The Case of the Disappearing Bald Eagle

Brenda and I attended a conference about the Missouri River at Ponca State Park this weekend. One of the presenters (and his cohorts) deserves to be called out. His talk was based on a paper entitled, “Dynamics of plains cottonwood (Populus deltoides) forests and historic landscape change across the upper Missouri River, USA, Environmental Management,” published in 2010.

The study that led to the publication of this paper was initiated and funded by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) back in the days when the bald eagle was still on the endangered species list.  Congress has told USACE that they can bring no further harm to any endangered species in their management of the Missouri River. (In other words, they have to take endangered species into consideration as part of their logic for when and how they will release water from the six major reservoirs along the Missouri River.)

As part of their mandate they asked for input on the impact of the river management on bald eagles. One of the studies that the USACE paid for in full was done by the following people:

  • Mark Dixon, professor at the University of South Dakota
  • W. Carter Johnson, professor at South Dakota State University
  • Mike L. Scott, biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, currently stationed in Fort Collins, CO
  • Daniel E. Bowen, professor at Benedictine College, Atchison, KS
  • Lisa A. Rabbe, scientist in the employ of the USACE

The study is quite fascinating, and I suspect the results of the study will be quite helpful as policy decisions are made in the years after the 2011 flood along the Missouri River. One of the things they found is that if the river is managed in such a way that cottonwood forests are encouraged to thrive, the chances of massive destructive floods are reduced. That seems like a good thing to me.

But we taxpayers paid millions for this study specifically because of a mandate to study bald eagles. This study was proposed and carried out under the umbrella of bald eagle research.

Of course, early in the study the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list, so the urgency of the study was lost. (But the research went on!)

The study focused particularly on the transformation of cottonwood forests along the banks of the Missouri into more durable hardwood forests. Among the findings is that cottonwood forests support woodpeckers, ovenbirds, and certain songbirds while hardwood forests support Bell’s vireos and other songbirds. Because of how the Missouri River has been managed over the last fifty years, cottonwood forests are declining while hardwood forests are thriving. As a result, woodpecker and ovenbird populations are declining while Bell’s vireo populations are increasing.

After the paper was presented I asked, “How does the decline of cottonwood forests affect bald eagle populations?”

In one of those “You can’t make this stuff up” moments, Professor Mark Dixon got this deer-in-the-headlights look in his eye and said, “You know, that would be a good question to study.” He admitted that they never actually considered bald eagle populations in the study and that the study itself didn’t easily apply itself to bald eagle populations. It was much more applicable to song bird populations.

In fairness this gang of merry money spenders more recently received a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grant for a study entitled, “Projecting Long-term Landscape Change along the Missouri River: Implications for Cottonwood Forests and Songbird Populations, Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative.” So they are specifically capitalizing on the songbird connection, but I think we the taxpayers should demand that Dixon, Johnson, Scott, Bowen, and Rabbe return their millions of dollars (out of their own pockets!) from this study, which was foisted upon us as a bald eagle study.

And finally, the moral of the story: University professors would likely go extinct without massive federal funding and protection. The American Bald Eagle is quite capable of taking care of itself – cottonwoods or no cottonwoods … professors or no professors … government grants or no government grants.

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Thomas

Note: It turns out that this essay is part two of an earlier essay about the Gospel of Mark. I wrote that essay as a stand-alone, but after the essay was done, my mind kept working.

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I’ve been pondering Thomas, who doesn’t come off too well in John’s gospel. He’s presented as the guy who never quite puts all the pieces together. He ultimately believes but in the process shows himself to be a day late and dollar short (which is why Thomas Sunday is a week after Resurrection Sunday).

When Jesus says he’s going to the Jerusalem suburbs to visit Lazarus (and ultimately raise him from the dead) … in spite of the fact that the Jerusalem religious leaders are trying to kill Jesus … Thomas says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (Jn 11:16). When Jesus says “You know where I’m going” (ie, back to his Father), Thomas says, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going; how can we know the way?” (Jn 14:5).

And of course there’s the most famous Thomas story … or actually an absence of Thomas story. Jesus appears to the apostles right after his resurrection (Jn 20) but Thomas is absent. He says he will not believe that Jesus is risen from the dead unless he can see him for himself and examine the wounds. The next Sunday (what we now observe as Thomas Sunday) Jesus appears to the apostles again with Thomas present. Jesus says to Thomas, “Do not be faithless, but believing. … Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (Jn 20:26f).

