In the Bleak Midwinter, a Flash of Brilliant Red
Sunrise After A Long Winter’s Night
Martin Luther is said to have observed, “God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars.”
Tertullian is quoted by Galileo (link HERE) as saying, “We conclude that God is known first through Nature, and then again, more particularly, by doctrine; by Nature in His works, and by doctrine in His revealed word.”
In other words, one can think of nature as God’s “other book.”
Regardless of the weather, I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels) while my morning coffee brews. During the growing season I tend several veggie, herb and flower beds. On warm sunny days, I take walks along an amazing tree-lined bike trail that runs beside a creek near our house. Sometimes I grab my camera and visit a neighborhood park.
Whether I’m feeding the critters, admiring the flowers in our backyard, snapping photos of flora and fauna at the park or strolling along the bike path, experiencing God’s creation with all my senses ranks as one of my favorite activities. Not to mention one of my most effective forms of relaxation and stress relief. (It sure beats arguing with complete strangers about politics on Facebook.)
Immersing myself in nature’s majesty continually reminds me there is an ultimate Creator. As I’ve said before, I find it almost impossible to deny God’s existence when I’m outdoors with the evidence all around me. So, to ward off those nagging doubts that surface from time to time, I try to get outside as much as possible and engage in what has become my most potent form of prayer: Nature prayer.
According to the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, author and editor-at-large of America magazine (link HERE), nature prayer is simply being “attentive to the presence of God in nature.”
For me, this form of prayer doesn’t even necessarily need words. Just looking at the vibrant colors of spring blossoms and fall leaves. Listening to birds singing and cicadas humming. Drinking in the scent of lilacs. Feeling a gentle breeze against my face. Tasting the sweetness of a vine-ripened strawberry.
I’m aware some Christians eye nature prayer with suspicion. Isn’t it too “New Agey?” Too “pagan?” Aren’t we worshipping creation instead of the Creator? Resistance to nature prayer has always baffled me, frankly, because the Bible itself is chock full of passages that extole nature and invite us to immerse ourselves in it, appreciate it and learn from it.
Psalm 19:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”
Luke 12:27 says, “Consider the lilies, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”
Being in nature not only brings us close to God, but can restore us physically and spiritually. The opening verses of the 23rd Psalm affirm, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
Psalm 104:24 exclaims, “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.” In fact, Psalm 104 in its entirety presents one long ode to the natural world – mountains that smoke, melodious birds, wine that gladdens the heart, trees and streams that protect and feed wildlife of all kinds.
Even Jesus found nature conducive to prayer and meditation. After a long day of healing, teaching and preaching to crowds, “he withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed,” says Luke 5:16.
For those interested in pursuing nature prayer from a Christian perspective, the Web site Busted Halo (link HERE) offers suggestions for an “outdoor retreat.” Designed to “deepen our relationship with God and nature,” this retreat has three parts, each involving prayer and reflection – seeing God, listening to God, and breathing in God. To access the retreat guide, click HERE.
As I engage in nature prayer, I sense God speaking to me every bit as directly as God speaks to me while I’m in church or reading the Bible.
When I watch a brilliant sunset dance along the tops of rioting fall leaves, I sense that God loves beauty.
When I watch a hummingbird flit from blossom to blossom sipping nectar while its tiny wings flap 70 times per second, I sense that God wants to inspire awe.
When I observe the more than three dozen varieties of flowers just in my own backyard, I sense that God prefers diversity.
When jonquils poke up through snow, I sense that God encourages us to feel hope. No matter how cold, dark and bleak life may seem, spring will come eventually.
Most importantly, when I’m immersing myself in nature, I understand at the deepest level that we are meant to appreciate and care for God’s creation. Because nature is part of God’s creation and a gift to us, we have an obligation to protect and preserve it.
Sometimes compromise really is the best answer, especially when one’s conflict is with a small animal.
I used to get so frustrated with the squirrels in our backyard because they wouldn’t stay out of the bird feeders. I tried everything to thwart the little trespassers – putting feeders in hard-to-reach places, using safflower seeds (which they’re rumored not to like), and investing in every allegedly-squirrel-proof contraption I could find.
