Sunday, December 22, 2019

From My Nature Journal: Solstice and its Illogical Contradiction

(Today's blogpost is a repeat of one I've done in the past, as things are quite busy right now with work responsibilities and family gatherings. But I do think a lot about this concept this time of year, and it gives me joy. Merry Christmas!)

Today is the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Though the day officially launches the season we call winter, it curiously also marks a seemingly contradictory turning point: as of this day in the earth’s annual trek around the sun, the Northern Hemisphere increases its direct angle toward the sun’s rays. Consequently, here in the north, daylight will begin to lengthen starting this very day, as will our hemisphere’s warming, and these two phenomena will continue for the next six months until the summer solstice in June similarly heralds a return to winter. Of course, the opposite of these are true in the Southern Hemisphere: today is their longest day of the year.

It is curious to me that the first day of winter is also the first day of winter’s expiration, its demise. One would think winter’s opening day would portend more of the same with nothing to contradict it, nothing but cold, dark barrenness, bleakness, or as the poet says, earth standing “…cold as iron, water like a stone.” We don’t call it the ‘dead of winter’ for nothing.

But there it is, the illogical and illuminating contradiction: light. Its return mocks winter, scoffs at the cold, derides the bleakness. Each day that follows, the sun rises just a little earlier and sets just a little later. Winter anticipates spring, death foresees life, dark predestines light, cold envisages warmth: these are the paradoxes of the seasonal change we call the winter solstice.

So it is no coincidence that the early church chose to recognize the solstice as the most appropriate time to celebrate the birth of Christ. Now, in actual fact, Jesus’ birth likely took place some time during what we call October. I am not certain how that is surmised, but it has something to do with the timing of Jewish festivals and the typical season a census would have been called by Rome (see Luke 2:1-4), not likely the dead of winter.

But no. Indian Summer, beautiful as it is, just won’t do. To celebrate something as significant as the incarnation a time is needed that makes a statement, a time that belies its context, that refutes the cold, that calls out the stony spiritual stupor right in the midst of its bleak midwinter and long underwear. Solstice. Now there is an appropriate time to celebrate the Light of the world.

To celebrate something as significant as the incarnation, a
time is needed that makes a statement, a time that
belies its context, that refutes the cold, that calls
out the stony spiritual stupor right in the midst
of its bleak midwinter and long underwear.

And so we do. We know there is no life without light. Light begets being, a commonly known biological fact.

The same is true in the spirit world. St. John the Evangelist puts it this way: In him (Jesus) was life, and that life was the light for humanity. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it (John 1:4-5). Or later, sharing the very words of Jesus himself, he writes, And Jesus spoke to them saying, “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life (John 8:12).” Or take it all the way back to the prophet hundreds of years before Christ. Anticipating the coming Messiah, Isaiah foretold: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned (Isaiah 9:2).

Light dispels darkness, not the other way 'round. Open a door into a dark closet and what happens? Does the darkness come creeping into the room in which you stand? No the opposite holds, and always will. Light outmaneuvers darkness.

So, solstice is here. I look forward to it not only because of Christmas but because it heralds the return of summer. Celebrate the light with me. Proclaim the truth of the Christmas carol:

          Light and life to all he brings,
          Ris'n with healing in His wings.

That's from Hark the Herald Angels Sing, by Charles Wesley, written in 1739. Or, if you prefer, fast forward to Bing Crosby (1963):

          The Child, the child, sleeping in the night,
          He will bring us goodness and light.

Let there be Light!
~~ RGM, From an 
Earlier Blog Entry

Thursday, November 28, 2019

From My Nature Journal: Thanksgiving and the Sunshine Singer

Just in time for Thanksgiving, I'd like to share one of my absolute favorite Swedish hymns from my Covenant denominational heritage. I actually don’t know much about the text’s author, a Salvation Army poet by the name of August Ludvig Storm, except to say that he lived from 1862 to 1914 and resided in Stockholm. The one I want to say more about in this post is the author of the music, Johannes Alfred Hultman. I feel I know the man.

“J.A.” Hultman, as he was publicly known, was a wildly popular musical entertainer among the Mission Friends of Sweden and the USA in the late 19th and 20th centuries. (“Mission Friends” was a common name for early Covenanters, a name I still dearly love and wish we used more often!) Born in 1861 in the poor, central Swedish province of Småland, his family emigrated to the states when he was eight years old and settled in rural Southwest Iowa near Essex. Early vocational ministry found him directing a church choir in Chicago (Douglas Park Covenant), and later pastoring churches in Nebraska and Massachusetts. While pastoring, however, he hooked up with Swedish theologian P.P. Waldenstrom in an 1889 speaking/evangelistic tour, bringing along his small, portable pump organ and providing music for the sessions. His time with Waldenstrom, famous and infamous in the US and northern Europe, marked the beginning of a change that led to Hultman’s taking up a full-time traveling and singing ministry that lasted half a century.

