Friday, December 23, 2011
Path to Adventure, Flint Hills, Central KS
Joseph Campbell’s classic study of the heroic journey in world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, outlines the three stages of departure, initiation and return. The heroic journey has all of us as its symbolic subject and traces the hero-paths of our own journey, from potential to full actuality of our true self. The film Star Wars is a great contemporary example. Campbell writes, “This first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated as the ‘call to adventure’—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of gravity from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight. The hero can go forth of his own volition to accomplish the adventure, as did Theseus when he arrived in his father’s city, Athens, and heard the horrible history of the Minotaur; or he may be carried or sent abroad by some benign or malignant agent, as was Odysseus, driven about the Mediterranean by the winds of the angered god, Poseidon…And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
The odyssey begins with the potential hero leaving home, the ubiquitous comfort zone. Genesis 12 relates the beginning journey of Abraham and Sarah to found the world’s three monotheistic religions. God instructs them to “leave your country, your family and your father’s house, for the new land that I will show you.” Jesus also called His disciples to leave their families and homes to follow Him. Bob Buford’s book Halftime is essentially about transitioning the second period of your life from one of success to one of significance. Success is good in our first period of life as it lays the groundwork to freely achieve goals of significance. Life at this stage is no longer about money or the approval of others—it’s about finding your sacred dance as your character has matured and grown. It’s about deferring your visions and dreams to God’s vision for you to use your acquired skills and talent to serve the common good. It’s no longer so much about gathering but spreading the seeds of goodness in the world around us. It’s about leaving your homey comfort zone and setting out once again to fulfill your ultimate destiny. It’s about changing the formula from pursuing external happiness to achieving internal joy in your life. George Bernard Shaw famously noted, “There are two sources of unhappiness in life. One is not getting what you want; the other is getting it.” The second period of life is getting what our creator wants for us.
Monday, December 19, 2011
Emerging on the Other Side, Lake Michigan, IL
Courtesy of B. Weidner
When one of life’s storms is upon us, seek a path not over or around it but head on and through it. Then we can emerge on the other side sooner and more hardened by the experience. We may not always get the life that we have planned, but we can still live in God's presence with hope and joy while adjusting our sails onto another course.
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Hawaiian Lizard, Courtesy of R. Weidner
I actually developed a theory about our lizard brain long before I just recently happened upon the term. I’ve traveled rather consistently all of my life during my career and personal time off. And I slowly began to observe that I never got a good night’s sleep on that first night in a strange environment away from home. Subsequent nights were no problem and I began to analyze just why that was happening to me. I finally realized that it was simply a matter of becoming familiar and secure with my new surroundings, like the compressor kicking in on a small refrigerator or window unit in my foreign room. It occurred to me that this particular trait was probably all about the fact that this DNA had survived over eons of human development to be part of my being. My lineage continued to propagate because they were alert to the rustling of a saber tooth tiger at the mouth of the new cave where they had decided to spend a few nights during the hunt for food. Once they were assured that an area was safe and secure, they got a good night’s sleep. The saber tooth tiger took care of those that didn’t respond by removing them from the gene pool! It just so happens that those instincts are still alive and well in my being and my modern saber tooth tigers have morphed into such things as circulating fan motors and life’s challenges. Once I finally realized what was happening to me, I was able to easily return to REM sleep even though the lizard brain at the base of my evolutionary brain’s structure was still functioning.
I learned that this lizard brain was at work during other aspects of my life to discharge its ancient duties of fight, flight or freeze, challenge the use of edible food and stimulate the drive to propagate the species. I finally learned to understand that this fear mechanism was trying to help me if necessary, and I could silence it by acknowledging it, focusing on my goal and then focusing on its execution. I even trained myself to redirect all that nervous energy to stimulate my brain’s energy and attention to the task at hand. And I can now recall a few occasions where lizard brain’s auto pilot actually saved my life or quickly alerted me to difficult challenges when contemporary saber tooth tigers threatened me. It turns out that our lizard brain is also functioning behind the scenes using chemical and electrical signals to regulate involuntary breathing, heart beats, growth, etc. while our higher brain functioning concentrates on those thinking and spiritual assignments that separate us human beings from the lizards and dogs walking among us.
Some neuroscientists have proposed that our human brains are the evolutionary result of successive higher levels of order for lizards (reptilian complex), dogs (limbic system) and humans (neocortex) within our skulls that grew on top of one another. The lizard brain handles basic instincts and bodily functions. Then the mammals emerged with the addition of a more complex layer of brain with emotions and emotion-based memory. Finally, the human being layer completed the masterpiece with its ability for poetry, art, language, projecting the future and reason. Consequently, human behavior can be at odds at times when our emotions conflict with our reason--like when we’re tempted to go for some dubious pleasurable activity when our reason tells us that it is ultimately not good for us. We may still be evolving to fully achieve a harmonious integration. Meditation and prayer can assist. And frankly, I have no problem believing that all of this occurred in one or two days or 150,000,000 years, as the human brain is one of the most complex objects in the universe and we are only beginning to understand it. As the psalmist praises, we are fearfully and wonderfully made!
