Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Thankful for Knowledge

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 25, 2020, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

It is the time of year again when the calendar says that we should be thankful. We have so much to be grateful for every single day. But sometimes, the demands and worries of daily life make it easier to feel defeated than to be thankful. You might say, “what can we possibly be thankful for in 2020?” It has been a rough year, and it’s not over yet. In times like these, when each day seems to bring another depressing headline or numbing statistic, it is essential to take the time to be thankful. This year, expressing gratitude is more important than ever. Our focus should be on what we do have, not what we don’t have.

What are you thankful for this year? What things, people, and ideas are you appreciating right now? I am genuinely grateful for my family, friends, country, community, and especially for Jesus and the grace he shows me every day. But another thing that I am thankful for is knowledge. Today, knowledge is much easier to obtain than when I was younger. I have always been a curious person. I remember researching things before I could access the internet. I would go to the library and search through the card catalog. Then I would find several books to check out and read. Now, when I am interested in learning about a topic, I can quickly access the internet on my phone. 

While using the internet to research knowledge, I came across an article about The Knowledge. It piqued my interest, and I had to read further. The Knowledge is London’s legendary taxi-driver test. It has been around since the 1800s. To be licensed as an “All London” taxi driver, the applicant needs a thorough knowledge of all the streets, parks, hospitals, restaurants, places of worship, sports stadiums, hotels, clubs, theatres, museums, schools, police stations, and any other sites of interest to tourists.

The Knowledge focuses on the six-mile radius from Charing Cross, the center of London. The area has over 25,000 streets. London cabbies need to know all of those streets, which ones are one-way, and where to enter and exit traffic circles. But cabbies also need to know everything on the streets. 

The test a London cabbie must pass to gain their qualification has been called the most demanding test, of any kind, in the world. It is an intellectual, psychological, and physical ordeal, with thousands of hours of immersive study. Would-be cabbies attempt to commit to memory all of London and demonstrate their knowledge through a series of challenging oral examinations. The process takes an average of four years to complete, and for some, much longer than that. When they finally pass The Knowledge, they can become a London taxi driver.

According to a BBC News article, “the structure of a London taxi driver’s brain changes during the grueling process of learning the quickest way around the capital. Dozens of trainee drivers had MRI scans before and after acquiring The Knowledge, memorizing thousands of journeys and street names. Seventy-nine taxi driver trainees were given brain scans by scientists at University College London just before they started to learn The Knowledge, which usually takes four years to complete.”

Throughout the learning process, any changes to their brains were mapped by regular MRI scans. Compared with similar scans from non-taxi drivers, those who had attempted The Knowledge increased the size of the posterior hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with navigation. “There seems to be a definite relationship between the navigating they do as a taxi driver and the brain changes,” said Dr. Eleanor Maguire, who led the research team. She said: “By following the trainee taxi drivers over time as they acquired The Knowledge, we have seen directly and within individuals how the structure of the hippocampus can change with external stimulation.”

When we exercise our brain, we can improve our brain’s abilities. Are you exercising your brain? Can you exercise just once a year and expect improvement? Thanksgiving is the time of the year that we exercise our feelings of gratefulness and thankfulness for everything in our life. But what about the rest of the year? Isn’t it important to be thankful all year round, and not just one day?

With so much negativity in the world, it can be hard to acknowledge the good things in life. But if we exercise thankfulness in our brains, it can change our perception. When you approach life with thanks and appreciation, you acknowledge what you have instead of what you wish you had. Research has shown that people who regularly practice gratitude are more relaxed, more resilient, have a more positive outlook on life. Being grateful can impact every part of your life. We can choose, every day, to be thankful. When we have a thankful heart, our gratitude releases the grip that our problems seem to have over us. 

Gentle Reader, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I thank God every time I remember you. And I always pray for all of you with joy.” Philippians 1:3,4 (ICB) Thankfulness was a daily part of Paul’s life. He wrote about being thankful dozens of times. He believed that thankfulness should be exercised every day, not just once a year. “Always give thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:20 (NCV) Even when the Thanksgiving holiday is over, let’s resolve to follow Paul’s advice found in 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NKJV); “in everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

The Fulda Gap

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 18, 2020, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The Fulda Gap lies just to the east of the West German town of Fulda. During the Cold War, it was one of the most heavily armed places on earth. The gap refers to the local valleys and routes around nearby mountains. Any military action of the Soviets crossing into West Germany would go through these valleys. If an army could reach Fulda, it would be just a quick march to Frankfurt and then to the Rhine River. The Fulda Gap was one of the few places where nuclear weapons were almost certain to be used in a conflict during the Cold War.

