Point of Focus

by Rebecca D. Higgins

The dome light in the car was the only illumination that penetrated the early morning darkness as I reached for my hiking gear. Zipping my jacket against the crisp October air, I inhaled deeply. The aromatic traces of last night’s campfires built by backwoods campers mingled with the spicy scent of pine and pungent earthy aroma of leaves and moist sand. As I swung my backpack onto my shoulders, I caught a glimpse of stars through the treetops and paused to savor their increased brightness in a setting far removed from the distracting glare of streetlights and traffic. Gripping my hiking pole in one hand and a flashlight in the other, I started down the trail. My goal was to traverse the two-plus miles from the trailhead parking lot to Auxier Ridge to see the sunrise over Red River Gorge in eastern Kentucky. The small beam of my flashlight illuminated only a few feet in front of me as I kept my eyes downward, focused on the path. I was thankful for the steadying presence of my hiking pole that kept me from tripping on protruding roots and rocks and sprawling across the path—or worse—over the edge of the yawning ravines beside which the trail meandered perilously close in places.

The early morning quiet was broken only by the sound of my hiking boots tromping the beaten path, the occasional scurrying of an animal through the underbrush, and–as the trail began to climb–my rhythmic, heavy breathing brought on from the exertion of the hike and carrying the heavy backpack weighted down with camera gear, water, and trail snacks.      

Sometimes in life like my early morning trek, we find ourselves stumbling alone in the dark. Setbacks of various kinds find us teetering on the edge of a precipice—loss of loved ones, loss of a job, loss of health, loss of financial stability, loss of trust, loss of dreams. Life doesn’t always go the way we thought it would. It takes us instead down a path we never imagined and never wanted to travel. The dark seems to engulf us and we keep our eyes turned downward on the losses and the obstacles that litter our path and try to trip us.

As my wayward thoughts mingled with prayers that October morning, I glanced up and saw that the sky had begun to lighten as it does in those moments just before dawn breaks. I stopped right there on the trail to shift the focus of my attention and my camera upward to the horizon as the sun peeped over the ridge, silhouetting the timberline that had been scorched by a forest fire just a year before.

In many ways that early morning hike in 2011 is a metaphor for some life experiences. Over and over again during personally difficult times–dark nights of the soul, if you will–God has used my interest in photography repeatedly to redirect my focus and teach me lessons about life, faith and walking with Him . . . even in the dark.

I shared in my introductory post on this blog that photographer Dorothea Lange is credited as saying, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” For me, it is an instrument God uses to transfer my focus from an obstacle-strewn trail through a dark valley to the light of His love and grace. I am not a trained, professional photographer by any means, but God has used the art form to help me to see the world through new eyes . . . to observe beauty in the ordinary . . . to stop to appreciate and capture moments that in our busyness we too often ignore or simply fail to see. Photography has allowed me to see things from a different perspective and in doing so has afforded me with treasured moments of peace even in the midst of some of life’s storms. However, it’s not the photography that has done it, but the intentionality of keeping my eyes open to observe the world the Father has created and to bask in His grace and care. It has prodded me to hike woodland trails, to sit in quiet on mountain ridges and beside the ripples of creeks, to appreciate the delicate beauty of a butterfly’s wings, to bask in the warm glow of a sunset, to watch the morning fog lift off of the river, to search in the tree canopy for the bird that has blessed the morning quiet with its song. And whispered through those moments I have tried to capture have been the reminders, first from the Psalmist: “Be still, and know that I am God”; and then the words of Jesus himself as He spoke to the storm: “Peace be still.” As I peer through the viewfinder of my camera and select the point of focus for each shot, I am reminded that it is not just a photographic journey I am traveling but a spiritual journey as well, and that the central focus of my attention must ever be on Jesus Christ.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim
In the light of His glory and grace. (Helen H. Lemmel)

Sometimes our experiences and insights in painful and vulnerable times are not for ourselves alone but are meant to be shared for the purpose of uplifting others even though that isn’t always easy. While many of my observations in this blog are a collection of personal reminders–a journal of sorts– it is always my prayer that in my sharing them, you will be encouraged wherever your journey may find you. For those who may be traveling through a dark valley, may you join me in finding motivation to adjust the focus ring of your heart on the things that matter most, and pray to see instead of the darkness, pain, and loss, the light of God’s love and grace. May you be reminded as I have been that you are dearly loved . . . by God himself. You are not alone. He travels the pathway with you.

