Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Let it Snow

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 24, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

For several days the weather forecast has been dominated by the probability of snow. It has been over three years since we have had any significant snowfall. On the Arkansas Weather Blog, Todd Yakoubian wrote, “There are no guarantees in weather until after it happens, but confidence is very high snow will fall twice over the next several days.” My Friday afternoon shopping trip to Wal-Mart confirmed the forecast. The parking lot was full, and the bread aisle was empty.

Last weekend there were light flurries here in town. Just a few feet higher in elevation, there were several inches of snow. My cousin, my Dad, and I drove up to Queen Wilhelmina State Park. The skies were grey and dreary, but the snow-covered landscape was lovely. In several places, the road was so slick that we had difficulty making it to the lodge on top of Rich Mountain.

This Saturday, as we drove into Mena from the south, we could see frosty trees covering the mountaintops. Late that afternoon, we made the drive up onto Rich Mountain to take photos. The bright white trees, along with the moody skies, made stunning pictures. Occasionally the sun would shine through, putting a portion of the hillside in the spotlight. 

On Valentine’s Day, we woke up to soft snow falling. Snow fell through the morning until a thin blanket of white snow topped everything. Late in the evening, snow once again began to fall. The next morning, I woke up to temperatures in the single digits and continued snowfall with several inches of snow already on the ground. A pristine white blanket covers our neighborhood. 

This historic week of cold and snow will be something to tell your kids and grandkids about one day. Wind chill values will be well below zero. I’m sure we’ll break several other temperature records along with a few snow records too.  This week will also be one of the most extended stretches below freezing in Arkansas weather history. Temperatures below zero are possible.

I have never liked the cold. The last few days have been unseasonably cold, the coldest stretch of weather we have seen in many years. I have been miserable and just a bit whiney, or maybe a lot whiney. I am not a winter person. During the winter months, I patiently wait for spring. Well, at least I wait. Even though I’m not too fond of cold winter weather, there isn’t anything quite like a significant snowfall that leaves the ground a fluffy pure white, without any dirt or debris. It covers everything it encounters in perfect white.

A fresh snowfall makes any landscape beautiful. What lies underneath the snow might be ugly, but the snow hides any blemishes and makes everything pure and white. Rusty old cars and piles of debris become beautifully soft and white. God does the same thing with each of us. We may have a sordid past. We may not be currently living as we should. But God wants to make us beautifully clean. He longs for us to ask for forgiveness so that he can cover our sins. “Come now, and let us reason together,” Says the Lord, “Though your sins are like scarlet, They shall be as white as snow; Though they are red like crimson, They shall be as wool.” Isaiah 1:18 (NKJV)

Have you ever been pleasantly surprised when you woke up and looked out your window to see snow covering the landscape? A dull and dreary day unexpectedly transformed into a beautiful day blanketed with snow. Bare and seemingly lifeless trees turned into marvelous works of art. In the same way, God is pleased when we allow him to cover our sins.

Because of His great love for us, God doesn’t abandon us in our sins. Instead, by His grace, He wants to change and transform us. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Col. 1:13,14 (NRSV) And God wants to give us peace. “Now may God himself, the God of peace, make you pure, belonging only to him. May your whole self—spirit, soul, and body—be kept safe and without fault when our Lord Jesus Christ comes.” 1 Thessalonians 5:23 (NCV)

Have you ever noticed how peaceful it seems after a significant snowfall? It is not just your mind playing tricks on you. Snow does make the world quieter. Some of the calm after a snowfall is logical. People tend to stay home during snowstorms, so there are fewer people outdoors. And birds tend to hunker down during severe weather, so they are quieter during a snowstorm. But there is science behind the stillness as well. That is because snow absorbs sound, so when a fresh blanket of snow covers the landscape, it absorbs many of the sound waves, making it seem quieter outside. 

