Thursday, March 19, 2020

Take a Break

It is Friday evening after work, and I am pulling into the Wal-Mart parking lot. The lot is at capacity, and I search for a parking space. Wal-Mart is often busy on Friday evening, but I can’t remember seeing it like this before. After parking a long way from the front of the store, I walk briskly through the light rain to the entrance. Once inside, I see something that I have never seen before. Every checkout lane is open, and each cashier has a line of customers waiting to check out. Fortunately, I just need a few things for the supper that my wife has planned for us and our granddaughters.

As I walk down the aisles, I see that there are many empty shelves. There is not a single roll of toilet paper on the paper goods aisle, and there are only a couple of packages of paper towels. There is no flour on the flour aisle. The canned vegetable aisle is decimated, with a few cans strewn here and there. I pick up a carton of eggs because there are almost none left, and I’m not sure if we have any at home. It is challenging to make my way down the crowded aisles. I am thankful when I can make my purchases and head home.

It has been a crazy week. The Covid-19 coronavirus has dominated the news cycle. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. “the virus that causes COVID-19 is infecting people and spreading easily from person-to-person. Cases have been detected in most countries worldwide, and community spread is being detected in a growing number of countries. On March 11, the COVID-19 outbreak was characterized as a pandemic by the World Health Organization. A pandemic is a global outbreak of disease. Pandemics happen when a new virus emerges to infect people and can spread between people sustainably. Because there is little to no pre-existing immunity against the new virus, it spreads worldwide.”

Wherever you go, and whoever you talk to, the coronavirus is the number one topic of conversation. I know people have experienced a wide range of emotions regarding this outbreak, from fear to doubt and disbelief. As the days progress, I am seeing a general feeling change from, “this is nothing that I need to worry about because the news media is blowing it out of proportion,” to various levels of anxiety and a run on food and supplies at Wal-Mart.

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization issued guidelines for protecting mental health during the outbreak. “Avoid watching, reading, or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information mainly to take practical steps to prepare your plans and protect yourself and loved ones,” it advised. “Seek information updates at specific times during the day once or twice. The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried.”

I don’t regularly follow the stock market, but this week if you have seen any news at all, it has been unavoidable. After closing on Friday, March 6, at 25,864, the Dow Jones dropped to 24,277 at 10:00 A.M. on Monday, March 9.  Major U.S. market indexes fell 7% almost right after the opening bell on Monday. The NYSE then triggered a market circuit breaker to halt a further plunge. Circuit breakers pause trading after reaching specific decline thresholds: If the S&P 500 falls 7%, trading will pause for 15 minutes. The circuit breaker pause slowed the steep declines, but the Dow finished the day 7.8 percent lower at 23,837. 

Once again, U.S. stocks hit critical circuit breaker levels on Thursday, as global markets plunged over investor fears about the coronavirus global pandemic. “Just like Monday, we’re giving the market 15 minutes to process the down movement,” said New York Stock Exchange President Stacey Cunningham. “It’s working as it’s designed to function so that the market can absorb what news was out overnight, how investors are reacting so they can make decisions, and everyone gets a chance to see what’s happening.”

Maybe we need to be like the stock market, and when we are overwhelmed with uncertainty and bad news, just step back, pause, and take a break for a few minutes. Judson A. Brewer, an associate professor at Brown University, wrote in The New York Times, “without accurate information, it is easy for our brains to spin stories of fear and dread. In addition to being fueled by uncertainty, anxiety is also contagious. In psychology, the spread of emotion from one person to another is aptly termed social contagion. Our own anxiety can be cued or triggered simply by talking to someone else who is anxious. Their fearful words are like a sneeze landing directly on our brain, emotionally infecting our prefrontal cortex, and sending it out of control as it worries about everything from whether our family members will get sick to how our jobs will be affected.”

I am not a politician or a doctor or a scientist. I’m not sure which news reports can be trusted. So instead, I look to Jesus’ words for comfort and guidance. He said, “Peace I leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27 (NKJV). Jesus knew that fear and worry weakens us and interferes with our ability to respond effectively to the challenges of life.

Gentle Reader, although we must remain on alert against the virus, worrying won’t change our circumstances or lower our chance of infection. It won’t help us fight off illness or move us to action. There are things that we can do, such as social distancing and being diligent about washing our hands. We should take whatever precautions we can, but worrying and hoarding won’t help. Instead of worrying and being anxious, Jesus says, “do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will have its own worries. The troubles we have in a day are enough for one day.” Matthew 6:34 (NLV) Take a break from the anxieties of these troubled times and trust God. “Since God cares for you, let Him carry all your burdens and worries.” 1 Peter 5:7 (VOICE)

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Sharing Candy

My An Arkie's Faith column from the March 12, 2020, issue of The Mena Star.

