Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Arbour Season

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 27, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The windshield wipers beat furiously as they tried in vain to keep the windshield clear. Flashing sheets of water crossed the road as the rain came down in waves. My hands gripped the steering wheel, maybe too tightly, and I thought, “Why am I driving to Fort Smith through this terrible storm?” 

A few days earlier, I learned that a favorite group, Arbour Season, would be playing in the area. I messaged them to get more information, and they replied, “We are playing at something called the Bakery District in Fort Smith. Is that too far for you?”

“What time is the concert,” I asked.

“6 p.m. Thank you so much again for reaching out! Hope to see you!” was the reply.

So, I was driving through a massive storm to see Arbour Season in concert. I had been listening to their music and watching their YouTube channel for months and was excited to see them. They describe themselves as “an indie/folk husband and wife duo who draw inspiration from the incredible adventures we experience all across North America in our converted school bus/home. Our unique journey inspires the ambient folk sound that captures the serenity of the Western vistas, the rhythms of the Eastern coastlines, and the brilliance of the national forests. We express our passion for life through music and invite you to travel with us by listening to the intricate instrumentation, layered harmonies, and lyrics that tell our stories.”

As the rain continued to beat down and the black highway seemed to disappear beneath the onslaught, a message from Shane of Arbour Season pinged on my phone. My wife read the message to me. “Hey! I’m going to keep you posted, but we just arrived at the venue, and there was a mix-up with dates or something, and they didn’t know we were going to be here today. This was a House Concert that was being put on by another girl, and she wanted to host it here at the district, but I think they had their information mixed up. There is still a possibility we could be playing tonight, but it’s unsure at this moment.”

“What should we do,” I thought. “I don’t want to continue driving through this storm if there isn’t a concert.” We pulled off the road to decide what we should do. My phone pinged with another message from Shane. “This has not been promoted at all, so I’m thinking no one is going to show up. But we are thinking about hanging out here for a little bit and having some dinner. Maybe we can all catch dinner together. We definitely want to meet you guys while we are still here in Arkansas.”

We decided to continue to Fort Smith to go out for dinner. After several more messages back and forth, deciding on a time and location, Shane texted, “Ok… sooo. We still may be able to make dinner, but we just found out we have a flat tire, haha. So we are now taking it to get looked at. That shouldn’t take too long, though, I would think!”

After several more messages back and forth, Shane told us that while the tire was being repaired, he had dropped Emily and the kids off at the mall. There is a food court with a kid’s play area right in the middle. He wanted to know if we could meet there so the kids could play while we eat, hang out, and talk.

We met at the mall and enjoyed visiting and eating some of the worst Chinese food I had ever eaten. When it was time to go, I asked them where they were headed next, and they said they were driving back to Mena. We had a good laugh about the irony of driving in a horrible storm to go to a canceled concert and then eating at a mall food court when we were both returning to Mena.

That rainy day mall food court meet-up with Arbour Season was a year ago. I have continued to follow their adventures on YouTube. I was excited when I was recently invited to an Arbour Season house concert.

After spending time with them on the crazy no concert, flat tire, lousy mall food court food day last year, it was wonderful to finally hear Arbour Season in concert. The concert was everything that I hoped it would be. The music was excellent, and the banter made everyone in the audience feel like they were lifelong friends. 

When the lilting guitar picking of the song “Arcadian” began, I silently mouthed the words. “I saw you today when I wasn’t looking. There was a sway in the trees above that told, told me you were near. And I heard your voice when I wasn’t listening. There was a sweet noise I’d never heard before, singing in the breeze. Oh, the pain, oh, the needless pain we bear. Oh, this world so full with all its cares. You made me innocent again. And I thought I found you, but you found me. Oh, I thought I found you, but you found me.”


Arcadian is one of my favorite songs, and I love the line, “I thought I found you, but you found me.” Sometimes, we think we have found God, but the Bible tells us that Jesus “came to find lost people and save them.” Luke 19:10 (NCV)

This idea is best shown in the story Jesus told in Luke 15:4-6 (ICB): “Suppose one of you has 100 sheep, but he loses 1 of them. Then he will leave the other 99 sheep alone and go out and look for the lost sheep. The man will keep on searching for the lost sheep until he finds it. And when he finds it, the man is very happy. He puts it on his shoulders and goes home. He calls to his friends and neighbors and says, ‘Be happy with me because I found my lost sheep!’” Luke 15:4-6 (ICB)

Gentle Reader, you are so important to God that He will follow you to the ends of the earth. He stays by your side, whether you acknowledge Him or not. There’s nothing you can do that will stop Him from loving you. “God clearly shows and proves His own love for us, by the fact that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 (AMP)

Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Stratton, Colorado

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 20, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The wind buffeted the little Maverick pickup as we drove through Western Kansas on Interstate 70. My wife and I were on our way to Loveland, Colorado, to attend our 50-year high school reunion. The road seemed to stretch on forever as the wind continued to blow. As we crossed the state line between Kansas and Colorado, a dilapidated sign read, “Welcome to Colorful Colorado.” 

I surveyed the landscape around me and saw nothing but brown, tan, and beige. There was nothing colorful that I could see. The Eastern Colorado plains are among the most sparsely populated areas in the continental United States. The dry grasslands stretched before me as far as the eye could see. Occasionally, there would be a farmstead with a few trees around it to break up the monotonous tan of the dry grasslands. 