Walking the Yard: Raindrops and Tears

This morning I saw that the New Year’s forecast for my area is for rain and storms–not unlike some of the storms we’ve seen throughout the months of 2020.

Rose of sharon blossom dripping in the rain

This year has brought numerous flash flood warning pop-ups on my mobile phone, days of rain that have left the ground with pools of standing water and with wind gusts that have rattled the windows and scattered broken branches on the driveway and yard.

In a figurative sense, most of us would describe the year 2020 as a storm that has left a trail of debris and casualties in its wake. It’s been a tough one for most of us. But sometimes the storms we’ve experienced this year have been internal where the tears have fallen like rain in the dark of the night when no one else is around to hear the sobs muffled by our tear-dampened pillows. We cry alone and wonder if anyone knows or cares.

But then I step out into the yard after a rain, and I see collected on every leaf, petal, and blade of grass the evidence of the storm–evidence in the form of raindrops sparkling like diamonds, bedazzling the blossoms and trees that have gathered them.

Iris in the rain

As I see those raindrop collections shining from the leaves in the yard, I know that my teardrops too are seen and known. I am reminded of the words of the psalmist: “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book” (Psalm 56:8 NLT). Jesus, our Savior, who himself wept, cares about our burdens and sorrows. We are not alone! He holds our tears, precious to Him as diamonds. Sometimes it is in those “dark nights of the soul” that we learn valuable lessons about trusting even in the dark when we cannot see what lies ahead.

Years ago Gordon Jensen wrote the song “Tears Are a Language” that expresses how much God does see, know, and care about our grief and tears.

Often you wonder why tears come into your eyes
And burdens seem to be much more than you can bear
But God is standing near, He sees your falling tears
And tears are a language God understands.

Japanese maple leaves bedazzled with raindrops

God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul
He sees your tears and hears them when they fall
God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand
Tears are a language God understands.

When grief has left you low it causes tears to flow
When things have not turned out the way that you had planned
But God won’t forget you His promises are true
And tears are a language God understands.

God sees the tears of a brokenhearted soul
He sees your tears and hears them when they fall
God weeps along with man and He takes him by the hand
Tears are a language that my God He understands.

If we flip to the back of the Book, we can know the conclusion even as some of the details of our individual stories are still playing out. “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death” or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’ Then he said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true'” (Revelation 21:3‭-‬5 NIV).

Someday the crying will cease, the tears will be wiped away, and we will be forever with the One who has forever been with us even on our darkest nights. Oh, what a day that will truly be!

Raindrops on roses

Walking the Yard: How Much More…

by Rebecca D. Higgins

The lenses a photographer chooses to use make a big difference on how the subject matter is seen. A wide-angle lens takes in the big picture while a macro lens enlarges little details. Both have their place in photography, and both lens types have their metaphorical place in life.

A dandelion seedhead dampened by early morning dew.

In a year like 2020 with so many unexpected interruptions and crises that wreaked havoc on our big-picture plans, focusing on smaller details became the stuff of our everyday lives. Shopping–whether online or in the stores–revealed a sense of urgency people had to obtain the little but necessary items. Empty meat counters and bare toilet paper and cleaning supply aisles became a visual testimony of people’s worries about the availability of basic necessities.

But as I walked the yard, my own personal list of worrisome questions clamored for answers. I won’t reiterate all those questions here because, as I already stated, they’re personal. However, I readily acknowledge there were many days that I physically felt the anxiety in my chest and the pit of my stomach. But that was when the macro view actually became a blessing.

The tiny blossoms of bluets provide a colorful contrast to the green grass.

