Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Longwood Unfinished

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 22, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

As I walked up to the beautiful antebellum mansion hidden behind lush old trees, I was impressed by its size and presence. I was in Natchez, Mississippi, with my wife and my sister, and it was the third historic home we had visited that day. The exotic oriental design of the house, with its octagonal shape and the Byzantine onion-shaped dome, was unlike any of the other homes we had seen. It seemed out of place in the southern United States.

Each of the antebellum mansions in Natchez has a story to tell. Wealthy men wanted to show off their wealth and make sure they were noticed by Natchez society. The Natchez homes were town homes, as most of the homeowners’ wealth came from operating cotton plantations across the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The finest things that the world had to offer adorned these opulent homes. Marble and mirrors from Italy, carpets and china from France, clocks from Switzerland, and furniture from the finest furniture makers in the eastern United States were used in these luxurious houses.

Haller Nutt was one of the wealthiest citizens of Natchez. He was born on a plantation, and after attending the University of Virginia, he returned home to help his father run the family’s plantations. Haller Nutt inherited and purchased several plantations. By 1860, he owned 43,000 acres of land and 800 enslaved people. It was Haller Nutt’s oriental-style octagonal mansion that stood before me, gleaming in the sunlight.

As we toured Haller Nutt’s home, that he called Longwood, our guide told us the story of the house. The tour started on the basement floor. One of the first things I noticed was how low the ceilings were compared to the other homes we had toured. The other grand homes we toured had ceilings from 12 to 19 feet tall. But here in Longwood, the rooms had 9-foot ceilings. Our guide explained that these basement rooms were never intended to be the living spaces for the family. Those rooms had 14-foot ceilings.

Unfortunately, the family never lived in those rooms. Our guide continued with the story of Longwood. Haller Nutt hired Philadelphia architect Samuel Sloan for his ambitious project. Sloan brought two hundred artisans from Pennsylvania to Natchez and began work in 1860. Producing over one million bricks on site, the structure of Longwood started to rise to impressive heights. When the structure of the six-story building was complete, the artisans began finishing the inside, starting with the basement.

When the Civil war broke out, the artisans from Pennsylvania didn’t want to be in Mississippi. So they dropped everything and made their way home. Work on Longwood came to a halt. Sensing that things would never be the same and unsure of the future, Nutt was able to finish the basement rooms with slave labor and moved his family into them. He hoped to finish Longwood when he could, but that never happened.

Haller Nutt suffered substantial financial losses during the Civil War. Both armies helped themselves to whatever he had stored and destroyed his cotton. His cash flow problems led to the foreclosure of his Louisiana plantations. He died from pneumonia in 1864, but his family said he died of a broken heart as his empire crumbled around him and his wealth vanished. The family was able to retain Longwood for the next one hundred years, but no more work was ever done to complete the remaining floors.

After we had toured the rooms in the basement, our guide took us up to the unfinished first floor, where four 34-foot by 20-foot spaces surrounded a central rotunda. When you look up from the center of the first floor, you can see the cupola on the sixth floor. The rotunda was designed to have a system of mirrors inside the cupola to reflect sunlight into the many rooms below. The shape of the cupola was designed to pull hot air upward toward the top of the cupola, creating an updraft to draw fresh air through the lower floors. The design and engineering of Longwood were very progressive, but sadly, it was never completed.

I can only imagine that as family members lived in the basement rooms of Longwood for the next one hundred years, there were so many dreams about what could have been. I wondered how often they went to the upper floors and looked at the tools and materials left there. As I looked around at the unfinished rooms, I thought about the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.” Matthew 6:19-21 (NLT)

Here Jesus tells us not to place too much value on the things of this world. If you treasure them as essential things in your life, one day, you will find yourself very disappointed when they are devalued, destroyed, or stolen. Is Jesus telling us that we should not have any possessions here? Of course not. But he tells us that earthly treasures are subject to being eaten, rusted, or stolen. Treasures in heaven are secure. They will remain. 

