Thursday, August 31, 2017

Pelicans: Pictures of Perfection

Gawky-looking while still, the pelican becomes
a spectacle for the eyes when in motion.

Pelicans are my new favorite bird. Yes, cardinals, blue jays and goldfinches are much more colorful. As are macaws, flamingos and even parakeets. The peacock’s plumage puts the drab-colored pelican to shame in that respect. Bald eagles seem much more dignified. But every time I’ve gone to the beach, whether on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts, I’ve felt a sense of wonderment watching pelicans – alone or in groups – soaring aloft.

Bobbing in the ocean or on dry land, pelicans are rather silly-looking creatures. Long beaks and tiny eyes. However, when flying in formation whether overhead, riding the wind currents, or skimming the waves while seeking fish for their next meal, there’s something majestic about them.

A casual glance at a pelican at rest might remind the observer of an engineer’s worst nightmare. Their pencil-shaped beaks and beady eyes don’t evoke images of beauty. But in action, it’s obvious these creatures – actually eight different varieties within the species Pelecanus, I recently learned – are designed with perfection.

Peter Pelican peering through the water, 
looking for the day's dinner.
The beak allows the bird to cut through the air with a minimum of wind resistance that a NASCAR body shop would envy. Its long, wide-sweeping wings enable it to float on high with virtually no effort, and its eyes – small as they are – provide piercing vision for quickly pouncing on prey swimming below. The lower portion of its beak features a large throat pouch for holding and preparing little “groceries” for consumption. “Paper or plastic – or pouch?”

In addition, pelicans instinctively know how to travel in flocks and hunt cooperatively. Watching them along Florida’s panhandle, in formation they look as beautiful as precision-flown jets sometimes seen coming from the Pensacola Navy Base.

What strikes me most is that the pelican couldn’t have resulted from some cosmic accident. Too many exacting characteristics to have all combined together conveniently, no matter how many eons were allotted.

In the first chapter of Genesis, it says God created all the animals, including “the fish of the sea and the birds of the air,” not only giving each a unique design but also ordaining what and how they would eat (Genesis 1:26-30). Can you imagine the Lord exercising His divine creativity and deciding the shapes and colors and traits of birds, ranging from the noble eagle to the busy hummingbird to the pretty in pink but gawky-looking flamingo to the pelican?

The psalmist David in Psalm 139:14 writes of humankind being “fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” According to the Scriptures, people are the apex of His creation, but it seems to me the “fearfully and wonderfully made” description applies to everything we observe in nature, from the industrious beaver and goofy-looking platypus to moray eels and puppies. (Still not sure where mosquitoes fit into the equation.)

For the non-believer who demands, “Prove there is a God!”, I would first respond, “Prove there isn’t a God.” Then I would say something like, “Have you considered the pelican?”

Monday, August 28, 2017

Antidote for Fear, Anxiety and Worry

In case you haven’t noticed, there seem to be lots of things going on these days to spike our anxiety levels. To paraphrase poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “How do I fear thee? Let me count the ways.”

Among our top choices are, in no particular order of importance or seriousness: North Korea; ISIS; terrorism in general; the Russians; Donald Trump; liberals (or conservatives, depending on one’s political bent); volatile weather, climate change or global warming (or whatever the experts are calling it this week); volcanoes; sinkholes; forest fires; ideological extremists of all sorts; gun people (or anti-gun people, again depending on personal views); diseases; pit bulls (my apologies to pit bull lovers); the economy; killer bees; maybe even your next-door neighbor.

As MAD magazine's Alfred E. Neuman
used to say, "What? Me worry?"
And if none of those things make us anxious or fearful, we can trust the media to change that. In fact, MSNBC’s Brian Williams recently stated, “(it is) our job actually to scare people to death” over North Korea. He might have added the national media believe it’s their job to scare people to death over just about everything.

Hearing the iconic declaration by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the 32nd U.S. President, from his inaugural address in 1933, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” we’re tempted to respond, “Yeah, but you haven’t read today’s newspaper or listened to the evening news!”

My point isn’t to discuss any of these unsettling issues. We live in an often frightening, unpredictable world. When we can’t control things, they scare us. If we’re not fearful, anxious or worried about something, just wait a little while. We’ll think of something. But living in a state of high-alert stress is emotionally taxing, physically debilitating – and not much fun.

So, what are we to do? We can easily decide not to fear the abominable snowman (at least so far), zombies, the boogeyman, and the big bad wolf. But most of the things listed above are legitimate concerns. How can we not feel fearful?

Jesus gave the answer in His “sermon on the mount.” After covering a variety of topics, He segued to the subjects of worry, fear and anxiety. The Lord started by announcing, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life…. Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” (Matthew 6:25-27).

Many of us read this and conclude it sounds good in theory, but in practice, not so much. Fear is natural, we reason. And what’s more, feeling afraid seems like we’re doing something even if there’s nothing we can do. The thing is, when Jesus said this, He was talking all-inclusively, no exceptions.

But again, how can we do this? Surrounded by fearsome circumstances, how can we help feeling afraid and anxious? The Lord closed this portion of His message with the answer: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:33-34).