The United States Army in Europe had the job of defending Fulda. Just across the East German border was the Group of Soviet Forces in Germany. The Soviet Union did not want to fight another war on its soil. So they kept an imposing military presence in East Germany. In the early days of the Cold War, the U.S. Army directed almost all of its training, equipment, and force development toward the potential day when its troops would face Soviet divisions streaming through the Fulda Gap into West Germany. The Americans had hundreds of high kill rate weapons like nuclear missiles, atomic artillery rounds, nuclear mines, and special atomic demolition munitions.

According to the magazine Airborne Quarterly, “Atomic weaponry was key to the strategy of countering a Soviet Union threat to the security of western Europe. NATO could not hope to maintain forces equal to the mass of Soviet manpower. Clearly, atomic weaponry comparable to that used in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was not feasible for Western Europe. Ergo, low yield atomic weaponry was developed that would when used, deny to the enemy key areas of terrain and routes. The ability to deploy and detonate low yield atomic ordnance was the mission of specially trained teams at Division level.”

One of the divisions that worked on this secret atomic demolition munitions project was the 82nd Airborne Division. During World War I, the 82nd was formed and served with distinction on the Western Front in the war’s final months. Even though the 82nd fought valiantly during World War II, it was not sent to the Korean War, as both Presidents Truman and Eisenhower chose to keep it in strategic reserve in the event of a Soviet ground attack anywhere in the world. During the 1950s and 1960s, the focus of the 82nd was intensive training exercises in all environments and locations, including Fulda Gap.

John, a customer of mine, was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division Atomic Demolition Munitions Team in the late 1950s. A few weeks ago, he brought me an article that he had written for Airborne Quarterly magazine. In the article, he wrote, “in 1959, I was selected to work on a secret project that the 82nd was initiating. After obtaining a secret clearance, I became a member of the ADM team.” 

In his article, John tells the story of a war game scenario where Special Forces Team members would try to breach the ADM team’s security. “During one of these night drills, the SF threw a blanket over the wire in an attempt to enter the compound. One of their men got cut up pretty badly when the wire won!” He goes on to tell of an encounter that happened many years later. “I met an ex SF guy, Archie, who had a hot rod shop in Mena, Arkansas, near my home. Talk about a small world; Archie was on that same SF team that night! We had a lot to talk about, to say the least! Til’ the day we met, he never knew what was in that tent; we kept our lips sealed that night.”

As I write this story, it is Veterans Day, and I am thankful for the service of veterans like John and Archie. I’m grateful for all those who have served their country so that you and I can live in peace and safety. I realize the importance of our armed forces. But honestly, I’m not particularly eager to fight. I prefer to run from conflict rather than to fight. But the Bible tells us that the Christian’s life is a life of combat with evil forces. Because this enemy never stops attacking, Christians must learn to be fighters. To be unprepared against such a cruel enemy or to run from the fight is to ensure defeat. 

But many Christians seem to be unsure who or what they are fighting. They fight with people with differing political views. They fight with those who have different religious beliefs. The bottom line is they are fighting with people. But Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12 (ICB), “our fight is not against people on earth. We are fighting against the rulers and authorities and the powers of this world’s darkness. We are fighting against the spiritual powers of evil in the heavenly world.” Our fight is not with people. 

Paul goes on to explain in 2 Corinthians 10:3,4 (ICB), “We do live in the world. But we do not fight in the same way that the world fights. We fight with weapons that are different from those the world uses. Our weapons have power from God. These weapons can destroy the enemy’s strong places.” Paul reminds us that the real enemy is not the lost and broken, the fallen and sinful human beings who surround us. The real enemy is Satan. 

Gentle Reader, how can we defend ourselves against such a terrifying enemy? “Throw all your worry on him, because he cares for you. Be clear-minded and alert. Your opponent, the Devil, is prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour. Resist him and be firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.” 1 Peter 5 7-9 (ISV)

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The Rockport Incident

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 11, 2020, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

It is a beautiful autumn day, and I am in my happy place. With wonder, I look around as brilliant shafts of sunlight illuminate the carpet of softly muted colors spread out around me. Each breath of the fresh woodland air fills me with a sense of contentment and joy. The trail is damp under my feet, and occasionally I have to leave the trail and walk around the mudholes left by recent rains.

