This past Saturday, Biggie and I trekked out to Piscataway Park to participate in the National Parks BioBlitz. The BioBlitz has been a DMV tradition for about a decade, and this year, because of the centennial anniversary of the National Park Service, it took place in parks nationwide. It’s basically a biodiversity census where teams of citizen scientists partner with park rangers and professional scientists to identify as many species as they can within a specific area.

We took part in the Insect Walk at Piscataway, my first time at this park, a former tobacco farm that now features the National Colonial Farm and walkways over freshwater wetlands.

It was a misty-then-drizzly day, and only four others (two kids and two adults) joined us as civilians, but we were guided by Therese the entomologist, Bryan the science teacher, and Adam the park ranger — a mighty trio of effusive and erudite experts.

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Our local guides were sporting rubber band macro lenses and ollo-clip lenses on their phones. They gave us bug nets and jars, and as we caught things, they logged our species finds into the iNaturalist app. We took a scenic walk through fields …

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… where we witnessed a tussle between an eagle and osprey — and forest and finally arrived at an algal pond …

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… where we caught a leopard frog tadpole …

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… oh and bugs. Lots of bugs.

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On our way back we saw these beauts on the ground, not five feet away from each other:

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When we got back to the Visitors Center, we got a chance to make Foldscope microscopes. An effervescent young team from Stanford showed us how to punch out paper patterns and fold and assemble them together to make a portable microscope that you can magnetically attach to your phone. You’ve really got to see it to believe it.

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And another shout-out to iNaturalist. You can use the app anytime to take pictures of flora and fauna and either identify your findings or ask an online community to help identify them for you. The teams at Piscataway ranked third-place in logging the most number of species nationwide for the BioBlitz.

It was a wonderful way to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.

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Sunday Catechism: Magical Thinking


Q: How do the sacraments become effective means of salvation?

Q: The sacraments become effective means of salvation, not because of any special power in them or in the people who administer them, but rather by the blessing of Christ and the working of His Spirit in those who receive them by faith.

This week, after going over what sacraments roughly are and when we practice them, we spent most of our time discussing what was “magical” about them. The answer to this week’s catechism question is careful to state that they are “effective” but don’t have innately any “special power.”


Presbyterians in the Reformed tradition often get characterized as undervaluing or downplaying the Holy Spirit. I think we’ve seen as we work our way through the catechism that this is patently untrue. Sure, we may see with a jaundiced eye some of the flagrant manifestations of what may be deemed “Holy Ghost possession,” like speaking in tongues and so on, but the role of the third person of the Trinity is critical in doctrines of salvation and sanctification. We cannot come to belief on our own; we need the Spirit. We cannot repent on our own; we need the Spirit. We cannot understand the Word on our own; we need the Spirit. And we cannot, without the Spirit, find meaning and power in the sacraments.

There is no holy water. There are no holy men. There is no magic bread nor juice. There are no magic incantations. What there is is the grace of the Spirit, animating our rituals and deepening our remembrances.

I think this is an important distinction to keep in mind not only with the formal sacraments, but also with all the little tricks and hacks and props and systems that we use to organize and improve our lives. Magical thinking is actually a form of mechanistic thinking: we link direct causalities between actions and results to impute to ourselves a sense of control. We think, “if only I follow these rules or apply these techniques, I’ll gain the edge I’ll need.” We exaggerate our hopes and idolize our means.

Which is not to say these things cannot be of use. We need to remember, though, where the true power and credit actually lies. Instead of constantly fiddling with our tools, it is far more important to seek the companionship and presence of the transcendent God who is not so far away. Do we spend our time constantly looking for fixes, obsessing over little adjustments to improve our lives? Or do we stay fixed in grace, a work-in-progress, a vessel of blessing?

Sunday Catechism: Ready to Listen


Q: What makes the word effective for salvation?

A: The Spirit of God causes the reading and especially the preaching of the word to convince and convert sinners and to build them up in holiness and comfort through faith to salvation.

Q: How is the word to be read and heard in order to become effective for salvation?

A: For the word to become effective for salvation, we must pay careful attention to it, prepare ourselves, and pray for understanding. We must also receive it with faith and love, treasure it in our hearts, and practice it in our lives.


