Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Inspector Javert vs. Jean Valjean

My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 28, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

When we lose a loved one, the pain we experience can feel unbearable. Grief is complex, and at first, we wonder if the pain will ever end. We go through a variety of emotional experiences such as anger, confusion, and sadness. Grief comes in waves. At first, the waves are so strong you feel they will sweep you away. But in time, those waves lessen and let the good memories in. Along with the pain, there are memories of smiles and good times.

This past weekend we had a mini family reunion. Cousins from Kansas and Missouri came to Mena for a visit. We had a wonderful time talking and reminiscing. I enjoyed the day very much, but it was bittersweet. A little over three years ago, my Momma passed away. The bitterness, anger, and pain that I struggled with for months after her death has eased over time. But I missed her on the day of the reunion. As cousins recalled stories from Momma and Daddy’s many visits to Kansas, emotions wafted over me. But the sadness I felt was tempered by the special memories that people had of her.

I thought about the last time I was able to do something special for Momma. When my wife learned that the musical theatre production of Les Miserables was coming to The Robinson Center in Little Rock, we made plans to attend. My wife thought that Momma would like to go with us. When I asked her if she would like to go, she was excited. She told me that she had studied Les Miserables in French class when she was a girl.

The Robinson Center was a bustle of activity as we made our way to our seats. With its towering buildings on either side of the stage, the set made us feel like we were in France in the early 1800s. The audience of the sold-out show waited in eager anticipation for the performance to begin. When the first strains of music started, a hush fell over the theater. For over three hours, the performers held the audience in rapt attention. 

The musical is based on the French historical novel Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. It tells a story of broken dreams, sacrifice, and redemption. It is an examination of law and grace and a timeless testament to the survival of the human spirit. Victor Hugo wrote in the preface; “So long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

The story revolves around two men; Jean Valjean, imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his family, and Inspector Javert, who is always looking for Valjean and seeking to arrest him after he breaks his parole. The most intriguing part of Les Miserables’ story is the different ways the main characters deal with law and mercy. The story starts with the release of Jean Valjean after 19 years in jail. Valjean finds rejection every place he seeks refuge until he finds a priest who gives him food and a place to sleep.

Jean Valjean steals all the finest silver from the priest. He is caught and brought back and made to admit his sin in front of the priest. The police are ready to put Jean Valjean in jail when the priest stops them. He explains that he gave all of the silver to the man, but he forgot to take the most precious silver. As the priest hands over his valuable candlesticks, it is clear that his grace is more remarkable than Jean Valjean could have ever imagined. Having experienced such forgiveness, Valjean spends the rest of his life trying to replicate the grace given to him.

Javert is the legalist, and he holds strictly to the letter of the law. There is only one way to treat others, and it is by strict justice. The story leads up to a climactic scene when Jean Valjean has the opportunity to kill Javert. But instead of retribution for the lifelong struggles and pain Javert has inflicted on his life, Jean Valjean shows him mercy, cuts his bound hands loose, and sends his enemy off as a free man.

The mercy shown to him by Valjean sends Javert, the legalist, into a tailspin from which he cannot recover. For him, mercy proves to be an unsolvable problem. He sings, “I am the law, and the law is not mocked! I’ll spit his pity right back in his face!” And then continues, “my thoughts fly apart. Can this man be believed? Shall his sins be forgiven? Shall his crimes be reprieved? Does he know that granting me my life today, this man has killed me even so?” After experiencing unmerited mercy, Javert, the legalist, jumps off a bridge and kills himself.

The power of Les Miserables is the way it contrasts the life of the merciful with the life of the ruthless. The merciful have faced their guilt, and it has broken them. The ruthless have faced their guilt and hardened themselves like steel.

Gentle Reader, Les Miserables is a story of the contrast in how sinners respond to the offer of mercy and grace. At a profound level, this is the story of two responses to grace: one man is broken and lives, and one man is hardened and dies. Titus 3:5 (NIRV) tells us that “He saved us. It wasn’t because of the good things we had done. It was because of his mercy. He saved us by washing away our sins. We were born again. The Holy Spirit gave us new life.” Don’t be an Inspector Javert and refuse the mercy that God holds out to you, be a Jean Valjean and live a life showing mercy to others because of the mercy God has given you. Who do you need to show mercy to today?

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Charles and His Corn Chips

 My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 21, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

In the summer of 1932, the United States was in the grips of The Great Depression. The stock market had declined by nearly 90 percent since 1929.  Twenty-four percent of the workforce was unemployed. Bread lines and soup kitchens were commonplace in America’s towns and cities. Farmers could not afford to harvest their crops and left them rotting in the fields while people were going hungry. Those that were lucky enough to have steady employment saw their wages cut or their hours reduced to part-time. Many people who had savings lost them as nearly half the country’s banks failed. 

