Wednesday, February 21, 2018

LOOKING INTO THE FACE OF GOD



           Lenten Roses, Jamestown, NC



Hellebores or Lenten Roses make an excellent winter hardy shade perennial for the woodland garden.  I tried a variety of plants in my backyard, wooded area but thankfully I stumbled upon these evergreen plants that have thrived under the trees and require only minimal care.  They bloom during the Lenten season when practically nothing else is ready to poke their heads above ground until they are certain that freezing temperatures have past.

These plants also self-propagate by bursting their seed pods all around them at the end of the growing cycle.  The plants were originally grown for their medicinal properties.  And although they are toxic, the trait makes them prized deer-resistant garden plants for areas that suffer from wildlife pressures.

We found a nursery outside our community that actually specialized in growing these plants and was appropriately named Gethsemane Gardens!  The flowering heads of these reverent plants are generally bowed in the garden and its always a surprise to bend down to their level and look into the face of God, as we move from the Christmas season of God appearing in the flesh on this vibrant Earth and defeating sin and death at this imminent time of Easter.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

WALKING IN THE WILDERNESS



                                 The Wilderness, Qumran, Israel

As we enter into another Lenten season, we are once again confronted with another mass shooting of innocents by a deranged individual who had access to an assault rifle.  Another rapid-fire assault weapon with large magazines was used to hail death and destruction randomly in a soft target public place, like the school where we send our children and assume they will be safe.  Our writers of the constitution used single fire Jamestown rifles that required minutes to reload and they had no conception of the weapons of war that have been made accessible on the street to everyday citizens without serious scrutiny.

Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit to the wilderness near the Dead Sea in Israel to be tempted by the evil one with worldly prizes.  We too can spiritually walk in his footsteps during this Lenten season of repentance and spiritual self-examination.  Adam Hamilton writes in The Way that Lent is “a time when we recall our brokenness and mortality” and that “the wilderness is often a metaphor for those places we don’t want to go, when life seems barren and the road seems hard and we seem to be wrestling with evil.”  Adam writes that “the Greek word for repentance is metanoia—literally, to think differently or to change one’s mind.  But it means something deeper than this in the Gospels.  It means to have a change of mind that leads to a change of heart and a change of values that ultimately leads to a changed life.”  This thought could also apply to our country right now.

Jesus healed the people as he walked through the Holy Land during his brief ministry.  God now works through ordinary people like you and me who become instruments of healing.  Believers carried their disabled friend on a stretcher and lowered him through the thatched roof of Peter’s house in Capernaum so that Jesus could heal him.  Now its our turn to be those stretcher-bearers.  We’re not only called to be hearers of the word, but doers of the word.

I believe this country reached a tipping point after the latest mass shooting in Parkland, Florida.  The time for action has come and it’s a sad commentary when our children have seized the initiative by shouting that if the voters and politicians can’t get off their hands, their generation will make it happen.  There is a confluence of root causes contributing to this horrendous issue starting with mental health.  The basic family structure has been broken for years along with declining parental discipline and respect for authority.  Our television “shows” have politicians and personalities literally screaming at one another on the 24/7 cable channels.  Our movie industry is filled with violence. 


I grew up with guns and had wonderful times hunting with my father and uncles.  But assault weapons belong in the hands of our military and police to challenge the bad guys—not private citizens.  I can defend myself from individuals that seek to invade my privacy.  If the world gets any more chaotic than that, I’m pretty sure an assault rifle won’t be of much help by then.  Remember when video games were introduced with indiscriminate killing and we all wondered what would become of developing children who became addicted to playing them past midnight?  Well they’ve become desensitized to the sanctity of life and the chickens have come home to roost.  Bullying in schools is driving more children to an early suicide.  That just happened again today.  And we ask where is God in our schools?  He’s no longer welcome there.  WE need to work together and make changes!

Hamilton concludes his book by writing “I’m counting on the fact that sin and hate and sickness and death will not have the final word.  When we walk in the footsteps of the resurrected Christ, we walk with hope.”  But now we walk in the wilderness behind our children.     

Monday, January 22, 2018

SOULFUL

                             Price Lake, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC

Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul, takes care to distinguish the religious belief of an immortal soul and “the quality or dimension of experiencing life and ourselves…When we say that someone or something has soul, we know what we mean, but it is difficult to specify exactly what that meaning is…It has to do with depth, value, relatedness, heart, and personal substance…Just as the mind digests ideas and produces intelligence, the soul feeds on life and digests it, creating wisdom and character out of the fodder of experience.”  And I like to think of our soul as comparable to our developed character and the person we become when we’re alone, stripped of all pretenses and personalities exhibited to the outer world.  The human job description is to develop our character.  Moore writes “The soul is partly in time and partly in eternity.  We might remember the part that resides in eternity when we feel despair over the part that is in life.”  I like to think of the spiritual soul residing within our body like God resides in the universe.  

