Thanksgiving…and Math

As I write this, it’s a few hours before Thanksgiving.  And if you’re thinking you may be short on blessings, let start with a very basic one.

You can be thankful for just being here.

I’m not much for numbers, and I’m glad my son Matt inherited his knack for them from my wife Deb.  It comes in handy if you’re an Engineering major at Iowa State.  He chews through math courses like I do bacon.

I’ve occasionally wondered what the odds are of us being born.  And that, to my consternation, requires numbers to figure out.  Really BIG ones.

I first read a calculation about this in “The Wizard of Ads” by Roy Williams.  He visited with Ryan Sokol from the Texas A & M statistics department.  As I understand it, he was just figuring your odds at the time of conception.  Adjusting for the number of fertile men and women on the planet—plus the number of genetic factors contributed by the male and the hours of female fertility per month (and a few other factors)—he came up with your odds at 1 in 1.3 x 10 to the 29th power.   That’s 130 with 9 sets of zeros.

But we’re just getting started.

A quick side trip here for some math trivia.  When I was little, I remember reading that the largest named number was google.  That was 1 with 100 zeros after it.  And google is going to be a mighty small number before this story is over.  In the meantime, we’ll fire up that search engine named Google (I’ve included the links I’m citing below).  And I’m smiling right now, remembering Burt Reynolds in Woody Allen’s movie “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask” as I write this next part.

Let’s calculate the odds of you being born just within your parent’s relationship.

These stats are from the book “Sperm Wars” by Robin Baker.  First off, only 1% of sperm a man produces are considered “egg getter” sperm.  That still allows a whopping 36 billion unique offspring in a man’s lifetime.  My parents had three kids.  So…the odds of my dad contributing the sperm that became me were 1 in 12 billion…I think.

A fertile woman produces 100,000 viable eggs in her lifetime.  So…the chance that the egg and sperm that produced you…just within your mom and dad’s relationship…are 1 in 400 quadrillion.  And we’ve only gone back one generation!

In a Huffington Post blog, Dr. Ali Binazir takes this further.  He speculates that humans have been around for 3 million years.  Averaging 20 years each, there have been 150,000 generations.  Suppose over the course of human history, only half of everyone born survives to become a parent.

Now buckle up.

The odds of your particular lineage…to remain unbroken for 150,000 generations and produce you…are 1 in 10 to the 45,000th power!   That’s not just a number exceeding all the particles in the universe.  It’s bigger than all the particles in the universe if each particle itself were a universe!

How can we doubt that we were fearfully and wonderfully made, intelligently and meticulously designed by an amazing Creator to do glorious things in this life?

Happy Thanksgiving!


Here are my Google sources for some more amazing facts and even more numbers:


Taken in the Rowley cemetery under an August full moon and a car going past, this is the tombstone of Martha & Devere grandparents.

Taken in the Rowley cemetery under an August full moon with a car zipping past, this is the tombstone                        of Martha & John Devere Grover…                my grandparents.

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A Half-Dozen Church Photos

Jesus on the Cross at a Grotto my wife's grandfather built in Alta Vista, IA

The grotto at  St Bernard’s Church, Alta Vista IA.  Built by my wife’s Grandfather, Tony Wilberding, this is also where we married.

The Big Dipper rises above Prairie Creek Church near Urbana IA

The Big Dipper above Prairie Creek Church near Urbana, Iowa

St Joseph's Church,  rural Kansas

St Joseph’s Church, rural Kansas

St Mary's Anglican Church in Chesham England.  This town is where my Grover ancestors came from.

St Mary’s Anglican Church in Chesham England.  Northwest of London, is where my Grover ancestors came from.

Statue of Jesus at the Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend IA

Statue of Jesus at the Grotto of the Redemption, West Bend IA

Jesus in Kansas...with a grainy vintage postcard look

Jesus in Kansas…with a grainy vintage postcard look

I bought Adobe’s Lightroom photo editing program a few years ago and decided to play around with some church pictures I’ve taken.