We understand what treasures are here on earth, but what did Jesus mean by “treasures in heaven?” Many preachers have used this verse to explain why I should give my money to the church. While that might be part of it, I’m confident that is not what Jesus had in mind. He wants us to use our time, energy, and finances to pursue those things that are of eternal value, Those things that will have value in heaven, not on earth.

Gentle Reader, treasures in heaven are things of worth in the kingdom of heaven, such as justice and respect for the dignity of every person. Jesus implies that we should invest our money in activities that transform the world, instead of accumulating earthly treasures. The Bible says, “set your mind on things above, not things on earth.” Colossians 3:2 (NKJV) Fortunes are made and lost. Mansion deteriorate, or like Longwood, are never finished, “but the word of the Lord endures forever.” 1 Peter 1:25 (NKJV)

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

In From the Cold

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 15, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I'm not too fond of cold weather. When I must be out in the cold, it puts me in a bad mood. My earliest memories of the cold are from when I was about five years old. My family moved to Michigan, and we lived with my grandparents. I had never seen so much snow in my short life. My Grandpa had a rule about watching television. If I wanted to watch a television program, I had to spend an equal amount of time outside. Because I wanted to watch Captain Kangaroo and Romper Room, I had to spend time outdoors in the cold Michigan winter.

By the following winter, we had moved to Colorado. The winters there were not as extreme as in Michigan, but there was lots of cold weather. One cold weather experience that I remember was the day I turned twelve years old. I attended a small Christian school in Longmont, Colorado. We played snow soccer at recess on days when snow covered all the playground and equipment. Slipping and sliding in the snow was fun as we tried to kick the soccer ball, but I was so cold. I was looking forward to the end of the recess so I could return to school to warm up. But the teacher told us that because it was my birthday, we could stay outside and play soccer for an extra period. I didn't think it was a great present.

I didn't have a warm workplace for many years, so I spent much of the winter cold and miserable. But as much as I dislike the cold, I have always been fascinated by the stories of Antarctic explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott. As a boy, I read everything I could find about Artic and Antarctic exploration. 

Today I enjoy watching YouTube channels by vloggers who live in some of the coldest places on the planet. I love watching Life in Yakutia, Maria Solko's vlog about her life in the world's coldest permanently inhabited place. Another favorite is Cecilia Blomdahl, a Swedish girl living in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the world's northernmost town. I also watch the channel Talasbuan, which chronicles the life of Tova and Mathias, along with their son, Ivar, as they live off-grid in a small cottage in Northern Sweden. Learning about how people live in these harsh climates is very interesting. But I don't want to experience the cold myself.

But as warm summer days come from God, so do cold winter days. "The stormy wind comes from its chamber, and the driving winds bring the cold. God's breath sends the ice, freezing wide expanses of water. He loads the clouds with moisture, and they flash with his lightning. Job 37:9-11 (NLT)

God designed the seasons and the different climates. I don't think He is surprised when some of us are unhappy and depressed when it is cold. What does God say about winter? What can help us out of our winter blues? I like a verse that seems buried in the description of that perfect woman found in Proverbs 31. "She has no fear of winter for her household, for everyone has warm clothes." Proverbs 31:21 (NLT) She was prepared for winter and welcomed it. She knew her family had provisions and supplies and warm clothes. She knew that winter was coming and planned for it.

Recently I read a historical story about Niagara Falls that I had never heard of before. The falls have the highest flow rate of any waterfall in North America. Six million cubic feet of water go over the falls every minute. But on March 29, 1948, the falls suddenly stopped. Those near the falls heard the overwhelming silence, and immediately they thought it was a sign that the end of the world had come! However, after thirty hours had passed, the flow of water resumed.

The river had stopped flowing because of ice. Heavy winds had set the ice fields of Lake Erie in motion and tons of ice had jammed the Niagara River. The ice blocked the flow of water until finally, there was a shift in the blockage and the river began flowing again.

Jesus tells us, "If anyone believes in me, rivers of living water will flow out from that person's heart." John 7:30 (NCV) But he also warned us that in the last days, "many will turn away from me and betray and hate each other. And many false prophets will appear and will deceive many people. Sin will be rampant everywhere, and the love of many will grow cold. Matthew 24:10-12 (NLT) If we want God's love, peace, and joy to flow, we cannot allow our love to grow cold. If we do, our hearts will become like ice.