Known everywhere he went as “The Sunshine Singer,” his positive music and gregarious, sincere persona were a perfect fit to bring encouragement to immigrant Swedes, many of whom were rural or inner-city poor. The sunshine moniker came from an experience he had where he had been suspected in his travels of being a bootlegger, carrying alcoholic contraband in his wooden organ case. His response while being inspected? “I don’t deal in moonshine, I deal in sunshine.” (Last time I knew, the organ’s case was still being displayed among the archival artifacts in the vestibule of First Covenant Church of Omaha. I’m not sure of the story behind how it got there, and would love to be schooled. Interestingly, the church I am serving right now, Bethlehem Covenant of Minneapolis, also has an antique, portable and ‘boxed’ pump organ in its vestibule, one that was played by Hultman at the church’s building dedication in 1941.)

Hultman was well known both publicly and privately to have a good-natured humor which included playful self-deprecation. At a time when most traveling musicians supported themselves by selling copies of their music, in much the same way some entertainers do today with recordings, he was often quoted at concerts as saying, “I’ve brought along collections of my music that are available for purchase. The booklets cost a dollar, but I include my photograph as well and that changes the price dramatically, so I sell both for fifty cents.”

Deeply loved on both sides of the Atlantic, Hultman sang and presented evangelistic services continuously from the late 1800s until his death at age 81 in 1942. As I’ve said in the past, I’m something of a sentimentalist when it comes to music, and many Scandinavian texts from my heritage play to that sentiment, including this one. Read it below, and, if you can, celebrate it as a testimony of faith. And if you don’t know it, or if it has been a long time since you’ve heard it, check out this YouTube link.

Here it is, Thanks to God for my Redeemer, text by Ludvig Storm, music by J.A. Hultman:

Thanks to God for my Redeemer,
Thanks for all Thou dost provide.
Thanks for times now but a memory,
Thanks for Jesus by my side.
Thanks for pleasant, balmy springtime,
Thanks for dark and dreary fall.
Thanks for tears by now forgotten,
Thanks for peace within my soul.

Thanks for prayers that Thou hast answered,
Thanks for what Thou dost deny.
Thanks for storms that I have weathered,
Thanks for all Thou dost supply.
Thanks for pain and thanks for pleasure,
Thanks for comfort in despair.
Thanks for grace beyond all measure,
Thanks for love beyond compare.

Thanks for roses by the wayside,
Thanks for thorns their stems contain.
Thanks for home and thanks for fireside,
Thanks for hope, that sweet refrain.
Thanks for joy and thanks for sorrow,
Thanks for heavenly peace with Thee.
Thanks for hope in the tomorrow,
Thanks through all eternity.

I am told the original Swedish included the word thanks thirty-two times in the three verses. In this English translation by Carl E. Backstrom, it’s only said twenty-seven times, but I think the point is still well taken!

Psalm 30:12 -- That my soul may sing praises to You, O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever!
-- RGM, November 28, 2019

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

From My Nature Journal: Adding a Little Dangle to Your Angle

I’ve been thinking lately about something called an ‘angle of repose.’ I suppose engineers, geologists and soil scientists are familiar with the concept, but I only became aware of it when Wallace Stegner’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name was recommended to me.

The phrase sounds like the position I might be in while lying down on some pleasant grassy hillside, or the degree to which I put the passenger seat back on a long drive when Gail has taken over at the wheel and I want to grab a little snooze. But it’s actually a very technical term. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it thus: The angle that the plane of contact between two bodies makes with the horizontal when the upper body is just on the point of sliding; the angle whose tangent is the coefficient of friction between the two bodies.” (Don’t you just hate it when you read a definition and still don’t have a clue what the thing means?) Wikipedia sets it down only slightly better: The steepest angle of descent (or dip), relative to the horizontal plane, to which a granular material can be piled without slumping.” Slumping. What a great word. I don’t need a definition of that one. My mother told me “Quit slumping!” all the time, and she wasn’t talking about my baseball batting average.

