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Archive for March, 2009

Returned to Sender

letter-to-grandmother-and-papa-002

This letter arrived in my mail box recently. I remember writing it, as an eight-year-old, seated at the kitchen table. Crafting the letter, and printing it in my best handwriting, seemed like a lot of hard work. Boyd, the best playmate ever, waited at my elbow, so that we could play as soon as I had finished.

About a year later, thanks to a tip from Papa, Dad secured a job in the town where Grandmother and Papa lived. Grandmother came to help us pack, and make the 350-mile move. As the last item was tucked into the bed of Papa’s truck, Grandmother surveyed our heap of household belongings, and said with a wry smile, “It looks like The Grapes of Wrath.” Grandmother and I became good friends, and that wouldn’t be the last time I heard her use that phrase to describe an expedition.

Beloved Great-grandma, age 90, was the oldest member of our family, and had been a widow for two decades. Months-old-Richard was her youngest great-grandchild when I wrote the letter. Great-grandma had a brother and a grandson also named Richard, and she must have been proud that another Richard would represent the next generation.

I grew up to be much like the little girl that wrote the letter. I love libraries, and read lots of books. Smokey, the gray kitten, was the first of many kittens to warm my heart. I am still learning how to write.

Dad acquired the letter after Grandmother went to live in a nursing home, and forwarded it to me a few weeks ago. Did Grandmother save my letter because she treasured the love I put in it? I hope so. I know that the letter has come full circle, full of love, from Grandmother to me.

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“What is dross?” Hannah whispered during yesterday’s worship service. She was referring to a stanza of “How Firm a Foundation” that we had just finished singing.

When through fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.

I whispered back that dross is the scum on the surface of molten metal, but the sermon that followed illustrated the meaning of dross better than the dictionary definition. Dr. Young talked about the refining process that Job experienced through his suffering: what satan meant for evil, God turned into good. Dr. Young also quoted one of my favorite children’s books, The Velveteen Rabbit, to give us a taste of the transforming power of trials and troubles.

“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

I’m reluctant to agree with the Skin Horse when he says that you don’t mind being hurt when you’re Real. But I have learned a very important lesson from fiery trials: God is with us when we suffer, dross is removed, and we become Real—really useful to Him, and to others.

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Gotta Have Snopes

Snopes.com is fifteen years old. Snopes became a household word at our home a decade ago when a co-worker warned me against allowing my children to play in the ball pit at Chuck E. Cheese’s. She insisted that a boy had been bitten by a rattlesnake while playing in the plastic balls, and had DIED. I gave the story little credence until my co-worker became distressed when I wouldn’t promise to keep my children out of ball pits. To help resolve the dilemma, I Googled the tragedy. Snopes appeared on my screen with a concise description of the venomous-snakes-living-at-the-bottom-of-ball-pits story as apocryphal.

Consulting Snopes to learn the stories behind the stories that were showing up in my email, or discussed at work, became a weekly activity. I purposefully selected urban legends from the site to discuss at the dinner table, so we could practice indentifying myths. We all became adept at identifying the mythical, unnamed person known as “a friend of a friend.”

I had always envisioned a team of Snopes researchers, sequestered in a large office building, systematically investigating rumors, half-truths, and urban legends. The recent issue of Reader’s Digest (April 2009) reveals the purveyors of truth to be a middle-aged, couple—David and Barbara Mikkelson—who live in an unpretensious double-wide, stocked with a variety of catalogs, newspapers, and reference books. The couple started checking folklore facts in 1994, as a hobby. Today it’s a full-time profession for the couple, and 6.2 million people visit Snopes.com monthly. In the last fifteen years, the Mikkelsons have researched thousands of stories, and labled them “true,” “false,” or “undetermined.” Legends that have survived for generations have been debunked by the couple. And the Snopes name? It was borrowed from a family in a William Faulkner novel.

So, is it true that the Chineese are raising St. Bernards for their tasty and nutritious meat? You’ll have to Snopes it, to know for sure. 🙂

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Haliaeetus leucocephalus x 2

These remarkable pictures and commentary arrived via email. Various Internet sites have identified the professional photographer as Gary Wheeler of Lake Tapps, Washington, and the “duck” as an American Coot.

Thanks, Mr. Wheeler, for the incredible story-telling photographs!

