Book Review: Where the Sea Breaks Its Back


Ford, Corey, Where the Breaks Its Back: The Epic Story of Early Naturalist Georg Steller and the Russian Exploration of Alaska. Alaska Northwest Books: Anchorage, 1966. 206p.

This book was recommended on our recent trip to the San Juan Islands. While the San Juans are not in Alaska, they are the last in the chain of coastal islands running down the Pacific coast from Alaska, and some of the birds and animals are the same, including these Steller Sea Lions.

The book, written by a retired Air Force officer who served in the Aleutians in World War II, is mostly the story of Georg Steller, a German naturalist of the early 18th century. Steller travelled to Russia and was able to get an appointment at the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. From there, he worked his way across Russia to the Kamchatka Peninsula. (If you have either played Risk or studied geography, that may sound familiar.) There Steller linked up with Vitus Bering, a Dutch sailor serving in the Russian Navy. (Captain James Cook later named the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska after this explorer.)

Bering was organizing a second trip to sail east from Kamchatka in search of Alaska. After much effort, and delays from those in charge in St. Petersburg, Steller was finally able to get on board as the naturalist for the expedition. It was a difficult journey under the best of circumstances and the area was largely uncharted. The charts that did exist were conflicting and often somewhat fanciful.

The St. Peter, the boat on which Bering and Steller sailed, was separated from the St. Paul, the other ship on the expedition, fairly early in the trip and they never regained sight of each other. Bering sailed on and on 18 June, 1741, made landfall on the Alaskan coast. The main purpose of going ashore was to restock the ship’s supply of fresh water.

Steller, the naturalist, was granted permission to go ashore with the watering party, but was only allowed 10 hours ashore. Bering believed he had accomplished his task and was anxious to sail back to Kamchatka before winter weather. Steller was furious to be granted so little time, but took full advantage of it.

Being a truly talented man, Steller identified several new species, including the above-pictured Steller’s Jay. To those of us in the United States, especially from the eastern half of the country, we would think this looks similar to a Blue Jay, which is what Steller thought, though he had never been to America before. He had seen a drawing of a Blue Jay in a book during his studies and he remembered it, saw the resemblance, and took it as confirmation they were in fact on the North American continent.

Once the party began heading back to Russia, the adventure truly began, including shipwreck and over-wintering on Bering Island, where the commander of the expedition died. The party eventually built themselves a second boat and made it back to Russia. In the meantime, Steller described several more species new to science, many of which still bear his name.

The book is well-written and includes elements of interest to those who like nature, exploration, or adventure. It is a fascinating look into the lives of some incredibly rugged men who survived in one of the most rugged places on earth.

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Filed under Birding, Book Review, Nature


After some analysis, I have identified about two dozen species of birds I have never seen before that I have a reasonable chance of seeing where we now live. I am starting to collect information about their habitats and when they are normally present near the Puget Sound. This is an interesting exercise in itself as it allows me to learn more about these birds. It also should increase my chances of actually observing them in the wild.

Different birds prefer different habitats. They are not likely to come to me, so in order to see them, I will have to venture into their habitats. I could stare out my front window for the rest of my life and probably never see any waterfowl, but within a few miles I have both salt and freshwater bays and lakes. As I collect my information, I should have an idea of when I need to visit each habitat over the next year.

I have been doing some other goal-setting of late as well. I have slipped into the habit of drifting off to sleep when I sit down to read. It seems I can only endure about twenty to thirty minutes before the sleep monster envelopes me in its clutches and drags me off to its lair. There are times, like rainy Sunday afternoons, where a nap with a book is a fine and pleasant thing, but to succumb to slumber every time I try to get through a chapter of a book is becoming frustrating.

So I set a goal: I want to read for an hour straight each day. So far I have found the first 30 minutes fairly easy, but the second half to be more of a struggle, resulting in me having to move, sit on the floor, and otherwise exert effort to stay awake. Being able to focus my attention while reading is a skill I cherish, so it is worth fighting to retain.

