The Power of Grace

Larry Taunton and his Ukrainian daughter, Sasha. (color version of s photo that is in the book)

Larry Taunton and his Ukrainian daughter, Sasha. (color version of a photo that is in the book)

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a review of a book entitled, The Faith of Christopher Hitchens. I had never heard of the author (Larry Taunton), but I enjoyed his writing style and his obvious intellect. As I mentioned in a different post, part of the book deals with Sasha, his daughter who he and his family adopted from the Ukraine. As an adoptive father, his loving words about his daughter touched me deeply, and when I found out that he had written a book specifically about her adoption, I had to read it. It’s called The Grace Effect, and I have to say it is probably the best book I have read since Quivering Daughters. The Grace Effect isn’t nearly as emotional as Quivering Daughters, but it is very meaningful on at least two levels.

The first level is obvious. This is primarily a story about a family who followed God’s leading and ended up radically changing a young girl’s life for the better. The simple version of the story is that Larry’s wife and three boys went on a short-term mission trip to the Ukraine. They went there to improve the facilities at one of Ukraine’s many orphanages: #17. There, they met a young girl named Sasha, and they all fell in love with her. They felt the Lord leading them to adopt her, not knowing anything of the challenges that they would face. With the help of some incredibly generous Christian brothers and sisters, they convinced Larry to adopt Sasha. As a result, Larry, his wife, and two of his boys traveled back to the Ukraine to get her.

The long version of the story, however, is much more interesting. They knew that such adoptions were expensive, but they had no idea how expensive. Not only are the legal costs high, but the Ukrainian government is so intensely corrupt that pretty much every step in the lengthy adoption process requires a bribe. Judges cancel hearings, orphanages delay appointments, etc., and the process comes to a halt. In order to get the process back on track, the person in charge has to be given a “gift.”

While Taunton never indicates the total cost, he mentions discussing Sasha with some well-to-do Christian friends, which resulted in two incredibly generous donations of $10,000 each. In addition, he discussed Sasha with Frank Limehouse, dean of the Cathedral Church of the Advent. He only discussed Sasha to get some wisdom regarding her health issue (she is HIV positive), but a few days later, Limehouse handed him a check and simply said:

That’s from the people of Advent. You get that little girl and bring her home. (p. 184)

So we know that the adoption costs were well over $20,000, much of which went to the bribes that were necessary to get greedy people simply to allow someone else to help a little girl.

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I Was Wrong About Homo naledi

A reconstruction of Homo naledi's skull (click for credit)

A reconstruction of Homo naledi’s skull (click for credit)

Last September, the media was abuzz about a group of fossils which was supposed to represent a new species: Homo naledi. The fossils were special in many respects, but there were two that stood out: First, the fossils had characteristics that indicated they might be related to modern humans. Second, they looked like they were the result of deliberate burial, which indicates distinctly human behavior.

After reading the scientific papers that had been published regarding the fossil, I wrote a blog post about it. I was very skeptical of the authors’ interpretation that the fossils represented some species of ancient human. To my untrained eye, the fossils seemed to be characteristic of extinct apes, like those found in the genus Australopithecus. In addition, it was hard for me to believe that the collection of fossils even belonged to a single species. There seemed to be too many variations among the fossils, especially when it came to the skulls. Of course, I was quick to point out:

Now please understand that I am not a paleontologist. I am not even a biologist. I am simply a nuclear chemist who has taken an interest in the creation/evolution controversy. As a result, you need to take my comments for what they are worth.

I have been following the scientific papers that have been published since September, and I think I can unequivocally say that my comments weren’t worth very much. Because of several different analyses (both in the secular and creationist literature), I have changed my mind. Once again, who knows how much this conclusion is worth, but I now think that the balance of the scientific evidence indicates that Homo naledi is a single species, and it is probably human.

