Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Head Slapping Design Moments

I am off to Poteau, OK for a few days to do a short seminar on Christian Evidences. I'll use this space to praise the Lord for some of the fun and interesting things He built into this planet. While some think the design argument is dead it is, in fact, gaining ground rapidly and causing many former Darwinists to search for something -- well -- more scientific. Sometimes you study something and get a "wow!" moment or a head slapping moment. Here are a couple of cases in point.

The University of Bonn released the results of several years of studies into plants, plant defenses, and.... communication. They were backed up by the Catholic University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands. They devised equipment to monitor the sounds plants make that cannot -- of course -- be heard by human ears. When a leaf or a stem is sliced, the plant signals pain or distress by releasing the gas ethylene over its entire surface. The scientists at U of Bonn collected those gas molecules and bombarded with calibrated laser beams so that their vibrations could be turned into measurable sound. The more the leaf or stem was cut, the more "sound" it made.

While they studied this they found a cucumber that, before they even cut it, was shouting. On closer examination it was found to be suffering with a bad case of mildew even though there were no outer symptoms. German scientists are working to see if they can use this discovery to help farmers know -- much, much sooner -- when their crops need help. Disease or pests could be headed off at the pass, so to speak.

But it gets stranger....

Kyoto University (Japan, of course) found that lima beans have five separate defense mechanisms. When they are attacked by spider mites the injured plant releases a chemical that changes the plant's flavor which, of course, makes the mites not want to eat it. Other chemicals were emitted as a distress signal that was then picked up by neighboring plants. Those other plants then changed their flavor before the spider mites ever got to them! Some of the chemicals the bean uses are actually spider mite repellents while others attract a predator mite that eats spider mites!!!

Are they smarter than we thought? You see, plants that are crushed release the same chemicals that they release when they are attacked, but neighboring plants ignore them. How do they know the difference? Uh... still working on that one.... Other plants also have been found to release warning signals, 'change flavor' signals, or 'help!' signals to attract the enemies of their enemy (corn and tobacco are the most studied at present).

I don't think plants are intelligent, but it is plain that Intelligence designed them. No defense mechanism overwhelms the enemy so much that the enemy doesn't exist anymore. Everything stays in balance. For example, if spider mites died out, so would the predator mites. We might be up to our ears in lima beans, and that would create mold and spore problems. God has everything in balance.

I needed to remember this last week in Michigan. We went from 82 degrees to, four days later, eight inches of snow. I frowned at the snow and wondered -- briefly -- if this wasn't all just so terribly wrong. Then I remembered: God designed it. It will work out fine.

I'll leave you with the only two facts in the universe:
1. There is a God.
2. You're not Him.


Thursday, April 21, 2005

Where'd You Get That?

I was at a range, on the firing line. Several of us had been wringing the best out of our pistols in preparation for a match later that week. Being a belt and suspenders kind of guy I had ear plugs and a headset on so that I could one day hear my grandkids' laugh... but I still heard something wrong. It was a bang, but not the right kind of bang. I looked to my right and saw a friend of mine standing there with a stunned look on his face and a smoking pistol. His pistol -- a Glock 27 in .40 caliber S&W -- was broken and in pieces. Glocks don't break. They are, arguably, the most reliable and simple firearms out there. I quickly went over to him, cupped his hand and removed what was left of the pistol, checked to make sure it wouldn't go "bang" again, and moved him away from the line and into a chair. I called for a ceasefire and we all surrounded our friend and made sure he was all right. He was; just stunned.

I asked him where he got his ammunition. He told me that his friend reloaded some bullets for him. I checked the load and found out that there were two huge problems with the reloads: they were lead (which are never to be fired in Glocks) and they had way too much powder in them. He had gotten his loads from an unreliable source and now had a bruised hand and busted pistol because of it.

It is very, very important to know where you got your stuff, your ideas, and your conclusions. You never know when the thing you think is good and right is ... uh... not.

I was climbing in the Tetons of western Wyoming with some friends when we came to a picture perfect, high altitude creek. It was incredibly cold and bright as it dropped down from some glacier we hadn't made it to yet. My friends dropped down to drink and encouraged me to do the same. I hesitated. "Is it pure?" They laughed and waved around us, "How could it not be pure? We're up well over ten thousand feet. This is the purest water you'll ever drink." For some reason I decided not to drink. I would wait awhile longer.