Thomas’s doubt and lack of insight point to an important characteristic of the Church that wouldn’t be obvious and probably wouldn’t be celebrated if it weren’t for his bumbling. Part of the strength of the Church is that certain members are weak. I think it’s safe to say that Thomas wasn’t a cynic, just a slow learner. He did finally confess Jesus as “my Lord and my God,” after all. But unlike certain other apostles who seemed to grasp the truth of the matter immediately, Thomas required both time and help to work things through before arriving at the truth of the matter that others grasped immediately.

This dynamic of struggling with the truth, of being seemingly dense to ultimate reality, balances out the dynamic of immediate insight and flashes of brilliance. The quick learners are there to bring everyone else along while the slow learners are there to keep the Church from running ahead of itself.

A similar example is the community at Corinth. They failed to understand many fundamental Christian principles and Paul’s corrections of their failure now serve as the basis for our own sorting out of these difficult questions. If Paul never would have written those letters, the Church would be poorer and weaker for it.

In this sense the Apostle Thomas and John Mark, the author of the Gospel of Mark, are quite similar. They both fall short of completion or perfection; they are still on the Way toward the final Truth. And precisely because of their imperfections the Church is far more rich and complete (dare I say, because of their imperfections the Church can be perfect?). Even though the Gospel of Mark isn’t the last word on the Good News of Jesus (as I wrote about in the previous post), his perspective of terror and failure have provided great comfort and understanding to countless generations of Christians who might have otherwise thought they were spineless and thus unworthy to be part of the Church. Similarly, Thomas’s doubts have given strength to countless generations whose faith has been weak in the face of uncertainty.

A perfect church, aside from being totally annoying to be around, would be a weak and ineffectual church. It would have little ability to empathize with the larger community because it wouldn’t face the same troubles. Likewise, when true persecution or trouble come along it would not be prepared for such unexpected things. Our greatest strength, as the Body of Christ, is the fact that more often than not we don’t get it right the first time. Mark’s Gospel isn’t complete without Luke and Matthew; the flip side is that the struggle that leads to the joy of Luke and Matthew wouldn’t be very clear without Mark.

Similarly, the Easter joy of the apostles could possibly be written off. (In today’s psychologically driven world we might blame the strain of the day or lack of sleep … or, if we dip into Mark … the sheer terror of events.) But when the whole scene is repeated a week later, after the immediacy has worn off a bit, the resurrection is reaffirmed by the hold-out, Thomas. Just as Matthew and Luke need Mark, so Easter needs Thomas Sunday in order for its glory to be grasped.

Christ is risen! Indeed, he is risen! … except, now we can say it without sleep deprivation. It’s no longer just an excited verbal ejaculation. It has become an article of authentic faith.

Knowing God

Two quotes, both from Fr. Stephen Freeman’s blog, “Glory to God for All Things.” Both of these are taken from the post, “To Know What You Cannot Know.” The first is Freeman quoting Fr. Thomas Hopko:

You cannot know God — but you have to know Him to know that.

The second is Fr Stephen himself:

The largest group within my conversations are those who feel very secure in their knowledge of God but who believe a lot of strange things that they cannot possibly know. I feel a calling to help people know a lot less so they can know anything at all.

Another Thought on Easter Metaphors

I am doing more thinking about the metaphor I used for the resurrection in the previous essay. In that essay I offered a two-part metaphor of a stormy night for Jesus’ time in the grave where he defeated death by death and a bright, clear morning for the announcement of his resurrection – a movement from terror to joy. That works for Luke’s version of the story, but not so much for Mark’s. For those of you not familiar with the problem of the various endings of Mark’s gospel, let me offer a quick lesson in textual studies.

Both the oldest and most reliable manuscripts end Mark’s Gospel at 16:8. Later manuscripts and many “witnesses” (that is, writers who quote the Gospel) include or mention 16:9-20. But stylistically, verses 9-20 are very different from the rest of Mark. As a result, there is almost universal agreement that verses 9-20 were not part of the Gospel of Mark as originally written.

To add to the mystery, there is also a “shorter ending” which appears in just a few manuscripts, replacing verses 9-20. It reads as follows:

And all that had been commanded them they told briefly to those around Peter. And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

Imagine the consternation, shock, and in some cases, crisis of faith, when, as young fundamentalist Christians, attending a fundamentalist Bible College, we were introduced to this textual problem in Advanced Greek Exegesis class. The stylistic differences were obvious even to us. We were a half dozen young people who all believed in the verbal plenary inerrancy of scripture. We all knew that Mark’s Gospel was written by John-Mark. And suddenly we were faced with overwhelming textual evidence that the last twelve verses of the Gospel didn’t belong.

