Tuesday, December 27, 2016

From My Nature Journal: I’ll Be Home for Christmas


If I hear that song once more this season, I may just shut it off. I first started feeling a low-grade sadness about it a week ago while I sat in a concert, and since then it has amazed me how often it is played. Every single radio or Pandora station that features Christmas music, whether secular or sacred, runs it, and often. Yes, it is certainly way preferred to Christmas Shoes and Santa Baby, but since when did I’ll Be Home for Christmas become so popular that absolutely everyone includes it on their holiday album? Is it the one with the least copyright protection? And while I’m at it, who chooses the on-air playlists where it seems to play every tenth song? Or less?

Or is it that it’s just being played to the country’s somber mood these days? Or mine? Is there some kind of nostalgic ‘home’ we all long for?

By contrast, I think that when it comes time for me to Need a Little Christmas, it’s not I’ll be Home that cheers me, but Joy to the World that would truly raise my hopes.

So, I confess: this is a strange Christmas for us. We are feeling somewhat homeless. Yes, I admit, in a very, very western affluent sort of way, but still, homeless. We’ve relocated to the Pacific Northwest to pursue a new season in life, but it came up quickly enough, and a new ministry call among wonderful people has demanded enough, that we have not yet been able to put a home under our feet. Oh, we’re not ungrateful, by any means: we’re living under the generous and plentiful graces of dear friends who had some lovely space available, and our daughter’s family, time with whom we treasure immensely. But this region has just not yet seemed like home. The culture is yet to be learned, the strangeness of the place has not yet subsided. And then there’s just this gnawing and seeming inhospitality and unwelcomeness caused by the weather.

We’ve been in the Pacific Northwest going on three months now, and I think it has rained for all but about thirty minutes since we arrived. Yes, I exaggerate. But imagine my giddy delight a week or so ago when the weak sun shone so brightly upon my early morning commute that I actually had to put on my sunglasses for what I realized was the very first time!

Have you ever noticed how people in different regions of the country have these key, local phrases that make light of their absolutely horrible weather? Think about it. In Phoenix, they say, “Oh, but it’s DRY heat.” By contrast, in Atlanta they say, “Oh, but I LOVE the humidity!” In New England, “Oh, nevermind the weather, just wait three (or ten, or sixty) minutes and it will change.” (Chicago says the same thing. Of course, Chicago also says, “Yes, but we have the CUBS!”) In Minneapolis, it’s “Oh, but the SUMMERS are so wonderful.” (Apparently no one here is taking the mosquitos into consideration.) Denverites say, “Oh, but the snow is always GONE in three days.” (We even said that a lot ourselves while we lived there.) But here in Seattle, the key phrase of weather denial is, “Oh, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.”

Again, whatever…

As if good gear can substitute for the good feel of God’s good sunshine on one’s good, bare skin. Yes, one is outside. No, one cannot hear the birds due to the layers and the Gore-tex over one’s ears. Latent in all these regional phrases is the need a person has to make peace with the things about home that one does not like, or that actually may even be quite miserable, but must be lived with anyway.

I’m sorry. The weather here is Bad with a capital B. It’s absolutely gorgeous in some other ways. And we adore the people we are working and living with. But the climate has caused us to ask occasionally why people would want to live here! Perry Como’s local booster tune says, “The bluest skies you’ve ever seen are in Seattle.” I think I would beg to differ. Maybe they’re thinking of the cobalt blue from hiking up near magnificent Mount Rainier fifty miles away. Or maybe the skies just seem the bluest to Seattleites because the hue so rarely presents itself. Along the way this fall, many have told us it has been an unusually cloudy, wet and dark winter. Curiously, they started saying that to us in mid-October, so perhaps we should have taken that as a clue.

So I’m overstating my case, to be sure. (Overstatement IS a communication form, you know. Truly.) But the rain is getting old. Commuting is getting old. Living out of suitcases is getting old. And in spite of the  fact that Gail and I are pretty positive people, we both have been feeling a bit melancholy, not yet sensing like we’ve come home in the way we would like by now. Which brings me back to the overplayed Christmas song that a lot of other people may be enjoying this year more than me.