In Children’s Church this week and last we took care to emphasize several theological points:

  • The importance and privilege of Scripture as an instrument of God for the benefit of our life after salvation
  • The critical role of the Holy Spirit, not just in divinely inspiring Scripture, but also in understanding it and making it fruitful in our lives
  • The centrality of preaching and teaching to corporate worship on Sundays

This week, in taking some time with the latter catechism question, we discussed some practical issues when it came to getting the most out of the reading and preaching of the word. For while it is true that we depend on the Holy Spirit to graciously enlighten and enliven us to the truth, we can work as hard as we can to be fertile and prepared for its sowing.

Kids intuitively and intimately understand that the zone of “paying careful attention” is a tricky one. We are often distractible, nervous, antsy, and bored. Or tired, sleepy, docile, and resistant. Oftentimes we are defeated in difficulties with our attention because we mistake it as our inevitable processing of the world; we passively just let it be what it is, leaving the onus of engagement to the external agents trying to capture our attention instead of actively directing it ourselves.

Again, it is a struggle with sin. We can be victimized by it, trapped in our nature, or we can seek salvation and grace and — with the assurance of power and rescue and support — take steps to turn into a different direction. When we take a step back from our situation, we can see that we are not our impulses, and instead of being buffeted by whatever grabs at our attention, we can choose to follow the truth.

With this attitude, we can become active learners of the word rather than passive hearers. Older students can take notes. The preachers at our church usually take care to announce and outline the structure of their sermons from the outset. Parents can write these “three main points” down and challenge their children to notice when the preacher is hitting each one in the course of the sermon. Or younger students can look for a single illustration, example, or lesson that they can understand and latch onto. They can then reflect upon it imaginatively, or make a picture of it, or think of questions, connections, and hypotheticals around it.

We also become problem-solvers of our situations. If there is a recurrent distraction, we can choose to move or ask for help in addressing it. We can interrogate what is HALTing us: whether we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Pastor Dan’s adult Sunday School class is going through Powlison’s model of Biblical counsel and change, which is a more intensive and thorough investigation.

There’s been a great deal of emphasis paid to the 10:20 initiative at our church (NewCity’s push to come to Sunday worship a little earlier). Even though the structure of our service itself is designed to transition us into hearts of worship, it pays to give oneself an anteroom to put the brakes on the momentum of our quotidian busy-ness and ease into a day of Sabbath. It’s a great time to address issues of physical needs, emotional hangovers, and situational distractions before worship. Relatedly, some people greatly benefit from a leisurely walk or a time of singing before the “meaty” part of their daily devotional.

Most importantly, though, is that we seek supernatural aid — pray for understanding — whether we are finding it hard to pay attention or not. Our efforts and intentions are moot without the grace of the Spirit and magnified with it. Turning to prayer redirects our hearts to communion and aligns us with his sovereign will. We move from hapless to hopeful, and the word lights up from dross to treasure, comfort, and tool.

One last word: we’ve begun basic scripture memorization. The children have practiced Psalm 95:6-7 with hand motions. Have them rehearse it for you!

Hōkūleʻa in Alexandria


Hōkūleʻa is a voyaging canoe, built in the traditions of Polynesian explorers. Originally built in the 1970s, it sparked the Hawaiian Renaissance, where young native Hawaiians sought to recover and reaffirm their heritage. Now celebrating its 40th year of travel, it’s embarking on a worldwide tour of awareness not only of that culture but also of ecological stewardship. It’s a hell of a story, and the boat is docking in Alexandria on Saturday and Sunday, and DC the following week (more info at bottom of post).

To celebrate, the National Museum of the American Indian is showing documentaries about the boat and the Polynesian Voyaging Society throughout this weekend (and next):

Friday, May 13, 12:00 p.m.
Rasmuson Theater, First Floor

The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific

Over 1,000 years ago, the islands of Polynesia were explored and settled by navigators who used only the waves, the stars, and the flights of birds for guidance. In hand-built, double-hulled canoes sixty feet long, the ancestors of today’s Polynesians sail across vast ocean areas. Today, only a handful of people continue to practice these traditions, most of them taught by one individual from the island of Satawal, Mau Piailug.

Saturday, May 14, 12:00 p.m.
Rasmuson Theater, First Floor

Papa Mau: The Wayfinder
Filmmaker in attendance.

