Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Happy Birthday

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 29, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The sun shone softly, and an occasional oak leaf drifted down onto the freshly mowed grass in my backyard. Across the yard, large letters proclaimed Happy Birthday. As I looked out over the deck and patio, I felt a sense of satisfaction. Everything was ready for my Daddy’s 85th birthday celebration. We had worked hard for two days preparing for the party, and guests would be arriving soon. 

Before long, family members from Missouri, Texas, Louisiana, and Kansas were eating, visiting, laughing, and wishing Daddy a happy birthday. Kids were playing in the yard as they got to know cousins who they had never met before. Family, who hadn’t seen each other for quite some time, were catching up over plates heaped with food. After everyone was full, three birthday cakes were brought out; one for Daddy and cakes for my two granddaughters whose birthdays were very soon. After presents were opened, people visited long into the evening. 

As I finally sat down, tired and weary, but still basking in the glow of the beautiful day spent with family, my mind began to wander. I thought about other birthday celebrations I had attended. I wondered how the tradition of celebrating birthdays with parties and gifts began. Have you ever thought about why we celebrate birthdays? When you think about it, they’re just an opportunity for your friends and family to come together and congratulate you for surviving another year. But for some reason, it’s become far more than that.

Although research on the origin of celebrating birthdays is inconclusive, there is enough of a consensus to piece together an approximate history. We learn about the first birthday party on record from the Bible. In Egypt, the Pharaoh was celebrating his birthday. Genesis 40:20 (NLT) tells us, “Pharaoh’s birthday came three days later, and he prepared a banquet for all his officials and staff.” Here we have a mention of a birthday and what seems to be a typical birthday celebration. 

In ancient times, celebrating birthdays was only for kings and other significant people. Wealthy members of Greek society would gather in their spacious villas and share gifts, food, and wishes with their family and friends on specific days. Candles, which were a part of religious offerings and rituals, were part of the celebration.

Like so many of our modern traditions, birthdays have roots in old Greek and Roman traditions. The Greeks and Romans gave us the practice of presents, candles, and parties for birthdays. The Romans were the first to celebrate the birth of the ordinary person. Before the Romans, only kings and rulers celebrated birthdays. However, Roman citizens would celebrate the birthdays of their friends and family members. Any Roman turning 50 years old would receive a special cake baked with wheat flour, olive oil, grated cheese, and honey. 

During the Middle Ages, most European Christians had a patron saint, which they celebrated annually. During this time, kings and other rulers celebrated their personal birthdays, using it as an excuse to hold tournaments, celebrations, feasts, and bask in their subjects’ adoration.

During this time, ordinary Europeans celebrated their patron saint’s feast day. The saint’s birthday was adopted as their own birthday and marked accordingly. Christians used the old Roman and Greek traditions of candles, gifts, gatherings, and offerings in their new traditions.

As the Reformation swept through Europe, a new idea of individualism brought about the beginning of the modern birthday. With new ideas of personal freedom, people started celebrating their own birthday rather than the day of their saint’s birth. As modernization, individualism, and wealth continued to spread through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, so did the idea of celebrating one’s birthday. This gradual growth of birthday traditions continued into the twentieth century where it became nearly universal. Even if modern people don’t go all out in celebrating their special day, everyone knows what their birthday is and acknowledges it when it comes around every year.

What started as an ancient tradition for monarchs to celebrate their closeness to the gods turned into widespread religious ceremonies before becoming a day to celebrate one’s birth. Next time you celebrate your birthday, or the birthday of a close friend or family member, remember that the tradition stretches back thousands of years and has a long and winding path from the mists of time to the present day.

