Monday, July 25, 2016

A Fish or a Snake

In His "sermon on the mount," Jesus attempted to help His disciples understand how much their heavenly Father cared for them. He appealed to their experience of earthly fathers:
Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? (Matthew 7:9-10)
I appreciate, of course, the Lord's point, but verse 10 has always struck me as involving a false dichotomy. My own sons, who have always had a deep appreciation for all kinds of creatures, would usually rather catch a snake than a fish. This was confirmed in late May when they had the opportunity to visit their uncle (my brother) Dave in his stomping grounds in the lowcountry of South Carolina. Nathan caught both the Largemouth Bass and the Water Moccasin pictured below on the same day, but it was the snake with which he was most pleased.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Resurrection, the Explanation

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked (at somewhat of the last minute) to preach a sermon at my home church, Antioch. As we were in the middle of a series on the book of Acts, I chose to offer an apologetic regarding the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, in which I argued that we cannot understand either the book of Acts or the history of the world apart from the acknowledgment that Jesus really did rise from the dead. Here's that sermon:

Thursday, May 5, 2016

It's a Gray Area

It's nearing that time when the family takes its annual trek to south-central Oregon for a day of monitoring nesting Great Gray Owls (Strix nebulosa). We've done this every year since about 1993, banding young when there are some, catching adults occasionally. It started out as a research project investigating the demographic relationship between this population, the one to the south (in and around Yosemite), and others in the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon and in Idaho/Wyoming/Montana. That genetics study led (as I originally suspected) to the realization that these populations have been largely (if not completely) isolated from one another since the last ice age.

At any rate, in anticipation of this year's outing, here are two pics, the first of our son Nathan with an adult nearly as large as he was, and the second (from last year) of Nathan's daughter, Celly, with a nestling.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Our Extravagantly Loving Creator

A longtime close friend sent me an email in which he asked me to consider this blog post by Tim Challies. In it, Challies, a young-Earth (and young-universe) creationist, responds to a lengthy quote from the book Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose? by Denis Alexander, who is apparently a theistic evolutionist. I'm assuming that each of the four of us--me, my friend, Challies (the blogger) and Alexander (the author)--is a follower of Christ who cares about truth, and who seeks to discern truth by taking seriously the Creator's revelation to us in Scripture and His revelation to us through the creation itself. These shared commitments are really significant (especially in our day and culture), and I want to celebrate that common ground.

But it is precisely because we each care about truth (and because my friend specifically asked me to) that I'll briefly respond here to these two different claims, identifying where I take each to have strayed from the truth.

The excerpt from Alexander's book is a straightforward retelling of what Earth's history would look like if the 4.6 billion years it involved were condensed into a single day. I've read such illustrations elsewhere, and the chronology that Alexander shares is reasonably faithful to the actual records (geologic and fossil).* Humanity really does show up in the very last three seconds of such a day. The problem for Alexander is that he (like a great many other folks) accepts an evolutionary explanation for this chronology, whereas taking the evidence seriously--critically examining it--necessarily yields a rejection of Darwin's speculative theory.

The new life forms that appear at the various stages of Earth's long history do so without evolving from a previous form. Each species that has ever lived appears in the fossil record without precursors and fully formed, fully adapted (designed) for its time and place and for the complex ecology of which it was a part. Each species recorded in the fossil record remains the same throughout its tenure there, looking at the time of its extinction exactly as it did at the time of its creation. There is as much evidence for species evolving into one another in a neo-Darwinian fashion as there is for species morphing into one another in a Transformer-like manner--that is to say, none. If we take the fossil record at face value, we recognize that the same Creator who brought the universe into existence, and who designed the universe and, more specifically, the Earth, for life, also designed and created each new life form at its proper time. And the evidence from the fossil record does nothing to contradict the evidence from our experience, that living things invariably produce offspring "after their kind," as the Bible has it.

But what I was really asked to respond to was Challies' claim. After admitting the usefulness of Alexander's all-Earth-history-in-a-single-day illustration because "we have trouble understanding the vastness of billions of years," Challies gets to his main point...
What I cannot reconcile with my understanding of the biblical account of creation is that man appears only at the very, very end of it all.
He elaborates on his own angst,
In this understanding of our origins, the history of the universe is not the history of mankind.
Challies is, of course, more to be pitied here than censored. It takes both humility and honesty to begin his argument by admitting that its conclusion is based largely in his own understanding and his personal inability to reconcile the evidence. I think I can assist him there, offering some suggestions that might help him reach a truer understanding of the world God created for us and, more importantly, a better appreciation of the bigness of that Creator/Redeemer God.

