29 April 2008

God's Favored Creatures

"God has an inordinate fondness for beetles." Biologist J.B.S. Haldane

I'm reading science again. Earlier this year I read two books on physics. This led to my sermon on Einstein--and I'm proud to say it's one of the most influential sermons I have ever preached. In the 2 1/2 months since I gave it, nearly every lay speaker at my church has referenced it somewhere in their talk. What a compliment!

Now I'm into astrobiology: The Living Cosmos by Chris Impey, where he goes into the development of life on planet Earth and speculates on the possibilities of life across the galaxy. There is plenty of evolutionary biology to be found here--something I appreciate, since my knowledge of evolutionary theory is pretty weak. Of course, there is plenty of our Creator to be found, too, if one has the spirit to seek...and find.

Impey conveys biology in a way that I had never understood it before. Instead of the two-kingdom approach of plants and animals, he presents life in a much broader array. I always saw the Animal Kingdom as a progressive chain of animals with bacteria at the bottom and humans at the top. The Plant Kingdom had a similar, somewhat hierarchical order.

Impey presents at Phylogenetic Tree of Life. This is based on genetic differences. The three branches of the PTL are Bacteria, Archaea (primitive microbes first discovered in the 1970s), and Eucarya.

In the Eucarya strain, humans seem insignificant. We are one of 5,400 species of mammals. This compares with 8,200 reptile species, 10,000 bird species, 29,000 fishes, 290,000 plants, and 1,200,000 species of invertebrates, of which 950,000 are insects.

It's a bug's world, apparently. As I noted above, you could take the total number of vertebrate species, multiply that number by five and you STILL wouldn't total the number of species of beetles.

This gives me a unique view of God. Maybe He does have a fondness for beetles. Instead of the human-centric view that I have of Him--that he created me in His image, that he set mankind above all fauna, that he sent his son to die for human beings--maybe I should consider a more beetle-centric view.

Consider this: we exist to feed beetles. The crops we plant, the dung we create, our very bodies themselves once they have left this mortal coil--all go to feed beetles. I don't know of any humans that eat beetles--or who use them to get food. No, it seems more and more that beetles are the top of the food chain.

God created man...for beetles? I need to check back with Genesis 1.

The organization of life in genetic branches also makes for some fascinating comparisons. Remember that in the new biology, humans are linked with plans, invertebrates and other complex organisms.

It is well known that humans share 99% of DNA with monkeys, but did you now that we have 85% in common with dogs and 67% in common with moths? If you could examine the DNA of the banana you had for breakfast, you would find that it holds 50% in common with you, as does yeast.

That seems crazy. I am, after all, 'fearfully and wonderfully made,' according to Psalm 8. Not as much as I thought, however, since I'm only twice as fearfully and 100% more wonderfully made than a grapefruit--in terms of my unique DNA.

Insult to injury: Impey reports that the E coli bacteria, which has 4,500 genes in its genetic code, has 1/6th the number of genes that I have. That's not a broad leap.

I don't have time to go into his astronomical observations, but they are fascinating, too. I'm not finished with the book, and I have a feeling that the refresher courses I have had in biology and chemistry are setting me up for some pretty remarkable physical conclusions.

I'll keep you posted, as always.

Reading The Road, Waking to the Light

A father, a son. They walk together through a barren, grey, postapocalyptic landscape, pushing a shopping cart and rifling abandoned houses for food.

They are the "good guys" the father tells the son. They push south, hoping to find others like them--trying to avoid the gangs that roam the countryside plundering the only edible things that remain: other humans. There are signs of horror, but no hints as to what could have caused all this--no hope that there is a single other place on earth that might have been spared. The only hope is in the "good guys," which may be the father and son only.

Before Cormac McCarthy's book, No Country for Old Men, became an Oscar-winning movie, his book, The Road, was a postmodern gospel. The father and the son: the father always watching always protecting, the son's humanity reaching out to the pitiful humans they do run across, reminding his father that there is hope in "the good guys."

