Thursday, October 31, 2019

The Conductor

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

The older Chevy van pulled into my driveway as I was installing a windshield. The van’s owner, Tom, climbed out of the van and came over to talk with me. He was having a problem with the windshield and wanted to see what we could do about it. We discussed the issue and scheduled a time to work on the van. Tom was very friendly, and we visited for a few minutes after scheduling the work. As we talked, Tom told me that he had spent thirty years a conductor on the Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific railroads. When he talked about his job as a conductor, it was apparent that he had loved his job.

When he was ready to leave, I told Tom that I had a gift for him. I gave him a copy of my latest book. The cover of the book features a photo by Whitley Lind Photography of a Kansas City Southern train traveling on the tracks at the Mena depot just before sundown. I thought that he would like the photo, and he did. As he left, Tom thanked me and said that he would see me for his appointment in a couple of days.

Two days later, Tom drove the Chevy van to my shop for his appointment. It was a dreary drizzly day and had rained most of the morning. I told Tom that because of the rain I would not be able to seal the windshield on his van, and we would have to reschedule. Even though I was not able to work on his van, Tom stayed and visited. He told me that he enjoyed my book and that he had a gift for me. He gave me a DVD of a song titled “The Conductor,” written and performed by Sherry Lovan. The song came about from the writing that Tom did while he was on the railroad. Sherry wove his words and story into a beautiful song.

While we were visiting, I asked Tom about his duties as a conductor. When I was a kid, I always liked watching a freight train go by, and waiting for the little red car to appear at the end. I knew that the conductor was in that little red caboose. But today’s trains don’t have a caboose, so I didn’t realize that they still had conductors. Tom explained to me that the conductor reviews schedules and shipping records. They make sure that cargo is distributed evenly along the train and maintain communication with the train's engineer and traffic control personnel. The conductor monitors any equipment issues or mechanical problems and arranges for repairs and stops when necessary. Tom said forcefully, “the engineer only drives the train, but the conductor is in charge of the train. He is the boss.”

Tom’s words made me think about the Christian life. The old song, “Life Is Like A Mountain Railroad,” came to my mind. “Life is like a mountain railroad. With an engineer so brave. We must make this run successful. From the cradle to the grave.” Sometimes Christians teach that we should let God be the engineer in our lives. But I don’t think that is a good analogy. The song’s analogy is a better one. We are the engineer in our lives. We are the drivers. God has set us free to drive our own lives. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Galatians 5:1 (NIV)

If God has given us the freedom to drive our lives, what part does He play in our lives? If we are in charge, does that leave God out? I think that Tom’s explanation of the conductor’s job is also a good explanation of God’s role in our lives. “The engineer only drives the train, but the conductor is in charge of the train. He is the boss.” God wants us to drive, but we need to remember that He is in charge. On a train, the conductor makes sure cargo is loaded and unloaded and properly accounted for. He is responsible for the train, the freight, and the crew. The conductor is responsible for coordinating relationships among the railroad, the shipping company, and the engineer. He must know the train schedules for the railroad to coordinate loading and unloading of freight. Communicating these things with the engineer is also important since the engineer moves the train from one stop to the next

“For you have been called to live in freedom, my brothers and sisters. But don’t use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature. Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love.” Galatians 5:13 (NLT) God has given you the freedom to drive your train. Sometimes we look at someone who has made bad decisions and say, “their life is a train wreck.” God had given you the freedom to be the engineer of your life’s train, but we need to remember that God is the conductor. David wrote in Psalms 119:44,45 (NCV) “I will obey your teachings forever and ever. So I will live in freedom, because I want to follow your orders.” Living in freedom, and then wrecking the train because we won’t listen to the conductor isn’t much freedom.

Gentle Reader, everyone craves freedom, but what is freedom? I once heard a preacher say that “freedom is being able to do what you please without considering anyone except your spouse and your kids, the company and the boss, neighbors, and friends, the police and the government, the doctor and the church.” In human society, chaos results if we consider just our interests. We are the engineers of our life, but we need a conductor. Don’t kick the conductor off your train. “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as an excuse to do evil. Live as servants of God.” 1 Peter 2:16 (NCV)

Friday, October 25, 2019

Abandoned Patina

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

A gray streak shot across the driveway as I pulled my shop truck up to the door of my business. “What was that,” I thought, as I got out of my truck and unlocked the door. It was time to open my shop for the day. I had a very busy day scheduled and was in a hurry to get started. As I turned on the lights and opened the garage door, I heard a soft meow. As I walked outside, the meow became louder and more insistent. I heard, “Meow, meooow, meoooooow.” Then I saw the source of the sounds, a gray kitten.

