Like many Americans, I like to spend this holiday relaxing, getting some sunshine, eating a veggie burger, and enjoying fireworks. The 58th annual Vancouver Fireworks Spectacular at Fort Vancouver is canceled this year. Still, this town loves fireworks, and I’ve heard them the last several nights.

I also plan to spend some time thinking about what this holiday means. I invite you to join me. What, exactly, are we celebrating? Why do we fly the flag? Why do we wear red, white, and blue? Why do we send loud sticks of fire into the air?

I really enjoy watching fireworks. I appreciate their beauty and the awe they inspire. But, there’s a much deeper reason why I enjoy those glittering streams in the night sky.

I’m sort of a patriotic nerd. If I’m sitting on the sofa while “The Star-Spangled Banner” comes up in the music playlist, I stand up and put my hand over my heart. It is stirring to hear that music and those lyrics.

A Dangerous Mission of Mercy

These days, when fireworks are a fun way to celebrate, it’s difficult to put ourselves in the mindset of the man who wrote those words. Francis Scott Key was a lawyer and an amateur poet. In September 1814, as the United States was fighting a war that began two years earlier, Key was on a mission of mercy.

An American doctor who had treated wounded British troops had been taken prisoner by enemy forces. Key was sent to negotiate his release. The doctor’s freedom was granted, but he and Key had to stay with the British until the attack on Baltimore was over.

Key had a view of the bombardment of Fort McHenry from a truce ship in the Patapsco River. Nineteen ships pummeled the fort with rockets and cannonballs for over 25 hours. The smallish storm flag that flew over the fort became tattered.

The Answer to the Only Question that Mattered

During the night, rain and rockets fell. The glare of the bursting rockets and bombs was the only way that Key could see whether the flag still flew. Once the barrage stopped, he had no way of knowing the result of the battle. As the sun rose the next morning, he had only one question on his mind.

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hail’d at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight
O’er the ramparts we watch’d were so gallantly streaming?
And the rocket’s red glare, the bomb bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there,
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

On the morning of September 14, the storm flag no longer flew over Fort McHenry. It had been taken down. The small, tattered flag had been replaced by a huge American flag — measuring 30 feet by 42 feet. This is what Key could see by the dawn’s early light.

The original star-spangled banner • Wikipedia Commons

It wasn’t a huge piece of cloth that heartened Key. It was what it represented. Immediately, it represented victory. The flag was still there. Ultimately, it represented the land of the free and the home of the brave. Granted, not all were free (and not all were brave), but it was an ideal in which America was conceived. It was a proposition to which America was dedicated, as President Lincoln would emphasize on yet another battlefield.

“The Star-Spangled Banner” was written 38 years after America declared its independence. The Gettysburg Address was given 87 years after the United States was born. As Key and Lincoln saw firsthand, the labor of liberty was not yet done. The labor of liberty is never done.

While we enjoy sparklers and potato salad, let us consider what this holiday truly means — and what it fully requires. May each of us dedicate ourselves — in whatever way we are called — to the labor of liberty.

I took this picture on one of my nature outings. Nearly every day I take pictures in the woods and wetlands behind my house in the Pacific Northwest. I’m certainly no John James Audubon or Bindi the Jungle Girl, but I am slowly learning to identify flora and fauna that I see on a regular basis.

Of great help to me are a couple of apps: Merlin Bird ID and PictureThis. Google Lens also can be helpful, except for that time when it identified a blurry raccoon as a New Guinean long-nosed bandicoot.

When I saw this bird, I didn’t know what it was. It looked a bit like the juvenile European starlings I’d seen. In other words, brown. That’s pretty much all I could tell. When I got home, I uploaded the picture to the Merlin Bird ID app, and the result came back: American robin.

Say what? Robins are orange! That was my initial reaction, and that’s why I missed the identification on my own. I’ve seen a million robins, but I was off track in thinking that robins are orange. More accurately, robins’ breasts are orange and their heads and backs are brown. All I could see of this bird was its head and back. All I could see was brown. As soon as the app identified the bird as a robin, I noticed the tiny bit of orange breast that can be seen in the photo. I also noticed (yet again) that my critical thinking skills have room to grow.