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A Stubborn Sunday Sparrow

We’ve all seen birds fly into plate glass windows.  We snicker if it’s a lowly house sparrow or gasp if it’s a crimson cardinal.  But have you ever seen a bird that kept on doing it?

One Sunday morning, wind blew cloudy from the northeast with a promise of rain.  And high above our Praise Team’s keyboards to the right of the altar, a finch-sized flyer flapped himself into a clear window.

Then, he did it again.  And four more times, stroking geometric patterns on the lofty glass.  It was always the same window, framed like an upside-down cut in half home plate.  We all smiled.

I thought about that image for awhile and what it might represent…

Some may interpret the poor bird as Mankind, futilely attempting to connect with a distant and uncaring God.   No matter how hard or how often we try, the Creator remains aloof and uncaring.  Grace is beyond reach and He’s not letting you in.  We feel too unworthy and unloved to think he could ever have a relationship with us, even as we seemingly beat ourselves up trying to gain his attention.

Equally damaging are those who see themselves as “The Church.”  Their worldview is a dogmatic, legalistic, “religious” series of long-held black and white Old Testament doctrine.  They’re too full of themselves to ever entertain the notion of a loving, compassionate, merciful God.  Modern day Pharisees, they have no room in their hearts or homes for grace.  Fly away, little birdie.

A more moderate analogy brings to mind the painting of Jesus, knocking on the door of someone’s home.  If you look closely, you notice that it can only be opened from the inside.  God certainly isn’t going to bang down walls to enter our hearts if we don’t want him to.  But he’ll always be on the front porch if we do.  Maybe the bird was reminding us of that.

I’m sure some congregants viewed our hapless friend—and his half-dozen attempts to crash the Methodist party—as a humorous and minor distraction from Pastor Craig’s message.  But it fit right in.

You see, the sermon that day was about self-discovery.  And just as the bird was seeking  something, we were called to look within ourselves to discover God’s calling—then to act on it.

It’s not necessarily about becoming an African missionary or going to seminary or giving all our possessions to the poor.  It’s much more about pounding some nails for Habitat for Humanity, serving beans to a toothless man at a shelter, or helping  corral hyperactive Bible school tykes.

In the purest sense, always, it’s about relationships.  And sometimes, to quote John Prine, it’s just a simple matter of saying “hello in there.”

I hope that poor bird had a more productive afternoon and found whatever it was he was seeking.   Even more, I pray that we all figure out God’s mission for us, and that we proceed forward with it in confident strength.

Maybe Jesus even had that Sunday in mind when he said, “Are not five sparrows sold for two cents?  And yet, not one of them is forgotten before God.  Indeed, the very hairs on your head are all numbered.  Do not fear; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

But a sparrow-sized bird can make for a thought-provoking analogy.

Especially a persistent one.

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Ancestors and Offspring

What questions would you have if you could meet your ancestors from a half-dozen generations ago?  What would be their advice and wishes for you?

I love genealogy.  I’m blessed to have storytellers for parents, a mom & dad who treasure family and legacy and history.  I’ve been lucky to have taped my Grandma Raney before she passed in 1995, and have conducted video interviews with my parents, aunts and uncles.  I’m fascinated by the stories of where I came from; the tales of my genetic stock.

So…here are a few tributaries that eventually led to me.  I have grandparents who:

  • Answered the call in Concord for Minutemen at the start of the American Revolution.
  • Served in an Ohio Regiment for nearly the entire Civil War.
  • Prospected for California gold.
  • Wrote poetry in a tree house.
  • Settled on the Iowa prairie as a Norwegian indentured servant—and met her future husband when she found him sleeping in their barn.

I’ve also got an uncle from way back who helped Brigham Young and Joseph Smith in upstate New York establish the Mormon Church.  He had his life threatened several times, saw his house torched, and skillfully guided a raft filled with people and oxen across the Mississippi River.

