Tag Archives: autumn

The Nature of Grace and the Grace of Nature

 

It is that time of year when a vague discouragement has set in.

The holidays have ended, along with much fun, food, and family visits. No more carefree vacation weeks. It’s back to solitary days in the home office with piles of mundane work staring at me mockingly. A few weeks into a brand new year there is the familiar annual internal pressure to do more, be better, push further.

So if I am to move out of this funk, I need to recast the vision for my life. I need to be reminded what it’s all about. What I’m doing, and why.

What is the driving force at the foundation of my existence? The one thing that captures my passion like nothing else can?

First and foremost, it’s all about the nature of grace.

This is not a grace that originates with finite fallen humans. It is a grace outside myself, coming from the Divine. A grace that flows from the Creator-God, who stooped low into the morass of rebellious creatures like me, humbling himself by becoming a man. This God-Man we know as Jesus lived perfectly, died horifically, and arose triumphantly over the curse of death, earning the grace that is freely poured out on all who who desire His full forgiveness, to any who yearn for His healing eternal love.

This grace is not deserved.
It cannot be earned.
And it’s all free.
By faith.

 

The light of sunrise sets snow-covered hoodoos to glowing at Bryce Canyon

The light of sunrise sets snow-covered hoodoos to glowing at Bryce Canyon

 

Second, being rooted in this amazing grace, I live a life of immersing myself in the grace of nature.

Nature overflows with grace. Infused by the Great Artist. The beauty and excellence of the landscape is illumined by the Creator’s grace. It can be quiet and small, found in a secluded aspen grove as the breeze sets leaves to fluttering. It can be loud and grand, dropping jaw at enormous canyon views. And my greatest joy in this life comes from chasing these moments of sublime grace, when God’s character of beauty and excellence shine forth and impressions of it are captured in photographic compositions.

 

Soft light filters through a sublime aspen grove in southwest Utah mountains

Soft light filters through a sublime aspen grove in southwest Utah mountains

 

When I am immersed in the Grace of nature, it is then that my heart is most happy and free, because there the nature of Grace is palpable, tangible, and delicious to the taste. There I find effortless fellowship with the One who formed me.

This is my life.
This is why I am here.
Thank you Father for reminding me.

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Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.
– 2 Thessalonians 2:16, ESV
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The Paradise River tumbles town a multi-tiered falls at Mount Rainier NP

The Paradise River tumbles town a multi-tiered falls at Mount Rainier NP


Hurts So Good

 

On more than one occasion I’ve heard my friend and fellow photographer Slavomir remark, “It was so beautiful it made my heart hurt!”

I’ve never needed him to explain what he meant, because I’ve felt that strange mix of emotion before when confronted with the beauty of creation. But it’s not a predictable experience. It does not always happen at the expected times nor in the most obvious scenic locations. Sometimes this heartache of beauty sneeks up on me.

Such was the case earlier this month as I scouted for photographic compositions in late autumn in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Seeking a respite from crowds and cars clogging the main viewpoints, I found myself in a quieter section of the park tooling around on backroads.

As I navigated the narrow winding road in my truck, ascending higher and higher into the hills, solitude soon overtook me as no other humans or vehicles were in sight. It became just me and the hardwood forest, the trees surrendering their leaves to the swirling breeze, low-angle sunlight filtering into the canopy, a cloud-dotted blue sky watching over it all.

 

Autumn Backroad

 

In this moment my heart started to feel the tug of beauty all around me. Thoughts of making photographs disappeared as I was immersed in the experience of just being there. Then my eyes welled up with tears as I felt the swelling of an ache in my heart. Amid the splendor of this autumn forest, all alone, there was a kind of hurting in the deep places of my soul.

“What am I feeling?” I asked myself. “What is this emotion that my intellect cannot decipher?” Continuing to drive slowly through the curves with my windows down, intoxicated with autumn aromas, I realized there was a bittersweet yearning in my innermost being. A yearning for this moment to never end. A yearning to be at one with this place, with this simple beauty before me, to somehow meld with the creation. And the tears started flowing.

I believe this was my soul crying out for more of God. A longing to be free from the fallenness of our world. A craving to be perfectly at one with his glory. To be for all eternity in a place of neverending joy, my field of vision filled with only beauty, being carried by the power of his divine love.

 

An autumn forest cathedral invited me to worship in the Great Smoky Mountains

An autumn forest cathedral invited me to worship in the Great Smoky Mountains

 

I’m grateful for the glimpses of grace I see in those moments of beauty. And I’m also grateful for the heartache that sometimes settles over me at those times. The one reminds me that the glory of the creator is my one true joy, my very sustenance. The other reminds me that broken earth is not my true home, that I am merely journeying toward the hope of eternity, a day when the One who formed me will remove all the heartaches forever.