Rain is why I am so happy to be hiking the trail to Glory Hole Falls, one of the most unusual waterfalls in the Ozarks. Most times of the year, it is nothing more than a trickle, but it is spectacular after a good rain. The waterfall is formed by a stream that flows through the ceiling of an overhang. Dismal Creek has drilled a hole right through the overhanging bluff, falling over thirty feet. Today I will be able to see and experience Glory Hole Falls firsthand.

I have just set out on the hike with my wife, sister, and brother-in-law, when I hear my wife exclaim, “Oh no!” She is pointing to the Rockport hiking boot on her right foot. The sole has come loose over half the way back and is flopping with every step. After taking a few exaggerated steps, she says, “I’m not going to be able to go on with this boot.” As we wonder what we should do, she asks me to look in her backpack. “I think there is a pink sweatband in the bottom,” she says. I find the sweatband, and we wrap it twice around the toe of her boot, securing the floppy sole enough to let her continue the hike. 

The hike to the falls is about one mile. When the trail nears the waterfall, it follows Dismal Creek. The path here is rough and rocky, and there are many tree roots. As we make our way down to the falls, the loose sole on my wife’s boot contributed to her falling on the trail. I reached for her, but before I could grab her, she rolled down a small embankment and came to a stop with a rock in the middle of her back. A couple who were hiking near us saw her fall and rushed over to help. 

We had difficulty getting her up, and the rock under her back made it painful for her to move. Once she was up, she tried taking a few steps and realized that she had sprained her ankle. After resting awhile, she gingerly made her way to the top of the falls, watching the creek rush over the smooth sloping rock and disappear into a 4-foot-wide hole. The trail to get down below the falls included crossing a small stream and climbing over boulders. I urged my wife to rest at the top while the rest of our group climbed down below. Just as I glimpsed the waterfall gushing through the rock, I turned and saw her slowly making her way down to the bottom of the falls. “I’m not going to miss seeing this, no matter how much it hurts,” she said.

Shortly after we started climbing back up the trail, the sole came loose on her left boot. By this time, I have a very negative opinion of Rockport boots. My wife took the ponytail holder out of her hair, and after I sawed through it on a sharp rock, we were able to tie it around her boot. We slowly made the one-mile hike back to the road, often stopping to adjust the makeshift repairs on both boots. When we arrived at our cabin, my wife was ready to take off the offending Rockport hiking boots. As soon as she removed them, we could see her badly swollen ankle. 

My wife didn’t sleep much that night. She was sore all over, and her ankle was painful. But she knew that she had done her best and had completed the hike even though she had significant adversities. She knew that she had persevered. She had endured to the end. I admired how she had taken all of the difficulties of the hike in stride. I remembered something that I had read once on a hiking blog. The trail doesn’t care about the terrain; you have to deal with it. The trail is the trail. So whatever comes, you have to keep going. When you get knocked down, you have to get up because there’s no other way.

In 2 Corinthians 4:8,9 (CEV), Paul wrote, “We often suffer, but we are never crushed. Even when we don’t know what to do, we never give up. In times of trouble, God is with us, and when we are knocked down, we get up again.” While Paul realizes that trials and difficulties will cause Christians to suffer, he teaches that we should not focus on our problems. He tells us that no matter what trouble we are going through, God is with us. He even goes so far as to say, “But that’s not all! We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us hope.” Romans 5:3,4 (CEV)

Gentle Reader, endurance means putting one foot in front of the other no matter how things are going. If your Rockport boots come apart, you keep putting one foot in front of the other. If you sprain your ankle, you keep putting one foot in front of the other. When you have confidence that God knows, plans, and directs your life for the good, it gives you the ability to endure. “We also pray that you will be strengthened with all His glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. May you be filled with joy, always thanking the Father.” Colossians 1:11,12 (NLT)

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Your Legacy

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 4, 2020, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The smartphone in my pocket buzzed, alerting me that I had received a message. The text from my cousin read, “John just told me that Mama is essentially gone; that she will not wake up again.” As we texted back and forth, she let me know she was heading out on the three-hour trip. Shortly after she arrived, she sent me a text. “I’m in the room with Mama. The one nurse I have seen was in tears, but she said, ‘I’ve seen people come out of it.’” I didn’t receive another text until the next morning. It was a short text that read, “She passed this morning. Thank you for your prayers.”

