Not a Herring Gull

Ring Billed Gull

Recently I went to a shopping center where I had seen gulls last year. They had been in perfect plumage, but seasons changed before I could get back up there to take the picture.

I wanted that picture, so I made a point of going back this year. Upon arriving all I saw was a few gulls on top of the lightposts. These were at a lousy angle for pictures, but with the help of a few french fries I managed to perform a couple of miracles. Not only did I pose the birds in exactly the best location and lighting, I also managed to produce about three times as many birds out of thin air. I have no idea where all those birds came from.

This is my favorite picture out of the set. When I got home to sort out the pictures I took a moment to verify my lovely picture of a herring gull. Rememeber I had been anticipating this shot for almost a year. When I checked the field guides, I quickly realized it wasn’t a herring gull at all. This is a ring-billed gull.

Instead of telling you about the bird, let me tell you about the mistake. There are a variety of gulls, but here in my area there are only a couple of species. It was a lot of years ago that I had identified these gulls and sorted out the field marks. Since then I had simply forgotten. When I saw a bunch of similar gulls I quickly assumed that they were the herring gulls because herring gulls are the most common gull in many, many places. I don’t live in one of those places. In the meantime, when I read birding magazines, websites and books they constantly mention herring gulls as the common junk bird of gulls. This would happen with all the reading material except the field guide, It, of course, always gets the details right.

When I mistook the ring-billed gull for another it was a shame. After all the ring billed is so much more spectacular than a herring. Notice the yellow eye, the fine streaking on the head, and the very unique color of the legs that defies description. Those legs are neither white, gray, yellow, pink, green or any other color commonly named, while managing to be close to all of them. But despite the shame of it, ultimately my mistaken identity was no big deal.

What is a big deal is when a believer decides that he knows everything already and steps back from Bible study. They have a general idea of what the Bible says because once upon a time they studied it. What they don’t know is which of their memories are fading, or being replaced by common theology. What I call common theology is the ideas every man on the street believes is Christian doctrine, only a lot of it is wrong. Since we are all still in contact with media and culture, we are likely to begin to buy into this common theology if we are not regularly countermanding their falsehoods with the truth of God’s Word.

Paul speaks about this theological drift and how quickly it can take shape saying in Galations 1:6-7 (NASB) “I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”

So never decide you know enough of the Bible. Churches have Bible studies for every age range because we all need to be anchored to Scripture and will drift without it.

 

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

Here is a barn swallow. The picture is fuzzy because of the speed of the bird, but you can still see the distinctive swallow tail, and some of the white highlights in his tail feathers. I enjoy watching these birds because of their highly aerobatic flights. They will zip in and out and around man-made structures with ease.

A couple of decades ago, I was birding alongside a pond in California when I noticed these birds doing mid-air stalls, followed by a flip turn and flight back in the direction they came from. In my mind I visualized the perfect picture this would provide as the bird stopped in mid-air for a fraction of a second with his feathers on both, wings and tail, spread fully apart showing the details most birders only get slight glimpses of. Unfortunately, this was before the age of digital cameras and it was impractical to keep trying to get the picture given the cost of film and developing after the first few failures.

A mid-air stall is when the bird turns to fly straight up, without flapping or continuing to propel himself forward. Pretty soon gravity overpowers momentum and the bird begins to fall backward. This is when he would effortlessly flip himself, flying back in the direction he came from.

There is that brief moment when gravity and flight are at odds with each other over the fate of the swallow. For just the briefest of moments it looks like gravity is going to win, but very quickly the truth is revealed. Gravity might have had a plan. It might have built up its own hopes of sending the bird splashing into the pond below. Those hopes were futile. The truth is, even when gravity was on the verge of defeating the bird, it was unknowingly serving the bird and its planned flight.

So it is with Christ in the crucifixion. Satan, sin and death all thought for a moment they were going to overwhelm God and His Son. They hoped to see His pathetic attachment to lowly humans to become His downfall. Since He was foolish enough to take on their weak and decaying flesh, they would use this loving choice against Him. Crucifixion was accomplished. Satan’s victory seemed to be assured.

Then came the resurrection, and the realization that Satan’s schemes served God’s will. It was our victory, not the devil’s, that was secured.

When this corruptible is clothed
with incorruptibility,
and this mortal is clothed
with immortality,
then the saying that is written will take place:
Death has been swallowed up in victory.
Death, where is your victory?
Death, where is your sting?
Now the sting of death is sin,
and the power of sine is the law.
But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory
through our  Lord Jesus  Christ!