Birthdays are a wonderful experience. They are a moment we celebrate the anniversary of our birth and give thanks for another year of life! They are an opportunity to show our love to family and friends by sharing heartfelt gifts and words of appreciation. But most of all, birthdays are a reminder of how much our heavenly Father loves us. He brought us into the world, knowing us even before our conception. God told Jeremiah, “I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart.” Jeremiah 1:5 (NLT)

David expressed it this way; “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.” Psalms 139:13-16 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, birthdays remind us of our beginnings with God. He set us apart for His purposes. We were born to live for God. Although birthday celebrations aren’t commanded or prohibited in the Bible, Psalm 90:12 (ESV) says, “teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.” On your next birthday, I hope you will be able to say to God, “I have relied on you from the day I was born. You brought me safely through birth, and I always praise you.” Psalm 71:6 (CEV)

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Selling the Brooklyn Bridge

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 22, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The iconic Brooklyn Bridge looms majestically over New York City’s East River, connecting the two boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn. Construction on the bridge started in 1869 but wasn’t completed until 1883. Thousands of Brooklyn and Manhattan residents witnessed the dedication ceremony, which was presided over by President Chester A. Arthur and New York Governor Grover Cleveland. Within 24 hours, more than 150,000 people walked across the Brooklyn Bridge. It was the first steel suspension bridge and had the longest span of any bridge in the world: 1,600 feet from tower to tower.

The bridge became an essential landmark of New York City and one of the city’s most recognizable symbols. With its unprecedented length and two stately towers, The New York press stated that it was the “eighth wonder of the world.” When the Brooklyn Bridge opened, pedestrians had to pay a penny to cross by foot; the toll for a horse and rider was five cents and ten cents for a horse and wagon. Tens of thousands crossed the bridge every day on the way to work from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Under pressure from civic groups and commuters, the pedestrian toll was repealed in 1891.

One New Yorker, George Parker, was particularly obsessed with the Brooklyn Bridge. He saw the bridge as an opportunity to make money. He decided that he could sell the Brooklyn Bridge to unsuspecting tourists and immigrants. As outrageous as that sounds, his scam worked, as it is reported that he sold the bridge twice a week for years.

Like many others of his time, con artist George Parker preyed on the vast waves of immigrants arriving in America, hungry for their piece of the American dream. He paid stewards working on ships coming into Ellis Island to identify potential “customers.” They scoped out passengers with plenty of cash and an interest in owning real estate. New York in the 1880s was a melting pot of immigrants arriving in the New World from all corners of the globe. Most came in impoverished, but some arrived with investment capital, eager to live the American dream.

The Brooklyn Bridge had several characteristics that made it particularly well suited for this sort of con. Its proximity to the port made it highly visible to newcomers who might be likely marks, and its size provided opportunities to show it off while avoiding the law. But perhaps most critical was its fame. In the late 19th century, the bridge along with the Statue of Liberty was one of the two best-known symbols of America.

The idea behind the sale of the Brooklyn Bridge was that the new owners could erect toll booths and charge people to cross. Parker would sell the bridge, and the unsuspecting buyer would receive nothing more than a forged set of ownership papers. Parker’s swindle became relatively sophisticated over time. He reportedly opened real estate offices and produced authentic-looking documents to prove that he owned the bridge. He convinced his buyers that he enjoyed building bridges but operating them was too stressful for him.

Parker was convicted of fraud three times. After his arrest in 1908, he escaped the courthouse by calmly walking out after donning a sheriff’s hat and coat set down by a sheriff who had walked in from the cold outdoors. After his fourth conviction on December 17, 1928, the judge sentenced him to a mandatory life term at Sing Sing Prison. He spent his last eight years incarcerated and was popular among guards and fellow inmates who enjoyed hearing of his exploits. 

Between fake news, fake products, and stolen identities, our world has no shortage of con artists. Many use versions of scams that are hundreds of years old. I’m sure you have experienced some scams such as Nigerian money scams, fake IRS communications, bogus emails phishing for your personal information, or social media direct messages that appear to be from a friend. The list goes on and on. The people behind these scams are playing a numbers game, cashing in by exploiting their marks vulnerabilities. 

