Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Lonely Christmas

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

The morning dawned quiet and peaceful. It’s too quiet and peaceful. There was no excitement. There were no shouts of Merry Christmas. No laughter filled the air. The Christmas tree in the living room stood silently with presents all around. But the gifts remained untouched. No one was opening them. The living room was in perfect order, with no torn wrapping paper.

I sighed and thought, “It doesn’t feel like Christmas.” Across the street, cars filled the driveway, and people arrived for Christmas morning celebrations. But our house was quiet. No one would be at our home for Christmas. No bubbly, excited granddaughters to make the day festive. I thought about all the people who would not be with those they love this Christmas and felt empathy for them.

This would be my first Christmas without my Daddy. With no family here, a sadness washed over me. I sat in my chair, feeling just a bit sorry for myself. “What makes Christmas feel special?” I wondered. I decided it is being with people you love and feeling a part of a tradition. Our traditions help Christmas feel special.

Around the world, Christmas traditions vary considerably. I remember spending a Christmas in Puerto Rico in the 70s. Puerto Ricans celebrated Christmas, but there were no gifts on Christmas Day. January 6th, known as Three Kings Day, rather than December 25th, was the day for exchanging gifts. Children would gather grass, hay, or straw in shoeboxes for the horses and camels of the three kings, much like children in the U.S. leave cookies and milk for Santa and his reindeer. Good kids are rewarded with presents and candy on Three Kings Day.

The tradition of Three Kings Day comes from the story in the Gospel of Matthew of wise men from the East who came looking for a baby who was the King of the Jews. “The star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Matthew 2:9-11 (NKJV) This biblical story is the basis for gift giving at Christmas.

In much of Europe, it is Christkind that brings the Christmas presents. The tradition dates to the Reformation and Martin Luther. At this time, it was traditional to give children gifts on December 6th, St. Nicolas’s Day. Does the idea that Saint Nicolas delivers gifts sound familiar to you? But Martin Luther wanted to do away with the veneration of saints and saints’ days, so he started a gift-giving tradition on Christmas Eve. He told the children that the Christ Child had brought their presents. This tradition quickly took hold in Lutheran families. 

While Martin Luther’s original intention was that the infant Jesus bring the children gifts, the image of a baby transformed into an angelic figure with golden hair topped with a crown and golden wings over time. A baby couldn’t deliver gifts, so a female angel with Christ-like qualities did the job. This angelic figure is known as Christkind. In much of Europe, Christkind is a symbol of Christmas along with Santa Claus. In this tradition, children never see Christkind in person. Parents tell them Christkind will not come and bring presents if they try to spot it. Christkind delivers gifts across Germany, Austria, Croatia, Hungary, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and much of Latin America.

In Scandinavia, an essential tradition during the Christmas season is celebrating Saint Lucia. She was a young Christian girl who was killed in 304 A.D. Her history has been lost, and all we know for sure is that this brave woman lost her life during the persecution of Christians in the early fourth century. Her veneration spread to Rome so that by the sixth century, the whole church recognized her courage in defense of the faith.

Tradition tells us that she would secretly bring food to the persecuted Christians in Rome, hiding in the catacombs under the city. She would wear candles on her head to have both her hands free to carry things. St. Lucia’s Day is now celebrated by a girl dressing in a white dress with a red sash around her waist and a crown of candles on her head. The crown is made of evergreen Lingonberry branches that symbolize new life in winter. Many towns and villages choose a girl to play St. Lucia and lead a procession of carolers.

Whatever your Christmas traditions are, I hope they bring you joy and happiness. I have noticed that many Christians believe very strongly in their traditions. Traditions are not inherently good or bad, right or wrong. Some people defend traditions because the church has practiced it that way for years. Other people dislike tradition and want change just for the sake of change.

Christians should be neither “traditional” nor “non-traditional.” They should neither accept nor oppose a practice simply because it is a tradition. It doesn’t matter how long we have practiced something or when it began. What’s important is what God’s word says about it. If God’s word requires it, then we must do it. If God’s word forbids it, we must oppose it even if it is a tradition. If God’s word is silent, there is no problem with tradition. But I can’t expect all Christians to follow just because it is my tradition.

Gentle Reader, what are your Christmas traditions? Do they bring you joy? Do they remind you of Jesus and how important He is to you? Jesus wants you to have joy. He says, “These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.” John 15:11 (NKJV) I hope you have experienced love and joy this Christmas. “There are three things that endure: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:13 (NCB)

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

The Electric Train

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

The six-year-old boy stood shyly in line with the other boys and girls. It was his first Christmastime in the big city of Denver, and everything seemed exciting, wonderful, and a little bit scary. It had only been a short time since he, his mom, and his little sister moved from his grandparents’ house on the plains of eastern Colorado to live with his daddy, who had found work in Denver.