Just what is it when we find ourselves saying that an individual has soul?  Perhaps its that elusive something also called charisma, meaning divine favor and gift.  We really can’t say what has caught our imagination, but it’s there nonetheless.  President John F. Kennedy comes to mind as charismatic and Billie Holiday was one of the most soulful singers that ever performed.  And life partners that have developed a special connection are seen as soulmates.
Withdrawal or retreat from the world and the merry-go-round of hectic everyday life can be a soulful exercise.  I’ve happened upon a number of locations around the world that presented themselves to me as soulful.  Interestingly, many of them have a common denominator of calm, still waters and morning light.  Three that readily come to mind are summer hiking back into Maroon Bells National Park outside Aspen, Colorado, standing at the autumn shore of Price Lake off the North Carolina Blue Ridge Parkway and drifting on the mirrored waters of the Sea of Galilee in Israel.  These experiences were outside the limits of ordinary life.

Many of the hiking trails in the mountains involved beautiful vistas and others were more treacherous paths along a rocky ledge.  Moore writes that “This is the goal of the soul path—to feel existence; not to overcome life’s struggles and anxieties, but to know life first hand, to exist fully in context.  Spiritual practice is sometimes described as walking in the footsteps of another: Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life.”

We observe things of this world that seem to “speak to our soul.”  I’ve had this feeling on many occasions looking through the lens of a camera.  I’ve especially been touched by the sight of weathered old barns and wooden windmills standing steadfast against a storm on the central plains.  Renaissance paintings by long deceased artists still speak to me such as Van Gogh’s paintings of a vibrant olive orchard and black crows hovering over a waving wheat field.  His tortured mental state cries out through the canvas.  And songs from the musical Les Misérables like Empty Chairs at Empty Tables pierce the soul of those touched by the images of the young patriots that sacrificed their life for a just cause.

Thomas Moore observes that “The Renaissance magus understood that our soul, the mystery we glimpse when we look deeply into ourselves, is part of a larger soul, the soul of the world, anima mundi.  There is certainly a sense that this existence is part of one greater spiritual consciousness.   

Sunday, January 14, 2018

SOMETHING TO LOVE

                                    Winner's Check, Blue Hills CC, MO

I’m lovin’ the lyrics from the songbook of Jason Isbell’s album The Nashville Sound.  Some of the words from the track Something to Love include:

“I hope you find something to love,
Something to do when you feel like giving up.
A song to sing or tale to tell,
Something to love,
it’ll serve you well.
Just find what makes you happy,
And do it till you’re gone.”

I learned this lesson many years ago and it has served me well through those ensuing years.  Its nice to find a job you love so you never have to work another day the rest of your life, but that may simply not be available or not pay enough to support your family.  That’s where it’s important to find something off the clock that doesn’t have to pay anything.  In fact, it will probably cost some bucks which can be funded by your regular job.  And if that activity gives you pleasure and frequently takes your mind off the issues of your primary job for a short time, that’s an investment worth every cent.  As my wife used to say, “that’s much cheaper than therapy”!

The game of golf has provided that diversion for most of my adult life.  It gives me the opportunity to get out into nature and enjoy the company of people that I can be around five hours or so on a regular basis, provided the temperature is above fifty degrees.  Playing the game has opened endless opportunities to expand my personal and business social network way beyond anything I could have imagined.  I enjoy researching and trying all the changes to golf improvement equipment which has kept me in the game all this time.  And trying to keep in the game by staying fit gives me the incentive to join a gym and actually attend it! 

This blog has provided a lot of enjoyment and the release of creative juices that would probably have never been realized without this avenue.  It has provided an outlet combining two interests of both writing and photography.  It inspires me to read more current news articles and human-interest stories, including new releases of non-fiction books.  If I’m going to exchange my limited life hours for the pleasure of reading a book, I not only want to be entertained, but I want to learn something in the process too!  Photography and Creative writing also keep me alert to the world around me for inspiration, including traveling, volunteer work, teaching classes and listening to music. 

And once I discover something to love, you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll serve me well till I’m gone!

Friday, January 12, 2018

FORTY YEARS TOGETHER

Larry and Karen Wedding, 1968, Olathe, KS

My wife Karen and I celebrated our forty-year anniversary three months before breast cancer took her life in 2008.  So, it was no small coincidence that when I casually heard the lyrics to a new release of a Jason Isbell track on my Google home device that my head snapped around and it had my full attention.  The title of the song is If We Were Vampires which on first blush makes no sense whatsoever.  But I downloaded the track from The Nashville Sound and began to understand the lyrics.  The songwriter has known life, and the common destiny we all share, and this song needs to be shared by every couple on the planet.  Once I comprehended the lyrics, I understood the title:

"If we were vampires and death was a joke,
I wouldn’t feel the need to hold your hand…
Maybe time running out is a gift.
I'll give every second I can find."