In a recent Reader’s Digest article about scams, Lauren Cahn writes, “the messages vary, but all are designed to prey on our human vulnerabilities, including, the desire to be a ‘hero,’ the desire to appear ‘generous,’ the desire to win ‘free money,’ the desire to be loved and admired, or the desire to avoid shame or punishment.” What these all have in common is an appeal to self. The con man offers a shortcut to the things people crave. One of the vulnerabilities that con men exploit is greed. If it weren’t for the desire to get rich quickly, George Parker would not have been able to sell the Brooklyn Bridge to his mark. If we understand the vulnerabilities, it makes us much less likely to fall for these scams. 

George Parker is one of the most notorious American con men, but someone has conned many more people than George ever did. Jesus talked about this con man in John 8:44 (AMPC). “You are of your father, the devil, and it is your will to practice the lusts and gratify the desires which are characteristic of your father. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a falsehood, he speaks what is natural to him, for he is a liar himself and the father of lies and of all that is false.” The devil conned many people in Jesus’ time, and many people are still falling for his con today.

Gentle Reader, how can we ensure that we don’t become victims of the most extraordinary con man in history? Knowing how the game works and how it takes advantage of our vulnerabilities is half the battle. Remember that all cons appeal to our selfishness. “So put away everything that is sordid, all that overflowing malice, and humbly receive the word which has been planted within you and which has the power to rescue your lives.” James 1:21 (NTE) Don’t let anyone sell you the Brooklyn Bridge.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Ephraim Bales Place

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 15, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

After a long day of driving across Arkansas and Tennessee, Daddy and I were rewarded with the beautiful scenery of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To avoid the heavy traffic in Sevierville and Pigeon Forge, we took the scenic route into Gatlinburg. We were traveling on the Little River Road, a gorgeous winding road meandering alongside Little River. It had been many years since I had visited the Smoky Mountains, and I was excited to be there.

We traveled to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to attend a weekend seminar hosted by the It Is Written television program. It Is Written has been a staple on American television since premiering in 1956. The weekly program, currently hosted by John Bradshaw, applies timeless truths to everyday life, with many episodes dealing with loneliness, fear, low self-esteem, and spiritual principles. Daddy is a longtime supporter of the ministry and has attended many seminars in the past. Earlier this year, he asked me to take him to the seminar, and I agreed. 

The seminar was at the Park Vista hotel in Gatlinburg. It is set 1,000 ft. above Gatlinburg, and with fourteen floors, the hotel has sweeping views over the city and Smoky Mountains. The hotel is a circular building, and every room has an outside view and balcony. Our room was on the side of the hotel that faced the mountains, and our view was spectacular.

After attending the morning seminar and eating lunch, Daddy and I headed back into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to explore. We drove a couple of miles from the hotel to the Roaring Fork Motor Nature Trail. The road twists and turns for six miles in a one-way loop that ends up back in Gatlinburg. We stopped a couple of times to enjoy the beauty of the Roaring Fork River. It was a perfect day with moderate temperatures and sunny skies. 

One of the stops that we made was at the Ephraim Bales Place. The main feature on the site is the original “dog-trot” cabin; two cabins placed side by side with space between them and a common roof connecting them. The larger cabin was the living area, while the other was the kitchen. The open area served as a covered walkway between the two cabins, a sitting area during warm or stormy weather, and a passageway for air to flow through to help keep the place cool in the summer. 

The cabin remains as it was when the Bales family lived here in the early 1900s. Ephraim, his wife, Minerva, and their nine children called this small cabin home. It is hard to imagine eleven people crammed into this tiny home, but they managed. The family lived here from around 1890 until the government purchased the land in 1930 for inclusion in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The original corn crib, barn, and pig pen remain standing as well.

As I walked around the cabin site, I tried to imagine the life of this mountain family. I thought about what it was like growing up here as one of Ephraim and Minerva Bales’ nine children. I tried to visualize what it was like to live in this tiny cabin with ten other people. Ephraim Bales owned 72 acres here. He farmed thirty acres, while the rest remained wooded. Ephraim’s farm was one of many along the Roaring Fork, where families scratched a hard living from a very rocky land.