1 Corinthians 15:54-57 (HCSB)

Mud Nests

Mud Nest

This is a mud nest. It was made by a barn swallow, and in this picture you can see the round head of the bird on the right side of the nest and the thin tail sticking over the left side. This nest was on an arched entryway of a hotel in Tucson.

These birds will make their nests by gathering mud, one mouthful at a time, which are then carried back home and applied to the structure. The nest will start off relatively small and grow throughout the season, as the parents continue to bring home more and more mud from their daily travels.

Aren’t you glad people don’t do this? It would be horrible if every day we brought into our homes the gunk we accumulate during our day, spewing it out in our homes and building higher and higher walls.

Come to think of it, that is exactly what most of us do. The only difference is the gunk of our lives is not mud but the anxieties of the day. “My boss yelled at me.” “Everyone else drives like idiots.” “They are laying off more people at the factory.” “The new guy is outselling me.”

We pour this gunk over the people in our households and yes, as we do we quite often build higher and higher walls. It wouldn’t be so bad if we actually discussed each of the issues above and discussed them calmly, but most of the time we would rather not admit directly what is bothering us and calm is not the order of the day.

It doesn’t take long before the decorating scheme of your home becomes Modern American Anxiety. The kids retreat to their rooms, or to friend’s houses and discussions with your spouse begin to feel like congressional debates.

The solution to this is to not carry your worries home. Paul gave some advice about the right ways to deal with these anxieties in Philippians 4:6-7

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

This is a cactus wren, the state bird in Arizona. This bird knows how to exist in the desert. It doesn’t need any freestanding water to survive, being able to get all the moisture it needs from its food. It also has learned to take good advantage of the prickly nature of cactus.

Perhaps the most menacing of the cacti is the jumping cholla, a plant that will have sections break off and lodge itself in unwary passersby. These sections then will work their way deeper into the victim as they attempt to get free, unless they know exactly how to remove them. Cactus wren will commonly nest in these plants though, skillfully building down in the middle of the cacti’s natural defenses.

This does not stop all possible predators, but attempting to raid a nest is unlikely to succeed because not only is the location highly defensible, but the birds are known to aggressively defend their homes. When a predator attempts to access it, the birds will knock them off balance amid the deadly spines.

One story of such an event is on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. They mention a Yuma antelope squirrel that was knocked into the spines and then to the ground. The cactus wren is able to successfully defend its nest because of the combination of a defensible position and aggressive defensive behavior.

Believers should take note of this combination.

The first step to success is to find a defensible position. The easiest way for a Christian to remain in a defensible position is to carefully and closely align yourself with God. Being in agreement with Biblical morality and strong in your personal relationship with God through Christ will allow you to miss the attacks that come from being unprepared and practicing immorality. Much of the warfare believers face is because they are living morally compromised and spiritually distant.

The second step is to know when and how to fight back for the remaining attacks. This can be tricky because our warfare is not like the battles of this world, so our defensive behavior needs to be different. Very often it is a Spirit led word of witness for the Lord. There may be times when the appropriate defense is to simply to explain a misunderstanding, socially or theologically. Increasingly in our world, the defensive component includes political involvement such as voting, campaigning, and political action campaigns. In all cases, our defense includes speaking out, not rudely, but gently and truthfully.

Consider Ephesians 6:11-13 (HCSB)

Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand.

 

 

Verdin

VerdinThis is a verdin. It’s a small and very common bird of the desert southwest. The verdin has the distinction of being a tireless builder.

They might build 10 or more nests a year, all in the same area.

They will build different nests for nesting (having a family) than for roosting (socializing).

They will build different nests for different times of year. In the hot months the entrance catches the wind to provide cooling, while in colder seasons the entrance will be protected from the wind.

The male and female will cooperate in this building process, with the male building the stick frame, and the female finishing up with the decorative touches.

The roosting nests, used primarily in the winter, will have better insulation and more space, allowing a large number of birds to crowd in together to conserve energy.

All of these facts show the verdin’s skill as avian architects. They certainly do their part for developing livable habitat inside bushes. Their abandoned nests are utilized by a multitude of other animals, and in this way, God uses their predisposition to construction in greater ways.

I think every believer should be aware of God using their daily routines in greater ways too. We might not see how our work, patterns, and hobbies are being directed by God, but we generally only see God’s work when we are looking for them and He wants us to see them. God is always at work, and at work in everything. That would include the little details of your life like your trips to the gym and your time in line at the bank.