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Another Creationist Prediction Confirmed

A cluster of the bacteria discussed in the article

A cluster of the bacteria discussed in the article

Dr. Richard Lenski, an evolutionary biologist at Michigan State University, has been running a long-term experiment on evolution. Indeed, it has been named the LTEE (Long-Term Evolution Experiment). It started back in 1988 and is still running today. It has followed 12 populations of the bacterium Escherichia coli through more than 50,000 generations, examining how environmental stress changes the bacteria’s genetic and physiological characteristics. More than 6 years ago, I discussed how the project was confirming the creationist view of the genome, and it continues to do just that. In addition, it has inspired another experiment that specifically confirmed a creationist prediction while, at the same time, falsifying an evolutionary one.

To understand what has happened, we need to go back to 2008. In that year, the LTEE showed that even though Escherichia coli normally can’t make use of a chemical called citrate when oxygen is present, one of the their populations developed that ability after 31,500 generations of existence.1 As a result, it was dubbed the “citrate plus” population. How did that happen? At the time, no one knew. However, evolutionists thought it was the result of some rare event or combination of events, exactly the kind upon which evolution depends. New Scientist put it this way:

By this time, Lenski calculated, enough bacterial cells had lived and died that all simple mutations must already have occurred several times over.

That meant the “citrate-plus” trait must have been something special – either it was a single mutation of an unusually improbable sort, a rare chromosome inversion, say, or else gaining the ability to use citrate required the accumulation of several mutations in sequence.

Lenski himself was bold enough to write:

So the bacteria in this simple flask-world have split into two lineages that coexist by exploiting their common environment in different ways. And one of the lineages makes its living by doing something brand-new, something that its ancestor could not do.

That sounds a lot like the origin of species to me. What do you think?

Not surprisingly, a recent experiment has shown that the evolutionary predictions of Lenski and New Scientist are wrong. At the same time, it demonstrated that the predictions of both intelligent design advocates and creationists were correct.

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People Can Compensate for Bad Genes!

In DNA, a gene is made up of exons and introns.  The exons determine the protein that is made.

In DNA, a gene is made up of exons and introns. The exons determine the protein that is made.

DNA is incredibly complex, so it’s really not surprising that the more we examine it, the more it challenges our notions of how it works. Consider, for example, genes. They make up less than 2% of human DNA, but they are important, because they tell the body what proteins to make and how to make them. At one time, evolutionary scientists actually thought that the vast majority of the rest of human DNA was useless junk. However, like most evolutionary ideas, that notion has been falsified by the data.

Despite the fact that they represent less than 2% of human DNA, genes are obviously important, because most of the chemical reactions that occur in our bodies are controlled by and depend on the proteins that genes specify. Because of the amazing design behind DNA, however, a single gene can actually produce many, many different proteins. This is because, as shown in the drawing above, a gene is actually constructed of introns and exons. The exons represent functional modules in the gene, and the introns separate those modules. When a gene is read, the exons can be grouped in many different ways, producing many different proteins. Because only the exons are used in the production of proteins, geneticists often study an organism’s exome, which is the collection of all the exons in a organism’s DNA.

When it comes to animals, studying how the exome affects overall health is difficult, but straightforward. Scientists can damage the gene of an animal and see what health consequences arise. This is referred to as a gene knockout, and it is an invaluable tool for learning what a gene does. For example, when the gene lovingly referred to as PRDM9 is knocked out of mice, they become sterile.1 Thus, we know that the PRDM9 gene is essential for reproduction in mice.

When it comes to humans, it’s not ethical to do gene knockouts. However, you can study a population and find examples of people who have a natural mutation that has disabled a gene. By comparing that person’s health to similar people who have a working version of that gene, you can learn something about how the gene affects health. A recent study published in the journal Science did just that, and the reported results were surprising, to say the least!

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Another Mother’s Day Drama

Click for credit

Click for credit

Yesterday was Mother’s Day, and I was asked to do a drama for the church service. I have a Mother’s Day Drama that I really like, but it has been done at least three times at our church, so I thought I should write a new one. Also, we have three incredibly talented young ladies who are all willing to do dramas. I have used each of them in different dramas over the past few months, but I decided it was time to put them all on stage together. In the end, I thought they did a fabulous job.

As always, feel free to use this script in any way you think will be meaningful to the body of Christ, but I would appreciate a credit.

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The Faith of Christopher Hitchens

An interesting book about an even more interesting friendship.

An interesting book about an even more interesting friendship.