When the kitten saw me, it came running towards me. As I tried to get started on my first job of the day, the kitten was weaving through my legs, rubbing against me, meowing loudly. “Someone has dumped this poor kitten beside the road,” I thought. Then I thought several unkind thoughts about the kind of person who would dump their animals on the road like that. I was too busy as I went about my work to pay much attention to the abandoned kitten.

When my Daddy came to work about a half-hour later, the kitten immediately started rubbing against him. When he sat down in his chair, the kitten jumped up on his lap. A few minutes later, the kitten was sitting on his shoulders and climbing onto his head. As I looked closer at the kitten, I saw that although it was mostly gray, It had brown and red spots. It looked a bit like a calico, but I had never seen a cat colored like it before. Later I found out that the coloration on the kitten is called dilute calico.

Calico cats are tricolored. Their coat is made up of three colors, white, black, and brownish-red. Calicos have white as their primary color, with the other colors being secondary. However, a dilute calico is exactly that – diluted. A dilute calico normally has a coat of grey, silver, and reddish-gold. The colors are not as distinct as a normal calico’s. Instead, they sometimes appear blended and smudged together.

When a friend of mine, who is a fellow car collector, stopped by a bit later, the kitten made friends with him. He said, “you should name the cat Patina because the rust-colored spots remind me of the patina on an old car.” Lately, there has been a lot of discussion in the car world about “patina,” that old, imperfect finish that speaks to a car’s age and wear. Some collectors are choosing to leave the exterior of the cars that they are refurbishing in their original condition, not repairing and repainting the body. The marks and blemishes on the exterior are like battle scars that become sources of pride, demonstrating that a car is an original survivor.

Patina, the cat, tried hard to make friends with everyone who stopped by my shop that day. I’m not sure I have ever seen as friendly a cat as Patina. My Daddy and I offered to give the cat to each person who paid attention to it. But no one wanted a free kitten. Daddy made a sign that said, “Free Kittens,” and placed I out beside the highway. It was late afternoon, and we still had not found a new home for Patina. When a young lady came to pick up her car after I had repaired the windshield, Patina ran out to meet her. She picked the kitten up and was petting it. After she paid for the work I had done on her car, she asked, “are you really giving this kitten away?” I told her that the kitten had been abandoned and needed a new home. If she wanted the kitten I would be happy to give it to her. When she left, I don’t know who was happier, the gray calico kitten or its new owner.

The kitten had been abandoned by its previous owner, but now was happy to be adopted into a new family. You and I are also adopted.  We are adopted into the family of God. How did we become adopted? The Bible tells us that by believing in Jesus, we gain the right to become God’s children. John 1:12,13 (NLT) says, “But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.”

Our Father in Heaven does not show favoritism between His family members, and neither should we. In His eyes, we are united together as one family, a family that is connected through His son, Jesus Christ. Too often, we abandon fellow family members. “Though my father and mother forsake me, the Lord will receive me.” Psalm 27:10 (NIV)

I am amazed by how many of my customers suffer from loneliness. I can sense the loneliness as I talk with them. But there is something worse than being lonely, and that is feeling abandoned. Many lonely people also feel abandoned by family, abandoned by friends, and abandoned by God.

You can sense how abandoned David feels when he wrote, “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” Psalms 13:1 (NKJV) When David wrote this, he was hurt, vulnerable, discouraged and fearful. David’s words express his fear that God has rejected and abandoned him.

Gentle Reader, have you ever felt this way? You may have endured something very difficult. In this life, people are often powerless to help us, and even loved ones fail us. But to feel abandoned by God is the worst agony because without God there is no hope. You can know that God has not abandoned you. “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.” Romans 8:38,39 (NCV) You may feel abandoned, but it isn’t God who abandoned you. It is God who adopted you. “The Father has loved us so much that we are called children of God. And we really are his children.” 1 John 3:1 (NCV)

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Maggie and Tucker

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

The tiny white ball of fluff raced pell-mell around the room. His ears flopped about, and his tail wagged furiously. Our Golden Retriever, Maggie, was meeting this little dynamo for the first time. The puppy jumped on Maggie and played with her tail. They had a great time together. We were happy to see that Maggie and the puppy got along so well. In less than a week, we would be picking up our new Mini Golden Doodle puppy and taking him home.

