Wednesday, August 31, 2022

The James Webb Space Telescope

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 31, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

While attending grade school during the 1960s, I had two passions that consumed me. I loved baseball. I chewed lots of awful gum to collect baseball cards. As much as I loved baseball, space exploration intrigued me. My heroes were the astronauts in NASA's space program, and I read everything about them that I could get my hands on. In 1969 my interest in space was at a fever pitch. Everyone was talking about the race to land on the moon. The entire world was captivated when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Every newspaper covered the story. I soaked it all in.

While I went through High School, I stayed interested in space, but there were many other things to interest me and take up my time. By now, there had been six moon landings and one near disaster. In just a few years, astronauts on the moon had gone from the most exciting and talked about thing on the planet to ho-hum, you can drive a vehicle on the moon. I wasn't the only one less excited about the space program. The Apollo 17 mission in December 1972 was the final mission of NASA's Apollo program. With the end of moon exploration, public interest in space exploration waned.

NASA didn't recapture the interest of most Americans until 1981, when the Space Shuttle Columbia made the first flight of a space vehicle that returned to Earth and was reusable. Once again, humans seemed on the verge of conquering the heavens. One of the exciting new directions in space exploration was the Hubble Space Telescope. In 1979 work was started on this new project. After many delays, it launched in 1990. Once again, NASA captured the interest of the American public.

I remember sitting at my new Windows 95 computer with a dial-up modem and waiting several minutes for high-resolution Hubble Telescope images to download. The photos that Hubble produced were breathtaking. When I first saw the pictures, I thought of the words of David found in Psalms 19:1 (AMP), "The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And the expanse of heaven is declaring the work of His hands."

In 1989, even before the Hubble Space Telescope launched, NASA scientists started asking, "what's next?" But it wasn't until the mid-1990s that the idea of an infrared telescope, the Next Generation Space Telescope, was formally proposed and approved.

In 2002, the Next Generation Space Telescope project was officially named the James Webb Space Telescope. James Webb, who ran NASA from February 1961 to October 1968, did more for space exploration than any other government official. He shepherded the agency from the first American manned space flight to circling the moon. By the time Webb retired just a few months before the first moon landing in July 1969, NASA had launched more than 75 space science missions to study the stars and galaxies, our own Sun, and the as-yet-unknown environment of space above the Earth's atmosphere. As early as 1965, Webb also had written that a major space telescope, known as the Large Space Telescope, should become a significant NASA effort.

In September 2003, NASA awarded the $825 million contract for James Webb Space Telescope with a planned launch date in 2007. But engineering problems, political hesitancy, and project management issues caused countless delays. In July 2011, Congress threatened to pull funding for the project. After a tense few months, Congress funded the telescope project in November 2011. 

By 2017, the telescope was complete, but NASA delayed the launch due to technical issues. In 2018, an independent review board recommended that the launch be moved to March 2021. But the global pandemic created problems for NASA, and delays kept coming. Finally, the James Webb Space Telescope was successfully launched on Dec 25, 2021.

On July 12, 2022, NASA released the first full-color images from the telescope to the public. Although the release of the pictures barely made a blip in the news media, The magnificent photo of the Carina Nebula took me back to my childhood and the excitement I felt about space exploration. Isaiah 40:26 (VOICE) tells us, "look at the myriad of stars and constellations above you. Who set them to burning, each in its place? Who knows those countless lights each by name? They obediently shine, each in its place, because God has the great strength and strong power to make it so."

The universe staggers our imagination. It is humbling to realize that our planet earth is simply a speck of cosmic dust in the grand universe God created. David was amazed by God's creation. In Psalms 8:3,4 (NLT), he wrote, "When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you set in place, what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?"

When I first became excited by space exploration as a boy, the 200-inch telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California was the most famous in the world. It was a far cry from the telescope built by Galileo in 1609. With each new telescope, from Galileo to the James Webb Space Telescope, we can see more and more in the universe. 

