Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Corrupted Data

My An Arkie's Faith column from the January 25, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I rode the elevator down to the motel lobby and walked into the breakfast area. The few options on the breakfast bar were mainly mediocre-tasting carbs. I tried to make a meal even though the selections were minimal. I was heading to the airport and wanted to avoid the overpriced food there. As I was eating, I looked at the television on the wall. The morning news was playing with the sound muted. The headline on the bottom of the screen read, "FAA Grounds All Flights From Taking Off."

I almost choked on my cereal as I read the headline. We were supposed to be at DFW for our flight to Portland in an hour. "What is going on," I thought. I took out my phone to see what I could find out and soon learned that there was an outage of an FAA computer system that sends safety notices to pilots. The outage triggered the FAA to halt all US departing flights. As I read further, I found that the FAA planned to resume flights in about an hour. I checked with American Airlines, and it showed that our flight was still on schedule. Maybe this would still work out okay, but I felt anxious as we headed to the airport.

After going through the TSA checkpoint with only a minor delay, the TSA agent couldn't tell what our selfie stick was on his x-ray screen; we made our way to our gate. We learned that the airline had delayed our flight for one hour. "That's not too bad," I thought, "I feared it might be longer." We contacted our family in Portland, that was going to pick us up at the airport, to let them know of the delay.

When it was five minutes from the new boarding time, and passengers were beginning to line up to board the plane, the information screen at the gate flashed a new departure time. Everyone sat back down to wait for the new time. Two more times, the airline pushed the departure time forward at the last minute. Each time we contacted our family in Portland with the updated information. Finally, after a couple of hours, the boarding time came, and the information screen didn't change. In a few minutes, the airline employees announced that it was time to board the plane. We were finally able to board the plane and find our seats. In a few minutes, we were in the air, headed for Portland.

That evening, I was curious about the cause and severity of the nationwide stoppage of all plane departures. As I read, I learned that over 10,000 flights were delayed and over 1,300 canceled in the first national grounding of flights since 9/11. I felt fortunate that even though we had to wait several hours, we still made it to our destination the same day. Our trip to the Oregon coast the following day was not affected.

The computer failure that led the FAA to halt all US flight departures was caused when a data file was damaged. According to a Fortune article, "unspecified personnel" were responsible for corrupting the file, which led to the outage of an FAA computer system that sends safety notices to pilots, the agency said in a statement. That triggered the FAA to order a halt to all US departing flights, causing thousands of delays and cancellations Wednesday.

The preliminary indications are that two people working for a contractor introduced errors into the core data used on the system known as Notice to Air Missions, or Notam, according to a person familiar with the FAA review. A complete shutdown was required to restore the system, leading the FAA to halt all flight departures for roughly 90 minutes Wednesday morning."

As I read about the computer shutdown required to repair the issues caused by corrupted data, I thought about how much data we consume and dispense daily. When we receive corrupted data, it affects our actions and decisions. All too often, we disseminate corrupted data. Sometimes it is accidental, but many times it is intentional.

It seems to me that lying has become acceptable in our culture. Every day, newscasters put their spin on stories; adults cheat on their spouses or income tax forms; students cheat in school. Many people tolerate or even applaud lying if it benefits them or their agenda. As our culture has accepted lying, so have many Christians. I have felt the sting of fellow Christians spreading lies about me. But God has made it very clear how he feels about lying. In Psalm 34:13 (NLT), the Bible tells us to "keep your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from telling lies!" And in Proverbs 12:22 (NLT), we read, "the Lord detests lying lips, but he delights in those who tell the truth."

Proverbs 19:5 (VOICE) teaches us, "A false witness will not escape punishment, and one who breathes lies will not go free." Knowing this, it is incredible that we, as Christians, would continue to lie and promote lies. It seems that we don't only lie but dismiss it as if it was not a sin at all. 

Lies are like masks we wear to conceal the inside, and we all do it! Sometimes we think that it is to our advantage to lie. But we all have been a victim of deception, fooled by other people's lies. We don't like it when others deceive us. We live in a distorted world where we lie to others, and they lie to us. But what can we do about it?

