Wednesday, December 29, 2021

In the Quiet of Christmas Morning

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

The morning dawned quiet and peaceful. Too quiet and peaceful. There was no excitement. There were no shouts of Merry Christmas. No laughter filled the air. The Christmas tree in the living room stood silently with presents all around. But the gifts remained untouched. No one was opening them. The living room was in perfect order, with no torn wrapping paper in sight.

I sighed and thought, “it doesn’t feel like Christmas.” It didn’t help that the temperature outside was almost seventy degrees. Across the street, cars filled the driveway, and people arrived for Christmas morning celebrations. But our house was quiet. Illness had changed our plans, and there would be no one at our home for Christmas. No bubbly, excited granddaughters to make the day festive. I thought about all the people who would not be with those they love this Christmas and felt empathy for them.

We did have a lovely Christmas dinner planned with cousins and my Daddy, but that was hours away. I sat in my favorite chair on the deck and looked out over my backyard. “It is so nice today,” I thought as I sat there in my shirt sleeves, “but it just doesn’t feel like Christmas.” Here in Arkansas, it’s not supposed to be in the seventies on Christmas. “What is it that makes Christmas feel special,” I wondered. I decided that it is being with people you love and feeling a part of a tradition. Our traditions help Christmas feel special.

Around the world, Christmas traditions vary considerably. I remember spending a Christmas in Puerto Rico in the 70s. Puerto Ricans celebrated Christmas, but there were no gifts on Christmas Day. January 6th, known as Three Kings Day, rather than December 25th, was the day for exchanging gifts. Children would gather grass, hay, or straw in shoeboxes for horses and camels of the three kings, much like children in the U.S. leave cookies and milk for Santa and his reindeer. Good kids are rewarded with presents and candy on Three Kings Day.

The tradition of Three Kings Day comes from the story in the Gospel of Matthew of wise men from the East who came looking for a baby who was the King of the Jews. “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:9-11 (NKJV) This biblical story is the basis for gift giving at Christmas.

In much of Europe, it is Christkind that brings the Christmas presents. The tradition dates to the reformation and Martin Luther. At this time, it was traditional to give children gifts on December 6th, St. Nicolas’s Day. Does the idea that Saint Nicolas delivers gifts sound familiar to you? But Martin Luther wanted to do away with the veneration of saints and saints’ days, so he started a gift-giving tradition on Christmas Eve. He told the children that the Christ Child had brought their presents. This tradition quickly took hold in Lutheran families. 

While Martin Luther’s original intention was that the infant Jesus brings gifts, over time, the image of a baby transformed into an angelic figure with golden hair topped with a crown and golden wings. A baby couldn’t deliver gifts, so a female angel with Christ-like qualities did the job. This angelic figure is known as Christkind. In much of Europe, Christkind is a symbol of Christmas along with Santa Claus. In this tradition, children never see Christkind in person. Parents tell them that Christkind will not come and bring presents if they try to spot it. You will find Christkind delivering gifts all over Germany, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and much of Latin America.

In Scandinavia, an important tradition during the Christmas season is celebrating Saint Lucia. She was a young Christian girl who was killed in 304 A.D. Her history has been lost, and all we know for sure is that this brave woman lost her life during the persecution of Christians in the early fourth century. Her veneration spread to Rome so that by the sixth century, the whole church recognized her courage in defense of the faith.

Tradition tells us that she would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head to have both her hands free to carry things. St. Lucia’s Day is now celebrated by a girl dressing in a white dress with a red sash around her waist and a crown of candles on her head. The crown is made of Lingonberry branches which are evergreen and symbolize new life in winter. Many towns and villages choose a girl to play St. Lucia and lead a procession of carolers.

Whatever your Christmas traditions are, I hope they bring you joy and happiness. I have noticed that many Christians believe very strongly in their traditions. Traditions are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong. Some people defend traditions because the church has practiced it that way for years. Other people dislike tradition and want change just for the sake of change.

I feel that Christians should be neither “traditional” nor “non-traditional.” They should neither accept nor oppose a practice simply because it is a tradition. It doesn’t matter how long we have practiced something or when it began. What’s important is what God’s word says about it. If God’s word requires it, then we must do it. If God’s word forbids it, we must oppose it even if it is a tradition. If God’s word is silent, there is no problem with tradition. But I can’t expect all Christians to follow just because it is my tradition.