The American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed his now famous triangular Hierarchy of Needs in 1943 describing the stages of growth and motivation in humans. The base of the needs triangle is composed of the lizard brain physiological needs and then our needs move up the ladder for safety, love/belonging, esteem and self-actualization. Some have even proposed adding spiritual needs at the very pinnacle of the pyramid, but I believe spiritual needs can be attained at every level and may be even more important if a person is rooted in poverty at the lowest level. As you can see, they mirror the human brain’s development and it’s been proposed that if we do not consciously move beyond the early stages of security and survival, we will not effectively continue our journey of discovering our true potential self and spiritual growth. I’m not so sure a triangle is the ultimate shape to illustrate this point however. Years ago I discovered that sometimes a concept such as this can best be illustrated by concentric circles moving out like the ripples generated when a stone is tossed into water. And at the very center of this word picture is our spiritual growth which expands as we move out into the concentric circles. And it goes hand in hand with my observation of the circles of life that are integral to our existence. In the twelfth chapter of Luke, Jesus tells us “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. Life is more than food, and the body more than clothes…But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well…For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The bottom line is to be aware that we human beings have been endowed with an evolved brain that is now capable of contemplating our future, where we have the capacity to move beyond basic needs and fear and to understand the temporal nature of this life so that we can evolve into the next.
Monday, December 12, 2011
The time was 1897, not all that long removed from the horrendous War Between the States. It was a time when hope and faith were waning in the country as men like Francis Church, the son of a Baptist minister who had covered the war as a correspondent, were still reassembling their lives and outlook. Church now worked the editorial desk at The New York Sun and found himself to be the dubious recipient of a short but direct letter from a young eight year old girl named Virginia O’Hanlon. When other children had challenged her belief in Santa Claus, her father had delicately sidestepped the subject by encouraging her to write to the last word in their household—The Sun. Church’s now famous editorial reply was titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” after Virginia’s closing question to the newspaper. But it was his opening sentence of the second paragraph of the now most memorable editorial in newspaper history that everyone remembers; “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy…Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding”.
The now famous phrase from Church’s editorial is part of our modern culture and many folks take editorial license to rephrase it in order to make their point, such as the title above. Our culture considers the path to happiness strewn with all imaginable sorts of worldly stuff, but we’re not all that happy. Perhaps it’s because happiness is very temporary since it’s based on external circumstances, like buying stuff. But a recent study found that if two groups of people were given a fixed amount of money and asked to either spend it on themselves or someone else, the ones who gave their money to others reported a significant uptick in mood compared to the other group. It came as no great surprise to find that there is a lasting joy to be had in giving to help others and that it’s a relative bargain compared to the money people spend on pursuing happiness. That spirit of giving, personified in a rotund bearded man in a red suit, is still alive and well and was the message that has resounded in the hearts of folks ever since the first edition of Church’s reply to Virginia was published over one hundred years ago around Christmas time. The act of giving exemplifies Jesus’ teaching to love God and love others. The Old Testament book of Malachi 3:10 says “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse…and see if I will not throw open the flood gates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have enough room for it”. And that’s the true power of giving--when the gift is given with love, generosity and devotion it is returned tenfold in the form of blessings of lasting joy and an enriched life.
Sunday, December 11, 2011
Over the Rainbow, Chicago, IL
I grew up in the land of Kansas where tornados occasionally run free and Dorothy and Toto grace tourist’s T-shirts. When I was still very young, our combined schools performed at the local civic auditorium. The closing song was a nostalgic rendition of “Somewhere over the Rainbow” with the lights turned down low. The combination of the haunting lyrics and the atmosphere made a lasting impression on me. The young Kansas farm girl Dorothy is longing for a place “over the rainbow” where skies are blue, the clouds are far behind her, and troubles melt like lemon drops. Then a whirling tornado carries her and her dog Toto into a fantasy Land of Oz where she begins to appreciate home and begins a quest to return there. The title song from the classic movie The Wizard of Oz later became the signature of Judy Garland’s singing career. She wrote that “Over the Rainbow has become part of my life. It's so symbolic of everybody's dreams and wishes that I'm sure that's why some people get tears in their eyes when they hear it. I've sung it thousands of times and it's still the song that's closest to my heart."
During a general audience in 1999, Pope John Paul II observed that heaven and hell were primarily eternal states of consciousness more than geographical places of later reward and punishment. The universe we occupy along with our creator God would seem to exist in one endless sea of consciousness. It’s been said that heaven is a conscious spiritual existence in God’s presence, while those who exercise their freedom to chose and turn their back on God will spend their eternal spiritual existence apart from His divine love. That they point out is hell.
I was recently intrigued by Jesus’ teaching that the Kingdom of God can be found within each one of us. It comes with God’s Spirit beginning to work in our lives and relationships. Jesus taught that this kingdom is born within and we then live it out in our daily activities---as He modeled life. As we die to ourselves, the good news is that the Spirit begins to grow within us—we’re born a second time. Paul writes that we then receive the spiritual gifts of faith and hope and love to strengthen our lives on earth. And love is the cornerstone the kingdom is built upon within our hearts. Our body can be in the world, but our soul and our spirit can be in the kingdom of God. That’s important to know! While God is being made manifest within us, the Prince of Darkness in this world can inflict problems on us. But he has no power over our soul and our spirit.
Sometimes, when Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God, he's speaking about a present reality that is somewhere else—a place where God's reign is completely experienced without any rebellion toward God. Scripture tells us that the day will come when there will be a new heaven and a new earth, where the kingdom of our God will supplant the kingdoms of this earth. Revelation says that in that day there will be no more sorrow, no more grief, no more death, and no more pain; that God himself will be the light in the midst of that kingdom.