To begin with, be honest. Stop deceiving yourself and others. Lies will make you feel good for a moment but, eventually, become a heavy burden. And be careful about the information that you choose to pass on. Are you sure that the juicy story you heard about your neighbor is true? Is the social media post that you are sharing factual? Remember, "liars take no pity on those they crush with their lies, and flattery spoils everyone it touches." Proverbs 26:28 (VOICE)

Gentle Reader, let's make sure we are not disseminating corrupted data. Sometimes that corrupt data can have widespread consequences. We need to listen to the advice of the Apostle Paul; "stop telling lies. Let us tell our neighbors the truth, for we are all parts of the same body." Ephesians 4:25 (NLT)

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Tide Rises. the Tide Falls

My An Arkie's Faith column from the January 18, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

As soon as we parked the car in the condo parking lot, I got out and headed down the path to the beach access. Steep wooden steps led down the cliff to the ocean below. It had been forty eight hours since we drove away from Mena towards Dallas to catch our flight to Portland. After flight delays caused by a FAA computer malfunction, we were finally on the Oregon Coast.

The ocean looked angry as huge waves created an almost deafening roar. I was looking forward to walking on the beach, but the tide was high and occasionally the water and foam would roll in all the way to the cliff banks. As I was standing on the cement landing at the bottom of the stairs to the beach, a huge sneaker wave crashed ashore, and I realized that the water and foam were going to cover the landing. I headed up the stairs and although I made it up several steps, the sea foam licked at my heels.

When the water had receded, I watched as my granddaughter climbed off the platform, down onto the beach while keeping a wary eye on the ocean. She wanted to touch the sea foam and play in it. But it wasn’t long before a wave chased her back up onto the platform and up the steps. Playing on the beach would have to wait for another day. 

Early the next morning, I headed back down to the beach to go for a walk, but the tide was so high that I wasn’t able too. Many of the waves came all the way to the towering cliffs at the edge of the beach, leaving no place to walk. I went back to the condo and checked the tide chart. It was only an hour after high tide, but the tide was receding. Maybe I would be able to I walk the beach after breakfast.

I was at the Oregon coast for a family reunion. Family was here from Washington, Oregon, Colorado, Louisiana, and Arkansas. My brother-in-law and sister-in-law provided condos for everyone and there condo was the central meeting place. All off us crowded into their condo and where they served a delicious breakfast. After everyone had finished eating I took out my phone and began looking through my photos to choose some to post to Facebook. As I opened the app, the first post I saw sent a shock through me.

A friend had posted, “Today we struggle to find much joy. Our little family that we have formed in Polk County took a hard hit last night. We lost a pillar of the crew in a motorcycle wreck. Jason Bird Moga, or Uncle Bird to our kids leaves a big hole in our hearts.” Over the last few years, Bird and I had become friends. I had talked to him just hours before I left for Oregon. When I read the horrible news, I blurted out to those in the room, “My friend passed away last night.” A wave of emotion rolled over me and I couldn’t stay in the room.

I grabbed my coat and rushed outside. I walked down the path toward the ocean access with thoughts swirling in my head. I remembered first meeting Bird and being intimidated by his size and appearance. But when I got to know him, I found him to be a gentle giant. Our mutual love of cars brought us together, but his kindness and willingness to help others was what made want to be his friend. 

When I reached the top of the stairs leading down to the beach, I stopped and just looked out over the ocean. As the waved crashed into the shore over and over, I barely saw them. My mind was filled with thoughts of Bird as my eyes filled with tears. I remembered all of the discussions we had about the project he was going to help me with. We had planned to resurrect the 1967 Toyota Stout that had moved my family to Mena in 1981. The old Toyota was in rough shape, but Bird had a plan to get it back on the road. It seemed that every time we planned to start, his health issues postponed the project.

