Today my spirit has been heavy, harrowed with sorrow. Over the last couple weeks I have experienced the steadily increasing weight of the world’s burdens, but today it reached its tipping point. This morning as I distractedly completed my last final of the semester, I was overwhelmed with emotion and sadness for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who, as I’m sure many of you know by now, was followed and fatally shot as he was jogging through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia. I could hardly react, hardly process what happened (over two months ago, I might add). And yet, I experienced an irrepressible ache not only for the racial injustices and corrupt systems that plague the world but also for the injustices committed against the innocent on a daily basis. The part that saddens me the most is that WE are inflicting this pain upon each other and upon our planet.
I look at nature, at animals, and I see innocence. I see creatures trying to survive. I see them dying at our hands, hit by our cars, driven out by our expansion, hunted for our pleasure. I see our planet being leeched of its resources. Our planet — and the animals that inhabit it — are desperately trying to adapt and survive to the changes we are so rapidly imposing upon them. It shatters my heart and brings me to tears that millions of animals are dying by our hands. But many people perceive nature and animals as cruel. They see a vulture scavenging a car-struck deer on the side of the road and don’t think for a second that it’s worth saving. They see a lioness kill a newborn zebra and a sympathy is evoked.
But the seeming cruelty of nature — which is survival based — pales in comparison to the evil and cruelty that we are able to conjure in our hearts, lives and societies.
Humanity has become so comfortable in its own sin that when people see something as fundamental as survival in the wild they call it ‘cruel’ whilst simultaneously overlooking the far more horrid injustices we commit to our brothers and sisters. We have convinced ourselves that we are good enough on our own.
When I look at humanity, I see our desperate need for a Savior. It’s obvious that we aren’t able to fix the problem ourselves or we would’ve figured out a way to do so by now. We have forgotten our humanness, our brokenness, our innately evil tendencies.
We have forgotten how badly we need someone to save us.
I called my mentor crying, asking him how he deals with the weight of all the evil in the world. And he reminded me that it serves as a reminder of our desperate need to be saved. It unmasks our humanity, showing us the reality of the human condition, and it makes room for Jesus to come in and heal our hearts, our lives and our societies if we let Him. The hope we get to cling to is named Jesus — He will come and rule the world one day with truth and justice. Until then, we get to cling to the promise that He will do so.
I did a lot of wrestling today. A lot of contemplation with the Lord. A lot of allowing myself to feel everything. I felt physically heavy, a tangible weight pressing on my shoulders. I cried at the world’s brokenness. I cried at the fact that we live in a world in which people are more appalled at the seeming cruelty of nature than they are at mankind’s ability to hate and steal and murder. I cried at the fact that some people will never get to taste the assurance of the hope named Jesus. I cried to the Lord. Then I thanked the Lord for His promise of hope. I thanked the Lord that one day He will rule with truth and justice on the earth. I thanked the Lord that one day we and all creation will be free from the bondage we have made ourselves slaves to.
I encourage whoever is reading this to feel everything you are feeling. Feel the anger, the brokenness, the sadness, the pain, the confusion and anything else. Cry. Lament. Talk to God. Allow yourself to be vulnerable with Him. Ask Him to bring up new things and comfort you in new ways. Allow Him to do so. Commit your hope to the coming of Jesus.
If you’ve never experienced Jesus in this way before, if you have any questions or if you need to just talk, please reach out to me. I’d love to chat with you.
I spent most of today toying with the idea of taking our kayak out to the Manatee River, factoring in how I was feeling, what things graced my to-do list, and how many of the next few days were projected to have good weather. Eventually I decided I needed to clear my head and go out for a few hours. An old family friend’s story lingered in my memory, though, as it always does when I contemplate kayaking: several years ago a very large alligator, which was as long as his 11-foot-long kayak, swam next to him as he was on the water. No harm was done, but this story serves as a sobering reality of an alligator’s potential size, which pictures often don’t do justice. However, as a Florida native, my own experience and knowledge of alligator behavior pushed the story and the concern it evoked to the back of my mind.