As anyone reading this will probably guess, nothing worked for very long. Squirrels, I discovered, have amazing problem-solving skills. Give them a day or two and they’ll figure out how to overcome every obstacle we place between them and the tasty treats we were hoping would entice cardinals and goldfinches.
One day when I stopped at Wild Birds Unlimited to pick up some goodies for my feathered friends, a photo of a chubby-cheeked squirrel greeted me at the front door along with a sign that read, “Oh go ahead. Feed them too.” Just inside the door sat a display of feeders and a feast prepared especially for them. We could choose from corn on the cob, peanuts in the shell, or a special Wildlife Blend. We could put this bounty in a simple tray feeder or opt for a fancier Squirrel Table and Chair Feeder.
At long last, I decided to enjoy the squirrels instead of fighting them. After all, I’m pretty sure our bushy-tailed buddies never got the memo that all the enticing delicacies were for birds and not for them. Besides, where is it written that we’re supposed to feed birds but not squirrels? Yes, I know they’re rodents, but hey – they’re really kind of cute little acrobats.
I’ve now installed a couple of the tray-style feeders so my furry marauders can sit instead of hanging upside-down while they eat. If they want to …
Both the birds and squirrels love that tray and have even gotten somewhat good at sharing space – except for the blue jays, who dive-bomb squirrels and other birds alike when they decide it’s their turn to eat.
But the jays seem to come later, after the other critters have been gorging for a while, and hey – blue jays are really pretty and they don’t understand memos any better than squirrels do.
Ten inches of wet, heavy snow fell over the weekend, and the forecast predicts more on the way, along with strong winds and frigid temperatures. After being thoroughly spoiled by mild weather for a week or two, we’re back to January in central Illinois. Looks like we won’t sit on our deck grilling brats anytime soon.
I’m definitely a spring and fall person. Spring offers promise – those first green shoots poking up out of the ground, a backyard in bloom, and the vow that this year, I really will stay on top of the weeding. What’s not to love about fall – especially if I ignore the fact that winter follows. Few sights are more gorgeous than a sunset forming the backdrop for rioting brown-orange-yellow-crimson leaves.
But winter? It gets dark in the afternoon. Utility bills go up. Add in cold and flu season. Last year, Pete and I were continuously sick from Thanksgiving to Easter except for a week of respite in late January when my family finally got together for Christmas. After Pete wound up in the hospital with pneumonia, we seriously considered becoming “snowbirds” and moving to Arizona this winter, but the mere thought of the hassle changed our minds.
Why is it that spring rushes by faster than a fire truck with its lights flashing, while the coldest days of January poke along like that driver ahead of us on a 2-lane highway who thinks the speed limit is 35 m.p.h.? Why can’t spring last as long as winter? I know. Technically, winter has 90 days this year, and spring has 92. But regardless of what the calendar says, winter came quite early – with record snowfall before November was half over.
On the other hand, Psalm 118:24 reminds us, “Today is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” I’m pretty darned sure this includes winter days. And since I turned 60, life has begun feeling much too short to wish whole months away. Therefore, I’ve decided I either need to move to a place with a more temperate climate or find some way to stop hating winter.
I haven’t always disliked winter. When I was a small child, my reaction to snow was, “Oh boy! Let’s go sledding! Make snow angels! Build snow forts! Make a snowman! Have a snowball fight!” Making snow angels lost its luster once I reached junior high school age and got vain about how my hair looked, but I still appreciated the “no school” announcement.
Could I possibly learn to like winter again?
Snow is pretty – especially when seen through the picture window in our living room. In early November, snow covering the still-colorful fall leaves created an interesting – and gorgeous – effect.
Bare trees project a certain majesty. Photo of the magnificent tree below was taken at the North Carolina home of cousins Anne and John.
Of course I can better appreciate the beauty of ice-coated branches when the ice stays off sidewalks and doesn’t trigger a power outage.
Snow even adds beauty to dead weeds.
Our Christmas cactus in the sun room only blooms once a year, and that’s in the winter.
Christmas is the one time of year when I can usually count on seeing most of my family. Pete and I have also started a tradition of inviting friends to our house for greens and hoppin’ john (a dish made of black-eyed peas and rice) to help us ring in the New Year. The hoppin’ john and greens are pictured below, right.
I’ve come to think of cold weather as God’s gift to people who need to be inside getting some work done. With 10 inches of snow on the ground and wind chill temperatures below zero, I can clean closets or work on a deadline project without feeling deprived by spending the whole day inside.