Twenty minutes later we rounded a large outcropping of rock and saw, standing in the creek, several cattle. Some of them did what cattle do right there in front of us. In the water. My friends began turning slightly green. I helped them feel better by laughing so hard I pulled a stomach muscle.

Years ago when I still lived in Scotland we faced a crisis. A divorced and remarried woman wanted to be baptized. I was raised in the Taliban wing of the church (Al Queda chapter, Osama Division) and thus had no idea what I should do. I had a friend send me a debate between two preachers in the church on the subject and read it in two days. My wife saw me finally lay it down and asked me, "So? What do you think?" My reply was "I know which one said what I have always said... but the other one sounded a lot more like Jesus."

That set me off on a search upstream. I wanted to know why I thought what I thought and where I got it. It was an enlightening and troubling search. I found out that the standard, old paths, ancient ways teaching I had always taught had not been taught in the church until the late 1920's and wasn't widely accepted until the early 1940's. I had been scammed. I had taken a big drink of water that wasn't pure. I had accepted ammunition that wasn't reliable.

For the last twenty years I have continued that upstream search. I don't always go far enough before drinking. Worse, I have been known to share water with others that ended up not being as pure as I'd hoped. That grieves me, but the search will continue. Somewhere up there is pure faith, pure life, and the Source.

In the meantime -- don't handle any doctrine until you know where you got it... and where it's been.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Gene Pools, Golf, and God

My son turned sixteen yesterday. To celebrate, I pulled him out of school (Under "Reason" I wrote "Want to) and we went golfing. It was a glorious day in Michigan with temps in the high 70's and the golf course was almost empty. Neither he nor I are great golfers (my swing: imagine a man trying to put on a shirt while being attacked by bees) but we enjoy the time together... and being able to hit something repeatedly with a stick without being in legal jeopardy is kind of nice, too. We talked about cars, the fact that neither of us can put (if you think the LORD moves in a mysterious way, wait until you see me putt!), friends, and the marine corps.

If you saw me beside my son you would probably not think we were related. He is six feet four inches, size 15 feet, and all muscle. I am... not. Okay, quick story. I have always told people that I was five eight and three quarters because those three quarters were very important to me. Last year I went to the doctor and found out the Lord had stolen my change! Stop laughing. I can hear you. Anyway, Duncan is an exceptionally calm and steady fellow, which is good when you are a veteran karate guy, good shooter, and a generally non-girly guy. I love him... but I'm not sure what is going on here.

Let me explain. I am a scientist. I know stuff about the genetic code. Neither my wife nor I come from families that are tall, strong, and only one of us came from good looking people (you get three guesses). How did this happen? Did God look at us and say, "All right, time for a little chlorine in the gene pool?" If so, then that's fine with me.

When I was a little boy they told me that no two snowflakes were alike. I didn't believe it then and don't now (c'mon people -- who's checking???). I also know that the best guess for number of atoms in the universe is 10 to the 60th power. That's a lot. However, in the genetic code of two people, we can make 10 to the 128th power people without making one duplicate. Wow. God built a system where dead ends don't have to occur (except with excessive inbreeding. You are clued into your approach of this danger zone by hearing kids in the mall call out "Uncle daddy, uncle daddy!").

I used to work in West Virginia (great folks, beautiful mountains). The university there is very engineer intensive and, so, we had lots of engineers attend our church. Sometimes two would meet and fall in love and get married. Later, after running computer models and business plans past each other, they would decide to have a child. I would inwardly groan, knowing what was coming next. Sure enough, in a few years they would come in and say there was something wrong with their child. They tried to teach it French, had flashcards of European composers, and sang kiddy songs about Calculus but the kid didn't get it. I would look and then and say, "There is nothing wrong with your child. It is just that God looked at you two and said, "Whoa, not doing THAT again!", and made your kid instead."

It would happen the other way, too. Sometimes refugees from the sixties would come out of the mountains (still hiding from the draft?) and sit there with their John Lennon glasses, Birkenstock sandals, army jackets with peace symbols, and various wildlife in their hair and point to their four year old kid sitting beside them (who would be in a three piece suit reading the Wall Street Journal) and say, "Dude! Like, there's something wrong, and stuff, with our kid, you know?" I would look at them and say, "Well, Dweezil and Moon Unit, God just decided to clean out the gene pool and start over..."

