Monthly Archives: July 2014

Pondering the Question of Identity in the Badlands, Part 2

 

When I am in the Badlands, I can think.  I can breathe.  There is space.

This wide-open big-sky environment in South Dakota is fertile ground for unhurried pondering about life. I noted last week in Part 1 that on this trip the question of identity was a subject of much contemplation. Thoughts about how I get my identity. And what exactly that identity is. Do I create it? Can I make it whatever I wish it to be? Is it this fresh reengagement with my photographic career that will ground my identity into solidity? What about the identity that comes from family? Or friends? And the familiar haunting thought of performance: surely my identity must be largely based on how I perform in this life? Some semblance of success must factor in, right?

 

The wrinkles and folds of certain section of the Badlands make for fascinating abstract compositions

The wrinkles and folds of this section of Badlands make for fascinating abstract compositions

 

But these ponderous wonderings did not inhibit successful wandering and image making in the spectacularly rugged Badlands. The patterns, shapes, color, and tones grabbed my eye at most every turn, and I took great pleasure in composing some of the more abstract images. At other places along the main scenic road views opened up into mini valleys ringed with jagged little peaks, and at this time of year splashed with the lush color of sweet yellow clover.

 

One of my favorite views in Badlands National Park looking into a tiny valley lush in early summer

One of my favorite views in Badlands National Park looking into a tiny valley lush in early summer

 

A telephoto lens is used to zoom in on an abstract view of a colorful hill in the Badlands

A telephoto lens is used to zoom in on an abstract view of a colorful hill in the Badlands

 

As afternoon turned into evening, the softer warmer light photographers crave began to give even more pleasing shape to this land. Unsure of where I would end up for last light and feeling the tension that accompanies a landscape photographer’s desperate search for a good composition, I drove back and forth on the scenic loop and prayed for God to open my eyes to his beauty, to lead me to a spot where I could see and taste his glory and capture it well. Eyes peeled for a compelling view, I came across a close badlands hill that I thought might give the height needed for a decent angle on the other side, and I pulled over to check it out. I walked back the 30 yards without my camera to see the potential and was about to put boot prints into the soil when suddenly my eyes were opened to the beauty of that little hill full of texture and enhanced by warm side lighting. Immediately I realized this mound would not be a mere footstool for a better view, but was in fact the focal point of the composition itself! With the glee that floods over me in these moments when I’ve found something aesthetically pleasing, I ran back to the truck to fetch the pack and tripod and got back to the mound as fast as my aging body would allow. I rushed to set up the shot before the waning light disappeared behind clouds at the western horizon, and everything came together wonderfully through the viewfinder. Yes, I thought, God is so faithful and sovereign even over the seemingly small stuff in our lives, to direct and guide and reveal.

 

The last light of day falls across a grand view of textured hills in the Badlands, South Dakota

The last light of day falls across a grand view of textured hills in the Badlands, South Dakota

 

Now on my last day of shooting I drove around a curve and suddenly jerked the truck over to the righthand shoulder to park as I saw multiple cars and people stopped and figured there was local wildlife to see. The camera came out when I saw an adult Bighorn sheep standing on the ridge next to the road. After a few snaps I turned around and there was a baby Bighorn lamb resting in the shade on this hot summer day, set in a rugged section of the Badlands. It felt amazing to witness this little creature and make a few images, but it was not until days later that I realized the significance of the symbolism therein. After my good friend Slavomir noted the Biblical theme apparent to him, and after dwelling further on the topic of identity for writing this post, the picture of the innocent little lamb in a rugged wilderness became for me a visual exclamation point to set off the words I closed the Part 1 post with, a sentence God placed in my mind last week:

Is your identity based on your accomplishments?  Or is it based on the One who already accomplished everything for you?

 

A Bighorn lamb rests in the shade of a rugged ridge at Badlands National Park, SD

A Bighorn lamb rests in the shade of a rugged ridge at Badlands National Park, SD

 

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:20b, ESV)

Now I saw visually in the image of that Bighorn lamb the constantly needed reminder that this One, the tender and spotless Lamb of God, has graciously given me the only foundational identity worth basing this life, and eternity, on. Christ on the cross once for all accomplished everything for me for and all who believe, a lavish gift granted by grace through faith.  Because of his performance, rather than scrape and claw trying to build an earthly identity for myself, I can learn to rest in the identity assigned to me by Jesus: a child of God born into a new heavenly family, fully accepted and forgiven for all time, eternally loved by the Father and Son and empowered to live by the indwelling Spirit, a member of Christ’s body united worldwide with all who call on his name.