When Jesus used parables in His teachings, they had deeper levels of meaning, like peeling back the layers of an onion. And the basic literal meaning was the least revealing. When Jesus talked of His father’s house with many rooms, it quite probably is not a gigantic Motel 6 in the skies. But perhaps He was referring to that vast infinite space of spiritual consciousness somewhere over the rainbow. And yes, Toto, we can go home to a place we’ve never been before.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Mirrored Sunrise, Kiawah Island, SC
There are a total of 150 Psalms in the Bible that are said to mirror our hearts and speak our deepest thoughts. Their emotional range moves from great joy to deep distress. They teach our hearts who God is and what He has done. They model divine conversations with boldness and beauty. Jesus seems to be praying the 22nd Psalm on the cross in His final hour. Athanasius made the sage observation in the fourth century that the scriptures speak to us but the Psalms speak for us. Ironically, they are central to the human experience and Psalm 118:8 is located at the center of the Bible. It contains this verse; “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to trust in man”--a reminder to work towards being God-centered VS self-centered. And the shortest and longest chapters actually book end Psalm 118.
Many folks who have been indirectly exposed to the Psalms quite possibly consider them extreme wailing in the night (lament—Psalm 90) or gratuitous shouting in the daylight (praise—Psalm 100). But of course they are so much more once we spend a few hours reading and pondering these voices from a distant three thousand years ago. Thanksgiving is the focus of Psalm 65 and Psalm 73 is a meditative wisdom poem. C. S. Lewis rightfully characterizes them as poems intended to be sung or at least read aloud “with all the licenses and all the formalities, the hyperboles, the emotional rather than logical connections, which are proper to lyric poetry if they are to be understood…Their chief formal characteristic is ‘parallelism’ or the practice of saying the same thing twice in different words.”
A few years ago I stumbled onto a book whose subtitle promised “Renewal, Hope and Acceptance from the World’s Most Beloved Ancient Verses”. The book titled The Healing Power of Psalms was created by Rabbis, Samuel Chiel and Henry Dreher. Working with numerous people over the years, they have come to understand that “turning to the Psalms as a form of prayer when we are sick, scared, or grieving will almost surely give comfort. They quote Psalm 121 as one example that can provide us a revitalized faith in an eternally protective God:
The Lord is your guardian,
the Lord is your protection
at your right hand.
By day the sun will not strike you,
nor the moon by night.
The Lord will guard you from all harm;
He will guard your life.
The Lord will guard your going and coming
now and forever.
They note that “prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live. But how can we take prayer to heart without risking disillusionment and despair? It is best to remember that the body is a holy though impermanent vessel, the substance but not the essence of who we are”. They wisely observe that “curing and healing are not one and the same. Cure refers to the complete physical resolution of a disease. Healing may involve physical cure, but it is vastly more encompassing. Regardless of the medical outcome, this broader healing is a goal worth all of our energies—and our prayers.” And ultimate healing may not occur in this life, but in the next, as a traditional reading of this text says that “He will guard your soul”.
Sunday, December 4, 2011
Contemplation Sundown, Wrightsville Beach, NC
There’s actually been quite a lot written about the transition we humans are capable of making during the last period in our game of life. The first period is generally conceded as a time of establishing our identity and achieving some success in life. Then most of us that have navigated those stormy and adventurous waters begin to embark on a period of transition to set a new course and recharge our batteries for a more satisfying journey towards a new fulfilling life of significance. It’s been said that 90% of people live on cruise control or unconsciously 90% of the time. We need to pause more often to ponder our destiny. Bob Buford characterizes this period in his book titled Halftime to amplify the need to call a time out and catch a new vision for living that final act and the best years of our life. Father Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest with a Catholic priestly resume whose book on Falling Upward teaches that loss of control and necessary suffering as we move into the second period can actually shock us out of our comfort zone and enable us to better understand our destiny and rise up to the challenge. Rohr and Buford have characterized these major periods as the first and second halves of life separated by an introspective halftime, but the transition can occur at any point in our lives, not at the exact halfway point.
We slowly remove our first period stage masks to reveal our true persona. Ultimately the Zen masters call it the face you had before you were born—your true self or your soul. We begin confronting and dealing with the undesirable attributes that have developed and been carried along for years. Rohr makes the point that “The familiar and the habitual are so falsely reassuring, and most of us make our homes there permanently. The new is always by definition unfamiliar and untested, so God, life, destiny, suffering have to give us a push—usually a big one—or we will not go! Someone has to make clear to us that homes are not meant to be lived in—but only to be moved out from.” The final period of life can oust us out of our homey comfort zone simply through the aging process if nothing else.
We start to incorporate humility and love in all things. We move from an ego centric to a soul centric worldview and from human doing to human being. This phase of life can be a very rewarding aspect of spiritual maturity as we now have more time and resources to give back a portion of the blessings that we have received during our success period. The eight Beatitudes become more front and center to us then the Ten Commandments. We no longer have anything to prove, so we try to live more simply so that we can help others to simply live. Life is now not as much about having what we love as it is about loving what we have. We give away things that have actually become an anchor on our life and are no longer considered needed to interest, sustain or validate our lives. The inner light that radiates outward in the process also becomes a gift to the world around us.
It’s a productive time for advancing the soul work that makes our lives meaningful and continues the soul’s maturation into eternity. Our unique soul was installed by our creator along with the gift of life itself and the primary job description for us mortals is to continue to grow our character as we move along life’s passages. We’re a collaborative partner in the eternal flow of this great creation mystery and this is the vessel we need to transition into the next period of spiritual life as we finish well.
Monday, November 28, 2011
Imperfection I & II, Wrightsville Beach, NC
It seems that God has cloaked holiness with imperfection. And perhaps this is the essence of what Jesus meant when He tells us in the Beatitudes that the humble will inherit the earth. It was the holier-than-thou religious leaders of His time that Jesus was referring to when He stated that the greatest would be last and the least would be first—for it seems that only those who have recognized their imperfection and been humbled by it can genuinely offer forgiveness and be open to receiving it. They understand the imperfect human condition and can be sympathetic to the unlovable among us and within us. Once we embrace this concept, we actually move closer to the holiness we seek to obtain as we move through life on our collaborative journey to nurture and grow our spiritual being.