Before long, we came to the exit to Stratton, and I turned off the interstate and drove into town. I needed a break to stretch my legs, and the town of Stratton has always fascinated me. It is a small town with a population of less than 700 people. For many years, I have heard stories about Stratton, where my father-in-law grew up. 

As I look around the small town, it's hard to believe that Stratton, Colorado, once had a famous hotel, the Collins Hotel, where many famous people stayed. The great baseball player Babe Ruth was a guest at the hotel. Times have changed significantly over the last hundred years, and there is no longer a hotel. 

Stratton was incorporated on April 15th, 1917, and named after Winfield Scott Stratton, also known as "Mr. Gold". He struck it rich at Cripple Creek in the 1890s. He hit a major vein in his Independence mine and eventually sold the mine in 1899 for $11 million. Stratton remained loyal to his blue-collar roots, giving away most of his money. He willed his wealth to create the Myron Stratton Home for the poor without means of support or unable to earn a livelihood. The Myron Stratton Home opened in 1913. 

In those early days, my wife’s grandfather was a blacksmith in Stratton, Colorado. Her Daddy would tell her stories about the blacksmith shop and her grandpa. Because he died before she was born, my wife only knew her Grandpa through these stories. 

Everyone in the small town of Stratton knew Winfield, the blacksmith. They could hear his hammer ringing against the anvil whenever he was at work in his shop. While recounting stories of his childhood, my wife’s Daddy, known as Red when he was a kid because of his red hair, told her, “When the anvil quit ringing, you had better get home. It was time for supper.” 

All the local children were afraid of Red’s father, the blacksmith. He was always dirty and covered with soot from the fire in the forge at his shop. When kids came by the blacksmith shop, he would run them off. The blacksmith shop was dangerous for a kid, and he didn’t want them to get hurt. He could be harsh with them and had a reputation for being disagreeable. 

One day, Red’s buddies wanted to go to the general store and get some penny candy. “I don’t have a penny,” Red told them. “Why don’t you ask your dad for a penny,” they answered. “I don’t ask my dad for money,” Red replied. His buddies continued to pester him about the penny. Finally, Red asked his dad if he could work to earn a penny. When he went to the blacksmith shop, his buddies stayed on the other side of the street and wouldn’t go near Red’s Dad. 

When Red asked his dad if he could work and earn a penny, his dad asked, “What do you need a penny for?” Red replied, “I want to get some penny candy with my buddies.” “Here is a nickel,” said Dad, “go get candy for you and your friends.” When Red crossed the street and showed his buddies the nickel, they couldn’t believe their eyes. They were afraid of this disagreeable man, but he had given Red a nickel to treat them to candy.

The story of the penny candy and the blacksmith reminds me of my relationship with God. When we look at God’s law, we sometimes see a harsh God who wants to restrict us. Because the blacksmith didn’t want kids to get hurt, he wouldn’t let them near his blacksmith shop. The kids perceived this as being harsh, and they feared him. Many of us look at God that way. But God, in His love for us, has given us His law as a place of peace and safety. “Those who love Your law have an abundance of peace, and nothing along their paths can cause them to stumble.” Psalms 119:165 (VOICE) 

Often, we look at God’s law as a jail. We feel that it creates uncomfortable restrictions. We need to ask God to give us a love for his commandments and to instill in us a desire for the peace and safety of His law. “For this demonstrates our love for God: We keep his commandments, and his commandments are not difficult.” 1 John 5:3 (ISV)

Another lesson from the blacksmith shop is the importance of fire. When a blacksmith is working with metal, the only way that he can shape it is if he has heated it in the fire. In Isaiah 44:12 (NET), the Bible says, “A blacksmith works with his tool and forges metal over the coals. He forms it with hammers; he makes it with his strong arm.” And in Isaiah 48:10 (NIV), God says, “I have refined you, though not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction.” Have you ever felt like God was testing you in the furnace of affliction? I know I have.

Gentle Reader, I can’t say I enjoy the heat, but I’m thankful God is refining and shaping my life. Steel in the hand of a skilled blacksmith is malleable and not resilient. If the steel were resilient, it would always bounce back to its original shape and be useless to anybody. I want to be useful, and the only way for a steel bar to be transformed into something useful is to be put in the fire and shaped on the anvil. Remember that if you are being tried and shaped in the fires of life, “God is working in you to help you want to do and be able to do what pleases him.” Philippians 2:13 (NCV)

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

The Nitty Gritty

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 13, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

It has been fifty years since I graduated from high school, but I can still remember the first day of my senior year. I sometimes have trouble remembering past events, but this day is still in sharp focus. As I found a seat in Mr. Brost’s history class, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen walked into the classroom. 

Her blonde curls took my breath away as she walked into class that morning. But I was too shy to talk to girls, so I knew she would never be a part of my life other than being admired from across the room. As I tried to bring my focus back to Mr. Brost standing at the front of the room, I heard him say something about a learning packet. “What is a learning packet?” I wondered. Mr. Brost went on to explain. He would choose five students to produce a weekly learning packet for the other students.

Mr. Brost picked five students who would meet in the library instead of coming to class. They would review the following week’s history lessons and produce additional materials to help the students learn. When Mr. Brost picked the five students, I was chosen along with the beautiful girl with the golden curls. There would be no way that I could avoid talking to her.

Meeting with the history learning packet group in a room just off the library was my favorite part of school. We didn’t work very hard and spent most of our time hanging out and visiting. The library stored audio-visual equipment, including a record player, in the room where we met. Occasionally, I would bring a record, and we would listen to it.