“I was walking along the shore of Lake Tapps on Monday, and noticed a big commotion a little more than 1/4-mile away (as measured later by Google Earth). I saw a Bald Eagle circling and repeatedly diving on what I thought must be a school of fish. Soon he was joined by another Eagle and they began to fight each other for the prey. Territorial Eagle fights do happen, but I’ve never seen one, nor have I seen any good photos…

Naturally, I grabbed my camera. The action was so furious and far away that it was hard to see if I was getting any good photos. So I just snapped lots pics and hoped for the best. I didn’t quite realize what I was watching, until I got home and looked at the pics on my computer. It turned out I had photographed a three-way life & death struggle between two mature Bald Eagles fighting over one very frightened duck! The Eagles fought each other for several minutes while trying to get that duck! It was like WWIII in the air!

All these pics were taken hand-held with my Panasonic FZ-28 at 18X zoom which is 486mm. All pics were taken on Intelligent Automatic which is just point-and-shoot. I had previously selected okay up to ISO=400 and it was a bright day, which is as good way to force the shutter speed to 1/500 sec. to 1/1000 sec. for all the shots even though the camera performed everything automatically.

Most of the images were cropped to a small fraction of their original size which effectively multiplies that Optical Focal Length of 486mm by the ratio of: original image width Ă· cropped image width. The action was over 1/4-mile away, and I ended up with effective Focal Lengths of well over 1,000mm for half the pics shown here, so they are not up to my normal standards of image quality. Nevertheless, they are exciting and tell quite a story…

Enjoy, Gary

pic12The fellow sitting on the tailgate of his pickup truck never realized the show he was missing. (620 mm effective Focal Length)

pic21The little duck watches as the Eagle speeds straight at him at about 40 mph. (760 mm effective Focal Length)

pic32With perfect timing, the duck always dove and escaped with as mighty splash! Then he’d pop to the surface as soon as the Eagle flew past. This was repeated over and over for several minutes. I worried the poor duck would tire and that would be the end of him. (1,040 mm effective Focal Length)

pic43A second Eagle joins the attack! The duck kept diving “just in time”, so the Eagles began to dive into the water after him! (1,150 mm effective Focal Length)

pic5After several minutes the Eagles got frustrated and began to attack each other. They soon began to dive vertically, level out, and attack head-on in a good old-fashioned game of high-speed “Chicken”. Sometimes they banked away from each other at the last possible second. Other times they’d climb vertically and tear into each other while falling back toward the water. (The duck catches his breath at the right side of this picture.) (900 mm effective Focal Length)

pic6A terrible miscalculation! The luckiest shot of my life catches this 100 mph head-on collision between two Bald Eagles. (1,320 mm effective Focal Length)

pic7One Eagle stayed aloft and flew away, but the other lies motionless in a crumpled heap. The lucky duck survived to live another day. (486 mm effective Focal Length)

pic8It’s sad to watch an Eagle drown. He wiggled, flapped and struggled mostly underwater. He finally got his head above water and with great difficulty managed to get airborne. To my astonishment, he flew straight toward me, and it was the most wretched and unstable bird flight I’ve ever seen! (620 mm effective Focal Length)

pic9 The bedraggled Eagle circled me once – then lit atop a nearby fir tree. He had a six-foot wingspread and looked mighty angry. I was concerned that I might be his next target, but he was so exhausted he just stared at me. Then I wondered if he would topple to the ground. As he tried to dry his feathers, it seemed to me that this beleaguered Eagle symbolized America in its current trials. (1,200 mm effective Focal Length)

pic10My half-hour wait was rewarded with this marvelous sight. He flew away, almost good as new. May America recover as well. (1,400 mm effective Focal Length)”

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Bufo valliceps

My favorite herp!

My favorite herp!

I love toads.  Tonight I saw my first Gulf Coast Toad in Harris County. 🙂  Their North American range stretches from along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana into Mexico.   In Texas, they’re found in South and Central Texas, and the southern part of East Texas. It’s a lot of fun teaching young children the difference between toads and frogs.

 Breeding season for these amphibians started this month and continues until September. I hope this guy or gal sticks around.

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Yakult

Twenty-five million people world-wide drink Yakult daily. The fermented milk drink contains billions of friendly bacteria, and since populating my intestines with good bacteria sounded like a good thing, I joined ’em.

