Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Happy New Year

My An Arkie's Faith column from the December 28, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

It's Christmas Eve, and the house is a bustle of activity. The kitchen has been busy all day as my wife and daughter have been preparing our Christmas Eve feast. The tradition in our family is to have Christmas Dinner on Christmas Eve, followed by a special Christmas breakfast the next morning. Flour covers the kitchen table as homemade rolls, pumpkin pie, and apple pie are prepared. Even though it is a cold day, it is hot in the kitchen as both ovens, and the stovetop are in use. 

When we sat down to eat, there was so much food that it would not fit on the table. On the sideboard were roast beef, dressing, creamed corn, mounds of mashed potatoes, gravy, homemade cranberry sauce, rolls, and pies. Because I lack even a tiny amount of self-control when it comes to food, I ate until I was stuffed.

I had been eating way too much all week. It is a Christmas hazard. I baked cookies and made almond bark to give as gifts. I had to sample a large amount of both to ensure they were high-quality enough to give away. Friends and customers brought goodies to my shop, and it would be impolite not to eat them. My brother-in-law sent a box of his wonderful homemade candy. As I popped another piece of candy into my mouth, I thought, "When New Year's gets here, I am going to start being careful what I eat."

I am not the first person to make a New Year's resolution. I imagine you have made resolutions. Making resolutions at the beginning of the New Year has a long history. Over 2,500 years ago in Babylon, people would make promises to their gods at the beginning of each year. Popular promises were things such as paying debts and returning borrowed items. Interestingly, we make resolutions on January 1st because January is named after the Roman God Janus. The Romans traditionally made annual promises to Janus.

What about the God that you serve? Does He want you to make promises to Him? Is there a right and wrong way to make resolutions? Christians should be committed to the idea that people can change for the better. We should hope for such a change in our lives and the lives of others.

Suppose you ask the average person about their resolutions for the New Year. They will probably tell you things such as cutting down on their eating, exercising more, stopping doing unhealthy things, and starting doing healthy things, etc. While these things are good, they all focus on and rely on self. These kinds of things are self-serving and rely on the power of one's self to accomplish them. Self-improvement for most people means making themselves more attractive, healthier, and happier. They depend on the power of the human will to bring about the changes.

My favorite cartoon when I was a kid was Peanuts. I remember one comic strip in particular. It is January 1st, and Charlie Brown tells anyone who will listen, "The best way to keep New Year's Resolutions is in a sealed envelope in a bottom desk drawer. Charlie Brown knew what every person who has ever made a New Year's resolution knows. Making and keeping resolutions is a troublesome business, usually filled with failure and shame.

How have your past resolutions worked out for you? I don't even want to talk about mine. If you have made and broken resolutions on many previous New Year's days, you may feel that you might as well seal them in a bottom desk drawer and forget them. That is the experience I have had.

Look at how different our typical resolutions are from the words of Paul in Colossians 3:12-14 (NCV). "God has chosen you and made you his holy people. He loves you. So you should always clothe yourselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other, and forgive each other. If someone does wrong to you, forgive that person because the Lord forgave you. Even more than all this, clothe yourself in love. Love is what holds you all together in perfect unity."

Notice how Paul's words are focused on others. If we are to use resolutions wisely, we need to turn our attention away from ourselves and toward others. Instead of focusing on ourselves, we need to focus on God and the strength that comes only from him. 

John was called the disciple that Jesus loved. It appears that Jesus had a best friend. I want my resolution to be the words that the best friend of Jesus wrote in 1 John 4:7,8 (NCV). "Dear friends, we should love each other, because love comes from God. Everyone who loves has become God's child and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

I don't know of a better resolution that you could make. If we would all resolve to love one another, imagine how different the world would be. Jesus knows you're busy and cares about the many things you have to do. So He promises that time spent with him will make you more productive: "But seek first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you." Matthew 6:33 (ESV)

Gentle Reader, New Year's resolutions aren't worthless. People who set goals are ten times more likely to succeed than those who don't. Everything that we accomplish in life is because we resolve to do it. There is no need to be discouraged if you've failed before. We all will fail at some point in our life. Failing is a learning experience so that we can do better next time. "A righteous person may fall seven times, but he gets up again." Proverbs 24:16 (GW) This year, instead of focusing on personal performance, how about focusing on a relationship with God and showing his love to others. Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Good Gifts

My An Arkie's Faith column from the December 21, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

As I sit at the computer this evening writing, the lights on the Christmas tree are sparkling in the window, and Christmas music is playing. We have just returned home after a day of Christmas shopping. During the Christmas season, we focus on giving good gifts. We spend a lot of money and time finding the right gifts for people who are essential in our lives. Did you have any great gift ideas this year? Was there a gift that you are particularly excited to give? Sometimes we fail in our gift-giving. Have you had any gift-giving disasters?

One Christmas, when my son was a young boy, we nearly ruined his Christmas with one of his gifts. One of his jobs was sweeping the kitchen floor. That Christmas, we bought a stick vacuum cleaner and thought it would be funny to give it to him as a gift. The vacuum, wrapped in beautiful paper, was the biggest present under the tree. When my son saw that the biggest present had his name on it, he was excited. His imagination went wild. What could that present be? His whole Christmas revolved around the biggest present gift under the tree and speculating what it could be.

When Christmas morning arrived, all he could think about was that present. When he opened it, he was so disappointed that the rest of his Christmas presents couldn't make up for the vacuum cleaner fiasco. His disappointment was so apparent that I felt terrible.

Have you ever been disappointed by a gift? Has someone been disappointed by the gift you gave them? What about great gifts? What is the best gift you have ever received? What made it so special? Was it the value of the present? Was it the person who gave it to you?

What is the best gift you have ever received? As I think about this question, I find it hard to narrow down one particular gift as the best. But many years ago, I received an exceptional gift that is still precious to me even though it is not valuable. Let me tell you the story.

In February 2004, my family and I went on a mission trip to San Pedro, Belize, to help build a church. While we were there, we made lots of friends. The following year we made plans to go back to San Pedro.

Our return trip to Belize was terrific. We met with friends we had made the year before and made many new friends while we were there. Often, friends would stop by our room with gifts such as fresh coconut water, papaya, or some small trinket. On our last day in San Pedro, there was a steady stream of visitors to our room. Many of them brought a small gift. They wanted to tell us goodbye.