One day, I brought an album I had recently purchased. It was unlike anything I had heard before, and I wanted to share it with the group. The album was Uncle Charlie and His Dog Teddy by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The interview with Uncle Charlie, as an album cut where he tells his life story, was unprecedented on any pop or rock album I had ever listened to. Uncle Charlie even gets his dog, Teddy, to sing. The traditional bluegrass sprinkled among the country rock songs was refreshing and the first bluegrass music I had ever heard. There was even a piece of classical music played on the banjo. I wanted my friends to listen to this music.  

Not everyone was as excited about this eclectic album as I was, but the consensus was that our favorite song was House at Pooh Corner. While blending genres is commonplace today, it was revolutionary in 1970. The album Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy was equal parts country, bluegrass, folk, and rock.

Over the years, I have always listened to The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. From the Will the Circle be Unbroken album, with its focus on the legends of traditional bluegrass, to their more pop-oriented music of the late 70s and conquering country music radio during the mid-80s, I have always enjoyed their music.

It seems that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is hard to pigeonhole into any one genre of music. The lyrics to their song, Partners, Brothers and Friends, explain it this way. “Well, I saw a story in the paper. Suddenly, the band's big news. The critics all like our records just fine, but they seem a bit confused. Is it folk or rock or country? Seems like everybody cares but us. So just leave us an early wake-up call so we don't miss the bus.”

When I learned that Nitty Gritty Dirt Band would be in concert at Oaklawn Casino in Hot Springs, I purchased tickets for myself and the beautiful girl from history class. I couldn’t believe that I would be able to hear them in concert. When the day finally came, I wasn’t disappointed. It was one of the best concerts I have ever been to. 

As I sat in the audience, waiting for the concert to begin, there was a large Nitty Gritty Dirt Band logo projected onto the screen at the back of the stage, and I wondered where the name came from. I took my phone out of my pocket and did a bit of research. 

The dictionary meaning of nitty-gritty is “the most important aspects or practical details of a subject or situation.” The dirt in the band’s name means "soil of the earth.” Many critics feel that The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band was instrumental in forming Americana and Roots music.

As I thought about the meaning of nitty-gritty, I wondered what the nitty-gritty of the Bible is. What is the most important aspect? Great theologians could spend lifetimes discussing the idea, but there is a passage in the Bible that I think boils the message down to the nitty gritty. It is found in Philippians 2:6-10 (ICB)

“Christ himself was like God in everything. He was equal with God. But he did not think that being equal with God was something to be held on to. He gave up his place with God and made himself nothing. He was born as a man and became like a servant. And when he was living as a man, he humbled himself and was fully obedient to God.

He obeyed even when that caused his death—death on a cross. So God raised Christ to the highest place. God made the name of Christ greater than every other name. God wants every knee to bow to Jesus— everyone in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.”

In poetic form, this passage summarizes the gospel story. Although Jesus was equal with God the Father in his divine nature, he chose to empty himself of his divine rights and become a human. Jesus, though he was a king, became a humble servant and died the humiliating death of crucifixion for the forgiveness of our sins.

Philippians chapter 2 is a microcosm of the story and teachings of Jesus - the nitty gritty. The story of Jesus leads those who follow him to live humbly, showing love toward one another in a way that helps them live in harmony with one another. “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others.” Philippians 2:3,4 (ESV)

Gentle Reader, I can’t think of a more relevant paragraph to our fractured world than this. As Christians, how are we doing at living this out? Are we counting others more significant than ourselves and considering the needs of others more than our own? It’s the nitty-gritty of Jesus’ teachings.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Out of Oil

My An Arkie's Faith column from the September 6, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I'm so thankful for my customers and the business I've been blessed with. Mena is a beautiful place to run a business. So many of my customers feel more like friends. I enjoy visiting with my customers and learning their stories.

I have been particularly blessed the past few weeks as customers have brought produce from their gardens. It is encouraging when customers tell me that they enjoy reading my articles. Several have made special trips to my shop to say they enjoyed and appreciated a specific article.

One customer who made a special trip to see me is Tom Cody. When I worked for him some time ago, I got to know him and learned about his fascinating life on the railroad. I was so interested in his stories, that I wrote about him in one of my articles. When he stopped by my shop to visit, he gave me a stack of hand-typed stories that he had written. 

As I read through Tom’s stories that evening, I was struck by how personal they were. They made me feel like I was riding the rails. When Tom gave me his stories, he permitted me to share them with my readers. One story resonated with me, as I have often experienced mechanical trouble. 

“It’s hot, real hot, and the bell starts ringing. There is a dead engine back there somewhere because we are losing speed. The train is heavy and without just that one engine we cannot pull the hill. Our amps are climbing in the lead engine, and we know we are in trouble. 

It isn’t his job as a brakeman to know how, but if he is worth his salt, he has learned how to start downed units. So out the door, walk the catwalk and cross engines sometimes in excess of twenty-five miles per hour, and search for the culprit.

Third engine back lights on, ‘hot engine,’ but it is still working. On back to the fourth, the engine is dead. The low turbo pressure light is on, the governor button is out, and the sight glass is half empty. I isolate, reset, and then try a restart.

Bingo, at least the batteries are okay, and the engine whines at idle. The blast of heat is nearly unbearable. I step back and watch the governor safety button. Damn, it popped out again, and the mechanical monster goes silent.

I monkey along and walk all five units, looking inside engine compartments for just one pint container of governor oil because that is all the engine needs. Engine straining at maximum rpm, turbos whine, heat and noise, which is worse, both exceed the bearable… I can not find oil.”