For our Greek instructor (and let me assure you, he was every bit as fundamentalist as we students were, albeit, more mature) it was a “teachable moment.” That famous fundamentalist doctrine of the “verbal plenary inerrancy of scripture” applied, not to the English text, nor even the King James Version which was (and still is) revered so highly by a few. It referred to the “original documents.” And the simple historical fact was that we did not have the original documents. In this instance, and in a handful of other incidents in scripture, there was no way of knowing exactly what the original document said.

Most believers over the centuries evidently had a difficult time believing that John-Mark actually intended to end his Gospel at 16:8. Verses 6-7 record what the angel at the tomb said to the disciples. Verse 8 records their response. Here is a translation of Mark 16:6-8 (where the most ancient and authoritative manuscripts end):

6 And [the angel] said to them, “Do not be amazed; you seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen, he is not here; see the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him, as he told you.” 8 And they went out and fled from the tomb; for trembling and astonishment had come upon them; and they said nothing to any one, for they were afraid. (RSV)

Several plausible theories have been offered. One is that John-Mark never got a chance to finish his Gospel. (It was likely written in a time of persecution, after all.) Another is that the very end of the manuscript was damaged or destroyed so that what John-Mark wrote was lost. In this case it is often theorized that the longer ending (what is now vv. 9-20) is a recreation from memory of what was on that destroyed end of the scroll.

Others revert to a sort of “well, it should have been included” mentality, and simply propose that faithful believers added the last few verses in order to say what God intended the text to say in the first place if John-Mark would have been paying attention.

But the fact is, nobody (except John-Mark, and possibly Peter, who was almost certainly the apostolic source of Mark’s writing, and the Risen and Reigning Lord himself) knows the truth of the matter. It’s all either speculation or opinion based on a larger theological framework.

Here’s my speculation. (And not mine alone; while a minority view, many students and scholars take this approach, including my Bible College Advanced Greek Exegesis instructor.)

Mark’s Gospel is not “good news” in the sense that it’s a happy, victorious, and feel-good sort of story. The gist of the story is that the disciples never get who Jesus is until long after the story is over – some point after fifty days, to be precise, when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to reveal all truth. Literary scholars call Mark’s literary method “the Messianic Secret.” In other words, the theme that runs through the whole gospel is that Jesus’ Messiahship is a secret that no human understands. Only the demons understood (Mk 5:7, for instance), but they tried to use this information against him. Even Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah (Mk 8:29) was clearly misunderstood, for it led to a false understanding of reality after which Jesus calls Peter “Satan” (v. 33).

Even though Jesus Christ’s resurrection is good news because it is God’s victory over death, the disciples don’t figure it out for 50 days, when the Holy Spirit comes at Pentecost. During the ten days following the resurrection it is decidedly bad news because in response the disciples hide in fear, even though Jesus appears to them individually and in groups, demonstrating the reality of the resurrection. The women get it and are joyous; the men are much less sure of themselves. After ten days Jesus tells the disciples to go to the Mount of Olives where he ascends to heaven. This is clearly a joyous event, but even in Matthew’s version (the most triumphalistic of the Gospels), it says that “some doubted” at the Ascension (28:17). It’s not until the coming of the Holy Spirit, who is the revealer of truth and the comforter of hearts, that the disciples finally figure it out and begin to proclaim the good news of Jesus’ resurrection which changes everything.

But Pentecost (that is, the coming of the Holy Spirit) is a church event, not a Jesus event. In Luke’s two volume story, it’s the start of the Acts of the Apostles and not part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark’s gospel is not about the church, it’s about Jesus. Furthermore, historical evidence points out that he was writing during a time of severe persecution when a lot of Christians were denying their faith because of the fear of torture and death. Within this historical context it makes sense that Mark would want to hammer home the fact that even the twelve apostles, who spent three years with Jesus himself, failed in their various moments of crisis. Christian faith, if Mark’s Gospel is taken at face value, is best viewed as a series of failures which in retrospect are chock full of God’s guidance and care. To jump ahead to the victory is to gloss over the growth which shows itself as trials and failures. To focus on the joy is to miss the terrors and doubts of actual daily life. Mark’s Gospel is good news, not because he offers a happy ending, but rather because he tells it as it actually was, and not through the lens of retrospect.

