Wednesday, April 26, 2023

The Unlikely Messenger

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

I sat in the high school auditorium, waiting in anticipation for the play to begin. I had been hearing about the play for several weeks. My oldest granddaughter, a junior in high school, had written the play over the last month. She also directed the play, with fifteen of her fellow high school students performing all the roles. 

When it was time to begin, my granddaughter made her way to the front of the auditorium and began to speak. "My name is Autumn Grant," she began. "I am the writer and director of The Unlikely Messenger. I am very nervous and excited to have you all watch the play that the drama class has worked hard on for so many hours for your enjoyment. I have a few little requests for you in the audience. Number one is, please silence your cell phones because this play takes place in the 1840s, so they did not have cell phones. It would add to the realism if no cell phones went off during the play. Just silence your cell phone so the actors don't realize that they're actually in 2023."

After the introduction, the lights dimmed and faded to black. The audience was silent as a spotlight appeared on the center aisle, and three young girls walked toward the stage, happily chatting. Another girl soon appeared, and there was an altercation. When the three girls ignored her and walked away, she picked up a rock and threw it at them, hitting Ellen in the head. Her sisters pick Ellen up and carry her home. 

The following scenes show the doctor visiting Ellen, her mother pleading with God for Ellen's life, and her father not recognizing her because of her injuries. After her family listens to William Miller, a famous preacher of the era, they are excited that Jesus is coming soon. They are very disappointed when Jesus doesn't come when they thought he would. 

God calls teenage Ellen to comfort the followers of William Miller who have been disappointed, but she doesn't feel like she can and stays away from church meetings, so she won't have to share what God has told her. She tells God, "I know what you showed me. I know you want me to share this with others, but how can I? What if I'm too sick, God? I'm only seventeen. I can tell my family, but I won't tell others. Look at me; I'm not fit to share your message. Pick someone else."

When Ellen finally decides to speak to others, she travels around New England speaking to groups, encountering interested listeners and detractors. It wasn't easy for a female, especially a teenage girl, to be taken seriously, but after her initial hesitancy, Ellen dedicated her life to God and preaching His message. 

At the end of the hour-long play, the audience cheered as the performers came out for a curtain call, showing their appreciation for the hard work of everyone involved. As my granddaughter came onto the stage and held hands with the performers, her face broke into a big smile. Now there were no more late nights writing, no more hours and hours of practice, and no more anxiety and nervousness. There was now relief and happiness, knowing that the play was a success and the audience loved it. 

The play tells the historical story of Ellen Harmon, who Smithsonian Magazine named one of the "100 Most Significant Americans of All Time." For the next seventy years, she preached across the U.S. and Australia and wrote over 5,000 periodical articles and 40 books. She is the most translated female non-fiction author in the history of literature and the most translated American non-fiction author of either gender. Historian Randall Balmer has described her as "one of the more important and colorful figures in the history of American religion." 

Ellen's story as an unlikely and hesitant messenger reminded me of another hesitant messenger's story. Moses is a shepherd who encounters a strange phenomenon while watching his flock. The Bible says that "Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn't burn up. 'This is amazing,' Moses said to himself. 'Why isn't that bush burning up? I must go see it.'" Exodus 3:2,3 (NLT)

When Moses inspected the burning bush, God called to him from the middle of the bush. "'The cry of the people of Israel has reached me, and I have seen how harshly the Egyptians abuse them. Now go, for I am sending you to Pharaoh. You must lead my people Israel out of Egypt.' But Moses protested to God, 'Who am I to appear before Pharaoh? Who am I to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt?' God answered, 'I will be with you.'" Exodus 3:9-12 (NLT)

But just like Ellen, Moses didn't feel like he could do the job God asked him to do. He pleaded with God, "O Lord, I'm not very good with words. I never have been, and I'm not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled." Exodus 4:10 (NLT)

God wasn't going to take no for an answer. He told Moses, "'Now go! I will be with you as you speak, and I will instruct you in what to say.' But Moses again pleaded, 'Lord, please! Send anyone else.'" Exodus 4:12-13 (NLT)

When Moses was finally convinced to go to Egypt and confront the Pharaoh, one of the most powerful men on the planet, God was able to use him to free over 600,000 enslaved people. He is remembered today as one of the most important prophets in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. 

Gentle Reader, the stories of Moses and Ellen show us that God has always used ordinary men and women to carry out his plans if we are willing. Have you felt God asking you to do something, but because you feel inadequate, you have resisted Him? God has a plan for you. Whatever God has in store for you, remember His words of encouragement: "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." Isaiah 41:10 (NLT) You may be the next unlikely messenger.