As I stood lost in my thoughts and blankly staring out over the ocean, my nephew came by on his way down to the beach. As I spoke to him, telling him that my friend had died, it has like a dam broke and I couldn’t hold it inside. I broke down and cried, and it seemed that I couldn’t get my emotions in check. When I was finally able to speak again, he told me that he was going to scout location for surf fishing and invited me to go with him.

We walked along the beach as a light drizzle kept us wet. My nephew explained to me what he was looking for in the wave formations that would indicate a possible place for surf fishing. The tide was still high enough that the occasional wave would send us scrambling up the rocks at the bottom of the cliff side to escape the water. As I walked along the beach, I could hear The Moody Blues singing in my head. “I’ve been searching for my dream a hundred times today. I build then up, you knock them down, like they were made of clay. Then the tide rushes in and washes my castles away.”

When the waves were once again chasing us up onto the safety of the rocks, I thought about the tides as a metaphor of life. One minute you may be excitedly visiting with family you haven’t seen for several years, and the next minute the tide rushes in and the news of a tragedy cults your legs out from under you. There is a cycle to life, and sometimes it seems that the tides are going to drown us. Even David felt this way when he wrote in Psalms 42:6,7 (NLT), “Now I am deeply discouraged, I hear the tumult of the raging seas as your waves and surging tides sweep over me.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about this cycle of life; “The tide rises, the tide falls, the twilight darkens, the curlew calls; Along the sea-sands damp and brown the traveler hastens toward the town, and the tide rises, the tide falls.” In his poem Wadsworth contrasts the travelers journey with the endless, ongoing cycles of the natural world. Our time on earth is so short compared to the vastness of eternity. “The little waves, with their soft, white hands, efface the footprints in the sands, and the tide rises, the tide falls.”

Gentle Reader, we all witness the tide rising and falling in our lives. There are times in our lives when the surging tide rushes in and sweeps over us. Sometimes circumstances overwhelm us and leaves us gasping for breath. But God has promised us that there will come a time when that cycle will be broken. Revelation 21:4 (NCV) tells us, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain.” I long for that day.

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Dont Be a Sea Lion

 My An Arkie's Faith column from the January 11, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I will be traveling to the Oregon coast for a family reunion in a couple of days. My brother and sister-in-law provide the family with beautiful condos on the ocean. I have been to several family reunions at these condos at Gleneden Beach. I always enjoy my time on the beautifully rugged Oregon coast.

One day while we were there, we visited Newport. We spent our time in the Historic Bayfront district. Bayfront is a working waterfront that services Yaquina Bay, home to Oregon's largest commercial fishing fleet. The turn of the century historic buildings of Bayfront house shops, art galleries, chowder houses, restaurants, and tourist attractions. I enjoyed taking a step back in time and trying to imagine this bustling port in times past.

My favorite activity of the day was watching the sea lions that completely covered the docks. Sea Lions can be loud and raucous or adorably lazy. Many sea lions tried to sleep while others were barking to show dominance. A small juvenile was swimming in the water near the docks. He kept trying to find a place to haul out of the water onto the docks, but every time larger males kept him from getting on the docks.

He kept trying and trying to find a place to rest on the docks, only to be rebuffed at every turn. Finally, he could haul himself onto a cable between two floating docks. Once on the cable, he kept slowly and carefully inching his way onto the attached dock. After a while, he could get his front flippers onto the dock. He could get most of his body onto a corner of the dock by carefully maneuvering. As he was trying to get enough room to lie down, he drew the ire of a couple of occupants of the dock, slowly moving closer to the edge and forcing him back into the water.

As I watched the little sea lion trying to find a resting place, I felt sorry for him. The rest of my time watching the sea lions, he could never find a place to haul out of the water. No one would make room for him. 

Watching the sea lions and their interactions with the youngster who wanted to join them reminded me of how I have seen many people act. Many people feel shut out from society. They don't seem to be able to get a seat at the table. Sometimes Christians remind me of the sea lions who had a place on the docks. They want to keep certain groups of people from joining them. They won't associate with them.

