February 2016


One more mountain image, and then we move on…for awhile.

[On my Lenten personal journey, I’m looking through my photo collection and choosing an image-a-day to reflect on and write about. I’m glad you happened by today.]

Here we are, high in the Canadian Rockies. Whistler Mountain in 2012. No way we climbed here. We took a long tramway and a ski lift and did some easy hiking. A couple of days ago I wrote that I had told some youthful hikers that they could appreciate the view all-the-more since they had earned it through the aches and blisters of actually hiking to the summit. Now, at Whistler, my wife and I did no such thing. But we nonetheless gaped with reverence at what we saw around and below us.IMG_0729_edited-1.JPG

Around us, rocky peaks, wild flowers dancing in the heavy mountain breezes, and people, lots of people. In my video of this summit experience, I have a panoramic view of this and nearby peaks, with clear skies and snow covered crests, and there, if one looks closely, is a young man sitting on a jagged ledge — one solitary person, so small in that scene that he would be easy to overlook.

When I slowly zoomed in on that lone figure, I saw he was wearing headphones. What could he possibly be listening to that was more magnificent than the wind? Perhaps it wasn’t that he wanted to hear his music, but that he didn’t want to hear the noise of the crowds who made their way up and down Whistler’s paths, with kids’ shouts and laughing youths, the occasional parental call to caution along some hazardous pathway.

In this photo, the foreground includes that decidedly unnatural pile of rocks, a cairn. Originally, I suppose, cairns were erected as memorials or to mark a special place along the way, but the many stones we found here were more playfully stacked. This is a small version of a huge inukshuk nearby, the largest one standing perhaps over 25 feet high. Rooted in the Inuit culture, this formation has become a symbol of peace and friendship in Canada, this human figure with outstretched arms. (The one in this photo is a bit squat, maybe 18 inches tall, and the human form isn’t easily seen here!)

Some may see any cairn as an interruption of nature’s own beauty; others enjoy the delight of the formations, knowing that rarely would anyone build a cairn without smiling at the finish.

And then there is in this picture a view downward.  Look, way in the distance there’s that lake amid the green forested valley. There’s no sign of another human being in all that the lens has taken in. But you know they are there. Camping, sailing, fishing, working, living and dying…there. We just can’t see them. I don’t know: is there a village or a settlement amid the greenery? A tour bus along the road? A rafting expedition on the river? The cairn keeps its silent watch.

If that cairn is a bit of blight that mars nature’s wild and wonder-filled landscape, imagine the damage done by humans to the whole ecological balance of that one summit view from the peak. This looks pristine enough, but we can’t see ugly details from such a distance. From space, zoom out from the Rockies and pan over to major cities, zoom onto coastal areas, scan clear cut hills, and zoom into coal fields. I may be a person of faith, but I also respect the science that says the planet is at risk. That is one thing that theology and science have in common (among others): we are not being good stewards of “Mother the Earth” and “Father the Sky.”

If I had any guts, I’d have shouted from the highest peak, “Repent!” I mean, just the echo would have been awesome, right?

Almost finished. But referring back to that guy with the headphones? I imagine his listening to my favorite Dan Fogelberg song “Nether Lands.”

“High on this mountain, the clouds down below; I’m feeling so strong and alive. From this rocky perch I’ll continue the search for the wind, and the snow, and sky…” He has a vision of two roads, one leading to simple acceptance of life; the other road offering sweet peace. The song ends with the lines, “When I made my decision, my vision became my release.”

He never reveals the path he took. We must choose our own.

And it’s time to leave the mountaintop.

 

 

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Today’s image, among the forty I’m choosing from my vast array of photos taken from my teen years ’til today, continues a short theme for this series: mountains. Yesterday I wrote of following blazes as a hiker. Today, a peak I’ll never attempt.

This is Denali, the highest peak in North America. On our first trip to Alaska, the weather was overcast most of the time, and on one particularly gray day we joked that we’d have to go back to Alaska again sometime to see its beauty in color. 380-1_edited-1

It was 2006, and as our guide drove us toward Denali (even then we heard no one refer to it as “Mt. McKinley”), he noted the clearing skies and told us that the majority of tours he led wouldn’t get a clear view of the mountain during that time of year. But it looked like we were in for a treat, he remarked. A “treat?” It was far more.