The reason snow absorbs sound is because it is porous. Snowflakes are six-sided crystals filled with open spaces. In a blanket of snow, those spaces absorb sound waves, creating a quieting effect. When God takes our sins and makes them white as snow, it cuts down on the noise of the world around us. The world becomes quieter and more peaceful. We can more easily hear God as he communicates with us.

Gentle Reader, we all have sin in our life that makes us dirty and separates us from God. But God has provided a way for us to be clean again. Through Jesus, we can all be as white as snow. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9 (KJV) God wants to cover your sins. He wants to give you peace. “I pray that God, the source of all hope, will infuse your lives with an abundance of joy and peace in the midst of your faith so that your hope will overflow through the power of the Holy Spirit.” Romans 15:13 (VOICE)

Sunday, February 14, 2021

To My Valentine

I love history and learning.  Many things we learn about history are a bit uncertain, but it is always a little frustrating when you can't find out with any certainty the history of someone or something. The origin of St. Valentine and Valentine's Day is one of those topics.

Who was Saint Valentine?  According to the website Catholic Online, The origin of St. Valentine, and how many St. Valentines there were, remains a mystery. One opinion is that he was a Roman martyred for refusing to give up his Christian faith. Other historians hold that St. Valentine was a temple priest jailed for defiance during the reign of Claudius. Whoever he was, Valentine really existed because archaeologists have unearthed a Roman catacomb and an ancient church dedicated to Saint Valentine. In 496 AD Pope Gelasius marked February 14th as a celebration in honor of his martyrdom.

It is unclear how the modern idea of celebrating Valentine's Day by giving gifts to your romantic partner started and evolved into the commercialized holiday that it is today.  According to market research, Valentine's Day sales reached $17.6 billion last year; this year's sales are expected to total $18.6 billion.

The first time Valentine's Day is associated with romantic love is in the poem titled Parlement of Foules, written in 1382 by Geoffrey Chaucer. Chaucer wrote: "For this was on St. Valentine's Day, when every bird comes there to choose his mate."  This poem was written to honor the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. When they were married they were each only 15 years old.

Valentine's Day is mentioned by William Shakespeare in the play, Hamlet:
To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.

It became very popular for young men to write verses of poetry on a card and give them to their lovers.  As early as 1800, companies began mass-producing cards for those who had poor poetry skills.  In the United States, the first mass-produced valentines of embossed paper lace were produced in 1847.  The U.S. Greeting Card Association says that 190 million valentines are sent each year in the US. When you include the valentine cards exchanged by school children, the figure goes up to 1 billion.

Happy Valentine's Day to my valentine for over 45 years.

I hope you have a great Valentine's Day.

Here is an awesome song written by my friend Paul to My Valentine.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Bucks' Home Opener

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 10, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I watched the new baseball fields’ construction at the McMillan Park site on South Mena Street for the past year. Every night, as I drive past the location on my way home, I look to see the project’s progress. As the construction crew made more and more headway, I became excited about the prospect of watching baseball at the new ball field in my back yard. 

In April of 2019, the University of Arkansas Rich Mountain announced a new baseball program. “I could not be more excited to announce the addition of Coach Lance Spigner as the first baseball coach for the University of Arkansas Rich Mountain,” said Chancellor Dr. Phillip Wilson. “Coach Spigner is as good as any coach in Arkansas, and he comes with a pedigree that is rarely matched. He is a winner, a leader, and a baseball visionary.” The news caught my attention, but I did not start following the new baseball program closely until I saw that the Bucks’ were building the new ball field so close to my house. 

As the fields took shape and the start of the baseball season neared, I looked forward to being able to watch baseball. I wanted to be there for the historic home opener of the Rich Mountain Bucks’ first season. I was working, but I got away during my lunch break and spent some time at the new Union Bank Field. I arrived just before the bottom of the second inning. The Bucks were behind 3-2 but scored a run to tie up the game. I was able to stay through the third inning but then had to get back to work. Although I couldn’t stay long, I will always remember being present at the Bucks’ home opener.