Almost everyone remembers being excluded as a kid; I know I do. It seemed like I was excluded more often than I was included. I was the weird kid, the chubby kid, the unpopular kid. But exclusion doesn't stop as children grow into adults. People of all ages exclude others from acceptance, love, and affection. But Jesus was different. He went out of his way to extend love where it wasn't expected; to society's outcasts. Jesus consistently included the people the religious leaders had left out.

In Luke chapter 15, Jesus tells three stories: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. If we read the first three verses of the chapter, it tells us why Jesus told the stories. "The tax collectors and sinners all came to listen to Jesus. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law began to complain: 'Look, this man welcomes sinners and even eats with them.' Then Jesus told them this story." Luke 15:1-3 (NCV)

With these stories, Jesus wants us to understand that He loves and cares for everyone. He demonstrated that all people are welcome at the table of God's kingdom. When you study the life of Jesus, you see that no one ever opened a wider door of hope and love to the human race. In Jesus, the outcasts of society have hope. Those the religious community marginalizes can find Jesus extending a hand, inviting them back into the community with dignity and affection.

"Come to me, Jesus said, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." Matthew 11:28-30 (NLT) No invitation could be more inclusive, more welcoming. Those who customarily feel shut out are told they are welcome to come to Jesus. The love of God is inclusive. God's salvation is offered to everyone, no matter what their background is or what they have done in the past.

Henri Nouwen wrote, "For Jesus, there are no countries to be conquered, no ideologies to be imposed, no people to be dominated. There are only children, women and men to be loved." Paul wrote, "In Christ, there is no difference between Jew and Greek, slave and free person, male and female. You are all the same in Christ Jesus." Galatians 3:28 (NCV) The kinds of divisions between people that are normal in human society should not be found in the church of Jesus Christ. Neither race, ethnicity, economic status, gender, or any other human distinction should exclude people from the church.

Gentle Reader, if you study the example of Jesus, you will see that he was a champion of the oppressed. His example was unconditional love, and He was against all exclusionary practices. He did not follow his society's exclusions. He often surprised those who were familiar with being excluded. When Jesus talked to the woman at the well, "the woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, 'You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?'" John 4:9 (NLT) Don't be a sea lion keeping others from joining you in your resting place. Be like Jesus, inviting everyone to rest.

Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Best is Yet to Be

My An Arkie's Faith column from the January 4, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

John sat at the piano in his bedroom. Pressing the record button on his cassette recorder, he started to play. After playing several measures, he began to sing. "Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be. When our time has come, we will be as one. God bless our love. God bless our love."

John and his wife appreciated the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Browning. One morning, she suggested he write a song using Robert Browning's poetry as a stimulus. That afternoon, John was watching TV when an old movie came on about a baseball player. In the film, the baseball player's girlfriend sends him a poem by Robert Browning. The poem was "Rabbi Ben Ezra," which opens with the lines, "Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be, the last of life, for which the first was made."

John was struck by the coincidence and sat down to write. He penned a simple love song with the final verse: "Grow old along with me. Whatever fate decrees. We will see it through, for our love is true. God bless our love. God bless our love." He sat down at his piano and made a simple cassette recording.

John's simple love song was written for his wife and featured religion, romance, and commitment. Even though the only recording he made was that simple cassette on that November day in 1980, the song Grow Old with Me has become well known and is a popular wedding song. It is a very romantic song that's not about passion but about caring and commitment. When I made a CD album of love songs to give to guests at my daughter's wedding, I included John's home recording of Grow Old With Me.

John planned to record Grow Old with Me in the studio for his next album. He envisioned the song as a standard that they would play in church when a couple gets married, lushly arranged with horns and strings. But John wouldn't get the chance to record Grow Old with Me in the studio. His lyrics, "Spending our lives together. Man and wife together. World without end," would not be fulfilled.

I still remember hearing the news on that cold December day in 1980. Former Beatle John Lennon was shot to death late last night outside his luxury apartment building on Manhattan's Upper West Side, police said. Authorities said Lennon, 40, was rushed in a police car to Roosevelt Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly after arriving. I, along with millions of fans worldwide, was in shock. John's death was less than a month after writing Grow Old With Me. 