Gentle Reader, what are your Christmas traditions? Do they bring you joy? Do they remind you of Jesus and how important He is to you? Jesus wants you to have joy. He says, “these things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.” John 15:11 (NKJV) This Christmas season, I hope you have experienced love and joy. “There are three things that endure: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NCB)

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Home for Christmas

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

It was a cold, windy day in December 1903. Orville Wright stands on the beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, staring at the sky. His brother Wilbur is flying overhead in the machine they had built together. It was their fourth flight of the day in their hand-built flying machine. Wilbur Wright succeeded in flying their homemade machine for 59 seconds, covering 852 feet at a speed of seven miles per hour. Orville had piloted the first flight of the day that lasted just 12 seconds and traveled only 180 feet, but it proved that human flight was possible. 

Orville wrote in his diary about the first attempted flight that morning. “I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult. As a result the machine would rise suddenly to about ten feet and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds.”

The brothers realized that a successful flight depended on their ability to learn how to handle the machine. Each attempt showed improvement. They were pleased enough with Wilbur’s 59-second flight but knew they could do better. Unfortunately, there was not going to be another flight that day. Orville explains in his diary. “We set the machine down a few feet west of the building, and while standing about discussing the last flight, a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will, near one end, ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us. Mr. Daniels, having had no experience in handling a machine of this kind, hung on to it from the inside, and as a result was knocked down and turned over and over with it as it went. His escape was miraculous, as he was in with the engine and chains. The engine legs were all broken off, the chain guides badly bent, a number of uprights, and nearly all the rear ends of the ribs were broken.”

That day, Orville and Wilbur became the first to demonstrate a heavier-than-air machine’s sustained flight under the pilot’s complete control. What did the brothers do after their exciting success and the heartbreak of damaging their flying machine? They had an unhurried lunch and then walked four miles to send a telegram to their father. The telegraph read, “Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty one mile wind started from level with engine power alone. Average speed through air thirty one miles. Longest 57 seconds. Inform press. Home for Christmas.” With their machine wrecked by the wind and flying done for the season, the Wrights immediately thought of going home for Christmas. They returned home with their broken machine on the evening of December 23.

According to their niece, Ivonette Miller, who was 7 in 1903, the children were excited that Wilbur and Orville would be home for Christmas. She recalled that they said something like: “Oh, goody, Uncle Will will be home in time to carve the Christmas turkey!”

Amanda Wright Lane, the great-grandniece of Wilbur and Orville, said: “The Wright family was thrilled to learn about that first flight, but they were happier yet to know that meant the boys, great cooks, would be home in time for Wilbur to stuff the Christmas turkey and for Orville to make his cranberry bunny, served at holiday meals.”

Orville and Wilbur Wright had just accomplished something that no human being before them had ever done. What they accomplished that cold, windy December day would change humankind forever. But their thoughts were with their family and making it home for Christmas.

The family is important to God because it is an institution He has created, and it is one of His blessings. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Every family is different, unique, and every person within each family is essential. When God created the family, he simultaneously gave us an extraordinary gift and a unique challenge. Family requires an unshakable commitment to each other even when everyone involved is intimately aware of each other’s flaws.

If you are committed to your family, they should always come first. Even if you are working on something significant, like the first powered, heavier than air flight, you should never forget your commitment to your family.

As a Christian, you are a part of two families, your earthly family and your heavenly family. 1 John 3:1 (GW) tells us, “Consider this: The Father has given us his love. He loves us so much that we are actually called God’s dear children. And that’s what we are.” And Romans 8:15-17 (ICB) says, “the Spirit that we have makes us children of God. And with that Spirit we say, ‘Father, dear Father.’ And the Spirit himself joins with our spirits to say that we are God’s children. If we are God’s children, then we will receive the blessings God has for us. We will receive these things from God together with Christ.” 

Gentle Reader, there is no doubt that God loves His children. He shows it by His words, His actions, and His promises. He longs for His children to be with him. Like we want our children and grandchildren to come home for Christmas, God wants us to come home and be with Him. Jesus says, “I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together.” John 14:3 (VOICE) There is nothing in this life that is more important than for us to be a child of God and come home for Christmas. Let’s tell God, “I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me.”

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Counting on Google

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

The Fed-Ex driver placed two gigantic Dell computer boxes on my front porch. I had been waiting for this day. I replaced my 386x computer with the 80-megabyte hard drive with a new Pentium computer containing a 1 Gigabyte hard drive and the latest Windows 95 operating system. The 19-inch monitor was so large that it hung out over the back of my desk. As I hooked up the wires and turned my new computer on for the first time, a current of excitement ran through me. Sitting on my desk was a state-of-the-art computer that was my portal to the world wide web.