“while we look forward with hope to that wonderful day

when the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be revealed.”

(Titus 2:13 NLT)

 

Sunset highlights late fall ridges in the Smokies

Sunset highlights late fall ridges in the Smokies


The Craftsmanship of the Creator

 

What is the most foundational thing I know about God?

That he is Creator.

All else flows from this knowledge. And I know it, because it’s being proclaimed with great fanfare, nonstop, all over this planet and beyond:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth, and their words to all the world.

(from Psalm 19)

 

The Watchman peak glows under a starry sky in Zion National Park

The Watchman peak glows under a starry sky in Zion National Park

 

What should be my reaction to this essential and basic truth? Awe and reverence, my soul welling up with deep satisfying joy, which cannot help but overflow in praise:

Praise him, sun and moon! Praise him, all you twinkling stars!
Praise him, skies above! Praise him, vapors high above the clouds!

Let every created thing give praise to the LORD, for he issued his command, and they came into being.
He set them in place forever and ever. His decree will never be revoked.

Praise the LORD from the earth, you creatures of the ocean depths,
fire and hail, snow and clouds, wind and weather that obey him,

mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars,
wild animals and all livestock, small scurrying animals and birds,

kings of the earth and all people, rulers and judges of the earth,
young men and young women,old men and children.

Let them all praise the name of the LORD.
For his name is very great; his glory towers over the earth and heaven!

(from Psalm 148)

 

Rocks and trees in Zion Canyon during fall testify to the Creator's glory

Rocks and trees in Zion Canyon during fall testify to the Creator’s glory

 

Now sometimes my emotions forget the fundamental truth that God is Creator. I start fretting over my life, looking for more worries to add to an already long list of ‘problems’. Or I become consumed by the issues in the world, especially lately the unkind political battles we wage with one another.

And not only do I forget that God is the Creator in charge of it all, I also forget that I am merely a creature. And when I forget my creatureliness, I’m prone to arrogance, to thinking I have all the answers.

Today I needed the Creator to remind me, and humble me:

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
Tell me, if you know so much.

Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line?
What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone
as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?

(from Job 38)

 

The glory of wildflowers against a backdrop of rolling hills in California

The glory of wildflowers against a backdrop of rolling hills in California

 

I’m grateful to return once again to embracing the simplicity of being a creature before an astounding Creator God, whose handiwork inspires me at the deepest soul level and tells me of his power, and his goodness:

You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power.
For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.

(from Revelation 4)

 

The majesty of the Milky Way in the skies above Death Valley National Park

The majesty of the Milky Way in the skies above Death Valley National Park


The Sweetness of Solitude

 

Traffic. I detest it.

The cars were at a standstill, two lanes thick. Hope was doled out sparingly a few feet at a time every minute or two. After what seemed an endless wait the bottleneck was released, but then immediately the two lanes merged into one. Plodding along at 25 miles per hour, crankiness was brooding under the surface as I wondered why I should be stuck in a jam of cars and people in this place.

This was not a weekday commute on the interstate of a crowded metropolis; it was a beautiful October weekend at one of America’s most spectacular national parks in southwest Utah.

I can’t blame the hoards of tourists and photographers from all over the world for swarming to Zion in autumn, as it is one of the great spectacles of the American Southwest. But I was in no mood for congestion. I craved quiet and solitude where I could create in peace.

 

Climbing the switchbacks toward Zion's east side grants a stunning view of the main canyon

Climbing the switchbacks toward Zion’s east side grants a stunning view of the main canyon

 

The vast majority of Zion National Park’s visitors congregate along the main canyon road, where the beauty slaps you in the face with its utter grandeur. But I knew on this day I had no patience for these crowds, so I drove past the renowned Zion Canyon Drive and wound my way up the switchbacks, through the long dark tunnel, and out into the light of Zion’s east side.

Here, the number of cars and people are a tiny fraction of those crammed into the valley on the west side. Immediately I began to feel tension starting to release. Though the landscape on this side of the tunnel was less famous and more subtle, I knew it would suit me photographically. And most importantly, I knew I would find the delicious solitude I craved.

I navigated the curves of this much quieter road and found a promising pullout at the entrance to a small side canyon. From the road I caught glimpses of glorious autumn color lining parts of the canyon, and with much anticipation I hoisted my photo pack and tripod on my back and began climbing down a rough path leading to the canyon floor. I prayed for God’s grace to give me eyes to see his glory, and for the ability to make inspiring art in his world.