I always kept my eyes open to see a splash of contrasting color in the grass that would indicate the presence of a wildflower. Dandelions and bluets, violets and daisies are just a few of the delicate petals that appeared throughout this year. Sometimes the best way to photograph the intricate details of such tiny specimens is to change my posture to kneel or to lie prone in the grass even though I admit the stiffness in my joints makes it much harder to get back up than it did a few years ago. On my knees or on my stomach I am afforded a better view of the variety of amazing designs the Creator has made that we rarely stop long enough to notice. By bending to that position I am reminded that a posture or attitude of humble submission is always the place to start in seeking God and His kingdom.

Flowers weren’t the only source of colorful variety on my pilgrimages in the yard this year. A long list of feathered friends also became points of focus. I watched as robins hopping on the grass tilted their heads before digging in the dirt and coming up with a juicy worm for a nice meal for their family. The contented songs of birds in the cherry trees led me to observe their enthusiastic feasting on the tiny fruit. Every time I observed chickadees up close, their little beaks seemed to be stuffed full with seeds.

A catbird enjoying a spring feast.

Everywhere I looked around the yard were reminders of a benevolent Creator who cares about the tiniest details. As I observed, my thoughts drew me once again to Matthew 6 where Jesus admonishes His followers not to worry.

That is why I tell you not to worry about everyday life—whether you have enough food and drink, or enough clothes to wear. Isn’t life more than food, and your body more than clothing? Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns, for your heavenly Father feeds them. And aren’t you far more valuable to him than they are? Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?

Just as I prepared to snap this photo of a perfect daisy, a tiny bee landed and added to the composition.

And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are. And if God cares so wonderfully for wildflowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?

“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:25-33 NLT).

It’s not by accident that these words of Jesus appear in the same chapter as His sample prayer that includes the words, “Give us this day our daily bread.” It’s interesting to note that the prayer doesn’t include a plea for a ten-year plan. Instead, Jesus focused on daily needs. When we come to God in a humble posture on a daily basis–not weekly, not monthly, not yearly–we acknowledge our utter dependence upon Him and not our own ideas and plans. Our life was formed by Him, and we can trust the continuing details into His hands as well. He cares for the birds and the wildflowers beautifully, but He has made it clear that those examples are just reminders of how much more precious we are in His sight and that He cares for us. With those visual reminders in the yard, I found myself singing the lyrics of the old gospel song “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” not always because I felt happy and free but as an act of faith that proclaimed even in uncertain times: “I know He watches me.”

  1. Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come,
    Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heav’n and home,
    When Jesus is my portion? My constant Friend is He:
    His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
    His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
    • Refrain:
      I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free,
      For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
  2. “Let not your heart be troubled,” His tender word I hear,
    And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
    Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see;
    His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
    His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
  3. Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise,
    When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,
    I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free;
    His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;
    His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.
    (Lyrics by Civilla D. Martin)
Most of the time the chickadees would alight in the Japanese maple near the house, their beaks would be stuffed with seeds.

Walking the Yard: Light in the Darkness

by Rebecca D. Higgins

When the world came to a screeching halt in March of 2020 with stay-at-home orders put into effect, I began to walk around the yard with my camera almost on a daily basis. It was a purposeful decision. I didn’t want my only focus to be on the news and social media. Over a number of years I have learned that the observation involved in nature photography has helped me to see better in general. And with all of the confusion of this year, seeing better became not just a priority but a necessity.

The contrast of light and shadows.

Dorothea Lange, a Depression-era photojournalist, wisely remarked, “The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera.” I’ve found that to be true. Ms. Lange explained her statement further: “This benefit of seeing…can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image…the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate.” What better time than in the midst of a pandemic to put that into daily practice by observing what I could see just in the boundaries of the yard!

Light is one of the key components in photography. When I am out and about in nature, I find myself looking for the natural light source or a unique contrast of light and shadows. In a year when so much has contributed to the darkness in our world, finding the light in the midst of the darkness has become even more compelling. In my walks in the yard, I have found myself especially fascinated by the backlit or sidelit images of blossoms and leaves. It’s as though they are lit from within. Color becomes more vibrant. The minute details of their life-sustaining veins come into sharp focus. But this is never more apparent than when the surrounding leaves or blossoms are in shadow. The contrast is striking.