The effect was awe-inspiring when I experienced the night sky in the Big Bend area of Texas with its almost nonexistent light pollution. There were so many stars visible than I could typically see. There are over two thousand stars visible in a dark night sky. But starting with Galileo, with each improvement in telescope technology, more and more stars have become visible to astronomers.

Gentle Reader, it is the same with the Bible. I have been reading and studying the Bible since I was a boy, but there are still new discoveries. Paul wrote to Timothy, "Since you were a child you have known the Holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise. And that wisdom leads to salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing people what is wrong in their lives, for correcting faults, and for teaching how to live right" 2 Timothy 3:15,16 (NCV). Keep studying the Bible; you don't know what discoveries are still waiting for you.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Berlin Cathedral

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 24, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

It was our first full day in Berlin and we were at the Pergamon Museum. We were experiencing one of the well-known features of the museum, the Ishtar Gate from Babylon. It reaches thirty-eight feet from the floor to the ceiling, covered in shimmering, brightly glazed cobalt blue bricks. The finely carved animal reliefs shine with vibrant aqua blues, greens, and yellows. Daddy and I gazed up at the images of dragons, lions, and young bulls. 

Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II built the Ishtar Gate around 575 BCE. The gate was the main entrance into the city of Babylon and was part of Nebuchadnezzar's plan to beautify his empire's capital. He placed an inscription on the gate that read, "I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendor so that people might gaze on them in wonder." Thousands of years later, his words ring true as I gazed in wonder when I first encountered the ancient entryway.

In a museum filled with ancient wonders, including the Market Gate of Miletus, a large marble monument built in Miletus, in modern-day Turkey, in the 2nd century AD., the Ishtar Gate stood out in its brilliant color and magnificent artistry. "What an amazing way to start our tour of Germany," I thought. After lunch in the museum café, where I enjoyed an excellent veggie burger and experienced rhubarb juice for the first time, Daddy and I headed back to our hotel. 

As we walked across the Spree River bridge, we saw a fantastic view of the Berlin Cathedral with its striking, green-colored copper dome. The Cathedral's history goes back to the 15th century. In 1894, Emperor Wilhelm II decided to demolish the old Cathedral and build a new cathedral that he envisioned as the answer to St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.

Daddy and I decided to take a river cruise on the Spree River. It was a beautiful day, and relaxing after the long walk from our hotel to Museum Island and taking in the Pergamon Museum felt good. Because the Berlin Cathedral sits on the banks of the Spree, our cruise gave us incredible views of the Cathedral and all the other beautiful buildings on Museum Island. I was looking forward to touring the Cathedral later. Our tour had arranged a guided tour of the Cathedral later that day.

The Berlin Cathedral tour was an optional extra for anyone who wanted to go. We were to meet our tour guide at 4:30 in the hotel lobby and walk to the Cathedral for the 5:00 tour. By the time Daddy and I returned to the hotel, and he was settled in our room, the tour group had already left the hotel. 

I started walking to the train station using the app on my phone. According to the app, I would be able to catch the train and make it to the Cathedral in time. There was just one problem. The app directed me to the train station and even gave me the train number, but I couldn't find the train. There were two levels to the station, but I couldn't find my train, U5, anywhere. I assumed the U meant upper, and I walked the length of the upper level but could not find it. I finally found a wide staircase going down from the main level and discovered that U meant underground. By the time I found my train and got off at the Museum Island stop, it was after 5:00.

I hurried to the Berlin Cathedral, but there was no sign of my group. When I walked up to the entrance, there were signs saying the Cathedral was closed for the day. I tried the door, thinking my group might be inside or someone could direct me to them, but the door was locked. A wave of disappointment washed over me. I had missed the tour. I was upset with myself for not figuring out the train system in time. "Oh well," I thought, "there's nothing I can do about it now." 

I had been so rushed trying to get to the Cathedral on time that I hadn't paid attention to what was happening around me. I stood there, taking in my surroundings. As I walked back onto the Spree River bridge, I heard a young girl playing the flute. I leaned against the railing for a few minutes listening to her play. As I walked away, I tossed a Euro coin into the small box next to her that read, "spende." My translation app told me that "spende" meant donation.