The little family lived in a motel room as Daddy struggled to save enough money to find a proper house for them to live in. At six years old and having grown up during the Depression, Duane knew that there was not much money for Christmas presents that year. But as he stood in line waiting to see Santa Claus, he knew what he would ask for. He wanted an electric train set. It was all he could think about. He spent hours imagining his train chugging around the track.

When it was his turn to see Santa, Duane timidly walked forward and sat on Santa’s lap. When Santa asked him what he wanted for Christmas, Duane answered, “I want an electric train set.” After a moment of hesitation, Duane continued, “But I know that my Daddy can’t afford one, so a wind-up train would be okay.”

As they drove home, Daddy decided that no matter what happened, there would be an electric train under the tree. On Christmas Eve, Daddy set up the electric train in the little room after the kids were in bed. When morning came, he started the little train chugging around the tracks, blew the train whistle, and yelled, “Merry Christmas.”

That Christmas morning of 1940 is still a precious memory for Duane, even though he is now nearly ninety years old. From that Christmas morning until this day, the electric train has been one of his most prized possessions. When his children and grandchildren were growing up, they had fond memories of the little antique electric train running around the Christmas tree. The train was part of the family’s Christmas tradition.

Today, before writing this story, I called Duane to ensure I had the details correct. I asked him if he still put the train under the tree, and he told me it had been several years since the train had made its Christmas appearance. The family has gotten so large with grandkids and great-grandkids that there isn’t enough room in his small house. But as I was on the phone with him, he got his train out and sent me a photo. The top of the original box is no longer there, but the train is still in good condition in its original box.

When Duane’s daddy heard him ask Santa for an electric train all those years ago, I don’t imagine that he could have had any idea of the impact his decision to buy Duane an electric train for Christmas would have. For every Christmas for eighty years, his love for his son has been on display every Christmas. 

The Bible tells us that “every good act of giving and every perfect gift are from above, coming down from the Father of all light.” James 1:17 (NCB) Even though I understand that Christmas has become very commercialized, giving gifts is a way to become more like God, the ultimate gift giver. I know the danger of celebrating Christmas with cultural trappings and commercial glitz. But giving good gifts is a way we honor God, the giver of gifts.

Amy Carmichael, who spent her life as a Christian missionary in India, wrote, “You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving.” When you select Christmas gifts this year, make sure that love is the overriding reason for your gifts. The miracle of giving is that it ripples. Your one small gesture can affect hundreds. The smallest gift given with love and compassion is priceless.

God is the very best gift giver. His love is an extravagant gift to us. God promises us a gift more incredible than we can imagine or ask for. 2 Corinthians 9:15 (VOICE) describes Jesus this way; "Praise God for this incredible, unbelievable, indescribable gift!" With the gift of Jesus and all the other large and small ways we are blessed in this life, God wants to instill in us reciprocal generosity. All we are, all we have, is a gift from God. He is our Provider, Sustainer, Creator, and Good Father. Gift-giving allows us to keep the circle of generosity flowing to people God has placed in our lives.

Gentle Reader, I know you have given good gifts at Christmastime. Jesus knows that, too. In Matthew 7:7-11 (VOICE), Jesus said, "Just ask and it will be given to you; seek after it and you will find. Continue to knock and the door will be opened for you. All who ask receive. Those who seek, find what they seek. And he who knocks, will have the door opened. Think of it this way: if your son asked you for bread, would you give him a stone? Of course not—you would give him a loaf of bread. If your son asked for a fish, would you give him a snake? No, to be sure, you would give him a fish—the best fish you could find. So if you, who are sinful, know how to give your children good gifts, how much more so does your Father in heaven, who is perfect, know how to give great gifts to His children!"

God is the ultimate giver of good gifts. No matter how fantastic the best gift you open this Christmas is, it can't compare to the gift of Jesus we celebrate at Christmas. In Romans 6:23 (KJV), the Bible tells us, "The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord." God has given you the best gift ever; how will you reciprocate? Who could you bless this Christmastime with your time or attention, with a gift, large or small? Find a way to be a gift to someone today.

Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The Model A Pickup

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

My Daddy grew up in a Ford Model A. By the time he was eight years old he was driving the family Model A. One of the ways that the family earned money was by peddling eggs, fruit, and vegetables door to door. By the time he was eight years old, when the traffic was light, his Momma would send Daddy back down the street to pull the Model A up to where she was. Daddy remembered having to look through the steering wheel instead of over it.