John wrote many love songs in the forty years he lived on this earth. My favorite words he wrote are "love is real, real is love. Love is feeling, feeling love. Love is wanting to be loved." Another favorite love poem he wrote says, "From this moment on, I know exactly where my life will go. Seems that all I really was doing was waiting for love."

We all want to be loved, but not all of us find love. The Bible is God's love letter to us, and the greatest love poem in the Bible is John 3:16,17 (NKJV) "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved."

"God so loved the world." What beautiful words. Notice that it is the whole world that God loves, not a single nation or race. Not just one denomination. Not just the "good" people, not just the people who love God back. He loves the lovable and the unlovable, The popular and the unpopular. He loves those who love Him and those who never think of Him.

Some people find it hard to accept that God freely gives His love and grace. They prefer to think that God only loves the same people they love and that God hates the people they despise. They want to place limits on God's love.

To put it bluntly, these people are wrong. God loves the world, including those who are just like us and those different from us. If Jesus didn't come into the world to condemn people, why should we? Jesus came to lift people up, not to put them down. Jesus didn't come to condemn us; Jesus came to offer us eternal life. We should follow His example.

Pastor Ty Gibson wrote, "I undergo the ultimate shift consciousness when I cease perceiving God as an authority figure who wants control and begin perceiving God as a husbandly figure who wants mutual love. Love alone is the agent God uses to expel sin from the heart."

In Romans 8:37-39 (NCV), we find these beautiful words. "But in all these things we are completely victorious through God who showed his love for us. Yes, I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor ruling spirits, nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us, nothing below us, nor anything else in the whole world will ever be able to separate us from the Love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

No matter what circumstance you find yourself in, no one can separate you from God's love for you. God wants you to know Him personally. He wants to love you and be loved by you for eternity. God says, "I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore, I have continued to extend faithful love to you." Jeremiah 31:3 (HCSB)

Gentle Reader, Jesus says to you, "I have loved you as the Father has loved me. Now continue in my love." John 15:9 (ERV) In Hebrews 13:5 (NKJV), He tells you, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." And He promises that "I will come again and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also." John 14:3 (NKJV) It is as if Jesus is saying to us: "Grow old along with me. The best is yet to be. When our time has come, we will be as one. God bless our love."

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Happy New Year

My An Arkie's Faith column from the December 28, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

It's Christmas Eve, and the house is a bustle of activity. The kitchen has been busy all day as my wife and daughter have been preparing our Christmas Eve feast. The tradition in our family is to have Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve, followed by a special Christmas breakfast the next morning. Flour covers the kitchen table as homemade rolls, pumpkin pie, and apple pie are prepared. Even though it is a cold day, it is hot in the kitchen as both ovens, and the stovetop are in use. 

When we sat down to eat, there was so much food that it would not fit on the table. On the sideboard were roast beef, dressing, creamed corn, mounds of mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade cranberry sauce, rolls, and pies. Because I lack even a tiny amount of self-control when it comes to food, I ate until I was stuffed.

I had been eating way too much all week. It is a Christmas hazard. I baked cookies and made almond bark to give as gifts. I had to sample a large amount of both to ensure they were high-quality enough to give away. Friends and customers brought goodies to my shop, and it would be impolite not to eat them. My brother-in-law sent a box of his wonderful homemade candy. As I popped another piece of candy into my mouth, I thought, "When New Year's gets here, I am going to start being careful what I eat."

I am not the first person to make a New Year's resolution. I imagine you have made resolutions. Making resolutions at the beginning of the New Year has a long history. Over 2,500 years ago in Babylon, people would make promises to their gods at the beginning of each year. Popular promises were things such as paying debts and returning borrowed items. Interestingly, we make resolutions on January 1st because January is named after the Roman God Janus. The Romans traditionally made annual promises to Janus.

What about the God that you serve? Does He want you to make promises to Him? Is there a right and wrong way to make resolutions? Christians should be committed to the idea that people can change for the better. We should hope for such a change in our lives and the lives of others.