Today I woke long before dawn, walked to the farmhouse living room window and surveyed the advent of the last day of Advent. Disappointedly, I found that the sight matched my homeless mood. It was wet, cold and foggy, and I could barely see the road sixty feet away. Where am I? Why again am I here? I slipped on my feeble non-Gore-tex raincoat and took a long, long walk. By the time I was finished, the sun was beginning to burn through the fog, and as the fog lifted so did my spirit, just a bit. But it was also something else that happened, something timely for my need today. While walking through the dense fog, I had the chance to hear (but not see) great throngs of migrating, homeless trumpeter swans off feeding in a field to my left. And then to hear (but not see) even greater, more massive throngs of migrating, homeless snow geese off feeding in another field to my right. Lifting fog and contemplations of migrations brought some semblance of peace to my restless and homeless soul.

Maybe, in the grander scheme, we’re all still just migrating. Maybe that’s all we can do this side of things. The writer of the Bible passage puts it profoundly:

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed to go out to a place… in complete ignorance of his destination. It was faith that kept him journeying… For his eyes were looking forward to that city with solid foundations of which God Himself is designer and builder. (Hebrews 11:8-10)

I guess Abraham never made it home for Christmas either.

So, on we go. We all want a true home. This isn’t it.

~~ Migrating Heavenward, Weather Notwithstanding,
RGM, Christmas Eve 2016

Saturday, December 17, 2016

From My Nature Journal: A Nature Hymn in an Unlikely Place

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 composers of all time, George Fredrik Handel (of Messiah fame) and Isaac Watts. Joy to the World is perhaps the most well known Christmas carol in the English language, but is verifiably the most published. My favorite rendition of it happens to be by The Canadian 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. It’s a nature hymn in an unlikely place – the Christmas section of the hymnal. 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 and all of verse two remind us that all heaven and all 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 to the world that came 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 the lyrics, and it is no wonder that they 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 14 2016,
Reprinting an earlier post

Friday, November 25, 2016

From My Nature Journal: Running with the Bison

Well, ok, they weren’t really bison, just tumbleweeds…

Remember those old movies where a horseman would be galloping alongside a herd of wide-eyed bison as they stampeded across the plains, dust flying amidst thundering hooves? I had my closest experience ever to that interesting feeling today…

On our way to Chicago to visit family for the Thanksgiving holiday, we happened to leave the day following an early and burly winter storm yesterday, a fierce and old-fashioned nor’easter; its blizzard conditions packed some ferocious winds in excess of fifty miles per hour. But the snow had given way by today to a crystal blue Colorado sky, and the roads were clear and dry. We’ve driven that angled stretch of Interstate 76 between Denver and the Nebraska state line many times, always marveling at the piles of tumbleweeds stacked up against the barbwire fences on the east side of the highway. In fact, on the days we’d made a predawn departure, they had often provided quite the curious scene as a colorful morning sky dawned beyond them.

But here’s the thing: yesterday’s storm had moved all the tumbleweeds to the west side of the highway, and, as so typically happens, yesterday’s gale force winds from the east were matched almost completely today by their corresponding counterforce from the west -- all that unstable air had to somehow get back to the place it had occupied the day before! So as we traveled east and northeast along the interstate, hundreds and hundreds, nay, thousands of tumbleweeds had to do the same, all of them being blown back to the east side of the road. The first time we came upon a bunch of them moving east or northeast with our car, I commented to Gail that I felt like we were in one of those old movie scenes surrounded by a stampede! We, of course, traveled ‘with’ the ‘herd,’ inevitably running over many as they exploded in the wind around our car. But what a sight the vehicles were on the opposite side – many of them, cars and trucks alike, completely covered across their grills with growing tumbleweed layers. It made them look like a bunch of thickly bearded goblins running down the road.

Tumbleweeds have always fascinated me. (Apparently they’ve also fascinated my sister Denise – she once asked if we’d bring her one in Chicago, a request we were glad to oblige. But it sure took up a lot of room in the back seat and we still find an occasional poker sticking out of the cloth. Also, I’m not sure what my beloved brother-in-law had to say about it…) As we hike, we see them as small as basketballs and as large as Volkswagen Beetles. The pair shown below to the left were a couple of random ones we saw as we walked along a Las Cruces, New Mexico trail beside the Rio Grande.