More simply, and no thanks to the dictionaries, an angle of repose is the maximum angle at which a loose substance of some kind can be at rest without sliding, falling, avalanching or cascading downward due to the force of gravity. Rockslide? Mudslide? Avalanche? Rocks, mud or snow have exceeded their angle of repose. Some carnivorous insect larvae even create traps in dry sand that take advantage of the concept, with their lair opening at the bottom of a cone-shaped entrance; if some unwitting bug blunders over the edge, it usually cannot help but tumble among grains of sand down to the waiting predator below, much like that crazy Jabba the Hutt scene in the early Star Wars movie, whichever one it was.

You fell out of a hammock? Well, you get the idea. You’ve exceeded the angle of repose. Literally.

The steepness of the angle changes with different substances. Smooth, rounded sand can ‘rest’ at one angle and rough-edged sand a steeper one, a pile of smoothed river rock at one angle and chunks of jagged granite again steeper. Combining substances can also change the angle. Make rounded sand grains wet and the angle of repose increases greatly due to the electrostatic attraction of water to the sand surface. Ever try to make a sand castle with dry sand? Wet works better, no?

Here’s the thing. The phrase sounds restful, but it is not. An angle of repose is actually a fairly dangerous position. To be at rest at one’s angle of repose does not necessarily mean to be at ease. If a substance is at that angle, it won’t fall. Or slump. But just barely. So as inviting as the phrase sounds, you and I typically require more leeway than just being barely a misstep away from a slump.

This leeway can also be called margin. Do you have any? The margin to make a mistake and not suffer catastrophically? To suffer a setback and not have it ruin your life? To be injured accidentally and have the wherewithal to heal? I sometimes feel we moderns have put ourselves out there so close to the edge that, metaphorically, we leave no shoulders on our highways. We push ourselves constantly toward our tipping points, to pick up the angle image again. Jesus said, “Do not worry (Matthew 6:25),” the Apostle Paul, “Be anxious for nothing (Philippians 4:6).” Yet our lives are often nearly filled with anxieties and apprehensions, angsts and fears.
Jesus said, “Do not worry,”
yet our lives are filled with anxieties
and apprehensions, angsts and fears.

What might it take to creep a few degrees away from our angles of repose? By getting a little more rest? By praying several times each day? By meeting comfortably with a few close friends more often? By putting away the smartphones or playing less Pokémon Go? By taking a slow saunter in a natural setting from time to time? By eating slower and exercising more? By reading a good book? By memorizing Psalm 23? By limiting opinion radio or television? By getting down on the floor with a child? By shopping less, or spending less screen time? By serving others? By meditating on the love of God?

At a key time in my life when I needed leeway, I read the classic Margin, by Dr. Richard Swenson. It was subtitled “How to Create the Emotional, Physical, Financial and Time Reserves You Need.” Though the book was first published over twenty-five years ago, it has been revised since and remains a book for anyone who yearns for relief from the pressure of overload. Or of being too dangerously near their angle of repose.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t even want to live anywhere close to it.

Now, about that hammock…
~~ RGM, October 30 2019

Sunday, September 22, 2019

From My Nature Journal: Trees of Life

Trees of life.

One would have had to be living in a cave for the last several years to not have heard of the dangers being posed by the clearing and destruction of Amazonian rainforests. Of course, no one is currently decrying the former destruction of forests around the globe – boreal, temperate or tropical -- including most native forests in North America. It’s just that everyone on earth needs those Brazilian rainforests like never before in order to help sequester the superabundance of carbon being produced worldwide by the burning of fossil fuels. It seems those forests have become something of a poster-child, representing one of our best defenses against unrestrained climate change. Turns out they are trees of life.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about those trees, and for one simple reason: I realize that Gail’s and my carbon footprint is larger than we’d like it to be, contributing to the growing problem in the first place. All of us should be concerned about our carbon footprints, you know. (Need some help? Check out Oh, Gail and I practice a lot of the simpler creation care efforts like serious recycling, volunteering for environment care efforts, bunching our trips, shutting off lights and unnecessary appliances, limiting herbicides and pesticides, conserving water, converting to LED’s, and minimizing waste, especially plastics. (See But there are two major issues within our lifestyle that probably contribute more carbon harm than all our mitigation efforts combined. First, our home has an electric furnace. Before moving to Washington recently, I
did not even know that there were such things. It is a beast of an electricity user. We’re making plans to redo our home’s insulation and install both a heat pump and woodburning stove, but even still, our small home’s heating needs require a surprising amount of energy. Secondly, with three of our four children and our parental families half a continent or more away, we do a lot of traveling, and can really rack up the highway miles, our preferred method of travel.

