Burrs & Cockleburs

Years ago, I worked in a community that was so small it had only one office supply store. If you needed paper, you bought it there. If you needed printer supplies, you bought them there. If you wanted to make copies, you made them there. The next closest outlet was twenty miles away. As you can imagine, their prices reflected their unique market position. As you might not imagine, so did the manager.

He was curt, unfriendly, snippy and sarcastic. In addition to those fine qualities, he was also prone to backbiting and criticizing. Any time I requested help with a particular order, it was obvious that I was intruding on his personal time and making an unreasonable demand by asking for help clearing a paper jam. It didn’t matter that he was charging me per copy; that was beside the point.

In spite of the lack of reward, I made a deliberate effort to be friendly and pleasant. Sometimes it worked, sometimes not so much. He could be semi-pleasant on occasion but he was never friendly. In fact, he was generally unpleasant and so I avoided going there as much as I could.

His co-worker worked under his supervision. She, by great contrast, was invariably friendly, pleasant and helpful. I could not understand why the owner didn’t fire the jerk and put her in charge. I could easily understand why she finally packed it in and sought her economic fortune elsewhere. I think the nearest salt mine would have been a good alternative.

Eventually, at least a decade or more after the change should have been made, the owner finally dismissed the employee and hired a new manager. Talk about contrast! The new manager was friendly, cooperative, helpful and pleasant. She also began to stock new inventory with an evident interest in customer satisfaction. The atmosphere changed so much that I not only no longer dreaded the necessary trips, I even began to drop in just to say hello if I happened to be going by the store.

Over the years, I have continued to notice how much effect one person can have on the climate in a store, an office or at a small school. You can have a group of three or eight really nice people; throw in one grouch and the whole place is affected. Even though my natural inclination is somewhere between old badger and sore-tailed tomcat, I have tried to be a positive component of the setting regardless of where I have worked or lived. I know that there have been times when I’ve failed and a time or two when the failure was pretty miserable.

But that’s not going to keep me from trying to act like a decent human being today. If I can keep up the act long enough, I think I might even start to believe it myself.

H. Arnett
10/17/14

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Alarming Ideas

Some mornings, when the alarm clock starts its shrill beeping, I just tap the snooze button and keep on sleeping. Some mornings, I pop right up out of bed, dress in two minutes and get right to whatever it is I have to get right to that morning. Some mornings, I groan, flop over and slap the snooze button then repeat as necessary until I’m at that absolute last decision point, “Do I feel lousy enough to use up a precious sick day or am I going to drag my worthless carcass out of bed and go to work?” Those mornings feel more like moanings, which also goes to show how important a single consonant can be in a word. “I’d like to buy an ‘a’ and throw that ‘r’ away, please.”

This morning, the alarm sounded, I hit the snooze button and immediately started wondering, “Why is it called an ‘alarm clock?'”

Okay, look, it’s early, I’m sleepy and should not be held fully responsible for my initial cognitive response. Whether that gets me off the hook or not, I continued pondering that question.

Doesn’t an alarm signify danger? Isn’t it a warning of some kind? Isn’t the message, “Run! Save yourself! Something really awful is happening; you should escape as quickly as possible!” I’d say that flopping over and dozing off hardly seems like an appropriate response to imminent danger. If that was an alarm, seems like it failed pretty miserably to provoke the correct reaction.

Now the “warning” part, I can go along with. “Look, Buddy, that sweet rest of yours is pretty much over. You’re gonna have to face the fact that you are a responsible citizen, drag yourself out of that warm bed and go earn your daily bread, Bubba.” But we don’t call them “warning clocks,” do we?

If I can be granted the hypocritical indulgence of at least feigning optimism for a moment or two, shouldn’t we call them “welcome clocks” or something like that? “Good morning, my friend. I just want to be the first to welcome you to this new day, the day the Lord has made. It’s just waiting for you; the whole universe is conspiring to do you good today. Welcome, my friend, to all the good things it will bring.”

Maybe we could even see them as “invitation clocks,” inviting us to opportunities and challenges, precious moments and trials alike, always remembering that all of those things work together for good for those who love the Lord and are called according to his purpose. That certainly sounds to me like a better way to start my day.

Maybe, at the least, we could just call them “reminder clocks.” “Hey, look, sorry to be the one that has to remind you, but…” At least then we’re not in an adversarial relationship, expecting bad news and thinking only of danger and disaster every time the little fellow makes a noise.

I mean, seriously folks, how good can we feel about our lives when every single working day starts out with an alarm?