My wife could hardly stand the wait. All she could talk about was her new puppy. We spent hours going through a list of names that she had compiled, trying to decide on a name. The top contenders on the list of names were Aspen, Darcy, Bondo, and River. But none of them seemed quite right for the new puppy. My son-in-law suggested Tucker, and we decided that would be our puppy’s name. When the day finally arrived, we picked Tucker up and took him home.

Tucker was a little bit intimidated by his new surroundings. He wanted to be with Maggie. Wherever Maggie was, there was Tucker right alongside her. He wanted to jump on her and play with her. Maggie liked having Tucker there and enjoyed playing. When Tucker was tired, he snuggled up next to Maggie on her dog bed. As much as Maggie had liked playing with Tucker, by the evening, she was tired of the little bundle of energy jumping at her, climbing on her and attacking her. It was fun to play for a little while, but Maggie likes her rest. When Tucker would jump on her, Maggie would look up at us with pleading eyes. “Can’t you make him stop,” she seemed to say.

When it came time to go to bed, we put Tucker in a crate in our bedroom next to Maggie’s bed. He immediately started to howl and scratch at his crate. I have never heard sounds like he was making. It was a cross between yipping, yodeling, and howling. The amount of sound that he could make was incredible. Maggie just looked at us and refused to get in her bed. She decided to sleep in the bathroom. When she had first seen Tucker, she had loved playing with him, but now she wanted a break.

Tucker still wants to be with Maggie all the time. He no longer feels that he must constantly jump on her and bite at her, but he is never far from her. He is now content to sit next to her and lean on her or curl up with her. Maggie puts up with him but doesn’t want to be with Tucker every minute. Maggie’s relationship with Tucker reminds me of what Jesus told the church in Ephesus. “But here is something I hold against you. You have turned away from the love you had at first.” Revelation 2:4 (NIRV)

When Maggie first met Tucker, she loved playing with him. But when he came to live with us twenty-four hours a day and wanted to be with her every moment, she didn’t love him as much. Sometimes we Christians can forget how much we loved Jesus at first. When we first realize what Jesus has done for us, how much he loves us, and how much he sacrificed to save us, we are filled with love for Him. But as the years go by, our love for God can weaken.

Sometimes we allow the stress and pressures of life to control us. We get caught up in our problems and allow them to build a wall between God and ourselves. We may not even know that we are doing it. We become unhappy in our lives. We forget our first love for Jesus.

I have experienced this personally. Over a year ago my Momma passed away. I experienced powerful emotions during this time. Grief can be overwhelming, and it can heighten other emotions. I found myself dealing with extreme bitterness towards people who had mistreated my Momma. I felt that their mistreatment had been so stressful to my Momma that it had contributed to her death.

It felt like my life was spinning out of control, and I couldn’t make sense of it anymore. When you feel like you have been wronged, your feelings often intensify as you dwell on the situation. The more you think about it, the angrier you become. If you can’t get your feelings in check, bitterness can consume you. That was the mindset that I found myself in. The more I thought about the people who had wronged my family, the more enraged I became. My grief and my anger were consuming my life and making it difficult for me to cope.

I knew that I had to get my life under control somehow. I had to rein in my emotions to be able to get on with my life. I knew that the only way to do that was to focus on loving God and others. Even when I was wallowing in my grief and anger, I knew that God still loved me. I read in Psalms 56:8 (NLT) “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.” I knew that I needed to rekindle my first love towards God.

