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!