A Better Praise

There is an almost eerie stillness in this morning’s early dawning;
not the slightest bit of stirring among the leaves and blades.
In the low light barely past night,
I walk out onto the porch, shoeless and shirtless.

There is a hint of coolness in the air
but the concrete that connects garage to street
feels warm against my feet.

A robin tilts down to the bare ground beneath the elm.
Wary but hungry he hops across the drive
toward whatever it is that robins find in the grass
until a bluejay dives down and chases him away.

In spite of the stillness, there is barely a hint of dew
in the mat of Bermuda grass that cushions my steps
as I lift the clump of dead branches from last week’s pruning
and lay them into the back of Randa’s truck.

I look around again at the shapes of crepe myrtles and maples,
yellowing blades and withered blooms of iris against the fence.
Soaking up the softness of this mid-summer morning,
I am hoping to carry its peace within me against the scorching heat.
I feel I could stand in this simple beauty for days
but it seems that we are made for duty.

From a half-mile away,
the rippling rumble of railroad cars just starting to move
spreads through the morning
then passes into silence.

I will do what I can to help bring goodness
into this good day,
and thereby offer a better praise
to the One who has made it.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Wine & Weddings

Several years ago, I decided I was done doing weddings for people I didn’t know. I felt like a hireling who sometimes worked without pay. I didn’t like the way it made me feel or the way it looked to me.

People who would barely be caught dead in a church at any other time except maybe for their own funeral wanted a church wedding. They’d show up out of the blue, asking to use the church and the preacher. Sometimes one or both of the couple would say, “I’m a member here.” Folks, if the preacher has been preaching at your church for five years and has never seen you before, perhaps you should re-think what it means to be a member of that church.

Unless there is a strong tie to some relative you do know, performing weddings for strangers is something I think is better left to JP’s or professional wedding preachers who have their ad and phone number custom-printed on their trailer: “Preacher for Hire. Cheap.”

In the opposite direction and to a much greater degree, I thoroughly enjoy sanctioning the marriage of people I do know and love. That is what made officiating the legal union of our friends B.J. and Michelle such a joy last weekend. Standing with them beside a lake and surrounded by miles of Oklahoma outdoors wasn’t just a privilege; it was joy and honor. Sharing the event with a few dozen of their family and other friends felt like ancient celebration connected with modern elation. By the time we got to the part about sealing the vows with a kiss, Michelle was practically jumping up and down.

There was a bit more jumping up and down during the dancing part of the evening. Underneath the strings of lights stapled to the joists of Jack and Penny’s carport, most of the younger folks and a few of the older stepped and slid, swiveled and turned to the music. Others of greater restraint sat around the tables in the driveway, talking and laughing.

All that reminded me of the Carpenter’s first recorded miracle at another wedding feast about twenty centuries ago. Apparently, his mother believed that wine was an indispensable element of a wedding celebration. He was too obedient to disappoint her. The servants who drug up all those barrels of water knew the whole story. As for the folks on the dance floor, all they knew was it was the best wine they’d ever tasted. Whether there’s any wine involved or not, I suspect that these days most of us worry too much and dance too little. (Thank you, Bill Jolliff, for that line.)

Here’s to true celebrations and to the God who is sometimes honored when our joy gets all the way from our hearts to our feet.

H. Arnett

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About a mile west of Ochelata,
County Road 2900 rises up the ridge,
zigs and turns and follows the boundaries
of old properties and hidden houses.

This is a place of low hills and rocky fields,
scrub brush and stubby oaks,
a rippling view of browns and greens
and sandstone in a hundred hues.

On the evening of the rehearsal,
we gather on the concrete slab
that was meant to be the office
of a million dollar house
that burned down years ago.

Trees and pasture stretch for miles to the south
while the sun etches flames
along the edges of clouds
just above the rim of the woods
on the opposite side of the lake.

Bits of embers burn in the mirrored surface,
thin slants of sun traced between the trunks of trees,
shimmering in the barely rippled waters
while we watch the colors fading into dusk.

A while later, we lounge in the shade
beside a smaller lake while B.J. grills
and Michelle tends to the other things
of feeding a houseful of friends and family.

