Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Talimena Vistas

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 31, 2019, issue of The Mena Star.

The mountain road wound along the ridge, stretching on ahead, hugging the land, and taking each turn in easy stride. It was a beautiful drive with the forest, alive with green, lining the road for as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, Black-eyed Susans along the road created a profusion of yellow that beautifully complimented the deep green of the trees. When there was a break in the trees, there was a glimpse of soft blue haze shrouding distant mountains.

We were on our way to The Rock House in Talihina, Oklahoma, to celebrate birthdays. This month, my wife and my cousin had birthdays, but we had not been able to be together to celebrate. The Rock House is a restaurant in a remodeled 1920’s era rock home that sits in the middle of Sam and Tami Balzanna's 280-acre rural property near Talihina. The restaurant's reputation for great steaks and pasta has spread to a three-state area with customers from Arkansas and Texas making their way to Talihina for a great dining experience. We had been talking about trying the Rock House for some time but had never made the trip. Celebrating birthdays gave us the perfect reason to make the drive.

We decided to take the slower, scenic route to Talihina. The Talimena Scenic Drive, from Mena to Talihina, winds 54 miles in Arkansas and Oklahoma along the crest of Rich Mountain and Winding Stair Mountain in the Ouachita National Forest. It had been a long time since any of us had driven the entire 54 miles. We often make the drive from Mena to the Queen Wilhelmina State Park but had not gone very far past the park for some time. A favorite drive of ours is to take the Talimena Drive just beyond the state park and turn onto County Road 100 which snakes it way down the mountainside to Hwy 8 in the valley below.

As we drove along, we stopped at many of the numerous vistas on the drive. We are well acquainted with the breathtaking panoramic vistas on the Arkansas side of the drive, but it had been some time since we had seen the vistas on the Oklahoma section. Although the Oklahoma vistas have amazing scenery, we noticed that they were very unkempt. Some were so grown over, and the view was so obstructed that it was difficult to see anything. When we arrived at the Robert S. Kerr Memorial Arboretum, we drove off of the highway to check it out. When our children were young, we would often drive to the arboretum to walk the trails there. But now, the place was so overgrown that you could barely see lovely buildings there. It looked like it had been a very long time since anyone had maintained it.

As we pulled off the road and parked at another overgrown vista, I was disappointed. Why wasn’t someone taking care of these beautiful areas? There was a breathtaking panorama, but it was almost impossible to see because of the condition of the vista. I was reminded of the fact that in our lives, sometimes things are so overgrown that we can’t see the beauty of God and what he has done for us. Things clutter up our lives. Life gets so busy; we have appointments to keep, business to attend to, meetings to go to, kids to pick up, and a thousand other things. If we don't do these things, who will? Sometimes it seems like it is all up to us. In the busyness of life, however, we sometimes fail to see God.

That's what happened to Martha. She knew that Jesus was right there in her house. That's why she was so busy. She wanted the best for him. But in all her busyness, she failed to see that sitting in her family room was God himself. So she missed out on what was most important.

We read the story in Luke 10:40-41 (TPT) “But Martha became exasperated by finishing the numerous household chores in preparation for her guests, so she interrupted Jesus and said, ‘Lord, don’t you think it’s unfair that my sister left me to do all the work by myself? You should tell her to get up and help me.’ The Lord answered her, ‘Martha, my beloved Martha. Why are you upset and troubled, pulled away by all these many distractions? Are they really that important? Mary has discovered the one thing most important by choosing to sit at my feet. She is undistracted, and I won’t take this privilege from her.’”

It happens all the time. And we excuse ourselves by saying that if we don't do it right now, it won't get done. But in the process, we sometimes walk right by Jesus without even noticing. Don't let it happen to you. Don’t allow the cares, problems, and distractions of life to block out the beauty of life with Jesus. Don’t get distracted. Distraction is shifting our attention from something of greater importance to something of lesser importance. No matter how important something is in your life, it is not as important as your relationship with God.