I know that the overused adjective that modifies the word mountain is “majestic,” and that one could say this was a breathtaking view, or we could go back to my earliest of these forty essays and apply “awesome” to this scene. Maybe it’s best to just let the image, flat and tiny as it is here, communicate the wonder that is Denali.

While in the area, we heard a climber describe  all it takes to get to Denali’s peak. The physical prep, the training, the equipment, the team…commitment, determination, trust, endurance, obviously a high degree of climbing skill, weather-watching, and even some luck — all contributed to his successful climbs.

Personally, I added all that to the list of things I would never put on my bucket list (along with deep sea diving and sky diving). But I admired the combination of bravery and foolishness that got that guy from the base to the summit. Good for him.

As for me: gape, wonder, focus, and take a few slides to preserve the moments.

I’ll spare you the meditation on mountaintop experiences in life. But I am led to think (and write) a little about what mountains meant to the life and ministry of Jesus. Oh, compared to Denali, the mountains Jesus is said to have climbed were mere hills. But they afforded him “retreat” from needy, pushing crowds, away from often dull-minded disciples and suspicious religious leaders. He knew that the occasional escape from the busy-ness of ministry would do his spirit good.

Mountains in those days were seen as holy places, for they were closer to heaven than the dusty roads and everyday routines of the low lands. Today it’s mostly cartoons that picture pilgrims climbing mountains to find the meaning of life from some “holy man” at the peak. In his time, Jesus made it clear that God preferred no particular mountain as a sacred place for worship.

There are several references in the gospels to Jesus heading up this mountain or that, “withdrawing” not to be closer to God, but to be alone, to pray, to meditate. The mountain trek provided fresh air and new vistas. Sometimes, he’d invite friends along, but that was to give them time to breathe too. Look how such higher vistas play into his story: the sermon on the mount, his transfiguration, the Mount of Olives, and, the story we hear as Lent begins of that vision where he is taken up on a high mountain to survey what might be his if he would but worship his tempter.

Yeah, I’d say that Jesus was a mountain man! But, no. On second thought, the mountains were only temporary havens to which he withdrew. He didn’t put down roots there and then withdraw into the valleys to serve for a time. The fresh air, the quiet, the solitude, the vistas of the mountains and hills empowered his ministry back in the valley villages and the lower lands we now call “holy.” The main thing is that those higher elevations had high purposes for him and his work down below.

Today, then, we have lifted our eyes to the hills…and on Monday (after tomorrow’s Sabbath) we will see the view from the summit. And breathe deeply of creation’s, well, “majesty.”

 

 

 

 

For the next couple of days, I want to celebrate mountaintop experiences. Choosing a handful of images for this Lenten discipline of mine, a photo or slide for each day in Lent (2016) from a sixty-year accumulation, is hard when it comes to my scores of mountain views.

From journeys along the Appalachian Trail, to our Alaskan trips, to the Canadian Rockies, and to Lookout Mountain over Montreat…some Matt Matthews on the AT_edited-2.jpgmountains I’ve climbed, some I’ve just framed in my viewfinder. Today, I thought I’d start with this image of my good friend Matt. This hike was so many years ago, I can’t tell you where we were, except it was in the heart of the Blue Ridge in Virginia.  I do remember gently chastising Matt about his “hiking shoes” though. Old sneakers? Really? Turns out, his youthful energy bested my hiking-booted aging body, and he bounded ahead of me up one switchback after another.

Hiking the AT, even for just a day or two, can be both hard work and exhilarating. Climbing can be a challenge, yes, but the views, only hinted at in this picture, make every blister worth it. I’ve climbed with many youth groups (admittedly not recently, mind you) and I always encouraged the teens to spend some quiet time at every summit they reach.

I’d say something like, if a helicopter had flown up here and dropped you off, the view would be exactly the same. But you all struggled your way here, you followed a trail that was sometimes rocky and steep and you wanted to stop and rest, but we had to push you to keep going. You got scratches and blisters and you’re achy and maybe cranky, and your packs seem so much heavier than when we started. But look what you’ve achieved! Just look! No one can appreciate this view like someone who has earned it! So, let’s spend some time here before we head down. Rest awhile. Find your own spot if you want, and say a prayer, marvel at all you can see, respect the mountain and its gifts. Look down into the valley and find the river.