You can watch the play here.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

High Bank Twin Falls

My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 19, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

I struggled as I climbed over the rocks alongside the creek I was following. The trail had been evident initially as I meandered among tall thin trees that weren't fully leafed out this early spring. When the path became undefined, with only a jumble of rocks visible, I knew I needed to follow the small creek to my destination.

My son-in-law told me about a beautiful waterfall a quarter mile off Highway 215. Because there were no signs marking the trailhead, he had given me instructions on how to find the waterfall. "When traveling on Hwy 215 past Byrd's Adventure Center," he explained, "you will come to a sign with an arrow pointing to the right that says High Bank Canoe Launch. Continue a short way to a small bridge. On the far side of the bridge, there will be a small, unmarked area to the right with enough room for two or three cars to park. After parking, cross over the highway and follow the creek."

It was a beautiful, warm spring day as we set out to find the waterfall. We quickly found the place to park and the unmarked trail. As we headed upstream, we encountered another stream to our right with a tiny cascade. The path became rougher and steeper, with rocks and boulders directly beside or within the stream. The footing was a bit dicey, especially with my worn-out knees, but I carefully tested each step with my hiking pole as I carefully climbed over the rocks.

Before I could see the waterfall, I could hear the plunging water. At first, I could barely glimpse the falls through the trees, but when the view opened, I saw a double waterfall flowing over a steep bluff, then cascading down the grotto before plunging into a pool below. The side-by-side tumbling waterfalls dropped over seventy feet. I climbed onto a large flat rock in the middle of the stream and spent several minutes enjoying the beauty and tranquility.

Arkansas has many hidden gems, from gorgeous rock formations to scenic overlooks and beautiful forests and rivers. I have been exploring Arkansas' natural beauty for over forty years, but there's always another treasure waiting to be found. I had never heard about High Bank Twin Falls until my son-in-law told me about them. His enthusiasm made me want to see the falls for myself.

After enjoying the beauty of the falls, we hiked back down the trail to our truck. As we continued down Hwy 215 on our way to Oark, we pulled into a turnout with an impressive view of the Mulberry River below. There was another family there enjoying the view. My wife, who never met a stranger and talks to everyone she meets, initiated a conversation with them. She had noticed a Dome Life decal on the back of their vehicle, and because we follow the outdoor adventures of Kellie and Cody Oden on the YouTube channel Dome Life, we began talking to them. 

We love watching Kellie and Cody each week on YouTube and were excited to meet other people who follow them regularly. While talking, we told them about the fantastic waterfall we had just seen. They knew nothing about the falls but were interested in seeing them. We gave them directions to the falls before getting in our truck and heading to Oark General Store, where we planned to eat lunch.

After we returned home from the day's adventure, I posted photos of High Bank Twin Falls on my Facebook page. The next day, I was surprised to see a comment on the post from the fellow Dome Lifers we had met. They wrote, "I'm so glad we crossed paths and met you all yesterday. Thanks for convincing us to go find this. It was beautiful."

As I thought about the beauty of High Bank Twin Falls, I realized something. I would have never seen the falls if my son-in-law had not been so enthusiastic in his description of them. He gave us detailed directions and encouraged us to hike to the falls, so we went. Without going to High Bank Twin Falls, we would never have told the people we met about the falls and given them directions. Indirectly, my son-in-law was responsible for our newfound friends discovering the beauty of High Bank Twin Falls.

When Jesus gave his disciples and us his final instructions before he left this earth, He said, "You will be my witnesses—in Jerusalem, in all of Judea, in Samaria, and in every part of the world." Acts 1:8 (NCV) A witness testifies to what he has seen, heard, or experienced. Like a witness in a courtroom, we share what we've seen, heard, and experienced as a follower of Jesus. 

We are to be witnesses for Jesus. But too often, we, as Christians, act more like lawyers and judges than witnesses. I hear Christians judging the actions of others and condemning them. They refer to these harsh, unloving actions as witnessing. But witnessing and judging are very different things.

Jesus tells us, "Do not judge other people. Then you will not be judged. You will be judged in the same way you judge others. You will be measured in the same way you measure others. You look at the bit of sawdust in your friend's eye. But you pay no attention to the piece of wood in your own eye. How can you say to your friend, 'Let me take the bit of sawdust out of your eye'? How can you say this while there is a piece of wood in your own eye? You pretender! First take the piece of wood out of your own eye. Then you will be able to see clearly to take the bit of sawdust out of your friend's eye." Matthew 7:1-5 (NIRV)

Gentle Reader, instead of being prosecuting attorneys or judges, we are called to be witnesses and tell our stories. Tell someone of your experience with Jesus that is so compelling that it makes them want to experience it. "When you speak, make sure it's always full of grace, and well flavored with salt! That way you'll know how to give each person an appropriate answer." Colossians 4:6 (NTE)

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Who Do You Think You Are?