As I walked across the bridge, I was in no hurry to return to the hotel. I had not traveled to Germany to spend my time in a hotel. I wandered through the area's streets and found a several-block-long cobblestone pedestrian lane lined with tall, beautiful trees in an area surrounded by buildings. As I walked along, I heard music and followed the sound until I came to a place where a band was playing in front of a small coffee shop.

I ordered a latte macchiato and sat at a small table under the trees listening to the upbeat, happy music. Even though the songs were in Spanish and I could only pick out a few words, the pop, reggae, latin, fusion was unique and enjoyable. When the band took a break, I went up to talk to them and asked if anyone spoke English. The lead singer spoke English, and we spent a few minutes visiting. He and his band Mikarma were visiting Berlin for the first time, and they had only been in Germany for a couple of days. 

As I made my way through the streets of Berlin on my way back to my hotel, I thought about how disappointed I was to miss the Berlin Cathedral tour. But I realized that If I had made the tour in time, I would have missed out on the experience of listening to and visiting with the band Mikarma. Sometimes what we think to be annoyances can be blessings in disguise. Those times we are late or held up from being where we feel we should be at the time can end up being God's plan for us all along.

Gentle Reader, "people may make plans in their minds, but only the Lord can make them come true." Proverbs 16:1 (NCV) Don't let disappointments in life bring you down. We never know what God has in store for us in the future. "I know what I have planned for you," says the Lord. "I have plans to prosper you, not to harm you. I have plans to give you a future filled with hope." Jeremiah 29:11 (NET)


Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The Teal Envelope

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 17, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The teal envelope stood out from the white envelopes of the bills, credit card offers, and an "urgent notice" from a health insurance company. When we opened the envelope, there was a card with beautiful branches and green and teal leaves covering the top third. Below the leaves, the card proclaimed, "we do, again. Celebrating 50 years of marriage." My wife's sister from Oregon was renewing her vows and celebrating her fiftieth anniversary in a few weeks. 

Just a few days before the teal envelope came in the mail, my wife and I had rented a VRBO and finalized plans for a long weekend trip to the beach in Gulfport, Mississippi. As my wife was reading the invitation, she said, "I wish we hadn't made plans to go to the beach; I would really like to go to Oregon for my sister's fiftieth." After we discussed the situation for a few minutes, I said, "I wouldn't be able to go, but why don't we see what it would cost for you to fly out for the weekend."

After checking the price of an airline ticket, my wife was ready to back out. Prices had risen a couple of hundred dollars since her last trip to Oregon. But we decided that she should go. How often can you attend your sister's fiftieth wedding anniversary? Once we purchased the ticket, my wife had an idea she thought would make the trip more fun. She envisioned keeping her plans a secret from her sister and surprising her by just walking into her house. The more my wife thought about it, the more she wanted to try to pull it off.

To make her surprise work, she needed the help of her nieces. As her plan developed, she decided that the best way to surprise her sister would be for her nieces to arrange a family get-together at a restaurant on the evening her flight landed in Portland. Her niece picked her up at the airport, and when they arrived at the restaurant, my wife waited outside until she was sure that her sister was in the restaurant. Then as her niece was filming, my wife strolled in and walked beside the table. Her niece said, "Oh look, my sister is here. Or maybe it's yours." After a squeal of delight, her sister said, "how did you do that?" Her niece answered for her, "she had a little help from her nieces."

As I sit at my computer writing this article, my wife is in Oregon, enjoying the party as Terry and Bunny Boyd celebrate fifty years of marriage. It's not easy to pull off a surprise when several people are involved in the planning, but my wife and her nieces were very successful. It is satisfying to be able to pull off a good surprise.

Everyone loves a good party. Even the Bible loves a party. One of my favorite chapters in the Bible is Luke 15; I call it the party chapter. It is Luke's account of three parables, each describing a lost item that is found and a party that was held to share the joy and happiness of finding the lost item.