I wondered why someone would want to live here. It’s not like today, where you can buy a mountain cabin and get everything you need at the store. These people had to get everything they needed out of the land. The valley of the Roaring Fork, where the Ephraim Bales cabin is located, is an extremely narrow, rock-strewn hollow. Rock is more common than soil. The small fields where Ephraim and his family once planted corn remind us of these mountain people’s difficult lives and how hard they worked. Some abandoned fields’ slope is so steep that it is difficult to believe that anyone farmed them. There is an old mountain saying, “oft times a handful of soil was placed between the rocks so the corn could be planted.”

As I thought about the back-breaking work of growing crops on these rocky mountainside fields, I remembered a parable that Jesus taught. “He said: ‘A farmer went out to plant his seed. While he was planting, some seed fell by the road. The birds came and ate all that seed. Some seed fell on rocky ground, where there wasn’t enough dirt. That seed grew very fast, because the ground was not deep. But when the sun rose, the plants dried up because they did not have deep roots. Some other seed fell among thorny weeds. The weeds grew and choked the good plants. Some other seed fell on good ground where it grew and became grain.’” Matthew 13:3-8 (ICB)

Many Christian preachers and writers have discussed this parable of Jesus. It seems that there is often a negative connotation in the discussions. We must not be like the road, the rocky ground, or be among the thorny weeds. I don’t disagree with these applications, but I think that we are missing the bigger picture. The parable is not about the ground; it is about the farmer planting the seed. And the farmer spreads his seed everywhere. The seed represents the good news that Jesus wants to save us. As modern-day farmers, we want the best yield, so we are selective about who we choose to share our good news with. But the farmer in the parable planted seed everywhere.

Gentle Reader, modern farming techniques produce much higher yields than how Ephraim Bale farmed on his rocky fields on the steep hillsides of his farm over 100 years ago. But Ephraim grew crops in a place that modern farmers could not and would not. Were his harvests bountiful? No, they were not. But they were enough to raise a family. We, as Christians, are given the job of planting the seeds of the good news about Jesus. But we are often very selective about who we share our good news with. Jesus tells us to “go into every part of the world. Tell the good news to everyone.” Mark 16:15 (WE) Who will you share your good news with today? 

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

The Banyan Tree

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 8, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I wake up suddenly, not because of any noise or interruption, but it leaves me disoriented. My eyes are open, but I strain to see anything in the darkness. For a fleeting moment, I don’t know where I am. As the cobwebs of my mind begin to clear, I remember that I am in Maui. I fumble around on the nightstand to find my phone. I try to focus my eyes on the screen to see what time it is. It is 3:40 A.M. I roll over and try to go back to sleep, but sleep won’t come. We flew across five times zones on our flight to Maui yesterday, and my internal clock needs recalibrating.

After lying in bed awake for an hour, I get up and dress quietly. Slipping out the front door of the condo into the darkness of the Maui night, I walk to the parking lot and get into my rental car. It is just a short drive to Kahekili Beach, and I park the car and walk down to the beach in the moonlight. As I walk south on the sandy beach, an occasional sneaker wave comes and washes over my feet. It isn’t easy to see in the dim moonlight, so it surprises me when the wave comes in farther than usual. As the water washes the sand from around my feet, I start to lose my balance. After a few times, I learn to stand still when the wave comes, not moving until the water has subsided and the sand is stable again.

Sometime later, after walking around two-thirds of a mile, I reach Lionel’s Point and turn around to head back to my car. The beach ends with a freshwater inlet, and there is no way to continue walking south. When I get back to my car, the first rays of morning light are chasing away the darkness. I will not see the sun for quite a while because 5,800-foot Mauna Kahalawai blocks the eastern sun. I drive toward Lahaina Town, anxious to see it for the first time. As I go down Front Street, I recognize places that I have seen while watching videos of Lahaina. 

In the first light of morning, there is almost no one on the streets. I quickly find a place to park and start walking toward the town center. I pass stores and galleries that will be filled with customers in a few hours. I walk past an old historic home and stop to read the historical plaques that tell its story.