Over the years Daddy owned many antique and special interest collector cars. But the cars he loved the most were Model A’s. In 1992, he drove a Shay Model A on several trips. On one trip he drove the Model A from Arkansas to Dawson City, Yukon in Canada. From there, he traveled on the Dempster Highway toward Inuvik. Driving his Model A above the Arctic Circle was one of his proudest achievements. Later that year he took another vacation, driving the Model A to Key West, Florida. Over the years, I heard him tell the story of driving his Model A to the Arctic Circle and the Florida Keys in the same year to hundreds of people.

The last old car Daddy bought was a 1930 Ford Model A Roadster Pickup. He was no longer driving his old cars and wasn’t interested in purchasing any. But he bought this original Model A pickup when offered it. The Model A had been donated to the TV ministry. It Is Written, by one of the owners of McKee Foods, makers of Little Debbie Snack Cakes. When It Is Written contacted Daddy to see if he was interested in purchasing the Model A, he told them he was no longer buying cars, but he did have a soft spot for Model A’s. 

After negotiating a price and finding transport from Chattanooga to Mena, the day finally arrived when the Model A pickup was delivered. Daddy was excited to see his new purchase. He loved the untouched original look. In its unrestored condition with the cracked and pealing black lacquer paint, the Model A pickup looked the way it would have eighty years ago when Daddy first learned to drive in a Model A.

We moved cars around in our building to accommodate the new acquisition. I asked Daddy if he wanted to try and start the Model A Pickup. He said, “Not today,” and returned to his favorite chair and scrolling through Facebook on his iPad. For the next three years, he loved to show people his Model A Roadster Pickup and tell them that the previous owner was the owner of Little Debbie’s. Several more times over the years, I asked Daddy if he wanted to try and start the Model A, and his answer was always the same. “Not today.”

Two months ago, Daddy passed away suddenly. After the shock and taking care of the necessary things had subsided, I turned my attention to the shop and everything that would need to be done there. I started thinking about getting some of the cars in Daddy’s collection running again. I mentioned to several people that I would like to get the Model A pickup running but didn’t know much about Model A’s. 

One day, a customer came by the shop and said, “I hear you have a Model A that you want to get running.” “Yes, I do,” I replied. He told me he had been working on Model A’s for years, and in the next day or two, he would come by and see what we could do. The very next day, he showed up and was anxious to get to work. He showed me where the fuel shut-off valve was located under the dash. After turning the fuel valve on, he made sure the spark control lever on the left side of the steering wheel was pushed up. Then he pulled the throttle lever on the right side of the steering wheel halfway down.

Pulling the choke control out, he pressed the starter button and pushed the choke control back in as soon as the engine turned over. The Model A pickup that hadn’t been started in years came to life. He pulled the spark control lever down as soon as it started until the engine ran more smoothly. “Hop in,” he said, “let’s go for a ride.”

We drove to the gas station to put more fuel in the little truck. The old gas that had been in the tank for years smelled terrible, so we filled it with new gas. On the way back to the shop, we changed drivers, and for the first time, I was driving the Model A Roadster Pickup. I felt sad that Daddy wasn’t there to see it.

My friend Chad told me I should drive the Model A in the Christmas parade. So we decorated it with lights and cut down a Christmas tree to haul in the pickup bed. My wife and I enjoyed driving the Model A in the parade.

As I drove in the parade, I thought about those years that Daddy had owned the Model A but had never driven or even started it. I was thankful for my customer and Model A expert, who was excited to help me get it running. 

I thought about how often I needed instructions and someone to teach me things I didn’t know. The same thing happens in my spiritual life. Every day, there seem to be things I don’t understand. But God tells me in Psalms 32:8 (AMP), “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you who are willing to learn with My eye upon you.”

Gentle Reader, God has a specific plan and purpose for our lives. These plans come with individual guidance from God Himself. No one else can direct us into what God has for us except Our Creator, who knows us intimately. In Psalms 32:8, God is reassuring us of His devotion and desire to get us where He designed us to be. He is saying I am here and know exactly what to do; all you have to do is follow me. He wants to instruct and teach us so we will be wise. “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” Ephesians 5:15-16 (NIV)

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

I'll Be Home For Christmas

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

It was a cold, windy day in December 1903. Orville Wright stands on the beach in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, staring at the sky. His brother Wilbur is flying overhead in the machine they had built together. It was their fourth flight of the day in their hand-built flying machine. Wilbur Wright successfully flew their homemade machine for 59 seconds, covering 852 feet at seven miles per hour. Orville had piloted the day’s first flight, which lasted just 12 seconds and traveled only 180 feet, but it proved that human flight was possible. 