H. Arnett
10/15/14

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Making It Through the Muck

I knew it had been raining in the vicinity of Shamrock, Missouri, last weekend but I had no idea how much rain they’d had. I know they hide information like that in newspapers and online articles and websites and such but I didn’t demonstrate enough initiative to investigate. On the one hand, I figured it didn’t matter; I was just hoping the forecast for rain and mid-fifties during the race Saturday afternoon would turn out to be inaccurate. I was hoping for sunny and sixty, at the least. As we turned off County Road 1042 into the pasture-slash-parking area, I took a different point of view regarding local rainfall.

Two tractors were busy towing minivans and sedans toward their parking spots.

Part of the problem, a big part of the problem, was that a lot of people have no idea how to drive through mud and mush. Some try to creep through, apparently afraid of getting muck on their car. Others floor the accelerator, as if spinning their tires at eighty-miles-an-hour will give them some advantage. It does not.

Another part of the problem was that the volunteers kept directing drivers of cars with six inches of ground clearance toward a terrace that had a dip on the low side and another one on the high side, creating a lip that required at least a foot of clearance. But at least the combination of factors was keeping the tractor guys busy.

Finally, one of the volunteers gave me the okay to try a different route, one with a lot less slope and no craters. I got a short running start, kept my speed up without spinning into a stall and then took a sharp turn to the left after I passed the terrace. Those years of growing up on the farm, driving tractors and pickup trucks on dirt paths and logging trails had paid off yet once more. If you can drive an empty, rear-wheel drive pickup through a muddy bog and up a sloppy hill, doing it with front-wheel drive seems like cheating.

It would turn out to be a day of cheating for me.

No, I didn’t try to sneak in; I paid my parking fee, my entry fee and Randa’s spectator fee. I didn’t try to get a ringer to run in my place or take any short cuts on the eleven-mile jaunt through the mud. I didn’t even skip any of the obstacles. Knowing that I was going to be wet and in the chill and wind for a few hours, I’d stuffed a little help into one of my pockets.

About two hours in, after wading through the creek a couple of times and jumping into the pool from fifteen feet high, I started getting cold. Standing in line for the wall/rope climb, I started shivering. Then I started shaking. After waiting for twenty-to-thirty minutes, it was finally my turn.

I gripped the rope and lifted my leg to step onto the first slat fastened across the bottom of the fifteen-foot high wall. As soon as I lifted my foot, my right calf muscle spasmed. My foot slid off about eight inches away from where I was trying to put it. As soon as I lifted my left foot, the same thing happened to that leg. My feet splayed around and I spun toward the side, just like the guy a couple of places in front of me had done. Somehow, I got my feet to place in the vicinity of where I wanted them and started pulling and stepping up the wall. I grabbed the top ledge, worked around the rope and over. Then I grabbed the rope on the opposite side and made my way down those slats… in a bit less time.

As I started on down the mud trail, I reached into my pocket and pulled out the large black trash bag I’d stuffed in there. My hands were shaking so much I had a hard time getting it opened. Eventually, I got it opened, shook it to get air inside it and pulled it down over me. I even managed to poke my head through the hole I’d cut out just for such an emergency.

Within two minutes, I felt warm again. For the next five miles, I looked like the ace of spades from “Alice in Wonderland.” Big black bag with skinny legs sticking out the bottom and an old gray-bearded face sticking out the top. No arms; I figured I’d stay warmer if I kept them inside. Every time I’d go by a group of people, I’d hear someone snicker. One young guy ran by me as we headed into a woods. “Good thinking, man,” he panted as he went by, “Good idea.”

Every time I approached an obstacle, I’d take the bag off and stuff it into my pocket. On the other side, I’d put it back on. I loved my big black bag. It wasn’t toasty warm but it certainly blocked off the wind and kept me from having to deal with mild hypothermia. After the jump into the ice pit and having to duck below the center barrier and wade over to the other side, my love for my big black garbage bag approached life commitment status.

In the tenth mile, I passed a large group of young, athletic looking participants. As I jogged by, I heard one young woman start laughing out loud, “Did you see that?! That is ridiculous!” It stung a bit but I grinned to myself and thought, “I’m sixty years old; you’re twenty-three. If you want to laugh at me as I run by you ten miles into an eleven-mile race, go ahead.”

Soon after that, the sun broke through the clouds for a while and my bag turned into a real body warmer. Something about black and ultraviolet rays, I think. A half-mile from the finish line, I pulled off my bag and stuck it back into my pocket. I crossed the finish line about five minutes ahead of Laughing Girl.

I knew ahead of time people would laugh but I knew that I needed the help of a thin plastic garbage bag. Admitting that in front of hundreds of strangers wasn’t really something I looked forward to or enjoyed. But I was willing to endure it in order to conserve my body heat and retain enough strength to finish the race. I’d rather be laughed at as I cross the finish line than to be admired as they haul me off on an ATV.