Family and friends still matter. Vocation is still important. Seeking excellence in what I’m called to do is still honorable. But when I intentionally preach the truth to myself of my new identity in Christ, given to me by grace, then I don’t have to make these other things foundational (and stressful). I can enjoy family and work without feeling desperate for those good things to give me my prime identity.  Child of the King is quite enough identity to stand on!  To meditate on this truth gives the freedom to go out and love and work and risk in this world without the debilitating fear of performance failure.

What about you, readers? Do you ever wonder about who you truly are? About what in this brief life grounds your personhood? Gives you meaning? And purpose? What are your thoughts about where your own identity rests? What do you see as your true foundation? I so welcome your sharing in the comments!

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Pondering the Question of Identity in the Badlands, Part 1

 

Last month I hit the road in my truck and camper from my home in Tampa, Florida to begin a 5-month excursion across the West to photograph the beauty of the landscape wherever it calls to me. First stop on the journey was a visit with my wife’s sister Lori and her family in Ohio. My wife flew in for a week there and I expected to continue heading west right after she returned home to Tampa, but I delayed leaving Ohio first one day, then another, and before I knew it I had stayed on a full extra week with my sister-in-law and her family without my wife there. As each day passed I found myself connecting more and more with Lori, her husband, all their kids, and even some of their friends and the local community itself. And then I began to think over the question of identity: who I think I am and exactly how I identify myself, thoughts of lacking family identity and connection after transplanting from Seattle to Florida a year ago (and from not having children of my own), how Lori’s family seemed to have that natural sense of identity that comes from having your role in a large family unit. I yearned to be more rooted and to have a greater sense of belonging.

 

Evening sun highlights yellow sweet clover coloring the valleys of the Badlands in South Dakota

Evening sun highlights yellow sweet clover coloring the valleys of the Badlands in South Dakota

 

With this rumination on identity rattling around in my head I finally pulled myself away from the warm confines of family and set sights on the first planned photographic destination – Badlands National Park in South Dakota. This place has been special to me since my first visit with my wife in 2008 and this would be my fourth trip. It’s a rugged beauty of mostly gray and tan badland formations, but in early summer lush grasses break up the starkness and add another layer of beauty. It’s a land of big open sky, fresh breezes, frequent afternoon thunderheads, a meeting place with the prairie, and it’s own collection of wildlife such as bison, bighorn sheep, and prairie dogs.

 

A curious prairie dog perks up at the arrival of human visitors in the Badlands

A curious prairie dog perks up at the arrival of human visitors in the Badlands

 

While scouting and making images in this unique section of South Dakota I was frequently filled with awe at the glory of the Creator pouring forth. Nothing humbles me more, nor brings me more childlike joy, then to be flooded with the grace of God all around me in a stunning location carved out by his powerful artistry. In these moments my heart joins the writer of Psalm 92:4 :

For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work;
at the works of your hands I sing for joy. 

 

Soft warm light at dusk gives shape to patterns and lines in the Badlands

Soft warm light at dusk gives shape to patterns and lines in the Badlands

 

And in the midst of all this majesty, as I was fully engaging in the work of being a photographic artist for God’s glory after some years of doubt and fear, I began pondering questions of identity once again: is this what defines me? Can this vocation provide meaning? Will my identity in this life become more rooted, more fulfilling, if I find some semblance of success as a landscape photographer?

As a follower of Christ, his words in Scripture have much I need to hear over and over again to untangle the internal struggle with identity that has dogged me for so long, and I’ll explore that in part 2 next week.  I hope then to unpack the ramifications of a thought the Lord placed in my mind just yesterday:

Is your identity based on your accomplishments?  Or is it based on the One who already accomplished everything for you?

 

Jagged peaks are silhouetted against a colorful sunset sky in Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Jagged peaks are silhouetted against a colorful sunset sky in Badlands National Park, SD

 


The Granting of Vision in the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

In my previous post I described the inner conflict that clouded my mind on the first day of a photographic trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and how God graciously manifested his glory through that. On the second day in the Blue Ridge, there was to be no conflict at all.

I began day two still basking in the warmth of the grace shown the day before, once again reviewing the previous evening’s images on the camera LCD screen and feeling humbled by and thankful for God’s provision, both spiritual and photographic.

Incidentally, a leisurely start to this day meant breakfast turned into an early lunch at a spectacular barbecue joint in Asheville, North Carolina, called 12 Bones. If you get to Asheville you will want to make time for a stop here 🙂

Fortified by the hearty meal I drove back up the winding scenic Parkway into the lush spring hills. My mind rode a steady wave of peace, freshly aware of how our Heavenly Father cares for us through every detail of each day. Coming around a bend to a pullout I was struck by a sublime view of impossibly green layers of lovely hills. Being well past morning the light was not as soft as I prefer but I decided to stop and attempt a composition. As I was setting up the tripod I drank in the intoxicating aromas of spring blossoms and delighted to the sound of birds singing throughout the forest. Then one of my favorite mid-day conditions occurred when puffy clouds floating high over the landscape cast appealing shadows across parts of the hills, and now suddenly the light was aesthetically pleasing. I was able to expose a few images before the clouds moved on.