After loading the Netscape Navigator software from my internet provider company, I sat at my desk with eager anticipation as I heard, “Pshhhkkkkkkrrrrkakingkakingkakingtshchchchchchchchcch*ding*ding*ding,” and the computer screen announced that I had connected. What would I search for now that I had the whole world at my fingertips? Using the InfoSeek search engine, I began soaking up information. It was after 3 a.m. when I finally pulled myself away from this magical information portal and went to sleep for a few hours before I had to go to work.

At about the same time, another story occurred halfway across the country at Stanford University. Larry Page and Sergey Brin met when Brin was assigned to show Page around Stanford. They disagreed about nearly everything during that first meeting, but by the following year, they started a partnership. Working from their dorm rooms, they built a search engine that used links to determine the academic importance of individual pages on the World Wide Web. They called this search engine Backrub.

Over the next couple of years, Page and Brin caught the attention of the academic community and Silicon Valley investors. In August 1998, after receiving an investment of $100,000, the team moved from the dorms to their first office: a garage in suburban Menlo Park, California. When they looked to name the company, they wanted something that spoke to the tremendous amount of information available as the World Wide Web was exploding. They decided on the word Googol. 

“Googol” got its name in 1938 when mathematician Edward Kasner picked the name for a number so large that it doesn’t have a significant role in mathematics. A googol is a 1 with one hundred zeros after it. There isn’t a googol of anything on Earth, not grains of sand, not drops of water in the oceans. It is an impossibly large number. Page and Brin were engineers and were familiar with the word googol. But they decided to modify it a little and came up with Google. Today, if you search the internet, you probably use the Google search engine. Even though more than twenty search engines are available, over ninety percent of users choose Google. 

The next time you search the internet and the familiar Google logo appears on the page, maybe you will remember the impossibly large number that gave Google its name. The largest number name that most of us use is trillion. But do we understand what a trillion is? When I hear that the United States is twenty-nine trillion dollars in debt, I have no fundamental concept of what that means. Twenty-nine trillion seconds equals 914,834 years. How can we wrap our minds around what such large numbers mean?

When people think of big numbers, the things used as symbols are interesting. Matthew 10:30 (NKJV) says, “but the very hairs of your head are all numbered.”  So, how many hairs are on your head? According to the Harvard University website Bionumbers, the number of hairs on a human head range from 90,000 to 150,000. That seems like a number that we can understand. 

Stars and grains of sand are symbols of big numbers found in the Bible. In Genesis 22:17 (NET), God made Abraham a promise, “I will greatly multiply your descendants so that they will be as countless as the stars in the sky or the grains of sand on the seashore.” Science writer David Blatner, in his book Spectrums, writes, “a group of researchers at the University of Hawaii, being well-versed in all things beachy, tried to calculate the number of grains of sand. They said if you assume a grain of sand has an average size, calculate how many grains are in a teaspoon, and then multiply by all the beaches and deserts in the world, the Earth has roughly seven thousand five hundred quadrillion grains.” That is a lot of grains of sand.

There is no way that I can wrap my mind around the concept of numbers like a trillion, quadrillion, and googol. But even a smaller number like eight billion is meaningless to me. I can read that any day now, the population of Earth will reach eight billion, but what does that mean? Eight billion people. It’s a considerable number. I know billions of people live on this planet, but I can’t comprehend what that means. 

I may not be able to comprehend large numbers, but God can. Even though God can understand numbers that I cannot, God doesn’t see the number; He sees faces. God sees the personal histories and heartaches, individual problems and potentials. He sees actual people with names. Each one lives in a particular place, wakes up each day, faces their issues, and deals with the obstacles that confront them. He loves each one of these eight billion people so much that he gave his only Son as a sacrifice for them.

Even though we might not understand the concepts of a billion, trillion, or googol, we can know that God loves the world. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved.” John 3:16,17 (NKJV) 

Gentle Reader, God loves each one of the eight billion people on Earth, and that includes you. But when God looks at His children today, He sees billions of people selfishly divided and opinionated. He sees people who claim to follow Him but don’t love others. He wants us to do better. “Dear friends, let us continue to love one another, for love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”1 John 4:7,8 (NLT) Eight billion people. It’s a vast number. But God loves them all. Let’s remember how much God loves us. All of us! We can count on Him all the way to a googol.

