Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Erfurt, Germany

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 28, 2024, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Someone who knew I had traveled to many places recently asked me a question. They wanted to know my favorite destination I would recommend visiting. That was a difficult question because many areas have left a lasting impression. The answer to that question might change from day to day, but the answer I gave that day was Erfurt, Germany.  

I still remember my first impressions of Erfurt. The tour bus drove down the narrow cobblestone street and stopped in front of an old church. Our tour guide, Bernd, told us that the church was St. Augustine's Church, built over 700 years ago. In 1277, Augustinian Hermits started to build St. Augustine's Church and the monastery complex. He said, "We will spend the weekend inside the historic walls and rooms where monks, including Martin Luther, once lived and prayed." 

Our tour had arranged for us to stay at the Augustinerkloster in Erfurt, Germany. It's a working Lutheran church and cloister used as a conference center with 51 visitor rooms. As I walked toward my room, I soaked in the history of the place and tried to imagine what it would have been like to live here as a monk over five hundred years ago.

After settling into the room, I headed out to explore the old town of Erfurt. The area has been inhabited for thousands of years, but no one knows precisely how old the city is. The earliest written records of Erfurt were from 742 A.D. when a diocese was established there.

German writer Arnold Zweig described Erfurt's charming old quarter as a "picture book of German history." Somehow, the medieval city center emerged relatively unscathed from World War II, after which it became stuck in the strange cocoon of East German communism for half a century. Because of this, Erfurt has a surprising time-capsule quality. Walking through the jumble of narrow alleys and open squares, I tried to visualize the same places during medieval times. 

The picturesque beauty of the Krämerbrücke, or Merchants Bridge, struck me. It's the oldest secular building in town and the longest-inhabited bridge in Europe. Half-timbered houses flank a beautiful cobblestone street. The bridge was constructed in 1325, though most houses date to the 15th century.

My walk through Erfurt culminated in the vast Cathedral Square, dominated by two old churches. As I sat down and soaked up the scene, The sounds of a busy German square enveloped me. Conversations surrounded me as people ate and socialized at the many open-air restaurants around the plaza. Children squealed with delight while they played. I sat on a bench, watching couples quietly conversing and teenagers congregating nearby. 

Even though I was alone, I felt part of a vibrant community. I sat quietly and tried to imagine what it was like five hundred years ago when Martin Luther lived here. The medieval charm of the old city made it easy for my mind to engage in flights of imagination and fill it with the sights and sounds of the 16th century.

After spending the night in the modernized rooms of the over six-hundred-year-old Augustinerkloster, our tour group met the following day to worship in St. Augustine's Church. We had been permitted to worship in the old church Martin Luther had attended as a monk. The church was closed to tourists for one hour, and we had it all to ourselves. Sitting in the beautiful old church and singing Martin Luther’s A Mighty Fortress, I was filled with awe and the history of the place. 

I was reminded of why Martin Luther became a monk who worshipped in this church. The day was July 2, 1505. Martin had recently completed a Master's degree and started his law studies at the University of Erfurt. He was returning to Erfurt after visiting his parents when he was caught in a terrible thunderstorm. Lightning struck near him, and he was thrown to the ground. Fearing for his life, he called to Saint Anne: "I will become a monk!" Much to his father’s dismay, Martin left law school and entered the monastery. 

In 1517, Martin Luther wrote a document attacking the Medieval Church’s corrupt practice of selling indulgences to absolve sin. His “95 Theses” had two central beliefs. The first is that the Bible is the central religious authority, and the second is that salvation is only by faith in Jesus and not by works. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.” Ephesians 2:8,9 (NKJV)

As Christians, we want to make Jesus the center of everything. We shouldn’t focus on just portions of the gospel of Jesus; we should teach Jesus in the completeness of his life. Paul addressed this concept in 1 Corinthians 2:1,2 (NLV): "Christian brothers, when I came to you, I did not preach the secrets of God with big sounding words or make it sound as if I were so wise. I made up my mind that while I was with you, I would speak of nothing except Jesus Christ and His death on the cross."