Putting into the water, I was excited for the opportunity to explore the river whose banks so remind me of “Old Florida,” an untouched tropical wilderness marked by high-reaching palms, thick underbrush and serene choruses of birds. Navigating different side streams, I much enjoyed my time cruising through what seemed to be a different world, a world in which animals experience relief from the ever-growing threats of habitat destruction and human-wildlife conflict. A large venue of vultures decorated a tree, squirrels and lizards rustled about the bank’s grassy undergrowth, and water birds stood wondrously still and well-camouflaged amongst the reeds.
For me, it’s one of a few places in this world that seems so familiar yet leaves so much to be discovered.
I eventually just sat, allowing my kayak to drift in the slow-flowing water. As my body was refreshed in the cool shade of overhanging trees, I sat chatting with God, speaking Biblical truths in the face of my worry and allowing my soul to be refreshed as well. How thankful am I that I serve a God — a good Father — who cares about the things we care about, who knows the depths of our hearts and the joys we gain from this world.
My brief retreat into the wilderness did have to come to an end, though. I paddled back at a consistent pace in hopes of returning in time to prepare for a 7-o’clock Bible study with a former teacher and some high school students.
The boat dock came into sight as I rounded the bend and drifted closer to shore than I realized. It was in that moment that some big animal — unnoticed by me — and I gave each other quite a fright: in an instant the water EXPLODED around me in a big, loud, frantic manner, immediately sending waves of water spraying into my face. My head snapped to the right, from whence the initial burst came, as I tried to make out what was going. Eerily, I saw nothing but brown foaming, circulating water and undulating waves in the spot where the animal had disappeared. Holy crap, I thought, trying to process what was happening. My kayak rocked with the powerful, thrashing swells from the animal’s tail, and I knew I had startled a large alligator. As I felt it move through the water and under my kayak, there was naught I could do but stare at the bulging waves around me, watch water pour into the hull, hold my paddles still in my lap, pray I didn’t tip over, and ride out the surge, hoping that I wouldn’t see the gator resurface on my left.
As soon as the water calmed in the slightest and as soon as I realized my periphery lacked the image of an alligator, I glanced over my left shoulder trying to catch a fuller glimpse of the animal. I didn’t see it, but I didn’t need to after what had just happened. Sparing time for one more double-take, I started beelining towards the dock. After only a few strokes, I slowed my pace, my hands shaking in disbelief of what had just happened. Adrenaline coursed though my body, having prepared me for fight or flight, but neither were necessary. The alligator wasn’t after me. It wasn’t chasing me. It was trying to get out of the situation just like I was. Though the ordeal took less than ten seconds, I will admit that there are only a few other notable times in which I have felt as vulnerable and helpless as I did in those seconds.
It was the inability to do anything for that brief moment that invoked within me the greatest fear. Regaining my composure, I paddled up to the dock, tossing my waterlogged camera onto dry land, dragging the kayak up the ramp, and doubling-over in awe of what had just happened. Though my body instinctively shook, it wasn’t long before I was smiling at the insanity and wildness of what took place in the water just a few hundred meters away.
The alligator and I startled each other probably the same amount. Reflecting on the whole thing, it’s obvious that the alligator wasn’t out to attack me by any means, and I would never say that it was. It was trying to get to a safer place, and I just happened to find myself between the animal and its safety, which is likely why I had that encounter at all. I would guarantee that there were plenty of gators (that I didn’t see, by the way) around during the two hours I was on the water, but I just happened to accidentally come between this one and its safe place.
My dad was sure to bring to my attention, however, that it is alligator mating season. Mating takes place in early April, and nesting occurs from May to June. During this period, as occurs often in the animal kingdom, alligators may experience heightened levels of aggression. It’s a good reminder to carry with me in the back of my mind, especially if I go back out in the next few days. There is also a reality, though, that I was out on the water for about two hours and never once saw an alligator. And honestly, if I hadn’t been so close to shore and startled that alligator, I likely wouldn’t have known it was there either.
