Two Degrees of Mercy

For many years now there has been a disturbing element to me whenever the elements bring various forms of destruction: tornadoes, volcanic eruptions, cyclones, hurricanes, mudslides, earthquakes and most recently in our part of the world, ice storms. Sometimes, these things bring nuisance, aggravation and inconvenience. Often, they bring cataclysmic destruction, widespread devastation and tremendous loss and suffering. That alone is more than ample reason to be disturbed. But there is another aspect to it that is also disturbing.

Years ago, a hurricane destroyed thousands of homes and killed hundreds of people in Mexico. In a small church in northern Missouri two days later, I heard a church member testify about God’s grace. His winter home and garage in south Texas had been spared. “God spared my garage,” he declared, “because I had painted ‘Jesus Saves’ on the side of it.” He did not mention the hundreds of dead Mexicans, nor did any of the rest of us.

I was reminded of this incident Sunday as I drove the two-hundred-and-fifty miles back to Arkansas City from Blair. There was a light rain all the way with occasional spats of sleet. Except for the roadway itself, everything was already coated with ice: grass, bushes, fences, trees, rocks and whatever else that lay exposed. In all that way, on the interstate, main roads and side streets, I never encountered a bit of ice, so far as I know. I never had one bit of ice accumulation on my windshield. I owe that to one simple fact: the temperature stayed at thirty-three degrees for the entire trip.

Two degrees colder and it would have been a different story. It may have been that there was still enough salt on the main routes to keep ice from forming there, I cannot say. But I’m reasonably sure there would have been some spots that didn’t get quite enough salt. As most of us know, it only takes one patch of ice to turn a trip home into a trip to the hospital. And aside from the inconveniences of collisions and tow trucks, there would have been the continual fuss and frustration of ice on the windshield.

Two degrees of mercy, two-hundred-and-fifty miles of grace. I was and am grateful and I gave thanks continually on my way home and after arriving there. I am still giving thanks… but I am also mindful of others who lost their lives, others whose property was damaged or destroyed, others who survived their wrecks but will suffer the rest of their lives from the injuries incurred.

I do not believe that any of those others were loved less nor that I in the least deserved my blessing. I will be grateful but I will not judge. And when the times come to me in which the Lord sees fit to allow me to endure similar trials and troubles, will I, like Job, still bless the name of the Lord?

I hope so but will admit that I am not eager to find out.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Winter Travel

A glaze of ice covers everything as far as the eye can see:
grass and gravel, limbs and lines, poles and trees.
Everything unsalted bears the mark
of three days of mist and rain and sleet.

From Wathena to Ark City,
white-sheathed branches tell travelers
that they are taking their chances
on this last Lord’s Day in the month of November.

Cedars droop against the ground,
flush branches bowed beneath the ice.
Long waves of prairie grass hold in frozen sway
along the banks and grades.

A few broken timbers speak of loads too heavy to bear,
a crashing in the silent air,
a shattering of the silver crust
against darkened earth.

The long gray of heavy skies
hides the long ridge of the next rise of the Flint Hills.
A sudden spate of sleet pecks its staccato
against the slant of the window, then quits.

Following 77 as it turns south in Augusta,
I see long hollow stems of ice drop from the power lines,
tilting one way or the other then slipping down,
a breaking fall to the ground.

By nightfall, most of the ice here
has melted in the evening rain.
I sleep warm and dry,
thankful that I have made it safely here,

grateful for the traveling and the rest,
the blessedness of unbroken power lines,
the comfort of a guiding hand
and good memories of a long week

that passed too quickly.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Family, Metaphysical Reflection, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Cheap Gas & Bad Attitudes

I was low on gas and heading into work this morning, driving south on Summit with just a hint of dawn in the pale blue of a cloudless sky. A slight breeze twittered leaves along the chilly street. Just before I got to Kansas Avenue, I noticed the sign at Casey’s displaying “$1.77/gal” and decided I’d whip in and fill up the tank. With the nozzle set on the lowest notch, I headed inside for a breakfast snack.

The doors to the pastry cabinet were propped open in a not-to-subtle and terribly effective marketing ploy. The smells of caramel and chocolate mingled in with deep-fried yeast bread and blueberry muffins. I wanted an apple fritter but they were plastered with a thick cover of caramel. Yes, I’m aware that some people would love a thick layer of caramel on their apple fritters but I prefer mine with a simple, thin glaze. While contemplating this existential dilemma, I picked up a quart of chocolate milk.