Martin Luther was a champion of the Bible. He spent many years translating the Bible into the vernacular German of the common man. He believed every Christian should read the Bible for himself and that with God's help, each Christian could understand the truths it contained. He wrote, "We must make a great difference between God's Word and the word of man. A man's word is a little sound that flies into the air and soon vanishes, but the Word of God is greater than heaven and earth, yea, greater than death and hell, for it forms part of the power of God, and endures everlastingly." 

Gentle Reader, I want to leave you with these words penned by Luther. "There is no other interpreter of the Word of God than the Author of this Word, as He has said, ‘They will all be taught by God.’ John 6:45 (NCV). Hope for nothing from your own labors, from your own understanding: trust solely in God and in the influence of His Spirit. Believe this on the word of a man who has experience."

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Just One More

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 21, 2024, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

On Hacksaw Ridge, soldiers lay dead or dying. Over the noise of gunfire and artillery, voices yelled, “medic!” The enemy had caught them by surprise. Mortar rounds were exploding, and bullets were flying. The order came, “Retreat!” While soldiers scrambled away from danger, one soldier ran toward the enemy, looking for wounded soldiers left on the battlefield. More than seventy-five men remained behind, too wounded to retreat. 

For hours, without any help, he carried injured soldiers through enemy fire, lowering each man on a rope-supported litter he had devised to a safe spot over forty feet below the ridge. He used double bowline knots he had learned as a young boy, tying the makeshift litter to a tree stump that served as an anchor. Many hours later, after rescuing countless injured soldiers, he refused to stop even though he was at the point of exhaustion. He was determined to find every fallen soldier who was still breathing. His motto was, “As long as there is life, there is hope.”

At the beginning of the day, his company had launched the assault of Hacksaw Ridge with 155 men. After the vicious enemy attack, fewer than one-third could retreat down the escarpment to relative safety. The rest lay wounded, scattered across the enemy-controlled ground. One lone soldier charged back into the firefight to rescue as many men as he could, knowing that he would probably die that day. The soldier strongly believed in God, and his prayer after each rescue was, “Please, Lord, help me get just one more.” 

Just One More is the title that my granddaughter, Autumn Grant, has chosen for her second play. Last year, although only a junior in high school, she wrote and directed her first play, The Unlikely Messenger. For the last year, she has been working on a two-act play presenting the story of Desmond Doss. Rehearsals for Just One More begin this week, and the play will be performed in April. I am looking forward to seeing the play.

Just One More is the story of Desmond Doss. He enlisted in April 1942 but refused to kill or carry a weapon into combat because of his strong belief in the commandment that says, “Thou shalt not kill” Exodus 20:13 (KJV). The Army gave him the designation of conscientious objector. Desmond worked at the Newport News Naval shipyard and could have requested a deferment. But he desired to do his part in the war effort. For him, that meant saving lives, not taking them. He described himself as a “conscientious cooperator.” He became a medic and served in the Pacific theatre. 

His refusal to carry a gun caused trouble with his fellow soldiers. They called him a misfit. One man in the barracks warned him, “Doss, as soon as we get into combat, I’ll make sure you won’t come back alive.” His commanding officers wanted to get rid of Desmond. They saw him as a liability. Nobody believed a soldier without a weapon was worthwhile. They tried to intimidate him, scold him, assign him extra arduous duties, and when that didn’t work, declared him mentally unfit for the Army. 

Desmond was court-martialed for refusing a direct order to carry a gun. But the Army failed to find a way to throw him out, and he refused to leave. He believed his duty was to obey God and serve his country. But it had to be in that order. His unwavering convictions were most important.