Martha was distracted from Jesus. What distracted her? She was anxious about feeding everyone and anxious about what everyone would think of her and her if she didn’t do it well. But Martha didn’t recognize her distraction until Jesus helped her see it. She thought she was doing the right thing by anxiously wanting to do her best serving her guests. But Jesus pointed out to Martha that her values were out of order. She had shifted her attention from the greater importance to the lesser.

Gentle Reader, Don’t let your life get so overgrown with cares and worries that you miss the beautiful vistas that God has for you. Don’t let your attention be drawn from things of greater importance to things of lesser importance. In your busyness, ask yourself, what is the real distraction? What is keeping you from seeing God’s vistas? King David wrote, “I’m asking God for one thing, only one thing: To live with him in his house my whole life long. I’ll contemplate his beauty; I’ll study at his feet.” Psalms 27:4 (MSG) In the movie, City Slickers, Curly asks Mitch, “do you know what the secret of life is? One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that.” “But, what is the "one thing?” Mitch asks. Curly smiles and says, “that's what you have to find out.” Are you looking for the “one thing?” Make sure that God is the one thing; the thing of the greatest importance in your life.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Missing You

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 24, 2019, issue of The Mena Star.

Maggie, my Golden Retriever, was out of sorts. Usually, she wants a lot of attention, but today she wanted nothing to do with me. Immediately after eating, she went upstairs. I had to call her back downstairs so I could let her outside before I left for work. When she came back in, once again she didn’t want my attention but ran back upstairs. For the next two days, this scenario repeated itself. When I would come home from work, Maggie would not be there to greet me as she usually was. I would have to call her down from upstairs to let her outside.

After several days of this unusual behavior, something seemed to change. Instead of ignoring me, Maggie now wanted constant attention. When she wants to be petted, she is very insistent. If you stop petting her, she will put her nose under your arm and lift it. It now seemed that I could not give her enough attention. What had caused these unusual behaviors in my dog?

Maggie and I were spending the week by ourselves. My wife was out of town, visiting family. I knew that Maggie was acting the way she was because she was missing my wife. She wasn’t the only one missing my wife. Over the past forty-five years, my wife and I haven’t spent much time apart. I don’t like to be alone. Texting and phone calls weren’t the same as being together. I prayed, “may the Lord keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.” Genesis 31:49 (NIV) When I picked my wife up at the airport, my world was all right again. When we walked into the house, and Maggie saw my wife, she was wagging her tail so hard that it was creating a breeze. Maggie and I were happy again.

Why do we miss someone when they are away? There is a scientific explanation. Our bodies produce chemicals such as hormones produced by our glands, and neurotransmitters produced by the central nervous system. These chemicals help us form emotional bonds like friendship, intimate relationships, and parental relationships. The hormones related to relationships are estrogen, testosterone, and oxytocin. The neurotransmitters most closely involved are serotonin and dopamine. Your body naturally produces these chemicals, but when you are with someone you love, they surge. When you spend time with someone you love, you become addicted to an elevated level of these chemicals. Robert Palmer was right when he sang; “might as well face it, you're addicted to love.”

If your body is addicted to these chemicals, can you imagine what happens when you are away from the person you love? Your body stops producing an abundance of these chemicals, and withdrawal happens. How does this withdrawal affect your emotional state? It usually mimics symptoms of depression and anxiety. When this happens, many people say, "I don't feel like myself," or, "I miss my other half," because their body has become used to certain stimulation that they are no longer receiving. When you are missing someone, remember that you can't help it. You were designed to be addicted to love. In the book, What is Love, Kay Knudsen wrote; “Love is missing someone whenever you’re apart, but somehow feeling warm inside because you’re close in heart.”