We received one gift that was very special to me. My wife made a unique friendship with a little two-year-old boy who spoke only Spanish. Whenever he would see her, his face would light up. He didn't understand English, but he understood the language of love. The day we were leaving, he and his four-year-old sister came to our door with a gift. They gave us a well-worn 1935 Walking Liberty half-dollar. I have no idea how this little family had come into possession of this coin or why they gave it to me. Even though the coin's monetary value is only a few dollars, it is one of the most precious gifts I have ever received.

The people I met in San Pedro taught me an essential spiritual lesson. They had such a desire to do something for us. Even though they had only meager possessions, they wanted to please us. Our newfound friends needed to see us before we left and bring us a gift.

I saw a great object lesson in the way they treated me. It showed me how I should relate to God. I should come to God and say, "I don't have much, but I want to give you something." "God, let me know what I can do to please you." "God, I want to be with you."

God is the very best gift giver. His love is an extravagant gift to us. God promises us a gift more incredible than we can imagine or ask for. 2 Corinthians 9:15 (VOICE) describes Jesus this way; "Praise God for this incredible, unbelievable, indescribable gift!" With the gift of Jesus and all the other large and small ways we are blessed in this life, God wants to instill in us reciprocal generosity. All we are, all we have, is a gift from God. He is our Provider, Sustainer, Creator, and Good Father. Gift-giving allows us to keep the circle of generosity flowing to people God has placed in our lives.  

Gentle Reader, I know you have given good gifts at Christmastime. Jesus knows that too. In Matthew 7:7-11 (VOICE), Jesus said "just ask and it will be given to you; seek after it and you will find. Continue to knock and the door will be opened for you. All who ask receive. Those who seek, find what they seek. And he who knocks, will have the door opened. Think of it this way: if your son asked you for bread, would you give him a stone? Of course not—you would give him a loaf of bread. If your son asked for a fish, would you give him a snake? No, to be sure, you would give him a fish—the best fish you could find. So if you, who are sinful, know how to give your children good gifts, how much more so does your Father in heaven, who is perfect, know how to give great gifts to His children!"

God is the ultimate giver of good gifts. No matter how fantastic the best gift you open this Christmas is, it can't compare to the gift of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas. In Romans 6:23 (KJV), the Bible tells us, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord." God has given you the best gift ever; how will you reciprocate? Who could you bless this Christmastime with your time or attention, with a gift, large or small? Find a way to be a gift to someone today.

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

I Will Rescue You

My An Arkie's Faith column from the December 14, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The audience filed into the spacious auditorium and quickly found seats. As I sat down and looked around, I noticed life-size marble statues that looked like they were from ancient Greece and Rome surrounding the auditorium. The ceiling, high overhead, was inky black with tiny points of light, mimicking a starry, moonless night sky. It was as if I had been transported to a 15th-century Italian courtyard.

I am in the historic Saenger Theatre on Canal Street in New Orleans. The theatre was built in the 1920s and opened in 1927. The opulent theater was exceptionally ornate with marble, crystal chandeliers, oil paintings, and sumptuous seating for 4,000. A magnificent organ accompanied silent films, and vaudeville acts drew large crowds. In the 30s, the theatre was updated to show talking movies. After closing in the 70s and reopening in the 80s, the theatre housed a variety of events, from live performances to films.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina caused significant damage to the theatre. Water entered the theatre and rose 14 feet. Water covered the stage, filling the basement and the orchestra level. In response, the New Orleans Building Corporation and Canal Street Development Corporation partnered to restore the theatre authentically and historically. No detail was overlooked, including using historical photos to match hardware, light fixtures, windows, etc. The $53 million redevelopment project took several years to complete, and the theatre reopened in September 2013.

My wife and I were at the Saenger for a Lauren Daigle Christmas concert. Our tickets included a question-and-answer session before the show. As Lauren came out on stage, she walked to the center of the stage at the very front and sat down on a stool. She talked to us in the audience as friends, and you could feel the intimacy in the room. Because Lauren grew up in Southern Louisiana, she felt a special connection with the audience, and you could feel how much the audience loved her. 

With just a solo pianist accompanying her, Lauren began quietly singing, "You are not hidden. There's never been a moment you were forgotten. You are not hopeless though you have been broken, your innocence stolen. I hear you whisper underneath your breath. I hear your SOS, your SOS." The auditorium was hushed as the song continued. Lauren's soft but rich, earthy voice drifted out over the audience. As she began the chorus after the second verse, her voice transformed from peaceful and quiet to a powerful instrument that filled the room as she sang, "I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night. It's true; I will rescue you. I will never stop marching to reach you in the middle of the hardest fight. It's true; I will rescue you."

After singing, Lauren began taking questions from the audience. People asked, "what is your favorite food," and "what is your favorite venue where you have performed?" But there were several more serious questions. One girl asked, "When did you know that Jesus was real in your life?" Lauren told her story of being so sick as a teenager that she couldn't attend school for two years. She said that during this time of isolation, she first really got to know Jesus and have a relationship with him. Even though she was raised in the church, Lauren felt for the first time that it was real, not just a ritual. "I came to know him as my confidant, as my friend, as someone I could dream with, someone I could talk to," she explained. "That time was really special, because I was so alone," she continued. As she talked, I could see that the lyrics to her song, Rescue, might have come from personal experience.

A young girl asked, "what is your favorite Bible story?" After thinking for a few seconds, Lauren answered, "Moses and the parting of the Red Sea." She continued, "the story where Moses has all the Egyptians coming behind him, and he stands right before the water. He's probably thinking, 'God, you are crazy. There is no other option; there's nowhere else for us to go. Where are we supposed to go?' And God says, 'no, no, no, keep going forward.' I would imagine that it wasn't like the waters parted right there, and they walked through. I imagine they probably had to step into the water just to show the element of faith. And as they walked, the waters did part, and God provided a way through." Lauren concluded by saying, "I think, for me, when I'm dealing with any moment of anxiety or pressure, or when I feel like there's nowhere else to go. When everything is pushing in on me from all sides, this is the story I am reminded of. So, stay focused even when you feel like you are walking through water. God has a way of parting those and making it possible." 