It was July 10, 1932, and Charles Doolin was sitting in his family’s San Antonio café, Highland Park Confectionary. His parents started the business as a candy store and later added ice cream, soup, and sandwiches. Customers were few, and the café was struggling. Charles was looking for something to increase sales and keep the business from closing. As he read the classifieds in the San Antonio Express, he saw a short ad that caught his eye. “Corn chips business for sale. A new food product making good money.”

When Doolin responded to the ad, he met Gustavo Olguin, a Mexican cook who had perfected a recipe for curly chips made by frying corn masa. Gustavo needed cash to move back to Mexico, and Doolin was impressed with the chips. Charles pawned his mother’s wedding ring and paid Olguin 100 dollars for the recipe and a list of 19 clients who had been buying the fried chips. 

Charles and his mother started making the new corn chips every night in their kitchen at home. They could make about ten pounds of chips every evening. The fresh corn chips became a popular side dish to go with the soups and sandwiches in their café. Charles named his new chips, Fritos, and started putting them in wax paper bags to sell in local stores. Within a year, he had invented a machine to increase production. The corn masa came out in ribbons and was cut with scissors as it dropped into the hot oil. The operation moved from his kitchen into his garage, and soon he was producing one hundred pounds of Fritos an hour.

Before long, Charles was driving his Ford Model A all over Texas, selling his Fritos. There was no money for a salesman or even for Charles to sleep in hotels. On his selling trips, he would sleep in his car. He said, “I slept in front of the best hotels in the state of Texas.” Charles innovated new ways to get his product in front of consumers. He invented the clip rack that hung many bags of chips in a small space and talked stores into putting these new racks near the cashier. He understood impulse buying. 

Charles’ new product and his innovations in production and sales made Fritos a success. By 1955, the company owned more than fifty production plants. In 1961, The Frito Co. merged with the H.W. Lay & Company, and the new Frito-Lay Company became the largest snack food company in the United States. Last year, sales for Frito-Lay were up 6.5%, to over 16 billion dollars. Fritos has gone from ten-pound batches made in the Doolin family kitchen to sales all over the world. Frito-Lay sells twenty-nine snack brands in more than 100 countries. 

When you go through a cashier’s line in most stores, you are very aware of Charles Doolin’s impulse buying strategy. Rows of candy, gum and other snacks meet your eye. I’m sure that most of us have bought something that we didn’t intend to because of the strategic impulse buying layout that most retailers use. Impulse buys are relatively universal, with a study from finding that 84 percent of Americans say they have made impulse buys. The same survey found that over 20 percent of Americans have made an impulse purchase of over 1,000 dollars. Being impulsive can have a significant impact on your life. 

Impulsive shopping and impulsive Christian living have a lot in common. Neither one is the best way to approach life. Making a good decision is essential whether you are shopping or making crucial moral life choices. The human tendency to be impulsive is the source of many bad decisions. When we decide quickly with very little thought or planning, we often make a poor choice.

Ideas and actions are continually presenting themselves to our minds. The best approach is to use time, thought, research, advice, and Christian ethics and morals to filter the good ideas from the bad ones. Nearly all of us have sometimes bypassed the usual filters and acted on impulse. The idea seemed so great, the urge so strong, that we immediately jumped at the thought. At times our impulsiveness works out all right, but often we pay a heavy price.

God wants us to be thoughtful and intentional in our relationship with Him. “Do not be hasty with your mouth or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter before God. For God is in heaven and you are on earth; therefore let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5:2 (AMP) God also wants us to temper our impulsiveness in our dealings with other people. “He who is slow to wrath has great understanding, But he who is impulsive exalts folly.” Proverbs 14:19 (NKJV) 

Gentle Reader, the reason that impulsive decisions often work out so poorly is that our sinful self is louder than God’s Spirit. When you are confronted with options and must decide, the first voice you will hear will be that of your selfishness. The Bible tells us that “our sinful selves want what is against the Spirit, and the Spirit wants what is against our sinful selves. The two are against each other, so you cannot do just what you please.” Galatians 5:17 (NCV) And Peter writes, “Dear friends, since you are immigrants and strangers in the world, I urge that you avoid worldly desires that wage war against your lives.” 1 Peter 2:11 (NCV) He does not say you will never experience worldly desires. He does not say those bad ideas will never enter your mind. He says we must avoid these desires and not give in to our impulses. Taking the time to think through our decisions allows reason and spiritual insight to take over. Don’t be an impulse buyer.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

I Can See Clearly Now

My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 14, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

“I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.” Whenever I hear these words and the lively, reggae-inspired music, I am transported back to my high school days. In the fall and winter of 1972, you couldn’t turn on the radio without hearing the beautifully fuzzed-out guitar, the lithe, supple bassline, and Johnny Nash’s effortless voice singing lyrics, full of life and joyous redemption. The song spent four weeks at #1 on the Billboard charts and gave us hope that there were better things ahead.