Winter weather reminds me of several other things I should be grateful for as well. Not being homeless. Not having a job such as postal carrier that requires me to work outside in sub-zero temperatures. Having a house with a garage, so I don’t need to dig our cars out of a foot of snow. Sixty-degree days in January. Snowdrops and crocuses that start poking their heads up in late February, just as I’m beginning to crawl out of my skin with cabin fever. Bird (and squirrel) watching.
I’m especially grateful for cardinals this time of year. In the middle of all the black-and-white dreariness appear those tiny splashes of brilliant red.
I’ve found it helps to think of winter as hibernation season. Bears do it, so why not me? Time to bundle up under a half-dozen quilts and read an 800-page book. Work on a deadline project and not feel guilty about staying indoors all day. Experiment with soup recipes.
I’ve also started leaving my Christmas decor up long past the time when the holidays are over. The twinkling lights make the room feel warmer and brighter in the mornings, and the winter weather outside doesn’t seem so harsh. They add such cheer to the darkness. This year, I’m keeping the Christmas tree and lights up till Lent.
This morning I had a cat curled up in my lap and a cup of coffee at my side while I did my morning meditation. (I can see why having a warm cuddly pet is good for reducing blood pressure.) Christmas lights blinked cheerfully while I sat in the recliner in front of the fireplace bundled up in a flannel nightgown, yoga pants, hoodie, two pairs of socks and bedroom slippers. (This get-up will not get me featured in a Victoria’s Secret catalog, but it sure is comfy.)
The forecast for this coming weekend predicts a real MESS — a mixture of snow and ice, strong winds and plunging temperatures. But we’ve stocked up on groceries. I’m preparing a casserole dish and some soup to get us through the pair of storms headed our way. And the lights that frame my windows are battery-operated, which means I’ll have a well-lit living room even if the power goes off.
Here’s to staying warm!
Over Thanksgiving weekend, my husband Pete and I went to North Carolina for a long-anticipated visit with some favorite cousins who live near Asheville. Two previous attempts to visit had been foiled – the first time by wildfires burning in the area, and the second time by illness. Maybe, we hoped, the third attempt would be the proverbial charm.
The photo above was taken just as we entered Tennessee. Yes, the sign below points to the “Rocky Top” of bluegrass and country music fame. The town of Rocky Top is just down the road a piece from Pete’s hometown of Norris in the eastern part of the state.
We stopped at a bluff overlooking Norris Dam, one of Pete’s favorite places. From this location, one can observe breathtaking scenery. On the day after Thanksgiving, the mountains were covered with trees still hanging onto their blazing multicolor fall leaves. I got to shoot several photos of the beloved Smokies. So far, so good. We were only a couple hours from our destination.
Then we ate supper at one of our favorite restaurants in the area, and dropped in at a Walgreens pharmacy to check my blood pressure. I had experienced a brief A-fib episode earlier in the day and was still feeling a little bit “off.” Among other things, a blood pressure monitor can detect an irregular heartbeat and I wanted to make sure my heart rate had stabilized. Alas, my blood pressure had skyrocketed and I was promptly sent to the emergency room.
I expected the ER folks would give me some medication to bring my blood pressure under control quickly, then release me. This was the treatment usually offered by my regular doctor at home. Instead, they admitted me to the hospital for an overnight stay and more tests. Needless to say, being in a hospital 500 miles from home was not part of our vacation plans and I began to feel downright surly, especially when there seemed to be no guarantee I would be released the following day either.
We relayed the news of our “detour” to Pete’s cousins. They immediately offered to come visit us at the hospital in Knoxville. Since this visit involved a two-hour drive for them, I resisted the offer at first. But Pete pointed out that a visit from the cousins might possibly set Murphy’s Law in reverse.
So John and Anne, Lise and Nate made the two-hour drive. And sure enough, Murphy’s Law-in-Reverse was activated. No sooner had we posed for the photo below (that’s me in the hospital gown worn over a pair of jeans), the doctor came in and announced that the tests were normal and I was free to leave.
So on we went to North Carolina, where we stayed in a hotel room at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, a beautiful resort tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The mission of the conference center, owned by the United Methodist Church, is “to be a place of Christian hospitality where lives are transformed through renewal of soul, mind and body.”