I love it when this sort of thing happens. It reminds me that my thinking can be distorted by perspective and a bias for familiarity. I missed the ID because of my perspective; I could see only brown. I missed the ID because it looked a bit like another bird in my miniscule bird repertoire.

Too bad this distorted thinking isn’t limited to wildlife identification (although even then it can be lamentable if we mistake a grizzly for a Great Dane). We do it more often than we realize. The good news is that we can train our brains to think more effectively, to sharpen our critical thinking skills. Being aware of our perspectives and biases moves us in the right direction. Listening to the perspectives of others takes us even further.

Let’s train ourselves to think more effectively. Let’s remember that the robin isn’t just orange.

It’s easier to endure a pandemic when we believe that it will come to an end. When we’re in the middle of something, it’s difficult to know how everything will play out. Things could get worse before they get better. But generally we believe that COVID-19 will pass, just as the Black Death, the Spanish flu, and SARS did.

This is true for anything. Imagine that you break your ankle. How would you feel, experiencing that pain and inconvenience? Now imagine how you would feel if you knew you’d never heal. Think of how it would feel to lose your job. It probably would be scary, but you would have the expectation that you would find another job. Now imagine if you didn’t have that prospect — if you believed that you would never work again.

What we believe about tomorrow impacts how we feel and act today.

Things will get better, or they won’t. We can hope, or we can despair. When we believe that things will get better, hardship is much easier to endure, isn’t it? The light at the end of the tunnel pulls us forward. Here’s the best example of this:

Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.
Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith,
who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross,
despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself,
lest you become weary and your hearts give up.
— Hebrews 12:1-3 —

Jesus endured the cross — the greatest suffering ever experienced — because of the joy that was set before Him. The Father gave Jesus a vision of the future — a new earth, where God and people are utterly together, where there is no sorrow or pain or death. This shining light got Jesus through the darkest night.

Each one of us lives in the midst of a dark night of one sort or another, to one degree or another. The night might get even darker. But that doesn’t have to be how it ends. We can choose hope. We can choose to pursue the light at the end of the tunnel. We can trust that there will be an end to suffering one of these very days.

There are far, far better things ahead
than any we leave behind.

C. S. Lewis

It’s a popular belief that miracles are violations of the laws of nature. Furthermore, the belief goes, because the laws of nature can’t actually be broken, miracles aren’t real.

A campfire will go out when the fuel is burned up. However, if I throw another log on the fire, it will keep going. By doing so, am I violating a law of nature?

Laws of nature describe what nature does on its own. However, anyone can interact with nature and make it do something other than it would do on its own.

When God interacts with nature, we call it a miracle. We call it a miracle because it’s rare and because we don’t see God; we see only the effects of God’s interaction.

A miracle does not violate the laws of nature; it’s simply God interacting with nature.

Tiny frog unseen
until leaping
from the bright leaf

I love the challenge of haiku. Reading it and writing it. Haiku in English, that is. I’m not quite up for the challenge of real Japanese haiku! Still, English haiku has its demands that make it a beautiful process and product.

SYLLABLES • That sensational syllabic structure that made haiku famous! Three lines of up to 17 syllables (typically 10 to 14). If this is the only demand you make on your haiku, you’re missing out.

SEASON • The kigo takes the poem to another level. A kigo is a season word. It’s meant to refer — subtly — to a season of the year. The majority of kigo are drawn from the natural world.

CUT • Ready for the next level of challenge and beauty? The third element of haiku is a cut (kire) — indicated by a real or a verbal punctuation mark — to compare two images or ideas implicitly. The essence of haiku is ‘cutting’ (kiru). Sometimes this is done by juxtaposing two images or ideas with a kireji (‘cutting word’) between them.

Young rabbit
Sanctuary
The edge of the wood

A handful of syllables. A subtle reference to season. A juxtaposition of images or ideas.

One of the many aspects of haiku that I love is that it’s simple. It doesn’t try to do and be everything. It typically captures a fleeting moment in time. Haiku shuns excess.

“The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent, we never tire of.” (Matsuo Bashō)

I love haiku for what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t tell; it shows. It doesn’t explain; it suggests. It doesn’t expose; it hints.

Taller-than-yesterday grass
cools
warmed-by-the-noontime-sun toes

Yesterday morning I saw what I believed was a bald eagle in my pajamas. (I know what you’re thinking: What was a bald eagle doing in my pajamas?)