My son is not me. He is tall and strong and vital. Girls look at him (it is a point of pride in my life that I was never the cause of anyone's stumbling into lust...) and admire him. He will not follow me into the pulpit or the lab. He is planning on finding an ROTC program and becoming an officer in the Marines. Okay, son, that's fine. Whatever God made you to be -- be that. Anything else is a demotion. I'll be over here, proud, jealous, happy, fading, beaming.... but I promise you: I got your back.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Refuse to Participate

I'm wearing a Hawaiian shirt. Yes, I live in Michigan and, yes, it was 39 when I left home at 7:30 this morning. No, I didn't wear a jacket over my shirt -- which is a thing of beauty, by the way, replete with red and green flowers, the word 'Aloha' a dozen times or more, and something that looks like a passion fruit that has suffered grievous bodily harm in some unspeakable incident. Why would I wear such a shirt on such a day? Simple, my friends: while winter may not have relinquished its strangehold on Michigan, I refuse to participate in it any longer. You can find me in "Spring", thank you very much.

I will confess that this is nothing new. I have never in my life received a little happy hace drawing in the box beside the line "plays well with others." Irascible, ironic, laconic and said to be in need of a colonic, I have played on the outskirts of humanity, never once being tempted to leap into the conga line of normality. I choose not to participate.

I'm constantly being told that I have to watch this or that show on television, or that I have to hear this or that speaker. I remember the TV tease blurb that announced, "Tonight, Barbara Walters and Brad and Jennifer. This is the interview that you just can't miss!" I proved to them and to the interview that I, indeed, could miss that interview... and not miss it at all. (I hope that wasn't the cause of their breakup...)

At a lectureship a few years ago some men came up to me after my little speech. I knew they were preachers for they wore lots of polyester (I'm serious. You take preachers of a certain age and rub them against the carpet and stick them on a wall) and carried supersized Bibles. They told me that there had been problems with some churches in the area and wanted me to come into an adjacent little room and give them my take on things. I told them, "No, thanks." They then repeated their story and request as if I wasn't there two minutes ago. I waited for them to finish, smiled politely, and said, "No, thanks." They asked me why not and I told them: because I don't have to. Sacred gossip is still gossip and I don't have to participate. Besides, what do I care what some preacher said to some church in Texas or Tennessee? I'm trying to convert Detroit and that keeps me a little busy!

I don't have to participate in church gossip. I don't have to have a nice day just because you told me to. If you want to argue with me, I don't have to participate. If you think church must be a solemn affair, sorry, but I'm not going down that dark road with you. Just because Kohl's or Penney's has a sale, I don't have to go look at it. I don't have to go mad in March.

And just because it is (now) in the mid 40's in Michigan, that doesn't mean I have to act like it. So I'm going to sit here in my office with my shirt that is louder than an AC/DC concert and slightly less tasteful, strum my ukulele between phone calls and emails, and refuse to participate in winter. I have a choice. I'm making it. Aloha.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Butterflies, Buddha, and Brain Cells

Forget Neanderthal... I am the original early man. While I go about doing my drive-by teaching (I teach Continuing Education courses at various Midwestern universities) I usually arrive an hour to so early. One day I came to the classroom I was assigned to find that a class was already there. The room was full -- well over a hundred students, but there were a few seats left. I decided to sit in and see what was going on. It became obvious that this was a philosophy class because the professor had on a tweed jacket with black patches and there IS a dress code for these things. While he blathered and blethered up front I tried to be a good boy and listen quietly... but then he told the stupid Buddha story.

That isn't it's official title, by the way. It probably has some deeply spiritual eastern name, but it is a story about the Buddha and it is stupid so I'm sticking with my name for it. Here is it: one day the Buddha was meditating and he fell asleep. He dreamed he was a butterfly. When he woke up he wondered "Am I am man who dreamed I was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming I am a man?"

If you don't get the point of the story, it is designed to get young minds to question reality. In some ways, that is the whole point of the first few years of State universities, too! If the students can be convinced that there is no absolute truth, no right and wrong, and no higher moral authority then they can be more easily shaped into what passes for enlightened citizens in our trendier urban salons.

Well... there is only so much I can take. My hand went up. The professor, not knowing me and assuming I was some mid-life crisis returnee, called on me. I said, "It requires approximately 100,000 brain connections to form a picture -- not to mention the millions of support synapses -- and if you want that picture to move or be in color you have to multiply the number of connections exponentially. Butterflies, depending on which species you are discussing, have no more than 5,000 synapses. Therefore, butterflies can't dream. Therefore you are a man dreaming you are a butterfly." I sat back down. The professor stood there -- stunned like a man just kissed by the front bumper of a Mac Truck. I shrugged and said, "Happy to help."