We miss people that we love when we are not with them. When we are not with God, he misses us. He tells us, “I created you and loved you even before you were born. The day you came into the world, I was there. Every moment of your life, I’ve been there, but what I long for is a relationship with you. I want to be a part of your life. I want you to talk to me, to include me in your life.” King David understood this. He wrote, “You made my whole being; you formed me in my mother’s body. I praise you because you made me in an amazing and wonderful way. What you have done is wonderful. I know this very well. You saw my bones being formed as I took shape in my mother’s body. When I was put together there, you saw my body as it was formed. All the days planned for me were written in your book before I was one day old.” Psalms 139:13-16 (NCV)

Sometimes, separation from someone we love happens because we have made mistakes and hurt them. Sometimes we feel separated from God because we have made mistakes and done things we regret. We think, “how can God love me when I have hurt him like this.” Sometimes we give in to temptation, and it feels like things could never be made right again. You might have felt at one point that God is angry with you and could never forgive you, but that isn’t true. “God shows his great love for us in this way: Christ died for us while we were still sinners.” Romans 5:8 (NCV) “I am sure that nothing can separate us from the love God has for us. Not death, not life, not angels, not ruling spirits, nothing now, nothing in the future, no powers, nothing above us, nothing below us, or 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.” Romans 8:38,39 (ICB)

Have you ever had an old friend, someone that you haven’t seen for a while, but when you do see them it’s like you were never apart? With some people, it will feel like you’ve hardly missed a day. They know you so well, they understand you so well, that communication picks back up without missing a beat. Think of God as a friend like that. If you haven’t talked with God for a while, don’t be nervous about talking to him again.

Gentle Reader, God is ready to begin a relationship with you or to pick up where you left off. Whenever you are away from God, he misses you. He wants you to be with him and never to be separated from you. He has promised that “when everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” John 14:3 (NLT)

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Summer Camp

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 17, 2019, issue of The Mena Star.

Softly splashing raindrops hit the windshield as I drove out of town early in the morning. The skies were overcast, and a blanket of grey shrouded the landscape. I watched the raindrops trickle down the side windows as the wipers kept the windshield clear. The drops were steady but soft, and I hoped that it wouldn’t begin to rain harder. I don’t like to drive in heavy rain, especially on the crooked, winding roads of Western Arkansas.

I was heading to Mountain Pine to pick up my eleven-year-old granddaughter. She had spent the week at summer camp. Campers from the week had to be picked up early so that a new group of campers could be dropped off to spend a week at camp. After an hour or so, the rain became intermittent, and there was a hint of blue skies trying to break through the grey clouds. By the time I reached Camp Yorktown Bay on the shore of Lake Ouachita, the rain had stopped, and it was a beautiful partly cloudy summer day.

Camp Yorktown Bay was built by the Hot Springs Navy League Council in 1960. The idea for a camp started when the League wanted a training base for its sea cadets along the shores of Lake Ouachita. Camp Yorktown Bay was named in recognition the Aircraft Carrier, U.S.S. Yorktown. The camp is now operated by the Arkansas-Louisiana Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. 700 to 800 kids attend each summer.

When I arrived at the camp, I checked in with security and stepped into the cafeteria to find my granddaughter. At first, as I glanced around the room filled with campers and their luggage, I didn’t spot my granddaughter, but then I saw her running towards me with her arms open wide. She gave me a huge hug and immediately started talking ninety miles an hour. She wanted to introduce me to the girls who had been in her cabin. They all had to say their goodbyes and then wanted me to take a photo of the group.

We loaded her things into the car and then started the two-hour drive home. As we drove, my granddaughter chattered away, telling me all the things that she had done at camp such as swimming, boating, riding horses, climbing the rock wall, and many other things. She told me stories of things that happened in her cabin. She told me about the evening campfire programs with skits, singing, and storytelling. She thought the skits were hilarious, and she liked the speaker. She sang songs that she had learned at camp even though it was hard to make the hand motions in the car. She talked non-stop about her camp experience. There was no doubt that she had a good time at summer camp. After an hour or so, she started to slow down, and before I knew it, she had fallen asleep.

I was so pleased that my granddaughter had such a good time at camp. After listening to her chatter, there was no doubt that she loved summer camp. It made me think about how Christians talk about God and spirituality. More than 70 percent of Americans identify as Christian, but you wouldn’t know it by listening to them. An overwhelming majority of people say that they don’t feel comfortable speaking about faith. Those who do feel comfortable speaking about their faith often focus on the things that they don’t like, and how much they dislike those who have different religious or political beliefs.

