative.”

Rigel is the bright, bluish star in the lower right of Orion. This constellation is high overhead in the evenings right now. Aldebaran is the reddish star that constitutes the eye of Taurus the Bull, also directly overhead on early winter evenings. Betelgeuse is the red giant in the upper left of Orion, and huge Antares is the red ‘heart’ of Scorpio the Scorpion, low in the south in the summer evening sky, often confused with ‘The Red Planet’ Mars. Of course, a star’s apparent brightness is always relative to two things: its size and its heat intensity (blue-white stars are hotter than red). But more than this... From our perspective, it is the star’s distance from Earth that plays the biggest part. So obviously, that’s why smaller stars can appear way more luminous to us than larger, hotter ones. Most people cannot see the star closest to Earth, the weak Proxima Centauri, less than five light years away. Sirius, the brightest in the sky, is about nine light years distant. However, it is hundreds of thousands of times smaller than Antares: Antares is likely one of the largest stars in our galaxy, but it is over six hundred light years away, and is a cooler red star compared to the white-hot blue Sirius, so to us it’s only the fifteenth brightest in the night sky.

Even the Bible got that one right, though: “The sun has one kind of splendor, the moon another and the stars another. And star differs from star in splendor (1 Corinthians 15:41).”

By the way, I was successful at spotting Comet Lovejoy last Sunday. It has been cloudy ever since, so another opportunity has not afforded itself. But that night I needed binoculars to do it, and Lovejoy was just a fuzzy ball, not the tailed comet I had hoped to see. Still, it was fun to find, blazing through what would be our constellation Taurus. On the night I observed it, it was about fifty million miles away -- about half as far away as the sun is from us -- and actually heading toward its solar encounter later this month. From there, it is always interesting to see what impact perihelion will have on a comet. (Perihelion is an object’s closest meeting with the sun.) Once the skies clear (tonight?), I’ll try to keep my binocs pointed its direction in the days ahead, all the while praising my Creator:
“Oh, Lord, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1, 9)”

And beyond. 
~~RGM, January 15, 2015

P.S. If you’re interested in spotting the comet, here’s a URL sky map that’ll give you the way to find it in the next couple weeks. It’s barreling past and to the right of the Pleiades this weekend.