The Baldwin Home is the oldest house still standing on the island of Maui. Reverend Ephraim Spaulding built the original four-room structure between 1834-35. The area offered a direct view of the Lahaina landing and the ocean beyond where whaling ships would anchor. Reverend Spaulding became ill in 1836 and returned to Massachusetts, and Reverend Dwight Baldwin and his wife moved into the home. The couple had eight children, all born in Hawai’i.

As their family grew, so did the house. In 1840, Reverend Baldwin added a bedroom and a medical study. And in 1849, he completed an entire second floor. The home faces prevailing winds from the ocean with large windows in the front. The walls are 24-inches thick, constructed of coral, sand, and lava rock with rough-hewn timber framing. The thick walls and high ceilings help keep the interior cool.

As I walk the grounds of the Baldwin Home, I see remnants of the kitchen’s foundation and firepit in the rear yard. I try to imagine the sights and sounds of Lahaina during those early years when as many as 700 whaling ships came through Lahaina in a year. Captains on year-long whale hunts would rest their crews in Lahaina on their journeys back home. Whaling ships would restock their provisions in Lahaina, staying in there for weeks on end. The sailors were a raucous crowd engaging in long stints of drinking and debauchery. The sailors’ behavior disturbed many Maui residents, and the missionaries such as Reverend Baldwin were very vocal in their opposition to the lifestyles of the whalers.

Just a couple of blocks from the Baldwin House, I see Lahaina’s most famous landmark. Spreading out in front of me is a gigantic banyan tree. It covers an entire city block and is 50-feet tall. I sit on a bench under its branches and take in its beauty and grandeur. Because I have never seen a historical plaque that I didn’t read, I find out that this banyan tree was imported from India and planted in front of the Lahaina Courthouse and Lahaina Harbor in 1873 by the sheriff of Maui and is now the largest in the state. It has a canopy circumference spanning a quarter-mile and covers almost two acres. Banyan trees can cover so much ground because they have roots that grow from outward-extending branches and reach the ground, becoming trunk-like and expanding the tree’s footprint.

In some ways, the banyan tree reminds me of what a community should be. The banyan grows by using aerial prop roots. When a tree is mature, its spreading branches produce hundreds of these roots. Some grow until they reach the ground. There, they anchor themselves and develop into new trunks. Imagine numerous branches with numerous dangling roots that produce more trunks and branches with more dangling roots. Over time you have a whole grove connected, covering a large space.

The more roots the tree puts down, the more it grows. And the more it grows, the branches must have the roots firmly grounded to hold up the heavy branches. Everything is interconnected. Without the roots, the branches would fall. Without the branches, the roots wouldn’t exist. 

Gentle Reader, you need your community, and your community needs you. If the community is to grow and prosper, we all need each other, and we must work together. When we refuse to work together, we will never be a strong community. When our disagreements become more important than our common goals, we can never prosper. Paul describes the Christian community this way, “each one of us has a body with many parts, and these parts all have different uses. In the same way, we are many, but in Christ we are all one body. Each one is a part of that body, and each part belongs to all the other parts.” Romans 12:4,5 (NCV) 

The phrase, “each part belongs to all the other parts,” seems like a good description of a banyan tree. If we want to be a productive part of our community and be like the banyan tree, we need to follow the guidance found in 1 Peter 4:8-10 (Message). “Most of all, love each other as if your life depended on it. Love makes up for practically anything. Be quick to give a meal to the hungry, a bed to the homeless—cheerfully. Be generous with the different things God gave you, passing them around so all get in on it.”

Wednesday, September 1, 2021


My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 1, 2021, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The sun was coming up as I quickly dressed and ran a comb through my hair. I knew about a couple of geocaches in the area near our condo in Tyler, Texas, and I wanted to find them. If you are not familiar with Geocaching, it is a modern-day treasure hunt powered by a GPS. A geocacher can place a cache anywhere in the world, pinpoint its location using GPS technology, and then share the geocache’s existence and GPS coordinates online. Anyone with a GPS unit or enabled smartphone can then try to locate the geocache.