My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 12, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Over the past few years, one of the TV programs that I have enjoyed watching is "Who Do You Think You Are?" After a four-year hiatus, the documentary series returned last year. In each episode, a different celebrity searches to trace their family tree with the help of historians and experts, unlocking past mysteries and unbelievable real-life stories across the world and through time.

Some of my favorite episodes have featured stories where celebrities find out things about their ancestors that they never knew before. Jason Sudakis learned the details of his grandfather's death and that his grandfather abandoned his grandmother on their wedding day. Kelly Clarkson investigated the life of her three times great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, was a prisoner of war, and later became a Senator. And Annie Lennox discovered the sad story of her great-great-grandmother who became an orphan at five after her mother, a widow, and a pauper, died. 

In an interview with Meredith Jacobs, executive producer Dan Bucatinsky said, "We've been doing this show for ten years now — we can't quite believe it — but there's a messaging in this show that I think happens that is sort of under the surface, which is that history matters, that we are all made up of both enormous and also tiny moves that occurred even 100, 200, 300 years ago with our ancestors. There has been a growing interest in genealogy."

Why are people interested in genealogy? They understand that their heritage is part of who they are today. I have been researching my family tree and traced the Lawry name back to Joseph Laurie, born in Scotland. So far, the most interesting ancestor I have found is my four times great grandfather, James Vowels.

According to a document I found, James Vowels was a soldier in the Army of the Revolution. He was born in Virginia in 1738. In 1776 he enlisted under Captain George Slaughter of the 8th Virginia Regiment. James fought in the Battles of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, Germantown on October 4, 1777, and several others. He wintered with his regiment at Valley Forge and served out the time of his enlistment faithfully.

When his enlistment ended, he returned to Virginia and married Anne Fields in April 1781. After the wedding, he again joined the Army and was at the siege of Yorktown. After the surrender of Cornwallis on October 19, 1781, he returned home to Culpepper County, Virginia, where he lived until his death on April 17, 1815.

My four times grandfather was a part of some of the most critical events in American history. He experienced the hardships of Valley Forge. He was part of the Army that forced English General Cornwallis to surrender and end the war. He helped America gain its independence. He was a true patriot. I'm proud to be a descendant of James Vowels.

As much fun as it was researching my genealogy, I finally reached a dead end and couldn't trace my Lawry family tree any farther. To continue, I would need to travel to Scotland, where the last records of Joseph Laurie were found. But I am still left with the question, where did I come from?

Who do you think you are? The answer determines how we live our lives. Our existence is meaningless if we feel we are here by an accident of forces. But if we are here because of God, our life has great worth, purpose, and a promised future beyond death.

In the Bible's account of human history, we read, "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth, " Genesis 1:1 (KJV), "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." Genesis 1:26 (KJV)

Who do you think you are? God says he loves you and made you in his image and likeness. Satan lies and tells you that you are just a cosmic accident.

Who do you think you are? You don't have to determine your identity because God has revealed it. God has told us that He created us. So many people are searching for their identity because they don't believe God created them.

Anytime we try to establish our identity and do not understand it biblically, it results in problems. New Age philosophy teaches that God is in us and that everything is universally connected through God. Pantheism is the belief that nature is identical to divinity and that, as a part of nature, each person is God. Who do you think you are? If you believe you are God, nothing can control your behavior.

Another identity that many people assume is that of a highly evolved animal. They believe we are just animals who have evolved with opposable thumbs and intelligent brains. Who do you think you are? If you feel you are only a highly developed animal, there is nothing to control your behavior.

The question should not be, who do you think you are, but who does God say you are? The Bible tells us in 1 John 3:1 (VOICE), "Consider the kind of extravagant love the Father has lavished on us—He calls us children of God! It's true; we are His beloved children." God says that we are his children!

All people are equally made in the image and likeness of God; Male and female, young and old, black and white, rich and poor. All have dignity, value, and worth. One of the greatest lies is that some people are more valuable than others. Because we are all God's children, you are not more valuable than anyone else, and you are not less valuable than anyone else.

That is why I don't believe in the survival of the fittest. I don't believe in Darwinian evolution, which says those who are strong survive, and those who are weak are worth less. Adolph Hitler based his plan for the Aryan race on his study of Darwin's theory. Christians shouldn't believe in racism, sexism, or class distinctions, because we all are made in the image and likeness of God.

Gentle Reader, who do you think you are? Your answer will profoundly affect your life, actions, and salvation. "We are God's creation. He created us to belong to Christ Jesus." Ephesians 2:10 (NIRV)

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The Mulberry River

My An Arkie's Faith column from the April 5, 2023, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

My daughter's family loves to be on a river. They own rafts, kayaks, paddleboards, and canoes. Over the past few years, I have taken trips with them on the Caddo, Ouachita, and Buffalo Rivers in Arkansas. The river has a relaxing, hypnotic quality. You can see the beauty of nature while floating a river that you can't see any other way. I love the serene tranquility and peacefulness of a river float. It is like everyday life doesn't exist while floating on a river.