Suppose you ask the average person about their resolutions for the New Year. They will probably tell you things such as cutting down on their eating, exercising more, stopping doing unhealthy things, and starting doing healthy things, etc. While these things are good, they all focus on and rely on self. These kinds of things are self-serving and rely on the power of one's self to accomplish them. Self-improvement for most people means making themselves more attractive, healthier, and happier. They depend on the power of the human will to bring about the changes.

My favorite cartoon when I was a kid was Peanuts. I remember one comic strip in particular. It is January 1st, and Charlie Brown tells anyone who will listen, "The best way to keep New Year's Resolutions is in a sealed envelope in a bottom desk drawer. Charlie Brown knew what every person who has ever made a New Year's resolution knows. Making and keeping resolutions is a troublesome business, usually filled with failure and shame.

How have your past resolutions worked out for you? I don't even want to talk about mine. If you have made and broken resolutions on many previous New Year's days, you may feel that you might as well seal them in a bottom desk drawer and forget them. That is the experience I have had.

Look at how different our typical resolutions are from the words of Paul in Colossians 3:12-14 (NCV). "God has chosen you and made you his holy people. He loves you. So you should always clothe yourselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other, and forgive each other. If someone does wrong to you, forgive that person because the Lord forgave you. Even more than all this, clothe yourself in love. Love is what holds you all together in perfect unity."

Notice how Paul's words are focused on others. If we are to use resolutions wisely, we need to turn our attention away from ourselves and toward others. Instead of focusing on ourselves, we need to focus on God and the strength that comes only from him. 

John was called the disciple that Jesus loved. It appears that Jesus had a best friend. I want my resolution to be the words that the best friend of Jesus wrote in 1 John 4:7,8 (NCV). "Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God's child and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

I don't know of a better resolution that you could make. If we would all resolve to love one another, imagine how different the world would be. Jesus knows you're busy and cares about the many things you have to do. So He promises that time spent with him will make you more productive: "But seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." Matthew 6:33 (ESV)

Gentle Reader, New Year's resolutions aren't worthless. People who set goals are ten times more likely to succeed than those who don't. Everything that we accomplish in life is because we resolve to do it. There is no need to be discouraged if you've failed before. We all will fail at some point in our life. Failing is a learning experience so that we can do better next time. "A righteous person may fall seven times, but he gets up again." Proverbs 24:16 (GW) This year, instead of focusing on personal performance, how about focusing on a relationship with God and showing his love to others. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Good Gifts

My An Arkie's Faith column from the December 21, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

As I sit at the computer this evening writing, the lights on the Christmas tree are sparkling in the window, and Christmas music is playing. We have just returned home after a day of Christmas shopping. During the Christmas season, we focus on giving good gifts. We spend a lot of money and time finding the right gifts for people who are essential in our lives. Did you have any great gift ideas this year? Was there a gift that you are particularly excited to give? Sometimes we fail in our gift-giving. Have you had any gift-giving disasters?

One Christmas, when my son was a young boy, we nearly ruined his Christmas with one of his gifts. One of his jobs was sweeping the kitchen floor. That Christmas, we bought a stick vacuum cleaner and thought it would be funny to give it to him as a gift. The vacuum, wrapped in beautiful paper, was the biggest present under the tree. When my son saw that the biggest present had his name on it, he was excited. His imagination went wild. What could that present be? His whole Christmas revolved around the biggest present gift under the tree and speculating what it could be.

When Christmas morning arrived, all he could think about was that present. When he opened it, he was so disappointed that the rest of his Christmas presents couldn't make up for the vacuum cleaner fiasco. His disappointment was so apparent that I felt terrible.

Have you ever been disappointed by a gift? Has someone been disappointed by the gift you gave them? What about great gifts? What is the best gift you have ever received? What made it so special? Was it the value of the present? Was it the person who gave it to you?

What is the best gift you have ever received? As I think about this question, I find it hard to narrow down one particular gift as the best. But many years ago, I received an exceptional gift that is still precious to me even though it is not valuable. Let me tell you the story.