When we are told that God, who is a conscious spiritual being, created us in His own image, I don’t think that means we look somewhat like Him. I think it refers to the spiritual soul we were also gifted when our earthly being was created. Jesus told us that when we are ready to die to this earthly, imperfect life, we are reborn into a more fulfilling life. And when we die to this earthly, mortal life we are transitioned or reborn into our destined spiritual life with the essence of the soul we have developed on our “recalculated” journey. It’s like driving along a route calculated by our trusty GPS device. But we come to a realization that we need to redirect our life and we change direction. In spite of that little voice sternly admonishing us to turn the other way, we set a new course and leave it frantically acquiescing with the now all too familiar refrain, “recalculating, recalculating”!
Saturday, November 19, 2011
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Autumn in My Car Hood, Jamestown, NC
Robert Frost wrote a famous poem about a traveler in a yellow wood who came to a fork in the road. He chose the one less traveled that made all the difference in his life. When I came to a career fork in the road, I chose the engineering path. My studies focused on management efficiency and expedient processes that minimized the cost of subsequent deliverables. And that mantra served me well throughout my professional career and even spilled over into my personal life.
I really hadn’t consciously paid much attention to my travels lately, but they usually followed my ingrained pattern of the efficient infamous shortest distance between two points. It finally occurred to me that my GPS system was quite probably designed by one of my own and has been effectively directing my every turn on the road with the utmost urgency and precision. I’ve been obediently following its every command down whatever path it has chosen for me. Actually, it has served me well and saved me from innumerable missed exits and countless hours not well spent driving in the wrong direction down dead end roads. But that path is not always the most scenic or sublime. In fact, it’s probably the same path other mindless systems are leading my fellow wayfaring lemmings over the same barren cliff!
So today I vowed to break with tradition and my robotic pathfinder. I veered off the calculated path and chose a route more scenic and pleasant to my eyes and psyche. I turned onto a meandering path of blazing leaves lining curves as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. The colorful filtered light of the setting autumn sun was mirrored in my car’s hood. That path may have added an extra two minutes to my drive and an extra two years to my life. And all the while, my disembodied, electronic companion was firmly admonishing me and shouting, “Recalculating, recalculating”, as my senses were being recharged by the brilliant sights along my rogue path. As they say, it’s not about the destination, it’s about the road more scenic, and that has made all the difference today.
Saturday, November 12, 2011
Butterfly of Happiness, Jamestown, NC
There’s an old saying that to find happiness, stop seeking it and it will find you. But even our founding fathers left us with the legacy of a pursuit of life, liberty and happiness for this great experiment. King Solomon was one of the wisest and richest men to ever walk over this planet. He gave it a shot and this is his conclusion from The Message translation of Ecclesiastes; “I said to myself, ‘Let's go for it—experiment with pleasure, have a good time!’ But there was nothing to it, nothing but smoke. What do I think of the fun-filled life? Insane! Inane! My verdict on the pursuit of happiness? Who needs it? With the help of a bottle of wine and all the wisdom I could muster, I tried my level best to penetrate the absurdity of life. I wanted to get a handle on anything useful we mortals might do during the years we spend on this earth.”
Wouldn’t seeking happiness be one of our most worthy causes in life? New psychological studies suggest not. And before any of these studies were published, Henry David Thoreau perhaps summed up the pursuit best by writing, “Happiness is like a butterfly: the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit on your shoulder”. What other things? Well for openers, new studies show that if we focus too much on attaining ultimate happiness and it inevitably doesn’t always materialize, we will end up unhappy. It seems to follow another basic precept in life that anything lived in excess will probably cause problems. It appears that folks who are simply “pretty happy” end up with above average income and knowledge. The perpetual Pollyanna seems to be less effective at recognizing the pitfalls in life through their rose colored glasses. Actually, negative feelings and emotions are an integral part of the human drama. They alert us to reflect and examine our life for positive change. For instance, it’s also been said that if we harbor bitterness, happiness will find another place to dock. Once we shift our focus from seeking happiness for ourselves and seek to bring joy into others lives, a miraculous thing begins to happen---happiness softly lights on our shoulder!
Saturday, November 5, 2011
Dining Together, London, England
I was recently reading and listening to a jazz station in the background. When one particular piece finished the DJ caught my imagination when she noted that the title was “Alone Together”. That title precisely defined the melancholy mood of the music. There’s probably an infinite number of ways and degrees that people can relate to one another. And the same goes for our relationship with our creator. How many times, for instance, have you been out to dinner and noticed the couple sitting across from you? Actually, when we go out in public, you expect to be exposed to others and you probably won’t change old habits. I’ve observed couples eating dinner at a restaurant together and they never say one word to one another. They eat in silence with the exception of short interactions with their waiter. Their time alone together is sad to watch. How much richer would their lives be if they just took the effort to relate to one another? How much better would they know each other’s dreams and accomplishments-- If they took the effort to understand each other’s fears and joys-- If they took time to empathize with bad days and hurt feelings? I’ve learned that communication is about equal parts of talking and listening. If either gets out of balance, the relationship suffers. When they’re shut down completely, so is the relationship. But the good news is that the reverse is also true—it just takes some work!
Our creator has gone on record as committing to be with us always. But of course, relationship is a two way street. And He won’t necessarily come uninvited. We have to take time out to nurture that relationship and open up to the joys and concerns of our life. And we have to make a habit of talking and listening or we’ll simply coexist alone together.