The Barna Group, a social research firm focused on religion and public life, surveyed 1,000 American adults. This study revealed that more than 75% of Americans do not often have spiritual or religious conversations. A mere 7 percent of Americans say they talk about spiritual matters regularly. Many people now avoid religious and spiritual language because they don’t like the way it has been used, misused, and abused by others.

If being a Christian is so great, and I think that it is, why don’t more Christians talk about how great it is? If we are having a wonderful time, we should be like my granddaughter who had so much to say about how much she liked summer camp. 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV) says, “in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.” Often the Christians that I do hear talking about spiritual matters are not doing it with gentleness and respect.

I recently read a story about a waitress and her encounter with a group of Christian women. The waitress hears the table of women she is serving speaking excitedly of another person. They seem to be genuinely enthusiastic. Curious, she listens more closely and finds out that these women are talking about Jesus.

The waitress can see that the women seem very nice, and enjoy each other’s company. But when she takes their orders, they are cold and superficial toward her. When she returns with their food, she hears them talking about how amazing the church service was and how good God has been to them. But as she serves them, they are harsh and complaining.

The women leave the table, barely acknowledging the waitress. As she starts cleaning up, she finds a gospel tract on the table with a single dollar bill. The tract is cleared away with the rest of the trash and thrown away. She quietly picks up the dollar bill and slips it into her pocket. The waitress now has a negative impression of Jesus and the people who claim to worship him.

Gentle Reader, what kind of witness are you? Are you one of the many Christians who never talk about spiritual things? Or are you one of the Christians who says all the right things about God, but who treats others with indifference? Maybe you are one who speaks words of hatred towards people of other religions or people who are non-religious. I hope you are a Christian who can’t help telling others about how great it is to be a Christian and how much you love it; Like my granddaughter talked about summer camp. We need to be like Peter and John, who said, “we cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:20 (NLT)

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Stand Up Paddleboards

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 10, 2019, issue of The Mena Star.

“You will be riding with me on the Megalodon,” my daughter said. Everyone had such a good time floating the Ouachita River the week before that we decided to do it again this weekend. Last week six of us floated the river in a rubber raft while the rest of the group used paddleboards. This week the water wasn’t high enough to float in a raft, so we used paddleboards, kayaks, and canoes. The Megalodon is a large, very stable, multiple person paddleboard, but I was a bit nervous about riding it. I had never been on a paddleboard. Even though my daughter has lots of experience on paddleboards, I wasn’t sure how I would do.

Once all the paddleboards were inflated, we were ready to head down the river. I crawled onto Megalodon and sat down. As we paddled down the river, I was surprised by how stable the Megalodon was. I had expected more movement. Before long, I was comfortable enough with the board to try a kneeling position. It was easier for me to paddle from that position. When I got the courage to try standing, I was able to balance standing up without any problems. I enjoyed paddling down the river, standing up on the paddleboard.

As we made our way down the river, it started to rain. It was a soft, gentle rain, and the water was beautiful as the raindrops made tiny splashes and rings all over the surface of the river. The rain didn’t last too long, but it rained off and on all day. The scenery on this stretch of the Ouachita River, from Simms to Dragover, was spectacular. There were many beautiful rock formations along the banks of the river. We saw Great Blue Herons fishing in the river. The water was so clear that we could see the fish, including several large Gar. The serenity of the river was occasionally interrupted by frogs croaking and fish jumping and splashing.