The Bible has several stories about running out of oil. We find one of those stories in Matthew 25. “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten young bridesmaids who took their lamps and went out to meet the groom. Now five of them were wise, and the other five were foolish. The foolish ones took their lamps but didn’t bring oil for them. But the wise ones took their lamps and also brought containers of oil.

When the groom was late in coming, they all became drowsy and went to sleep. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Look, the groom! Come out to meet him.’

Then all those bridesmaids got up and prepared their lamps. But the foolish bridesmaids said to the wise ones, ‘Give us some of your oil, because our lamps have gone out.’” Matthew 25:1-8 (CEB)

Running out of oil can be a disaster. But running low on oil can also be a problem. In 2 Kings chapter 4, we find the story of a widow running out of oil. The widow came to the prophet Elisha and said, “’My husband, is dead. You know he honored the Lord. But now the man he owes money to is coming to take my two boys as his slaves!’ Elisha answered, ‘How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?’ The woman said, ‘I don’t have anything there except a pot of oil.’ Then Elisha said, ‘Go and get empty jars from all your neighbors. Don’t ask for just a few.’” 2 Kings 4:1-3 (NCV)

Interestingly, Elisha didn’t tell the widow to ask her neighbors for food or money. Instead, she was to ask for containers. Imagine with me what her neighbors were thinking. “What is she going to do with all these containers?” I imagine that the widow was wondering the same thing herself. But she believed in God, and she trusted God’s prophet, Elisha. 

Once they gathered the containers, Elisha told the widow, “’Go into your house and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and set the full ones aside.’ So she left Elisha and shut the door behind her and her sons. As they brought the jars to her, she poured out the oil. When the jars were all full, she said to her son, ‘Bring me another jar.’ But he said, ‘There are no more jars.’ Then the oil stopped flowing. She went and told Elisha. And the prophet said to her, ‘Go, sell the oil and pay what you owe. You and your sons can live on what is left.’” 2 Kings 4:3-7 (NCV)

If we put what little we have in God’s hands, it’s not limited by our capabilities anymore; it is only limited by how much we think God can do. It is determined by how many containers we have rounded up. In the widow’s story, the oil stopped flowing when there were no more jars.

In Luke 18:27 (NKJV), Jesus says, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” The widow and her sons were in an impossible situation. Their cupboards were empty. But God had a way to take care of their impossible situation. The only thing that limited them was the number of jars that they had borrowed.

God gives us what we have and then tells us that if we use what He has given us, we will have what we need. He has given each one of us talents and gifts and strengths and abilities. The widow's story teaches us that we must make them available to God; even though they seem small and insignificant, He can do great things for us.

Gentle Reader, all things are possible when you place them in God’s hands. If you run out of oil, ask Him to handle your situation. God doesn’t need what we have to produce more for us, but He is looking for us to trust Him with what we do have. “The wise have a generous supply of fine food and oil in their homes, but fools are wasteful, consuming every last drop.” Proverbs 21:20 (VOICE)

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

It's OK

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 30, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The thin woman with short-cropped hair and sparkling eyes walks out on stage with a massive smile and says hi to the judges. When they answer, “Hello, how are you,” she replies, “I’m awesome. So happy to be here.” 

“What are you going to be singing for us tonight?” 

“I’m singing an original song called It’s OK.”

“What is It’s OK about,” 

“It’s OK is about the last year of my life.”

The judges continue the interview, asking, “What do you do for a living?” 

“I have not been working for quite a few years. I've been dealing with cancer.”

“Can I ask you a question? How are you now?” 

“Last time I checked, I had some cancer in my lungs and my spine and the liver.”  

“So, you're not OK?

“Well, not in every way, no.”

“You’ve got a beautiful smile and a beautiful glow, and nobody would know.”

“Thank you. It’s important that everyone knows I’m so much more than the bad things that happen to me.”

Jane steps up to the microphone and nervously glances to the side as the audience sits silently, waiting for the performance to begin. When the first piano chord resonates through the concert hall, she smiles and sings, “I moved to California in the summertime. I changed my name, thinking that it would change my mind. I thought that all my problems they would stay behind. I was a stick of dynamite, and it was just a matter of time, yeah.”

By the time she reaches the chorus, singing, “It's okay, it's okay, it's okay, it's okay,” the judges and the audience are enchanted by her fantastic voice and the joy that beams from her face as she performs.

When the last note fades away, she steps back from the microphone, and the joy she showed throughout the performance changes to a pensive, contemplative expression. For a moment, the concert hall is deathly silent; then, the audience erupts with applause and a standing ovation. 

It was a moment unlike any other on America’s Got Talent. After the applause died out, judge Simon Cowell spoke to the young woman who goes by Nightbirde when she sings. “There was something about that song after the way you just almost casually told us what you're going through.” He stops talking and takes a deep breath, seemingly at a loss for words.

Nightbirde responds to him, “You can’t wait until life isn't hard anymore before you decide to be happy,” and the audience explodes into applause at her words.

As he wipes away a tear, Simon regains his composure and says, “There have been some great singers this year, and I’m not going to give you a yes.” The audience groans as the expression on Nightbirde’s face goes from a big smile to a tight-lipped sadness. But Simon continues, “I'm going to give you something else,” and he reaches across the judges’ table and triumphantly smashes the golden buzzer.