Friday, November 4, 2011
The Autumn Leaves Outside My Window, Jamestown, NC
The more I think about it, the more I think we don’t give enough thought to the gift of free will we all possess. Of course, free will flourishes best in an environment of freedom which we Americans take all too lightly. I suppose it’s like many things in life—we don’t always appreciate something until we lose it. It’s an old comparison, but free will is indeed analogous to approaching a fork in our path and then making a decision to go one way or the other. We encounter these forks hundreds of times in the course of our daily life. Sometimes that involves choosing good versus not so good and sometimes it literally involves choosing left versus right. We learned about the unwritten “law of lines” while at Disney World years ago. Since most people are right handed they tend to go right when the doors open at the attractions, so it’s always a good idea to move to the left to get a good seat. And as with most all decisions, there are consequences to how we choose. Sometimes those are trivial and sometimes they are very consequential. Sometimes those consequences are immediate and other times they may take years to unfold.
It’s a good day to write and I’m working at my computer next to the upstairs window of my office. Today is overcast with an early November cold rain falling outside but the view is spectacular! They say the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago and the next best time is today, i.e., it’s never too late to make something happen—just do it! I planted the October Glory maple tree outside my window about twelve years ago with the thought in mind that some day it would really be quite a scene. Well, it certainly is today!
I also recall making a simple left versus right decision that seemed trivial at the time but had immediate consequences and proved to be life saving. Me and my two hunting companions primarily used two basic techniques to hunt migratory ducks and geese along the central flyway in Kansas. We would either set out a decoy spread in a new wheat field or cut grain field and call the game birds to us or we would go to them by jumping ponds in pastures. On one particular overcast and drizzly November day like today we had spotted a flight of mallards circling a large pond and then going down. So we drove our truck to an area opposite the back of the dam and proceeded to stealth under their radar to position ourselves in shooting range. One of my hunting companions moved to the left of the dam so that he could peer over the top and locate the floating ducks. I was following my other friend through the tall prairie grasses to the center of the dam.
When our spotter motioned that the ducks were in range directly in front of us, I moved into shooting position to the right of my left handed partner. The signal was given to move up, the ducks responded by giving flight and the rapid sound of automatic shotguns shattered the morning silence. In moments, my magazine was empty and I turned to my hunting partner amid the pungent smell of spent gun powder and incredulously asked why he wasn’t shooting. He just looked at me with an astonished expression and showed me his shotgun. He had been using shells that he had loaded himself and later admitted that he had added a little bit of extra powder for some extra punch. The left side of his receiver had been completely blown out! If I had been standing to his left when the shooting started, my head would have quite possibly been next to the blow out. Was it pure chance that I turned to the right rather than to the left? I may never know, but the autumn leaves outside my window on this chilly morning take on a whole new perspective as I reflect.
Wednesday, November 2, 2011
Holding On, Jamestown, NC
Kansas Grain Elevator, Strong City, KS
Growing up in Kansas exposed me to cowboys and ropes. A good strong rope is a staple on any farmstead or ranch out in the country. Ropes are used to tame and tether animals and pull or secure a variety of payloads. Normally, they’re good for holding onto something like a truck load of hay bales or just holding onto, like the way mountain climbers use them. Many of us have probably heard the expression that when you get to the end of your rope tie a knot and hold on! There’s also the biblical story of the woman who had been bleeding uncontrollably for twelve years and was desperate for a cure as life slipped away from her. She sought out Jesus as he walked through a crowd, reached out in faith to touch His cloak and she was instantly healed. Consequently, it’s been said that when life is slipping away from you, reach out and you’ll find the hem of His cloak to hold onto.
I was spending my summer on a construction job site to earn money for the next college year. Our current project involved removing a rather large stainless steel grain dust collector from the top of a multistory grain elevator and reinstalling a new one. Functioning collectors are designed to inhibit spontaneous grain dust explosions and fires. Since I was the youngest and most flexible candidate at the time, I had volunteered to ride to the top of the elevator by stepping onto the large steel ball and hook suspended from the steel cable of a huge crane that had been contracted for the job. My assignment for the day was to ride to the top, secure the old dust collector with a heavy duty rope and set it free with a cutting torch while wearing a welder’s mask and gloves.
We had obviously underestimated both the weight of the dust collector and the strength of the rope used to secure it to the crane. The moment I cut free the last steel support from the massive collector, it immediately succumbed to the pull of gravity and began a rapid descent to the ground below. Unbeknownst to me, the attached rope had snapped in two and was also rapidly following the collector to the earth multiple stories below me. As all of this played out in a matter of moments, the slithering rope wrapped its tentacles around my leg and began a quick skin burn due to the friction and velocity. It also yanked me off my feet like a hooked fish and was whisking me to the edge of the elevator roof. Instinctively, I grabbed for anything my hands could hit and miraculously latched onto a secure pipe that was just there somehow. The rope spun off my leg as I heard the sickening sound of the collector hitting the ground below with a loud crash. The air was silenced for a moment while I was lying there on my stomach with my hands firmly grasping the pipe at the edge of the grain elevator. Only later, once I had been lowered back down to the ground, did the seriousness of the situation sink into my consciousness. I realize now that the pipe atop the roof of that towering structure had been about as close to the hem of His cloak as I’ve ever come in this life.