Desmond never held a grudge. With kindness and gentle courtesy, he treated those who had mistreated him. He lived by the words of Jesus, “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you.” Matthew 7:12 (NASB) When the men in his unit saw him in action, displaying incredible courage and selflessness, his tormentors became his biggest supporters. Desmond was an example of the principle found in John 15:13 (NKJV), “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

Because of his bravery during the American assault on Okinawa in May 1945, Desmond was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Truman on October 12, 1945. As he shook the hand of Corporal Desmond Doss, President Truman said, “I’m proud of you. You really deserve this. I consider this a greater honor than being President.”

I have known the story of Desmond Doss for many years. When I was a boy, I read his biography, The Unlikeliest Hero, by Booton Herndon. One story that I remember happened three weeks after Hacksaw Ridge. In a night attack, Desmond remained in exposed territory while the rest of his company took cover. A grenade blast seriously wounded his legs. Rather than call another aid man, he cared for his injuries and waited five hours before litter bearers reached him and started carrying him to safety. 

When Desmond saw a more critically wounded man nearby, he crawled off the litter and directed the litter bearers to take care of the other man. While he was waiting for the litter bearers to return, he was hit by enemy fire, this time suffering a compound fracture of his arm. In extreme pain, he bound a rifle stock to his shattered arm as a splint and then crawled 300 yards over rough terrain to the aid station.

In 1999, I had the honor of meeting Desmond Doss. I had taken a group of boys ages 10 to 14 to hear him speak. After his talk, my boys wanted to meet him. We waited for a chance to talk to him. Desmond stayed until everyone who wanted to meet him had a chance. He took the time to speak to each of the boys personally. The boys loved him and were very impressed. They told me, “We got to meet a real American hero.”

Gentle Reader, I’m proud to have met this humble man. His story made an impression on me when I was a boy. When I met him, I was impressed by his humility. Even though everyone in the audience wanted to hear about his Medal of Honor, he was uncomfortable talking about his actions. He focused more on being prepared and being willing to help others. He stressed the importance of standing up for your convictions. 

Desmond’s life reminds me of the words found in Proverbs 15:33 (NCV), “Respect for the Lord will teach you wisdom. If you want to be honored, you must be humble.” The world needs more people like Desmond Doss, who are focused on saving just one more.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Latter Rain

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 14, 2024, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

A light mist was in the air as we arrived at Avalon Hall. I was curious as to what the evening would look like. The event was the Art Lovers Ball. I knew there would be art, music, and food, but I wasn’t sure what to expect. We walked into the beautifully decorated venue and were directed to our table.

As the event began, Michael Cate introduced artist Carolyn MacMahon. On the stage were three large paintings. Two paintings of castles reminded me of our summer trip to Europe. Carolyn explained her process, from composition to the steps she took as she finished the paintings. I was touched by the paintings and impressed with the quality. They would not have been out of place displayed at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

But the painting that most impacted me depicted several spirited horses running in a field with beautiful scenery and ominous clouds in the background. As Carolyn began to talk about the painting, she told the story of how it was commissioned. 

When Kirk contacted Carolyn with the idea for the painting, he wasn’t sure it was even possible. When Kirk was going through his father's estate, he found an old photo that was very meaningful. It was an 8x10 photo of himself standing in front of the fireplace of the home he grew up in. Above the fireplace mantel was a painting of a circle of running wild stallions and, in the distance, a storm-covered mountain range. The photo reminded him fondly of his younger years and how much he loved the painting over the fireplace. Unfortunately, the photo had irreparable water damage.

As Carolyn was telling us about the origins of the painting, she invited Kirk to come up on stage and tell us how the painting came to be and how much it meant to him. His story touched my heart, and after the presentation, I asked him if I could share his words with you, my readers. He graciously gave me permission. 

Kirk continued the story after telling us about the history of the old, damaged photo. “About five years later, my path crossed that of Carolyn MacMahon. I had gotten to know one of her sons here in Mena, Arkansas, and in becoming friends with him, I learned of his mother’s talent and extraordinary gift for painting. I was invited to her home with several members of our church for a small Bible study. When I walked in, I saw that her home was filled with her paintings and other items of her artwork. I could see clearly her wealth of talent as I went from piece to piece. It was then that I felt my friend say to me, ask her to recreate your beloved painting. 