Mark was the first gospel written. Luke explains at the very beginning of his gospel that he uses sources “handed on to me” in the writing of his gospel. Mark was without a doubt one of those sources because Luke quotes large passages of Mark verbatim (as does Matthew). But I propose the apostles, the believers, the church in general, recognized that Mark’s approach to the gospel wasn’t necessarily the best way to go. We, as Christians, do see everything through the lens of the coming of the Holy Spirit and the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ’s life can’t just be taken at face value; it has to be seen through the eyes of faith, or from the perspective of the indwelling Holy Spirit who leads us into all truth.

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were not perfect as Jesus was perfect. Neither were they all-knowing as God in heaven is all knowing. So, while Mark’s gospel is both an accurate description of how it all happened and a true account of the life of Christ, in the judgment of the church, it is not the best way to tell the story: It’s a real Gospel, but not the final word. The Gospel according to Mark is like a first draft in this whole business of putting the preached gospel to text. Luke and Matthew started with his version but added to it, and more importantly, did not follow the “Messianic secret” theme, but chose to tell the story through the eyes of post-Pentecost Christian faith. In subsequent years the church in general was uncomfortable enough with Mark’s ending that the church added an ending more in line with the Christological perspective of viewing all life (past, present, and future) through the lens of Christian faith.

That’s my speculation on how we got the two different endings of Mark, neither of which was written by Mark himself at the time the rest of the Gospel was written.  Assuming that I (and again, I remind you that I am not alone in this opinion) got it right, this Gospel has something profound to tell us that cannot be found elsewhere in scripture, other than the profoundly negative Psalm 88 and a handful of similar texts.

Sometimes the reality of God’s presence and his hand in our life are absolutely invisible. John of the Cross calls it “the Dark Night of the Soul.” He goes so far as to say that the dark night is a necessary Christian experience. Faith in God, when you can feel and experience God’s guiding hand, is not faith at all. Faith involves the unknown and therefore requires trust. If my experience is that God always takes care of me, always reveals the correct path, and always gets me out of a jamb, then my interaction with God is not based of faith but on sight. True faith is trusting in God when God is seemingly absent. And we can’t know that we authentically and profoundly believe in God until we have believed in God when it goes against everything we know and experience. (The story of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac is a biblical example of this sort of faith.)

This is the Gospel of Mark in a nutshell. It is the knowledge that God is God and I am his creature even though my only experience is fear and failure and the only thing I hear from God (or in the case of the disciples, from Jesus the Rabbi) don’t make sense. That is a sense of grace that far surpasses any understanding of grace that can happen when one first realizes the truth of the matter and accepts Christ as one’s savior. It is a sort of Christian faith that can only come about after the crucible of real life has been lived. And only when this sort of utterly profound divine grace which extends far beyond human belief is experienced can we turn to God with utterly profound gratitude for what he has done.

Mark’s Gospel is Jesus’ words, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” writ large through the lives of the disciples.

Just over a year ago a huge tornado passed through Siouxland and laid waste to the town of Mapleton, to the southeast of Sioux City. When the citizens of Mapleton woke up the next morning (if they had even slept at all, given all the terror), the sun was probably shining in a crystal clear sky. But their experience wasn’t overwhelming joy; it was fear, sorrow, despair. Maybe the image of Mapleton laid waste by an apocalyptic creation gone made, the destruction even more pronounced because of the brightness and clarity of the dawning sun is a far more accurate metaphor for Easter morning. We rightfully celebrate Christ’s Pascha at Easter from the eyes of Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Spirit. We rightfully observe this Feast of Feasts as the most joyous of all occasions in the life of the church. But the way it is experienced in everyday life is rather different. When Easter moments (or more accurately paschal moments) come into our everyday lives they are upsetting and we don’t understand them, so we typically respond in fear, “not saying anything to anyone, for we are afraid” (Mark 16:9 – the final words of the book altered for tense).

Resurrection joy comes after the fact, some fifty days later, when the Holy Spirit leads us into all truth. But in the transformative moment of death and resurrection, when we do not understand but can only hope (a classic apocalyptic theological term – not a vague desire, but a confidence held somewhere deep within that contradicts our experience of this sinful and broken created order) that God will be God and come through, even though he’s hidden behind the veil.