In spite of their ubiquity in cheesy western films (picture one now rolling lazily across the dusty ghost-town street), the most common species in the interior west today is actually not even native but invasive. It’s called Russian Thistle, and is reputed to have come over in a shipment of flax seed from Eastern Europe to North Dakota in the 1870’s. Who knew? But there are lots of different kinds, and they vary widely in size and structure. Wikipedia says, “A tumbleweed is a structural part of the above-ground anatomy of a number of species of plants, a diaspore that, once it is mature and dry, detaches from its roots or stem, and tumbles away in the wind... Tumbleweed species occur most commonly in steppe and arid ecologies, where frequent wind and the open environment permit rolling without prohibitive obstruction.”

Beyond their physical fascination, I haven’t taken them particularly seriously over the years except when I try to aim my car at them as they cross a highway. You get points for that, you know, even if it makes your wife nervous. But farmers and agronomists have learned through hard experience to treat them much more seriously. Not only do they crowd out native foliage, but in drier regions they also starve both native plants and dryland crops of much needed moisture, each tumbleweed plant using up to forty gallons or more of water during a growing season. They also can negatively impact soil erosion, and produce fire hazards as they stack up in massive piles against buildings or vehicles. By and large, they are bad dudes.

But back to the ‘diaspore’ thing from the Wikipedia article. Though it’s just one word in the explanatory paragraph, this is the part that has always fascinated me most. Tumbleweeds are made to roll, not to provide forlorn and lonely ambience for old westerns, but in order to disburse their seed. Plants have different methods for seed dispersal – they can explode them, fly them, hitchhike them on animals or humans, or just drop them – but I think tumbleweeds are the only ones where the whole plant becomes the mechanism to deliver its seed wherever the wind rolls it. As it rolls and breaks down, seeds fall, or small pieces of the plant break off with seed attached, finding potential welcome in a harmonious place. They leave a mark of their presence wheresoe’er they roam.

I want to leave seeds of life,
hope and faith wherever I go.
How about you?

Noxiousness aside, of course, I guess in a different way I want to be like that, too. I want to leave seeds of life, hope and faith wherever I go. How about you?

Now thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ, and reveals through us the sweet aroma of his knowledge in every place… a sweet aroma from life to life.  
(2 Corinthians 2:14-16)
~~ RGM, from a 2014 entry in my nature journal,
adapted for my blog on November 25, 2016

Saturday, November 12, 2016

From My Nature Journal: Sequoia National Park and the Memory of Muir

Several months ago in the online version of our Covenant denominational magazine, COV, an invitation was given for people to submit a three-hundred-word essay about finding God in the national parks. Prompted by the 2016 centennial observance of the National Park Service, the invitation stated, Our national parks have often been referred to as living temples formed by God… places where many renew and deepen their faith. In one way or another, visitors often echo the words of the psalmist: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

I took COV up on its invitation and sent an essay on a remembrance of mine visiting Sequoia National Park in California. Last month it was published along with several others, and I thought I’d pass it along on my blog this week, as it was about this time of year that I visited. Here it is:

Gail and I have been to scores of national parks, monuments and wildlife areas over the years, along with numberless other places of natural interest. Time spent in the splendor, silence and solitude of the parks never cease to bring us spiritual peace and perspective as we contemplate the grandeur of God.

One of our favorites is Sequoia National Park in the California Sierras. It’s not only the beauty that arrests us there, however, it’s also the memory of Christian naturalist John Muir (1838-1914), for whom the Sierras, and particularly the Sequoia and Yosemite parks, were a beloved haunt. One does not have to read much of Muir before they are well acquainted with what he considered the Source of the parks’ magnificence. Consider this, from his My First Summer in the Sierra:

“Look at that now… And to think that God should plan to bring us feckless creatures here at just the right moment, and then flash such glories at us. Man, we are not worthy of such honor! Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”

I could not say it better. Whether it’s the hush of a remote grove of sequoias or sugar pines, a hike with a panoramic view over California’s cloud-shrouded Central Valley, or standing before the largest singular organism in the world, the General Sherman Sequoia (pictured at right), spiritual inspiration and praise to the Creator run deep. In fact, I here confess my weakness in having sought a token of remembrance of the experience: may the National Park Service forgive me the pinecone I slid into my pocket while standing beneath the Sherman! To me, that simple cone is like a communion wafer, a remarkably tiny thing belying the main object’s astonishing scope!