Golden confetti rains down on Nightbirde as she falls onto the stage in disbelief. Her story, performance, and happiness in the face of adversity had impacted everyone in the room. She would go on to touch people’s lives all over the world. Her song, It’s Ok, reached the number one spot on the iTunes charts, and millions watched the YouTube video of her fantastic performance. Everyone was rooting for Nightbirde in her battle with cancer.

Soon after her America’s Got Talent audition, Nightbirde had to step away from live performances due to her health. "It's so hard for me to not be on the @agt stage for the finals this week," she wrote. "I bet you never saw someone win so hard and lose so hard at the same time. This isn't how the story was supposed to go."

Nightbirde’s battles were now well documented in the media. She honored requests for interviews when she was able. Her positivity and her faith in God always show through. When asked about her faith and music, she answered, “There is no area of my life where my faith is not going to seep into it. It's part of the core of me, so if you listen for it and look for it, then you'll see Jesus all over it. You'll find it there, but I'm not just writing music for people who believe the way that I believe. I think that's ridiculous. I love to make music that brings people joy.”

When asked about her upbeat attitude in the face of such adversity, she answered, “I don't have control, but I do have some power over what happens to me, and a lot of that is my attitude and the thoughts that I allow in my mind. Thoughts are birds that can fly over your head, and I can't do anything about that. But if a bird tries to make a nest in my hair, I can do something about that. The depression and the anxiety will always be flying over my head, but they're not going to land. That's my jurisdiction that I'm the boss of, and that's what I do.”

Nightbirde lost her battle with cancer just a few months later. Her life touched millions of people. She was the embodiment of James 1:2 (NLT). Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.

In her song, The Story I’ll Tell, Nightbirde wrote, “The hour is dark, and it's hard to see what You are doing here in the ruins and where this will lead. Oh, but I know that down through the years, I look on this moment and see Your hand on it and know You were here. Oh, my God did not fail. Oh, it's the story I'll tell. Oh, I know it is well. Oh, it's the story I'll tell.”

Gentle Reader, Nighbirde’s story inspires me to be a better person. It inspires me to praise God even in the dark hours of life. In one of her last social media posts, she said, “Just because you're sad or grieving doesn't mean that you're not grateful, and it doesn't mean you're not hopeful. Be sad and be grateful. And look at the twinkly lights and feel your feelings, and it's all real -- the joy and the pain -- is all real, and you don't have to pick one or the other like, it’s beautiful, or life is garbage. It's kind of both sometimes.” “Crying may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Psalms 30:5 (NCV)


You can watch Nightbirde's Golden Buzzer performance on America's Got Talent here:

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The Wrong Side of the Tracks

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 23, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

In June 2022, an obituary was published in Bay City, Michigan. “Lonzo F. Green of Gladwin, Michigan passed away on June 17, 2022. He was born on August 14, 1928, to Frank and Melverta Green in Cherry Valley, Arkansas. He was a member of Good Shepherd Church and the Michigan Bluegrass Hall of Fame. He enjoyed attending church, Preaching, playing music, and spending time with family. He was active with Wilma Caraview, often attending church together, visiting friends, and playing music together.” 

At the end of his life, Lonzo wasn’t known outside his friends, family, and community, but that wasn’t the case when he was young. Frank and Melverta Green raised Lonzo in a Christian home and paired him with his younger brother, Forrest, to sing at churches and revivals throughout Arkansas. He worked in the fields with his family and was always close to the land and the rich musical heritage of his neighbors.

In 1951, Lonzo and his wife Maxine moved to Flint, Michigan, with other members of the Green family. Lonzo, Maxine, his brother Forrest, and Forrest’s wife Margie sang Gospel music throughout Michigan as The Green Family. They also had a one-hour radio program on WMRP in Flint, Michigan. At that time, Forrest met businessman Rudy Kotelas who believed in his music and sponsored his first record in Nashville, Tennessee. 

After getting their start in Nashville, Forrest recorded "Rain Must Be Teardrops" and "Day For Leaving" on Ranger Records, which made the national charts! At that time, these were Michigan’s #1 selling country records! The success of his records led Forrest to perform on the Grand Ole Opry and shows throughout the United States and Canada. When Forrest began touring nationally, Lonzo decided that life on the road wasn’t for him. Although Forrest Green spent his life performing and running a recording studio and record label, Lonzo faded into obscurity.

I heard about Lonzo on Paul Harvey’s radio broadcast, The Rest of the Story. While Lonzo was playing in the band with his brother, and the group had gained regional notoriety, he visited relatives in Tennessee. His nephew Jimmy was excited when his famous Uncle Lonzo stayed at their house.

Jimmy came to school the next day, telling all his friends about his Uncle Lonzo Green, who had recorded in Nashville. One friend wanted to meet Lonzo. Jimmy’s friend had gotten an old guitar and wanted to learn how to play but did not know how to tune it. He wanted to come to Jimmy’s house and have Lonzo tune his guitar and show him some chords. When Jimmy asked his parents if his friend could come to see Uncle Lonzo, they said, “No, he is white trash and not welcome in our home.”

When Uncle Lonzo found out, he told Jimmy he would meet his friend. Lonzo had grown up in poverty and felt compassion for the boy. To appease Jimmy’s parents, they would stay outside. When they met, it was evident to Lonzo that this quiet, dark-haired boy was embarrassed and felt out of place in this upper-class neighborhood. The boy’s guitar was old, cheap, and hung around his neck with just a piece of string. After Lonzo showed the shy teenager how to tune his guitar, he offered to teach him some songs. The boy was so surprised and happy that Lonzo would spend two hours playing and singing with him. 