But before offering those hints, let me address one other claim in Challies' post, to wit,
The biblical writers seem to want us to understand that the world was created for man and that it had no purpose apart from man.
Challies offers no support for this claim, and may feel that the popularity of this view precludes the need for establishing its validity. I could write an entire chapter addressing this misconception,** but will content myself here with offering a couple of alternate notions.

First, I acknowledge the temptation to read the creation accounts through such an anthropocentric lens. There are at least a couple of goods reasons for this. One is that it is human nature to place ourselves at the center of things, to make ourselves the protagonists of the story. So to the extent that the Bible's accounts seem to give us a place of centrality, they feed right into our sense of our own worth. More basically, though, the Bible is the Creator's revelation specifically to humanity, and not to any of the rest of His creatures. We alone (because created in His image) have the ability to read this propositional revelation, to understand (in part) His purposes in creating us and subsequently establishing relationship with us. So it is only to be expected that our role in God's plans (rather than His purposes for the rest of creation) would take a central place in that revelation. The ultra-brief creation account of Genesis 1 gets quickly to the creation of man and woman--rather than discussing in even greater detail (than it does) the creation events of the prior 4.6 billion years of Earth's history--because the theme that occupies the majority of the rest of the Bible is God's subsequent interactions with the descendants of Adam and Eve.

But no matter how prominently mankind figures in God's purposes in creating the universe, it simply does not follow (indeed, is ludicrous to claim, as Challies does) that the creation of the universe "had no purpose apart from man."

A correct understanding is that the Bible's several creation accounts are not anthropocentric but theocentric. They are about the Creator/Redeemer, and only derivatively about mankind. We are not the heroes or the protagonists; we don't play the lead role. The Bible is about God, and the same is true of the various creation accounts it contains.

If we examine such creation accounts more closely, what we find is that the central theme is not our superiority over the rest of God's creatures but rather our shared creatureliness, and the Creator's standing as wholly other. This is apparent not only in Genesis 1, but in Psalm 104 and Psalm 148. Similarly, in the picture (in Revelation 5) of the New Creation and the fulfillment of the purposes for the present one, not just humanity, but every living thing will be gathered together in praise of the Creator:
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, "To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever." (Rev. 5:13)
But perhaps no creation passage makes my point--and refutes Challies' claim--as clearly as the early Christian creed embedded in Paul's letter to the church in Colossae. Its theme is the preeminence of Christ, "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation."
For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities--all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:16-20)
Christ not only created all the living things that have inhabited the earth over the past 4.6 billion years--he died to reconcile them to Himself. To be sure, mankind is central to the need for that death--it was our fallenness (and not that of any other creature) that led to the need for that redemptive, reconciling, sacrificial death. But God clearly seems to have purpose and value for all of creation, and not just for mankind.

But even if one wishes to insist that creating humankind was God's ultimate purpose for creating this universe, it is perfectly reasonable to think that He may have used the rest of His creatures--and Earth's long history--to prepare things for humanity. This idea has the full support of both the biblical and scientific records. The creation 'week' (of Genesis 1:3-2:3) is an account of just this--how the Creator prepared the unformed, lifeless Earth described in 1:2 into a fit place for humanity. And the scientific discoveries of recent decades have verified the truth of these ancient passages, confirming both the formlessness of the early Earth and the role of other living things in changing the planet--its crust, atmosphere, and all--into the ideal place for humanity that it was by the time God eventually created our species.

It seems that Callies (like others) is predisposed to reject this conclusion to which the united dual revelation leads, and that because it doesn't fit with the timing arrived at by Lightfoot and Ussher's 17th-century interpretation of Genesis 1. 'Couldn't God have created everything already fit for human habitability, rather than taking long ages to achieve His purposes?' I don't know the answer for the true hypothetical, but, given the physics and chemistry with which He chose to endow this creation, the answer is 'no.' In this (actual) universe, God really did require the miraculous interactions of all that He made over billions of years to arrive at the perfect place for humanity.***

God reveals Himself to us first as Creator. And if we think about it, art can be (roughly) divided into two types. Passive art is largely finished when the artist completes the last brush stroke or precise incision. The resulting painting or statue is inactive. To be sure, the viewer brings something to the appreciation of the piece, but the piece itself is fixed and unchanging. The other category is active--or, better yet, interactive--art, and is exemplified by symphony or drama. In these, the artist establishes how the art is intended to play out, but he or she voluntarily allows others (the musicians or actors) to play a significant role in the unfolding of the ever-changing work of art.