A light breeze ebbs and flows,
a fire slowly catches and grows,
and the sounds of guitar and singing
rings the circle gathered here in the shadows.

A bit past midnight,
a half-moon rises in the narrow pass
between the silhouettes of pine trees
set along the sides of levee and bank.

We murmur at the willowy reflection,
give thanks for nights like this,
set between days hot enough to wilt trees
and bringing together such friends as these

in rehearsal of a Greater Feast.

H. Arnett

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Road Break

My friend and I are driving back from a meeting at Emporia on another hot summer day. We make our way south and west on I-35. Herds of cattle stretch out across the miles of pasture on either side of the highway. Thanks to a series of rains, a rich greenness still holds to the hills and slopes except for the sections where outcroppings of limestone and shale break through.

Desiring a longer view, we pull over at the overlook by the loading pens. The pavement ends at the gravel just past the northern ledge of the overpass and we park near the rusty railing.

A slight summer haze fades the farthest hills into shades of blue. Perhaps twenty miles away, the last visible ridge to the north has a darker shade. Between there and here, hill after hill, slope after slope, raise their deepening ripples of native grasses. This is the largest surviving stretch of tallgrass prairie left in North America, at least according to the bronze plaque fastened to the cut boulder in the parking area.

It is easy enough to believe when you can see this far in every direction and everything you see below the level of the sky is green. I climb up on the railing and sit for a few moments, like a farm kid on a fence. All I need now is a stalk of grass to chew on and a straw hat; I could almost believe that I am eight years old again. My friend grins at me, sharing without speaking the peace and beauty of this good place.

I close my eyes for a moment, feel the warmth of sun and the moving of wind against my skin. Very soon, we must be on our way to duty and obligation. But for now, we will absorb the peace of this moment and silently praise him who has made all good things, him who sends his rain upon the just and the unjust.

And who thereby feeds the cattle of a thousand hills.

H. Arnett

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In these days of humid heat
when it seems the streets could cook eggs—
if not meat—
we need some sort of relief.

In these dogged nights of July
when it seems even a cloudless sky
feels full of choking steam
and the mornings dawn
with lawn-withering sultriness,
we need some sort of relief.

When every turn at work
brings about some new quirk
of yet one more thing
that seems to push us toward
want ads and “Helpful Hints for Building Your Resume”
and a long list grows longer
and strong grows stronger
against the lower rungs,
we need some sort of relief.

And then we leave,
heave a long loud sigh
across the parking lot,
and get into cars that feel like ovens
and we avoid touching anything metal
until the AC has been running
for at least fifteen minutes;
we need some sort of relief.

We need peace,
the sure touch of affirming love,
a greater strength in us
than what is in the world we live in,
a convicting reassurance
that we can do all things,
a power so great
that we can even pray
for those who despitefully use us.

H. Arnett

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After the Highs

I amused myself Friday night by wallowing around in the self-instigated layer of mud I’d created in the crawl space under our house. It wasn’t necessarily for amusement’s sake, though; while running a new electric circuit, I’d accidentally drilled into the hot water line around ten o’clock. By eleven o’clock, I’d repaired the water line, finished the circuit and cleaned myself up for a good night’s sleep.

The sleep was so effective that I greeted Saturday’s early light with an extended attic excursion. Another electrical project.

The previous night’s effort was to provide a new, safer and properly grounded circuit for electrical outlets in the kitchen and in the living room on the walls shared by both rooms. Cartoon Day’s excursion was for the purpose of removing an old stove hood vent pipe and installing new “can lights” for the kitchen. This required some prime attic time.

Our attic is extremely well insulated and equally poorly designed for access. Four inches of old fiberglass insulation topped with eight-to-ten inches of blown –in insulation. Very effective for separating thermal zones. And very, very prone—when disturbed—to fill the air with millions of tiny fibers and a few decades of accumulated dust.

A maximum degree of disturbance is guaranteed by the access design.