If you’d like to see the e-published COV article which included the five submissions, and some fantastic photography (including some by my dear friend Win Houwen, Covenant church planting pastor in Longmont, Colorado), click here.

Get outside. No box required.

~~ RGM, November 11, 2016

Saturday, October 22, 2016

From My Nature Journal: Contrast

This morning in church our pastor used a photo to illustrate a point he was making, a photo I saw many years ago: it’s a composite of multiple images taken by satellite of the entire earth at night. It captured me so at the time I first saw it that I bought a large poster of it that still sits in the cardboard tube, too large for me to put anywhere. With my apologies that I could not find an image with higher resolution, here it is.

If you clicked on it to enlarge it and studied it a bit (please do so, it’s pretty amazing), you can see that the major cities of the world are easily recognizable by their intense light shining into the night – Hong Kong, New York, Tokyo, Mexico City, London, etc. Did you spot them? Certain places, like the eastern third of the United States, Japan and the UK are practically nothing but light, where populations are dense. By contrast, it is also easy to recognize the oceans, or to see Mongolia, the least densely populated country in the world, by their lack of light, similar to the vast blackness of Africa’s Sahara Desert region or the Australian Outback. Living as I do in the more sparsely populated American Interior West, I enjoy trying to pick out the cities I so often travel to. And though the photo is titled “Light Pollution” by some, giving it a negative connotation, I think the image is absolutely beautiful. My eyes are drawn to both the highly populated and meagerly inhabited regions, I think about those who live there, and I am struck once again by the power of light.


In a universe that on average is exceedingly black, light is more than a physical beacon. Not even taking into consideration light’s spiritual associations, there is profound emotion attached to light in darkness. And this is to say nothing of some children’s (or adults’) need for a nightlight. (Did you know that there are at least five words for fear of the dark -- none of which I even recognized -- such as achluophobia and nyctophobia?). Who can fail to be moved by the routine shtick done by park rangers or tour guides in vast underground caves, where all lights are extinguished, one is given the chance to feel the almost suffocating palpability of total darkness, and then, off across the titanic expanse, a candle flame is lit, drawing every eye to its simple, inviting, almost salvific glow.

It’s all about contrast. That’s where the emotive power is.

Here’s another cool expression of the same idea from a Japanese photographer, who is moved by the simple light of fireflies in the night (OK, lightning bugs if you’re from the Midwest). Using sensitive equipment, he has taken time-lapse photography of firefly lights in natural settings. (This particular photo is from a series shared in Smithsonian magazine.) Growing up in Chicago, I found them so thick on muggy summer evenings that I could catch a jarful in an hour. But to see them like this, that’s another thing. Astounding. Again, contrast.

It’s light’s contrast with darkness that is so impacting, and frankly, yes, so emotional. Our pastor was making the point that it’s the same contrast that should exist between devoted followers of God and a world that often seems bent on its own destruction – not in the sense of God-followers taking pride at all in their enlightened condition, but rather taking joyful responsibility for bringing and offering light in the midst of darkness.

Here is a true truth: it’s a jungle out there, and a dark one at that. Be light.

...Become pure children of God, without fault in a warped and crooked generation. Then you will shine like stars in the sky. (Philippians 2:15)

Let your light shine in order that others may see your holy lives and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
~~ RGM, From an earlier entry in my nature journal,
Adapted for my blog October 21, 2016

Saturday, October 8, 2016

From My Nature Journal: “Holy Buckets in the World is THAT?”

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “I have heard the murmurings of the children of Israel. Speak to them, and tell them, ‘At evening you shall eat meat, and in the morning you shall be filled with bread: and you shall know that I am the Lord your God.’” It happened at evening that quail came up and covered the camp; and in the morning the dew lay around the camp. When the dew that lay had gone, behold, on the surface of the wilderness was a small round thing, small as the frost on the ground. When the children of Israel saw it, they said one to another, “What is it?” For they didn’t know what it was. Moses said to them, “It is the bread which the Lord has given you to eat.” …The house of Israel called its name Manna (which is to say, “What is it?”), and it was like coriander seed, white, and its taste was like wafers with honey. (Exodus 16:11-15, 31)

Several months ago, our two-year-old granddaughter Myla, pictured at left, coined a new phrase that has taken on with the rest of our family. While several of us were out for a saunter together, she saw something that startled her, opened her eyes wide and blurted out, mixing her newly-learned phrases, “Holy buckets in the world is THAT?”