Yakult is probably the most widely consumed probiotic drink in the world. In the 1920s, Dr. Minoru Shirota, a young Japanese scientist, focused his research on beneficial intestinal bacteria. After years of work, he succeeded in isolating one particularly hardy bacteria, Lactobacillus casei Shirota (LcS). Convinced that good intestinal health enhanced the immune system and improved over-all health, Dr. Shirota used the LcS strain to make Yakult in 1935.

Although the Japanese have been drinking Yakult for more than 70 years, the probiotic drink didn’t reach US shores until 1999. It was another ten years before the five-bottle-package, stamped “New!” showed up in the dairy section of my favorite HEB grocery store, where I discovered it last week.

Today more than 80,000 “Yakult ladies,” traveling by bicycle, deliver Yakult door-to-door. They haven’t made it to my neighborhood yet, so I’m off to the grocery store for more of the “little bottles” of good bacteria. It’s a gift to my gut.

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Prepare for Rain

Prepare for Rain: The Story of a Church that Believed God for the Impossible by Michael Catt

After watching Fireproof, I was curious how Sherwood Baptist Church of Albany, Georgia, came to be in the movie-making business. The book Prepare for Rain, authored by Dr. Michael Catt, senior pastor of Sherwood Baptist Church, satisfied my curiousity.

Dr. Catt began the book by asking four “how” questions.

(1) How do you prepare for rain?
(2) How do you cultivate the soil of your life in preparation for God’s outpouring?
(3) How do you break up the unproductive ground?
(4) How do you wait expectantly and patiently for God to act?

In order to answer these questions, Dr. Catt told the story of how Sherwood Baptist Church went from a neighborhood church to a regional church with a global ministry. After reading the book, I see that the whole process was a lot of hard work. There was the work of reforming the basic organization of the church from the deacon ministry to determining just what type of music they were going to sing on Sunday morning to smoothing out the educational system of the church’s Christian school. All that didn’t seem difficult compared to the next step. When he confronted legalism, gossip, and racism in the hearts of members, more than 800 people chose to move their church membership elsewhere.

God worked in the heart of every member, including Dr. Catt’s. One day, out of the blue, he learned that he was adopted, and that practically everybody in the whole world knew about it but him. Learning of his adoption threw him for an emotional loop that called for forgiving all those that had kept the story of his birth a secret. He acknowledged that he had no control over his own life, and embraced his adoption as God’s perfect will.

During all this hard, heart-searching work, the church began to focus on prayer. They wanted to increase their ministry impact, and needed a vision. So, they built a small prayer chapel and began to pray. They focused on praying for the “spiritually sick, the prodigals, and the wayward.” Prayers for the sick continued, but the prayer meetings no longer consisted exclusively of what he called “organ” recitals. Mr. Catt wrote, “You know the drill; pray for in-grown toenails, minor surgeries, a few big surgeries, the sick and afflicted, shut-ins and those for whom it is our duty to pray.” I laughed at his description of the church’s typical prayer meetings because I’ve attended to a few of those myself.

While people prayed, relationships with the Lord and with each other grew; multi-cultural relationships, pastor/church relationships, and staff relationships were strengthened. Prayer also brought a vision. After reading a George Barna article listing the top cultural influences, and noting that church was far behind the increasingly stronger influences of sports, education, and movies, the staff began to question why the church had forsaken the arts. Soon, after pondering and wondering why the church was no longer on the cutting edge of creative arts, Sherwood Baptist recognized an opportunity to communicate the good news of Jesus through movies. All three of their movies have been produced with all volunteer actors, one camera (!), not much money, little training, and God’s grace.

How does Michael Catt answer the questions posed at the beginning of the book? Plow the fields that God has given you. Pray. Confess sin. Love people.

Hosea said to Israel, “Break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the Lord” (10:12). Fallow ground is unproductive and undisturbed. It has to be broken up, tilled, and prepared for seed. The rocks and weeds have to be removed. The tilling has to be deep for there to be a bountiful harvest.

Michael Catt’s prayer is that Sherwood Baptist Church “be a catalyst for revival in our land.” These followers of Christ plowed the fields, tilled deep, yanked the weeds, and chunked the rocks. It’s raining in Albany, Georgia, and throughout the world where their movies, communicating the uncompromising truth of Jesus, are shown.

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