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.

 

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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)

Bewick’s Wren

Bewicks Wren

Recently I took a side trip into a field of millet approaching harvest. I thought the amber grain, although not as iconic as wheat, was very picturesque.

While walking between fields, I noticed birds frequently popped up. Most of the birds were some form of sparrow. I failed at getting any pictures of the sparrows, but I did get one picture tolerably focused.

Notice this bird has its tail cocked upright. This is the distinctive posture of a wren. Combine this with the fact it has a white eye line, and doesn’t have a black back with white stripes, and you have positive identification of a Bewick’s wren.

Like other wrens, it has a wonderful call. When the bird is growing up it learns to imitate the calls it hears, not from its father, but from the community of other Bewick’s wrens around it. Apparently the young birds have something in common with young men. Namely that it is easier to learn some things from people who are not too close to you.

I see this principle at work all the time in my church. I myself or one of the other men in the church can say things to a young adult or teenager which they would never accept from their parents. I have even had kids thank me for being straight up honest with them. I am frequently humored by this response, knowing they would have responded spitefully to their parents, who are far more invested in them.

1 Timothy 5:1-2 says “Do not rebuke an older man, but exhort him as a father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and with all propriety, the younger women as sisters.” A part of this verse is to make yourself available to encourage and instruct younger Christians as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Unfortunately, in today’s world we have a suspicious nature toward experience teaching and assisting youth. That is a part of how we have restructured our society. We have come to the conclusion that people with bad intentions are everywhere. We have made good people afraid to do good, for fear of false accusations.

But beneath all the clamor, there are still young people who will hear the advice of an older person. Without that advice the world and its false values get free run. Be careful that you behave toward everyone with all propriety, but don’t hold back your advice. If you refuse to do the things you can do, you are cooperating with the decline of society.

Screech-Owl

Today I found out that my brother’s family has an owl living around their house. This is the sort of news that gets a birder’s attention.

I saw a picture posted online. It was obviously a small owl, but the picture did not provide for accurate scale. It had bright yellow eyes and small ear tufts. They live slightly northwest of Phoenix, Arizona.

Given only this amount of information can the bird be positively identified?

There are eight large owls, and eleven small owls. This was obviously one of the small ones.

Of the small owls there are four which have ear tufts.

Of the small owls with ear tufts there are two that would regularly occur in that range.

Of the small owls, with ear tufts, in that range, only the western screech-owl has the yellow eyes. So it seems likely the bird is a western screech-owl—likely but not absolutely certain.

The detail that is most likely to confuse the results is range. It is common for birds to be seen outside of their normal range. Birders frequently remind each other that the birds don’t read the field guides or honor their defined ranges.

As it happens there is another owl, the whiskered screech-owl, that looks extremely similar to the western screech-owl. The whiskered is usually further south, but it is entirely possible for a bird to have wandered outside of the normal range.

Christians could benefit from a discussion of range as well. One of the identifying marks of a believer is their moral stand. This pattern of living means there are certain places a believer is unlikely to go.

Many years ago I was in a church that had a church covenant pasted in the front of their hymnals. It said, among other things, that the members of the church would not consume alcohol, and would not go into businesses that offer alcohol. I liked it. But I didn’t find it easy to follow back then.

Furthermore in today’s world it would be impractical to follow such a guideline. Very few restaurants do not serve alcohol. Of course it would be possible to simply stop eating out at the places that do. However, every grocery store sells alcohol and therefore it would be impossible to buy food to prepare at home. So a strict adherence to the guideline would mean eating out at every meal, and predominantly from fast food places.

This point serves to illustrate how hard it is to stay within your range. But I also know that many, if not most, Christians today do not agree with the guideline and therefore will not attempt to follow it. While we could have a lengthy discussion of whether it is right or wrong, what is and is not lawful or allowable for believers, that is not my point at the moment.

What I want you to see for now is a simpler point. Christians are less identifiable in today’s world because they have taken away one of the field marks. Many people bemoan the loss of witness in today’s world, but they don’t seem to make the connection to our behavior. In years gone by believers were better at being different than the world around them, and this inherently attracted people who wanted to improve their life. Today Christians seem more interested in standing up for their rights than growing the kingdom, and the resulting patterns of behavior are not as attractive to the lost as past patterns were.

Therefore, come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord; do not touch any unclean thing, and I will welcome you. 2 Corinthians 6:17 (HCSB)

Young American Coots

Coot Young

We normally think of baby birds as cute. But these young birds really don’t strike me as cute. Instead they seem kind of gangly, awkward, and maybe even clumsy. You guessed it! These are not babies, they are adolescents. While babies of any animal will evoke oohs and aahs, teenagers tend to evoke other emotions. I am sure you knew this about humans already, but this picture should help you to see it’s also true of many birds, such as these American coots.