In February 2004, my family and I went on a mission trip to San Pedro, Belize, to help build a church. While we were there, we made lots of friends. The following year we made plans to go back to San Pedro.

Our return trip to Belize was terrific. We met with friends we had made the year before and made many new friends while we were there. Often, friends would stop by our room with gifts such as fresh coconut water, papaya, or some small trinket. On our last day in San Pedro, there was a steady stream of visitors to our room. Many of them brought a small gift. They wanted to tell us goodbye.

We received one gift that was very special to me. My wife made a unique friendship with a little two-year-old boy who spoke only Spanish. Whenever he would see her, his face would light up. He didn't understand English, but he understood the language of love. The day we were leaving, he and his four-year-old sister came to our door with a gift. They gave us a well-worn 1935 Walking Liberty half-dollar. I have no idea how this little family had come into possession of this coin or why they gave it to me. Even though the coin's monetary value is only a few dollars, it is one of the most precious gifts I have ever received.

The people I met in San Pedro taught me an essential spiritual lesson. They had such a desire to do something for us. Even though they had only meager possessions, they wanted to please us. Our newfound friends needed to see us before we left and bring us a gift.

I saw a great object lesson in the way they treated me. It showed me how I should relate to God. I should come to God and say, "I don't have much, but I want to give you something." "God, let me know what I can do to please you." "God, I want to be with you."

God is the very best gift giver. His love is an extravagant gift to us. God promises us a gift more incredible than we can imagine or ask for. 2 Corinthians 9:15 (VOICE) describes Jesus this way; "Praise God for this incredible, unbelievable, indescribable gift!" With the gift of Jesus and all the other large and small ways we are blessed in this life, God wants to instill in us reciprocal generosity. All we are, all we have, is a gift from God. He is our Provider, Sustainer, Creator, and Good Father. Gift-giving allows us to keep the circle of generosity flowing to people God has placed in our lives.  

Gentle Reader, I know you have given good gifts at Christmastime. Jesus knows that too. In Matthew 7:7-11 (VOICE), Jesus said "just ask and it will be given to you; seek after it and you will find. Continue to knock and the door will be opened for you. All who ask receive. Those who seek, find what they seek. And he who knocks, will have the door opened. Think of it this way: if your son asked you for bread, would you give him a stone? Of course not—you would give him a loaf of bread. If your son asked for a fish, would you give him a snake? No, to be sure, you would give him a fish—the best fish you could find. So if you, who are sinful, know how to give your children good gifts, how much more so does your Father in heaven, who is perfect, know how to give great gifts to His children!"

God is the ultimate giver of good gifts. No matter how fantastic the best gift you open this Christmas is, it can't compare to the gift of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas. In Romans 6:23 (KJV), the Bible tells us, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord." God has given you the best gift ever; how will you reciprocate? Who could you bless this Christmastime with your time or attention, with a gift, large or small? Find a way to be a gift to someone today.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

I Will Rescue You

My An Arkie's Faith column from the December 14, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The audience filed into the spacious auditorium and quickly found seats. As I sat down and looked around, I noticed life-size marble statues that looked like they were from ancient Greece and Rome surrounding the auditorium. The ceiling, high overhead, was inky black with tiny points of light, mimicking a starry, moonless night sky. It was as if I had been transported to a 15th-century Italian courtyard.

I am in the historic Saenger Theatre on Canal Street in New Orleans. The theatre was built in the 1920s and opened in 1927. The opulent theater was exceptionally ornate with marble, crystal chandeliers, oil paintings, and sumptuous seating for 4,000. A magnificent organ accompanied silent films, and vaudeville acts drew large crowds. In the 30s, the theatre was updated to show talking movies. After closing in the 70s and reopening in the 80s, the theatre housed a variety of events, from live performances to films.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused significant damage to the theatre. Water entered the theatre and rose 14 feet. Water covered the stage, filling the basement and the orchestra level. In response, the New Orleans Building Corporation and Canal Street Development Corporation partnered to restore the theatre authentically and historically. No detail was overlooked, including using historical photos to match hardware, light fixtures, windows, etc. The $53 million redevelopment project took several years to complete, and the theatre reopened in September 2013.