I was enjoying going down the river on the paddleboard. I became comfortable standing up and felt stable most of the time. Occasionally I would feel a bit unstable, but by bending my knees and shifting a foot, I was able to regain my balance. Before long, I was quite comfortable and had confidence in my newfound ability to stand up and paddle a paddleboard. We went through several small rapids, and each time I would go from a standing position to a kneeling position before we went through the rapids. As my confidence level rose, I thought, “the next rapids we come to; I will stay standing,”

Before long we came to some small rapids that looked very tame. “I am going to stay standing through these rapids,” I told my daughter. As we started into the rapids, my daughter realized that they were very shallow. “We are going to stick,” she hollered back to me. I knew that when we made that sudden stop, I would not be able to keep my balance. I started to go down into a kneeling position, but before I could get down, the paddleboard came to an abrupt stop, and I was thrown into the water. It was a hard fall into the rocky shallow river, and it hurt. After sitting in the water for a few moments, I realized that even though my leg and my hand were aching, I wasn’t badly hurt. After my daughter dragged the board off the rocks, I crawled back on, and we continued down the river. Although I stood back up, I wasn’t as cocky about my abilities and the next rapids we came to, I kneeled on the board instead of standing up

At Fulton Branch, we stopped for a picnic lunch of sandwiches, chips, hummus, cherries, grapes, and cookies. As we ate our lunch, we had a short devotional. We talked about how important stability is in our lives. Stability is important when you are on a paddleboard, but stability is also important in life. In either case, if you lose stability, you will be thrown off. We talked about the things that help make us stable, like family, church, faith, and the Bible.

On, I found the following information. “We think it’s helpful to focus on the most important factor for true beginners: stability. Why is SUP stability so important when buying your first SUP? You need something stable to get your bearings. Becoming familiar with balance and water surface fluctuations involves practice and developing muscle memory. If you start with a narrow board – say a racing or touring design – you will constantly fight the board and lose out on this fundamental phase of learning. Plus it will be less fun. The wider the board, the more stable the platform.”

Just like stability is an important factor for stand up paddle boarding, it is important in our lives. Have you ever felt uneasy, unsettled, or unstable? Or maybe a better question is; who hasn’t? How do we overcome these feelings? George Muller, director of the Ashley Down orphanage in Bristol, England, had these feelings, but he had a plan for stability. He wrote in His diary on May 9, 1841; "Now, I saw that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted and encouraged.” Isaiah 33:6 (NET) tells us that God “is your constant source of stability; he abundantly provides safety and great wisdom; he gives all this to those who fear him.” When we search for wisdom and knowledge in the Bible, we become more stable in our lives! Let’s aim to spend more time in the Word and gain more stability in our lives.

Author Jim Gerrish writes, “In other articles, I have referred to this age as the ‘Jello Era’ of human history.  In the last twenty or thirty years, we have seen many things shake and tremble before our eyes. These are things we used to trust in, like banks, jobs, companies, governments, family values, etc. In all these areas, and in many more, our world is beginning to look about as stable as a big bowl of Jello. Today, we are all being blasted with the words and opinions of men. The evening newscast is a good example of this. These opinions change by the day. In a week or even in another day these opinions may no longer be considered true. They are like the grass and flowers Peter mentions, but the word of God stands forever. If we build our opinions, our theologies, and our lives upon God’s word, we will be like the man who built his house on the rock.”

Gentle Reader, we all need stability in our lives. Stability is important on a stand up paddleboard, and it is important in every aspect of our lives. Let’s aim to spend more time with God and his word, the Bible. That is the only way to gain more stability in our lives. Don’t let it be said about you; “You are mistaken, because you do not know the Scriptures. And you do not know the power of God.” Matthew 22:29 (NIRV)

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Angels on the Ouachita

An Arkie's Faith column from the July 3, 2019, issue of The Mena Star.

The house was with a flurry of activity as kids and adults prepared for a day on the river. We were excited because the Ouachita River levels were perfect for floating a raft. Seven adults, four kids, food, drinks, a rubber raft, and three paddle boards including the Megalodon multi-person paddle board loaded into the vehicles and we were ready to head out. It had been raining off and on, but our spirits were high as we headed to the Ouachita River.

By the time that we reached the Pine Ridge access and started unloading, the rain had stopped. While others were blowing up the rafts and paddleboards, a couple of us ran the shuttle to drop off a vehicle at the Shirley Creek access, six miles downstream. When everything was ready, we pushed off into the water and started downstream. The river was gently winding its way between the banks with lush green trees whose roots have been exposed by high water earlier in the year.