This alligator's instinct was to flee, as is the initial reaction of many surprised animals. Most of the time when people become involved it’s because they stand in the path leading to the animal’s safety. When encountering wild animals, make sure they have an available escape route, for their sake and yours.
No, not the Firefly Music Festival; Congaree National Park's Firefly Festival.
"Here come real stars to fill the upper skies,
And here on earth come emulating flies..."
- Robert Frost, "Fireflies in the Garden"
In the South, a key indication that summer is starting is the presence of fireflies. This year, I've seen them as I'm driving down highways, as I'm walking my dogs in the evening or as I'm closing up my pool for the night. They're everywhere, and I love seeing their blinking glow rise as the sun sets.
Congaree National Park in Columbia, South Carolina is a treasure chest for those who enjoy discovering nature's hidden gemstones. Here are three reasons why you should check out this National Park's Firefly Festival, which occurs in any given two-week period between late May and early June.
1. Congaree is one of a few places in the world where you can experience a natural wonder up-close and personally.
The Firefly Festival at this National Park exists to bring awareness to a seldom-known natural event: synchronous firefly flashing. This event, which can be found only in a few places worldwide, occurs when fireflies gather to mate with one another. Research continues to be done in hopes of determining the reasons for and mechanisms of the synchronous flashing, but it's currently suggested that the flashing is a form of male-male competition for females. While there are over 2,000 species of firefly found worldwide, only 3 species of synchronously flashing flies can be found in the U.S., one of them being right at Congaree!
2. You can walk amidst the magic of synchronously flashing fireflies.
After arriving at the park during this two-week period, you will find that workers at Congaree have extensively and adequately prepared for this event. Stepping into the encompassing glow of red lights, you find yourself transported into a seemingly new world. As your eyes adjust to the contrast between the red light and pitch blackness of the night, you find yourself walking through Congaree National Park underneath a deep red hue, which is a unique experience in itself. Soon you are directed to a trailhead on which you hike through a 0.8-mile trail that highlights the fireflies. As you walk, you're surrounded by forest and fireflies (and other visitors, of course). Almost immediately you will find yourself mesmerized by the synchronous flashing of the fireflies: all at once you'll see fireflies flashing in large groups, as if they are clusters of twinkling lights in the Milky Way. Everywhere you turn you are surrounded by these shining diamonds, and you're walking literally among and between them.
3. You can learn a lot, all while checking another National Park off your list!
The park rangers and volunteers at the event were not only incredibly helpful but also incredibly knowledgable. They were able to tell us a lot about Congaree National Park in general and about the synchronous fireflies themselves. In addition, they opened the nature center for the evenings that we were there. In the nature center, you can learn many interesting things, including the history of how Congaree came to be coined a National Park, different species of animal that one would expect to find in the swampy park, and various books and maps about an assortment of subjects. In addition to learning all about the park, you can also check another National Park off of your list — and who doesn't love that?
Happy Earth Day!
This year, there’s a popular saying, of sorts, that “Every day should be Earth Day.” While I am grateful for the awareness that this celebratory day brings to important issues such as climate change, pollution, wildlife conservation and the preservation of our planet as a whole, I do agree that the topic is a very demanding one that needs daily focus and attention. Making necessary changes to our lifestyles, businesses and society is the only way that we will begin to start the journey of repairing the damage we have done to our planet.
It’s easy to become discouraged when considering the ways that we’ve affected our planet. Often I envy the people of the past who were surrounded and living in the raw, wild beauty of nature, unaffected by mankind. I am very deeply sorrowed at the fact that I will never in my lifetime see Earth in that state, one in which wild animals that are presently facing extinction roam the earth freely. Never will I, nor anyone, see the vast populations of trees and wildlife that once inhabited the lands of fallen rainforests and crowded cities. We are racing more and more quickly to a polluted ocean decorated by the skeletons of once-flourishing coral reefs. Nothing will be able to restore our earth to its young, natural state, and nothing will be able to reverse the damage that is being done now and that will continue to be forced upon our planet.