As we mature and become more Christ-like, as we, over time, become the saints God has already named us and called us to be, we can respond to these transformative paschal moments in profound trust. But that’s the end of the story; that’s not even the second or third draft. It’s more like the twelfth draft, or twelve hundredth draft, of our Christian lives. The first time through … the first several times through, for that matter, like the Apostles, in whom Jesus entrusted the whole church, we “flee.” “Terror and amazement seizes us.” We “say nothing to anyone, for we are afraid.”

And in a very strange and profound way, that is the good news of the Gospel.

And what is Christian maturity rooted in this strangely profound good news of the Gospel? Let’s return to Mapleton and its hail, wind, tornado, and rain of apocalyptic proportions. (The storm and tornado is Holy Saturday – the hours before Easter.) Christian maturity is walking out of your tornado shelter the next morning, surrounded by the debris and destruction of what used to be your house and your community, taking the aftermath of that terror of destruction in, but rather than quailing at the sight, having your heart overflow with gratitude, joy, and love for God because of crystal blue sky, the glorious sunrise, and the birds singing from what’s left of the trees.

In a very strange and profound way, Mapleton razed by a tornado as seen in the glaring light of the morning sun (and not just a beautiful Easter sunrise on a pastoral morning) is the proper metaphor of a mature Christian rejoicing in the Resurrection as it is rooted in the actual good news of the Gospel. Thanks be to God.

Trampling … and Other Great Easter Words

Newness and violence are inextricably related. I was reminded of this last night as the massive spring storms moved across the central U.S. even as Orthodox churches throughout the region were ringing in the news that Christ is risen from the dead, during the midnight Pascha service. (Today, not last Sunday, is Pascha – or Easter – on the Orthodox Christian calendar.)

It reminds me of Mat. 11:12, where we find Jesus’ unexpected declaration, “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force.” This verse is notoriously difficult to interpret. Some have even go so far as to translate the Greek back into Aramaic in order to speculate what Jesus actually said (since Aramaic was Jesus’ native language). When one does that, it is possible (some even argue it’s likely) that the violence becomes passive: “The Kingdom of Heaven has been suffering violence, and the violent are trying to snatch it away.”

I’m not going to weigh in on precisely what this verse means except to note that Jesus recognized that the Resurrection and the resulting Kingdom were inextricably tied to violence. (Although I will note that the traditional interpretation is that we are called on to inflict the violence on ourselves. Our desire to please ourselves rather than please God is so overwhelming that we must “violently” practice discipline – not in the pre-Reformation Martin Luther sense of beating oneself with whips, but rather the violence of eating vegetables when one desperately wants a hamburger or giving away a hundred dollars when one desperately wants to update an ancient smart phone. And anyone who has attempted to observe Lent in gratitude to God for all that he has given, the idea that these are violent actions against the self is obvious.)

The new order creates violence, not because it is inherently violent, but rather because the old corrupt order does not want to be replaced. In the wildly and wonderfully excessive language of the apocalyptic tradition, the newness of the Kingdom, the action of God’s “mighty arm,” is expressed as the fabric of the sky being torn open, mountains being toppled into the sea, the sun going dark, and the stars falling (or being cast down) from heaven.

That imagery is not unlike the spring storms that ravage the central part of the U.S. every year at the time we celebrate the resurrection of Christ as he “tramples down” (now there’s a violent image!) “death by death …”

For those of us who just want to blend in, who go to church but don’t want to make waves, who believe that Christians ought to just be good citizens and not rabble rousers, who believe that they don’t have to work very hard at their faith because salvation is free and God’s grace covers all, we should learn from this confluence (which is by no means accidental!) of the season of spring and the celebration of Christ’s resurrection.

Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life. (This is the Paschal Troparion , which is sung ad infinitum during the Paschal service and in the weeks that follow.) (And at this point, a bolt of lightning from an ominous black cloud, a thunder clap and an onslaught of hail, followed by a crystal-clear sunrise, would be appropriate. I suspect that is how we ought to translate the Paschal Troparion into the language of nature.)

An Author with the Gift of Understatement

I’ve been traveling. Traveling and creativity don’t necessarily go together. It’s why I haven’t posted anything for the last month or so. I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, a science fiction novel. I love the following dialog:

She said: “Do you need transportation? Tools? Stuff?”

“Our opponent is an alien starship packed with atomic bombs,” I said. “We have a protractor.”

“Okay, I’ll go home and see if I can scrounge up a ruler and a piece of string.”

“That’d be great.”