On December 7, 1941, Japanese forces staged a surprise attack on the American naval fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In a two-hour attack, Japanese planes sank or damaged 18 warships and destroyed 164 aircraft. Over 2,400 servicemen and civilians lost their lives. The very next day, the United States Congress declared war, and everyday life across the country was completely changed.

In early 1942, a rationing program was established that set limits on the amount of gas, food, and clothing that could be purchased. Families were issued ration stamps that were used to buy their allotment of everything from meat, sugar, fat, butter, vegetables and fruit, to gas, tires, clothing, and fuel oil. Sugar became the first food item to be rationed. Wholesalers, retailers, bakeries, and industrial users of sugar were registered for sugar ration books in April 1942. Candy and sweets were in short supply.

My Grandpa Lawry had a real sweet tooth. Knowing him and his love for sweets, I can only imagine how hard sugar rationing was on him. But even with the wartime rationing, every time he was paid, he would manage to bring home some kind of candy for his kids. Oh, how they looked forward to the days when they knew there would be candy.

When my Grandpa would come home with his precious bag of candy, 13-year-old Opal was put in charge of carefully dividing the spoils. The most common candy that Grandpa was able to purchase was Boston Baked Beans. Opal would conscientiously count out three equal piles, one piece at a time. Bobby and Delbert, aged 5 and 10, would quickly eat their small portion of the candy, but Opal would save hers for later. When she had candy left, and her brothers didn't, she would share her part with them.

Last month I attended my Aunt Opal's memorial service in Ooltewah, Tennessee. During the ceremony, my Daddy told the story of Opal sharing her candy. His voice cracked with emotion as he remembered her kindness and thoughtfulness. Person after person talked about Opal's concern for others and her selflessness. These kinds of things are expected at memorials, where people tend to embellish a person's better qualities. But in my Aunt Opal's case, there was no embellishment needed. She may be the sweetest, kindest, most loving person I have ever known. In my entire life, I can never remember her saying one bad thing about anyone.

Life wasn't easy for Opal. She suffered many trials and difficulties. But she seemed to have the capability of handling lifes pressures and disappointments with grace and dignity. She was able to follow the counsel of James. "Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing." James 1:2-4 (CSB) In life, we are going to have troubles. But instead of thinking that we should live a trouble-free life, it's much better to expect bumps in the road and yet learn how to find joy in them. There's a joy that comes from knowing that God is in control of every single situation in our lives.

Opal spent her life encouraging and inspiring others. She followed the counsel found in Hebrews 3:13 (NIV). "But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called 'Today,' so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness." It is easy to find something to bring people down, such as a discouraging word, a disapproving look, or disrespectful actions. Many Christians gossip about the problems of others. But you don't gossip about someone to build them up; you do it to belittle them or cast doubt on their character. In Proverbs 12:18 (CEV), the Bible tells us, "Sharp words cut like a sword, but words of wisdom heal."

I'm sure that sometimes in her life, Opal said sharp words. None of us are perfect. But she strived to follow Paul's admonition found in Ephesians 4:29 (NOG), where he wrote, "Don't say anything that would hurt another person. Instead, speak only what is good so that you can give help wherever it is needed. That way, what you say will help those who hear you." And in 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (NIV), "Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing."

Opal always seemed content and happy no matter what her circumstances were. She grew up during the Great Depression, with very few possessions. Life handed her some financial setbacks. But these words of Paul could have been written by Opal. "I have learned to be satisfied with what I have and with whatever happens. I know how to live when I am poor and when I have plenty. I have learned the secret of how to live through any kind of situation—when I have enough to eat or when I am hungry, when I have everything I need or when I have nothing." Philippians 4:11,12 (ERV)

The secret to contentment is a simple one. It does not require displays of religious fervor. It is just the opposite. Christians who focus their lives on their works are never content. Contentment comes from a simple childlike response to life's ups and downs. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart." Proverbs 3:5 (NKJV)

To sum up my Aunt Opal's life would be difficult because she lived a full life. But I think the words of Jesus found in Matthew 22:37-39 (NLT) are very applicable. '" You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Anyone who knew Opal could see that she loved God with all her heart, and she loved her neighbor and herself.

Gentle Reader, I want to live my life in such a way that when I am gone, I will be remembered for loving God and loving my neighbor. I want to be remembered as someone kind, thoughtful, and encouraging. I want to be remembered as someone content with whatever situation I was in because I trusted God. I want to be remembered as my Aunt Opal is remembered.