It’s easy for outlooks to be depressed by this mindset. I once had no hope, as all I could do was yearn for the things of the far past, for things that will never return.
But my hope has been placed in something else, something greater than myself.
One day the Lord directed me to Isaiah 65. Verses 17-25 stood out to me, shaking my world and completely reshaping my vision of the future:
It is within these verses that a beautiful picture is painted of the New Heavens and New Earth that we get to live in, that the Lord will create for us to enjoy. This New Earth will be so much more beautiful than what we experience now that we won't even want to remember the things of old, the things right now (v 17). That blows my mind.
My soul now longs for the things that the Lord promises to give us, and I turn to this passage in times of desperation and sorrow when I think about our dying planet. I’m incredibly thankful that the Lord has promised this New Earth to us, along with the animals that will inhabit it. My favorite verse in this passage is verse 25 — guys, there will be animals (even snakes!!!) in heaven that we will get to live with and among. I’m SO EXCITED. I consider this my new hope, my greater hope for a future that is natural and beautiful and raw and untouched and wild, perfectly and intentionally designed by God.
One of the things I took for granted before moving from the Sunshine State is the great amount of wildlife that can be encountered so closely to where people are localized. I love returning to my “homeland” because I become nostalgic and because a heightened appreciation constantly grows for the place I consider home. While my deep love for Florida wildlife may slightly bias my opinion, I think that Florida is one of the coolest states for viewing wildlife, as animals are fairly active year-round.
Today I went to the Circle B Bar Reserve in south Lakeland, Florida for the first time. This nature reserve is one of many in Polk County, and its recent claim-to-fame was thanks to a viral video of a massive gator, nicknamed “Mr. Humpback” by frequent park-goers, walking across one of the trails. I had vague hopes of catching a glimpse of this seemingly-prehistoric beauty, but I figured the odds were small, as the ranch is composed of 1,267 acres. However, I also knew that, being in central Florida, the odds of seeing an alligator were high, especially down the trail aptly named Alligator Alley.
What I didn’t expect when I got to Circle B was the overwhelming natural beauty I encountered at every turn of every trail. I was so in awe at the wild serenity that surrounded me — all I could do was take pictures and soak it all in. Wildlife for viewing was not sparse, either. As soon as I stepped onto the trail I was met by all sorts of bustling animals, including great egrets and great blue herons. I soon saw osprey flying high above the treetops and out over the lake in what seemed to be a hunt for food, bald eagles tearing through the blue sky screeching and fishing, and other birds basking in the setting evening sun. After doing research and looking-up different animals, I’ve composed a list of those observed on my hike: great egrets, sandhill cranes, great blue herons, bald eagles, osprey, alligators (I saw 5!!), squirrels, bob head quail, white ibis, red bellied woodpeckers, ducks, turtles, and others that I was unable to identify.
Another thing that struck me unique about this nature reserve was the way that it remained seemingly untouched by man, serving as one of the rare truly wild places left in the world. For example, I was walking along the trail when, further out in the marsh, I heard a splash and a deep bellow. Spinning around to find the source of the sound, my eyes landed on an alligator shaking its head in the water, gobbling up a quick snack or meal. In all my time spent alligator-watching growing up, that was the closest I’d come to watching an alligator catch prey in the wild. In yet another part of the trail I stood still, allowing myself to be engulfed in the sounds of the different birds and animals — it was one of the coolest, most natural experiences I’ve been able to witness.
As a Lakeland native, I can assuredly say that my short time spent at Circle B was some of the most fruitful time I’ve spent on a nature reserve. Wildlife was present in all different forms, and the scenery was simply stunning from every angle. If you ever get the opportunity, I urge you to give Circle B Bar Ranch a chance — it’s free to the public, easily accessible, and worth every minute spent there.
1 Thess. 2:2
"...but with the help of our God we dared to tell His gospel in the face of strong opposition."