The audience for these stories were the Pharisees, who were complaining about Jesus' lifestyle and his welcoming of tax collectors and sinners. The Pharisees used the term "sinners" for any people they felt were not following Jewish law properly or had questionable occupations. Foreigners or anyone they felt were beneath them were referred to as sinners. 

These social and religious outcasts were coming to Jesus, and he received them and ate with them. In Luke 5:30-32 (NIV), the Bible says, "But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?' Jesus answered them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'"

The Pharisees didn't like that Jesus associated with sinners. Why were they so upset? Why were they unwilling to associate with them? We find the answer in the story of the older brother found in Luke 15. In this parable, the older brother represents the Pharisees, who grumbled at Jesus' reception of sinners. In the story, the older brother is working in the fields when his younger brother, "the sinner," returns. The older brother does not know of his younger brother's return until he hears happy sounds coming from the house. He became outraged and refused to join the party. When the father came out to ask him to join in, the older son refused.

We find the story in Luke 15:29 (MEV), "But he answered his father, 'Look! These many years have I served you. Nor have I ever transgressed your commands, yet never have you given me a goat, so that I might be merry with my friends.'" The older brother was at work in the field when his younger brother, "the sinner," returned home. He thought his works were the basis for obtaining his father's love. This emphasis on works was the error of the Pharisees. They were hard at work, keeping the law as they interpreted it, thinking it would win God's approval and blessing.

The older brother continues complaining to his father in Luke 15:30 (MEV), "But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed the fattened calf for him." This complaint is the flip side of the first complaint. Because the older brother expected a reward for his work, he expected his younger brother to be disowned because of his lack of work.

The father answered in Luke 15:31-32 (MEV), "He said to him, 'Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. But it was fitting to be merry and be glad, for this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.'" The father was not celebrating because of the younger brother's sins but because of his return. The older brother not only failed to comprehend grace, but he resented it. His self-righteousness is so intense that he resents the grace of God and refuses to rejoice in it.

Gentle Reader, don't be an older brother. Don't resent the grace that God so freely offers to others. I challenge you today to see all people the way Jesus sees them, people to associate with and love. Remember that Jesus throws a party whenever one of his lost sheep comes home, and he wants you to join the party.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Meeting Brigitte Graykastle

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 10, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The tour bus drove down the narrow cobblestone street and stopped in front of an old church. Bernd, our tour guide, told us that the church was St. Augustine's Church, and it was built over 700 years ago. In 1277 Augustinian Hermits started to build St. Augustine's Church and the monastery complex. He said, "we will be spending the weekend inside the historic walls and rooms in which monks, including Martin Luther, once lived and prayed." 

Our tour had arranged for us to stay at the Augustinerkloster in Erfurt, Germany. It's a working Lutheran church and cloister that is used as a conference center and has 51 rooms for visitors. As I walked towards our room, I soaked in the history of the place and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live here as a monk over 500 years ago.

After settling into the room, I headed out to explore the old town of Erfurt. The area has been inhabited for thousands of years, but no one knows precisely how old the town is. The earliest written records of Erfurt were from 742 A.D., when a diocese was established there.

German writer Arnold Zweig described Erfurt's charming old quarter as a "picture book of German history." Somehow, the medieval city center emerged relatively unscathed from World War II, after which it became stuck in the strange cocoon of East German communism for half a century. Because of this, Erfurt has a surprising time-capsule quality. As I walked through the jumble of narrow alleys and open squares, I tried to visualize the same places during medieval times. 

I was struck by the picturesque beauty of the Krämerbrücke, or merchants bridge. It's the oldest secular building in town and the longest inhabited bridge in Europe. Half-timbered houses flank a beautiful cobblestone street. The bridge was constructed in 1325, though most of its houses date to the 15th century.

My walk through Erfurt culminated in the vast Cathedral Square, dominated by two old churches. As I sat down and soaked up the scene, The sounds of a busy German square enveloped me. Conversations surrounded me as people ate and socialized at the many open-air restaurants around the plaza. Children squealed with delight while they played. As I sat on a bench watching couples quietly conversing and teenagers congregating nearby, talking with youthful exuberance, I could hear strains of an accordion off in the distance. 