When it was time for supper, Lonzo told the boy goodbye, never to see him again. The boy crossed the tracks back to his side of town. The young boy never got to go inside the upscale home and would never see Lonzo again, but he left with a beautiful memory.

Paul Harvey ended the story by saying, “It is a sad tale until you realize the boy went on to star in 33 motion pictures and sell millions of records. That boy would never be unwelcome again. His name was Elvis Presley. And now you know the rest of the story.” The white trash from the wrong side of the tracks, who wasn’t allowed in the upper-class home, became known as the King of Rock and Roll.

As I heard the story of Lonzo and Elvis, I thought about a passage found in James 2:1-4 (NLT) “My dear brothers and sisters, how can you claim to have faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ if you favor some people over others? For example, suppose someone comes into your meeting dressed in fancy clothes and expensive jewelry, and another comes in who is poor and dressed in dirty clothes. If you give special attention and a good seat to the rich person, but you say to the poor one, ‘You can stand over there, or else sit on the floor’—well, doesn’t this discrimination show that your judgments are guided by evil motives?” 

John Wesley said, “We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others.” Too much of today’s Christianity is focused on judging others. Many people seem to be looking for reasons to hate those different from them. But Jesus said, “Do to others as you would like them to do to you. If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much!” Luke 6:31-33 (NLT) 

And then Jesus made his teaching even more straightforward. “Love your enemies! Do good to them…Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge others, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you. Forgive others, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:35-37 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, no human being is entirely free of prejudice or discrimination. It’s part of our selfish nature to prefer those of our kind, whatever that represents to us. Discrimination wrongly judges a person based only on external factors or personal preference. “Remember that the Lord draws no distinction between Jew and non-Jew—He is Lord over all things, and He pours out His treasures on all who invoke His name.” Romans 10:12 (VOICE) Instead of judging others, ask God to give you the ability to love. “Do not owe people anything, except always owe love to each other, because the person who loves others has obeyed all the law.” Romans 13:8 (NCV)

Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Lahaina Town Remembered

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 16, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

My phone pinged, and I pulled it out of my pocket to look at it. A notification said that a wildfire was raging in Lahaina Town on the Hawaiian island of Maui. My heart sank as I viewed the accompanying photos. Two years ago, I spent a week in Lahaina and fell in love with the people and the area. 

Over the next few days, I watched in horror as reports of the devastation came in. This morning the Associated Press reported, “As the death toll from a wildfire that razed a historic Maui town climbed to 93, authorities warned that the effort to find and identify the dead was still in its early stages. The blaze is already the deadliest U.S. wildfire in more than a century.”

According to the Maui Fire Update website, “Lahaina Harbor is gone, and the banyan tree is charred (it’s said that if the roots are healthy, it will likely grow back, but it looks burned yet standing).” It was the first bit of possibly good news that I had read. On my visit to Lahaina two years ago, the Banyan tree made an impression on me, and I wrote about it. 

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

After walking over a mile, I returned to my car. The first rays of morning light are chasing away the darkness. I drive toward Lahaina Town, anxious to see it for the first time. In the first morning light, almost no one is on the streets. I quickly found a place to park and started walking toward the town center. I pass stores and galleries that will be filled with customers in a few hours. I walk past an old historic home and stop to read the historical plaques that tell its story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Blessed by a Hurricane

My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 9, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

The stately two-story house stood on the banks of Lake Houston. She has never seen anything like it in the forty years since her family lovingly built her. Wave after wave of heavy rains battered her. The winds are swirling around her, and she is creaking and groaning as she struggles to withstand the storm. In the yard, trees are swaying madly, screaming as their limbs strain against the onslaught. The house begins to be tested: the roof, the windows, and the walls are all under attack. The house worries that she will be damaged and her family will not be able to live there anymore.

When the winds finally stop, the stately house realizes she is still standing. She has made it through the storm. Her mind drifts back to the time that the family built her. Dad was a builder by trade, creating the stately house where he would raise his family. Mom loved the new place and its delightful setting on the shores of Lake Houston. The kids enjoyed bringing their friends home to the stately house. They especially liked the swimming pool in the backyard. Mom was happy when laughing kids were having a good time at her house. The stately house was thankful that she was still standing and that the family would soon be able to return home.

Even though the winds stopped battering the stately house, the rains continued to fall. Over the next two days, over 30 inches of rain fell. The water levels of Lake Houston rise until they are lapping at the front door of the house. But it keeps raining, and the water keeps rising. Soon there are several inches of water on the floor, and the water is rushing in at the front, the sides, and the back. To the stately house, it feels like an invasion. By the time the lake reaches its highest level, deep water covers the entire first floor of the stately house. She is waterlogged and despondent. When the water levels start to recede, the house wonders what will become of her. Will her family ever be able to live in her again?

Inside, there’s at least an inch of mud on the floor, and the mold on the walls is chest high. It looks like someone broke in and ransacked the house. Everything from the shelves covers the floor. The knife block sits in the living room with the knives still in it. The refrigerator is full of spoiled food, and the house stinks like an army of dirty feet. The front door is blocked by a bookcase so swollen with water that it collapses into a massive pile of books and shelves. The once stately house is a stinky mess.

Hurricane Harvey was a Category 4 hurricane that caused this historic, catastrophic flooding in August 2017. The family displaced from the stately house were among 30,000 families in the area with no place to stay. They wondered if their family home would be able to be saved. When Dad first inspected the damage, his heart sank. There was so much damage. There was debris everywhere. How could they ever make the stately house liveable again?