One thing that makes these treks easier is the blazes that guide us along the way. Learning what the various markers mean is simple. Then you just keep your eyes open to them as you go. Now and then, a marked tree has fallen or a blaze has been obscured, but for the most part it’s hard not to find your way if you watch for the guides.

I’m smiling as I remember a “talk” (that’s the quaint word we used back then) by an upper class student in college, a short meditation he was leading at a Christian fellowship meeting. Here it is over fifty years later, and I can still hear George’s voice as he exclaimed over the importance of the “white markers” along hiking trails, and he used them as a metaphor for life’s journey. George urged us to watch for the markers placed by God along our paths in college, in social relationships, and in moral decision-making.

I was pretty impressed by his “talk.” And only decades later did it occur that he may have gotten the idea from some Christian resource for campus fellowship leaders. Still, George’s guidance was useful then and remains so, all these years later.

For one thing, those blazes along the trail were put there by people who had gone before us, and who knew the best way to go. And the blazes marked well-worn paths that had kept others from getting  lost. Further, the markings on trees and rock formations had to be kept fresh, repainted now and then, for future hikers.

I realize as I type this that GPS may make those primitive blazes obsolete. Oh, I hope not. Because there’s a lot to be said for hiking along the trails and looking closely at the rocks and trees and formations and footpaths of nature, not at some damned gizmo’s screen. Keep looking at your phone as you traverse the trail, and you may find yourself tripping over a root, or falling into a deep ravine. To me, the whole point of being on a hike is to appreciate the wonders of nature. And experience the quiet beauty of peaks and valleys.

More about that tomorrow…

 

 

Another day in Lent, another photo from my files, and another reflection. This time, the desert.

I had to be careful that I didn’t type dessert. That image would have been much more appealing. The sweet, luscious, delectable conclusion to a meal. Something chocolate. Chock full of calories.

Whenever I think of desserts during Lent, two occasions come to mind. I once spoke at an Episcopal church at their Lenten  mid-week program. We began with dinner, but no dessert. They had given up desserts for Lent. I still remember how disappointed I was. And then there was the movie we went to a couple of years later: “Chocolat.” It told the story of the opening of a confectionary shop in a French town (the specialty was chocolate, of course), and it was Lent. Church vs. chocolate.

Isn’t dessert the opposite of desert? One thing is mouth-watering and appealing; the other is sere and threatening.

Before you saw today’s photo, what image did the word desert prompt? Hot, dry expanses of yellow sands? Death Valley? A barren landscape with only the occasional cactus in view? The derivation of the word desert includes the idea of being forsaken. It is a wasteland. The scriptures say that Jesus had been led (or driven!) by the Spirit into “the wilderness.” And in that deserted place, he spent forty days, without groceries or human company. Certainly no desserts.

But then there is this: the Painted Desert in 892-1Arizona. Stunning. Absolutely stunning. Wondrous, and enchanting. But still a wasteland. There are specks of greenery that persist there. But there are also ancient remnants of what once was alive, but now is the Petrified Forest.

While majestic to the eye, this might still be a dangerous place to be lost, if it were not the U.S Parks Service. When we were there wandering the desert floor, wondering at the natural beauty and wide expanse of the place, we saw only three or four other explorers. For much of the time, we were alone there. But we knew the borrowed RAV4 was nearby, and we carried water with us, and we were not afraid since we were never far from trails and markers. But still. Imagine.

Once when my son Jim and I were backpacking along the Appalachian Trail, the spring we had counted on for refilling our canteens had run dry, and we still had some miles to go. We rationed, but knowing that we were near a rendezvous point where our ride would meet us, we finished our water. And then the car didn’t come. The longer we waited, the more I began to worry. The thirstier I got. This wasn’t a desert, of course, but it was close to being a wilderness. Especially if the car had never shown. (After a delay, it did arrive, and a few feet down the road, we passed a home with a hose laying there in the yard. We weren’t that desperate.)

Every life involves wilderness trails and desert trials. Times of abandonment. Emptiness. Gnawing anxiety or sudden panic. And few if any resources within reach. We are all tested. And there is nothing beautiful about it. Until we are saved. Rescued. Sometimes, we just find our own way home, to the un-wasteland, that is, the welcoming place, a bountiful table of love, grace, acceptance, and peace. Other times, we find an outstretched hand and thank God for compassionate friends, or angels.