The folks at the conference center seemed to practice Christian charity as well as hospitality. Although we called after 7 p.m. to let them know we wouldn’t be coming the first night of our reservation (way past the deadline for a cancellation), when they heard my story, they didn’t charge us for that night. My husband and I have stayed at the conference center several times now, and love the place. Below is one breathtaking view, as seen from our hotel room.
In the end, we got to spend two days with our fabulous cousins after all. We enjoyed cousin Anne’s fine cooking on Saturday night. On Sunday, we all piled into their van to take Nate back to his college in Charlotte, where he is studying to be a chef (the school actually offers an entire course on chocolate). Along the way, we stopped at a restaurant and I enjoyed a meal of Cajun-style barbecued salmon. It was delicious and the company was delightful.
As an added treat, I got to visit the horses who live next door to our cousins. When I held out some apple cores, they walked right up to me. If anyone thinks cats and dogs are the only pets who beg for food, they haven’t interacted with horses. These two have begging down to a science.
So I ended up with plenty to be thankful for, after all. I’m especially grateful for our cousins’ visit while I was stuck in a hospital 500 miles from home. They certainly didn’t have to go out of their way like that, especially when they had another all-day trip to make the following day. But they did – and revived my faith that there are plenty of kind and generous people left on the planet.
The frost sadly zapped my annual flowers early this year. But as the saying goes, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.” And the fall leaves, which seem to need a good freeze to get really colorful, are making up for the lost flowers.
Here is the view from my kitchen window in the late afternoon.
The street outside my house.
And the nearby park, which I like to drive through on my way to everywhere, especially this time of year.
Gawking at trees is one of my favorite pastimes.
The seeds and berries are pretty this time of year as well.
As are the leaves that have dropped to the ground.
Some flowers stay colorful and interesting even after the frost has zapped them.
A few perennial flowers have managed to survive the freeze. Love the ones that hang in there!
And here’s the cute kitty who followed me while I was snapping some of my photos. So of course, I need to include her here.
When I’m tempted to doubt God’s existence, all I have to do is go outdoors to set my thinking straight. Our pastor’s monthly newsletter column served as a reminder this past week that I’ve been spending WAY too many hours glued to my computer screen. Time to pay a visit to our church’s rose garden, she said.
The rose garden is one of my favorite places. Tucked in among the roses is a plaque quoting Martin Luther, who seemed to share my perception about God being immanent in all of creation.
The roses are expertly and lovingly tended by two men in our congregation, who created the garden in memory of wives gone much too soon. A wonderful tribute!
With gorgeous fall weather approaching, I’ve also decided it’s time to start going on walks again. An amazing bike trail within a couple blocks of our house means there’s no excuse to stay inside on 70-degree days. Trees line both sides of the trail, and a creek runs alongside, making it almost possible to forget I’m in town.
I also have access to a park just a few more blocks from my house. One of the most attractive features is a carillon (below right), which provides background music while visitors walk or ride their bikes.
This park has an amazing number of paths where I can stroll, meditate and feast my eyes on a huge variety of flowers, shrubs, decorative grasses and native plants of all kinds.
I like to think of the numerous flower beds and native plant displays as God’s eye candy.
Of course, no park is complete without the critters. Park visitors constantly feed bread crumbs to the ducks and geese, which means some are tame enough to let me snap close-up photos and one even walked right up to my camera while I was photographing him.
What I know for sure is that I must tear myself away from my computer and TV screens and spend more time outside this fall!
“God is everywhere and in all creation,” my friend Sara said in response to my last blog post when I shared it on Facebook. “We seek Him when we should just SEE Him.”
Nothing like a stroll in my backyard on a summer morning to confirm what she says. I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels), then feasting my eyes on some flowers. This time of year, all kinds of lovelies are blooming:
And last but not least …
Science has not been able to prove there is a God, but it hasn’t proven there isn’t one either.
Modern science says the universe started with a Big Bang. But if the universe indeed started that way, who or what caused the Big Bang to happen? Who or what created the original matter involved in the Big Bang?
Scientists promote the theory of evolution to explain how life on earth in all its amazing forms developed. But if evolution is indeed a valid concept, who or what created the initial life form that evolved into other life forms?