 

Layers of lush green Blue Ridge hills in springtime near Asheville, North Carolina

Layers of lush green Blue Ridge hills in springtime near Asheville, North Carolina

 

After making this satisfying composition and returning to the drive up the Parkway, my heart filled with God’s majesty pouring forth from this place, the Lord confirmed deep down in my inner man that he has called me to be a photographic artist for his glory, to worship in this work, and then share his greatness as Creator with others through a blog. And in that moment the Spirit was very specific, impressing powerfully on the deepest place in my mind, ‘do not delay any further in engaging this work I have allotted to you.’ I have sensed God’s prompting to pursue this work may times in past years, but somehow I understood this was different, it was a point of release and confirmation. All I could do was respond with awe and trembling and many joyful tears, and then shouts of praise to our God as I drove along. I knew clearly from this point on there would be no more procrastination, that it was time to leave behind the fears and excuses and dive fully into living a life of proclaiming the glory of our great God in the way he designed me to do it.

The remainder of the day was peaceful image-making under the providential hand of my Heavenly Father, with the discovery of a group of trees filled with character in their curving branches, next to a superb waterfall cascading across golden colored rock that provided a couple hours of joyful photographic work in total solitude.

 

Trees full of character grace the landscape along the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway

Trees full of character grace the landscape along the southern portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway

 

The abundance of creation glory singing loudly on this day had me meditating on what happens to my spirit when I am out in God’s world engaging with his beauty. I realized that when I put myself in the path of his excellence in this world he crafted, two main things start happening: first, I am reminded who God is. And second, I am reminded who I am.

More specifically, out in creation I am reminded in a palpable experiential way with all my senses that it is God who made everything, that it is he who commands and sustains the universe every moment, that his divine power and beauty and creativity have no equal. I am in awe as I perceive the reality that he truly is CREATOR and deserving of all worship.

And then I perceive in a fresh light the fact that I am but a mere creature.  I am not God! (though I try hard to be many times). I am not the one with power. I am finite. Broken. Most definitely not holy.

I am humbled before an awesome God.

My thoughts then turn to the desperate need for someone to stand in for me as a mediator before this almighty perfect eternal holy God, someone who can forgive my sin and make me right with the Creator who has every right to destroy me because I fall so short of his glory in my wilfully rebellious state. And in this pondering my heart is turned once more to this very one revealed in the Bible who has indeed already stood up for me and for all who will believe, who has paid the ultimate price for all that is ugly within me as he was tortured and strung up on a cross, whose perfect life is now credited to me by his grace through the gift of faith so that I am shockingly declared ‘not guilty!’, and who now sits at the right hand of his Father ruling as King over all creation: the perfect God-man Jesus Christ.

So we praise God for the glorious grace he has poured out on us who belong to his dear Son. He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins.” (Ephesians 1:6-7, New Living Translation)

 

Second Falls on the Yellowstone Prong flow gracefully over golden rock in a mile-high valley

Second Falls on the Yellowstone Prong flows gracefully over golden rock in a mile-high valley

 

How about you dear reader – how does creation speak to you? What messages do you hear when you see God’s glory pouring forth in the everyday beauty of our world? I invite you to share your own thoughts and experiences in the comments.


The Granting of Grace in the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

Blue Ridge Mountains dappled in evening light in springtime

Blue Ridge Mountains dappled in evening light in springtime

 

I felt like an alien.

It made no rational sense. I certainly bore the same essential form as the rest of the human beings I saw. I still lived in the good ol’ USA, not on another planet nor in some foreign country with its multitude of language and cultural barriers. But I could not fully shake this sense of alienation, after moving to Florida a year ago from the Northwest where I was born and spent all 47 years of life up to that point.

And so it was with this deep unsettledness weighing me down that I drove north from Tampa, FL in May and approached the Blue Ridge Mountains and Great Smoky Mountains National Park, seeking to test a new medium format digital camera system I had just switched to and hoping to reinvigorate my landscape photography. But with my mind and emotions consumed by this strange feeling of isolation I was not in a good place and I knew this threatened any possibility for a successful shoot.

As I entered the Smoky Mountains it seemed my photographic vision was dead. I was scraping up whatever inspiration may be left at the bottom of the barrel but found precious little. Intellectually I knew I was in an amazing place that should be full of God’s glory, but I was numb to it. The ongoing anxieties from having uprooted and moved cross-country were talking loudly and drowning out the whispers of truth that I needed to listen to. And then another fear joined the party, an old acquaintance who always mocks like a broken record with the same tired lines – ‘you’ve lost your ability to see and create, you’re finished as a photographic artist.’