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

The Threat of Rain

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

I kept an eye on the sky all day while I was working. It was covered in heavy clouds, colored a storm cloud grey. Occasionally the clouds would drip a bit as it almost began to rain. But most of the day, the skies are veiled in the lightest of mists. Tonight is the annual Christmas parade, and I wonder what the weather will do. I will be driving our Shay Model A roadster in the parade with the top down, and Ashley and Jodi of the Ouachita Chronicles will be riding in the open rumble seat. What will the weather bring? 

As I drive the Model A home from work, there is a light mist. Just enough to spot the windshield and make the seat wet. As I leave to go to the parade staging area, I throw in a roll of paper towels to help dry off. Questions swirl in my mind. How wet would we get driving in the parade? How many people would show up in this damp, wet weather? Just before the parade started, I dried off the seats. Once the parade began, the clouds held their moisture, and we didn’t get wet. As I drove down the parade route, People lined the streets. It didn’t seem that the weather had kept anyone away. 

As I drove in the parade, I looked for my family. My granddaughters from Louisiana were here, and family from the Pacific Northwest. I waved and then honked the ahooga horn on the Model A when I spotted them. They all had a great time at the parade, and the girls came home with lots of candy. 

The following day, I was again keeping an eye on the skies. Everything was wet from the rain overnight. We were having a mini family reunion this weekend, and for several weeks, my wife had been planning a picnic for today. One of our favorite drives is along the Cossatot River near Shady. There is a large area to pull off the road with excellent access to the river. For some time, my wife has wanted to have a picnic there. With family visiting us, she thought this weekend would be perfect for a picnic. 

As I loaded firewood, chairs, tables, and food into the SUV, the skies were spitting a few drops of rain on me. While we discussed the possibility of rain, my family from the Pacific Northwest told me that they would never get to do anything outdoors if they worried about a bit of rain. By the time we loaded up and headed for Shady, the skies had lightened, and there was no precipitation.

When we arrived at the banks of the Cossatot, we found a nice fire ring and got a fire started. We set up chairs around the campfire and listened to the river whispering sweet notes of cascading water. The sound of the water washes the stress of the week away. We enjoy visiting as the smoke from the campfire takes turns blowing in people’s faces. When the fire has burnt down enough to provide a bed of coals, we roast hot dogs and eat our picnic lunch. The area is so beautiful and peaceful that no one is in a hurry to leave. 

Dark, stormy clouds filled the sky a couple of times, but it never rained on our picnic. We had been concerned that the weather might spoil our fun, but it turned out to be perfect. After several hours, we put out the fire and loaded up the vehicles to return home. I decided to make a detour on the way home and drive to the top of Eagle Mountain. The road was difficult in my two-wheel-drive SUV. I kept losing traction on one steep portion of the road and had to back down the road and try three times before making it. But we were rewarded with stunning views from the summit. The sun was trying to break through the clouds, and the misty atmosphere gave the landscape an ethereal, otherworldly feel.

As we made our way down the mountain and back home, I was thankful that we had not allowed the threat of rain to keep us from our picnic. Instead of sitting at the house and wondering what the weather would do, we had gone ahead with our plans, and the day had turned out fantastic. 

Do you like the rain? We tend not to like rain very much, especially if we have an outdoor activity or work planned. Unless we have crops that need water, we don’t like the rain. Few of us look out the window on a rainy day and say, “what a great day!” The rain gets in the way of our comfort.

Too often, we let the possibility of something going wrong keep us from doing something we want to do. “But what if something goes wrong,” we say. “What if it rains on my parade.” We fail to reach our potential in life because we are too timid. But, “God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7 (NLT)

In Matthew 25, Jesus told a story that illustrates this. He describes how a wealthy master entrusted three of His employees with his money. The Master gave a different amount to each one but the same task. To invest the money he gave them. One employee was very timid. He was afraid of failure. He said, “Master, I knew that you were a hard man. So I was afraid and went and hid your money in the ground.” Matthew 25:24,25 (NCV)

Gentle Reader, the employee in this story didn’t lose the Master’s money, but he wasted an opportunity. The threat of failure kept him from fulfilling his potential. God told Joshua, “Be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9 (NLT) And he is telling you the same thing. Don’t let fear of failure keep you from doing great things in your life. Don’t let the threat of rain keep you from being all that God wants you to be.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Real Christmas Tree

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

The three girls chattered happily as they ran from tree to tree on Papa Great’s property. He had suggested that they come to choose a real Christmas tree from his woods. Even though there were so many to choose from, it didn’t take long to find a tree they liked. But they kept looking to see if there was another tree that they liked better. After looking at dozens of trees, they decided to look again at the first tree that had caught their eye. After much discussion and taking a vote, they decided on the tree. 