Were some of them to sit in my living room today—along with their forefathers from Chesham and the Bavarian forests and arctic Scandinavia—what would they say?  I doubt it would be:

“There are wolves out there.  So stay close to the fire.  Someone else will get the wood.  It’s better to be uncomfortable than get mauled by wolves!”

“Don’t get on that boat!  Look at that map!  You really want to sail where it says ‘here there be dragons?’ What the hell are you thinking?”

“It’s always been this way, so don’t fight it.”

“You are too Dumb and too Old and don’t know The Right People, so it’s stupid to even try!”

You know what?   I’d be disappointed if whichever ancestor said any of those things… wasn’t slapped by the others.

Now, think forward.

Imagine you’re in a room a few centuries from now with several hundred descendants. How do you account for yourself?  Would they thank you for the inspiration you provided them in the life you’re living right now?

I hope we wouldn’t be mumbling lame excuses.  That we had always wanted to (insert life-calling here), but were too busy (watching “must-see TV”/ attending “the game of the century”/clearance shopping for stuff we don’t need/etc).

I pray that we don’t have to confess that there were sparks we had and ideas that illuminated and paths that beckoned.  But we got criticized and worn down and beat up.  We let someone who wrote the dragon map convince us our dreams never mattered and that a quick way to die is by going after them.

How proud would they be if we admitted that we settled for what someone told us we had to settle for?  That we let fear guide us instead of inspiration?  That we were a soldier in a soul-less army, led by the bland-heritage general into non-combat and anonymity?

What would they say to that? 

The Lakota Indian Nation teaches that our actions today impact the next seven generations.  So what will be our Legacy for Gen 7?  Apology…or Adventure???

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Barefoot Rainbow Afternoon

Her face in a goofy scrunch, 

She squirms from his lap and his fishing story

To race for the swing.

C’mon Grandpa, push!

His lumbar aches and the carpal tunnel burns,

But he grins broadly, knowing he can’t resist.

He bounces the tire a few times to test the nylon yellow rope.

She giggles, her front teeth gone with the tooth fairy.

He pulls her slowly back, then jogs forward and gently releases her high above him…

(Underdogs, they call them)…

And she thrill-screams as her wispy corn-silk curls bounce,

Her toes tickling the sky

On a barefoot rainbow afternoon.

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I heard a great story on Iowa Public Radio last week about the Neal Smith Wildlife Refuge, a restored prairie of over 8600 acres located just east of Des Moines.  It’s home to a herd of about 70 American bison, aka “buffalo.”

The reporter told how once a year, the bison are rounded up for genetic testing, primarily to prevent inbreeding. One man’s job is to pull hairs from their tails, so they can capture the DNA from the follicles.

A naturalist also explained how the program is committed to letting Mother Nature take her course as much as possible when it comes to bison management. Even in severe winters, they are left to scratch and forage through thick snow and ice instead of getting a few hay bales.  This is to ensure that they don’t lose the ability to find their food and digest the tough prairie grasses in future generations.

They also talked about a nine year old bull named Sparky.  He had the misfortune of getting hit by lightning last July, a bolt searing through his hump and scorching much of his hide.  He still roams the prairie, never having received any veterinary treatment.

Sometimes, life also zaps us with lighting.  Jarring health news…a relative’s death…losing a job…

If we hear about this happening to somebody we know, we’re there for them right away with a heartfelt hug, a teary-eyed prayer, and a shoulder to cry on.  But then we turn around and take on these burdens alone when they happen to us.  We rationalize that we don’t want to be a bother or upset someone or waste their time or ruin their night.

We’re big boys.  And big boys don’t cry.

Although others want to help us, we think we can just suck it up. 

So we take the hit.  Scar up our soul.

And while we have a choice in the matter–and he doesn’t–we’re volunteering to be…


Profile of an American bison at Fontana Park, Hazleton Iowa.