I gave up on the pastry choice and started looking for peanut butter cracker snack packs. I am easily frustrated when searching for peanut butter crackers and distracted by the smell of fresh pastries. So, I compromised and picked out a blueberry muffin. After paying for breakfast, I bade the small group of employees clustered behind the counter a good day and made my way back out to the truck.

I decided to capture the historic gas price in digital transfixion and stepped out to take a picture of the sign. When I returned to my truck, another guy with gray whiskers yelled over at me from his truck, “Wanted a picture of these low prices, huh?” “Yep,” I yelled back. Not ready to give up conversation at that point, he yelled back, “You go down just across the state line into Oklahoma and it’s about fifteen cents cheaper.”

Oh, my! Talk about existential dilemmas!!

I searched for the reverse button on the pump so it could suck all the gas back out of my tank and I could drive for fifteen or twenty minutes in each direction and save myself a whopping buck-fifty. I couldn’t find the reverse button so I glumly pulled out the nozzle and set it back on the pump. Feeling quite ashamed of myself for having wasted my limited resources in such fashion, I recapped the gas tank and closed the covering lid, darkly envying all those who enjoyed the manifest blessings of buying gas in Oklahoma.

Actually, I reflected on how greed can rob us of even small pleasures. There’s hardly any fact or factor in this world that couldn’t reveal that someone, somewhere has some perceived advantage over us. Even in the land of famine, someone seems less hungry than us. Even in the land of plenty, someone else has more than us.

Truth be told, sometimes the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. That being the case, I guess that neighbor has to mow his grass more often than I do mine!

When we delight in the day the Lord has made and live in genuine appreciation, we can always find some situation in which to give thanks and be grateful.

H. Arnett

Posted in Humor, Christian Living, Christian Devotions | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sounds of a Sunday Evening

Something in the sounds of this empty house
speak of things other than solitude and serenity:

the sound of my boot heels
echoing down the hardwood hallway
past the door of the kitchen
where yesterday’s dishes stack on the counter,

the sound of the furnace
kicking on during the night
while frost settles hard and white on the roof,

the sound of the dryer
tumbling a load of tee shirts
and the one white dress shirt
that will be wrinkled again
when I pull it from the jumbled pile
in the morning.

Gone are the sounds of her voice,
audible but not understandable
when I am in the other room,

the sounds of cooking
coming from the stove,
the stirring of beans and onions,
of potatoes at a roiling boil
on the back burner,

the snoring of the dog
curled into the corner of the couch.

At the time of my lying down for the night,
I call her to know that she is safe
back at our other home,
to know that I am not alone,
to know that devotion endures all things,
to feel the sound of her voice
soothing the jagged edges
of this day’s small fragments.

This, too, is love,
a different way of being together.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Family, Poetry, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Good Day for Wichita State

Just a bit west of Winfield,
splotches of white accent the stubble of cotton fields
where huge bales of compressed fiber
line the long edge along the gravel road.

I drive past the pecan grove
under a dark blue-bellied shroud of clouds
stretching as far as the eye can see
on an overcast morning.

Somewhere between twelve and twenty miles away,
just beyond the edge of Oklahoma,
a cast of light tinges the edge of the dome
with what looks like dawning
on the wrong side of the sun.

Not quite an hour later,
I drive past the crater of Cessna Stadium
and catch an easy parking space
beside Rhatigan Student Center
on the campus of Wichita State University,
where student protests were planned
for today’s meeting.

On my way in, I grin at Rita Johnson,
and ask how her day is going so far.
The past few weeks, months or years—
take your pick—have been filled with the sort of controversy
that comes when you’ve been charged
with funding something important
in a state where revenues have wilted
like leaves on a downed tree.
She smiles back and says “So far, so good.”

Two floors up, we are chatting with the Chairman
of the Kansas Board of Regents
when WSU President John Bardo
stops by to say hello.

He carries the look of a man weary of the wars
but relieved by the lull in the battle.
Yesterday’s national attention on the inventions
of pride and prejudice
waned in the evening when new appointments
and admissions of personal errors
led to the cancellation of the demonstration.

He looks toward me briefly
and I tell him, “Any day whose ending
seems brighter than its beginning
is a pretty good day.”
He nods agreement,
walks away.

I spend the day in meetings,
some of which even pertain to me,
visit with other college execs
who share the same pains and strains
and treasure the rewarding things
that come when you know
you are helping lives change for the better.

Back out on I-135 heading south,
I decide to stop by and visit
Cowley College’s downtown center
where we are trying to bring an affordable hope
and see how things are going
for our folks who work there.

I sit in a chair,
talking with Robin and Alysa
and Nick Who Has No Nameplate,
seeking their suggestions
and privileged confessions of how things are going
and what might make them go better.