The backlit beauty of maple seeds and leaves.

Throughout this year I have been blessed to observe people who exude light even in the midst of the darkness. In spite of sickness, loss of loved ones, and extremely difficult circumstances, they have shone brightly because they have the Light of Christ within them.

Several years ago I visited the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption in Covington, Kentucky. Its facade is patterned after Paris, France’s famous Notre Dame Cathedral, and it is adorned with 82 colorful stained-glass windows depicting scenes in the life of Jesus and the church. The beauty, colors, and details of those windows are not readily seen by those passing by on the street during the day. But when night falls and the lights within the cathedral shine through those meticulously crafted windows, their beauty radiates to all. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observed, “People are like stained-glass windows. They sparkle and shine when the sun is out, but when the darkness sets in, their true beauty is revealed only if there is a light from within.”

The darkness of this year has certainly revealed the true beauty of some of those who carry the Light within. They are like the jars of clay about which the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 4:5-10 NLT:

You see, we don’t go around preaching about ourselves. We preach that Jesus Christ is Lord, and we ourselves are your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, ‘Let there be light in the darkness,’ has made this light shine in our hearts so we could know the glory of God that is seen in the face of Jesus Christ. We now have this light shining in our hearts, but we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves. We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” 

Paul and this cloud of clay pot witnesses urge each of us in the midst of a trying year to hold fast to the Light of Jesus. Many still walking in darkness are searching for hope and the Light that will dispel the darkness. “That is why we never give up. Though our bodies are dying, our spirits are being renewed every day. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever! So we don’t look at the troubles we can see now; rather, we fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever” (2 Corinthians 4:16-18 NLT).

Perhaps it is because we have just experienced the “Christmas Star,” the confluence of the planets Saturn and Jupiter, but as I have written these observations today, the words of the following song have been replaying in my mind:

I was a seeker alone in a dark world,
I looked for truth but settled for lies.
I had been blinded, I couldn’t see
Till a Star in Bethlehem’s sky opened my eyes.

I have seen the Light shining in the darkness,
Bursting through the shadows, delivering the dawn.
I have seen the Light whose holy name is Jesus,
His kingdom is forever; He reigns on Heaven’s throne!

There in a manger, an innocent baby;
Who would believe that He was the One;
I can believe it, I know it’s true;
He changed my life; He is the light; He is God’s Son!

I have seen the Light shining in the darkness,
Bursting through the shadows, delivering the dawn.
I have seen the Light whose holy name is Jesus,
His kingdom is forever; He reigns on Heaven’s throne!

We must tell the world what we’ve seen today in Bethlehem!
He’s the promised King; we bow down and worship Him!
We will Worship Christ The King!

I have seen the Light shining in the darkness,
Bursting through the shadows, delivering the dawn.
I have seen the Light whose holy name is Jesus,
His kingdom is forever; He reigns on Heaven’s throne!

(Authors: Chris Machen, Robert Sterling)

Lord, may we always be seekers of the Light, and may our lives display that true Light of Christ to those around us even when surrounded by the darkness.

A sunburst through the trees on the edge of the driveway early on Easter Sunday morning 2020.

Walking the Yard: A Retrospective Series of Lessons from 2020

by Rebecca D. Higgins

This is the time of year when publications and news organizations begin to look back on the major stories from the preceding twelve months. I’m sure that the many retrospectives of 2020 that will appear over the next couple of weeks will show just how wild, crazy, and devastating 2020 has been.

Stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, quarantines, and self-isolation have characterized much of the year. What do you do under such restrictions? One option is to walk the yard. If you look the phrase “walking the yard” up on Google, it immediately connects it to its prison connotations. In a year of lockdowns, I guess that’s appropriate. As the world as we knew it came to a grinding halt, I literally walked the yard with my camera in hand.

This retrospective series is not so much a look at the events that took place in the world or even in my own personal life but rather some life lessons that presented themselves as I roamed the yard and focused my camera on nature and the everyday objects around me. So, I invite you to stay tuned to my blog as I share some of those lessons impressed on my mind and heart as I walked the yard in 2020.