That’s the same way I feel about being cloaked with the blood of Jesus. Sometimes, the fear of ridicule makes us lay down the garment of our beliefs. Let’s keep ourselves focused on the finish line; let’s not worry about who’ll be laughing then.

H. Arnett

10/14/14

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Support Staff

This weekend I participated in a outdoor event about two-hundred-and-sixty miles from here, in between Columbia, Missouri, and St. Louis. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of participants and spectators. It had rained, hard, for a couple of days just prior to the event. To say it was muddy would be a bit of an understatement; they had tractors on hand to pull out stuck vehicles on their way to and from the parking area. The surface varied from soft to mush. Whenever people tried to make a new path to avoid the mire, they quickly created new mire.

From the approaches to the registration area, throughout the eleven-mile course, I was struck over and over at the size of the support staff needed for such an event. From the less-than-romantic task of setting up and servicing portable toilets to ensuring a massive supply of drinking water, from registration to awarding headbands and tee shirts at the finish, from staffing booths for first aid and souvenirs, from safety supervision of the twenty-five obstacles, including in-the-water divers at the deep pool high jump, there was no part of the event that did not require an extensive group of support personnel, nearly all of whom were volunteers.

At each water station, at each place supplying food and supplements, I was careful to say “thank you” to the people who helped. It takes an incredible number of people and an immense effort on the part of all to successfully deploy an event like this. This is also true in virtually every other workplace as well.

Whether factory or farm, college or cottage, or any other place of collective employment, there are many people who provide the behind the scenes effort that makes the work possible and productive. Without them, the rest of us have no employment. Teachers, physicians, bricklayers, attorneys, production workers, and virtually everyone else relies on others in order to simply have a job, much less to be able to concentrate on that job so it can be done successfully. Most of those support workers don’t expect a lot of attention, don’t expect a lot of publicity, don’t demand a lot of recognition.

But the one thing that is almost debilitating to them is lack of appreciation. For the most part, they have accepted the fact that other positions get more notice. But there’s hardly a one of them that doesn’t like to have a little simple acknowledgement from time to time that what they are doing is an essential part of the process. It may be small, it may even be tedious, but it makes a contribution. Ironically, it is the fact that it is routinely performed in an effective manner that makes it easy to take for granted.

I think when Jesus told us that we must become servants if we desire to achieve greatness, he was talking not only about humility but also about accepting that our work will often pass without praise and honor. But that in no way implies that we should be oblivious to the work and contribution of other servants. Indeed, it should make us keenly appreciative. Those who intentionally notice, value and encourage the work of others will find greater meaning and satisfaction in their own work. And just might find themselves more valued than they can imagine. Sincere appreciation is one of the greatest gifts we can give one another.

H. Arnett
10/13/14

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Through the Waters

Ann Marie pushes toward me in the pool, life jacket holding her up in the water. “Papa Doc! Watch me!” Even though it’s barely three feet deep here, that’s deeper than is comfortable for her. When her hair isn’t drenched by pool water, it’s blond and curly, accenting eyes that shimmer with excitement, mischievousness and a constant preoccupation with how to avoid doing whatever it is that she’s just been told to do. Or to continue doing what she’s been told to quit.

Aside from that element derived from at least three generations of paternal genetic predisposition, she is basically adorable. Cute, active, alert and imaginative.

At the present moment, that imagination has been over-stimulated by watching her older brother, Reese, jump off my shoulders into the deep water. It has her thinking she wants me to pitch her up in the air in the shallow end. “Pick me up, Papa Doc. Throw me in the water.”

“Okay,” I agree, “but let’s step out where it’s just a little deeper.” She grins and nods her head, “But not too deep.”

I take two steps toward the deep end and she kicks her way toward me. I lift her up to my chest, then toss her up a couple of feet into the air. She splashes down beneath the surface then bobs up to the top, arms flailing and feet kicking. Her mouth is shut tight and her eyes are huge. Even someone as dense as I am can see that this is no expression of delight; she is somewhere between startled and terrified.

I lift her up out of the water, “Hey, are you okay?”

Her eyelids move back down from her forehead and she nods her head, “I’m okay,” but there’s something in her voice that suggests she is being less than totally honest. Even small kids have egos and they sometimes don’t like to admit they’re scared. In this case, another generational trait, I suppose, with perhaps a double dose of genetics.

“Do it again,” Ann Marie says. I look at her suspiciously, “Are you sure?” Then, with an uncharacteristic bit of insight and intuition, I ask her, “Do you want me to catch you this time?” Instantly, she nods her head enthusiastically, “Yes, catch me!”

So, I pitch her up into the air and catch her with a sliding motion that lets most of her body dip into the pool but keeps her face out of the water. She laughs and uses that one word that forever signifies approval, delight and insistence: “Again!”