At a time of cultural reclamation for Native Hawaiians, known as the Hawaiian Renaissance, a group of young, Hawaiians looked to restore the traditional arts of canoe building and wayfinding; non-instrument, celestial navigation. Their search led them to the Island of Satawal in Micronesia, and the master navigator, Mau Piailug. Over three decades, Mau taught younger generations of Hawaiians the ways of their ancestors aboard the voyaging canoe, Hōkūle‘a.

Sunday, May 15, 12:00 p.m.
Rasmuson Theater, First Floor

Stories from Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage
Filmmaker in attendance.

Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia, the Polynesian voyaging canoes, are sailing across Earth’s oceans to join and grow the global movement toward a more sustainable world. The Mālama Honua Worldwide Voyage began in 2013 with a Mālama Hawaiʻi sail around the Hawaiian archipelago, and will continue through 2017 when the new generation of navigators take the helm and guide Hōkūle‘a and Hikianalia back to Polynesia after circumnavigating the globe.
Each leg of the journey has been documented by crew and supporters. Come watch a few of the videos and hear the stories shared along the way.

Monday, May 16, 12:00 p.m.
Rasmuson Theater, First Floor

Voyage: Ola I Ke Au A Kanaloa
Filmmaker in attendance.

This coming of age film captures the history making voyage of 14 students from Halau Holomoana on a 1500 mile journey of a lifetime. Lead by Bonnie Kahape’a-Tanner, the students would train for months to prepare themselves for a 10 day open ocean sail to Papahanaumokuakea. The voyage, named Ola I Ke Au A Kanaloa, would chart a course leaving the security and familiarity of home into a realm the students had only studied about, challenging even the strongest of them. Cinematographer Ruben Carrillo uniquely captures this story while playing a significant part as the father to one of the 14 students on board. Ruben shares with intimate detail the struggles and triumphs of this life changing voyage into the depths of Kanaloa.

Friday, May 27
Dinner in The Mitsitam Native Foods Café – 5:45 p.m. Café will offer dinner options available for purchase.
Film screening in the Rasmuson Theater, First Floor – 7:00 p.m. Seating is available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Visions in the Dark: The Life of Pinky Thompson

Visions in the Dark: The Life of Pinky Thompson celebrates the life of a great figure in Hawaiian history. Myron “Pinky” Thompson (Kanaka Maoli), a veteran who survived the Invasion of Normandy, was also a social worker, community leader, trustee at Kamehameha Schools, and longtime president of the Polynesian Voyaging Society (PVS) who believed that the ancestral traditions and values of the Hawaiian people were the key to their success. He fought against prevailing colonial views of Native Hawaiians building educational programs and health systems that would support the success of the Hawaiian people of today long into the future.

Tours for the Hōkūleʻa will be available at Waterfront Park on Sunday from 3:00 to 5:00 and in the Old Town City Marina on Monday from 1:00 to 5:00. It will be at the Washington Canoe Club in DC next week and New York the week after that. Check here for details.

Sunday Catechism: Teach Me to Worship


Q: What are the ordinary, external ways Christ uses to bring us the benefits of redemption?

A: The ordinary, external ways Christ uses to bring us the benefits of redemption are His regulations, particularly the word, sacraments, and prayer, all of which are made effective for the salvation of His chosen ones.

The next set of catechism questions will deal with the tools of worship, Scripture reading, prayer, the formal sacraments, and so on. At the same time, we’ll be shifting in the Children’s Church at NewCity to a new curriculum we’re sharing with McLean Presbyterian Church: Teach Me to Worship

One of the central purposes of the Children’s Church is to provide scaffolding and training into participating fully as a member of a local body of believers. We expect our young participants to eventually age themselves out and join the regular Sunday service. I think the Teach Me to Worship curriculum fits very well into that mission. As you can see on its web site, it breaks down the traditional elements of a sacramental time of worship and explain their significance.

Prior to this new curriculum we’ve been supplementing our catechism instruction with surveys of the gospel narrative over the whole of the Bible, first through the Jesus Storybook Bible, and then through Kevin DeYoung’s Biggest Story book.

Again, we practice these rituals, habits, and sacraments of our faith in faith, prayerfully hoping that in the mercy of God they will bring the benefits of redemption to our little ones. They, in and of themselves, do not constitute true worship or obedience, like King Saul’s sacrifices, but we institute them in our lives–even in the eclipse of our belief and understanding–so that they guide our identity and rut our evolving worldview. We may find ourselves lost in sermons or mouthing the songs or nodding off in prayers, but we know that God somehow manages to fill these jars of clay.