Papa Great brought a small bow saw for the girls to use to cut down the tree. One girl worked for a few minutes, and then another girl, but the tree still stood. When the two girls decided to work together, one on each side of the bow saw, using it as a small crosscut saw, they finished the job in a minute. The girls had their live Christmas tree. They planned to put the tree on Grandma’s deck.

While they were searching for the perfect tree, Grandma told them a story from when she was a girl. For as long as she could remember, there had been an aluminum Christmas tree in her house each Christmas. Artificial aluminum trees were shiny and felt very modern. The aluminum tree at her home was lit with different colors by a color wheel placed under the tree. The color wheel had four colored segments on a plastic wheel; when the wheel rotated, a light shone through the plastic, lighting the tree’s metallic branches with different colors. 

But this year, She and her sisters decided that they wanted to get a real Christmas tree. They planned to get a tree and have it put up before their parents got home from work. They pooled their money and walked the half mile to the Arlan’s store where they knew there were Christmas trees for sale in the parking lot. There were so many to choose from, but the girls finally decided on a tree and paid for it. Suddenly they realized that there was part of the plan they hadn’t thought through. How were they going to get the tree home?

There was nothing that they could do but try to carry the tree home. I can imagine the looks the girls received from the passersby as they trudged along the busy city thoroughfare, struggling to hold on to and carry the sizeable Christmas tree. When they finally got home, they realized that they had another problem. They had chosen a tree that was much too tall to fit in their house. They looked through their Daddy’s tools and found a small hand saw. They began trying to cut off the bottom of the tree so it would fit in the house. As they were sawing on the tree, they heard Daddy’s truck drive into the driveway. They knew that their plan of having the tree put up in the living room before their parents got home wasn’t going to happen. 

Daddy was shocked to see his girls dauntlessly trying to cut off the bottom of an oversized Christmas tree. But with his help, the girls were able to put the tree up. This year they would have a real tree, not an artificial one. The girls still remember this memorable Christmas even though it happened over fifty years ago. The story of that Christmas tree brings back special memories. 

After Grandma told the girls the story of the real Christmas tree, Papa Great told them a Christmas tree story from his childhood. He grew up in Kansas during the depression. No one ever bought a Christmas tree. He lived in a place with no evergreen trees, so they would cut a leafless tree and put it up for a Christmas tree. One Christmas, Papa Great’s older brother, decided that they should have a proper Christmas tree. So, the three siblings walked a mile to where they knew there was a large cedar tree. Papa Great’s brother climbed up into the tree and cut a few branches. They carried the branches home and tied them together to try and fashion them into a Christmas tree. That Christmas, they had a real evergreen tree in the house, even if it was just a few branches tied together. 

The girls could see the happy memories in Papa Great’s eyes even though the event had happened almost eighty years ago. And hopefully, these girls will remember the Christmas that they went to Papa Great’s and cut down their own Christmas tree. Kathryn Butler writes, “memory binds us to places that forget us, and to moments that no one else values.” But our memories are important. They shape who we are.

Poet Wendell Berry has observed that when we are young, our lives are all time and very little memory. As we grow older, we discover that our lives are almost entirely memory and very little time. It is important to remember. Memory can be a tremendous blessing. It can bring smiles, laughs, or even tears of joy as we look at pictures, share stories, or think about the good times of bygone days. The character Kevin on the TV show The Wonder Years said, “Memory is the way of holding on to the things you love, the things you are, the things you never want to lose.”

The crucial importance of memories recurs throughout the Bible. At the end of his life, Moses urges the people whom he’s shepherded for forty years to “be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you don’t forget the things which you have seen with your own eyes. Don’t let them fade from your memory as long as you live. Teach them to your children and grandchildren.” Deuteronomy 4:9 (NOG)

Gentle Reader, this Christmas, make new memories! Make lots of happy memories. Everyone has memories, both painful and joyful. But you can make plenty of positive memories to overshadow the difficult ones. And while you are making new memories, remember the blessings God has given you in the past. Pray the prayer of David found in Psalms 143:5,6 (ICB). “I remember what happened long ago. I recall everything you have done. I think about all you have made. I lift my hands to you in prayer. As a dry land needs rain, I thirst for you.” Merry Christmas and Happy Memories.