Like Lauren, I love this story. "The Egyptians went after the Israelites. All Pharaoh's horses and chariots and horsemen and troops chased them. They caught up with the Israelites as they camped by the sea. The Israelites were near Pi Hahiroth, across from Baal Zephon. As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked back. There were the Egyptians marching after them! The Israelites were terrified. They cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, "Why did you bring us to the desert to die?" Exodus 14:9-11 (NIRV)

I like how confident Moses is in God's ability to save. Even before God told Moses how He would rescue them, "Moses answered the people. He said, "Don't be afraid. Stand firm. You will see how the Lord will save you today. Do you see those Egyptians? You will never see them again. The Lord will fight for you. Just be still." Exodus 14:13,14 (NIRV)

The Israelites were terrified when they saw the enemy coming their way. They doubted their leader, questioned God, complained, grumbled, and panicked. Yet God didn't get mad at their humanity or fears. He only asked for their obedience. And their trust. 

Gentle Reader, you may be in a place where you can't see any way forward. You may be facing your own Red Sea moment. Maybe the obstacles ahead seem way too hard to overcome. You may want to turn back or give up. But, the Bible tells us that "the Lord will fight for you. Just be still." Exodus 14:14 (NIRV) God says to you, "I will send out an army to find you in the middle of the darkest night. It's true; I will rescue you. I will never stop marching to reach you in the middle of the hardest fight. It's true; I will rescue you."

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

A Shepherd's Life

My An Arkie's Faith column from the December 7, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Growing up in Colorado, I remember occasionally seeing shepherds with their flocks of sheep when we traveled in the mountains. I thought that being a shepherd looked like fun. You got to spend your time outdoors in the beautiful Colorado mountains. The shepherd's tiny little trailers looked so homey and quaint.

When I got older and became an avid newspaper reader, I read some stories that showed the darker side of being a shepherd in Colorado. Most of the shepherds are foreigners who can seldom talk to family back home. They live without any human company for months at a time. The shepherds have no water, toilet, shower, or place to wash clothes. Most live in small, 6x10-foot trailers with just enough room to sleep, a small wood-burning stove, and little else. Some have an outhouse nearby, but many do not.

Before World War II, most of Colorado's shepherds were Americans. But by the early 1950s, the industry couldn't find enough American citizens willing to do the tedious and challenging work for meager wages. In 1952, Congress enacted a program to help farmers and ranchers secure a reliable supply of foreign workers. But shepherds were exempted from many of the protections granted by law to other foreign agricultural workers, such as an hourly wage and access to running water and a toilet.

More than 1,600 shepherds working in nine Western states participate in the program. They live in primitive tents or trailers, watching over thousands of animals on vast areas of public land. Most shepherds work ten to twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Federal regulations set their wages at $750 a month for decades. 

In 2019, a group of shepherds filed a complaint in Nevada, accusing their employers of paying them as little as $1.98 an hour. The shepherds claimed the ranchers' practice violated the terms of the employment contracts by violating the Temporary Agricultural Workers requirements under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Unfortunately, these conditions are not unheard of for migrant workers in agricultural industries. The Temporary Agricultural Workers program allows employers, such as sheep ranches, to hire foreign guest workers on temporary visas to fill seasonal jobs. These migrant workers are especially vulnerable to exploitation.

When you read or hear about shepherds, it is often a metaphor for a caregiver tending to his people, such as a leader or a pastor. But the actual shepherds, the ones who travel for miles daily, tending to a large flock of sheep, lead a lonely and challenging life far from civilization.

I want to be a shepherd. No, I don't want to live alone with a herd of sheep in a small trailer with no bathroom or running water and work seven days a week for twelve hours a day for minimal pay. But I have always coveted the shepherds' experience on that first Christmas night.

God could have chosen to reveal the announcement of the birth of Jesus to anyone on earth. But instead of assigning the angels to visit some of the most influential people on earth, God sent the angels to speak to humble shepherds. We don't know much about these shepherds. We know they were out in the fields. They worked the night shift, staying with the sheep to protect them. They would've lived outside of the town. No one grew up in Bethlehem and said, "I hope I grow up to be a shepherd." They represented one of the lowest rungs of the social strata.

The fields around Bethlehem would have been very dark. Suddenly a bright light broke into the black night as the sky filled with many angels. The shepherds knew how to deal with any danger threatening their animals, but they were frightened by the angels' appearance. That is why the angels told them, "don't be afraid." The angels reassured the terrified shepherds that they had good news for them. As terrifying and exciting as the experience must have been, seeing angels appearing in the night sky isn't the part of the experience that intrigues me the most. It is what happened next.

The Bible tells the story in Luke 2:15-18 (NIRV). "The angels left and went into heaven. Then the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem. Let's see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about." So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph and the baby. The baby was lying in the manger. After the shepherds had seen him, they told everyone. They reported what the angel had said about this child. All who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them."

Even in the days before media, such as television and the internet, word traveled fast that something extraordinary was happening. Imagine what it must have been like to be one of the first to see the baby Jesus! I can feel the excitement these humble shepherds felt. They had to tell people about their experiences. Can you imagine being a part of those conversations?

It all started with the shepherds. They were the first to spread the good news about Jesus. It is beautiful that God chose the lowest of the low to spread the word of the most important birth of all time. Because of their humble origins, the shepherds could not help rejoicing and telling everyone about the birth of the Messiah. If God had chosen a king or a religious leader, the situation would've played out differently. Instead, he picked a group of humble shepherds who set the tone for Jesus' life and ministry. Instead of choosing a life of luxury and power, Jesus has humble origins and exercises humility to the point of death on the cross.

Gentle Reader, even though I will never be a shepherd or experience the things that the humble shepherds of Bethlehem experienced on that first Christmas, I can follow their example. I can spread the word about the baby Jesus. I can be excited about Jesus and what he means to this world. Let's all be shepherds! That is what Christmas is all about!

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Thank God for Grace

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 23, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Thanksgiving is fast approaching, and I am getting excited. We will be heading to Ashland, Missouri, on Thursday morning to celebrate Thanksgiving with my sister and her family. Thanksgiving is such a fantastic holiday. To me, Thanksgiving is a holiday that focuses on family even more than Christmas. I am very thankful for my family.

How we celebrate Thanksgiving in America has its roots in British harvest festivals and U.S. history. In 1620, a group of more than 100 Puritans fleeing religious persecution settled in a town called Plymouth in what is now Massachusetts. The Pilgrims' first winter was so harsh that fewer than 50 survived the season.

The following spring, Native Americans taught them how to get sap from the maple trees and plant corn and other crops. The harvest was successful, and the Pilgrims had enough food for the winter. Plymouth Colony's Governor, William Bradford, decided to throw a harvest festival and invited the colony's native neighbors to take part.