Naïve folks like me would expect the builder to have installed an access panel in the ceiling of the hallway, which would be in the main area of the attic. That would offer easy access in close proximity to most of the house. Instead, the access panel is in the ceiling of the garage, at the far end of the north ell of the house. Our ranch style home has a low roof with relatively low slope. And, inside the attic, beneath the rafters of that low roof, the builder had used even lower collar beams to reinforce the low rafters.

This means that in order to access the attic over the kitchen, one has to climb up a step-ladder in the garage, open the access panel, lift oneself up into the ceiling and then belly-crawl through thirty feet of insulation just to get to the main part of the house. Then, there’s the fun of crawling across hidden joists and finding the hidden wires beneath the twelve-to-fourteen inches of insulation.

By the time I’d finished my third trip back and forth and up and down, all the wires had been pulled to place, the holes for the lights were opened into the kitchen and everything was mostly ready for connecting. The old vent pipe had been pulled out of the kitchen ceiling and a panel had been installed to cover that hole. A half-bushel of insulation decorated various aspects of the kitchen and I was well-coated with sweat, dust, dirt and insulation. I looked very much as if I had just come home from a long day in a cellulose mine.

In spite of the bruises and scrapes, friction burns and aches gained from four hours of crawling around under the kitchen and over it, there were still facts for which to be grateful: thanks to an earlier rain and overcast morning, the attic had stayed at around eighty degrees for the entire project and there was plenty of warm water for my shower.

There’s usually some aspect of appreciation available to us if we choose to look for it. Which gives us something to do while we recuperate from the other parts…

H. Arnett

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Highs and Lows

There’s a bit too much to this story to include everything so I’ll just hit the highs and lows of it. In fact, for this part, I’ll just stay with the lows.

Those started in the crawl space under the house Friday evening about eight-thirty. That’s when I started pulling wire, drilling holes through two-by-tens, pulling wire, drilling more holes, pulling more wire. Then, I had to crawl back out from under the house to feed more wire down from the closet where the breaker panel is located.

After poking another twenty feet of wire down below, I crawled back under the house, pulled that wire through the main support beam, started drilling more holes and pulling the wire through those holes. No part of the job was comfortable but I’ve been in worse spots, for sure. I could crawl on my hands and knees except for the places where drain lines, heat and air vents or other obstructions were placed below the bottoms of the joists. Which meant that about half the time, I was doing military-style crawling, using knees, toes and elbows. Still, it wasn’t too bad: no spider webs, no shedded snake skins, no critters of any kind that I could see. And besides that, most of the crawl space was “floored” with old tar paper. Except for the part right under the bathroom and even there the dirt was basically “clean” and dry.

Well, it was clean and dry until around ten o’clock. I was using too much pressure drilling a hole. The bit broke through just a bit before I expected it to. That pressure I was using to force the bit through the wood didn’t go to waste, though. No sir, it pushed it right on into the hot water supply line for the tub/shower. I had to crawl out from under the house and get all the way around the back of the house, around the garage and to the front of the house where the main water cutoff is located. I was able to do in a bit less time than most people might expect from a sixty-three-year-old man. As I was walking back to crawl back under the house, I was thinking of a line from Jimmy Buffet’s “Margaritaville.” Not the part about that frozen concoction, the part about whose fault it was.

Fortunately—even though unexpectedly—I had the parts I needed to replace the damaged water line. And it only took about ten minutes to do that. Finishing up the electrical wiring part of the project took another hour. At least the mud was warm…

By the time I drug myself out from under the house for the fourth and final time, my clothes and I were rather well plastered from stem to stern, top to bottom, front to back and most parts in between. I used the garden house to wash off as much as I could then draped my jeans and shirt across the railing on the small deck at the back of the house.

After an all-night soaking and two washes and two rinses, the clothes seemed clean and the washing machine needed a full cycle without any clothes in it to get it cleaned up.

Sometimes, the job is more complicated than we first expected. Sometimes, we manage to make it more complicated by our own mistakes. And, of course, when it comes to God’s work in us, it’s mostly our own mistakes that make the job take more time and effort than it would otherwise.

But, as long as we stay with him till it’s finished, things will work out. And we’ll get clean in the process.

H. Arnett

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