Both of these actions result from asking the question, “What do I want?” which is just a variation on, “Where do I want to go?” that we discussed earlier. I used these questions to identify some targets: birds I want to see and an ability to regain for myself.

Obviously, setting goals is important and the internet has no shortage of articles extolling the necessity and utility of this practice. But setting goals that will lead us to where we want to be is more important. There is no shortage of “good things” to strive toward. It would be fun to be a renaissance man, conversant in multiple languages, able to play multiple instruments, and well-read on dozens of topics. We have our limits, however. Time, talent, and interest all narrow what goals we are likely to attain.

Focus is also important. I have found one or two goals at a time is all I can really focus on while trying to maintain other areas of discipline in my life. So for now it is birds (which can be set aside, because it is just a hobby) and rebuilding my reading capacity.

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Filed under Birding, Discipline, Growth, Priorities, Reading, Success

Of Pokemon and Birds

Yesterday, a gorgeous, sunny, autumn Saturday, I walked around Capitol Lake in Olympia with my wife and it was teeming with ducks. We walk there regularly and normally see some, but yesterday, there were at least a thousand ducks on the lake. Mostly American Wigeons and Ring-necked Ducks, though I spied Buffleheads, Canvasbacks, and Western Grebes as well.

Also around the lake, as predictable as the Mallards and gulls, were people walking while staring at their cellular phones. Instead of texting or selecting a playlist for their walk, we could tell they were playing Pokemon Go. From what I understand, it is a virtual treasure hunt tied to actual locations where players “find” different make-believe creatures at different places.

I wonder if there is any substantial difference between me looking for my feathered treasures and them looking for their digital ones. The Pokemon seekers and I were both outside, enjoying the weather. We were walking around the same park. I was with my wife, and we saw at least one husband and wife with their son in pursuit of their digital goals.

I am tempted to feel smug and superior, though, because what I was seeking is real. Real birds living real lives. Birds that may be at this lake for a few hours or a few months. Birds that may have been hundreds of miles away last week.

It’s no surprise that birders quickly picked up the similarity between Pokemon Go and birding. Apparently the game has a life list called Pokedex, so now I will have an easier time explaining my life list to the millions who have downloaded the game. “It’s a like Pokedex for birds.”

In some ways Pokemon Go isn’t too dissimilar from geocaching, except that in geocaching you get get the added bonus of an old happy meal toy as a reward for your efforts. Our family geocached for a while and the kids enjoyed it when they were younger, but after one summer, the thrill of searching for surplus ammo cans in the woods wore off.

I have memories associated with birds and birding that I have a hard time imagining replicating within an augmented reality game. I’ve seen birds as sources of wonder, comfort, and blessing. Jesus told us to watch birds in Matthew 6:26, but he never said anything about Pokemon.

Pokemon Go may be getting people off the couch, but it doesn’t seem to be making them pay any more attention to anything off the edges of their screen. Distracted walking is real. I give players a wide berth as I’m walking, lest they run into me as I pass.

I also can’t imagine anyone playing Pokemon Go for decades. I’ve been birding to some degree for over 25 years and I still enjoy the common birds as well as the rare ones. Birds have natural attraction — beauty and song — and they are amazing because while they are real, they are unreal compared to us. I suspect with time, the Pokemon Go sensation will be remembered as just one more oddity of 2016.

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Filed under Birding, General, Nature


All love, all devotion, all commitments whatsoever involve asceticism. Whenever we embrace one thing, we cannot help but not embrace a multitude of others. Self-denial is the hallmark of commitment. Whether one is committed to learning to play the piano, running a 5K, or marriage, self-denial will be involved.

Self-denial has been touted as an abominable heresy by our modern culture (mostly by those who incite us to be consumers.) “To scandalize anyone today, it suffices to suggest to him that he renounce something.”¹ But we all seem to innately desire to show our allegiance to one by denying another.

It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-favoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.