Historians believe this celebration occurred sometime in the fall, though there are few clues to reconstruct the feast. What we know about it comes from a letter Edward Winslow wrote to a friend in England: "Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men fowling, that we might rejoice together after we had gathered the fruit of our labors. They, in one day, killed as much fowl as served the company almost a week. At which time, with many of the Indians coming among us, for three days, we entertained and feasted; and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation, and bestowed on our governor."

I learned in school that this festival held by the Pilgrims in 1621 was the first Thanksgiving. I later found out that it wasn't entirely true—the Pilgrims didn't think of it as a Thanksgiving observance but a harvest festival. The Pilgrims did not hold an actual Thanksgiving until two years later. 

The harvest in 1622 was a poor one for the Pilgrims in Plymouth. The following summer, they were running out of food. The outlook was grim as they were waiting for the fall harvest. The weather was hot and dry, and the crops were failing. The Pilgrims lived on a few grains of corn for days at a time. Their hopes rested on a good fall harvest. But a drought began in June, and they watched as the crops turned brown and slowly withered away. The Pilgrims turned to the only hope they had. They appointed a solemn day of prayer to ask God to intervene.

The Pilgrims assembled one July morning under a hot, clear sky and prayed for nine hours. God answered their prayers the following day. Edward Winslow wrote, "For the next two weeks distilled such soft, sweet, and moderate showers that it was hard to say whether our withered corn or drooping affections were most quickened and revived." 

Later that year, the governor of the colony, William Bradford, issued a proclamation. "Inasmuch as the great Father has given us this year an abundant harvest, has spared us from pestilence and disease, and has granted us freedom to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience. Now I, your magistrate, do proclaim that all ye Pilgrims, do gather at ye meeting house, on Thursday, November 29th, there to listen to ye pastor and render thanksgiving to ye Almighty God for all His blessings." 

Governor Bradford's Thanksgiving was the first in the English colonies in America, but the custom of marking good fortune with a day of gratitude caught on throughout New England. In 1789, President George Washington issued a Proclamation that called for a day of thanksgiving, and President Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation during the Civil War in 1863. Each year since 1863, the president of the United States has issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation.

For the Christian, Thanksgiving shouldn't be a day; it should be a lifestyle. In Philippians 4:4-6 (NET), Paul wrote, "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say, rejoice! Let everyone see your gentleness. The Lord is near! Do not be anxious about anything. Instead, in every situation, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, tell your requests to God." He added in Colossians 3:17 (ESV), "whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."

The Greek word, translated in the Bible as thanksgiving, is "eucharistia." The English spelling is eucharist. One of the definitions in my dictionary is "the giving of thanks; thanksgiving." The root word in "eucharistia" is "charis." Charis is translated into English as grace. That makes sense. What happens at the beginning of your Thanksgiving meal? Someone says "grace." Saying grace is giving thanks. 

At a British conference on religions, experts from around the globe debated what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They began eliminating possibilities. Incarnation? Other religions had different versions of gods appearing in human form. Resurrection? Again, other religions had accounts of return from death. The debate went on for some time until C.S. Lewis wandered into the room. "What's the rumpus about?" he asked and heard in reply that his colleagues were discussing Christianity's unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, "Oh, that's easy. It's grace."

After some discussion, the conferees had to agree. The notion of God's love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, is singularly Christian. Of all the world's religions, only Christianity dares to make God's love unconditional. "For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time—to show us his grace through Christ Jesus." 2 Timothy 1:9 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 4:15 (NET), "For all these things are for your sake, so that the grace that is including more and more people may cause thanksgiving to increase to the glory of God." What causes Thanksgiving in God's people? It is grace! I am so thankful for God's grace and the gift of His Son that makes grace possible. When you celebrate Thanksgiving, be sure to give thanks to God for grace.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Ehrich the Enthusiastic

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 16, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Ehrich Weiss was a remarkable man. By the time he died, he was famous around the world. But until recently, I had never heard of him. He was born to Hungarian-Jewish parents in Budapest, Austria, in 1874. In 1878 his family came to America, settling in Appleton, Wisconsin. Ehrich's father was a Rabbi and served the Zion Reform Jewish Congregation in Appleton.

When he was 13, Ehrich moved with his father to New York City. There, he became interested in the trapeze, calling himself "Ehrich, the prince of the air." Ehrich also tried his hand as a professional magician and renamed himself, Harry Houdini. I am sure you are familiar with the name Houdini. He was not successful as a magician, but he soon drew attention for his feats of escape using handcuffs. In 1893, he married fellow performer Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner, who would serve as his lifelong stage assistant, Bess Houdini.

Ehrich, as Harry Houdini, became the highest-paid entertainer of his day. He drew tremendous crowds across America and Europe. Houdini's feats would involve the local police, who would strip search him, place him in shackles and lock him in their jails. He constantly upped the ante from handcuffs and straight jackets to locked, water-filled tanks and nailed packing crates. He was able to escape because of both his uncanny strength and his equally uncanny ability to pick locks.

On March 10, 1904, the London Daily Illustrated Mirror challenged Houdini to escape from a unique pair of handcuffs they had prepared. There were six locks on each cuff and nine tumblers in each one. Seven days later, 4,000 spectators gathered in the London Hippodrome to witness Houdini attempt to escape from the handcuffs.

As the show began, Houdini was handcuffed, then stepped into an empty cabinet that came up to his waist. Kneeling, he was out of sight for a full twenty minutes. Then Houdini stood up, smiling. The crowd applauded wildly, thinking he was free. But Houdini was still in handcuffs. He asked for more light. The lights came on brighter as Houdini knelt out of sight. Fifteen minutes later,  he stood to his feet. Applause broke out, but again it was premature. The handcuffs were still on his wrists. Houdini told the crowd that he just needed to flex his knees.

Houdini went down into the cabinet again. Twenty minutes passed slowly for the murmuring crowd before he stood to his feet with a broad smile. Loud applause quickly stopped as the audience saw Houdini was not yet free. Because the bright lights made the heat so intense, he leaped from the cabinet and twisted his manacled hands in front of him until he could reach a pocketknife in his vest. Opening the knife with his teeth, Houdini held its handle in his mouth and bent forward until the tail of his coat fell over his head. He grasped the coat, pulled it over his head, then slashed it to ribbons with the knife between his teeth. Throwing aside the strips of his heavy coat, he jumped back into the box as the audience roared its approval and cheered him on.