At once, I asked her about it, and she stated she would give it a try. Knowing the condition of the photo and its damage, I wasn’t sure what she could do. She came over a few days later, and I gave her the photo as we discussed the challenges of recreating the painting. In joy and great anticipation, she started the process. There was quite a bit of communication back and forth as to what I remembered about the painting, for a lot of details were missing due to the water damage. Some months later, she had completed the painting, and when I saw it for the first time in its final state, I could not express the joy I felt inside. It is truly a one-of-a-kind masterpiece. 

So many years later, so many experiences between then and now, looking at myself in the photo and juxtaposed to myself now, I know so much more about God, my Father and my friend. The painting now took on an eternal meaning of life with God, now and in the future. I now understand that God’s Spirit in the first temple dwelled by a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of smoke by day, a splendor that held the world in glorious awe. Now, the Spirit of God dwells in us, making the latter rein of Christ greater than the former. 

The first temple was built by the hands of men according to God’s specifications and it was a site so wonderful and excellent it captivated the attention of every nation on earth. The second temple was built and ordained by the hands of God, exceeding in greatness the first, making the latter temple more excellent than the former temple.

The first covenant was written by the finger of God on tablets of stone. The second covenant was written by God on the hearts of men, making the second covenant greater than the first.

The Word of God became flesh and dwelled among us through the person of Jesus Christ, not doing away with the commandments but fulfilling them, being all in all, showing and proving the righteousness and love of God for us all. 

When I look at this painting, I see the tempest in the background, the raging storms, and the mountains of struggles. The stallions aren’t escaping; they have gone through the storm, being set free from the torrents of disaster, free to run and not be weary, free to walk in truth and burst forth in joy, being set free from pain and sorrow of the past and what lies behind them, and exhilarated in joy, not fear, for the life ahead of them.

My latter life far exceeds my former life. I look forward with Joy to the First Resurrection, when I will see God, not as through a veil, but face to face as He truly is. So, I run with Joy and Faith in the race set before me. And this painting is that constant reminder. Thank you, Jesus, and thank you, Carolyn.”

Kirk Kelso named his precious painting “Latter Rain.” As I was listening to him talk about the painting with his voice filled with emotion, I thought of the text in Joel chapter two that talks of the latter rain. “Rejoice in the Lord your God; For He has given you the former rain faithfully, And He will cause the rain to come down for you— The former rain, and the latter rain.” Joel 2:23 (NKJV) 

Gentle Reader, in farming, there are specific stages involved in producing a good harvest: the planting, the germination of the seed by the early rains, the maturation period, and finally, the ripening period brought on by the last rains of the season, which the Bible calls, “the latter rain.” In Deuteronomy 32:2 (AMPC), God says, “My message shall drop as the rain, my speech shall distill as the dew, as the light rain upon the tender grass, and as the showers upon the herb.” Let’s pray for the latter rain of God’s message to fall on our hearts so He can complete the final harvest.

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Terlingua, Texas

My An Arkie's Faith column from the February 7, 2024, issue of The Polk County Pulse.

Last December, a friend of mine, a former resident of Mena, moved to Terlingua, Texas. Terlingua is a mining ghost town with a population of around one hundred. Situated eight miles from Big Bend National Park, tourism is the basis for the town’s economy.

My friend loves the town and its laid-back atmosphere. He has been busy remodeling an old house and adapting to the way of life there. Last week, he told me, “Terlingua brings perspective. It illuminates time and your part in the vast expanse of time. It humbles you but consoles you. Terlingua tells you, ‘Relax, it’s all OK. We are a small part of a much bigger picture.’”