God's creation is not passive art--it is interactive art. I suspect that Callies would acknowledge the fact that this universe was intended by its Creator more as a drama than as a painting. But his objection, then, really devolves into an impatience on his own part, a desire that the drama arrive at the penultimate scene much quicker than it does. And my response is that--in the drama that God actually wrote, all the prior scenes were absolutely necessary for the introduction (in the second-to-last scene) of the actors whose welfare and destiny the Author--who is also the Star--had in view throughout.

Unlike us, God is never impatient. Unlike us, the Creator doesn't need to economize. Indeed, God is outside of time--which He created--and so the 4.6 billion years of Earth history, or even the 13.6 billion years of the universe's history, are no longer for the Creator than if He had created Earth and everything in it instantaneously. But rightly understanding the long history of the Earth and universe has at least two implications for us.

First, it should give us a much deeper appreciation of the severity of the Fall. That our sinfulness brought a curse upon all of a 4.6-year-old very good creation is no small thing. That we--as the last species created--could overnight mess things up for all of creation entails a gravitas that is hard to overstate.

But that leads to the second implication--which is how incomprehensibly great is the Father's extravagant love and forgiveness. It is an indescribable wonder that He lovingly prepared the universe over 13.6 billion years, and took 4.6 billion years in carefully crafting Earth as a perfect home for us. But it is even more remarkable that, even before we spurned His love and trashed that creation into which He had put so much, He instituted an immensely costly plan for making all things right. Psalm 19 and many other Scripture passages instruct us to learn about God's love, provision, , glory, and forgiveness through the study of the creation itself. When by doing so we discover the truth about God's extravagance in creating, it brings much greater depth to the meaning of passages like Ephesians 1:3-4, which have in view not a period of 144 hours (between His forming of Earth and His creation of mankind) but at least 4.6 billion years:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world!

* The only significant mistake in Alexander's chronology has to do with the establishment of the genetic code. He has it as occurring somewhat after the first life forms. The reality is that the universal genetic code seems to be an essential characteristic of all life on Earth, and that the earliest living cells exhibited that code already fully established. It seems that only a pre-commitment to evolutionism would cause Alexander to place the establishment of the genetic code rather later than the first life forms.

** Actually, a full-length book addresses this popular misunderstanding of the Bible's creation accounts: Living With Other Creatures, by Richard Bauckham.

*** To explore these ideas further, the reader is directed to Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, by Hugh Ross, and The Privileged Planet, by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay W. Richards.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

(Lepidopteran) Signs of Spring

Here on the high desert of Oregon, the last few days have been warm and beautiful, with highs in the 70's. It's as though we left winter behind overnight. Oh, we'll still have some chances of (even significant) frosts, and we'll have to be diligent about protecting some of our sprouting plants from those. But it seems that every living thing recognizes that spring is here.

The Turkey Vultures and Osprey have been back for more than a week, after spending our winter months in South America and southern Mexico, respectively. Golden Eagles and Great Horned Owls have been incubating for weeks, and the pair of American Kestrels is staking its claim to the nest box in the juniper stump. But while those raptors--and birds in general--mostly key in on day length to guide the initiation of migration, courtship, and breeding, it is warm days like those we're now experiencing that bring about the awakening of insect life.

For me, spring really begins when the male Sara's Orangetips come out.

The first butterfly we see each year is usually a Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa). One of the few species to overwinter as adults in our neck of the desert, these showy insects can appear on even a February or late January day if the temperature rises high enough. But I know that we're in for a stretch of several nice days when the orangetips are on the wing.

Sara's Orangetips (Anthocaris sara) are small members of the Pieridae family, which contains the marbles, the whites, and the sulphurs. Males, like the one pictured above, appear in pretty large numbers on such warm March or April days as we've been having. And, as Jasper and I experienced yesterday, even on those first days they have seemingly boundless energy.