Down went Houdini, but this time for only ten minutes. With a dramatic flourish, he jumped from the box, showing the crowd that his wrists were free, and waving the bulky handcuffs over his head in triumph. Once again Houdini had achieved what seemed impossible. 

Afterward, Houdini agreed to an interview. Everyone wanted to know why he had to interrupt the process of his escape as often as he did. With a twinkle in his eyes, the magician admitted that he didn't have to interrupt the process. The interviewer asked why he kept standing up before he was loose. Houdini confessed it was because he wanted the audience's applause to keep up his enthusiasm!

Enthusiasm is powerful. Athletes feed on it. Salespeople are motivated by it. Teachers count on it, and students fail without it. Enthusiasm is essential to athletes and performers and is also necessary for ordinary people like you and me. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm."

Few characteristics are more contagious and more magnetic. An enthusiastic person believes in his ability to transform things and make them work. It is not success that brings enthusiasm. It is enthusiasm that brings success. A genuinely enthusiastic person can be more productive and dedicated to whatever he does. 

I think enthusiasm is one of the most remarkable words in the English language! It is derived from two Greek words, en and theos. Theos is the Greek word for God, so "enthusiasm" literally means "full of God." Maybe that's why enthusiastic people are so often creative and joyful! I'm convinced that one of the reasons God gives us so many personal promises in the Bible is to stir up our enthusiasm.

God wants enthusiastic followers. "He gave himself for us to set us free from every sin and to cleanse us so that we can be his special people who are enthusiastic about doing good things." Titus 2:14 (GW) But often, we find ourselves in an environment where our enthusiasm gets siphoned off. For example, if you are constantly in the company of negative people, your outlook will become negative, and your reactions to people and events will be negative.

God wants to fill us with enthusiasm that isn't affected by the economy, politics, the weather, negative people, or our circumstances. He wants us to be enthusiastic about our relationship with Him. Paul tells us how to do this in Romans 12:10-12 (NLT), where he writes, "love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other. Never be lazy, but work hard and serve the Lord enthusiastically. Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying."

Gentle Reader, we can choose enthusiasm. We can stop saying discouraging, hateful, negative, and critical things. Choose enthusiasm! Talk it, live it, pray it, act it! The Bible tells us in Ecclesiastes 9:10 (NLV), "whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might." Whatever you do, "work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people." Ephesians 6:7 (NLT) God wants terrific things for us. Let's show our enthusiasm!

Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Rosie the Riveter

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 9, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The black road seemed to soak up the light from the headlights as the Hyundai wound its way down the crooked northwest Arkansas road. Heavy rain pelted the car as the windshield wipers struggled to keep up with the deluge of water hitting the windshield. I tightened my grip on the steering wheel as I tried to see ahead into the darkness. 

Bright lights shone in my rearview mirror, making me nervous. "Why is that car tailgating me when the conditions are so treacherous," I thought. Occasionally the black of the stormy night was illuminated with streaks of bold light as lightning lit the road for a few seconds. For a moment, I could see just how narrow the road was. There were no shoulders, and trees lined the edge of the road.

As I guided the car around yet another curve, suddenly, I saw a large tree branch across the road. I veered hard to the left and squeezed between the branch and a large tree growing next to the road. As I steered back into my lane, I heard a dull thud and felt something hit the car. The headlights were no longer shining behind me. "Did that car hit me," I wondered? As soon as I came to a house, I pulled into the driveway and stopped. Getting out of the car in the pouring rain, I inspected the vehicle as best I could but didn't see any damage. Breathing a sigh of relief, I continued down the road. 

As we proceeded the final mile to our destination, we tried to figure out what had just happened. We were on our way to pick up our granddaughters from the boarding academy they attended. We were visiting them this weekend because my granddaughter, Autumn, was the lead in the school play. We were excited to see her performance as Rosie the Riveter. The play would be the following evening, but tonight was a time for family to be together and a pizza party at Fratelli's Wood-Fired Pizzeria. 

By the time we dropped the girls back at their dormitory, the thunderstorm was over, but there was still light rain. I returned to our VRBO via a longer highway route to avoid the narrow, crooked roads. The following day, the sun shone as I drove back to the dorm to pick up the girls. We would be spending the day with family before attending the performance of Rosie the Riveter that evening. I chose the same route to the dorm I had taken the night before. When I came to the area where I had swerved to miss the tree, I slowed to a crawl, trying to see if I could figure out what had happened.

When I came around the corner, I saw that the large tree branch had been cut with a chainsaw and removed from the road. On the other side of the road, there were marks on the large tree at the road's edge, and down the embankment were a front bumper, grill, and suspension parts. The car from the night before must have swerved too far to the left and hit the tree. That was the thud that we heard. The plastic front bumper must have hit our car as it flew off after the impact.

As I picked up my granddaughter, she was excited as she tried to tell me the story of the evening before. When I dropped her off the night before, she couldn't believe how quiet the dorm was. Usually, there is talking, giggling, and excitement, but not tonight. "What is going on," she asked. She found out that soon after she left with us for the evening, the dorm was locked down. The lockdown was lifted just a few minutes before she returned. Everyone was shaken up by the events of the evening.

The police had alerted the school that they were pursuing a suspect who was armed and dangerous. The suspect broke into a home and shot someone during the robbery. After fleeing the scene, he crashed into a tree and fled on foot. As I listened to her story, a shiver ran down my spine. The car the night before had been tailgating me because he was fleeing the crime scene, and I was in his way. If we had stopped to see what had caused the thud, I'm sure our car would have been commandeered, and who knows what he would have done to us. I sent up a quick prayer of thanks to God for his protection.

After spending a wonderful day with family and hiking at Natural Falls State Park in Oklahoma, we returned to the school to see the drama department's performance of Rosie the Riveter. From the opening scene, my granddaughter lit up the stage with her portrayal of Rosie. 

As the play opens, it's January 1942, and Eddie, the owner of Eddie's Auto Parts Factory, is struggling now that there is a freeze on car parts manufacturing. His secretary, Rosie, wonders if the factory can secure a government contract and make airplane parts instead if only they can find workers. Rosie is willing to shed tradition, roll up her sleeves and do her part. She recruits women to fill manufacturing jobs and is chosen to become the iconic image that will inspire many women workers to join the cause.