The world can be a cold place. But God has promised to keep us safe and warm. "He will cover you with his feathers. He will shelter you with his wings. His faithful promises are your armor and protection." Psalms 91:4 (NLT)

Gentle Reader, Jesus knew the struggles we would face. He prayed for you and me when He was praying in the garden before His arrest. "I do not pray that you will take them out of the world. I pray that you will keep them safe from the evil one." John 17:15 (NIRV) The cold of the world around us will always be trying to get inside us, so we need to come in from the cold. Jesus says, "come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." Matthew 11:28 (NLT)

Whenever you feel the cold of the world surrounding you, remember the promise found in Isaiah 41:10 (NLT). "Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Don't be discouraged, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will hold you up with my victorious right hand." God promises that he will not leave you out in the cold. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Happy Valentine's Day


The best decision I ever made was to marry the girl who stole my heart when she walked into Mr. Brost's History class at the beginning of my senior year of high school. I know that high school romances are not supposed to be forever and that when kids get married in their teens, the marriages aren't supposed to last, but we have proven those things wrong. It is still awesome to go through each day with my best friend.

A Senior in High School

This girl took my breath away when she walked into class that morning. I was too shy to talk to girls, so it was almost a year before she knew I was interested. I think the good Lord knew that I needed all the help I could get, so he made our paths cross in several ways that year. Mr. Brost selected five students to work together weekly to produce learning packets for History class. Gina and I were both in the group. We both worked at the Harris Pine furniture factory. I worked on the dresser jig, and she made drawers. I would spend my breaks with the drawer makers, but she still didn't catch on.

It came time for our High School graduation, and I still had never gotten up the nerve to ask her out. Finally, I mustered up every ounce of courage and asked her if she would march with me when we graduated. She told me she would like to, but she had already told Russell she would march with him. If I talked to Russell, she would march with me. Once again, summoning up every bit of courage, I talked to Russell. He was very gracious and bowed out. I was on cloud nine.

The rest is history. There hasn't been a dull moment since.

Grow old along with me
The best is yet to be
When our time has come
We will be as one
God bless our love
Grow old along with me
Two branches of one tree
Face the setting sun
When the day is done
God bless our love

Spending our lives together
Man and wife together
World without end
World without end 

Grow old along with me
Whatever fate decrees
We will see it through
For our love is true
God bless our love

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Virtual Reality

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 8, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse. 

"Come on over to our condo," my niece said. "We are having a technology show and share." My niece loves new technology and always finds the latest cool and exciting gadgets. At the show and share, my niece showed us several recent purchases. First, she had us try the Oladance open-ear headphones. Unlike traditional in-ear headphones, Oladance features a completely open-ear design that rests gently and securely on top of your ear. The sound and comfort were great, and some ambient sound still came through, so you could hear if someone spoke to you.

The next item in the show and share was the ThermoPro wireless meat thermometer. With its Bluetooth connection, this wireless thermometer can monitor your cooking or grilling up to 500 feet away. It provides an easy way to keep track of the cooking progress and ensure that the meat is cooked to the proper temperature. 

When my niece passed the  OCOOPA rechargeable hand warmers around, I was impressed by how warm they were. They had three temperature levels to keep your hands warm. The high heating level works for eight hours on a charge, medium for 12 hours, and low for 15 hours. One of the useful features of these hand warmers is that they can also be used as an extra power bank. They can provide more than two charges for a cell phone and easily fit into any pocket or bag.

After showing several smaller items, my niece brought out her premier attraction, the Meta Quest 2 virtual reality headset. This strange-looking bulky headset was a life-changing experience when strapped onto your head. Virtual reality uses computer technology to create simulated environments and places you inside a three-dimensional experience. Instead of viewing a screen in front of you, you are immersed in and interact in a 3D world.