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Frozen in Time
Our adult Sunday class was watching a short video on location at the Sea of Galilee. The lesson centered on the disciples of Jesus who had just participated in the miracle of feeding a crowd of five thousand that had followed Jesus to the shores of Galilee. The disciples had then left by boat while Jesus stayed behind to dismiss the people and pray. A strong wind came up and buffeted the small boat as the disciples fearfully watched what appeared to them to be a ghost walking toward them. When Peter recognized Jesus, he asked to join him and left the boat. But even after just witnessing yet another miracle, he began to lose faith as the wind continued to blow, and Jesus had to reach out to save him. When they climbed into the boat the wind died down and the disciples began believing that he was indeed the Son of God who had dominion over the winds and the waters.
The story immediately called to mind a life threatening experience I had in my early adulthood during a late fall duck hunt in central Kansas. Myself and two other hunting companions had set out for a huge Corps of Engineering flood control reservoir well before dawn on a cold-to-the-bone star lit night. Our truck was pulling a flat bottomed john boat we had converted into a floating duck blind using framed chicken wire laced with long stemmed prairie grass. We were layered in warm hunting clothes with insulated boots and our pockets were stuffed with twelve gauge shotgun shells. The bottom of the boat was crowded with dozens of floating decoys and a sturdy anchor. Our faithful black lab, Peanuts, was shaking with the excitement of another adventurous hunt. As we backed our floating blind down the boat ramp and into the frigid waters, we could hear the rush of wings overhead and the feeding calls of the wild mallards that had arrived overnight on the northerly winds. The evening weather forecast had predicted a severe change as a Canadian cold front was expected to blitz through the Midwestern United States. That’s the kind of nasty forecast which is a duck hunter’s dream. Dropping temperatures fueled by strong winds stirs the migratory instincts of winged waterfowl across the world.
We cautiously steered our john boat under the setting moon along the outer shoreline for about a mile or more until we found the sanctuary of a relatively sheltered inlet cove. As first light was breaking the darkness, we began to deliberately set out the anchored decoys in the shallow waters in a wide arc, allowing a center opening for incoming flights of ducks to attempt a landing. Then we edged the john boat back into a stand of tall grasses and tree saplings opposite the bobbing decoys. Almost immediately the spitfire strafing began into the decoys. One by one we singled out the lesser point drakes to fill our legal harvesting point totals. Peanuts would just return from jumping into the cold water to retrieve a downed mallard when he was right back into the lake after another. After about two hours of a career day on the water, my teeth had begun to chatter uncontrollably as we all noticed that the winds had picked up considerable intensity and white caps were gathering out in the lake away from our sheltered hunting cove. I cast a glance at Peanuts shivering in the end of the boat as ice crystals covered his wet hair. As I hunkered down behind the grassed frame, freezing rain and sleet were beginning to accumulate on everything around us. Rivulets of ice began forming around every stem of grass protruding from the icy waters. We were left with the sobering realization that we had already stayed too long, so we immediately began to retrieve our decoys and head for the boat ramp.
By this time, the waves were treacherously lapping onto the side of our john boat which began taking on additional weight as water instantly froze to the grassed frames. And then it happened! Since we were trying to cling to the relative safety of the shoreline, we had hit bottom and snapped the shear pin that protected the motor’s propeller. The north wind and waves were unfortunately moving away from land, so we immediately began to drift out to the open water white caps. Our weight and heavy clothing would have almost assuredly capsized us into the frigid waters. None of us would survive if that happened. I chattered a quick prayer under my frozen breath. Then one of my hunting companions found one last spare shear pin taped to the underside of the motor and we quickly installed it and steered back to the safety of the shoreline. Survivor instincts kicked in and we all instantly realized that we wouldn’t make it if this pin was also sheared. So I grabbed an oar and crawled over the bow of the john boat on my stomach and began probing for the lake bottom. The second the oar hit bottom I yelled into the cutting wind to steer away from shore! We had to move slow enough for me to plumb for the bottom and fast enough so that the northern winds didn’t drive us out to the deadly open water. We labored at this for about an hour as the winds increased, the temperature dropped and the freezing rain and waves continued to weigh down the boat and slow us down. None of us mentioned the possibility of running out of fuel as the motor strained to maintain forward progress as we zig zagged with and against the waves.
I would have rejoiced in seeing a ghostly spirit walking across the stormy lake to calm the wind and the waves that were steadily sinking us. But finally the boat ramp came into view and we crippled into its shelter and safety. The truck was barely able to pull the heavily iced boat out of the water. No, we didn’t see a savior walking on water, but to this day I know He was already in the boat protecting us with one last shear pin and guiding us away from troubled waters with none left to save us.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Time's Up, Summerfield, NC
Mindful acceptance includes acknowledging all that life has to offer from suffering to joy. Acceptance of life itself includes acceptance of death as well. Accepting death releases us from our inhibitions and fears so that we don’t miss the opportunities before us in our limited time on this planet.
Monday, October 17, 2011
Wispy Autumn Sky, Jamestown, NC
Shepherd of the Forest, Jamestown, NC
Free Falling Autumn Spirit,Summerfield, NC
There is a sense of changing seasons in the air today. Yellow, orange and scarlet colors filter the sunlight rays that pierce through the woodlands to provide a subtle aura that subconsciously alerts us that change is imminent. The Autumn sky is patterned by high flying wispy cirrus clouds. The sun’s rays only project warmth if you’re in their direct path due to the cool ambient temperature. The winds are gusting in advance of a weather front that’s triggering cold rain showers in its wake off to the west.
The trees have already begun a transformation to shut down the growing process for the year. Leaves high overhead have been deprived of the life giving chlorophyll that facilitates the green growth of these ancient shepherds of the forests that the middle earth people knew as Ents.