Desolate or breathtakingly beautiful, there is the desert in our sojourn. Whether it threatens or beckons, there we are.

And there’s Jesus, led there, driven, sent, but there! Does that sound too pious coming from me? I can’t help it; I have to believe it.

I’ll take pious over petrified anytime.

[Oh, just for the fun of it, did you know that the derivation of the word dessert (as in chocolate pudding topped with fresh whipped cream) comes from the French, and means something like “clearing the table?” Maybe like making the table into an empty place, a desert in the dining room? I love this language stuff.]

 

 

 

I can’t help it. I played contemporary hits on the radio for at least 25 years, so when a word, issue, topic, or image comes to mind, so does a song. And the image and song today suggest clarity.

The image is a reflection in a window in Berlin. With all there was to see in that fascinating city, this window happened to catch my eye as we walked. The curved glass, the objects inside the window and the reflections on the outsidDSC01126.JPGe — I took a chance, aimed, and focused and got it. (You understand the risk? Taking a picture through someone’s window? Yikes!)

Doesn’t the result look like a painting? I love this image. It was my PC’s “wallpaper” for a long time. Here are layers of color, hints of shapes, reflections of buildings, but none of it particularly in focus, except the frame. The subject is distorted by the shape of the window glass. Yet, even without clarity, isn’t there beauty to appreciate? Aren’t there several stories we could tell? We don’t always need things to be mirror-sharp, do we?

We live much of our lives without clarity. We are left wondering. We encounter mystery. We wrestle with choices. We make leaps of faith. Clarity is preferred most of the time, I guess. But we must learn to live without it, too. We can cope with ambiguity, live with the opaque now and then.

What was Jesus doing in the wilderness for forty days? Seeking clarity? Or, learning to embrace the mystery?

Oh, and the song I mentioned earlier? Maybe it’s already occurred to you. “I Can See Clearly Now.” That Johnny Nash lyric (also recorded by Jimmy Cliff) says, “…the rain is gone.” The windows are clear, and I can focus now and see what there is to see. Yes, there is a time for clarity. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Now we see things imperfectly as in a poor mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity.” (NLT) Or face to face, as the traditional translations put it.

Life isn’t perfect (yet); but there is still beauty to behold, if we keep our eyes open and let it surprise us. Like that window along a Berlin street on what was a “bright, sun-shiny day.”

 

Another day in the forty of Lent (2016), and another photo from the thousands I’ve taken since childhood. This one is the city clock in Rouen, France.

Quite naturally, looking at such a clock, any clock, time comes to mind.

There are so many ways to go with this topic! But I don’t have time to cover them all. In fact, I didn’t even have time to write this daily reflection this morning; thus I write in midafternoon,DSC02568.JPG working a bit late.

There  was a time –  for example when this clock was crafted in the fourteenth century (the movement dates to 1389 and the current façade to 1529) – that there was only one clock in town, mounted high above so that everyone could keep track of time. When the church I served in upstate New York was built (c. 1850), its steeple held the town clock, and for generations, the town paid the church a modest rent for its upkeep. These days, public clocks still exist, of course, but the newer ones are digital and flash the temperature as well. No, not as wondrous as the one pictured here.

When I was growing up, everyone wore wristwatches. Dad had his Benrus from his Army days, Mom her little Bulova, and I my Hopalong Cassidy watch. I rarely remembered to wind it, so as a timepiece is wasn’t very reliable, but as a kid, I didn’t have to worry about time much anyway. Mom was the alarm clock, the school bells marked the hours, and Dad announced bedtime. Hopalong Cassidy just looked cool to my second grade mind.

To paraphrase 1 Corinthians 13, when I became a (young) man, I put an end to childish timekeeping, having lost the cowboy watch, and now winding a Timex every morning because time had become more important, and I had to know where the hours would find me. School, first job, activities with friends, meals. And when high school was over, a well-to-do cousin of my Dad’s gave $100 to each family member who was graduating so we could buy a “good” watch. I bought a Gruen. (More than 50 years later, it still keeps nearly perfect time….if I keep it wound.)

It’s said that people today don’t bother with watches. Their smartphones are their timepieces. Like old pocket watches, they are pulled out and glanced at when one needs to know the time. No winding.