G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows” from The Defendant

While me may all agree that marriage is an exclusive relationship, and therefore has an ascetical demand to “forsake all others,” we seem to have more trouble with the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” God commands exclusive rights to our affections and attentions, yet many seem to balk at any sort of spiritual discipline as some attempt at “works righteousness.” Why would I consider skipping a meal or television show to spend time with God? Am I trying to “buy” God’s favor?

Yet if I tell someone that instead of watching television, my wife and I take a walk together every night and talk, I can often see a hint of envy — after the initial shocked look wears off — especially if I am speaking to a female. I know of no greater way to communicate love than to set aside everything else for the beloved. Whether it is turning off the cell phone and giving total attention to someone I am counseling, or taking my wife on a short getaway, it says, “You are my priority and there is nothing more important than you right now.”

God certainly deserves such affection from us. The difference is that we do not often get tangible feedback from our Lord. I receive no hug or kiss if I take an afternoon to read and pray, but that does not mean it goes unnoticed.

Giving such devotion to God also shapes us. It affirms within us that we love God and desire to serve and please him. It is a discipline for us to grow in our affection and obedience. It is a way for us to bind ourselves to God.

Let not steadfast love and faithfulness forsake you;
bind them around your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart.

Proverbs 3:3 (ESV)

¹Dávila, Nicolás Gómez Escolios a un Texto Implícito: Selección, p. 392

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Filed under Asceticism, Discipline, Relationship

How Did I Get Here?

One of the most fundamental questions we can ask is, “Where am I?” or “Where are we?” Not just about geography, it is the fundamental question we must ask in relation to anything of value or importance. To answer it, we must have some sort of framework for reference, or in other words, a map.

Without a map, knowing our location is not that useful or meaningful. As an early adopter of handheld GPS technology, my first GPS could tell me where I was within a few hundred feet anywhere in the world. But just having the latitude and longitude wasn’t all that useful unless I knew other points for reference.

Knowing where we are allows us to set goals, plan routes, and estimate how long it will take to reach our desired destination. It allows us to manage our expectations — is the journey ahead uphill or downhill?

Another important question related to, “Where am I?” is, “How did I get here?” This is our story. It is what we know with a fair degree of certainty and it is a large part of our identity. We have been shaped by the roads we have traveled.

Answering the question, “How did I get here?” can also help us see our strengths and vulnerabilities. It is from examining this question that we are able to confess our sins, glimpse the Holy Spirit’s leading in our lives, and identify our friends and our adversaries. Examining how we got here can also reveal what we prefer for the future. I enjoyed this leg of the journey, but not that one, so maybe for my next leg I’ll choose one that is more like the one I enjoyed.

I find these two questions useful not only in my personal planning and reflection, but also as a basis for all the counseling I do as a priest and chaplain. “So, what’s going on in your life?” is my standard opening line, and is really just another way to ask, “Where are you?” The answer will often include some “How did you get here?” as well, but my follow up questions help me flush that part out, as is relevant.

Sometimes, the answer to my opening question is answered in terms of where someone wants to be. They want their relationship with another person to be better or the way it used to be. Often, at least in the military context, they want to be somewhere else physically. In these cases, I have to back up and find out where they are right now. How far are you away from where you want to be? It can also be helpful to find out how long has it been since they were where they think they want to go back to. Only with the answers to, “Where am I?” and “How did I get here?” can we really answer the question, “How can I get where I want to be?”

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Filed under General, Questions

The Limits of Prosperity

Since its founding, the United States has been a nation committed to prosperity. At times, dreams of prosperity have inspired both large amounts of immigration to our country as well as mass migrations within our country. We have not been on a straight uphill climb of economic growth without setbacks and challenges, but the general direction of our economic output and standard of living has been up.

The “Greatest Generation” grew up in the Depression and went on to defeat the most powerful military threat since Napoleon and Genghis Khan. They came home to the most industrialized country in the world and, after a post-war recession, grew our collective prosperity in the 1950s and 60s.