Orville wrote in his diary about the first attempted flight that morning. “I found the control of the front rudder quite difficult. As a result, the machine would rise suddenly to about ten feet and then as suddenly, on turning the rudder, dart for the ground. A sudden dart when out about 100 feet from the end of the tracks ended the flight. Time about 12 seconds.”

The brothers realized that a successful flight depended on their ability to learn how to handle the machine. Each attempt showed improvement. They were pleased enough with Wilbur’s 59-second flight but knew they could have done better. Unfortunately, there was not going to be another flight that day. Orville explains in his diary. “We set the machine down a few feet west of the building, and while standing about discussing the last flight, a sudden gust of wind struck the machine and started to turn it over. All rushed to stop it. Will, near one end, ran to the front, but too late to do any good. Mr. Daniels and myself seized spars at the rear, but to no purpose. The machine gradually turned over on us. Mr. Daniels, having had no experience in handling a machine of this kind, hung on to it from the inside, and as a result was knocked down and turned over and over with it as it went. His escape was miraculous, as he was in with the engine and chains. The engine legs were all broken off, the chain guides badly bent, a number of uprights, and nearly all the rear ends of the ribs were broken.”

That day, Orville and Wilbur became the first to demonstrate a heavier-than-air machine’s sustained flight under the pilot’s complete control. What did the brothers do after their exciting success and the heartbreak of damaging their flying machine? They had an unhurried lunch and then walked four miles to send a telegram to their father. The telegraph read, “Success four flights Thursday morning all against twenty-one-mile wind started from level with engine power alone. Average speed through air thirty-one miles. Longest 57 seconds. Inform press. Home for Christmas.” With their machine wrecked by the wind and flying done for the season, the Wrights immediately thought of going home for Christmas. They returned home with their broken machine on the evening of December 23.

According to their niece, Ivonette Miller, who was 7 in 1903, the children were excited that Wilbur and Orville would be home for Christmas. She recalled they said, “Oh, goody, Uncle Will will be home in time to carve the Christmas turkey!”

Amanda Wright Lane, the great-grandniece of Wilbur and Orville, said: “The Wright family was thrilled to learn about that first flight, but they were happier yet to know that meant the boys, great cooks, would be home in time for Wilbur to stuff the Christmas turkey and for Orville to make his cranberry bunny, served at holiday meals.”

Orville and Wilbur Wright had just accomplished something no human had ever done. What they accomplished on that cold, windy December day would change humankind forever. But their thoughts were with their family and making it home for Christmas.

The family is important to God because it is an institution He has created and one of His blessings. Families come in all shapes and sizes. Every family is unique, and every person within each family is essential. When God created the family, he gave us an extraordinary gift and a unique challenge. Family requires an unshakable commitment to each other, even when everyone involved is intimately aware of each other’s flaws.

If you are committed to your family, they should always come first. Even if you are working on something significant, like the first powered, heavier-than-air flight, you should never forget your commitment to your family.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is the Bing Crosby classic, I’ll Be Home For Christmas. The song was written to honor soldiers overseas who longed to be home at Christmas time. The song is sung from the point of view of a soldier stationed overseas during World War II, writing a letter to his family. In the message, he tells his family he will be coming home and to prepare the holiday for him. The song touched the hearts of Americans, soldiers, and civilians, earning Bing Crosby his fifth gold record. 

“I'll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me. Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree. Christmas Eve will find me where the love light gleams. I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

As a Christian, you are a part of two families: your earthly and heavenly families. 1 John 3:1 (GW) says, “Consider this: The Father has given us his love. He loves us so much that we are actually called God’s dear children. And that’s what we are.” And Romans 8:15-17 (ICB) says, “The Spirit that we have makes us children of God. And with that Spirit we say, ‘Father, dear Father.’ And the Spirit himself joins with our spirits to say that we are God’s children. If we are God’s children, then we will receive the blessings God has for us. We will receive these things from God together with Christ.” 

Gentle Reader, there is no doubt that God loves His children. He shows it by His words, His actions, and His promises. He longs for His children to be with him. Like we want our children and grandchildren to come home for Christmas, God wants us to come home and be with Him. Jesus says, “I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together.” John 14:3 (VOICE) There is nothing in this life that is more important than for us to be a child of God and come home for Christmas. Let’s tell God, “I’ll be home for Christmas. You can plan on me.”