When the family started the daunting task of cleaning up, friends began showing up to help. Mom was standing at a second-story window and looking over the mess where a yard had once been.  The yard was full of laughter. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing. She looked out at a group of her kids' friends partying. Her kids had become adults many years ago, but here were their friends, the same kids who had spent so much time at the stately house when they were young, once again having a great time in her yard. There was loud music, laughing, and dancing. They were working hard with shovels and brooms, cleaning up the debris. It was dirty, smelly, nasty work. But they were having a great time.

Mom couldn’t believe that so many people were there to help with the cleanup. While they were cleaning debris, a carpenter drove up in his pickup, pulling a trailer with his tools. He told Dad, “When I heard that your house was flooded and that you were repairing it yourself, I came as soon as possible. I have brought my tools and will stay and work with you until you are finished.” Many other people donated their time. Before long, the house was once again stately, ready for the family to move back in.

When Mom, from the stately house, was telling me the story, she said, “I have never felt so blessed in my life as I did in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.” I thought, “How can someone feel blessed when dealing with such trying circumstances.” I know that The Bible says, “God is ready to overwhelm you with more blessings than you could ever imagine so that you’ll always be taken care of in every way and you’ll have more than enough to share.” 2 Corinthians 9:8 (VOICE) But how can someone feel blessed when their home has been devastated by a hurricane?

As Mom continued the story, she told me that as a builder, Dad had given many of the people that came to volunteer their start in the business. They loved and respected him, and they came when they heard that he needed help. Mom had shown love and kindness to her kids' friends. She had let them know that they were always welcome to share in the happiness of the stately house.

Gentle Reader, “Give, and it will be given to you. You will have more than enough. It can be pushed down and shaken together and it will still run over as it is given to you. The way you give to others is the way you will receive in return.” Luke 6:38 (NLV) Our blessings are based on our willingness to bless others. How we treat others will determine how God treats us. God has been gracious to us, so we should share that graciousness with others. If we do, the blessings in our cup will be running over.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Judd Falls

 My An Arkie's Faith column from the August 2, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I had been looking forward to spending some time in the Colorado Rocky Mountains for several months. Now I was finally there. After spending a day in Frisco and staying at the wonderful Frisco Inn on Galena, we headed to Crested Butte, where we would meet with family and stay for a few days.

The drive from Frisco to Buena Vista was beautiful, but as we headed west out of Buena Vista on the winding road to Cottonwood Pass, the scenery took my breath away. From Buena Vista, the road quickly climbs to its summit of 12,126 feet, 500 feet above the tree line. Cottonwood Pass is the highest paved mountain pass over the Continental Divide.

We had 360-degree views of two distinct watersheds from the top as we walked up the trail, trying to breathe in the thin mountain air. After taking many photos of the spectacular views, we returned to the truck to head down the pass. The road wound down through the Taylor Canyon along the river to the massive Taylor Park Reservoir.

The following day, we took Gothic Road to Emerald Lake. There we saw the beautiful green mountain lake nestled in a meadow surrounded by a spectacular display of blooming flowers. The meadows were alive with colorful wildflowers showing off their vibrant yellows, whites, purples, and reds. After exploring the Emerald Lake area and taking many photos, we drove to the Judd Falls trailhead. 

We hiked the half-mile trail to the falls through fields of wildflowers and towering Aspen. There were terrific views of the surrounding mountains, including Gothic Mountain, Mt. Baldy, and Mt. Crested Butte. The trail was well-defined, and it was necessary to stay on the path because all the surrounding land is under study by the Rocky Mountain Biological Research Laboratory. 

In 1928, Western Colorado College professor Dr. John Johnson founded the biological research laboratory at the abandoned mining town of Gothic. Recognizing the rich diversity of the local ecosystems, he began bringing students to study amid Gothic’s ruins. Since then, thousands of students and scientists have followed in Dr. Johnson’s footsteps, making the ecosystems around Gothic some of the most intensively studied in the world and making Rocky Mountain Biological Research Laboratory an internationally renowned center for scientific research and education.

While hiking through a large stand of aspen trees, I looked up to see a rainbow in the sky. But it was different than any rainbow I had ever seen. Among the clouds were perfectly horizontal and brightly colored bands. I snapped a quick photo before the colors disappeared. The sight made such an impression that I researched the phenomenon later that evening. 

 I learned that what I had witnessed is referred to colloquially as a “Fire Rainbow.” But it was neither fire nor a rainbow. Technically they are known as circumhorizontal arcs - an ice halo formed by hexagonal, plate-shaped ice crystals in high-level cirrus clouds. The halo is so large that the arc appears parallel to the horizon. 

For a fire rainbow to occur, the conditions must be exact. Three things must align perfectly. The sun must be at an elevation of 58 degrees or greater. High-altitude cirrus or cirrostratus clouds must be present with ice crystals. Sunlight must enter the ice crystals at a specific angle to refract the light. This is why circumhorizontal arcs or fire rainbows are rare phenomena.

As I carefully made my way down the rocky trail to the falls, I could hear the roar of rushing water. But it was not until the last minute that the trail ended with a view of the falls from a cliff. Warning signs told of the danger of getting too close to the edge. I rested on a bench at the viewing area and took in the beauty of the falls.

While talking with a representative of the Rocky Mountain Biological Research Laboratory there, I learned the story of the drama that had occurred the day before. A hiker decided to go down the extremely steep hillside to view the falls from ground level. As he made his way down, holding on to a small tree for support, the tree came up by the roots, and he crashed headlong down the mountainside, finally ending up in the water below.