In that sort of trust, we step out into the pool, into the deeper water, trusting in the arm of Papa God to lift us up above the waves. Sometimes, he allows us to sink a bit deeper than we had expected. Sometimes, the taste of salt burns in our mouth and stings in our eyes but we find ourselves always rising above the splashing and churning. His hand always reaches to us, even in our greatest fears. Always.

H. Arnett
10/10/14

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Pool Play

I don’t remember exactly how long it had been since I last played in a pool with small children. It seems like it was maybe ten years or so but I’m not sure. I know it has been over twenty years since I played in a pool with my own children when they were small; over thirty years for some of them. But I do remember exactly how long it has been since I played in a pool with any of my grandchildren: four days, minus a couple of hours.

With the other kids having somewhere between five and fourteen hours to drive to their respective homes, Dan and Christie stayed around a while longer on Sunday morning, enjoying the leisure and the time at the place we’d rented in middle Tennessee. While Reese and Ann Marie played in the pool, I decided to join them. I figured it would be good therapy for my knees and most anything else that ailed me.

In a little while, I invited Reese to jump off my shoulders. “I’ll kneel down here and you hold my hands and climb up from the back, then you can jump off.” “Okay,” Reese responded, with a big grin on his face.

He climbed up and I said, “Okay, you can jump now,” but he kept holding my hands. I knew he was a good swimmer so I couldn’t understand why he didn’t jump. “Go ahead,” I urged him and finally he did jump… and did a forward flip in the process. Well, most of a forward flip.

As I stood up, I heard Christie call to me, “I think he was waiting for you to stand up; Dan always stands up with him and lets him jump.”

“Of course,” I thought to myself, suddenly remembering, “that’s how I always did it with Dan and the others after they were five or six years old. I stood up after they climbed up on my shoulders. Then they’d jump off.” Actually, they would usually jump as I was in the process of standing, using my momentum to increase theirs. I felt a surge of satisfaction, knowing that Dan had continued that small tradition from all those hours in the pool at Gower and at Wildcat Landing in Kentucky Lake.

I think our heavenly Father also takes pleasure in our continuing the traditions that he taught us, things like forgiving, showing compassion, being merciful, speaking truth. And above all, loving. I imagine Jesus smiles every time he sees one of us turn the other cheek, return good for evil or go the extra mile.

Reese comes back for another turn, I kneel and then rise up with him standing on my shoulders. He leaps toward the deep end, flipping over and into the water feet first. He surfaces, turns toward me. His grin is nearly as big as mine.

H. Arnett
10/9/14

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Warrior Dash Tennessee

The race starts us out running along the levee of a large pond then right up the side of a hill toward a line of trees. I’m thinking I might be able to jog all the way up; it’s a short hill. Two-thirds of the way up, though, and I’m walking like everyone else who isn’t in really good condition or just really determined. I join my fit family members at the top and we wait together for a couple of others who are even less determined than me.

After we jog alongside the trees for less than half a minute, we turn through the opening and see that we have more uphill. Eventually we find that we have three-quarters of a mile uphill. At the top, we see miles of Tennessee hills, tinged with the first fringes of autumn color, green pastures opening below the hills. When we finally hit the first downward slope, we find it leads us into a water/mud pit. We help one another up the slippery bank and make our way towards the first water station.

It is windy but sunny and the chill of the wetness leaves soon in the heat of exertion. Toward the top of the next series of climbs, we find the limestone base of what was once a huge barn. The mortar still holds the stones laid in the Nineteenth Century, a heavy frame rising six-to-eight feet high, eighty feet wide and three hundred feet long. Openings in the stone still show where doors and windows once held. In the middle, toward the far end, a series of strands of barbed wire stretch across the course. We crawl beneath, rise up at the opposite end.

Throughout the race, the faster wait for the slower, taking the breaks as needed, knowing they could run on ahead of us and finish in half the time. Today, though, is about being family, running together, sharing these moments, sunshine and wind sending us through the woods, along the trail, sharply defining the edges of skin as we wade our way out of the cold pond and move on to the next challenge.

Near the end, after climbing Goliath’s (Warrior Dash’s name for its large, triple obstacle challenge) first wall, crossing the cargo net suspended ten feet above the ground and then climbing up to the platform for the ten-tube water slide, we wait until all eight of us are gathered there. Each taking a seat, we kick off together, slip quickly down the steep slide and launch into that brief flight, then splash into the deep, muddy water below, climb out laughing.

We will cross the finish line together in another moment or two, plastered with mud from the last pit beneath the barbed wire. Long after the warm water in the parking lot, long after all of the grit has been washed away we will hold the memories of this good day. And look forward to the finishing of a much better race.

H. Arnett
10/8/14

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