This little canyon proved a very blessed choice indeed. Right away I was treated to intense reds and oranges of lovely late-October maples, and further along in my wandering I came across a captivating mini slot canyon. There was more to explore and photograph than would fit in one day so I was happy to return to this and other nearby side canyons on Zion’s eastside for several more days of exploring and photographing sandstone patterns, autumn leaves, mountain goats, and sunsets.

 

Showy maples bring jaw-dropping color to the autumn party on Zion's east side canyons

Showy maples bring jaw-dropping color to the autumn party on Zion’s east side canyons

 

Characterful sandstone walls in glowing reflected light bring a mini slot canyon to life in Zion N.P.

Characterful sandstone walls in glowing reflected light bring a mini slot canyon to life in Zion N.P.

 

As much as I loved making images here, it was the sublime solitude that I most cherished. Not another soul interrupted my free-flowing thinking down in these canyons. While the crowds filled the main tourist sites and visitor centers ten minutes away, I basked in the deliciousness of being utterly alone. When God assigned my personality he made me an introvert, and it is in sweet solitude that I am strengthened and refreshed. It is in solitude where I best process my thoughts, ponder decisions, do my most inspired creating, and work my hardest. Solitude prepares me to love and serve people; without enough quiet alone time I quickly become no good to anyone.

 

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“There are times when solitude is better than society, and silence is wiser than speech.” – Charles H. Spurgeon
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And it is in solitude where I most naturally commune with my Creator and think on his amazing glory. During these quiet canyon hikes my mind was occupied with the Good News of God revealed in Scripture – that fallen rebels like me have been outrageously loved and forever forgiven by trusting in the perfect once-for-all performance of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, very God himself. A free gift! No earning required, nor even possible. All of mystifying grace, none of me. There are depths to this spectacular salvation found in the pages of the New Testament that I am only just now beginning to comprehend, and what I’m seeing is creating a profound paradigm shifting in how I relate to my Father in Heaven and live out of his love. I hope to write about these things in the coming new year.

 

A solitary fallen maple leaf complements the textured lines of sandstone during autumn at Zion

A solitary fallen maple leaf complements the textured lines of sandstone during autumn at Zion

 

If any readers are in the mood to share, I would love to hear your comments about the idea of solitude. Is it something you crave? In the hustle of work and family and holiday chores, do you find you don’t get enough restful silence? When you are able to carve out time alone, what do you do with that time? What occupies your mind? Does solitude renew your spirit? Or like one of my good friends, do you find being utterly alone more draining than it is rebuilding? I would love to know my readers better if you are so moved to share your thoughts.

 

“In solitude, at last, we’re able to let God define us the way we are always supposed to be defined—by relationship: the I-thou relationship, in relation to a Presence that demands nothing of us but presence itself. Not performance but presence.” – Richard Rohr

 


Eating Bacon to the Glory of God

 

The full moon on this night was huge, and crazy-bright. It lit up the rugged mountains bordering a lonely highway through the Nevada desert. I blasted along the quiet road with the accompaniment of classic 80’s Dire Straits on the truck stereo, and thinking about my wife. We were in the middle of a 5-month separation necessitated by my photographic work and I was eager to pick her up in Salt Lake City the following day so she could join my adventures in Utah for ten days.

 

A full moon rises above Nevada desert mountains at dusk

A full moon rises above Nevada desert mountains at dusk

 

It was a joy to be reunited with Wendy, and after a quick stop for fresh supplies we were ready to head that afternoon to our planned destination of Moab for exploration of Arches and Canyonlands national parks. But as we began the drive I couldn’t stop thinking about a nearby detour, one of the most sublime drives I’ve ever been on – the Alpine Loop Scenic Byway. This spot is known for excellent fall color and I had photographed there in previous autumns. But my travels this October had been delayed and by now I was certain that any remaining color would be well past peak and not worth changing our plans for.

Still, I couldn’t quit thinking about this Scenic Byway, and as we neared the exit for the Alpine Loop I was pulled in like a magnet and decided to delay Moab so Wendy could experience this wonderful mountain drive, even if there were no beautiful leaves to decorate it.

As it turned out, our only regret in this last-minute route change was pulling our 24-foot trailer up the narrow winding road, which had my wife clinging for dear life to the grab handles and me doing my best strong-man-in-control-unafraid impression 🙂 But to my startled delight the Loop colors came on late this year and our eyes joined a visual party of aspens and maples displaying full autumn glory!