His words reminded me of my first morning in the Terlingua area. It was a crisp 34 degrees as I walked out of our hotel. I carefully made my way down the dark path to the parking lot. I saw the inky black sky with thousands of stars embedded into the canopy like brilliant diamonds. I stopped and soaked in the eerie silence before climbing into my car and starting the engine.

Today was my first morning in the Big Bend area of Texas, and I wanted to find an excellent place to watch the sunrise. I pulled out onto Highway 170 and headed northwest out of Lajitas. The road spread out in front of me like a pitch-black river, following along the banks of the Rio Grande. My headlights fought to penetrate the overwhelming darkness. I found a place to pull off the highway several miles down the road. A sign that read West Contrabando Trailhead pointed to a dirt road that turned off to my right. At the trailhead was an empty parking lot. I pull in and turn off the engine. 

It is hard to describe the night sky in a place with no light. The darker the night, the brighter the stars. I am miles away from any light sources, and the sky seems to expand with more and more stars. As I sit in the darkness and my eyes adjust to the velvety blackness, I see a blanket of stars stretching into infinity. The Milky Way rushes across the sky, looking like a bold brush stroke from the hand of a divine painter. As I look up into the night sky, countless stars and constellations seem to welcome me into their world. The serenity and quietness of the moment envelop me. With its immense canopy and brilliant pinpricks of light, the starry night sky seems to wrap me in comfort and peace.

“For my part, I know nothing with any certainty, but the sight of the stars makes me dream.” Vincent Van Gogh’s words describing his famous painting, “Starry Starry Night,” come to my mind. The solitude and the impressive display of the universe over my head put me in a reflective mood. I realized that David saw a night sky similar to this one when he wrote, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” Psalms 19:1 (NASB)

Today, less than 10% of Americans can enjoy a view of our galaxy, the Milky Way. That means more than 90% have never seen a picture of the sky taken for granted for almost all human history. Stargazing has been a human pastime since ancient times. The ancients interpreted constellations and arrangements of the stars and planets they saw in the night sky to have essential meaning for themselves and their families. This night sky view inspired countless artists, poets, musicians, mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers. Something about the vastness of the night sky leads to thoughts of how our universe came to be and how insignificant we are. David wrote, “When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them?” Psalms 8:3,4 (NLT)

As I sat there, swept up in my solitude and meditating on life's big questions, a gentle glow appeared in the east, and the stars slowly began to fade. The faint light outlined dramatic vistas, and the few remaining stars seemed impossibly brilliant. The first light of dawn showed no color, but slowly, the sky filled with yellow and orange hues. The morning light was perfect, a visual silence that filled me with reverent awe. Soon, there was enough light to see the rugged beauty of the Chihuahuan Desert. 

There is something to be said for solitude, being alone. Solitude is different than loneliness. I don’t like being lonely. I need people around me, just not too many people. But solitude gives me a chance to recharge, reflect, and meditate. The morning I spent in Big Bend, miles away from other human beings, will always be a special memory. Some of my favorite moments are the solitude of an early morning sitting on my deck or special moments like watching a day be born in Big Bend. Mother Teresa said, “Listen in silence because if your heart is full of other things, you cannot hear the voice of God. “

Most of us lead such busy lives that we never fully realize how much we need to spend time alone with our Creator. In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote, “We live, in fact, in a world starved for solitude, silence, and private: and therefore starved for meditation and true friendship.” I know that I need moments of solitude in my life because of the example of Jesus. The Bible tells of many times that Jesus would seek solitude. “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed.” Mark 1:35 (NKJV)

Gentle Reader, I would encourage you to look for moments of solitude. Even though God is all-powerful, His presence often shows up in the most gentle, loving fashion. Regardless of your situation, God cares. He wants to meet you one-on-one and help you with your most pressing concerns. God says, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him. And he will eat with me.” Revelation 3:20 (ICB) God wants to spend some quiet, alone time with you. I hope you can find time in your busy life for some alone time with God.