Which brings me back to those trees. All of this has gotten us thinking a good deal about carbon offsetting as another possible mitigation. (See or Yes, it seems the ‘affluent western approach’ to the problem, but at least it is something that can be done. It’s literally, pardon the metaphor, fighting fire with fire: the best way to counter the destruction of a forest is to plant another. It won’t assuage my guilt, but I cannot live in a cold cave without a car at this season of my life, and at least it’s a start. I applaud those who can do more, but I appeal to them to let me do what I can without judging me too severely.

Trees of life. Trees impact life positively, no doubt about it, and that’s an understatement. It should surprise no one that trees play an important part in the well-being of Earth; indeed, a greater attention to creation, I believe, will produce a greater physical and spiritual well-being in the lives of individuals as well. And as for trees, nature has such a positive impact, for example, that children would simply do well to get outside and climb a few trees more often!

But as usual I’ve got something else on my mind as I continue, at least with this particular blogpost. The Bible also speaks of a Tree of Life, and that in several places. It first appears in the opening story of creation. God placed such a tree in the Garden of Eden alongside the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and bade the man and woman leave the latter alone. Well, they didn’t, and we all know the outcome of that, an outcome that includes the abuse of creation. (My nephew by marriage posted on Facebook today that his three-year-old daughter, when reading in their children’s picture Bible, saw the apple tree and said, “Oh, yummy, apples! Yum! Apples!” And then he asked, “Should I be concerned?” Thank you, Anthony. Yes, be concerned. Be very concerned.) And whether Eden is history or allegory is not the point; the issues it addresses are still true truths. In fact, it was the very presence of the Tree of Life that caused God to banish Adam and Eve from the garden, simply to prohibit their access to it (Genesis 3:22-24). God even goes so far as to set angels with flaming swords at the ‘east entrance of the garden’ to bar the gate and keep men and women away. Say what? Apparently there was something about that Tree that God did not yet want people to know, or, more likely, that God knew people were not yet ready for. And did you notice? Curiously, God did not prohibit them eating of the Tree of Life until after they had sinned. Fascinating. It seems it was available to them beforehand, though they did not appreciate the fact.

And then, just like that, the Tree of Life seems to disappear from the Biblical narrative for a long while. What ever happened to it? One might even ask today if it’s still out there somewhere.

It is spoken of somewhat casually in the book of Proverbs, but poetically. That wily old Solomon was quite an eclectic character and used all kinds of images in putting his truisms to the pen. Four things there are likened to a ‘tree of life:’ wisdom, righteousness, fulfilled yearning, and gentleness of tongue, all good. But I don’t think Solomon is referring to the Tree of Life here at all, he’s just making poetry out of some pretty good maxims for life.

So where next? The Tree of Life doesn’t show up again literally until the very last book of the Bible. Yep, it jumps from the first book of the Christian Bible to the last, the apocalyptic literature of The Revelation of St. John the Apostle. Some kind of consummation is afoot here that involves this special Tree. Almost immediately, in 2:7, we are told that the privilege of eating of the Tree of Life will at last be given the one who stands firm for God. As John’s heavenly vision continues, he speaks of the healing properties of the very leaves of that Tree (22:2), and this not simply for individual healing, but for the ‘healing of the nations.’ Whew, how we need that healing. Again, in 22:14, John speaks of access to the Tree given only those who keep God’s commands, and lastly, a final warning is given that will again bar access to this Tree from those who alter God’s plan (22:19). It looks like some pretty heavy stuff here.

With only a brief poetic reference in between, it seems that the Bible moves from referencing this hugely significant mystery Tree in the creation narrative to stating its important place in the consummation of time. How can this be? There must be something more, and there is. There’s one more tree of life we cannot omit, one that ties creation and consummation together; in fact, it’s where I want to end my thoughts today.

Jesus’ cross is called a tree several times in the Bible, the apostles speaking of it in their preaching in the book of Acts. For example, in the midst of a sermon about the death and resurrection of Jesus that Paul preaches in a synagogue in Antioch, he says at one point, “When all things were fulfilled that were written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. (13:29) Peter speaks similarly a couple other times in Acts. But I love what Peter says in a letter he wrote that we have in our Bible as 1st Peter. He’s also speaking of Jesus there and says of him, “…who his own self bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we, having died to sin, might live to righteousness. By his stripes you were healed. (2:24)”

Jesus’ cross is the Tree of Life. It is there both for our healing and that of the world. Through Jesus, God has finally dismissed those crack guards with the light sabers and made the Tree of Life available to eat from yet again.

I guess it’s something like sin offsetting.
~~ Go plant a tree.
RGM, September 17 2019