Their children, the “Boomers,” were the beneficiaries of all that prosperity, but they wanted more — more freedom, more voice. Free love and anti-Vietnam conflict protests characterized the generation, but they went on to defeat the USSR, not through military action, but primarily through economic action. Our “prosperity engine” produced more revenue than the USSR and we were able to use it to modernize and grow our military, breaking the Soviet economy as they fell behind in the arms race.

Now, the Boomers’ children are still engaged in our country’s longest conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we have been unable to fundamentally change the political and cultural landscape to our favor. The Islamist world points to the United States as a “great Satan,” full of decadence and imperialism. This criticism is, at least in part, pointed toward our prosperity.

Even internal to our own country, we see doubts and counter-cultural shifts against the idea of unmitigated prosperity. Minimalism has become a growing trend as well as, to a lesser extent, freeganism. Both of these movements can be framed as reactions to our excessive prosperity as a culture. Our rampant consumerism, largely fueled by businesses seeking constant growth, has led to a complexity of technology and choices for all kinds of products and services, and yet many people today seem to desire greater simplicity in their lives — a reduction of choice.

As we have “conquered the world” in many regards in the 20th century, we lack a common enemy or cause to provide us the simplicity of a compelling, shared goal. Lacking this common goal, we are awash with fragmented causes, though the prevailing mood seems to be increasingly, “Just leave me alone and let me watch Netflix.”

This is the context we find ourselves in as a church. Too often we are seen as one more special interest cause in a sea of choices. We are not just another option for community involvement and self-actualization, though. We offer simplicity and a counter-prosperity hope. Water, wine, and bread are not merely symbolic, but possess power. To seek God and to be united with him is a life-consuming venture, one that brings simplicity, contentment, and rest.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30 (ESV)

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Filed under Capitalism, Envy, Gluttony, Progress, Simplicity, Success

But It’s Not an Excuse

Yesterday we looked at accepting the way God made us. Today I want to balance that idea with a look at the way God pushes and pulls us to growth. Just because God made us a certain way (male, female, introvert, extrovert, feeling, thinking,…) doesn’t mean we can rest on our heels refusing to grow. Yes, God gifts us differently, but he gifts us to use those gifts, and sometimes that requires stepping out of our comfort zones. We have to be willing to risk failure. We may have undeveloped areas in our lives that God would like to use to bless others through us.

I came to pastoral ministry somewhat reluctantly. I had long enjoyed reading and writing, but like many people, public speaking was not something I enjoyed. Nevertheless, after one year of seminary, I found myself in a pulpit looking at a church of about 50 people staring back at me. I was filling the pulpit for a church in north-central Ohio and my first sermon last all of about 8 minutes. I’m not sure I took a breath. I know I didn’t let go of the pulpit. Being people of grace and mercy, they had me back and I later served as their part-time pastor for a while.

God used my enjoyment of reading and writing to give me a platform from which to build my preaching skills. Over the course of many years, I hope I have improved a bit. I certainly feel more comfortable stepping behind a pulpit. In fact, when I don’t have opportunity to do it regularly, I miss it. I’ve learned that God sometimes pushes us to grow so that our faith in him will develop. He desires us to throw ourselves into his grace. To use Dallas Willard’s metaphor, we should burn grace like a 747 burns jet fuel on take off.

We must be willing to take risks in faith. Not for our own glory, but to serve God and to serve others. I’m not a supporter of the “do big things for God” idea, but I am a supporter of doing something for God. For some, the challenge may be to faithfully maintain prayer and Bible reading each day. For others, maybe it’s reigning in our appetite for food, drink, or something else. For others, it may be to attend worship faithfully. For others, it might be the willingness to speak up when topics of faith are raised.

Living things grow, just as we are called to grow. Even when our bodies start to fail, our faith can continue to grow. We may have reasons why growing is hard, but we have no excuse for not making the effort.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter 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. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 12:1-4 (ESV)

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Filed under Dallas Willard, Discipline, Grace, Growth, Obedience, Progress, Sanctification, Success