One geneticist even claims there’s specific gene, VMAT2, that predisposes some people to have spiritual or mystical experiences. But if we have a “God gene,” who or what put it there?
According to astronomers at Ohio State University, the Milky Way contains more than 200 million stars, and there are more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. Science Daily reports that the earth contains more than 8.7 million species of plants, animals and other living organisms. Could all of that have really happened through a coincidental fluke?
I often feel the presence of a God in the changing seasons.
I’ll never forget riding along a thoroughfare through Atlanta one Easter Sunday with my husband and his parents. A profusion of trees and vines bloomed simultaneously: dogwoods, redbuds, wisteria, peach trees. Each side street treated us to a riot of color: white, pink, purple, yellow, red. Nature’s fireworks, I thought. Each time we encountered another side street, we’d say in unison, “Ooo! Ahh!”
In the summer, I can sit in our backyard swing and gaze upon a lush green carpet of grass, interspersed with the vibrant hues of my flower beds. Hummingbirds hang suspended in mid-air, their tiny wings moving so fast they appear to not be moving at all while they sip nectar from bright red bee balm blossoms. Cicadas sing in harmony in the twilight. Fireflies flick their tiny lights on and off. Butterflies flit from bloom to bloom. Life asserts itself even in the face of lingering drought.
I recall taking a twilight walk one beautiful fall day when I suddenly stopped short. Before me stretched a scene that prompted me to gasp. The leaves had turned yellow-brown-orange-crimson, and light from the setting sun bounced off the tops of the trees in even more vivid colors. The sky competed with the leaves for sheer outrageousness, with the sun painting the clouds red, orange, yellow and pink. A still-warm breeze blew across my face. I had to extend my walk by several blocks so I could drink it all in.
Even the winter can be pretty. As I sit in front of the fireplace in my “swaddling clothes” (flannel nightgown, sweatpants and blanket), feeling warm and protected, a delicate coat of snow covers the tree branches. Perched in the middle of the pear tree in our backyard, a pair of cardinals add tiny splashes of color to a black and white landscape. One of my cats settles in my lap, purring loudly as I stroke his fur.
In my mind, Someone or Something had to create all this extravagant seasonal beauty.
I think about the miracle of birth. We start with one cell, then two, then four, then eight. At some point these cells know to differentiate into brain cells, heart cells, blood cells, muscle cells. How do these cells know to do this? If our cells are programmed this way, then who or what programmed them?
I think about the magnificent way our bodies are made. According to the Scientific American Book of the Brain, an adult brain, which weighs about 3 pounds, has more than 100 billion cells. The Franklin Institute says that in an average person’s lifetime, the heart beats more than two and a half billion times, pushing blood through more than 60,000 miles of blood vessels. There are 206 bones in the adult body, according to Wikipedia, including 54 bones in the hands, 52 bones in the feet and 6 tiny bones in our middle ears. According to the Human Genome Project Information Page, a human genome, which carries all of an individual’s DNA, contains anywhere from 20,000 to 25,000 genes.
As Shakespeare declared in Hamlet, “What a piece of work is man!”
“I will praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” says Psalm 139:14.
I see all this as evidence of God.
From the macro (galaxies, endless galaxies) to the micro (human cells, atoms, quarks) – the universe seems too intricate and too perfect for there not to be a Creator of some kind behind it. Logic tells me the original matter involved in the Big Bang and the original life form that evolved into all the life forms we have today had to come from somewhere. Logic tells me Somebody or Something had to create the sheer splendor, beauty and intricate orderliness.
To me, the idea that everything started with a random Big Bang and that life and matter all evolved by chance is more of an intellectual stretch than the idea that there is a Creator behind it all. Who, after all, created all those laws of nature?
Albert Einstein has been quoted as saying, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”
Blaise Pascal said,“If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is. [So] you must wager. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager then without hesitation that he is.”
That’s Pascal’s Wager, and I’m inclined to go with it.
Richard Dawkins, the author of The God Delusion, proclaims himself a “de facto atheist” and writes, “I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.” (I want to ask how something that doesn’t exist can have a gender. But I digress.)
I’d call myself a “de facto theist.” I’m inclined to believe that God exists, and I’ve decided to live my life as if there is a God and life is not absurd, but rich in meaning.