An American bison at Fontana Park, Hazleton Iowa.

bisonprofile (2)

(Here’s a link to the story: )

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A Biking Avatar

I was biking yesterday and thought how cool it is—it’s one of those things that connects you to the freedom once again of being a kid.  And I noticed that if you keep your head held high, looking straight ahead, you can pretend that the rest of your body doesn’t even exist.

This probably works better once you’re on a flat surface, all warmed up and in a groove, and don’t need to concentrate on traffic.

The idea is that you’re just a floating head, sailing like an avatar above your body and the bike and the road.  It’s amazing how smoothly you coast along; how your bike and body absorb the little bumps and your gaze stays smooth like a steady-cam.  It’s liberating.

Of course, then you start thinking…this isn’t enough!

I want my head/avatar to float…higher.  I want to get way above all this and count squirrel nests.  I want to see how many antlered deer there are within 100 yards of the trail.  I want to spin myself backward to see where I’ve been…while I continue to pedal forward.

I want to soar really high and see the whole creek valley, like the bald eagles which will start wintering here soon.  Just for fun, I want to see the kids sneaking cigarettes and the guys peeing behind their garage.

In the meantime, I’ll peddle on.  And keep my head on straight!

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Final Harvest

(I just found out tonight my uncle, Guy Grover, passed away.  He’d been in ill health for awhile. Other than my mom, he was my dad’s best friend.  They farmed a mile from one another…went on dozens of Canadian fishing trips…and hunted deer, fox, pheasants, and ducks together for over 60 years.  He was a very successful farmer and a true outdoorsman.  This poem, which I wrote awhile back, is dedicated to Guy Grover, his brother Jim, and my father Max…hard working Iowa farmers whose lineage in the Rowley area originated in the 1840s.)

They can trace their Buchanan county ancestry

Back to a sod house high above Bear Creek…

When there were actually bears.

Like cornfields they’ve stood tall,

Roots anchored by their heritage.   

Now the elders, they’re pitted and raspy and weathered.

They’ve endured pounding hail…torrential rains…and endless sun.

Yet grateful for Godly nurture and loam’s abundance,

They’ve cultivated a dignified, humble truce with sky and soil.

One November night, in a black and white vision,

The farmer becomes the cornstalk.

His grayed tassels are rustled by a goose-bump breeze,

As a single-row combine does a 180 at the section line.

Its bright headlight washes out a shuck-dust moon.

Stalks tumble before him;

And then through him The Harvester passes,

His generation

Husked to the wind.

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Comes A Time

There comes a time the veil will tear,

and our every zip-filed experience

will rip open and tumble fast-forward across a cosmic screen,

witnessed by a voyeuristic universe.

We stand, trapped in a soul-prism

humbly grateful and momentarily uplifted for Good we’ve done.

But Evil and self-doubt taunt from the darkness

and collective sin exposes the real Us,

vomiting forth in deathly embarrassing detailed living color.

…Isolated and defeated,

our shrunken naked spirit trembles…

Jesus gradually emerges from a gently brightening mist.

He dabs away our paralytic tears,

cradles us in thorn-lashed arms;

whispers blessed and assuring lullabies.

Then God sends a rainbow through us

to expose and destroy the mockers;

to wash us pure and right and whole.

Swept into kaleidoscopic infinity,

we marvel that we could have ever doubted…

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Leaf Purgatory

Air heavy from recent drizzle,

It’s overcast and surprisingly warm for late October.

The neighbor’s walnut tree is barren.

Our linden sheds floating leaves;

Various maples are deciding when to lose theirs.

Magically, a small leaf from the snowball bush dangles mid-air,

A rusty crescent moon tethered by a delicate spider thread.

Stem down, it gently pirouettes;

A copper-specked-yellow-lined-whirling-mellow-dervish

Oblivious to logic and earth pull and autumnal decay.

Does it dance to spite gravity?

Or to cut loose and become compost?

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