I bought this book a month ago. Jenny picked it up, and she didn't go to bed until she was done. It was powerful. "You have to read it," she urged, but I was still trying to wrap up Moby Dick. I didn't get a chance to read it until two weeks ago.

It took awhile to sink in. I read it over several nights, and couldn't really get into it.

Then, last weekend, we were in Huntsville, Alabama, for a short weekend away. I had a dream. I was in a car, racing through a postapocalyptic landscape, dodging debris on the freeway. I was in the back of a convertible, barking at the driver.

We saw a shadow next to the road, and the driver pulled over. I had a terrible feeling. "No! No! No!" I screamed. "Keep moving."

It was too late. The shadow pulled something up to its chest. I saw a bright flash. My head hurt. I felt something rattle around, and then my eyes flew open. This is what it is like to be shot, I thought.

I didn't get back to sleep for a long time. I lay awake, and as I lay there, I thought about The Road and its peculiar vision that had rattled my unconscious in the same way the shotgun blast had done. I thought about my own sons, and I thought about the good guys--about hope.

24 April 2008

The Things I Have to Teach

There are only four weeks left with my German 2 class. Tomorrow is Culture Day: our weekly examination of German history.

We have really enjoyed Culture Days this semester. We began the year with Napoleon and the destruction of the First Reich in 1806. March found us in World War I, and I worked hard to show the German side of things--and the horrors that all nations went through in that great war.

Of course April has been World War II month. The kids have been really interested as we have charted the rise of Hitler and the devastation of the end of the war. I was helped by three movies that I watched with the class: Europa, Europa, Downfall, and As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me.

Now I find myself in a dilemma. It's time for the Cold War. When one is studying German history, that means introducing East Germany. But there is no East Germany, just as there is no Soviet Union.

I find East Germany incredibly difficult to explain to these kids. It loomed so large: our opponents in the Olympics (back then they were the steroid-laced cheaters, now it's the USA), our mortal enemies. The Berlin Wall seemed 100 feet high in my imagination.

Now it doesn't exist. It fell years before these kids were even born.

What is an East Germany?

I have tried film. I rented The Lives of Others, an oscar-winning German film that follows a Stasi spy who ends up protecting a couple under surveillance. It's a great film, but it isn't appropriate for kids--a little too drawn-out, methinks.

I think I'm going to play a spy game. I'll show a video about Checkpoint Charlie. Then we will play a game: three kids will want to escape to the West, three kids will be "normal" East Germans who support the Socialist State to varying degrees, three kids will be Stasi agents. At the end of the game we will see who has figured out each other.

Do you have any other ideas? I'm teaching a foreign language, so this should be second nature. But I could teach the planet, Venus, about as easily as East Germany!

19 April 2008

Sowing and Uprooting

There is a haunted house just down Boiling Springs Road from where I live.

At least that's what the kids on Highland Drive call it.

It's an abandoned home. Built just 20 years ago (by my former choir teacher, Mr. Schimp), it is now abandoned, sold to the state of Tennessee. Two years from now a four-lane highway will run through that spot.

Right now it is an empty place--nearly haunted. Last fall two trees on the property fell, one of them crushing the garage. The back door is open. You can walk in at any time and tour the home. The paint looks great and the wood floors are shiny. It is a house built with a lot of love--and lived in passionately until about four years ago.

I was walking on the property a month ago, and I noticed daffodils everywhere. What a shame, I thought. A year from now bulldozers will come and cover them with asphalt.

Last Saturday I decided to do something about it. I took a plastic bag and a spade with me on my afternoon walk. Owen rode his bike. In broad daylight, I walked up to a clump of daffodils. With four thrusts of my spade, I uprooted the whole lot and deposited about 90 daffodil bulbs in my sack. I have to admit that I felt somewhat guilty for "stealing," considering that these daffodils belonged to the state highway department and its giant bulldozers.

As I walked home, I wondered what to do with all these daffodils. I stopped by the pump house and planted six bulbs along its block walls. That still left me with almost 90 bulbs.