You can purchase the book, Opal Lawry Vega's Memories by clicking here

You can read Opal Lawry Vega's blog by clicking here

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Bear Lake

My An Arkie's Faith column from the March 5, 2020, issue of The Mena Star.

The front range was glistening with fresh snow as we traveled north out of Denver. Well over a foot of snow had recently blanketed the area. My mind drifted back to the many winters I spent along the front range. During my twenty years in the area, I lived in Dacono, Frederick, Erie, and Loveland. I attended school in Longmont, Brighton, Boulder, and Campion. The house that we lived in just outside of Erie was situated on top of a rolling hill and had a beautiful, unobstructed view of the mountains. That amazing view is permanently etched into my memory.

My nephew, my wife, and I were on our way from Denver to Estes Park. The slanted, reddish-brown sandstone formations called the Flatirons that make up a portion of Boulder’s foothills on the west side of town, were covered in white. We stopped to take photos of the iconic Boulder landmarks. For the past several days, This area of Colorado had been receiving large amounts of snow. By the time we reached Estes Park, it had started to snow once again.

After an amazing lunch at the Café de Pho Thai, we headed up into Rocky Mountain National Park. The snow became heavier as we drove into the park. Traffic was light as we made our way past places that brought back waves of nostalgia. Both my wife and I spent time in Rocky Mountain National Park as we were growing up. When we married, we spent the first six years living in Loveland, 35 miles from the park. Rocky Mountain National Park was our favorite place to go when we had free time. We made many wonderful memories there.

Our destination was Bear Lake. One of the most popular places in the park, Bear Lake lies nestled in a glacial valley surrounded by snow-capped peaks and pristine forest. Because it is so popular, it is very crowded in the summertime. We had not visited Bear Lake for many years. It has become so crowded, that often the only way you can reach the lake is by shuttle bus.

Perched at 9,475 feet, Bear Lake sits in a high valley. Hallet Peak, with an elevation of 12,713 feet, stands guard directly above Bear Lake and the diamond face of 14,259-foot Longs' Peak stands to the east. When you look at the mountains surrounding the lake,  you will notice several V- and U-shaped canyons along the sides of high peaks. These canyons are evidence of glaciers and the tremendous power they have in molding the landscape.

When we arrived at Bear Lake, there were just a few cars in the parking lot. When we climbed down out of the truck and attached the microspikes to our shoes, the cold went right through us. It was snowing, and the flakes swirled around us. The thermometer showed eighteen degrees, and there was a nice mountain breeze. As we made our way down the short trail to the lake, snow covered almost all of the fence that marked the trail. The sign at the visitors center said that there were 52 inches of snow on the ground. Several more inches fell during the day.

With the microspikes on our shoes, we had no trouble with the slippery snow-packed trail. As I remembered all of those winter visits to Bear Lake many years ago, I thought about how nice it would have been to have microspikes back then. My wife and I spent many quiet winter weekends in the park. Those are some of our fondest memories.

One winter visit came vividly to my memory. It was a sunny cold day, and we were hiking around the lake. Because of the heavy snow on the ground, it was hard to tell where the trail was. At one point, we got off of the trail and were too close to the lake. As I took a step in the snow, my body broke through the snow and ice into the water below. We made our way back to the car as quickly a possible to get warmed up.

We had a wonderful afternoon in Rocky Mountain National Park. With the snow falling, it had it’s own special kind of beauty. It seemed that every campground, every picnic area, every road, every herd of elk, brought out a story. It was a warm fuzzy trip down memory lane. Happy memories make our life better. Remembering the good things that have happened to us helps us to live better lives in the present.

Psalms 77:11 (GNT) says, “I will remember your great deeds, LORD; I will recall the wonders you did in the past.” My memories become some of my greatest praises. As I remember the times that I have seen God working in my life, It gives me hope no matter what challenges life gives me in the present. If you are a Christian who is trying to learn how to trust in God more, then look back to what He has done in the past. Sometimes Satan tries to make us believe that past deliverances were just a coincidence. Don’t let Satan deceive you. Look back to those times and remember how God took care of you. “Let them praise the Lord for his great love and for the wonderful things he has done for them.” Pslams 107:31 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, your memories of how God had worked in your life in the past are an ever-growing reservoir of past grace. It is important to remember and to be thankful for these experiences. Remembering the past helps our future by increasing our faith in God. “I remember what happened long ago; I consider everything you have done. I think about all you have made.” Psalms 143:5 (NCV)