The final adventure begins ever so slowly with a quickening crescendo that finally attracts the attention of even the casual observer. One by one the colorful spirits are loosed from their moorings and they begin a silent and graceful free fall in the autumn winds. Whole formations take flight at once and swoop down on unsuspecting travelers, swirling all around them in sudden bursts of energy. And then they settle to the ground below that has been just out of reach ever since they evolved. There was never a longing to reach skyward, for that was their environment from inception. But there was a longing to be among all the creatures below and possess their exhilarating freedom of movement. It seemed the shackles of the tree limbs could never be broken.
And then one recent night the temperature suddenly dropped below anything they had ever experienced. There was a stirring of retreat and letting go within all the branches that remained deathly still on that fateful night of a full harvest moon. The life giving sap was withdrawing from all the extremities and slowly moving to the center of the giant Ent’s core and further down to the very roots embedded in mother earth. The colony of veined leaflets swayed and fluttered in the morning breezes and the experience only heightened their desire for freedom. Now at last their release was assured as they watched in wonder as their fellow captives were released from the bonds of the giant Ents that no longer required their services. The free fall was glorious! It seemed to last much, much longer than in reality, but the experience was so long in coming and the anticipation was so extreme that the moment was absolutely sublime.
When these colorful free falling spirits finally touched the good earth, pure joy abounded among them. They gathered in great bands and rapidly joined together in powerful wind gusts to race down paved streets and along banked gutters. The very high spirited among them raced onto the freeways, attempting to outrun the speeding vehicles in a scene reminiscent of the running of the bulls. Some were eventually gathered into huge piles where small children were free to smother and embrace them in gales of laughter. Others glided onto the surface of rapidly moving streams of water and were carried for days on a journey into the vast oceans. Ultimately the matter that had been drawn from the earth mother by the symbiotic Ent to sustain and grow the leaf spirits began to return to its source in anticipation of another cycle of growth and resurrection.
For man, the autumn season is a time for gathering. But for nature, it is a time for scattering. And it’s been written that the true measure of a man’s life is not about how much he gathers for himself, but how much he caringly scatters among others to resurrect their lives. Perhaps that’s the reminder we all were meant to experience every autumn when the colorful emancipated spirits of autumn gracefully glide around us. Or, the lesson may be even more allegorical. Human souls are inextricably connected to our bodies and are spiritually informed as long as the body actively thrives on this planet. And as with the autumn spirits, we must die to this life so that our spirit may be set free to soar into the next.
Sunday, October 16, 2011
Guardian of the Sonoran Desert, Phoenix, AZ
Guardian of the Paris Streets, Paris
Spider Web, Jamestown, NC
Just what is it about certain forms and shapes that make them interesting and pleasing to our eye? Geometric shapes have mathematically consistent curves such as circles, squares, triangles and spirals. They generally dominate man made architecture, but can also be found in organic structures such as crystalline shapes and spiral shells. And the reverse is also found in free form art such as a Henry Moore sculpture or windblown snow drifts and sand dunes.
In the visual arts, shape is a flat, two-dimensional image while form adds the three-dimensional volume and depth associated with images such as cubes, cylinders and pyramids. Photographs are generally compositions of forms from both nature and industry that are presented in two-dimensions. I thought it was interesting to find comparisons in my digital files of similar forms from both areas in our world. It seemed even more intriguing to find that these were images that I considered interesting enough to photograph in the first place and then edit and save them for future use.
Saturday, October 15, 2011
The Many Faces of God, Jamestown, NC
There’s an old story I’ve always liked that concerns the unfiltered innocence of a child in conversation with a seasoned adult. The young child is coloring away at a summer church camp when a discerning adult occasions by to critique her work. The adult quizzically asks, “What are you creating”? And the child enthusiastically answers, “I’m coloring the face of God”! The knowing adult wisely responds that no one has ever seen or knows what God looks like. And the child matter-of-factly says, “Well, they will as soon as I’m finished”!
I’ve read that some religions not only forbid any attempt to create an image of God, but they forbid people to even write or speak a name for our creator. I can understand how this kind of thinking would evolve in human understanding. After all, the divine spiritual being that created this universe and all of us human beings in His own image also is a being that scripture tells us is omnipresent in all of this creation. That would take a verrrrrrry wide angle camera lens to capture, let alone a canvas from here to eternity. Old Testament accounts of interactions between men and God included warnings of instant death if they directly gazed upon His being. But we’re also told in the scriptures that our all powerful God has the ability to manifest His presence in any way He chooses; like pillars of cloud and fire that led the ancient Israelites through the desert to their promised land. He also walked this earth over two thousand years ago in the flesh of a human and spiritual being named Jesus to intimately experience human existence and teach us once and for all how to live.
I’ve been intrigued for some time now about what a spiritual being of this magnitude could possibly look like if His presence is not only teeming in the very rooms we occupy, but in the entire universe He created. I’m pretty sure that may remain one of those divine mysteries we won’t understand in this mortal life, but just might be revealed to us in the next spiritual world. I suspect many folks have an image of God from Michelangelo’s painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and Jesus never sat for a portrait for good reason. In the meantime, since God is present in all of His creation, I’ve come to believe through my own personal experience that our creator is revealed to us in every brilliant sunrise and sunset and that the ancient wisdom that teaches, “if you have looked into the glory of a blooming flower, you have looked into the face of God”, is quite plausible with the right attitude and mind set. The words to the contemporary Christmas song “Mary Did You Know?” immediately caught my imagination the first time I heard the words, “Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod? When you kiss your little baby, you’ve kissed the face of God”. That may actually be the gift of every new mother on the planet.