I’ve had previous conversations with friends and couples about the elephant in the room when they come to realize later in life that barring a tragic accident, one of the two of them will some day be left to carry on without the other.  That realization can take the sting out of any petty offense or argument that is presently irritating them.  Neither should ever go to bed angry.  Of course, we’ve been given life to live to the fullest and we should do just that.  And if the time comes when one is left to spend some time alone, we should honor that bond and carry on, knowing that this life is only a finite segment of our existence and death is simply a transition from time to eternity.  And that spiritual existence is one spent in the presence of our creator with our loved ones in that beautiful forever.  Our time apart is relatively short in that context.  Ironically, the refrain of the song says it all:

"It's knowing that this can't go on forever.
Likely one of us will have to spend some days alone.
Maybe we'll get 40 years together.
One day I'll be gone,
One day you'll be gone."

Saturday, December 23, 2017

WALKING ON WATER & EARTH

Calming the Storm

The miraculous feeding of the 5,000 starting with five loaves and two fish on the shores of the Sea of Galilee was seemingly the end of an extraordinarily long and successful day of teaching and healing for Jesus and his disciples.  But that turned out to be just the beginning of a day of miracles as Jesus sent the disciples off to the other side of the lake while he went up a mountainside by himself to pray.  During our holy land trip, I learned that there is a dramatic difference in temperature between the shoreline at 680 feet below sea level and the surrounding hills which can reach 2,000 feet.  This can generate strong winds funneling through the hills, whipping up high waves in the relatively shallow waters of only 200 feet.

The disciples encountered a violent storm on the lake and became very afraid.  During the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went out to them, walking on the water saying, “Take courage!  Don’t be afraid.”  Peter asked to join him but then took his focus off of Jesus and he had to reach out his hand to save him.  When they climbed into the boat the wind died down and all was calm.

People through the ages have marveled at this second miracle of Jesus walking on water that night, but as we enter the eve of his birth, we pause in reverent silence to acknowledge the greatest miracle of all--that he walked on earth! 

As Adam Hamilton writes, “This weekend we celebrate the birth of a child, a child who was born to be our deliverer, our King, our Lord.  He came to be Emmanuel (God with us), God’s Word made flesh, the Light that would drive back the world’s darkness and the Life that would conquer death.  Like the angels and shepherds, we come to see this child, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”

When the storms of life come and lightning flashes, the thunder rolls across the land, the winds howl through the bending trees and the waves break over the ship’s bow, we can still be assured of calm seas as we seek the safety of the other side.  God can appear to be absent in painful times, but perhaps that’s because when we’re struggling, we take our eye off of him and focus on the area of pain.  That’s the time to focus on His ultimate authority over all creation and His promise to be with us always, because he has also walked in our footsteps as we strive to walk in the footsteps of that babe born on Christmas day so very long ago that was sent to calm the storm.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

CHRISTMAS CHECKMATE

Chapel of the Angels, Beit Sahur, Israel
Shepherd, Qumran, Israel

There is a field just east of Bethlehem in this war-ravaged region that is the hallowed ground of a momentous announcement.  It is where a messenger of the Lord and a heavenly host of angels announced the arrival of a Savior for the world.  Isaiah prophesied that this child would lead the wolf to live with the lamb.  It’s important to note that this message was not delivered to kings and religious leaders, but to one of the lowest classes of the time—shepherds who were watching over their flocks on one very significant starry night.  The world of that generation was filled with hate and war and the people of the region were anxiously awaiting a warrior king to bring peace to their lives.

They received the Prince of Peace.  The mystery of this miracle was that the Creator entered his creation wrapped in human flesh as a present to all mankind.  The angel told the shepherds not to be afraid for he was announcing good news.  And then a host of angels sang:

“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

As I walked this land and followed in His footsteps, I couldn’t help but wonder why we still had not achieved that peace which was promised over two thousand years ago.  As an adult, Jesus gave men a simple formula for peace—love God and love your neighbor.  And He left mankind with a way of living through his teachings and model that can restore peace in the world.

People at the birth of Christ and people today expect him to save us from our enemies, but he came to deliver all of us from ourselves.  Sadly, the line between good and evil passes through the heart of every man, but we have been given the free will to choose where we stand.  And on that fateful night we were sent an ally to walk with us as we exercise our free will to do something actionable about the hate and darkness in this world that we were given stewardship over.  Darkness and hate were not eliminated that night in this field, but light and love were sent to checkmate them.