 

Layers of steep mountain ridges glow with a riot of autumn color in American Fork Canyon, UT

Layers of steep mountain ridges glow with a riot of autumn color in American Fork Canyon, UT

 

For the next two days we drove up and down the roads in this spectacular little piece of Utah, admiring views of 11,752-foot Mount Timpanogos clothed in yellow aspens, strolling through quiet groves of trees, searching out pleasing photographic compositions among the overwhelming fall splendor that was everywhere before us. A special treat was waking up in our trailer one morning to a couple of moose just outside our window, a cow and her calf leisurely grazing only ten feet away. It was a moment of majesty that Wendy captured well, pointing her camera through the small window of our kitchen.

 

A cow moose and her calf graze right outside our camp trailer (photo by Wendy Martin)

A cow moose and her calf graze right outside our camp trailer (photo by Wendy Martin)

 

Clouds reflect warm light at sunset over Mount Timpanogos draped in golden aspens

Clouds reflect warm light at sunset over Mount Timpanogos draped in golden aspens

 

Earlier in my trip I had texted Wendy about my delicious camp breakfasts and she was looking forward to me whipping up that grub for her too. So after our moose gazing it was my pleasure to fry up the natural uncured bacon, scramble the organic free-range eggs with chunks of melty Tillamook cheddar goodness, and make toast by pan frying hearty sprouted grain bread in butter (and then topped with tasty Oregon huckleberry jam).

The aroma of the bacon frying that morning got me to thinking about how God can get glory through our food and drink.

Several years ago I read an article by pastor/writer John Piper titled How to Drink Orange Juice to the Glory of God. At the time it did not seem to have much impact on me. And then one day in my kitchen cooking up a late breakfast with Applegate Farms Organic Sunday Bacon, the flavor explosion from that tasty meat literally caused me to worship God right on the spot. The previous reading about how to glorify God with how we eat & drink likely helped set the stage in my thinking, but it was only through experiencing for myself God’s good and gracious gift in that spectacular bacon that I finally understood how a person could eat bacon to the glory of God, or drink orange juice for his glory, or whatever your food and drink may be in that moment.

Here’s how it looks for me to magnify God’s glory as the unique succulent flavor of bacon hits my taste buds:

– I acknowledge that the bacon comes from God. He is the source of everything.

– I overflow with thankfulness to God for the bacon. I thank him for designing and creating pigs. I thank him for the financial ability to buy bacon. I thank him for the stores that sell it, the distributors that get it to market, the butchers who prepare it, and the farmers who raise the pigs.

– I enjoy it! With all of my senses. God is most glorified when we thoroughly enjoy his good gifts to us.

– I allow the incredible flavor of bacon to point me again and again to just how amazing our God is, his creative genius in the making of such a treat and his graciousness in blessing anyone with $4.99 and a frying pan with this rich pleasure.

 

A quiet grove of aspens nestled in the Wasatch mountain range along Alpine Loop Scenic Byway

A quiet grove of aspens nestled in the Wasatch mountain range along Alpine Loop Scenic Byway

 

This is the life I desire to live out with my wife more and more, in the ordinary circumstances of daily life as well as in the more glorious moments, whether traveling and photographing in eye-popping autumn wilderness or just sitting down to eat our simple breakfast: to see the hand of God’s provision in all his good gifts, to receive them with joy, to be ever thankful, and to worship God’s gracious and loving character.

“So, whether you eat or drink,

or whatever you do,

do everything to the glory of God.” 

(1 Corinthians 10:31, GOD’S WORD® Translation)

 

 

 


The Case for Creativity: Man as Image Bearer

 

Wandering along the creek with camera in hand, there were no other sounds to intrude on the melody of water playing across boulders. The scent of earth and forest was intoxicating to me. I found endless visual fascination with wet rocks, moss growing on stumps, fallen leaves strewn about the creek, and I responded in childlike wonder by making images with the camera. I was twelve years old.

On another day I found myself wandering along a different creek near an aspen grove. The tranquil sound of gently flowing water was the only voice in the woods. I scampered across fallen logs and large rocks, the kid in me feeling the wonder and awe of creation’s glory along this simple creek, and I responded in unsullied joy by forming compositions with my camera. I was forty-eight years old.