Fortunately, he was with friends who could contact the authorities to rescue him. It took four hours for the Crested Butte Mountain Rescue Team to get to him and bring him safely back up the mountainside. His injuries were not life-threatening, but he will never forget his experience.

The representative of the Rocky Mountain Biological Research Laboratory told us the story of the unfortunate hiker to keep us from trying to make our way down to the falls. She wanted us to know the danger and warn us about the possible consequences of trying to reach the bottom of the falls.

As I thought about the warnings given to us at the overlook of Judd Falls, I realized there was a parallel between those warnings and God’s law. Every law that God has given us reflects His desire for the joy and well-being of His people. Each rule protects His people as they live in a sinful world.

Often, we look at God's law as repressive. It creates uncomfortable restrictions. But we need to look at His laws as protection. In his book, “The Purity Principle,” Randy Alcorn uses an analogy about driving along a mountain pass when it’s dark and foggy, and your car runs off the road, and you hit the guardrail. You slam on the brakes and get out of the car with a flashlight. What do you do? Do you look at the fender of your car and say, “Oh no. That rotten guardrail! Why did somebody put that guardrail there? Now I’ve got a dented fender!”? No, you thank God for that guardrail. It’s there for your benefit. That guardrail saved your life!

Gentle Reader, instead of seeing God’s laws as a burden, we need to ask God to help us see his commandments as guardrails to keep us from danger. “Loving God means keeping his commandments, and his commandments are not burdensome.” 1 John 5:3 (NLT)

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

The Double Rainbow

My An Arkie's Faith column from the July 26, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

A few raindrops began to fall as we pulled out of the parking lot. Off in the distance, the skies looked dark and foreboding, and the thunder rolled. We were headed back to Arvada, Colorado, after spending the afternoon at my great niece's wedding rehearsal and dinner in Campion. Before getting on the highway, we drove through our old neighborhood. We moved from our house on Hankins Lane to Mena, Arkansas, over forty years ago.

As we drove through Berthoud and Longmont, the rain intensified, and the clouds were dark and angry to the south and east, with occasional lightning. But to the west, the sun was shining brightly on the mountains. I snapped a quick photo through the windshield while we were stopped at a traffic light in Longmont. With the dark grey skies to the south and the apartments on the east side of the road lit brilliantly by the low angle of the evening sun shining from the west, the contrasts made a striking photo.

The rain continued to fall, and before long, a rainbow's fuzzy, muted colors appeared in the sky. A few minutes later, the colors had intensified into one of the boldest and most colorful rainbows I had ever seen. We pulled off the road to try and get a photo. While I was taking pictures, a faint second rainbow appeared. After taking several images, I returned to the truck, and we tried to get back on the highway. The traffic was heavy, and it was impossible to cross the road to go in the direction we needed. We could merge into traffic headed in the direction we had just come from.

We drove to the next intersection, where we turned left and then pulled into a parking lot to get turned around. By this time, two complete rainbows were arcing across the sky. I had never seen a double rainbow that filled the sky from horizon to horizon. I stood in awe of the beauty before me. 

A rainbow is a natural phenomenon that occurs when light is refracted or bent as it passes through water droplets in the air. It is seen as a band of vibrant colors, including red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. The colors of the rainbow are arranged in a specific order and are caused by the different wavelengths of light being refracted at different angles. Double rainbows are formed when sunlight is reflected twice within a raindrop.

Rainbows always make me smile, and seeing a double rainbow was a fantastic experience. Seeing the double rainbow made it worth going through the rain. It was a moment in time that I will never forget.

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

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

And God is telling you the same thing. Don't let fear of failure keep you from doing great things. Don't let the threat of rain keep you from being all God wants you to be.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a very personal poem titled "The Rainy Day." The poem's first lines read, "The day is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary." He personalizes his thoughts in the second stanza, "My life is cold, and dark, and dreary; It rains, and the wind is never weary; My thoughts still cling to the moldering Past, But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast, And the days are dark and dreary." But Longfellow doesn't leave us in his dark place. The final stanza says, "Be still, sad heart! And cease repining; Behind the clouds is the sun still shining; Thy fate is the common fate of all, Into each life some rain must fall, Some days must be dark and dreary."

Into every life, a little rain must fall. It's what we do with the rain that makes the difference. Rain can be a force that destroys our lives and washes away hope, or it can become a tool God uses to bring healing, growth, and new life to our hearts.

What are we afraid of when the rains of this life come our way? Are we afraid of getting wet? Nowhere in the Bible does God tell us that we won't get wet. Pain in all its forms is the standard universal human denominator we all share. Your pain and difficulties differ from mine, but we all have them.

We see this concept in Matthew 5:45 (GW): "He makes his sun rise on people whether they are good or evil. He lets rain fall on them whether they are just or unjust." God doesn't tell us that we won't have rainy days. He says, "Even if it rains, I will be there for you. You may get wet, but it will be OK." And sometimes rain brings a beautiful rainbow. "When I see the rainbow in the clouds, I will remember the eternal covenant between God and every living creature on earth." Genesis 9:16 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, God displayed a visible reminder to me of His everyday grace with the double rainbow. It reminded me of His promise to extend a common grace to all living things. How often do we take that promise for granted? I know that often the busyness of my life makes me lose my focus on God even though the evidence of His daily grace is all around me. This week, I pray that I will not lose focus but instead remember the rainbow and God's promises.