I do not think I have ever had such a bizarre experience as seeing a virtual world with the Meta Quest 2 headset! Here I am learning the controls through a tutorial game, and I can reach down onto a table and pick up blocks, hit a ping pong ball with a paddle, and throw paper airplanes while standing in the middle of my living room. This artificial environment makes it possible to experience anything anywhere! I explored Jeju Island in Korea, where a K-drama I had recently watched was filmed. 

As I played with the headset's possibilities, I swam with sharks, traveled through strange rock formations in Russia, and found myself in the middle of a Cirque du Soleil performance. I rode a roller coaster and felt nauseous by the end. With the virtual reality headset on, it was as if my living room no longer existed and I was thousands of miles away. The whole experience of being immersed in an exciting virtual world is incredible.

As I explored the virtual world in front of me, I remembered a book I read many years ago in high school. In the book Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, there is an advanced form of technology called the feelies that is like a movie theater in many ways. However, on top of sight and sound, smell and touch are added to the experience through vents pumping in various scents and two metal knobs that allow the viewer to feel what is happening on screen. While most people enjoyed this cheap thrill, the protagonist John hates it and believes the feelies are a base, lesser art form than reading. The feelies don't exist today, but virtual reality devices resemble Huxley's feelies. They distort the concept of what is real.

With virtual reality, the reality is defined and controlled by the user. There's a world ready to explore, and you never need to leave your house. The truth of your surrounding no longer matter because you are immersed in an alternate truth. But this alternate truth is not reality. 

I feel that many of us are living in virtual reality. We have surrounded ourselves with the reality we want to experience and shut out all influences that might change our reality. We ensure that all of the information we consume aligns with our world view and the reality we want. Our virtual reality makes it easier to shut out the unpleasant realities of life. When we live in the reality that we have invented, we cannot see injustice and the plight of people around us.

Jesus spoke to this problem when he said, "the King will say to those on his left, 'Go away from me. You will be punished. Go into the fire that burns forever that was prepared for the devil and his angels. I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink. I was alone and away from home, and you did not invite me into your house. I was without clothes, and you gave me nothing to wear. I was sick and in prison, and you did not care for me.' Then those people will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or alone and away from home or without clothes or sick or in prison? When did we see these things and not help you?' Then the King will answer, 'I tell you the truth, anything you refused to do for even the least of my people here, you refused to do for me.'" Matthew 25:41-45 (NCV)

The people that Jesus was talking about were religious but had been living in virtual reality. They had constructed a world in which they could not see injustice and the needs of others. And in the end, they paid with their life. "For the anger of God is unveiled from heaven against all the ungodliness and injustice performed by people who use injustice to suppress the truth." Romans 1:18 (NTE)

Gentle Reader, virtual reality may be fun to experience, but if we live in a virtual reality that we have constructed, we need to open our eyes and see the world the way Jesus sees it. "Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete. Because of the grace allotted to me, I can respectfully tell you not to think of yourselves as being more important than you are." Romans 12:2,3 (VOICE) That is the reality we should strive for.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Stand By for News

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 1, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Hello Americans; this is Paul Harvey. Stand by for news! For many years I tried to arrange my workday so that I could be near the radio when Paul Harvey would start his daily newscast with those familiar words. Paul Harvey's voice and style made him seem like a friend was telling you what had happened that day. His voice is one of the most recognizable in the history of radio. Over twenty million Americans regularly listened to Paul Harvey each week. One thousand six hundred radio stations carried his broadcast.

Paul Harvey was an innovator in the news business. He was a pioneer in the blending of news and opinion. Harvey never tried to hide that his "news" broadcasts included his personal views and conservative bias. While he personalized the radio news with his conservative opinions, he did it in a friendly way with heart-warming tales of average Americans, and folksy observations that made people feel at ease. 

In 1945, when he was 27, Paul Harvey began reporting the news on the Chicago radio station WENR. Soon, his broadcasts were topping the ratings in the greater Chicago area. In November 1950, the station debuted the 15-minute Paul Harvey News & Comments program. The following year the program was nationally syndicated by the American Broadcasting Company. His distinctive delivery was heard regularly over ABC for almost 60 years until his death in 2009. He was the most listened-to man in broadcasting.