 

Lee Vining Creek cascades over rocks in California's magnificent Eastern Sierra

Lee Vining Creek cascades over rocks in California’s Eastern Sierra [click photo to enlarge]

 

Wide-eyed childlike wonder overflowed from within recently as I traveled to the amazing Eastern Sierra region of California. I shared images last week of that diverse glory, and today share more compositions made while wandering along the creeks and through groves of trees in the Eastern Sierra as autumn draped majestic color over the region.

I am blessed beyond measure by my Creator to have been allotted a life of creativity stretching from my pre-teen photographic explorations to my current vocation as a landscape photographer. There have been many bumps and detours along the way, and seasons where I questioned the worthiness of being creative. I began forming for myself a case for creativity and wrote last week that the first reason artistry matters is because God himself is a great artist. Now I’d like to share thoughts on the implications of that truth, which is the second reason I believe it’s meaningful to create – because people are made in the image of God.

Imago Dei is the term theologians like to use. It simply means ‘image of God’ in Latin. The book of beginnings, Genesis, tells us that ‘God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (1:27, New Living Translation). Theologians unpack many profound truths that flow from this doctrine, but for my limited scope in considering a case for creativity I see that creativity matters for humans because God the joyful Artist created us in his image – we are his image bearers.

 

A big beautiful ponderosa pine artfully decorates Lee Vining Canyon

A big beautiful ponderosa pine artfully decorates Lee Vining Canyon  [click photo to enlarge]

 

In Scripture I see image bearers being unleashed to create from the start of the human race. After God had fashioned his jaw-droppingly gorgeous earth brimming full of life, the Original Artist allots to the first man and woman a vocation and life lived out as artists themselves – freedom to sculpt and care for the most beautiful garden ever to be found on the planet, and the linguistic delight of thinking up names for all the creatures. If you have ever walked through a truly lovely garden then you know how much creative work goes into it. And if you have ever use words to express and communicate and found it challenging, you can imagine how much artistic effort goes into forming names for each animal.

I find this incredibly freeing and exciting! After years of self-doubt, I’ve learned to embrace the creative life because I see in Scripture that God loves being an artist himself, and as his image bearers he’s delighted when we engage in creating also.

Now some readers may be thinking the way my wife used to – that you are not an artistic type, that your personality or your work are not suited to creativity. I hope to encourage you by saying that 1) to create is a far broader definition then making art like a potter, a painter, or a photographer, and 2) being creative is not limited to what we do at work – it can encompass all of life. I believe all of us can engage in creating in ways that align perfectly with our individuality.

For example, my wife is an excellent high-level tax accountant with the world’s largest accounting firm. As such she always considered herself good with numbers, but assumed she had not a single creative bone in her. First, I’ve encouraged her to see that she actually does engage in a creative process every time she thinks through problems at work and proposes solutions to solve them, or thinks of ways to effectively communicate with difficult coworkers. Second, she has discovered that you don’t have to be a ‘professional’ artist to try your hand at photography, scrapbooking, and other crafts, and in experimenting with traditional artistic pursuits she has found a great outlet for stress and much fun.

 

Aspens reveal their visually graphic skeletons as golden autumn leaves drop

Aspens reveal visually graphic skeletons as golden autumn leaves drop [click photo to enlarge]

 

Whatever your job, I believe there is almost always some creativity you are engaging in to effectively and efficiently do your work, from remodeling homes, teaching, maintaining computer systems, homeschooling your children, developing successful strategies for corporations, debugging software, fundraising for a nonprofit, helping fit a department store customer for clothes, to running a home-based business. Your work may involve creating a product, or creating value. A janitor starts with dirty chaos and creates a fresh clean environment, which then allows workers coming into a clean workplace to more effectively do their work.

And apart from our vocations, consider how we can be creative throughout all of life – thinking of fun ideas for your family to engage in together on weekends, creating a delicious and eye-appealing meal, being artful in your choice of words to a friend so you can encourage them, dreaming up a vision for the future of your marriage, singing even if you have no audience, learning to play a guitar, sculpting and maintaining the landscape around your house, writing out your thoughts in a journal or blog, or diving into a traditional ‘artistic’ hobby with a camera or clay or whatever strikes your fancy.

I believe God has designed and enabled us to make our very lives art. I love how The Message version of the Bible emphasizes this theme in Galations chapter 6:

“Live creatively, friends.

Make a careful exploration of who you are and the work you have been given, and then sink yourself into that. Don’t be impressed with yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others. Each of you must take responsibility for doing the creative best you can with your own life.” (vs. 1, 4-5)

 

Focusing close on an autumn aspen leaf reveals the intricate veins and intense color

Aspen leaf closeup reveals intricate veins and intense autumn color [click photo to enlarge]


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