I first became obsessed with baseball when I was in the fifth grade. I went to a small private school, and fifth through eighth grades were in class together. The older boys loved baseball, and I wanted to be like them. I would beg my Mom to get to school early because there was always a pickup baseball game before school started.

The first team that I followed was the Boston Red Sox. My pastor was a Red Sox fan, and his enthusiasm for the Red Sox made an impression on me. It was 1967, and the Red Sox had a season that came to be known as the “impossible dream.” The previous year they had finished in ninth place. But in 1967, they made it to the World Series, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
My favorite player was Yaz, Carl Yastrzemski, the Red Sox team captain. I wanted to be Yaz. I played in the driveway of our house batting rocks with a broomstick imagining that I was playing in the Major Leagues. I wanted to play Little League baseball, but we lived out in the country, and there was no way that I could play.

As an adult, I made it to Little League when my neighbor asked me to help coach a Little League baseball team. The kids on the team were 6 to 8 years old. This age group of Little League had special rules to help tone down the competition and give everyone an equal chance. It was supposed to be about learning the game and having fun. In each inning, every player was allowed to bat. We didn’t keep score on the field, but everyone knew the score, especially the parents. But of course, no one was keeping score; well, not officially.

That Little League experience taught me how powerful comparison and competition could be. Even when I didn’t want to compare and keep score, I couldn’t help it; and neither could anyone else. We all knew.

The problem wasn’t with our comparison; it was what we did with that information. We mentally ordered the kids from best to worst. Parents would feel better or worse about themselves based on what their kids did in the game.

Little League taught me that we have a powerful urge to compare. This tendency is unfortunate enough in Little League, but it is tragic for our spiritual life. When we compare ourselves to others, we can never know the whole story. Often our conclusions about people are entirely wrong. 1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT) tells us that, “People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

One of the reasons we compare ourselves to others is to feel superior. But doing that separates us from God. Did you know that God says that he hates pride? Proverbs 6:16,17 (NKJV) tells us, “these six things the Lord hates, Yes, seven are an abomination to Him: A proud look,”... Leading off this list of things that God hates is a proud look; a feeling of arrogance when we see others. God hates it.

I’ve noticed something interesting about this sin of pride. It is often found among the people who think that they love God the most. Many Christians are proud of their works and look down on others. But God says that we are all sinners. “When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags.” Isaiah 64:6 (NLT)

Spiritual pride is a blind spot. We never see the pride in ourselves. We never think that we are looking down on others. We believe that we see things as they are. We can’t help it if we are better Christians than others.

How do we keep from falling into the trap of spiritual pride? We need to ask ourselves if there is any group of people we are responding to with disgust, disdain, or aversion. If the answer is yes, it is a sign that we are falling into the trap of spiritual pride.

I don’t know what tempts you to feel superior. I don’t know what kind of people you look down on, but most of us have a list. I don’t think that we realize how dangerous that list is. Unless we can get rid of the list, it will leave us separated from God. It can put us at the top of God’s “I hate it when you do that” list.

Gentle Reader, spiritual pride isn’t a small insignificant sin. It is front and center in the battle for our heart. Let’s pray today with David his words found in Psalms 51:10 (NLT), “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a loyal spirit within me.” It is the only way we can overcome spiritual pride.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Gentle Reader

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 3, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Walking down Broadway in downtown Boulder, Colorado, the shy, gangly teenage boy opened the door to the store with his younger sister in tow. The sign out front said Duck Soup. The boy looked inside the small shop and saw used books and records with some other weird stuff thrown in. As he browsed through the stacks of paperbacks, the title and the cover art of a book grabbed his attention. A futuristic scene burst from a bright orange-yellow cover. The blurb at the top said, “Tales of the Near Future by the Master of Science Fiction.” The boy picked the book up and carried it to the counter. The friendly man took his quarter and placed the book Nine Tomorrows by Isaac Asimov in a paper bag along with a colorful flower power sticker. “You will enjoy the book,” the man behind the counter said. “Isaac Asimov is one of my favorite authors.”