Not-Quite-Sunday Catechism: Faith That Is Not Alone


Q: What is repentance unto life?

A: Repentance unto life is a saving grace, by which a sinner, being truly aware of his sinfulness, understands the mercy of God in Christ, grieves for and hates his sins, and turns from them to God, fully intending and striving for a new obedience.

Just as faith in Christ is a saving grace, so too is repentance a saving grace. In fact, the two go hand in hand. Just as we could not have come to believe on Jesus and accept his salvation without divine help, the same grace lets us turn from our sin and desire obedience. It pushes us through the entire turn; it is one move.

my dancing feet

One does not believe just enough to attain forgiveness, eternal justification in the eyes of God, and then drops the matter to go back to his old life. To have faith in the gospel is to see that old life with fresh eyes and understand there is a way out. To reach for the life preserver is with the new knowledge that you don’t have to stay in the shark-infested waters. To quote John Murray, “the faith that is unto salvation is a penitent faith and the repentance that is unto life is a believing repentance.”

There are dangers to winning the lottery. Most of them come from not having a clear view of all that comes with this new life: new expectations, new taxes, new desires. You will have to see your friends and family differently and know that they will see you differently, as well. Your dreams, your work, and money itself, now takes on new meaning in this new context, and you will have to scramble to learn what is wise from this new height — or suffer in your denial.

Or, to put it another way, we as believers all suffer from a kind of PTSD. Having lived a life of survivorship, war, danger, failure, and trauma, it is strange, even unnerving, to find ourselves in a life after D-Day, where peace has been attained, victory has been declared, and freedom has been granted. Though our reality has shifted overnight, we ourselves cannot adjust as quickly. We are still stuck in the old habits, fighting the battles in our heads.

Repentance re-orients us. It is when we look again at what sin is, what Christ did, who we are, and where God is. It is a reminder of our new reality and a commitment to live in it instead of relapsing into recidivism. It is not, at its heart, about regret or penance or self-improvement or duty; it is, instead, about waking up again to the gospel. And that requires a grace beyond us.

God extends his grace beyond an initial insight into his mercy; he perpetuates it in enabling our repentance as well.

Rowan University Fossil Park


Biggie’s most favorite people in the world would probably be his cousins in upstate New York. Every summer he spends a week with them to attend a Rock & Gem summer camp, reinvigorating his shared obsession with rocks and fossils to a roiling boil. Their mother, my sister-in-law, found out about a homeschool dig at a fossil quarry in Mantua, New Jersey and signed us all up.

Mantua is in South Jersey, about a three hour drive from the DC metropolitan area. Apparently South Jersey is a hotbed of paleontological activity, boasting the first dinosaur skeleton and kicking off the “Bone Wars” in the 19th century.

The fossil quarry we went to was the site of a six-inch bone bed that has yielded some of the best finds from the Cretaceous Period east of the Mississippi. Rowan University purchased the quarry and is in the process of turning it into a “fossil park.” In the meantime, it is hosting a number of community digs, information for which can be found at its website.

At the event we attended, Dr. Kenneth Lacorva, the very paleontologist who has been leading the research and excavation at this site, gave us some background information about past dinosaur finds in the area, the quarry, and the Cretaceous Period.

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We also were treated to a presentation of some of the fossils and finds that researchers have dug up in the quarry, including parts of mosasauruses (the terrifying stars of Jurassic World).

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Most of the time, however, was spent freely digging in the quarry itself. Plastic shovels and buckets were provided, and we were told to just have at it.

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Almost every attendee has walked away with something around 65 million years old, including ammonite fossils, shark teeth, and vivianite — mineral evidence of the mass extinction event that ended the Cretaceous Period.

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Grad students and volunteers from Rowan University were on hand to help identify finds as well as answer any questions. It was a marvelously educational experience, and even JB enjoyed herself, just sitting and digging in the dirt with purpose.

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If you have young’uns obsessed with dinosaurs or fossils, I would wholeheartedly recommend taking advantage of a trip up here while the university is still hosting these community digs. We paid a really measly suggested donation of $3 a person. I think more of these digs will be announced at the Fossil Park’s Facebook page.