It was a perfect summer day; not too hot, and the early morning rains were gone. There was blue sky and sunshine with enough cloud cover to make it comfortable. The river was peaceful and serene as we floated past amazing rock formations and the occasional home. The kids were having a great time jumping off the Megalodon paddle board, swimming in the river for a while then climbing back on the board. Shrieks and laughter filled the air as we made our way downstream.

After an hour or two, we found a gravel bar and beached our raft. We pulled the coolers out of the raft and had a lunch of sandwiches, chips, fruit, and cookies. It is amazing how hungry you can get paddling on a river. Just upstream from the gravel bar was a large rock outcropping. The water at the base of the rock was quite deep, and the kids, along with my son-in-law, had a great time jumping off the rock into the water. The kids were having a good time swimming and jumping and didn’t want to leave, but it was time to get back on the river.

While we were on the river, we pulled the paddle boards around the raft and stopped in the middle of the river for a devotional. We talked about Naaman and the Jordan River. Naaman left Syria and came to Israel looking for Elisha. His servant girl had told him that Elisha could heal him of his leprosy. When he knocked on Elisha’s door, “Elisha sent Naaman a messenger who said, ‘Go and wash in the Jordan River seven times. Then your skin will be healed, and you will be clean.’” 2 Kings 5:10 (NCV) But Naaman wasn’t impressed. He said, “‘the rivers of Damascus, are better than all the waters of Israel. Why can’t I wash in them and become clean?’ So Naaman went away very angry.” 2 Kings 5:12 (NCV)

Naaman’s servants spoke sensibly to him, helping him to see that what Elisha asked was not that difficult. He went to the Jordan River, dipped seven times, and was healed. Why was he healed? It was not because of the Jordan River. It was not because he dipped seven times. It was because God told Naaman, through His prophet Elisha, that if he obeyed he would be healed. God healed Naaman because he obeyed. God wants to heal all of us, but he asks that we obey Him. Obedience doesn’t save us; God saves us. But He asks that we obey Him as a sign that we trust Him.

We continued down the river until we reached the Shirley Creek takeout. When we had pulled our raft and paddle boards up the steep muddy stairs to the picnic area where our shuttle vehicle was parked, we realized that the keys to the vehicle were back at the Pine Ridge drop off point. What would we do? We had a group of tired people who had just spent the day floating six miles on the river, and they were ready to go home. But we were miles away from the keys that we needed. Walking would take several hours. Just as we realized our dilemma, a vehicle drove into the picnic area. Two guys were scouting out the river for a float trip. They were asking some of our group questions, so they sent my son-in-law to talk with them. He is very knowledgeable and has floated many rivers, including the Ouachita several times. He told the guys about our predicament and asked if they would take us back to Pine Ridge. They agreed to take us.

My son-in-law and I rode back with them to pick up the two vehicles that we had left at Pine Ridge. As we drove along, we talked about our river floating experiences. When they dropped us off at our vehicles, I told the guys, “I have always wanted to know what angels looked like, but you really surprised me.” The laughed, and said that no one had ever called them angels before. But if they weren’t angels, I still think that they were sent by God. We could have been at the picnic area for hours without seeing anyone.

When we had returned with the other vehicles, I was reminded of the fact that. “your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” Matthew 6:8 (NLT) It made me think of my heavenly Father in such a loving and caring way. In the middle of taking care of the universe, God saw fit to remind me that just because I didn’t yet know how He was at work in my situation, didn’t mean He didn’t know exactly what was happening. He provided the answer to my problem even before I knew I had a problem.

Gentle Reader, God knew what I needed even before I asked. He provided a way out of my predicament. He sent angels on the Ouachita. He will do the same for you. Just because God provided two guys to give me a ride when I needed it doesn’t mean they weren’t actually angels. “Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers, for some who have done this have entertained angels without realizing it!” Hebrews 13:2 (NLT)