He went on, then, at length about how the POINT of the story was more important than the facts. "In fact", he said (no irony intended, I assume), "everything is but a figment of our individual and collective imaginations."

My hand went up.

"Are you a figment of my imagination?" I asked. He hemmed and hawwed and then said, "Yes."
"Is that table in front of you a figment of my imagination?" I asked. He nodded that it was. "Then what would happen if I picked it up and hit you with it? Would it hurt?" He was baffled, speechless, so I added, "I imagine it would."

Finding his voice he then flung marker on white board drawing graphs and equations and listing Important People's Names who agreed that we cannot, really, ever, KNOW anything.

My hand went up.

"How do you know?"

He dismissed the class. I got to talk to about twenty of the kids for the next half hour as we discussed absolutes. It reminded me of the time that my professor leaned over my desk once many years ago, face red, voice raised, spittle flying, screaming "There are no absolutes!" I merely shrugged and asked, "Does that include that statement?"

No wonder I managed to cram eight years of college into twelve.... but facts are facts, real is real, and God is God. Absolutely.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Baseball, Grace and Sons

When my son -- aged seven -- came up and announced that he wanted to play baseball on one of our county's community teams I wasn't terribly happy. "I don't know anything about baseball," i told him. "I can't teach you how to play." Undaunted, he joined a local team and began a journey where we both learned a lot. Unfortunately, none of it was about baseball.

How can I put this delicately and with grace and sensitivity?... His team stunk. I'm sorry, but there it is. None of them could hit the ball, throwing was an exercise in chaos theory and their attention spans seemed equivalent to that of a ferret on its third cup of expresso. It was the Attention Deficit Disorder league and my son's team -- supported by Future Slackers of America -- was the single A farm team.

One day Duncan was up to bat. Suffice it to say there was not an air of expectancy in the crowd and he did not point to the fence behind center field. Someone had misaligned the pitching machine and it fired the ball... well, blooped it, really... in a slow motion parabolic curve towards him. It hit him on his shoulder with all the force of a hurled kleenex. Unsure of what happened next, he looked over at his coach who -- more excited than he'd been for some time -- told him he could now go to first base for free. Duncan, amazement on his face, began his journey. The whole team came out of the dugout to see him make this trek; one which had never been made by anyone on the team before. In fact, they had heard of such things, but had classified them as mythological, perhaps on the same level as Star Wars and homework-free schools.

Not being particularly quick on the uptake, they didn't realign the pitching machine so the next kid got the ball on the arm, too. He went to first as they explained to Duncan that he could now go all the way to second base. This was almost too much to take. ("Hey dad! Can you see me? I'm far!")

They corrected the machine's aim and the next kid -- terrified of failure and possible maiming -- stepped up to the plate. He went into the fetal position when the ball came, not trusting that it was aimed over the plate. By some fluke of the universe -- proving that God's has a sense of humor -- the ball dropped on, and then hopped off, his bat. It was a hit, of sorts, rolling a good foot and a half forward.

Absolute panic struck the field. It was as if someone dropped a shark in a tank of guppies. Nobody knew what to do but assumed it involved running around a lot and yelling. The coach yelled to Duncan "Run to home base!" and Duncan did... right across the pitcher's mound. I was there when he crossed the plate (he had to hop over the batter who wasn't sure he wasn't dead, but the catcher seemed to have wandered off). I grabbed him and swung him around in a big hug. While his coach had an embolism to the side, I told him "That was brilliant! They weren't expecting that!"

No... his team wasn't good. They couldn't catch, hit, or even understand the rules of the game. Duncan couldn't, either, but he was brilliant.... because he was MINE. That made all the difference.

It does in eternal matters, too. Never confuse the family room with the court room. There are huge differences. Too many churches treat people as if they were in a court room where guilt is presumed and innocence must be proven by perfect doctrine and behavior. But God is our Father and we are in His family room. I may be one of the worst excuses for a servant God has ever seen... but I am His. And that means I'm saved -- thoroughly, completely, and totally.
I may not know where all the bases are and what all the rules are, but I'm running home and I know Who will be there to welcome me when I arrive. It may give the devil and some of my brethren an embolism -- but my Father will declare me safe!