The believer who wants to be used by God might only need to open their eyes in order to find they are already being used. But the believer who wants to be used better, can take specific steps to make this possible too.

First look at your life and consider the sins you have begun to downplay or overlook. Sin often hinders our usefulness, and especially unconfessed sin. Second for everything you do, do it to the best of your ability. Put forward your best effort at work and in productive tasks. Even in recreation and life management activities watch for ways to be positive, uplifting, and available to God.

In the meantime consider Hebrews 3:4 (HCSB) Now every house is built by someone, but the One who built everything is God. God is always at work, but you can do more by focusing on opportunities to cooperate with Him.

Autofocus Blues

Auto Focus

As a birder, one of my favorite tools is my camera. As a photographer one of my favorite subjects is birds. Now for my aging eyes and reflexes, this presents a basic problem. Birds move. This means that if I am going to get good pictures I have to see them very clearly in order to get a good focus, and I need to do so very quickly.

This is a formula for failure. Although I improve with time at getting the aim and focus correct, it also results in an awful lot of useless snaps.

The shortcut for this problem is called autofocus. The computer in the camera will focus for me. Autofocus is so much better than me that I can zoom in with native resolution and see every single vein on every single feather of a bird. I am not that good without autofocus. Autofocus is great sometimes.

But then again there are other times, like the picture above. This bird is an immature hummingbird, hovering above the water outlet of a desert spring. It is not the kind of setting I get to visit very often. Even if I went a hundred more times, I am not sure I could find another hummingbird behaving this way. So autofocus and I took a picture. I was attempting to photograph the bird, but autofocus chose the two thick blades of reed between me and the subject.

Shortcuts can be convenient, but they can also rob us of the ability to do things for ourselves. When we take the time to practice and discipline ourselves to master difficult tasks, it also means that we have allowed ourselves to become more than we would have been without the experience. The shortcut robs us of the new abilities and often hides from us the potential we are missing.

This is probably truer in spiritual matters than most of us want to admit. We learn our theology from unchallenged sermons, which are sparsely digested. We know the same Scripture verses we knew when we graduated high school, but no more. Our daily Bible study is reduced to devotionals that have one or two verses at most, and prebaked ideas drawn from them for our controlled consumption. (Yes, I know, this piece is exactly that kind of thing.)

None of these issues I describe are problems if they are handled correctly. Sermons should be fact checked and the portions worth keeping should be fully digested. Memorizing Scripture should be a lifelong process. In every way, if we want to take our lives out of spiritual autofocus, then you have to stay connected to God through His Word.

The shortcut of letting someone or something else form the connection for you will leave you spiritually vulnerable. Only when you carefully develop your own disciplines will you be sure you are on the right track.

2 Timothy 2:15 (HCSB) Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.

Lesser Nighthawk

Nighthawk

This is a picture of a lesser nighthawk. They come into our area in the summer and you can see them flying around the lights on ball fields and parking lots hawking insects at night.

They are strong flyers and a lot of fun to watch, but one of their most interesting traits is their vocalization. They make noises like sound affects in a Sci-Fi movies.

There have been a few nights when the noises coming from the surrounding desert made me want to scan the skies for a flying saucer.

I can picture a group of city dwellers camping in the desert. After nightfall, those sounds begin rising up around them, causing their imaginations to rise up within them. Given the creepiness of the calls and the furtiveness of the human imagination, one could predict a UFO sighting before the night is over.

Only it’s not a UFO, it’s just a nighthawk dashing in and out of the corners of their vision as it grabs insects attracted by the people, the sweet smell of s’mores, and the light of the campfire.

This alien assumption, which is so easily made about the lesser nighthawk, is also rather easily made about believers. We might not want to admit it, but at times we say things that sound completely alien to people who are unfamiliar with our language.

We say we are:

Children of the King,
Justified and sanctified,
Being made perfect, and
Washed in the blood.

Any or all of these terms might mean a great deal to us, but it is only going to help the unbeliever when we slow down enough to tell them what we mean by each phrase. Paul says a great deal about the importance of saying things in a way that can be understood in 1 Corinthians 14. Verse 9 summarizes the responsibility of the speaker in any communication to speak with clarity.

In the same way, unless you use your tongue for intelligible speech, how will what is spoken be known? For you will be speaking into the air.