Some read this and say, “Aha! See? Jesus admitted each day has its own trouble!” That’s correct, but repeatedly the Scriptures tell us trusting in God – no matter what happens to us or around us – is the antidote to fear, anxiety and worry.

Isaiah 26:3 offers this assurance: “You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in (God).” A bit later we find these words in the same prophetic book: “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).

An oft-quoted passage promises, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, that transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7). Another verse offers similar comfort: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Let’s face it: If we’re wanting to find something in this world to worry about and fear, we don’t have to look far. But as a friend of mine used to say, “You can’t stop birds from flying over your head – but you can keep them from building a nest in your hair.” If we place our trust in the eternal, transcendent God rather than the ominous, gloom-and-doom proclamations we get from multi-faceted, 24/7 news and information media, we can shoo away needless fear, anxiety and worry, ordering them to build their nests somewhere else.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

The Three R’s (After Wrongdoing)

How do you react when you’ve done something wrong? Do you settle for “Oops!”? Or, “Sorry, my bad”? Pretend it didn’t happen? Blame someone else?

Little wrongs, like accidentally bumping into someone, spilling your coffee, or being late for a meeting, aren’t that big a deal. A quick apology and it’s all good. But what about the times when the magnitude of your wrongdoing can’t be glossed over so quickly? What then?

Chances are you choose one of three options. You’ve heard of the “three R’s” of basic education – readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic? (At least I think they still teach those things in our schools.) There are also three R’s after wrongdoing: Regret. Remorse. Repentance.

It’s often hard to say, “I was wrong” or “I am sorry.” We don’t like to admit we’re wrong. We resent being found out, and if possible, might try to ignore or cover up any wrongdoing. Some of the folks we elect to serve us in Washington, D.C. – on both sides of the aisle – seem adept at the latter.

But what about when wrongdoing is indisputable, our hands caught in the proverbial cookie jar? Do we settle for regret, wallow in remorse, or choose to repent? Each starts with the letter “r,” but that’s where the similarity ends.

When aware we’ve done wrong, feeling some measure of regret is common. “Wish I hadn’t done that.” Like when we misjudge the distance to the car behind us in the parking lot and suddenly hear, “Crunch!” Or put our mouth in gear while our brain is still in park, and say something we quickly wish we could retract. Unfortunately, in oral communications, retractions rarely work.

Other times we feel more than regret – we’re overcome with remorse. Perhaps an action (or series of actions) destroys a relationship. Or a dishonest or unethical act ruins a career and darkens a once bright future. Consequences of the wrongdoing command our attention, immersing us in self-pity.

Lastly, there’s repentance, compelling us to seek to make right what went wrong, accept responsibility, and resolve not to follow that path again. After acknowledging the effects of a harmful habit, negative behavior, or even malicious thought patterns, a moment comes when “I’m sorry” is no longer enough. Genuine, lasting change is required.

Two things the Bible talks about a lot are sin – and repentance. Most of us are familiar with sin, at least to some degree. It’s part of our spiritual DNA, traced back to Adam, and comes naturally. To repent and turn to God in sincere repentance does not.

The Scriptures offer a contrast between remorse and repentance in Judas and Peter, two of Jesus Christ’s closest followers. Both betrayed Him, but their responses afterward made all the difference. An eternal difference.

The gospels offer accounts of Judas betraying Christ. Matthew 27 states it gained him 30 pieces of silver. Judas led a crowd to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he boldly identified Him for the arresting officials. The gospels show Peter guilty of a different form of betrayal. He and another disciple, John, had followed Jesus, standing nearby during His mock trial. Then, as Jesus predicted, Peter denied Him three times when confronted about being among His followers.

The degree of the betrayals might have been different, but both were betrayals.

What’s important is what the men did next. Judas, remorseful for what he had done, returned the money to the priests – then hanged himself. Swallowed up in self-pity over what he had done, he chose to end the pain by committing suicide.

The other disciple, however, responded very differently. Distraught over having verbally betrayed his great friend, Peter fled from the scene but later reconnected with the remaining disciples. Broken by his own cowardice, Peter was no longer the brash, impulsive person he once was.

In the last chapter of the gospel of John, we see repentant Peter humbly interacting with the resurrected Christ. Shorn of bold declarations, Peter no longer was inclined to promise what he might not be able to keep. But in a wonderful demonstration of grace and mercy, Jesus restored the man He had nicknamed “the rock,” telling him, “Feed my sheep…. Follow me!” (John 21:15-19).

What the Lord expects of us often is not what we expect. We think in terms of impressive service, or lavish material contributions to advance His kingdom. But Psalm 51:17 states plainly what He desires: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

When we sin, our lives going off track, the Lord is just as eager to restore us as He was Peter. But He doesn’t want regret; nor is remorse enough. Repentance is what He’s after.

Jesus made this clear from the start of His earthly ministry, From that time on Jesus began to preach, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’” (Matthew 4:17). Later He declared, there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent(Luke 15:7). There’s no limit to the wondrous things He can do through someone with a repentant, contrite heart.