My wife and I were at the Saenger for a Lauren Daigle Christmas concert. Our tickets included a question-and-answer session before the show. As Lauren came out on stage, she walked to the center of the stage at the very front and sat down on a stool. She talked to us in the audience as friends, and you could feel the intimacy in the room. Because Lauren grew up in Southern Louisiana, she felt a special connection with the audience, and you could feel how much the audience loved her. 

With just a solo pianist accompanying her, Lauren began quietly singing, "You are not hidden. There's never been a moment you were forgotten. You are not hopeless though you have been broken, your innocence stolen. I hear you whisper underneath your breath. I hear your SOS, your SOS." The auditorium was hushed as the song continued. Lauren's soft but rich, earthy voice drifted out over the audience. As she began the chorus after the second verse, her voice transformed from peaceful and quiet to a powerful instrument that filled the room as she sang, "I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night. It's true; I will rescue you. I will never stop marching to reach you in the middle of the hardest fight. It's true; I will rescue you."

After singing, Lauren began taking questions from the audience. People asked, "what is your favorite food," and "what is your favorite venue where you have performed?" But there were several more serious questions. One girl asked, "When did you know that Jesus was real in your life?" Lauren told her story of being so sick as a teenager that she couldn't attend school for two years. She said that during this time of isolation, she first really got to know Jesus and have a relationship with him. Even though she was raised in the church, Lauren felt for the first time that it was real, not just a ritual. "I came to know him as my confidant, as my friend, as someone I could dream with, someone I could talk to," she explained. "That time was really special, because I was so alone," she continued. As she talked, I could see that the lyrics to her song, Rescue, might have come from personal experience.

A young girl asked, "what is your favorite Bible story?" After thinking for a few seconds, Lauren answered, "Moses and the parting of the Red Sea." She continued, "the story where Moses has all the Egyptians coming behind him, and he stands right before the water. He's probably thinking, 'God, you are crazy. There is no other option; there's nowhere else for us to go. Where are we supposed to go?' And God says, 'no, no, no, keep going forward.' I would imagine that it wasn't like the waters parted right there, and they walked through. I imagine they probably had to step into the water just to show the element of faith. And as they walked, the waters did part, and God provided a way through." Lauren concluded by saying, "I think, for me, when I'm dealing with any moment of anxiety or pressure, or when I feel like there's nowhere else to go. When everything is pushing in on me from all sides, this is the story I am reminded of. So, stay focused even when you feel like you are walking through water. God has a way of parting those and making it possible." 

Like Lauren, I love this story. "The Egyptians went after the Israelites. All Pharaoh's horses and chariots and horsemen and troops chased them. They caught up with the Israelites as they camped by the sea. The Israelites were near Pi Hahiroth, across from Baal Zephon. As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked back. There were the Egyptians marching after them! The Israelites were terrified. They cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Why did you bring us to the desert to die?" Exodus 14:9-11 (NIRV)

I like how confident Moses is in God's ability to save. Even before God told Moses how He would rescue them, "Moses answered the people. He said, "Don't be afraid. Stand firm. You will see how the Lord will save you today. Do you see those Egyptians? You will never see them again. The Lord will fight for you. Just be still." Exodus 14:13,14 (NIRV)

The Israelites were terrified when they saw the enemy coming their way. They doubted their leader, questioned God, complained, grumbled, and panicked. Yet God didn't get mad at their humanity or fears. He only asked for their obedience. And their trust. 

Gentle Reader, you may be in a place where you can't see any way forward. You may be facing your own Red Sea moment. Maybe the obstacles ahead seem way too hard to overcome. You may want to turn back or give up. But, the Bible tells us that "the Lord will fight for you. Just be still." Exodus 14:14 (NIRV) God says to you, "I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night. It's true; I will rescue you. I will never stop marching to reach you in the middle of the hardest fight. It's true; I will rescue you."