No one else was awake as I quietly slipped out the door. I was sure that I could find the geocaches and be back to the condo before breakfast. It was just a short drive to the area near the first geocache. I had no problem quickly finding the cache located just a short distance from the parking area. I got back in the car and headed toward the second cache that was several miles away. I wanted to find this cache because my app told me that it contained a “travel bug.”

In Geocaching, a travel bug is a specially designed dog tag attached to items that are placed in geocaches. Each dog tag has a unique code, and the owner enters the item onto the geocaching website. When a geocacher finds a travel bug, they log the find on the website, then place the travel bug in another geocache when they can. This way, the travel bug can travel many miles. I wanted to find this travel bug in Tyler, Texas, and move it into a cache in Arkansas.

Following my GPS, I tried to find a place to park near the cache. It looked like I would have to hike about a half-mile, as the GPS showed the cache to be quite a ways from any parking area. I parked near a disc golf course and headed out to find the cache. Following my GPS, I made my way into the woods at the back of the disc golf course. I made several detours around areas of thick, tangled undergrowth and small streams. It took me longer to find the cache than I had planned, but I was happy to see that the travel bug was still there. 

Shoving the travel bug, a beautifully carved wooden chain, into my pocket, I headed back to the car. “I need to hurry,” I thought. “They will be waiting for me back at the condo, and they don’t know where I have gone.” As I tried to make my way back, I soon realized that I wasn’t sure which way I needed to go. I had made so many detours on my way to the cache that I was confused and disoriented. I forgot to put the coordinates of my car’s location in the GPS, so I tried to retrace my steps. But I couldn’t remember which way I had come. 

I stepped out into a brushy clearing and was trying to decide which way to go. There was an area that looked a bit wet and muddy, so I stepped carefully across it to avoid getting my shoes dirty. Imagine my surprise when the “solid” ground gave way, and I sank waist deep into stinky mucky quicksand. At first, I was just angry that I was filthy, but then I started trying to get out and realized that I was in a dangerous predicament. As I struggled to get out, matters only got worse. Before long, I was up to my armpits in quicksand.

Fortunately, I reached a small shrub that was strong enough for me to pull myself out. I sat on the ground, thankful to be out of the quicksand. But I was now on the opposite side of the quicksand from where I needed to be. What should I do? I needed to make sure that I didn’t get mired in the quicksand again. So I laid out spread eagle and very carefully “swam” to the other side. After several more false turns and retracing my steps, I finally made it back to my car. 

As I was driving back to the condo, thinking about the morning’s adventure, it dawned on me how serious my situation had been. I was by myself, and my wife had no idea where I was. I never saw another person while I was out in the woods. As I was driving back, I gave a special prayer of thanks to God for keeping me safe. 

When I got back to the condo, I wasn’t allowed in because I stunk so bad. No one was outside, so I quickly undressed on the porch and then ran inside and showered. I spent the next hour cleaning up the car and trying to cover up the stench. Even after washing my clothes and tennis shoes, I had to throw them away. I couldn’t get the smell out of them.

While reading Max Lucado’s book, The Applause Of Heaven, the following words captured my attention. “Grudge is one of those words that defines itself. Its very sound betrays its meaning. Say it slowly: “Grr-uuuud-ge.” It starts with a growl. “Grr …” Like a bear with bad breath coming out of hibernation or a mangy mongrel defending his bone in an alley. “Grrr …” Remove a GR from the word grudge and replace it with SL and you have the junk that grudge bearers trudge through. Sludge. Black, thick, ankle-deep resentment that steals the bounce from the step.”

Gentle Reader, Are you allowing your hurts to turn into hate? If so, ask yourself: Has your hatred done you any good? Has your resentment brought you peace? Has it granted you any joy? Holding a grudge is a lot like being in quicksand. When you hold a grudge, you can’t seem to get out of its grasp. The more you think about it and struggle with it, the deeper you sink. I believe that the only way we can get ourselves out of the quicksand of holding a grudge is through the power of God. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:26,27 (NLT), “don’t sin by letting anger control you. Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry, for anger gives a foothold to the Devil.” Don’t give the Devil a foothold by holding a grudge. Don’t sink in the quicksand of hatred. You might not be able to get out.