I walked up to the wedding site. I planted daffodils there four years ago. This year there were bunches instead of single flowers. Near the wedding site, however, I found thorns getting a head start on the other plants growing in the woods. I put down the spade and found a pickaxe.

For the next three hours I dug up thorn bushes. I built a fire. Every time I found a thorn, I dug it up. I threw the thorns on the fire (I just love the crackling sounds that thorns make when they are being burned). Into each hole I placed a daffodil bulb and covered it with dirt.

This went on the rest of the afternoon. It was getting harder and harder to find thorns. Meanwhile the woods were filling with green daffodil stems (the flowers had already wilted).

As the number of thorns dropped, I thought of the prayer of St. Francis
Where there is hatred, let me so love
Where there is injury, pardon

It thrilled me. This is what life is about, I thought, whether you own property adjacent to a 'haunted house' or not. We are here to rescue the Daffodil Bulbs of this world from the bulldozer, and we are meant to sow them wherever we dig up thorns.

I went back to the haunted house the next day and got a new batch of bulbs. I haven't sown them yet. Hard as it may be to believe, there are still thorns in my woods--there is still work to do. It should keep my weekends busy for the rest of the spring.

18 April 2008

Youth Legislature

I'm blogging from the Tennessee State Capitol, where I'm sponsoring a group of students from my high school in a weekend youth in government conference.

This is not for the faint of heart: three days of grueling meetings, featuring debate and lawmaking. It's fun, though, seeing students grow over the course of the weekend. My students have proposed the following bills:
  • Eliminate voting fraud by requiring state-issued photo IDs in order for people to vote
  • Provide funding to provide a heart defibrilator to all marked police cars, which are usually the first-responders to accidents (this was our club's highest-ranked bill this weekend, and I'm proud to say that it passed the House by a 77-8 vote)
  • Provide a tax rebate to Tennesseans who buy hybrid vehicles or train/bus passes
  • Ban abortions for all teens--even if they have parental consent
  • Decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana
  • Allow the use of cell phones in schools in the case of an emergency
The state of Tennessee allows students to use legislative facilities--even the Supreme Court chambers--to engage in mock debate and lawmaking. I have four students running for office, including one who wants to be governor next year.

It will be a long weekend, but in view of the long-term benefits of a program like this, it's worth my time, I feel. When I was in academy, I loved statewide and regional events (in my case they were music festivals, where I got to practice my choral skills). I would have totally loved a conference like this one, where research, debate, and critical thinking are honed.

05 April 2008

Ellie School Update

Ellie darted through the raindrops and slid into the car next to me.

I have learned not to ask, "How was your day?" It's a question kids hate to hear, and they seldom have an answer prepared. I waited for her to get settled as I pulled out into traffic.

She sighed and smiled. "That cafeteria just outdid themselves today at lunch," she said.

Inside I leapt for joy. A painful, exhilarating, worrying and necessary change was beginning to work itself out before my eyes.

The back story: a year ago, Ellie began to unravel. She got stressed out. She couldn't sleep. Her grades dipped slightly into the B range (with one insulting C). She began to seek confrontation with me, and she would go into emotional outbursts when we did cross words on things like why she had to do her homework and silly stuff like that. Shortly after the school year ended, a severe outburst at Camp Meeting time led us to seek outside help.

The counseling found that underneath the surface, she had had a tough time at school. She didn't feel respected by her 4th-grade teacher, and she had struggled to do well in her class. At least one family pulled its child out of Highland Elementary because of this poor first-year teacher. I kept Ellie there because I hoped that her experienced 5th-grade teacher would be better.

Before 4th grade, I felt that Ellie was "teacher proof." She has a strong desire to please authority figures, and she had used her blazing intelligence and perceptive personality to win over every teacher she had had since she was 4. In 4th grade she ran into a wall.

The problem continued this year. There weren't confrontations with me anymore, because we had worked that out over the summer. But Ellie hated school. She loved her friends, but she made it clear that she had learned to "tune out" the teacher and pastor when they lectured her and her friends. Over Spring Break all she could talk about was starting 6th grade at the public middle school just down the street from where I teach.