I stood and started walking towards the sound of the accordion. It was coming from the other side of the square. As I followed the sound, It took me down a street just off the square. I went to a small stone passageway between two streets. There against the stone wall, stood a woman playing the accordion. As I walked into the corridor, I recognized the song. She was playing La Vie En Rose, one of my favorite songs. Directly across from her were two small café tables. One was empty, so I sat down to listen. 

Nothing surprised me anymore about street musicians in Germany. I had heard German, English, Italian, French, Spanish, Ukrainian and Polish music. The accordion is the perfect instrument to accompany French Gypsy Jazz, a genre of music that I have recently become obsessed with. To listen to this music in a medieval German town was surreal. I listened to her play and sing in French for the next half hour. When she finished playing, I walked up to her to purchase a CD. When I spoke to her in English, she excitedly started talking to me. Her name was Brigitte, and she was born in Bavaria. She introduced me to the man sitting at the other café table. He was her cousin, and she was in Erfurt to visit him. It was only the second time in her life that she had seen him. Growing up, they had never seen each other because she lived in West Germany, and he lived in East Germany. 

When I told Brigitte that my wife played the accordion when she was younger because her father wanted her to, Brigitte said to me that she had the same experience. Growing up in Bavaria, her father wanted her to play the accordion so she could play traditional Bavarian music. But Brigitte never cared for the music and put down the accordion as soon as she left home. She set out to travel the world and ended up in Scotland. Brigitte told me, "It was in Scotland that I discovered my love and passion for music and started playing the accordion again." She continued, "the street is the most beautiful stage in the world, and I've been playing my way through the streets and alleys of this world for 28 years now."

As I was ready to leave, I asked for a photo of us together. I handed my phone to Brigitte's cousin and posed for a photo with her. Brigitte told him to take a video instead, and she began singing to me. It seemed unreal to hear her sing one of my favorite Scottish songs by Dougie McLean. "But let me tell you that I love you, that I think about you all the time. Caledonia you're calling me and now I'm going home. But if I should become a stranger, you know that it would make me more than sad. Caledonia's been everything I've ever had."

As I walked back to my room at the monastery, I thought about how often our first impressions of people are incorrect or incomplete. As I listened to Brigitte play French chansons in a passageway in a medieval German town, I would have never guessed that her musical passion was Scottish folk songs, or that her family was torn apart by division of Germany after World War II. 

Gentle Reader, judging other people based on appearance alone can become second nature to most of us, even when we don't mean to. It can often come down to a thing we all have called unconscious bias, meaning our brains make snap judgments about people without us even noticing. But Christians shouldn't judge a person by their exterior because we don't know their story. "The Lord doesn't see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." 1 Samuel 16:7 (NLT) Don't judge people on their outward appearance. You might be surprised who they really are when you get to know them. 

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Wrestling Hall of Fame

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 3, 2022, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I must confess that I have never been interested in pro wrestling. When I was growing up, my family didn't have a television in our home. In high school, many kids talked about a new TV program, WWWF Championship Wrestling. When they spoke of Bruno Sammartino, Chief Jay Strongbow, Killer Kowalski, and Andre The Giant, I had no idea what they were talking about. 

As I got older and had a family of my own, I occasionally saw wrestling on tv. The flashy costumes, bragging, and posturing didn't entice me to continue watching. But I couldn't avoid it altogether, as wrestling became a part of American culture, and names such as Hulk Hogan and Roddy Piper became well known even outside wrestling circles. With its popularity, many people began to ask questions. Is it a sport or a show? Is it real or fake? I heard many lively debates on the subject.

As the years have passed and wrestling has become even more popular, the debate has waned. People know the answer, and the sport no longer tries to hide it. In an interview, professional wrestler Kurt Angle said, "pro wrestling is not fake; it's sports entertainment. We go out there, and we perform, and a lot of what we do out there is real, but we're not going to insult anyone's intelligence - there is a predetermined winner. It's just the fans don't know who it is, and that's what makes it so intriguing."