Sunday, October 9, 2011
Traveling Away from Home, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC
Living Life, Blue Ridge Parkway, NC
Traveling home from a career autumn weekend in the Blue Ridge Mountains with my daughter and son-in-law, these three, succinct, five word thoughts entered my consciousness:
To appreciate home, leave it.
To appreciate love, lose it.
To appreciate life, live it.
Monday, October 3, 2011
To Bee Fibonacci or Not to Bee, Jamestown, NC
Fibonacci Floret Spirals, Jamestown, NC
Fibonacci Petals, Jamestown, NC
During the European Renaissance mathematics and music were called perfect arts. As man began to evolve into the higher realms of these disciplines I believe that we also became closer to the ultimate creator of this universe. Some folks would argue that science will ultimately have an answer to all of life’s mysteries that will exclude the existence of a divine mind that is the source of all creation. Others like Francis Collins who headed the Human Genome Project that sequenced the DNA code of life, has found that a higher understanding of our world only strengthens their faith in God. He introduces his book, The Language of God, with the observation that “science’s domain is to explore nature. God’s domain is in the spiritual world, a realm not possible to explore with the tools and language of science. It must be examined with the heart, the mind, and the soul—and the mind must find a way to embrace both realms”. Collins writes, “How marvelous and intricate life turns out to be! How deeply satisfying is the digital elegance of DNA! How aesthetically appealing and artistically sublime are the components of living things…For those who believe in God, there are reasons now to be more in awe, not less”.
I awoke to a bright and cool early autumn October morning to discover that Shasta Daisies had blossomed overnight after a soaking rain. So, I retreated out into my backyard after a warm cup of coffee with my trusty digital camera in hand to document the event. It was only after I downloaded and cropped the images on my computer that I witnessed the startling, organized, and opposing spirals of tightly-packed tiny florets in the center of the blooms. It seemed more than a bit of serendipity that only yesterday as I was writing a short blog on shapes and forms that I had remembered a college mathematics class where we worked with the Fibonacci sequence of integer numbers. For starters, they relate to an ancient Greek mathematical proportion of 1.618034 that appeals to both the intellect and the eye and is achieved as you go further out in the sequence to calculate the ratio of adjacent terms. This became the famous ratio called The Golden Mean of Euclid and Aristotle, the divine proportion of Leonardo daVinci (Mona Lisa’s face), and has since been valued as the most beautiful proportion to the human eye. The golden ratio is integral to the horizontal and vertical beams of the Christian cross. The visually pleasing golden rectangle the Greeks derived had a proportion where the length was 1.618034 and the width was 1.0 and this shape became the basis for their art and architecture. This esthetic of thirds was adopted by the great Renaissance artists and remains to this day as a visually pleasing proportion for cropping land and seascape images.
If I learned nothing more in my pursuit of a mathematics degree, it was that the higher I advanced in successively more complicated studies, the more I began to appreciate the beautiful structure of our universe and the world around me. The Fibonacci sequence that has application in a variety of studies reinforced that concept for me—especially when found in nature. These numbers can be created by beginning with 0 and 1 and then adding the previous two numbers in the sequence to arrive at the next one. The number of petals on many flowers, for instance, can be associated with one of the Fibonacci numbers. Most daisies like the ones blooming in my backyard have 34, 55 or 89 petals; the 9th, 10th and 11th Fibonacci numbers. There can be 21 spirals going to the left and 34 to the right. Four leaf clovers are rare because four isn’t a Fibonacci number. But it is in the center of the Daisy I photographed that incredible order is observed to mathematical precision. If you start at the very center or the capitulum, you will find one individual floret and then they spiral out in rows of Fibonacci numbers of 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, etc. The number of curving clockwise and counterclockwise ordered spirals can be found in the seeds of sunflowers, bracts of pine cones, and scales of pineapples. Golden spirals can be found in chambered nautilus sea shells and the curve of waves. Leaves on the stem of a flower or a tree branch often grow in a helical pattern as the branch grows outward. A pear tree, for example, will have 8 leaves and 3 turns along the branch—both numbers are Fibonacci numbers. The number of the sets of seed spirals on a sunflower will always be consecutive like 21 and 34 or 55 and 89 to further confirm the beautiful Fibonacci mystique.
Thursday, September 29, 2011
Prairie Church, Strong City, KS
It may or may not surprise folks that I do not come to church to seek God—mainly because I believe His promises are rock solid and He has already told me through His word made flesh in Jesus that He is with me at all times of my life, not just Sunday mornings for instance. And surely the presence of the Lord is in this place. But it’s easy to ignore Him when times are good and we’re young and in good health and we’re languishing in the proverbial and calm “eye of the hurricane”. I come into church to share and seek the support of others that are interested in focusing their Sunday mornings and other times in genuinely growing their understanding of God and His will for my life and using that knowledge to weather the storms of life that inevitably pass over all of us at differing times of our lives. I don’t come to “drink the Kool-Aid” that skeptics would have you believe, but to “drink in the water of life” that Jesus discussed during His encounter with the woman at the well. And when my spirit inevitably departs this broken temporary world, I’ll be united with my Creator and all those loved ones who have gone before in a beautiful forever.
Monday, September 26, 2011
Phantom Friend, Wrightsville Beach, NC
Phantom Reflections, Wrightsville Beach, NC
Summer is Gone, Wrightsville Beach, NC
Phantom faces at the window.
Phantom shadows on the floor.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Where my friends will meet no more.
There’s a grief that can’t be spoken.
There’s a pain goes on and on.
Empty chairs at empty tables,
Now that summer is dead and gone.
--Les Miserables (sort of almost)