Johnny Nash was 32 when he hit #1 with “I Can See Clearly Now,” and he’d already had 15 years in the music business. Nash came from Houston, and he grew up singing in church. As a teenager, his beautiful tenor was compared to Johnny Mathis’s voice. In the 60s, he moved to Jamaica while co-running a record company and helped launch his friend Bob Marley’s career. He enjoyed some success in 1968 with the song “Hold Me Tight,” but “I Can See Clearly Now” was his most successful single.

The obituary that ran in the Associated Press when Johnny Nash died in October 2020 referred to his biggest hit this way. “‘I Can See Clearly Now” was a story of overcoming hard times that itself raised the spirits of countless listeners, with its swelling pop-reggae groove, promise of a “bright, bright sunshiny day” and Nash’s gospel-styled exclamation midway, “Look straight ahead, nothing but blue skies!”, a backing chorus lifting the words into the heavens.”

Seeing clearly is essential in life. A few weeks ago, I had a bad experience while floating the Ouachita River. During one of my unintentional swims in the river, I lost my glasses. I could no longer see things clearly. That week, I called my ophthalmologist, Dr. Ennen, and made an appointment to get my eyes tested.

On the day of the appointment, I checked in at the front desk, and then a technician led me to an alcove where there was an OCT Imaging System. The machine captures images of the eye, allowing Dr. Ennen to see certain diseases such as glaucoma and macular degeneration years in advance. Next, the doctor performed a refraction test. If you’ve ever had an eye exam, you’re familiar with the refraction test. You place your face up to the machine, and then the doctor flips down the first lens, then another, while you say which of the two helps you see the letters on the eye chart more clearly. Is it lens one or two, lens three or four? Which one is better? 

After the refraction test, the doctor dilated my eyes. Pupil dilation increases the pupils’ size during an eye exam so that the doctor can thoroughly examine the health of the optic nerve and retina. The exam is critical to preventing and treating eye conditions that could potentially lead to vision loss. Next, I picked out frames and paid my bill. My glasses would be ready in about a week.

As I reflected on the vision test, it made me wonder if I was looking at my life through the correct lens. Was it possible to flip down a different lens and see a better story? 

The Apostle Paul seems to have had problems with his eyesight. Many biblical scholars point to Galatians 6:11 (NLT) as evidence. Here Paul wrote, “Notice what large letters I use as I write these closing words in my own handwriting.” Even if Paul had poor eyesight, his spiritual sight remained exceptionally clear. During his time preaching the gospel, he was flogged, whipped, and stoned many times. He had been shipwrecked, bitten by a snake, outcast, and ridiculed. Several times, he was imprisoned, and some of his life was spent under house arrest in Rome, all for preaching the gospel. And yet he was still able to write, “We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed.” 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 (NLT)

While he was in prison, Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare all the more to proclaim the gospel without fear.” Philippians 1:12-14 (NIV)

Which lens helped Paul see more clearly? Was it lens one or two? Paul didn’t see himself as stuck in prison because of Jesus; he saw himself as stationed in jail for Jesus. He didn’t see himself as chained to a Roman guard; he saw the Roman guard as chained to him. The guards had to listen to Paul talk about Jesus day in and day out. Paul had time to write letters to the churches.

Who put Paul in prison? From the outside looking in, it appeared the Roman rulers put him there. But from the inside looking out, Paul knew God had positioned him there. He didn’t see himself as imprisoned; he considered himself stationed. And because he was looking through the right lens, he had joy even in a difficult situation.

Gentle Reader, I wish that I could see as clearly as Paul did, but I can’t. When things go wrong, I pout, I get angry, and I become discouraged. But I try to remember to flip the lens and look at my circumstances through the eyes of God instead of the lens of my selfishness. And that gives me a better outcome. Not because the storyline changes, but because my perspective does. When I allow God to help me see through the correct lens, I can sing: “I can see clearly now the rain is gone. I can see all obstacles in my way. Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind. It’s gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.”

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

From Ponca to Steel Creek

My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 7, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The skies were clear, and sunshine bathed the landscape as we drove down to the low water bridge at Ponca. I was anticipating my first ever float on the Buffalo River. As we unloaded the paddleboards and kayaks out of the van, the air was crisp and cool. There was a flurry of activity as our group worked to air up the five paddleboards and three kayaks. When everything was ready, we headed down the river.