Rosie the Riveter was the star of a campaign to recruit female workers for defense industries during World War II. She became perhaps the most iconic image of working women. The Rosies from World War II had a common enemy to defeat. They rolled up their sleeves and went to work. Just as the iconic poster proclaims, they said collectively, "we can do it!"

We, as Christians, also have an enemy to defeat. But too often, we are taking the fight to the wrong places. Ephesians 6:11 (NLT) tells us to "put on all of God's armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil." "Most importantly, be disciplined and stay on guard. Your enemy the devil is prowling around outside like a roaring lion, just waiting and hoping for the chance to devour someone." 1 Peter 5:8 (VOICE)

Gentle Reader, we can do it! We can make a difference. But we won't change the world by organizing a mob or by railing against the government. We transform the world by living as followers of Jesus. "I ask that you pray for all people. Ask God to bless them and give them what they need. And give thanks. You should pray for rulers and for all who have authority. Pray for these leaders so that we can live quiet and peaceful lives—lives full of devotion to God and respect for him. This is good and pleases God our Savior." 1 Timothy 2:1-3 (ERV) Let's pray for change, justice, righteousness, and love. And little by little, person by person, by God's grace, we can change the world. We can do it!

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

A New Roof

My An Arkie's Faith column from the November 2, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

My mini golden doodle, Tucker, was frantic. He didn't know what was happening, but he knew he didn't like it. Loud banging and scraping sounds were coming from the roof over the bedroom. Tucker was jumping and whining. No matter what we did, he would not settle down. He was sure that the sky was falling. 

The noise came from workers on the roof who were scraping off the old shingles directly above the bedroom. On another part of the roof, other workers were nailing new shingles. Even though the activity on the roof distressed Tucker, it made me happy. Finally, after a five-year ordeal, we were getting a new roof on our house.

During an intense thunderstorm five years ago, hail damaged our roof. The next time it rained, we noticed several leaks in the house. I called our insurance company, and they sent an adjuster to inspect the damage. The adjuster decided that the damage was minimal and issued a small check. With the money, I could replace the vent pipe boots, but there was nothing left for roof repairs or repainting the stained areas in the house where the roof leaked.

When I had a roofer inspect the damage, he took over 100 photos documenting it, but when he contacted the insurance company, they refused to reinspect the roof, telling me the case was closed and they would not reopen it. I knew I would have to pay for the new roof, so I started saving for the project. 

By the time we had saved money and were ready to replace the roof, it seemed that everyone in the construction business had more work than they could do. One day, Jeff stopped by our house. Earlier in the year, Jeff had removed some trees from our backyard and had done an excellent job. He wanted to see how the project in our backyard had turned out. When Jeff learned that we were looking for someone to put a new roof on our house, he told us that he worked with an experienced roofer and they would be interested in the job.

A couple of days later, Jeff came by with a bid to put a new roof on my house. We both signed a professionally printed contract form. I gave him money to buy the 50 squares of shingles needed to do the job. He had six squares of shingles delivered to my house and told me that he would start the work in two days. But instead of beginning work, Jeff called and said that he and the other roofer had contracted Covid. Many people in our community were sick with Covid, so I didn't see a red flag. After two weeks, I called Jeff to see how he was doing and when work would start on my roof. He would never answer the phone. I called the number of the other roofer, and he wouldn't answer either. 

When I took my contract and canceled checks to the police department, they immediately knew Jeff had conned me. Jeff was well-known by the police, but not by the last name he gave me. I was not the first person in town to be scammed. It has been a year, and the police have yet to apprehend Jeff or his accomplices. 

We didn't have a new roof, and we no longer had enough money to hire someone else. But after a year of saving, we started looking for a roofer. Friends of my wife recommended David's Roofing, and after meeting with their representative, Rick, we felt comfortable with the company. When Rick sent us the bid for the job, we agreed and signed the contract. 

Within a few weeks, the David's Roofing crew was at our house, and six guys were scrambling over the steep roof, replacing our 29-year-old roof. As the crew was finishing the job, my wife picked up the fixin's for a taco lunch from Papa's Mexican Café. The crew enjoyed the tacos on our front porch as a light rain began to fall. It took them just two days, and now we had a beautiful new roof. I felt a wave of relief at the sight of the completed job.

I'm thankful to have a new roof. After so many problems and pitfalls, it feels good to know that I don't have to worry about my roof anymore. While I was reading the book of Ecclesiastes, I found this little gem. "When you are too lazy to repair your roof, it will leak, and the house will fall in." Ecclesiastes 10:18 (GNT) The primary function of any roof is to offer protection from the elements for people and their possessions. A good roof gives shelter. 

There is an old hymn that equates God to a shelter. "The Lord's our Rock; in Him we hide. A shelter in the time of storm." Verse two reads, "A shade by day, defense by night. A shelter in the time of storm; No fears alarm, no foes affright. A shelter in the time of storm." God is our shelter and our refuge. David wrote in Psalms 91:1,2 (NLT), "Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; he is my God, and I trust him."

Gentle Reader, you need a good, sturdy roof to shelter you from the elements. Isaiah 15:4 (CEV) tells us, "You have been a place of safety for the poor and needy in times of trouble. Brutal enemies pounded us like a heavy rain or the heat of the sun at noon, but you were our shelter." When the rains come, make sure you find shelter under a roof that doesn't leak. Pray the prayer that David prayed, "I come to you for shelter. Protect me, keep me safe, and don't disappoint me." Psalms 25:20 (CEV) "If you make the Lord your refuge, if you make the Most High your shelter, no evil will conquer you; no plague will come near your home." Psalms 91: 9,10 (NLT) It is essential to have refuge and shelter provided by a good roof. I'm thankful to have a new roof, and I am grateful for the protection that God has promised us.

Wednesday, October 26, 2022

Stay Warm

My An Arkie's Faith column from the October 26, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The mornings had been cooler for a few days, but this morning was downright cold. A cold blast of air blew right through me as I walked out the front door, heading to work. When I arrived at my shop, I glanced at the thermometer that hung next to the front door. It read 26 degrees. I shivered, as just knowing the temperature made me even colder. "It is too cold for the middle of October," I thought.

I entered my shop and immediately turned on the 220-volt, 5000-watt space heater. It was the first time I had used the heater since a major renovation of my shop. The heater had taken the chill out of the air in just a few minutes, and I was comfortable working. Before long, it was warm enough to turn down the heater. I'm not too fond of cold weather, but I was excited to see how well my shop would stay warm.