That night, the boy opened the book and began reading. He was fascinated by the stories of space-age detectives, the ultimate computer, future Olympics, baffled aliens, a cave boy, a suicidal computer, and a new kind of mathematician. Before he went to sleep that night, he had finished reading every story. When he woke up in the morning, descriptions of the future raced through his head. He made plans for the time he would go back to Duck Soup and buy another book. 

The next week, the boy and his sister were again looking through the books at Duck Soup. The owner of the store asked him, “did you enjoy Nine Tomorrows?” “I sure did,” the boy replied. Time seemed to stop for the boy as he and the owner discussed the stories. “Do you have any more books by Isaac Asimov,” he asked. “Here, you might like the book Foundation,” the owner replied. “It is the first book in a series. That night, the boy became immersed in mathematician Hari Seldon’s story and his life developing psychohistory. 

Over the next year, the boy made weekly visits to Duck Soup. He purchased lots of paperback books and collected many flower power stickers. He looked forward to his visits with the owner, discussing books. Before long, he had purchased all the Isaac Asimov books for sale at Duck Soup. He had become immersed in the world of Foundation and Empire. He read all the R. Daneel Olivaw novels. He became obsessed with the robot short stories.

On every visit to the Boulder Public Library, the boy looked for books by Isaac Asimov. Because Asimov was a prolific writer, publishing over 500 books on a wide variety of topics, the library had many choices. At the library, the boy discovered the collections of Asimov’s science essays. From November 1959 to February 1992, a science essay by Isaac Asimov appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction every month. Over the years, his publishers collected these essays into more than two dozen books. As much as the boy loved reading about Asimov’s future in his short stories and novels, the science essays became his favorite thing to read.

I was the boy whose life was changed on the day that he walked into Duck Soup. A whole new world opened to me as I read Isaac Asimov’s books. I found his nonfiction writings incredible, not only because of the sheer volume of books but also because of its extraordinary breadth and diversity. Though he concentrated on the sciences and especially loved astronomy, there are not many topics that he did not include in his writing. One of the things that he said that stuck with me is, “Education is not something you can finish.” I never attended college, but because of my curiosity, which Isaac Asimov helped foster, I never stopped learning.

In Asimov’s nonfiction essays, the conversational writing style made me feel like he explained those challenging scientific concepts to me personally. In his articles, when he talked directly to his readers, he would start by referring to them as Gentle Reader. When I came across those words, it made me feel special, like an important, brilliant and knowledgeable person was speaking directly to me. When he was at the end of his life, one of the last things he wrote was, “To all my gentle readers who have treated me with love for over 30 years, I must say farewell.”

When I first agreed to write a weekly column, one of the goals that I had was to write in a conversational style that would make the reader feel at home. I had no formal training or prior experience. As I sat at my computer to write that very first article, I remembered all those Isaac Asimov essays that I had read in my life. I tried to emulate his style of speaking directly to his readers. When it came time to write the final thought wrapping up the article, without even thinking, I started the sentence with, “Gentle Reader.” In every piece I have written since, I have used the phrase Gentle Reader to introduce the conclusion of my thoughts. It was not a formula that I decided on in advance, but it feels right to me.

In the book of 1 John, when the Apostle John wants to address his readers personally and wants to call attention to an important point, he refers to them as little children. He uses this form seven times in the book. In 1 John 2:1 (NKJV), he writes, “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

Gentle Reader, I hope that I have been able to connect with you through these articles in some way. Your comments, encouragements, and affirmations have blessed me. My goal is writing that is thought-provoking but not confrontational. I hope that there will be something in each article that you find inspirational. I leave you with the words of the Apostle John; “My little children, don’t just talk about love as an idea or a theory. Make it your true way of life, and live in the pattern of gracious love.” 1 John 3:18 (VOICE)