After calculating the laziness factor of birdwatching from bed, I sprung into action, grabbed my camera, and got a few shots. Then I strapped on my snowshoes and headed toward the tree where I saw the bird. (I know what you’re thinking: What was I doing in a tree?)

When I got close, I was excited to see that the bird was still there. It was a bit like what Francis Scott Key must have felt when he saw that the flag was still there. (Okay, it wasn’t anywhere near that exciting much less meaningful, but you get my drift.)

I took more photos. The bird appeared to be dark all over, so I dismissed the bald eagle hypothesis (always something I’m loathe to do).

I trudged back home and took a look at the pictures I had taken. This is a photo I took from my bedroom window:

Keep in mind that the bird was a looooong way off, my camera has its limitations, and my window could use a wash. Still, it looks like a bald eagle, right? Huge. White head and tail. Bright yellow beak. “America the Beautiful” playing in the background. Why did I see an all-dark bird when I got closer to the tree?

Then I got to the second set of bird photos (separated by a few shots of snow and then more snow).

Excusez-moi? Who are you, and what did you do with my bald eagle? Apparently I missed the changing of the guard.

I entered the photos into my Merlin Bird ID app to get some insight into what was going on. I was especially looking for confirmation of the bald eagle ID! I uploaded that photo to the app. Drum roll, please …

American crow. Or black-backed woodpecker. Or great horned owl.

Huh? I uploaded it a second time.

Brown-headed cowbird. Or dark-eyed junco.

I know it’s a crummy photo, but please try harder.

American crow. Or green heron.

I give up. Let’s try the photo of the second bird.

Red-tailed hawk. Or red-shouldered hawk.

That’s more like it. I’ll buy that.

So, what am I to think about the first bird? According to the app, it’s a woodpecker or an owl or a heron or a walrus or a sheep or one of the Backstreet Boys. What should we do when we are trying to determine the truth and our go-to authority seems off?

First of all, we keep in mind that it’s possible that our go-to authority is off. Blind trust is risky. Humans and their inventions are fallible. Secondly, we look at the evidence.

Building evidence-based beliefs means that we consider all of the evidence and figure out the best explanation for that evidence. What is the evidence about this bird’s identification?

  • My app is fairly reliable, but it has been wrong before, especially when the photo is poor quality.
  • The bird is huge and appears to have a dark body, white head, white tail, and yellow beak. This description fits a bald eagle and no other bird that I’m aware of, at least in this area. Caveats: I am not familiar with all types of birds, and the image quality is so poor, I might not have an accurate description of it.
  • I shared the photo on Facebook and asked people what they thought it was. Six out of six people identified it as an eagle.
  • The Merlin Bird ID app includes bald eagles on the list of likely birds in Vancouver, Washington, today.
  • At least two bald eagles have been spotted in this immediate area in recent days.
  • I really want it to be a bald eagle.

Okay, okay. That last one isn’t evidence. We often allow our desires to influence our beliefs, but we’ve really got to stop that. So, let’s throw that one out. What are we left with? When we can’t be certain, we settle for possibilities and probabilities. Based on the evidence, I am comfortable at this point with believing that it is probably a bald eagle.

Notice that, above, I didn’t ask for the evidence that this is a bald eagle; I asked for evidence about the bird’s identification. On Facebook, I didn’t ask others whether they thought it was a bald eagle; I asked them what they thought it was. Starting out with a presumption or bias can steer us in the wrong direction.

I want to know the truth, whatever it is. So, I leave the door open for more evidence if it should ever come. In this case, I can invite more evidence by asking what y’all think. I’m interested to know what you think of the first photo, especially if you have experience with bird identification. Let me know in the comments below!

“All the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, and he died.”

“All the days of Seth were nine hundred and twelve years, and he died.“

“All the days of Enosh were nine hundred and five years, and he died.“

“All the days of Kenan were nine hundred and ten years, and he died.“

“All the days of Mahalalel were eight hundred and ninety-five years, and he died.“

“All the days of Jared were nine hundred and sixty-two years, and he died.“

“All the days of Enoch were three hundred and sixty-five years. Enoch walked with God, and then he was no more because God took him.“

“All the days of Methuselah were nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and he died.“

“All the days of Lamech were seven hundred and seventy-seven years, and he died.“

What’s so special about Enoch?