This spring, I started working on my cold, drafty shop. The building is old and needs updating. In several places, the ceiling had fallen, so heat quickly escaped. Some of the siding had rotted away, and you could see outside. The old, ill-fitting garage door left significant gaps. I would stuff old blankets into the cracks to try and keep some heat in the shop. It wasn't easy trying to keep the shop warm.

My friend, Dale, worked hard for most of the spring building and insulating new walls and ceilings. He patiently worked through all the quirks of my old building. Blake at MCW Pro did a masterful job of engineering and installing new garage doors that sealed out the elements. Terry tore off the old siding, replaced rotten studs, put in new insulation, and after installing the metal siding, he spray-foamed and caulked the building. After a thick layer of spray foam insulation was sprayed onto the ceiling, I was sure my shop was ready for cold weather. The final touch was when Gage applied seven gallons of white paint to the interior walls. I was pleased with the results.

I was happy that my shop was now able to hold the heat. It was satisfying to know that I would be able to stay warm this winter. All the hard work and expenses were worth it. It is incredible the difference that insulation and sealing can make. Science and technology writer Chris Woodford explains it this way.

"The real problem with home heating is retaining the heat you produce: in winter, the air surrounding your home and the soil or rock on which it stands are always at a much lower temperature than the building, so no matter how efficient your heating is, your home will still lose heat sooner or later. The answer is, of course, to create a kind of buffer zone in between your warm house and the cold outdoors. This is the basic idea behind heat insulation, which is something most of us think about far too little. According to the US Department of Energy, only a fifth of homes built before 1980 are properly insulated."

The second law of thermodynamics, overly simplified, tells us that energy is always looking to move towards less energy. When we are talking about heating our homes and workspaces, that means energy in the form of heat will always move towards less heat energy unless we intervene and work hard to guard against it. 

Just like we need insulation to keep the heat in our houses, we, as Christians, need to insulate ourselves from the cold of the world around us. Paul explained what I call the second law of spiritual thermodynamics in Romans 7:15-24 (NLT) 

"I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate. But if I know that what I am doing is wrong, this shows that I agree that the law is good. So, I am not the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it. And I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. I want to do what is right, but I can't. I want to do what is good, but I don't. I don't want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. But if I do what I don't want to do, I am not really the one doing wrong; it is sin living in me that does it.

I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God's law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?" 

The second law of thermodynamics tells us that energy is always looking to move towards less energy. In the same way, the second law of spiritual thermodynamics tells us that our sinful nature will always win if we do not have help from God. Our sinful hearts automatically desire to conform to the surrounding climate of the world. "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) "Don't copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God's will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect." Romans 12:2 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, Jesus knew the struggle we would face. When He was praying in the garden before His arrest, He prayed for you and me. "I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one." The cold of the world around us will always be trying to get inside us, so we need to have the proper insulation. "Like a bird protecting its young, God will cover you with His feathers, will protect you under His great wings; His faithfulness will form a shield around you, a rock-solid wall to protect you." Psalms 91:4 (VOICE) Ask God to insulate you from the cold of this world so you can stay warm.

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

We'll Get Together Then

My An Arkie's Faith column from the October 19, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Harold wasn't at the hospital the day his son was born; his job had taken him out of state. But he didn't miss the birth on purpose. His wife Sandra's due date was two months away. Earlier that day, Sandra had driven him to the airport to catch a flight to Atlanta. On her way home, she began to have premature labor pain and went straight to the hospital, where baby Josh was born just a few hours later. Because of his premature birth, baby Josh needed special care.

Later that day, Sandra called Harold at his Atlanta hotel to tell him that he had a son and that baby Josh would need extended care. It wouldn't be the last time that Harold missed a milestone moment in his son's life. Harold's professional future was looking very bright, but his home life was deteriorating. A couple of years earlier, he had been an out-of-work documentary filmmaker. Sandra remembered those days, "He'd pick up $100 here, $100 there for something but the money ran out. All of a sudden, there was a recession. There was nobody looking for him for a documentary, and that's when he got a hack license. And the day that he got assigned to this garage, three different film jobs came in, and then he did some training films for IBM." Harold never drove a cab, but he turned the idea into a song.

"By late Fall 1970, out of work, I start writing songs again, although in a completely different style," Harold remembered. "My quest for interesting film stories leads me into a narrative form of songwriting. It is fun writing again, and my brothers Tom and Steve, having formed their own group, are willing to perform some of my material. The end of 1970 arrives, there are no film jobs, and the movie industry is an economic disaster area. My daughter Jenny is six months on the way to being born, and I panic. I set into New York City to sign up for a hack license. On the way, I meet an old girlfriend who has married money instead of becoming an actress, and I contemplate the irony of flying in my taxi. But the day I'm supposed to start driving, fate again intervenes, and I'm offered three film jobs. Relieved, I plunge back into work but find that the songs are still coming."

Harold, "Harry," Chapin landed a record deal and released his first album in March 1972. His first single, "Taxi," made it onto Top 40 radio. The story of unfulfilled dreams struck a chord with the public. "She was going to be an actress, and I was going to learn to fly," but neither one of them are happy in their lives. There's this poignant moment near the end where she gives him a twenty-dollar bill, and he no longer has the pride to reject it, stuffs it in his pocket, and goes on.

With newfound success, Harry was touring extensively. Life on the road was lonely, and lady admirers were many. In December 1973, while Harry was in the recording studio, Sandy answered a call from one of Harry's admirers. As she talked, her anger exploded. After getting rid of the female caller, Sandy called Harry at the studio and told him not to bother coming home because their marriage was over. Overcome by the reality that his wife was leaving him, Harry fell into the dark abyss of depression. Despite his unfaithfulness and stupid, selfish behavior, Harry realized how much he wanted Sandy and the kids. 

After repeated apologies and promises that Harry would put his family first, Sandy said that if Harry was willing to change, she was ready to listen. Harry made his family his new number-one priority, and to prove it, he canceled all his western U.S. concert tours to limit his time away from home, and he started coming home the same night after his concerts, catching a red-eye flight. While he was away, Harry called Sandy multiple times daily, giving her updates and telling her he loved her. Not surprisingly, as Harry began to change, so did his songwriting. More and more, he looked to his family for inspiration. 

Around this time, Sandy showed Harry a poem she had written. When he read it, he told her he would put it to music. I'm sure you have heard Sandy's words. "The cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon. Little boy blue and the man in the moon. 'When you coming home, dad?' 'I don't know when, but we'll get together then. You know we'll have a good time then.'"