It’s time now to make a connection with Lent. Lent is a time-limited season of forty 24-hour time periods. A good Lenten practice might be to consider the way we spend/use/waste/value the time we have. How might we carve out a bit more time for others? Or, for ourselves? For meeting some need or being present with someone who craves companionship. For “devotional time,” or gathering in community for worship or study, that is, making time for the God who gives us the time of our lives.

I must confess that I have never managed my time very well. As a procrastinator, as one whose use of time is often prodigal, as one who barely makes deadlines, I’m the last one who should give advice about time. Thus, I like what Thomas Moore said of time: It does no good to think moralistically about how much time we waste. Wasted time is usually good soul time.” Maybe that redeems the time I have lost.

I have always liked the song by Chicago, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” Check the town clock, look on your wrist, or look at that smartphone screen. From nanoseconds to eons, here is the gift of time for us.

Let’s make good use of it; we don’t have forever.

 

[I continue to write Lenten reflections based on my collection of photos taken since I was a young teen.]

This slide from 1968 shows the pier in Dunedin, Florida at sunset. I took the photo when I was a summer intern at First Presbyterian Church there. I remember it as a stressful summer, youth ministry for which I was ill-prepared. It waDunedin Sunset.jpgs healing then to end many Dunedin days by walking over to the pier to watch the sunset.

I chose solitude as the theme today not because I walked there alone; Joan and I spent those romantic evenings very much together, hand-in-hand. But as I have looked at this view through the years, I see  something I didn’t notice when I “snapped the shutter.”

The sunset is lovely, and the boat heading in adds some interest. And there are some people on the pier. Wait. There are couples on the pier. Except for that one guy on the end. Alone.

Leaning on the railing, watching the boat, waiting for the sun to disappear on the horizon…in solitude. We could make up all kinds of stories about why he’s there alone. An evening ritual? Is he shedding the stress of his day? Is he missing someone he loves, or loved? Is he meditating or praying?

I mentioned that he was alone. He isn’t though, is he? There are perhaps eight other companions on the pier. (I think that closest to him there may be a couple sitting on a bench.) But while not alone, he is definitely in solitude. I wonder if he is more than content with that…or, is he terribly lonely?

I’m remembering a jazz instrumental by guitarist Larry Carlton: “Alone/But Never Alone.” Its contemplative tone suggests a promise of God’s faithfulness, not exactly a leap here: the same album included an exquisite solo version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” We may be physically apart from other people, or just feel alone. We may feel cut off from God, but, as Carlton’s title and the canon of Holy Scripture assure us, we are never truly alone.

Even Albert Woodfox, locked in solitary confinement in a Louisiana prison for 43 years, (one of the so-called “Angola Three”) was not alone. I don’t know enough of his story to know whether he knew that, but I know it. Was he lonely? Of course. Was he alone? Depends on his/our theology.

But enough about aloneness/loneliness. There is this other word, solitude. I think of walking a quiet neighborhood street alone with my thoughts. A good thing. I consider a monk’s retreat from his/her community, moving into a hermitage for time alone (but never alone). A good thing. I imagine Jesus in the solitary confinement of the wilderness for forty days. Turned out to be a good thing, beasts and temptations aside. Or Jesus on the cross, not far from beloved family and friends, taunting soldiers, a condemned man hanging between tortured thieves. Jesus surrounded, but in solitude (with his psalms, thirsty and forsaken). A Good Friday thing.

In solitude we deal with our temptations, our failures, our forsakenness, and (may as well say it) our sins. But it is also in solitude that a voice says, “Be still, and know that I am God.” It is in solitude that we can pray with Richard of Chichester (1197-1253), “May I see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day.”

Consider this in your own solitude sometime. It’s from Thomas Merton, who, as a Trappist monk, knew the solitude of the hermitage. “My only task is to be what I am, a man seeking God in silence and solitude, with respect for the demands and realities of his own vocation, and fully aware that others too are seeking the truth in their own way.”

As an introvert, I do value solitude as a spiritual gift. But even the most extroverted among us must carve out some time to be alone/but not alone. Quiet the heart. Settle the spirit. Breathe in the silence. Seek the truth. Watch the sunset — or the sunrise — by one’s self, not always, but  now and then.

It is in solitude that peace is most likely to find us.

 

 

 

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