These verses are from Genesis 5. While it’s easy to get distracted by the whopping lifespans of these guys, I hope you notice something else. One of these things is not like the others — and it’s not just the bold type. It doesn’t say that Enoch died; it says that God took him.

Hebrews 11:5 sheds some light on what happened: “By faith Enoch was taken to heaven so that he would not see death.”

Out of all of these people, only Enoch went to heaven at the end of his life on earth. Enoch’s case was clearly an exception, not the rule.

What’s the point?

The point is this: Many people — and most Christians believe that people go to heaven when they die. This belief is not supported by scripture. Instead, it came into mainstream Christian theology by way of mythology and philosophy.

Particularly, it is the notion of the immortal soul that was popularized by Plato. This philosophy purports that a disembodied soul originates in heaven, comes down to earth to inhabit a body for a time, and eventually escapes from the body and returns to heaven.

It is important to know where our beliefs come from and what the Bible actually says. This isn’t the only passage that tells us about death and heaven. Read the Bible from beginning to end, and you will see a clear, consistent, coherent message.

Wondering why the Bible should be trusted?

Good news

Those eight men who died might go to heaven and receive eternal life at some point in the future. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life, and He offers Himself to everyone. What can we look forward to?

“The Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet call of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we shall be forever with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16-18)

I hope you do find comfort in these words. The Lord knows we need it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on these ideas in the comments below. Also, if you don’t already subscribe, I invite you to stay connected and stay tuned for more stuff ‘n’ things where theology, science, and philosophy intersect.

“How do you know that Jesus is God?”

“Because the Bible says so.”

Don’t you just hate that? Surely, you can’t blame someone for coming back with, “And why should I believe the Bible?” Excellent question.

If your beliefs are based on scripture, a built-in premise for each of your beliefs is that the scripture is true. Is that a sound premise in your case? I urge you to examine the evidence for and against the validity of the scripture that your beliefs are based on.

“Because the Bible says so” isn’t good enough unless you’ve provided a basis for its trustworthiness. I encourage you to read The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel and other books by people who have examined the evidence about the Bible. For now, here is a quick list of reasons to trust it:

  1. The Bible is a reliable collection of historical documents written by eyewitnesses during the lifetime of other eyewitnesses.
  2. It contains falsifiable claims that would have shut down the Christian movement at its start if the claims had been untrue.
  3. Although the documents were written by about 40 authors over a period of about 2,000 years, they are coherent in message.
  4. The Bible reports events that were the fulfillment of specific prophecies, and it contains prophecies that have been fulfilled in post-Bible times.
  5. Much of the Bible is confirmed by the writings of contemporaries and by archaeological findings.
  6. The Bible is by far the best attested writing from antiquity.

I understand that not everyone will find this evidence compelling. But, here’s the thing. Alongside nature, the Bible is the best evidence we have about God. If God is real, He must be the most important and relevant reality in existence; therefore, the truth about God is worth pursuing. I encourage you to dig further. There is much more to be found, and it is a most worthy pursuit.

Which of the six reasons is the most compelling to you? The least compelling? Why? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly.

Frolic and play the Eskimo way.

Have a cup of cheer.

Say hello to friends you know and everyone you meet.

Dream by the fire.

Face unafraid the plans that you’ve made.

Let your heart be light.

Pray for peace.

Fall on your knees, and hear the angels’ voices.

“Put it on the ground!”

The woman ahead of me on the hiking trail mildly admonished her small son, who was lagging behind her. I thought the child must have picked up a worm, or doggie doo, or a bad habit. As I got closer, though, I saw that the boy was holding a huge leaf. He was valiantly defying her order. Brave little soldier.

The boy ambled about, reluctant to shed himself of this forest treasure — and perhaps loath to get within range of a parent with confiscation on her mind. I totally empathized with the child. When I was a kid, I asked my dad to stop the car on the side of the road so I could collect giant pinecones that I spied as we drove along winding mountain roads.

The mother repeated the instruction: “Drop the leaf, Louie.” (The name has been changed to protect the innocent.) I passed the boy and then the mother and continued along the trail. I don’t know how it all turned out, but I hope that giant leaf made it home with Louie.

