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.

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Great Egret

Great Egret

Last week I showed you a picture of a snowy egret. This picture is not of a snowy egret. This picture, taken a few steps away from a snow egret, is of a great egret. The differences are numerous. This bird has dark legs and dark feet, while the snowy egret features yellow feet and dark legs. This bird has a light yellow or orange bill, while the snowy egret has a dark bill.

But the main difference is that the great egret is significantly larger. In the lingo of bird names a great bird is bigger than others. A great egret is the biggest of the egrets. A great blue heron is bigger than a little blue heron.

This bird however didn’t appear any taller than the snowy egret walking nearby. A close look at the picture will tell you the main reason why. The snowy was all stretched out, full length, but this great egret had folded up its neck making it appear hunched up. Birds do this sometimes when they are resting, and at other times when they are cold. Either way, it will make an identification based on size a little more difficult, especially at a distance, when the parts blend together into one indistinguishable, bright white, mass.

Humans are prone to a desire for greatness, but of course with us it is not a measure of size, but of accomplishment. If you want to be great in the kingdom of God, look to Scripture to understand greatness.

Jesus called them over and said to them, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles dominate them, and their men of high positions exercise power over them. But it must not be like that among you. On the contrary, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be a slave to all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life—a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45 (HCSB)

In other words, being great for God’s sake isn’t about making yourself bigger, but making yourself smaller. Maybe the egret is onto something after all.

Snowy Egret

Snowy Egret Flying (800x533)

This is a snowy egret. I know it is because of the yellow feet. Wading birds might have yellow, black, green, blue, or red legs. This is the only bird I know with just yellow feet.

I am not sure why it is that God gave this critter yellow feet. Many times I have heard birders describe him as the bird wearing little yellow socks, and my field guide refers to them as golden slippers. More than all the white wading birds out there, this bird has an easy point of identification to give to new birders.

But as great of a tool as this is, I remember being a new birder and being fooled. I have seen frustrated beginners looking for snowy egrets among a small flock, which were all snowy egrets. They were searching in vain for the yellow feet.

The reason they didn’t see them is that the egret is a wading bird. Commonly the feet are covered by water, or worse, by mud. When they are covered in mud they can appear the exact shade as the legs. The birds get their feet covered in mud because of a feeding pattern they use. They will rush around shuffling their feet in the muck to stir up food.

It might be wise if we slow down and consider if we can see any parallels here. Do Christians have any field marks that make for easy identification? 1 John 4:8 (HCSB) says the one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. There are other passages that concur with the idea our easy field mark is love.

But if that is the truth why is it we both know believers who seem to be anything other than loving? I suggest the primary cause is the same reason that people have trouble identifying snowy egrets. They have been stomping around in the mud. The difficulties of this world get us all down, but they aren’t necessarily going to defeat us. However if the mud, the mess we have been walking through, is the result of our own sinfulness then you can pretty much guess it’s going to win the battle and hide our love. Of course, there are struggles of life that are not the result of our sin, and these can be a source of rejoicing in the face of challenge. But perhaps that is for another devotional.

So why is it that we do this? Why do we get in the habit of stomping around in the mud? Most often it’s the same reason the birds do. It’s their feeding pattern. People also often mess themselves up the most, while trying to earn a living and provide for their families. The workplace often is the hardest place for adults to maintain their witness. But beyond that some people have been convinced that either by political correctness or the pressures of staying competitive, they must set aside their faith in the workplace. I don’t just mean not witnessing, praying, and reading their Bible, but also not living with the Biblical moral or ethical code.

It might be the subtlety of the salesman, profiting from addictive behaviors, or simply maintaining your social status by participating in idle talk. All of these are things the believer should not be involved in. While you are involved in them, it should be no surprise that your coworkers do not see the love of God at work in you. In this case you have been made useless for God’s Kingdom by what you considered to be ‘just business.’

Consider 2 Peter 1:5-9 (HCSB) focusing on the last sentence.

For this reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with goodness, goodness with knowledge, knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness, godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For these qualities are yours and are increasing, they will keep you from being useless or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. The person who lacks these things is blind and shortsighted and has forgotten the cleansing from his past sins.

Rosy-faced Lovebirds

Rosy-faced Lovebirds

While in Phoenix this past week I traveled from one side of the valley to the other in order to attend my first meeting with the Arizona Mission Network. Since I had to drive through the traffic for the Phoenix Open, I left early. Arriving with some extra time, I found a park directly behind the office and did some birding.

To my surprise I found a small flock of colorful birds. I assumed them to be parakeets, but upon further research, thanks to my wife, discovered they were Rosy-faced Lovebirds.

These small parrots were escapees and while most escaped birds die out, in very rare instances they will form a breeding population. This is what happened in Phoenix and over the last 25 years they have increased in numbers.

These birds are a good example of thriving wherever God plants you.

The nature of our world is perfect for sowing discontent inside of us. No matter how good our situation is, no matter how well we have improved our lot, society presents a myriad of ways things could be better.

Because of this barrage of unrealistically grand lifestyles and gadgets, most of us can quickly come up with a list of ways in which life is short changing us. Discontent rules where idealism is unconstrained by reality or pragmatism.

In terms of living under a free trade system this striving for more can be beneficial to society. Unfortunately for believers it can be tantamount to distrusting God. We know from Scripture that He is always giving us the best. But with so much materialism surrounding us we can become distracted from what is truly best to focus on possessions.

It is always better to trust God. He knows how much we can take without being corrupted. He knows how much He can trust us to use for the blessing of others. Paul described it perfectly in Philippians 4:12 (NASB) I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.

Northern Harrier

Northern HarrierThis is a picture of a northern harrier. I was attempting to get a picture of a sparrow in a field when this guy flew over. The sparrow disappeared down into the brush, and in revenge I took a picture of the harrier as it flew away.

The picture illustrates something about the manner in which this hawk hunts. It will not only follow its prey visually, it will also fly low and slow enough to listen for its next meal. Somewhere down below is a rodent standing watch for the rest of his family. When he sees the hawk flying nearby he will let out a little bark. This will warn the family to run for cover.

But up above, it also signals the harrier, which will turn to follow the sound. It might not see the rodent yet, but the victim will still be watching. When the bird turns its direction, it will likely let out another warning because of the strength of its instinct. The bird will again fine tune its direction. As the bird gets closer the former sentinel now makes a mad dash out of the clearing, likely screaming panic as it goes. These sounds guide in the final and deadly approach of the harrier. The rodent is assisting the hawk with the language of defeat.

Unfortunately, rodents are not alone in using the language of defeat. I see it all the time among people. It’s on Facebook when a job hunter fills their wall with drunken pictures and temperamental rants. It’s in the classroom when a student says to themselves they are too stupid to learn algebra. It’s on ball fields, where players don’t even wait for the game to end, before openly blaming teammates for losing games. It is very common for people to get emotionally carried away and say thing which are aimed at others, but harm themselves as well.

Like the rodent in the field it might start with a normal life circumstance, likely progresses with instinctive reactions overriding common sense, and then finds its full destructive force when words spill out under the spell of emotional pain. The speaker feels justified in making harsh comments publicly, but everyone exposed to their tirade will shape their opinion of the speaker accordingly.

Do you remember the Parable of the Talents where the master says, “I will judge you by your own words.”? Most of us are guilty of speaking unwisely and revealing to those around us, the less positive side of our own nature. James speaks to the issue by teaching the tongue is untamable. These passages, and many more, tell us how important it is to choose our words carefully.

Probably one of the best quick summaries is from Proverbs 25:28. A man who does not control his temper is like a city whose wall is broken down.

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)