The day after Spring Break, Jenny called me at school. Ellie had refused to return to Highland, claiming she was sick. She had spent the day at the clinic with Jenny. On my way out the door, I picked up an Out-of-Zone Form. On the way home, I was given the following impression: take the morning off work; register Ellie at a new school. It was March 10, the worst time of year to switch schools.

The next morning we registered Ellie at Jack Anderson Elementary, about 10 minutes' drive from my house. On Wednesday she went to school for the first time--a huge school with over 800 students, yet one of the best elementary schools in my district.

It wasn't easy for her. "I hate it there," she would say in the early days. "All of the kids are snobs." On her third day, she experienced catastrophe. She had brought a sack lunch to school, and she sat down at a table at lunch. When the other kids got through the cafeteria line, the all sat somewhere else. Your typical 5th-grader would rather sit on an electric chair than sit alone at lunch.

This week it got better. She made a friend, Andrea, the girl who was the "newbie" before Ellie arrived. She also started to figure out the whole lunch thing. With Andrea sitting with her, she had an ally with whom social conquest was possible. Which boys can you laugh at? Which girls should you just ignore?

Ellie always talked about the cafeteria--always. The food was rotten. The pizza had sausage. Yuck. Ick. The usual. I realized--this is how she tells me about her day!

As Ellie described her quest in detail, it was pretty clear she was making the right moves. She knew not to act needy; she didn't overreact to some of the girls' tricks. She brought home her papers. They had solid, A-B grades.

Then on Thursday, she complimented the cafeteria food--the potato wedges, the grapes, the biscuits. "They outdid themselves," she said.

I'm sure you did, I thought to myself. I'm sure you did.

Signs of the Times

Most of the news these days is full of economic stuff. The American dollar has fallen terribly in recent months. Fortunately, this hasn't resulted in too much inflation, even thought it seems like ever $200 billion bailout of an investment bank (a la Bear Stearns) would seem to devalue the dollar further.

Here on Highland Drive, we have been pretty lucky. This area of Tennessee has pretty stable job status--and development is going full force near my school in Gallatin. A new shopping mall opened there just last month. But I do see the problems, both in my job and on my street.

I'll share them with you here.

A week ago an SUV pulled up in my driveway. It was my neighbor from two doors down, Kevin. He said they were moving Wednesday, and he asked if I wanted to take their dog, a Bassett Hound. Otherwise they would take it to the pound.

Kevin's step sons came over a lot. They were sweet boys--neglected, possibly abused, but nice kids. Sometimes I broke up fights and prevented them from terrorizing Owen or one of the other neighbor boys. Other times they came and we played Bionicles or rode bikes on trails in the woods.

A few weeks ago, Taylor (one of the boys) had told us they were moving. The payments on the house were too high, he said. I didn't believe them. The house is a small one--no way did it cost more than $110,000 when it was purchased five or six years ago. Yet Kevin, the guy in the SUV, was ready to move out.

The house is empty now, with the yard still looking like it was just used by little boys. There is no for sale sign in front. I am left to assume foreclosure.

Frankly, I would get rid of my SUV before I lost my home--but then, SUVs aren't easy to sell either. I know that from personal experience! Either way, Economic Crisis has come to one family on Highland Drive. Who knows where it will strike next.

At school I have seen the signs. I think of my student M.B., who had to move out of her home in January. It's tough moving around when you're a public school student, because you hope to stay in school, which means living within the school district. M.B. moved in with her friend, G.H.

Weeks later, G.H. was also looking for a new place to live! Needless to say, school hasn't been high on her priority list throughout all this, and she is failing. At least one other student of mine has been on the move in the short time since Christmas.

It's tough, and I live in a country run by George W. Bush, so it isn't going to get better anytime soon. I think it's important to know what's going on and to help where I can.

A friend just lost his job at a trucking company. He tells me that 45,000 small trucking firms have gone out of business in the past year. He's looking for work. He is the first person I want to help with this.

More importantly, I need to look around Highland Drive. There is suffering here, too. I hope to help.