I always look forward to our family river adventures. My son-in-law planned a spring break raft trip on the Mulberry River this year. I was excited to see the Mulberry as I had never been on it. 

My wife and I have spent time in Eureka Springs most years for the past forty years. Our route to Eureka Springs would take us up Highway 23 and the Pig Trail Scenic Byway. The Pig Trail winds through the Ozark National Forest with almost every kind of scenery imaginable, from rivers to waterfalls to mountain views. 

One stop we always made on the Pig Trail was the Turner Bend Store on the Mulberry River. The Turner family opened the Turner Bend store in 1911 on the banks of the Mulberry River. Whenever we stopped at Turner Bend, I would see all the canoes and kayaks at the campground, and I thought it looked like fun. The milky blue-green water of the Mulberry, its lush, forested banks, and its gorgeous Ozark scenery are exquisitely beautiful. But we never explored the area because we were going to Eureka Springs. 

We got up early Saturday morning and headed to the Mulberry River. My son-in-law had rented the rustic Riverside Retreat cabin on its banks. After the terrible storms of the day before with tornadoes that devastated Little Rock and other areas of Arkansas, the day was bright and sunny. The skies were a deep blue, and the scenery was beautiful. Lush green pastures and hillsides with dogwoods and redbuds told us it was spring.  

When we arrived at the cabin, there was a flurry of activity. Kids and adults were preparing for a day on the river. When everyone had packed their lunch and filled their dry bags, they picked their paddles, put on their life jackets, and prepared to launch the rafts from the cabins private put in. I watched and took photos as the two rafts floated into the Mulberry River. I would not make the nine-mile float trip to the Campbell Cemetery takeout. 

I was disappointed as I watched the rafts float out of view. But I had made the decision not to float the river. I have bad knees and am often in pain. Our last float trip had been on the Buffalo River, and I struggled with pain in my legs as I paddled my kayak. I was in a lot of pain, but seeing the stunning views along the Buffalo was a bucket list experience. Since the Buffalo River float trip, the pain in my knees has increased. As much as I wanted to float the Mulberry River, I knew it would be too painful. I pushed away the disappointment as I left the riverbank and headed to my car. I wouldn't sit at the cabin all day and wallow in self-pity. I was going to go exploring.

The cabin was on a gravel road named Shores Lake Road. I surmised that if the road was called Shores Lake Road, it must go to Shores Lake. So, I headed down the road to see what I could find. After driving for half an hour, I came to an overlook pullout. I parked the car, exited, and walked to the rock wall. A beautiful milky green lake spread below me as I looked over the wall. "That must be Shores Lake," I thought. After taking photos, I climbed back in the car and continued down the steep road to the lake below. "I may not be out on the river enjoying the float," I thought, "but I am seeing this beautiful lake."

In my explorations, I drove along the Mulberry River on Hwy 215. With bluffs on one side of the road and stunning views of the river on the other, it is one of the most beautiful drives in Arkansas. I ended up in the little town of Oark. When I saw the Oark General Store, I immediately recognized it from an article on the website, "Only in Arkansas." 

"The Oark General Store opened for business in 1890 in order to supply the small community with groceries and necessary supplies. It has been in business ever since and proudly claims the title of the oldest, continually operated store in the state of Arkansas. When visitors step inside the store, they are immediately immersed in history. Old pictures of the area line the wall depicting ways of life before pavement. If floors could talk, these original wood planks could take us back to a time when the general store was a hub of activity for the isolated people of the area. Now, over a century later, this unique sense of history seems to make people stop, relax and take time to visit."

As I sat in the quaint little store and enjoyed my butter pecan ice cream, I thought about how much I enjoyed the afternoon even though I had been disappointed earlier when the rafts floated away down the Mulberry River without me. I could hear Mick Jagger singing in my head, "you can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need."

Over the years, I've often thought of Psalm 30:5 (NKJV), which says, "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning." This verse is an excellent reminder that no matter how disappointed or sad we may feel, it won't last forever. We don't have to let that disappointment keep us living in grief or regret. 

Gentle Reader, disappointment is a powerful emotion that can keep us stuck focusing on what we have lost and yearning for dreams that didn't come true. It prevents us from believing God has good plans for us and suppresses our ability to let go of what we thought was supposed to be. We can allow disappointment to make us unhappy, or we can trust that God has good plans for us. "' I know the plans I have for you,' says the Lord. 'They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.'" Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)