"I have a strong point of view, and I share it with my listeners," Harvey told the American Journalism Review in 1998. Known for his staunch conservatism, he supported McCarthyism in the 1950s and George Wallace's segregation in the 1960s. In his later years, Harvey veered to the left by supporting the Equal Rights Amendment and abortion rights and criticizing the Christian right for attempting to impose its views on others.

The Los Angeles Times described his program this way. "Harvey's typical broadcast included a mix of news briefs, humor, celebrity updates, commentary, and the kind of human-interest stories he loved to tell in order to satisfy the public's hunger for a little niceness."

On May 10, 1976, Paul Harvey premiered a new radio series, "The Rest of the Story." The new program consisted of stories presented as little-known or forgotten facts on various subjects with some key element of the story, usually the name of some well-known person, held back until the end. The broadcasts always concluded with the tagline, "And now you know the rest of the story."

The tagline, "the rest of the story," reminded me of a story about my granddaughter. One day, while I was at work, the phone rang. When I answered the phone, my granddaughter said, "Papa, do you remember when we went to Colorado?" "Yes," I replied. She continued, "do you remember when you preached the Friday night, we were there?" "Yes," I answered. "You didn't finish the story. I was wondering what happened to the boy in the story."

In 2018, the Alumni Association of Campion Academy in Loveland, Colorado, asked me to speak on Friday night of the alumni weekend. My wife and I were graduates of Campion Academy's Class of 1973. We planned a week-long vacation in Colorado, spending time in Denver, Cedaredge, Leadville, and Loveland before attending the alumni weekend. We invited our granddaughter on the trip. 

My wife and granddaughter were in the audience Friday night when I gave my talk. I opened and closed my speech with this story. One night a house caught fire, and the flames forced a young boy onto the roof. A fireman stood on the ground below with outstretched arms, calling to the boy, "Jump! I'll catch you." He knew the boy had to jump to save his life. All the boy could see, however, was flame, smoke, and blackness. As you can imagine, he was afraid to leave the roof. The fireman kept yelling: "Jump! I will catch you." But the boy protested, "I can't see you." The fireman replied, "But I can see you, and that's all that matters."

Much later, my granddaughter was worried about the boy on the roof. She wondered what had happened to him. She was so curious that she called me. In my sermon, I left the story open because the boy represents each of us, and we have to decide what we will do.

In the book of Acts, there is a story about Paul and Silas. They were in prison for preaching about Jesus. "Suddenly, the ground begins to shake, and the prison foundations begin to crack. You can hear the sound of jangling chains and the squeak of cell doors opening. Every prisoner realizes that his chains have come unfastened. The jailer wakes up and runs into the jail. His heart sinks as he sees the doors have all swung open. He is sure his prisoners have escaped, and he knows this will mean death for him, so he pulls out his sword to commit suicide. 

At that moment, Paul sees what is happening and shouts out at the top of his lungs, Wait, man! Don't harm yourself! We're all here! None of us has escaped. The jailer sends his assistants to get some torches and rushes into the cell of Paul and Silas. He falls on his knees before them, trembling." Acts 16:26-29 (VOICE) When the jailer realized that the prisoners were all accounted for, he brought them out and asked Paul and Silas, "Sirs, what must I do to be saved?" They replied, "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved." Acts 16:30,31 (NLT)

When my granddaughter asked me what happened to the boy in the story, I told her that the boy trusted the fireman and jumped, so he was saved. The question I need to ask is, what must I do to be saved? I need to believe in Jesus so much that I will trust him and jump into his arms. He can't save me if I don't trust him enough to jump. He can't save me if I am busy trying to save myself. It's time for us to really believe in Jesus Christ: Believe enough to surrender our will and jump into his arms.

Gentle Reader, we are in the same situation as the young boy on the roof. If we stay in our current situation, fire will destroy us. The most critical question in our lives is, what must I do to be saved? In the little boy's situation, the answer was to jump. What is the answer in your life? Will you make that leap of faith? "Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved." Acts16:31 (NLT)