About this time I began to realize just how utterly dependent I was on the pure grace of God every single day for life, for breath, for the ability to think clearly and truthfully, for any possibility of having eyes to see my Creator’s majesty and a heart of thankfulness, for the ability to respond to his glory with worshipful and joyful work. So with a freshened sense of my own frailty and brokenness I poured out my prayers to the Father. I pleaded for mercy. I asked for his grace to combat the weightiness of fear, to lift my head above my inward self-gaze, to be reminded of the greatness of God and his sovereign love and care for me.

My heart continued opening to the Lord in childlike dependance as I drove out of Smoky Mountain N.P. photographically empty-handed and began the drive at the southernmost end of the Blue Ridge Parkway. Then it happened. Slowly at first, but with gathering speed:  the landscape of fresh spring hardwood forests, rolling hills, and softening late afternoon light began speaking to my heart. Soon I had the big Pentax 40-megapixel camera out on the tripod making the first composition of the trip, as sunlight painted highlights across the top of ridges. Back in the truck I rounded another corner and was stopped in my tracks by the delicacy of a lone blossoming tree in the midst of an old graying forest.

 

Blue Ridge Spring Forest

 

Finally, as evening settled over this part of North Carolina, I ended up at the highest point of the Parkway, an overlook at 6,053 feet. As the sun began to dip behind the hazy blue mountains I used a telephoto lens to zero in on the stacked layers of peaks with big ball of sun, and exposed several frames.  Reviewing the image just captured, my heart glowed as warmly as the camera’s LCD screen and I basked in the bountiful grace God had once again poured out on this broken undeserving man. The Creator had opened my eyes and heart to the glory of his handiwork in this region. But his glory shone even brighter in the way he broke through my clouded mind with his powerful love, his spirit bringing comfort in my alienated state. He has reminded me today as I write:  “you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Ephesians 2:19 ESV).

 

Blue Ridge Sunset


First Things First

 

How to begin?

The idea for this blog has been percolating for some years now. Finally sitting down to attempt writing the first post, I am overwhelmed by a hundred questions banging around in my head, the nagging noise of fear, confusion, doubt, and much resistance. Then the words of a dear friend in email bring me back to what the focus is all about, and I know now how to begin…

It’s all about the glory of God.

 

Mesa Arch glows from reflected light at sunrise in Canyonlands National Park, UT

On the short hike in the dark of early morning to Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, it’s difficult to imagine the glory that awaits.  Arriving at the expansive span before sunrise, with the view of the Washer Woman formation,  the pulse quickens.  But it’s about 15 minutes after the sun has risen, when bright sunlight hitting the red rock below bounces up to set Mesa Arch’s belly glowing in fiery reflected light, that your jaw drops in awe of the spectacle you are witnessing.

 

To place myself in the path of God’s glory, have my eyes opened to it, and drink deeply of it, has become my passion and life pursuit as a Christian and photographer of the landscape. But it was not always so. Most of my years have been spent desperate to find some small glory for myself, clinging to the approval of people, striving for performance-based acceptance, and distracted by far lesser passions. In recent years my sovereign Father has been gracious to lead me into brokenness, exposing pride and idolatry within, and tearing down the facade. And then in love he has begun rebuilding the foundations of identity based on who he is and what he has done to rescue inept rebels like me through his Son Jesus Christ, and through that is stirring up an appetite for his amazing glory.

By God’s grace I hope to use the medium of this blog to share glimpses of the Creator’s handiwork that he has allowed me to capture through the art and craft of landscape photography. As the prophet Isaiah declares, “the whole earth is filled with his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3b, ESV), and my cameras can testify to this. Scriptures, writing, and other resources may be used with the photography to help magnify the greatness of our God.

Clearly a Christian audience is in mind here, with the hope of bringing encouragement to people who trust in the triune God of the Bible, but all are welcome.

 

Yellow and pink monkeyflowers decorate the Paradise River in Mount Rainier National Park, WA

High up on the flank of towering Mount Rainier in Washington state, the Paradise glacier is the source of a river bearing its name.  For a few summer days one particular August, which is more akin to springtime in this high country, the conditions combined to create a rare spectacular yellow and pink monkey flower bloom decorating the Paradise River and falls just below the glacier.

 

Each week I will endeavor to prepare a table with delicacies of the Creator’s magnificence and invite you to pull up a chair and eat and be satisfied. But any fruitfulness from these efforts will be solely up to God’s moving and working. My foundational role is simply to glorify the Lord by seeing and savoring the awesomeness of his works, then responding with gratitude and worship through the creative process of image making and writing. This is his call for me, by his enablement.

If you choose to journey along, may our souls resonate with the psalmist:

“Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good!”  (Psalm 34:8a, ESV)


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