I recently had one of those ‘holy buckets in the world is THAT?’ moments, and it still has me scratching my head in wonder.

We are up for a few early fall days to close for the year our little cabin in the big woods of Michigan’s Ottawa National Forest. Among the many things to do, large and small, I remembered I had not yet pulled the thermometer that hangs off the end of our dock out of the lake. I was also curious, of course, to know the difference in water temperature since we had last been here a couple months back, because if it wasn’t below 55 yet, I might even take a dip. Pulling up the five-foot string, I noticed immediately that it was heavier than it should have been, and before it broke the surface I saw something dark and strange the size of a large cantaloupe attached to the thermometer’s plastic casing. Hoisting it to eye level, it was some kind of huge,
gelatinous mass of eggs of some sort, the slimy likes of which I had never seen before. Frog eggs? Fish eggs? No, it’s way too late in the season for those kinds of things. Insect larvae eggs? I took out my phone camera to take a photo to show and ask around with some of the neighbors, but my next quick question was whether or not whatever it is was good for the lake. I put it back and launched upon my search. Surely someone will know.

Yet not one of our friends had ever seen or heard of such a thing. Oh, we see weird little masses or strings of eggs floating in the water or attached to lily pads, or odd little creatures coming up out of the lake to leave their watery abode and exoskeletons behind and take flight, but this thing was unusual. So my dear wife went to the Internet on her phone (she is always much quicker than I to think of such a thing), simply keyed in “egg sac under water” and voila, up pops a URL to a site that is quickly becoming one of my new faves, askanaturalist.com, with just our answer. It’s not only fun to read the stupid questions people ask there, but it’s fun to read the great questions people also ask there. (Yes, I know, it’s only a great question if it’s my question, but there are some really stupid things people ask!)

Someone else had wondered what I wonder and included a photo. My strange mass is not an egg mass but a colony of something called bryozoa, and, I was happy to find, it is good for the lake. Nowhere could we find a completely satisfying and simple definition of what bryozoa are, but suffice it to say they are akin somewhat to coral, tiny little filter feeder creatures that clean out impurities as they ingest the water around them. Lo and behold (who knew?), there are in excess of three thousand species known around the world, fifty in freshwater, and fifteen of these in North America, mostly in southern waters. How would you like to make a living as a zoologist who studies such things? Three thousand?

And immediately when I first encountered this mystery the other day and pulled it from the water, I was reminded yet again of one of my favorite things about being a naturalist. And it can be stated in two ways.

·      One: Even after years and years of nature observation, in my case fifty or so, the curious naturalist will come across things he or she has never seen before, and never will again. For example, my daughter and son-in-law, while canoeing, came across an eagle swimming in our lake, like a breaststroker, dragging a dead blue heron to shore it had apparently taken in flight. Crazy!
·      Two: Even after these same years and years of nature observation, the curious naturalist will see things they have not the foggiest clue what they are, things that will utterly astound and mystify them. Take for example my mystery blob. (Does that make this a blob blog?)

For me, it raises the issue of wonder. Any naturalist would do well to have plenty of it. Why? Because we are naturally curious, unless it has somehow been lost along the way. Most creatures actually are naturally curious, not just cats. I can stand on the end of a dock and wave my hands at a loon a hundred yards away, or swing a towel over my head in circles, and it will often come to investigate. It’s curious. It wonders.

Where does simple awe just knock us
back a step or two once in awhile?
Where but in the natural world!

But where do you and I find wonder regularly? Where do we scratch our heads at mystery? Where does simple awe just knock us back a step or two once in awhile? Where but in the
natural world! In our scientific age, many have lost the ability to wonder, yet wonder is a wonderful thing!! Who can keep from being struck by the wonder of children? Wonder is one of the childlike graces I think Jesus had in mind when he said, “Unless you become like a little child…” I like to think that the Israelites spent many, many days in awestruck and childlike wonder about the food God was providing them before they became frustrated with the limitations of their wilderness menu.

So I’ll add my blob experience to the long list of experiences I’ve had that have knocked my socks off. Because for me, to be drawn by the wonder of nature is to be drawn by the mystery and wonder of God.

~~RGM, October 1, 2016