Have you ever stopped to think about why? Although studying the stage of life may not make living with a teenager any more tolerable, it is possible to understand it. The reason for the awkwardness can be quickly summed up, they are the way they are because they are still growing up. Their size might well lead you to believe they are grown, but their experience level may not have taught them how to walk without tripping over their own feet yet.

I bring this up in this setting, because I think we would do better in many churches if we thought of Christians in more than two levels of growth. How is it that we expect believers either to be new believers, also called baby Christians or mature believers? What happens to all the awkward ages in between where they learn to walk and talk like a Jesus follower.

Given our habit of forgetting the growth process of a believer, I am not surprised so many Christians pretend to be more mature than they are. They have been a part of the family of God for too long to still be in diapers, and the only other choice they see is to be a person who has it all together. They know they really are not that person, but they don’t want to advertise their immaturity around the congregation, so they join the ranks of pretenders.

The situation is so serious that many Christians have no idea what a mature believer really looks like. The ranks are occupied by the pretenders. When this is the only example available, the higher mark of Christ-likeness is lost.

The only way to get beyond this malaise of mediocrity that has infested the ranks of Christendom is to undergo a God-guided growth process. Christ will point out sin in your life, and you go through the difficult work of dealing with it. A genuine Christ follower will be willing to work on themselves, will develop a record of successful character developments and will have their eyes on Jesus as their guide.

Ephesians 4:11-14 (HCSB) has a passage discussing what it looks like when we fully embrace this challenge in the church and its work. “And He personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit.”

Female Yellow-headed Blackbird

Yellow Head Female

This is a female, yellow-headed blackbird. They are seen considerably less often than male birds because their habits are almost opposite. The male will sit on top of the cattails and call out. They puff themselves up to show off their colors. And will vigorously defend their territory against intruders.

But the female will stay hidden down lower in the vegetation. They are pretty much only seen when dashing out to grab some slime or floating plant from the surface of the water. This is taken back inside the reeds where she will build it into a nest, built around several strong shafts, and suspended above the water.

The male makes sure everyone sees him while doing basically nothing, but the female prefers seclusion and carries on the tasks of nest building. Given the two different personalities, which are you and which should you be. For the blackbirds both are necessary. The male creates the nesting territory, the female builds the nest, raising and hiding the young. Within humanity the role of defending a territory from others is not needed, but the quiet, industrious, and humble work of the female fits what both men and women need to be in the kingdom of God.

When I use the word humble, I am referring to the way the female blackbird makes its entire life about others. She does not puff herself up. She does not seek to be the center of attention. Instead of spending her energy on herself, everything she does is for others.

This behavior is not only beneficial to humanity, it is Christ-like. Perhaps it is the greatest development of character a Christian should strive for as they mature. In Philippians 2:3 (HCSB) “Do nothing out of rivalry or conceit, but in humility consider others as more important than yourselves.

Redhead

Redhead Duck

This is a redhead. I found this one swimming around a city park. In this picture you can see the red color of the bird’s head. That coloration is occasionally seen as a brighter red if the light is just right, but usually is colored like this picture.

The redhead has a habit which a few other birds and waterfowl have and that is it will parasitize the nests of other birds. What this means is they will lay their eggs in another birds nest. For a very few species, they never nest on their own and this practice is their entire survival strategy. For the redhead though it is not so much a survival strategy as just an odd habit. Sometimes they lay an egg in the nest of another redhead. Often times it is laid in the nest of some other water bird. Herons, bitterns, geese and more have returned to the nest to find a new egg left by a redhead. These eggs seldom survive.

I believe there is a lesson here for Christians. Most of us have a desire to serve the Lord. We know this often comes in the form of serving others, both inside and outside the church. This sacrifice of service is precious to the church and to the servant. Sometimes for the person who is outside the church it is also appreciated and can draw the person into a saving relationship with Christ.

But at other times, the person being served will be spiteful about that service. They will see it as something Christians do out of foolishness. Others are so hostile to the gospel as to not want any acts of Christian kindness around them. In cases like this sometimes the decision should be made redirect our efforts.

Time is more valuable than money, and wasting time on a person who does not want the attention or assistance is robbing us of the opportunity to serve someone who does. Jesus spoke of it this way in Matthew 7:6 “Don’t give what is holy to dogs or toss your pearls before pigs, or they will trample them with their feet, turn, and tear you to pieces.”