Larry Alex Taunton is a columnist who started the Fixed Point Foundation, an apologetics organization that is probably best known for arranging high-profile debates between well-known atheists and Christians. For example, it arranged the famous “God Delusion” debate between Dr. Richard Dawkins and Dr. John Lennox. Other notable debates include The “Is God Great” debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dr. John Lennox and the “God on Trial” debate between Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza. Because his organization has arranged such debates (and because he often moderates them), Taunton has met and gotten to know the participants, including Christopher Hitchens, who many recognize as an outspoken atheist. Despite the fact that Hitchens and Taunton were polar opposites when it came to their core beliefs, they developed a deep friendship, which is the topic if this book.

Taunton’s publisher suggested that he write the book shortly after Hitchens passed away in late 2011, but Taunton wasn’t interested at the time. He didn’t see how he could write a book about their friendship that was both interesting and uplifting. However, as time passed and he thought more about it, he realized that there was a way he could get the job done. I have to say that he was right. This book is both very interesting and quite uplifting. I have already relayed one very uplifting part of this book at the end of a previous blog post. Now it’s time for me to share more.

The most interesting aspect of the book, of course, is the friendship that developed between these two men. It’s interesting simply because it’s so rare these days. Many people spend so much time characterizing those with whom they disagree as “the enemy,” it seems unfathomable that a Christian apologist and a vocal atheist could be real friends. Indeed, as Taunton himself says:

The truth is, there were those who did not want us to be friends. This is a sad commentary on our society and the degree to which we have lost our ability to reason with one another. I speak exclusively to Christians when I say this: how are we to proclaim our faith if we cannot even build bridges with those who do not share it? (p. xi)

I couldn’t agree more. Of course, the problem goes both ways. Taunton reports on one Hitchens fan who was taken aback by their friendship:

That same night while speaking to an audience of some 1,200 people, Christopher made a passing reference to a road trip we had taken together through the Shenandoah Valley. At the book signing following the event, a man, an atheist and a devotee of all things Christopher Hitchens, asked his hero why he would undertake such a journey. “Have you ever seem the Shenandoah at this time of year? It’s beautiful.” Having signed the book, Christopher closed it, handed it back, and reached for the next one. “That’s not what I meant. I meant why would you do it with him? You know, a Christian?” “Because he is my friend, and you, sir, are an idiot. (p. 115)

I can just hear Hitchens saying that to his crestfallen fan!

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Thoughts From Two Adoptive Fathers

A meme promoting adoption (click for credit)

A meme promoting adoption (click for credit)

This past weekend, I spoke at the Sioux Empire Christian Home Educators Convention. I have spoken there at least twice before, and I have not been disappointed. This weekend was no exception. I met a lot of really interesting people, including one second-generation homeschooling mother who was pregnant with her middle child at the same time her mother was pregnant with her youngest sibling. What an incredible experience that must have been!

In contrast to that situation, I had a nice, long talk with a gentleman who related his adoption story to me. Being an adoptive father myself, I am always interested in hearing such stories, but this one was unlike anything I had heard before. He and his wife had several children of their own, but they are all grown up and out of the house. Because he and his wife had “extra time” on their hands, and because they genuinely wanted to serve “the least of these,” they decided to become emergency foster parents for babies who are abandoned. In that role, they care for the infant until he or she can be permanently adopted. He told me that it doesn’t usually last very long, because lots of people are looking to adopt infants.

However, one of their emergency foster children (a little girl) had serious digestive issues pretty much at birth and spent a long, long time in the hospital. In fact, the poor little girl had to have a lot of her small intestine and all of her colon removed, which meant she couldn’t eat normally. Essentially, she had to be continuously fed through a tube. This made her long-term prognosis questionable, and as a result, the agency could not find a permanent home for her. After much prayer, he and his wife decided to adopt her.

The good news is that the girl is now 3 years old, and while she still has some special nutritional needs, she can eat normally. However, because of the way she got nutrition for so long, she actually doesn’t like to eat. Thus, they are working on getting her to enjoy eating. I rejoiced with him that his daughter’s long-term prognosis is now very good, and eventually, the conversation turned to the effects that an adopted child’s previous traumas have on her future life. On that topic, he offered me a profound insight.