As soon as we knew the dates of my granddaughter’s spring break, we had started planning a Buffalo River float trip. I reserved Leatherwood House, a beautiful secluded cabin near the Steel Creek Campground. All winter, I looked forward to our Easter weekend family float trip. Now the day was finally here, and I was floating down the Buffalo. The scenery is incredible, with towering bluffs like Bee Bluff and Roark Bluff making you feel tiny as you paddle past them. Waterfalls seem to flow right out of the rock face and tumble down the bluff to the river. 

I struggled with pain in my legs as I paddled my kayak, and numerous times, my daughter, son-in-law, or granddaughter had to help me when I got stuck on the shoals. The water was frigid and made you cold to the core. There was even an embarrassing situation where I had to get out of the kayak to free it from the shoals, and the swift current lowered my pants. By the time we pulled out at Steel Creek, I was in a lot of pain, but seeing the stunning views along the float was a bucket list experience for me.

Spending the weekend in God’s wonderful creation was the perfect way for me to spend Easter. We not only floated the Buffalo, but we hiked the Lost Vally Trail back to Eden Falls and also saw the Twin Falls at the Camp Orr Boy Scout Camp. Easter morning, I reflected on the final week of Jesus’ life. One of the stories that I remember from that week is Jesus crying for the city of Jerusalem. If He cried over the city of Jerusalem, can you imagine how He is crying over the world today?

When I was growing up, my family attended a small church in Fort Lupton, Colorado. The small church shared a pastor with another church. Sometimes when the pastor wasn’t there for the mid-week prayer service, those in attendance would take turns reciting a favorite text. Being a smart aleck, I thought it was amusing to say that my favorite verse was John 11:35. “Jesus wept.”

As I have grown older, it has become a favorite verse of mine. I believe the simple words, “Jesus wept,” may reveal as much about Jesus as any other words ever said about Him. I’m sure that you remember the story of Lazarus. When he became ill, his sisters sent a message to Jesus telling him, “Lord, the one you love is very sick.” Jesus chose to wait until Lazarus had died before He came. We read the story in John 11:33-35 (NLT). “When Jesus saw her weeping and saw the other people wailing with her, a deep anger welled up within Him, and He was deeply troubled. ‘Where have you put him?’ He asked them. They told him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Then Jesus wept.”

Why did Jesus cry? Was it because of his love for Lazarus? He knew Lazarus would be alive in a few minutes. Jesus was crying because his friends were sad. Their sorrow moved him. Jesus is painfully aware of your suffering. Psalms 56:8 (NLT) tells us, “You keep track of all my sorrows. You have collected all my tears in your bottle. You have recorded each one in your book.”

A few days before he died, “Jesus came near Jerusalem. He saw the city and began to cry for it.”Luke 19:41 (ICB) Why was Jesus crying? Was He crying for a city?  I think that Luke 13:34 (NLT) gives us some insight into this story. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me.” Jesus was crying for the people of Jerusalem. He had come to save them, but most were not willing to be saved. Even though they had rejected him and his salvation, He had compassion for them.

If we follow the example of Jesus, how should we, as Christians, relate to sinners? We should have compassion. It seems to me that many Christians have lost their compassion. As I look around, I don’t often see Christians dealing with others with understanding. I am more apt to see hate than compassion.

I don’t want to meddle, but maybe I will a little bit. Think about a few hot button topics and see your response toward the following groups. LGTBQ, Muslims, Adulterers, Abortionists, Thieves, Drug Dealers, Illegal Aliens, Prostitutes, Atheists. Do you have compassion for them, or is your response something different? Can you hate someone while you are praying for their salvation? Should we hate someone that Jesus died for because he loves them?

Following the example of Jesus and having compassion for sinners is very liberating. It allows us to leave the judging up to God while practicing the self-sacrificing love He demonstrated on the cross. It will enable us to hold ourselves to a high moral standard without feeling that we must hate those who do not see things the way we do. Daniel Darling writes, “we must not allow our protest against values with which we disagree to overshadow our responsibility to show Christ’s love for the world. It may very well be the person who offends us the most whom God is in the process of saving. And our gracious response might be the bridge that the Spirit uses to usher him from death to life.”

A trendy catchphrase in Christianity is, “What Would Jesus Do?” WWJD is found on jewelry, emblazoned on bumper stickers, and has made its way into popular culture. The only way to determine what Jesus would do is by learning what Jesus did. Romans 5:8 (NKJV) tells us that “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Gentle Reader, Jesus cried for a city of sinners who rejected him. He asked his Father to forgive those who tortured and killed him. We should love the sinner as Christ loves us. After all, we are sinners too. Holding a sign that says “God Hates You” is not an effective way to witness to sinners. Let’s follow the example of Jesus and love sinners and hate the sin in our own lives. John, the disciple that Jesus loved, tells us in 1 John 4:8 (NKJV) that “he who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”