The song tells the story of a well-meaning but career-driven father. "My child arrived just the other day. He came to the world in the usual way. But there were planes to catch and bills to pay. He learned to walk while I was away." The implication is that his career is his priority, so he begins missing important landmarks in his boy's life. Fast forward to the final verse; the father is retired, but his son has moved away and now has a family of his own. The father calls and says,"' I'd like to see you if you don't mind.' He said, 'I'd love to, dad, if I can find the time. You see, my new job's a hassle, and the kids have the flu. but it's sure nice talking to you, dad.'"

Harry released the single Cat's in the Cradle in 1974. The song reached the top of the Billboard music charts, sold millions, and earned Harry Chapin a Grammy nomination for Best Song. In other words, it struck a chord with people. Just five years later, my daughter was born. I could see myself in the lyrics. Six days a week, I left the house early in the morning before she was awake and didn't get back home until after she was asleep. We moved to Mena, Arkansas, when she was almost two years old. My wife agreed to the move stipulating that I would work fewer hours and only five days a week.

Gentle Reader, in Colossians 3:21 (CJB), Paul wrote, "Fathers, don't irritate your children and make them resentful, or they will become discouraged." Too many of us as fathers have experienced some form of the Cat's in the Cradle experience. Sandy Chapin said, "I think the reason people responded and continue respond is because it is a real-life story and everybody has a piece of that experience. I think today more than ever we need the song to help inspire us as parents to give our children the time the attention and the love that they need. Because, let's be honest it's it's not getting easier to live in this world."  

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Turkey Track

My An Arkie's Faith column from the October 12, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

For many years, whenever I traveled to Russellville, Jasper, Harrison, or Branson, I would pass by a large open field with what looked like hundreds of RV camping spaces on Hwy 250. There was a small sign that said Turkey Track Bluegrass music. I wondered why it was there and why I never saw anyone there. 

One day a couple of years ago, I saw a flyer advertising the Turkey Track Bluegrass Festival. I thought that it sounded interesting. I love music, but I had never attended a bluegrass festival. The timing didn't work out, so I couldn't attend the festival. Each year, in the back of my mind, I thought about attending the festival, but it never seemed to happen.

I decided that I would try to go to Turkey Track this year. A few days ago, a Facebook post on my phone showed that Rhonda Vincent would be playing at Turkey Track. I had heard her play at Silver Dollar City in the 80s and followed her career. I called my cousin, who likes bluegrass, and asked him if he would like to go. He said that he would, and we made plans to attend.

I tried to find information about the festival and when Rhonda Vincent would be playing, but I had a hard time. I couldn't find any information on the internet. I finally found a phone number and found out who the performers would be, and the times they would be playing. I arranged my work schedule to leave an hour early and make it to the evening concert on time.

As my cousin and I drove past the Turkey Track venue, we saw hundreds of RVs sprawled out over the countryside. We were amazed by the number of people at the festival. I learned that Turkey Track Bluegrass Park puts on one of the largest bluegrass festivals west of the Mississippi. The festival has been held there for the last 45 years.

We parked and asked for directions to the stage. After finding a place to set our camping chairs, we checked out the craft booths and the food trucks. We settled on a healthy supper of pizza, grilled cheese, kettle corn, and soft-serve ice cream. Soon the evening concert started, with the Roving Gambler Band playing their brand of infectious bluegrass music. Their fun-loving and lighthearted approach to performing kept the audience entertained and laughing.

Walter Schook, the lead singer and guitarist, started the Roving Gambler Band over 30 years ago with friends devoted to the idea that Bluegrass Music should be fun! The infectious laughter and great music were a great way to start the evening. Christine Talley played the upright bass and was a crowd favorite when she sang. Her banter with Walter, the band leader, kept the crowd in stitches.

Next up was SpringStreet. Their musicianship was amazing and featured wonderful vocal harmonies. They started in 1990 when founding members Mike Williams and Steve Carroll went to Eureka Springs to see Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, perform. They decided to start a band and decided on the name SpringStreet because that was the name of the street next to the auditorium where they heard Bill Monroe. Twenty years later, the band has developed its own sound with a combination of bluegrass, gospel, folk, and country, served up bluegrass style.

As talented as the Roving Gambler Band and SpringStreet were, when Rhonda Vincent took the stage she had the audience in the palm of her hand. It was amazing to be sitting in the Arkansas countryside, miles from anything, and listening to an artist who has won seven female vocalist of the year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association. After listening to great songs like All American Bluegrass Girl and Rhonda's beautiful tribute to Loretta Lynn, Blue Kentucky Girl, she sang a song that was a change of pace and had a message that hit home. 

Her voice rang out over the Arkansas countryside, and her band joined in with backing vocals as they sang, "There are many people who will say they're Christians. And they live like Christians on the Sabbath day. But come Monday morning, till the coming Sunday, they will fight their neighbor all along the way." Then a deep male bass voice sang, "Oh, you don't love God," and Rhonda responded, "If you don't love your neighbor. If you gossip about him, if you never have mercy, if he gets into trouble, and you don't try to help him. Then you don't love your neighbor, and you don't love God."

The song teaches an essential Biblical truth that has been lost in today's Christian culture. In 1 John 4:7,8 (KJV), The Apostle John tells us, "Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love." 

In Luke chapter ten, there is a story of a religious expert who tries to trick Jesus. He asked, "what shall I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus answered, "What is written in the law? What do you read there?" The man answered, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength." Deuteronomy 6:5 (NCV) And then he added a passage in Leviticus 19:18 (NCV), and "love your neighbor as you love yourself."

Then Jesus said, "Your answer is right." "' Ah,' said the lawyer, wanting to win the point, 'but who is my neighbor?'" Luke 10:29 (NTE): Often, we as Christians are like the lawyer, trying to find a loophole that doesn't require us to love others. We want to define our neighbor as the person next door who believes the same way we do. But even if we want to narrow the definition of who our neighbor is, Jesus tells us, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemies.' But I say to you, love your enemies. Pray for those who hurt you." Matthew 5:43 (NCV)

Gentle Reader, God hasn't asked us only to love those who are similar to us or with whom we are comfortable. We love people by genuinely seeking what is best for them. Loving others does not mean agreeing with everything they say or do, nor does it mean acting in ways that always gain their approval. Loving our neighbors means attending to their needs—both physical and spiritual. As the song says, "you don't love God if you don't love your neighbor."