Now, I admit that I don’t know the whole story. Maybe there was a good reason why the mother didn’t want the boy to continue carrying the leaf. I’m quite sure it wasn’t poison oak or cannabis. Perhaps the leaf distracted the boy so that he wasn’t keeping up with the mother’s desired pace.

Undoubtedly, the child was in awe. The enormous leaf monopolized his attention. At least for this moment, it was his. He could twist it around in his little hands and marvel at its immensity and beauty. Maybe he was dreaming up what he might do with the leaf or what he could fashion it into. Perhaps he wondered what kind of tree could produce such a leaf and how big the tree could grow.

Live like Louie

As children, our natural instincts include awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Too often, those instincts eventually get beaten out of us to a large degree. Many of us spend too much of our lives indoors, busy, distracted, and moving at a fast pace.

I admire Louie. He reminded me to be childlike, embracing traits that are vital to thoughtful living: awe, curiosity, imagination, and connection to nature. Let’s join Louie by getting outside more, slowing our pace, and finding things that render us awestruck and make our imaginations run wild.

Let’s hold on to that leaf.

When it was announced that President Trump had COVID-19, some people responded with glee. Some even hoped that he would die.

In my last post, I wrote about people on Facebook responding to tragic news stories by clicking on the laugh reaction emoji under the headline. Many people were laughing that a marriage is over, that relationships are strained, that a man is struggling with addiction, that people are sick, and that people are dying. Laughing.

When it comes to the pleasure and ill-wishes regarding President Trump’s illness, some people offer what they consider to be justification for their attitudes:

  • Trump deserves it because he didn’t take COVID-19 seriously and take necessary precautions.
  • Trump deserves it because his policies cause other people to suffer and die.

Let’s give them the complete benefit of the doubt and assume that their “justifications” are valid. Would it then be appropriate for them to take pleasure in Trump’s illness and even hope that he dies?

To answer that question, let me offer a contrast.

“I have no pleasure in the death of anyone who dies, says the Lord God.”
Ezekiel 18:32

The death of anyone? Even a person who causes his own death because of his recklessness? Even a person who is responsible for the deaths of others? Are you telling me that God didn’t smile — even a little bit — when Hitler died?

“As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why will you die?”
Ezekiel 33:11

Not only does God find no pleasure in death, He pleads with us to choose life instead. This is in particular reference to the second death. The first death is the end of a lifetime on earth. The second death is a future event — after resurrection — that we typically refer to as hell (see Revelation 2:11; 20:6,14; 21:8).

The second death is a natural consequence for those who choose to disconnect from the source of life. The second death is for those who rebel against God — against goodness, light, and life. Do they deserve death? Would their death be justified? When all is revealed, I believe that we will find the answer to be yes. Still, God will have no pleasure.

That is the spirit that we desperately need. We each need a heart that sorrows when others are hurting, a heart that seeks to bless rather than curse, a heart so full of love that there is no room for hate. We need the heart of God.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.”
Matthew 5:43-44

I just browsed through the stories in my Facebook News feed. I found something in common with these headlines:

Pastor Who Told Congregation They Didn’t Have to Wear Masks Hospitalized in ICU with COVID-19

Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton Are Feeling “Stretched to Their Limit”

The worst coronavirus outbreaks are happening in these 15 cities

911 call from Falwell house reveals ex-Liberty president was drinking, fell down, lost ‘a lot of blood’ after resigning

Christina and Ant Anstead Split After Less Than 2 Years of Marriage

U.S. Coronavirus Deaths Near 200,000

Can you think of what they have in common? Since this is a blog, and we don’t have an efficient way to play a guessing game, I’ll just tell you. In reaction to each of these stories, people laughed.

Precisely, what they did was click on the laugh reaction emoji under the headline. I can understand shock, sadness, and even anger for some of these stories. But, laughter? A marriage is over, relationships are strained, a man is struggling with addiction and gets hurt, people are sick, and people are dying.

Perhaps even worse than these tragedies in the news is the cruelty in the hearts of people who make light — and even fun — of other people’s suffering. We need healed relationships and healed bodies. Most of all, though, we need healed hearts. We need the Spirit of love. The good news? It’s possible:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh.
Ezekiel 36:26