I see a reflection of the sunset
in the glass frame and turn to look behind me.
A blazing glow in the western sky
turns the Wichita skyline into dramatic silhouette,
a flame of red and orange muting the carnage
of the city’s darker side
and bringing a welcome peace
to the passing of light into darkness.

A half-hour later,
I head back toward cotton fields
and pecan groves,
eyes half-closed in a brief benediction,
grateful for God’s good grace and knowing
that any day whose ending
seems brighter than its beginning
is a pretty good day.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Higher Education, Poetry, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation, Work | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pastor James

I first met James Newman at church on a Wednesday evening. At first, I thought some biker dude got lost or confused and wandered into the building and was just too polite to walk back out. After listening to him teach and preach, I decided some biker dude got lost and came to Jesus and answered the call to the ministry.

It’s not too hard to figure out my impression on the point. With his shaved head, thick shoulders and strong arms, it’s quite easy to imagine James in boots and jeans and a leather vest cruising through the Flint Hills on some harsh-piped Harley. I recently had the opportunity to move from initial impression.

I met James for lunch at El Maguey. The food was good, the atmosphere was pleasant and the conversation was a foretaste of glory divine.

It was the first extended conversation we’ve had but I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last. Only a few minutes in, I felt like I was talking to a friend I’d known for years. We laughed together and shared stories of our own spiritual journeys. We talked about Jesus, fishing and hunting and family. We talked religion and relations, small towns and nations. After he paid the bill and I left a tip, we said goodbye in the parking lot.

He gave me a hug and said quietly, “I love you.” Without another thought I replied, “I love you, too.” Normally, I wouldn’t say something like that on a first date and I sure wouldn’t believe it from someone else in such a short association.

But here’s the thing about Pastor James: you know it’s true when he says that. You feel it in his voice, you see it in his eyes and you just sense it within your heart and spirit. You don’t have to be around him very long to know that this is a vessel open to the Lord and to the leading of the Spirit, a man open to the lost and lonely of the world.

When I grow up, I want to be like Pastor James.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sneaky God

This past Lord’s Day morning was my first time to preach in South Haven, Kansas. I hope it won’t be my last but you never know about such things. This world is a strange and wonderful place and part of the wonder is not knowing what strangers may become friends and which ones we may never see again. In the absence of a designated biographer, I gave my own very brief life sketch.

In that bit of verbal scribbling, I mentioned my own spiritual journey which has led me to drop most of the convenient labels and embrace non-denominational Christianity. Well, there, oops! I guess that’s another label!

Anyway, I said something to the effect of “I don’t believe it matters much which labels we put on ourselves and on the signs outside our buildings. What matters is whether or not Jesus truly lives in us, whether or not our lives are truly lived in submission to him.” I also properly attributed my conversion on that point to an old tobacco farmer in western Kentucky named A.V. Sims.

I noticed a few looks of sudden interest but didn’t think much about it, figuring it was better to keep thinking about my sermon topic rather than chasing some fresh rabbit along one of many meandering paths in my mind. And so I talked about defining “the abundant life” and whether or not it should be measured in terms of money, power, possessions and such. I reminded folks that those were not the metrics that Jesus used and that such things as faith, love and hope might be better indicators. I went so far as to propose that the evidence of the Spirit’s fruit in our lives, things such as joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control and such might be pretty good indicators that we are living life above the common.

“If we focus on serving and seeking God, I believe we will find that we have all of this world’s goods that we truly need,” I declared. Sometimes, when I really get into a sermon, I end up saying radical stuff like that.

After I finished up my relatively short time in the pulpit, the next song made me grin like a rabbit fresh out of the briar patch after being in the tar: “Seek Ye First the Kingdom of God.”

Those of you familiar with the song know that what follows pretty soon after that is “And all these things shall be added unto you.” Whether you’re familiar with the song or not, please know two things: 1) It was a perfect follow-up to the sermon and 2) not one person in that church had the slightest idea what my sermon would be about.

I’ve seen that happen again and again during the course of my ministry. With absolutely no known collaboration between the preacher and the worship leader, songs are selected that blend perfectly with the spoken message. Then, as if that wasn’t cool enough for one Sunday, I saw Todd later that afternoon.

“People asked me if I’d been talking to you before the sermon. I told them I hadn’t said anything to you.” He went on to explain that they had been discussing the possibility of merging with one of the other congregations in South Haven. “There are three churches here in this tiny town and every one of them is shrinking. They thought surely I’d talked to you about it.”

I love it when God sneaks into our lives and does awesome things without asking us, don’t you?!

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment