Heavenward

I walk the woods in the evening – my woods, I tell myself – the familiar trails, dear to me and near to my heart, winding through old creekbeds, beneath towering pines and wizened oaks, along hillsides sparkling with white chokecherry blossoms. Treading the same way again, my heart thrills. Each step is a delight. Each breath of the cool evening air tastes sweet. I want to pour the coolness over my head and drink of the freshness. It is familiar, so familiar, every step is one I’ve experienced before, each tree and flower and perfume of evening – but it is new, always new.
IMG_7227eWith the earth comforting beneath my feet, grasses growing tall to above knee-height, trees leafing out in their array of green, my heart is drawn upwards, Heavenwards. These woods are my sanctuary. I find that my time alone while hiking becomes my time alone with the LORD, since I can’t imagine walking these woods and not being struck to the heart by how good God must be to have created so much beauty for us to enjoy. He didn’t need to create beauty. God could have allowed sin to completely wipe out the beauty on this earth. But He didn’t. And it is wonderful. Even in this fallen state, His beauty is reflected in His Creation.
IMG_7015eMy heart breaks with joy. Have you ever felt that? My heart breaks and soars, and I murmur Oh, my! Again and again. Oh, my. My eye is drawn here and there – to a splash of color from a larkspur violet or a shooting star or a bluebell, to the wild white and lavender of crazyweed, to the little golden blossoms of wild currant or the coral of columbine or the dark blue-eyed grass, or the pale birch trees on a north-facing hillside of emerald moss. A gleam of sunlight through the trees on the next hilltop melts me, but I know my camera couldn’t do it justice, so I don’t even try. My heart breaks with joy – there is too much, too much, too much. How can a human creature take in so much beauty and goodness and majesty, and not be overwhelmed? And if I cannot understand Creation, how can I possibly understand its God?
IMG_7150eThe too-familiar sights, the amber scents of pine resin and the fresh earthy perfume of green life or the sweet evening air, the lullaby of wind in the pines – so many memories and impressions left over, brought back by glimpses or tastes of the familiar, the familiar that never seems to change. I remember my childhood, our visits here, my heart’s longing for this place. I remember past joys, and revel in present joys. Then my heart breaks with grief. Because I know that one day this place won’t be here for me. One day it will be sold and divided into lots and developed, and I weep at that thought, dropping tears on the grassy path. How harsh it feels – to be brought to live in the place I love most in the world, but knowing that it may not be here, a mere few years from this time. This place may only be land, and I know that, but it holds and brings back so many wonderful memories. It is a place that is part of my childhood, part of my dearest memories.
IMG_7156eThen I repent. How could I have the audacity to challenge God’s goodness and His Providence by weeping over what He may someday in His sovereignty take away from me? If that day comes, I don’t believe tears will be wrong, but weeping now and letting even a moment of joy be spoiled by what God may in His love give to me or take from me – that is wrong. I pray for contentment and peace in my knowledge that God is good. I remind myself that God only does that which is for the good of His children and for His glory. I remind myself that He only gives good gifts, and He is a loving Father, not a cruel taskmaster. If a gift is good in the giving, it is also good when He in His sovereignty removes it. If He removes a blessing and strips me of something I sinfully think is necessary for my happiness, I know He does it for my good, not to punish. If He takes something from me that I love, He does it for my good, not out of malice. Whether or not I comprehend it, it is for my good. At the very least, pain allows me to experience the sweetness of God’s comfort. One day, I’ll understand. But for now I need to be content to not understand and to take comfort in the things I do understand – that God is a loving God, a generous God, a compassionate and comforting God – and He always provides. Not necessarily how I in my humanness want Him to provide, certainly, but if God is good, His Providence is as well, and I cannot challenge it.  And so even in my tears, I thank Him. Even in my tears, this place draws me Heavenward. And then my heart lifts and I savor a soul-deep peace, content to enjoy however many days and years I have left to enjoy this. Few or many, they are a gift. How sad to spoil them with misplaced regret.
IMG_7182eThe low rumble of distant thunder tells of a coming storm, and the clouds are bright in the west, shining flame-like through the trees. The crimson and coral turn to slate and blue. The golden sunlight disappears beyond the horizon and banks of heavy clouds. The rain will come.
IMG_7223eHow can I not gaze Heavenward?

Slow Rain and Relics

The sun and blue sky of Sunday morning had turned into lowering clouds. The sound of raindrops began to hush around us as we followed an old forest service road towards our destination. Before long at all, everyone else was far ahead and out of sight, while I was hunkered down in the wet grass and pine needles taking pictures of spring’s first flowers. What sweetness! We had temperatures in the 40s, and those of us who had properly layered were plenty warm, even with the gentle rain.IMG_5097eWe were hiking in an area of past burn, south and east of Pringle a couple of miles. Before the trail wove down into a valley, distant hilltops could be seen glowing gently under the grey sky, and even scattered blue sky could be seen off to the south east. We saw ample evidence of elk, but not a glimpse of the majestic creatures themselves. No deer, few birds – It was quiet out in the woods. But in amongst the fallen trees and blackened stumps, the purple of pasque flowers could be seen. Life from death. Beauty from ashes. In areas of previous devastating fire, new life springs up with determination.IMG_5059eThe trail took us to the historical remains we had hoped to find. Old foundations, remnants of walls and chimneys, a water pump, a tumbled-in root cellar, sparkling pieces of colored glass, shards of rusted metal, miscellaneous kitchen items, ancient stoves, door knobs, coffee cans – All relics of the homestead or town site that once stood there and the lives that had previously been lived there. We don’t know its name, or who lived there, or whom they knew, or what they did, or where they came from, but someone had a life in that beautiful little valley. What will I leave behind when I’m gone? It is an interesting thought.IMG_5113eIMG_5105eThe raindrops plinked and pattered on a heap of twisted metal, sounding like the rush of a distant, faraway stream. We poked around in the ruins, and could have spent a lot longer there. We only left reluctantly when we figured we should catch up with the rest of the group, who had already gone back to the truck to keep from getting wetter. IMG_5132eIMG_5129The rain picked up, but that hardly mattered. It is spring, and rain is expected! Sarah pointed out how vivid the colors are in the rain, and she is right. It’s as if the rain washes away a layer of dust, leaving everything clean and fresh with the color plainly seen.IMG_5146eIMG_5173eTime and again we extend our Sunday fellowship through the afternoon with hiking. And time and again, I think how perfect a way that is to end a Sunday. Spending time in God’s glorious creation is refreshing any day of the week, but there is something fitting about it on a Sunday – it seems to me that we are in a way extending the sanctuary of worship into the broader realm of His created handiwork. His handiwork and His attributes are proclaimed in the beauty of the landscape, the intricacies of flowers and plant and animal life, the perfect way this earth holds together and flourishes year after year and century after century. When we marvel at and revel in the natural world, we are marveling at and reveling in the works of God’s hands. What a privilege. IMG_5174eWe headed home in a slow drizzle and stopped at Three Forks to get coffee. Beautiful weather. A beautiful day.

 

Pondering

One thing I love about photography is the changed perspective it provides. Even something as seemingly mundane as last summer’s grasses are enchanting, with the sunlight just so, highlighting the varied textures and colors of the winter. Photography provides an avenue for pondering. I find myself staring again and again at these pictures, even though I don’t consider them particularly good pictures, simply because there is mystery – The mystery of the beauty of Creation. If I sat down in a stand of tall grass without my camera, I would feel the warmth of the sun, the damp of the earth, I would see the blue of the sky and the way the sunlight catches in the fronds of grasses, and I would breathe deep the fragrance of a beautiful day. But with a camera, perspective deepens. Magic happens. Individual moments when the sunlight is perfect, individual stems of grass which could otherwise be lost in the tangle of grasses, individuals leaves and glints and glorious sparks of light, become visible.
IMG_2804eIMG_2795eI have heard it suggested that one’s perspective is limited detrimentally by the camera. Yes, the camera limits one’s perspective, but I heartily disagree that this limiting is a negative thing. God is infinite, and the many wonders of his Creation reflect that infiniteness. How are we finite human beings to process and understand it all? We can’t! Photography is a means by which we can impress on our mind’s eye more specific glories of God’s Creation. It is all too easy to miss the tree for the forest. In gazing at a whole field of flowers, it is hard to wonder at the flower itself – One instead wonders at the field. Focus smaller, closer, and it is possible to wonder at the actual flower.  Photography is an outlet for pondering, for deeply considering, for wonderment and awe and delight.

For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.

Romans 1:20

Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them.

Psalm 111:2

Laura Elizabeth

A Whole Forest of Trees

There is a mystery about the oak tree – Something about it captures the imagination. Seeing how it has been woven into cultures worldwide fascinates me. What is it about this tree? Oaks serve as national symbols of many countries, including the United States. Oak trees stand for perseverance and strength, for obvious reasons, and their utility is highly sought. But it isn’t just the strength and the utility. They have been woven into the religious fibers of pagan cultures, Celtic, Greek, Nordic, and others, and are considered to be associated with various gods and religious rites.
IMG_2634Oak trees are plentiful in the Black Hills. These stubborn, wizened trees grow in thick groves in low places, some towering tall, others stunted and blighted but as tenacious as ever. One very special burr oak is just a few miles down the road from us, the Council Oak, a several-hundred-year-old tree that served as a meeting place for the battling Sioux and Crow Indians in the 1700s. To have served as a meeting place more than 200 years ago, it must have been of considerable size even then. And now, it is awe-inspiring.

The pagan cultures can marvel at the oak and adopt it as a symbol of their religious beliefs. And as a Christian, I can’t help but be struck by how close they come, in one sense, yet how far. The wonder of the pagans evidences, I think, the innate knowledge that only a Creator God could have crafted something as marvelous as the oak tree. Consider, for instance, the polytheistic mythology of the Greeks and Romans. They were overwhelmed by the beauty of the world they lived in and, being pagan nations that did not know God, they assigned to the wonders of the world their own created deities, to explain to themselves the marvels they witnessed. Even so, druids performing pagan rites chose “sacred” oak groves as the place of their activities. Oaks were the trees of Thor and of Zeus. These cultures were so close, on one hand, recognizing something glorious and incomprehensible in the world around them, yet were so far off in attributing the glory to Whom it was due.
IMG_1810In Isaiah 61, the Lord proclaims this beautiful mission fulfilled in His coming:

The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor;
    he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
    and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
to proclaim the year of the Lord‘s favor,
    and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.

May Christ’s Children truly be oaks of righteousness, in this storm of political and social upheaval, in the torrent of temptation that assaults us daily, in this time when all vigilance is required. May we seek righteousness, for the glory of Christ. May we glorify Him in proclaiming the truth. May we be like oaks, unshaken, gracious, courageous, and tenacious, and may our words and actions and witness be like the treasure of the acorn, fruitful. For as wonderful as the oak tree is, how miraculous is the acorn.
IMG_1620Just as Abraham’s seed contained the whole world of Redeemed, both those who are God’s Chosen by birth (the nation of Israel) and those who are God’s Chosen by blood (all Christians), contained within the tiny shell of an acorn is a whole forest of trees. A whole forest of trees.

Laura Elizabeth

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Metamorphosis

There is a wonderful transformation that takes place this time of year, changing what is common into what is precious, from emerald and black to crimson and gold. It was the rumor of gold that first brought the white man into the Black Hills in the 1870s, late in the era of the gold rush. But whatever precious metals they found while digging in the ground and panning in the streams, these riches outstrip them all, though they fade in a mere handful of days. It is the metamorphosis of autumn.IMG_2386The miracle of autumn is one which I am firmly convinced is entirely for our joy and God’s glory. God didn’t have to create the bounties of autumn color – The trees could simply turn brown and lose their leaves. But God in His sovereign goodness gave us the tapestry of the seasons, including the fleeting glories of autumn.
IMG_2686The Hole-in-the-Wall trail is festive in gold and green and crimson, the entire trail lined with hardwood trees in a mighty array of autumn colors. The higher hillsides are pine and so never change, but in the ravines the aspens and burr oaks and other hardwood trees and shrubs flourish, and are now painted their various hues of gold and crimson and yellow.
IMG_2763When the evening sun shines from over the mountains, the aspens are lit up like torches, glowing and burning. Rocky hillsides are illuminated with the flaming color of the trees. Driving along our already beautiful highways, my breath is swept away, when around a corner is suddenly revealed a golden hillside, or glowing ravine, or a roadside lined with brilliant color.IMG_2545I took a drive  down Rockerville Road, and explored a couple of side roads. The sights were glorious, and I couldn’t help but laugh out loud in delight! Springtime is wonderful, summer is rambunctious, but to catch the leaves in the prime of their autumn color is pure bliss. IMG_2862 Roadside wildflowers are a riot of reds and golds, with a touch of purple here and there. Those, too, will soon fade, and all that will be left is the memory of the color, and the simple elegance of the dried stems and flower heads.IMG_2340Now, I understand that the color we revel in here isn’t the spectacular display of color we used to enjoy in Illinois, or the color that is legendary further east. But the subtlety of the transformation of the Hills is part of the allure. The mystery of autumn is heightened by its very temporariness. We aren’t two days into autumn and the colors are already fading from their peak three days ago. What a gift, to be able to enjoy such beauty, even for so short a time. IMG_2548For soon, and even now, the color will fade, the gold will glimmer away, and the life of summer will become the chill rest of winter.
IMG_3103Medieval alchemists were fascinated by the mythological concept of the transformation of common metals into gold. But what a delight, the alchemy of the seasons, the metamorphosis of the world around us, God’s created order that simply shouts His glory, and the Gospel story itself! What more wonderful metamorphosis, than the transformation of wretched sinners into redeemed Believers in Christ! Not only the tiny parable in the gold of autumn, taking that which is common and making it precious, but the larger parable of death and renewal, of decay and new life, pictured in the metamorphosis of the seasons.

Laura Elizabeth

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Morning Hike in Black and White

Trixie and I went on a little hike this morning and, as per usual, I took my camera, this time giving myself a challenge: only shoot in black and white. That challenge probably had something to do with browsing some Ansel Adams photography yesterday.IMG_1775

IMG_1763We live in a color-filled world, and limiting oneself to seeing in black and white forces one to look at the world differently. Because black and white really isn’t black and white – It is dark and light. And that’s how one has to see, in darks and lights.IMG_1810

IMG_1833

IMG_1852Composing a shot in color means paying attention to the color palette, paying attention to the color texture and mood of the background, how the sun distorts or realizes the color of the subject. Shooting in color means that the foreground and background actually have to “match” or complement one another, without splashes of distracting color forcing the eye away from the focal point. Shooting in black and white, however, is a whole different ballgame. Instead of composing colors, one has to compose lights and shadows and textures and contrasts. Highlights and lowlights, sunlight and shade. IMG_1823

IMG_1907The delicateness of the flower has to be conveyed not in the delicacy or whimsy of the color, but in the transparency of the petals, the shapes and contours and contrasts. Those things obviously are important in color photography, but they become the essence of black and white photography. The pale green of the sprig of leaves might catch your eye, but in black and white it is the stained-glass quality of the leaf with the sunlight behind it that defines that leaf, not the color. IMG_1792Just a different way of marveling at this wonderful world.

Laura Elizabeth