In a How Stuff Works article by Ed Grabianowski titled "How Pro Wrestling Works," Ed wrote, "The skills of the wrestlers do not determine the outcome of the match. Instead, writers work on plots and storylines well in advance, and every match is another chapter in the story. Who wins and who loses is all in the script.

Does that mean that wrestling is fake? It's true that the plots are predetermined, and the moves are choreographed. Wrestlers aren't really trying to beat up and injure each other. Sometimes, the bitterest enemies in the ring are really best friends, and the outlandish stories surrounding the characters are usually not true. However, simply calling wrestling "fake" is like calling an action movie fake. When you see a movie, you know that the actor didn't really jump a burning car over an exploding bridge, but you're still entertained."

I recently learned the story of a wrestler who had a storied career in the 30s. There was no television then, so most people have never heard of him. He was a trash-talking, rough and tumble wrestler. His moves were not choreographed, and the outcomes were not predetermined. He had a record of over 300 wins and only one recorded loss in twelve years of wrestling. At 6 foot 4 inches, he towered over most of his opponents, and his 185-pound fighting weight made him a lean, mean fighting machine.

During his time, wrestling wasn't very organized. It was mostly a show of strength. But there were competitions where people watched and gambled as the toughest men took each other on in a style of wrestling called collar and elbow. Common rules stated that each man shall take hold of the collar of his opponent with his right hand, while with his left he must take hold of the elbow. Both men shall stand up breast to breast, with limber arms, and show fair play.

With his impressive career in which he suffered only one defeat, Abe was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in 1992 as an Outstanding American. Abe's entry on their website states, "Born in a log cabin in Kentucky, Abraham Lincoln received little schooling as his family moved through the wilderness. Growing up in Illinois, he clerked in a store, studied law, served in the Black Hawk War and took part in political talk of the day.

In the rough and ready style of the frontier, "catch as catch can" wrestling was more hand-to-hand combat than sport. Lincoln, an awesome physical specimen at 6-feet-4, was widely known for his wrestling skills and had only one recorded defeat in a dozen years.

In 1860 he was elected President. Lincoln recognized that the Union was threatened by the moral issue of slavery. The Civil War began soon after his inauguration. Lincoln met every crisis with poise and courage, and in January of 1863 issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves. He was reelected in 1864 and soon had the satisfaction of knowing that the Union had been preserved."

I wonder how many of Abe's wrestling opponents told people they had once wrestled the President of the United States. As I thought about Abe's wrestling career, I thought about another instance when someone unknowingly wrestled with someone famous. You can read about the wrestling match in Genesis 32: 24, 25 (VOICE). "Jacob stayed behind, left alone in his distress and doubt. In the twilight of his anguish, an unknown man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw he was not winning the battle with Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket, and Jacob's hip was thrown out of joint as he continued to wrestle with him." 

Jacob was at a crossroads in his life. He didn't know what to do. His brother Esau was coming to meet him, and Jacob did not know whether to flee or to face his foe. Jacob sent his family across the stream and was left alone to think about his history with his brother. At that point,  a man confronted him, and they wrestled all night. Jacob knew he was not wrestling with an ordinary man but God himself. God could have crushed Jacob, but He did not. Instead, He blessed Jacob and changed his name and course in history.

Gentle Reader, Like Jacob, we too wrestle with decisions, and sometimes, even with God. "God, why did you allow this to happen to me?" "God, why am I struggling so much with this issue?" We've all asked these questions at one point or another. If you are wrestling with God today, remember His record. He has never lost, and He never will. He is willing for you to wrestle with Him, but in the end, you must submit. "God resists the proud, but gives grace to the lowly. Humble yourselves, then, under God's powerful hand, so that he may lift you up at the right time. Throw all your care upon him, because he cares about you." 1 Peter 5:5-7 (NTE)