We were both armed with cameras, and while the primary goal was to monitor a couple of Golden Eagle nesting territories, the secondary goal was to get a picture of one of these small butterflies. Each time one of us locked on to one of them, it would lead us on a merry chase, in and out of the sagebrush, around and back again. Their flight was strong, never above a few feet off the ground, and wandering, not heading in a single direction or leaving the area. And though they frequently teased us by briefly hovering over a patch of phlox or other flower, they rarely alit. We followed one individual for more than ten minutes, without its ever landing, before it flew beyond the canyon rim and left us. It was Jasper who finally captured the pic above, as that one landed at his feet while he was busy chasing two others.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Eagle Elder

We wrapped up the winter eagle trapping season last week with a pretty special capture. We had a good bit of success despite the fact that winter itself was extremely short, with good trapping weather (cold and/or snow) having ended by the first week of January. But whether there is weather or not Golden Eagles still have to eat, and carcasses are the mainstay in Central Oregon until marmots and ground squirrels come out of hibernation and birds and mammals start producing young.

At any rate, we caught a resident adult male, and found that he was already banded. So after taking some measurements, some pictures, and some blood (for a lead level study), we turned him loose.

As I filled out the Bird Banding Lab's band recovery form, I kept getting an error message; the band number I was entering was for a band that was deployed so long ago that it was unlikely to still be on a live bird. I don't have the full banding information yet, but the short version is that this male was banded as a nestling somewhere in our general area on June 6, 1996, almost 20 years ago!

Actually, the minimum age of this eagle (at time of our capture) was 19 years and 10 months. A check of the Bird Banding Lab's longevity records for this species shows our eagle to be the seventh oldest documented in the wild. He has a way to go yet to set the record, as a Utah Golden Eagle banded and subsequently encountered dead was a minimum of 31 years and 8 months old at death. Five of the six oldest birds were found dead, and the sixth--though released alive--was encountered only because it had run afoul of telephone or electric wires. So the eagle pictured below (with My son Nathan, his wife Nuka, and my granddaughter Celestine) is the oldest banded Golden Eagle to have been recaptured alive. Long may he yet live!

Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Owl and the Duck

Friday morning, my daughter Willow (whose turn it was to feed them) called me to the duck pen, where there was a male Great Horned Owl. It had apparently found its way into the pen during the night, but couldn't find its way back out. (There're only small spaces where the chicken wire 'roof' doesn't align perfectly with the 'walls,' and, anyway, an owl may be able to descend through such a space and yet be unable to climb straight up to get out the same way.) The result was one dead duck (which had already lived a full life and had quit laying eggs awhile ago) and the opportunity to band the local male owl. My granddaughter Celestine helped Willow and me with the banding.

Monday, February 29, 2016

A New Kind of Apologist

I had the opportunity to coauthor a chapter in a book that comes out next Tuesday, March 1. The book is edited by (and the brain-child of) Sean McDowell, and is titled A New Kind of Apologist.* It includes the wisdom of quite a varied group of apologists addressing a broad range of topics, all centered around the issue of what it means to successfully and winsomely defend the truth of the Christian world- and life-view in this day and culture.

Among 27 mostly short chapters are the following... one by Brian Auten on "Apologetics and New Technologies," and one by Brett Kunkle titled "A Practical Plan to Raise Up the Next Generation." My friend Mary Jo Sharp contributed the chapter "Why More Women Should Study Apologetics." Derwin Gray offers "The Multiethnic Church: God's Living Apologetic," and Christopher Brooks shares about "The Urban Apologist." Other contributors whose names you might recognize include Jay Richards, Casey Luskin, Michael Licona, Scott Smith, and Alan Shlemon. Interspersed every once in awhile are brief interviews (J.P. Moreland, Dennis Rainey, and my friend Gavin MacFarland).

As the founder of The Justice Conference, my pastor and friend Ken Wytsma was asked to write a chapter on social justice. He, in turn, invited me to collaborate with him, and the result was chapter 5, "Social Justice and a New Kind of Apologist." I highly recommend you buy the book, but through the permission of the author and publisher, I can offer the opportunity to read our chapter here.

* A New Kind of Apologist
Copyright 2016 Sean McDowell
Published by Harvest House Publishers
Eugene, Oregon 97402

Friday, February 19, 2016

Trapping Golden Eagles

We're about at the end of another winter season of trapping Golden Eagles. It was a family affair again, and the photo above is of my daughter Willow holding an adult female. The season was short, as the weather has been unseasonably warm ever since the first week of January. (Our trapping success is greatest when the birds are stressed by cold and snow.) Fortunately, we had good success in December; we deployed PTTs (platform terminal transponders, i.e., solar-recharging, satellite transmitters) on four resident adults, and caught a couple more for banding and blood lead analysis. My son Nate is producing a short film about this work--go here to learn about or to contribute to that project.