When I read the text, many memories of my aunt filled my mind. The last time that I had seen her, she didn’t recognize me. Alzheimer’s Disease caused memory loss and confusion for her, but my memories were vivid. She could be quite loud and opinionated, but underneath that occasionally harsh exterior was a heart of gold. She would do anything in her power for those she loved. My memories darted from place to place, remembering games of 42, fresh garden veggies, and a weekend trip to Eureka Springs. I felt empathy for my cousins as I remembered the emotions I felt when my Mama passed away.

Rain and cloudy skies were forecast the day of the graveside service at the Nunley Cemetery, but the sun shone during the service. Family and friends gathered around the gravesite. During the service, my cousin read an email from her daughter, who couldn’t be there. As she read, she struggled with her emotions. The words she read were so profound, personal, and beautiful that the experience deeply touched me.

After the service, I asked for permission to share the words with you, my readers. The author of those words, Abby Carney, a freelance writer living in New York, graciously allowed me to use her tribute to her grandma.

“My grandma Ellen was hardscrabble, pious, and so bold, I doubt she ever wavered or second-guessed a single thing in her life.

As you know, we lost her without warning, so I apologize that these words are formed quickly, and maybe they are simple, but since I cannot be present with you all today, at least my words can be. I can tell you about Grandma through my eyes, the best parts I remember. 

I remember crawling into our guest room on mornings when she and Papa were visiting my family—how my brother and sister and I would crowd the bed for a snuggle, and she’d give us gentle, open-handed slap slaps all over. “Do you know what that is? That’s what we call a love pat,” she’d say, and laugh. 

I remember afternoons watching Big Brother with her at the old Arkansas house and playing Skip-Bo, Phase 10, Rummikub, Dominoes, or some card game in the defunct thrift store across from Papa’s auto shop. It was a thrill to experience hot pockets, corn dogs, and popsicles from the freezer—treats we didn’t often have at home. I’d watch her in that back office, steady at work, quilt-making. Or otherwise cross-stitching, mending, crafting rag rugs or those pot holders, always industrious. One summer, she paid me to pull weeds, and when we went to wade at the low water crossing and eat watermelon, she sat apart from us for the entire outing, counting the weeds one by one, to determine my pay rate. She was studious, guided by strong principles, and it was so plain on her face, her desire to love and be loved. 

I remember riding in the old station wagon with the faux wood paneling and hearing her sing along to her choir practice tapes; she was never self-conscious. I really do believe she was just singing for her Savior, belting out ‘The Old Rugged Cross’ in a falsetto, then fading to a hum. One of the things I most looked forward to when I visited in the summer was the singing nights at Salem Baptist Church—we’d flip through the hymnal pages together, excited to put in our requests. Grandma made me feel bold and unafraid, too. I’m pretty sure I requested that we sing a duet together, and maybe once a solo in front of the congregation.  

I remember road trips with the two of them, especially the one they took me and my sister to Niagra Falls, and through Lancaster, Pennsylvania, visiting Amish country. We’d munch on giant Tupperware tubs of Chex Mix and a cooler full of snacks she packed, and gorge ourselves at buffets along the way. 

I didn’t see her as often in recent years, so you can see that many of my memories are faded. I wish I could have made it to see her one more time, and that I could be with you to share stories now. She was complicated, a survivor, a true believer, a clever strategizer, and a dedicated penpal to me over the years. I loved her dearly.”

Abby’s heartfelt tribute made me think about the legacy that each one of us will leave. Billy Graham said, “the greatest legacy one can pass on to one’s children and grandchildren is not money or other material things accumulated in one’s life, but rather a legacy of character and faith.” And American novelist, Dara Horn, wrote, “every person has a legacy. You may not know what your impact is, and it may not be something that you can write on your tombstone, but every person has an impact on this world."

Gentle Reader, what will your legacy be? In 2 Timothy 4:7,8 (NLT), the apostle Paul stated his legacy. His turbulent life was coming to an end, but he had indeed made a difference. Paul said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful. And now the prize awaits me—the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give me on the day of his return. And the prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing.” You and I are running a race. Keep running. Fight the good fight. It will be your legacy.