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Nimrod: A Story of Relentless, Unconditional Love

nimrod

Several years ago, I was given a script by an incredibly talented artist named Christopher Stout. It was for a short film that explored sexual abuse in children and its negative effects on sexuality in later years, and he was looking for investors to help make the film a reality. I immediately fell in love with the story, but since I was not at all familiar with such issues, I decided to get a second opinion. I gave the script to someone who is very, very dear to me who experienced sexual abuse as a child, and I asked her to read it. When she said that she loved the story, I knew it was time to invest.

The film was completed in 2005, and I was fortunate enough to attend the premier. The audience loved it, and I was both proud and honored to have played a small role in such a wonderful work of art. Recently, the author decided to release it on Vimeo to be viewed for free, and I want to share it with my readers.

I have filed this post in my “Christian Drama” category, although the film is not overly Christian in any way. However, I consider it a Christian film because while the main character is romantically in love with the leading lady, he models the relentless, unconditional love that Christ has for all of us. The healing that you see in the film is the same kind of healing that Christ’s love can accomplish.

Before you view this film, I would like to offer a word of warning. While the film would probably not even earn an “PG” rating in today’s film rating system, it does deal with sexual issues, specifically those that result from sexual abuse. Thus, it might not be appropriate for all viewers.

Nimrod from Christopher Stout on Vimeo.

How Christianity and Science Can Interact

James Joule, one of the 19th century's most important physicists.

James Joule, one of the 19th century’s most important physicists.

Over the past few years, I have been writing a series of elementary science courses for home educated students. Since the courses discuss scientific concepts in chronological order, I have spent a lot of time learning the history of science. In the process, I have found that a lot of what I was taught in school (including university) about how science developed is simply false. I have also become acquainted with the views of many great scientists from the past, which has allowed me to learn from them. I want to discuss one of those great scientists in order to share something I have learned.

James Joule was born in 1818. Because his father was a successful brewer, chemistry was in his blood. He was taught at home for many years, and then his father sent him to study under John Dalton, the founder of modern atomic theory. Dalton suffered a stroke two years later, but his influence on Joule continued long after he stopped teaching. Even though Joule ended up taking over the family brewery, he spent a lot of time doing experiments, mostly focused on trying to explain electricity and magnetism in terms of Dalton’s new atomic theory.

However, the more experiments he performed, the more interested he became in the heat that was generated in electrical systems. As he studied heat, he eventually demonstrated that he could convert mechanical energy into heat. This allowed him to argue that heat is just another form of energy, which went against the scientific consensus of his day. Of course, today we know he was correct, and because of that, the standard unit for measuring energy is named after him (the Joule).

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Trees Exchange Nutrients Through an Underground Network!

This forest contains Norway spruce and larch, two of the trees studied in the experiment that is being described. (click for credit)

This forest contains Norway spruce and larch, two of the trees studied in the experiment that is being described. (click for credit)

Ever since I learned about it, the phenomenon of mutualism has fascinated me (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). If you aren’t familiar with the term, it refers to a situation in which two or more organisms of different species work together so that each receives a benefit. One of the most common examples of this kind of relationship is found among fungi and plants (see here and here). The fungi (called mycorrhiza) extract nutrients from the plants, but in exchange, they provide the plants with critical nitrogen- and phosphorus-based chemicals that the plants have a hard time extracting from the soil. As a result of this relationship, both the plants and the fungi thrive. It is not surprising, then, that the vast majority of plants in nature form relationships with mycorrhiza.

Swiss researchers were recently studying trees in a forest, and they learned something rather surprising about these mycorrhiza. They facilitate the exchange of nutrients between different trees in a forest, even trees of different species!1 Why is this so surprising? Well, it is thought that trees in a forest are in constant competition with one another. They compete to expose their leaves to the sunlight so they can produce more food via photosynthesis. They compete for the nitrogen- and phosphorus-based chemicals that they must absorb from the surrounding soil. They even compete for the water in the soil. Despite this perceived competition, however, there seems to be at least some cooperation as well.

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