Gentle Reader, nothing is more important than obeying God’s greatest commandment: to love him. And God knows you will only be able to do so if you have been loved first. 1 John 4:19 (NKJV) says, “We love him because he first loved us.” Let’s take time today to experience the love of our heavenly Father, and let his love renew within us our first love.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Apollo 11

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

My eyes were glued to the screen as I watched the enormous crawler-transporter with the Saturn V rocket move slowly towards the launch pad at Launch Complex 39. The crawler is 131 feet long and 114 feet wide. Weighing over six million pounds, the crawler moves with the power of 16 diesel locomotive 16-cylinder engines. The Saturn V rocket on the crawler was over 360 feet tall. Fully fueled for liftoff, the Saturn V weighed over six million pounds. As I watched the huge rocket lift off, flames shot out hundreds of yards in both directions, and the rocket slowly made its way up past the launch tower. The Apollo 11 mission to the moon was underway.

I was sitting in a comfortable recliner at the IMAX Theater in Branson, Missouri, watching Apollo 11. The film reconstructs the exciting moments of preparation, liftoff, landing, and return of this historic mission to put men on the moon. The filmmakers used newly discovered, never before seen 70mm footage. The scenes that were unfolding before me were enthralling. I couldn’t believe the quality of the historical footage that I was seeing. As I watched, I was transported back to 1969.

When I was a boy, my heroes were the astronauts in NASA’s space program. I read everything about them that I could get my hands on. By 1969 my interest in space was at a fever pitch. Everyone was talking about the race to land on the moon. When Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, the entire world was captivated. Every newspaper covered the story. I soaked it all in. The moon landing was a part of pop culture. After watching the moonwalk on TV, the Moody Blues drummer, Graham Edge, penned the poem "Higher and Higher,” which was used to open their next album.

"Blasting, billowing, bursting forth with the power of ten billion butterfly sneezes. Man, with his flaming pyre, has conquered the wayward breezes. Climbing to tranquility, far above the clouds, conceiving the heavens, clear of misty shroud. Vast vision must improve our sight. Perhaps, at last, we'll see an end to our own endless blight, and the beginning of the free.”

As I listened to these words, even as a boy, I realized that this optimism that space exploration would make the world a better place was misplaced. I read in my Bible in Obadiah 1:4 (NCV) “‘even if you fly high like the eagle and make your nest among the stars, I will bring you down from there,’ says the Lord.” As a Christian, I looked to space exploration to learn more about the awesome things God had made. I was excited by the discoveries and what they could show me about how awesome God is.

While I went through High School, I stayed interested in space, but there were many other things to interest me and take up my time. I realized that as interesting as space exploration was, it wasn’t changing things here on earth. By now there had been six moon landings. In just a few years, moon landings had gone from the most exciting and talked about thing on the planet, to being commonplace. The space race was over, and pop culture had found other interests.

NASA didn’t recapture the interest of most Americans until 1981 when the Space Shuttle Columbia made the first flight of a space vehicle that returned to earth and was reusable. Once again man seemed on the verge of conquering the heavens. One of the exciting new directions in space exploration was the Hubble Space Telescope. Nothing NASA had done since landing on the moon captured the interest of the American public as much as the Hubble Telescope. The images that the Hubble produced were breathtaking. When I first saw the images, I thought of the words of David found in Psalms 19:1 (GW). “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky displays what his hands have made.”

One Hubble photo fascinates me. It is called the Hubble Ultra Deep Field. Astronomers picked a seemingly empty spot in the sky. Staring at the spot in the sky for ten days, Hubble kept taking pictures one after another for the entire exposure time, accumulating data. Astronomers put the exposures together into one final picture. Each time they added an exposure, the view got deeper, revealing fainter objects. When they finished, they had the deepest picture ever taken of the heavens.
The image is of a small region in the constellation Ursa Major. It covers an area 2.5 arcminutes across; one part in a million of the whole sky. The image contains an estimated ten thousand galaxies. That would mean that the whole universe contains a million times ten thousand galaxies.

Astronomers estimate that our home galaxy, the Milky Way, contains between two hundred and four hundred billion stars. How many stars are in the universe? I will let you do the math. “Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” Isaiah 40:26 (NIV)

Gentle Reader, the universe staggers our imagination. It is humbling to realize that our planet Earth is simply a speck of cosmic dust in the great universe that God has created. When David saw the night sky, he was amazed by God’s love for us. In Psalms 8:3,4 he wrote, “I look at your heavens, which you made with your fingers. I see the moon and stars, which you created. But why are people even important to you? Why do you take care of human beings?” Go outside tonight, take a look at the starry sky and know that there is a Creator who cares for you, who died for you and wants to bring you home to live with him.