Things That Matter

About an hour from now, a small group of colleagues at Cowley College will start a day of interviewing teaching applicants for one of several open positions. We’ll use our list of questions, take notes and observe a short teaching demonstration. Hopefully, by the end of the day, we’ll have someone who will do a great job of engaging students, work effectively with colleagues and co-workers and will deliberately focus on helping make Cowley College an even better place to study, work and experience life.

A key part of this process today will focus on how this prospective teacher uses the values of integrity, accountability, leadership and people to guide her or his behavior and decision-making. Those things are not just empty words arced around our logo; they are concepts that guide what we do and how we do it. They shape how we mow the grass, clean the floors, teach classes and run the College.

At least, that is the intent. And I’ve noticed over the years that we make greater progress when we focus on deliberate destinations. We often end up doing things we didn’t quite intend to do but we rarely accomplish anything of excellence without some degree of intent in that direction.

That’s why these values are important. I can coach instruction, I can arrange for workshops and I can gently but firmly focus attention on needed improvements. Our department chairpersons can provide mentoring on organizational processes and daily routines. Our faculty members can model effective skills and answer questions. We can train, teach, encourage and correct.

But we can’t cultivate integrity into a professional who doesn’t already have it. We can’t make someone keep their word and maintain harmony between ideals and actions. We can’t instill a desire to be an example to students and colleagues. We don’t have enough energy or hours in a day to monitor and manage the professional conduct of someone who rejects the notion of accountability. And if by the time you’re thirty or forty or fifty years old, you haven’t yet embraced the idea of treating other people in the way you’d like to be treated, you’re too much of a project for us.

When we all focus on the things that really matter, we all tend to do better and be better. And we make the places where we live and work better places to live and work. And people, accountability, integrity and leadership are “things” that matter. Everywhere.

H. Arnett

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Pep Talk

There’s a good chance today that some opportunity will come your way to think worse of someone, some invitation to say something snide or mean, some chance to degrade someone else or just offer some supposedly well-meaning criticism intended to help them improve the wretched condition of their soul and spirit.

Now if you take any or all of those opportunities, you might feel a bit of temporary pleasure, a little satisfaction in letting people know you aren’t afraid to speak your mind, even a sense that justice has been served and that everyone around you is the better for it: it’s about time all those other people realized the truth about that individual.


Another truth is that you probably won’t feel any better. You’ll feel the darkness inside you grow a little deeper, your resentment will push out a little bit more of the light that is trying to find a place inside you, there’ll be an increase of negative thoughts and feelings and your body will release a little more of the chemicals that attack your organs. That poison in your mind will become literal as your brain releases those substances that make you feel worse and age faster. You really won’t enjoy your day a bit more.

On the other hand, you could try a bit of empathy. You could speculate that that other person is dealing with at least as much emotional compost as you are. You could assume that person is, like you, trying to do the best they can with what they have to work with today. You could pray that God would bless that person today with grace and wisdom and give them favor in the eyes of others. You could pray that God would bless the work of their hands and guide them toward peace and blessing. You could pray that God would protect them from harm and bring good into their life.

You would find that your brain would begin to release that stuff it releases that helps you think better and makes you feel better. Cells all over your body would begin to work more efficiently and you’d have more energy. You’d feel more like smiling and smiling makes you and the people around you feel better. And if you continued this practice on a regular basis, you’d start to feel and look younger.

Simple fact is, loving people leads to all kinds of good stuff—for you and for others.

Thanks for listening in while I’ve been talking to myself this morning. If you heard something that might help you, well, you’re welcome!!

H. Arnett

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An Unexpected Psalm

Good morning and good blessings to you. This morning’s piece is a bit unusual for me. The opening line has been harping away inside my mind since Sunday morning before I went to church. This morning, it was hammering away again. At first, I thought, “This isn’t how I start my devos…” But it was so insistent.

So, I started with that line and then it just flowed… took less than half the time it usually takes. I hope you find something in it that is a blessing to you or someone you know. At the least, I hope you find it worth your time!

Good to you,

I will worship you, O Lord;
I will lift up my heart and be glad in your presence.
I will exalt your name;
I will magnify the name of the Almighty.

For you have lifted me up
from the midst of despair.
You have given me hope and strength
in the midst of dust and drought.

In the midst of strife and turmoil
you have given me peace.
You have released my spirit
from the bonds of darkness and despair.

You have set my feet upon the path
that you have chosen.
You have turned my face toward the east
and given me purpose and desire.

You have made firm what was weak;
you have given strength for each day.
You have given me vision in the midst of darkness
and settled my heart to serve you.

When I was in the midst of darkness,
you shone the light of your love in my heart.
When I was in the midst of depression,
you turned my mind toward hope.

My mind is at peace
and my heart is settled
because you have given me hope and strength,
because you have settled my heart to serve you.

Therefore, I will worship you, O Lord;
I will lift up my heart and be glad in your presence.
I will exalt your name;
I will magnify the name of the Almighty.

H. Arnett

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Sprouted in Stone

Outside the south wall of my office, a row of big white boulders runs along the border of the building. By estimation rather than actual measure, I guess that each one weighs several hundred pounds. Some probably go a half-ton or more.  Each is pocked with small holes. Imagine a huge chunk of bleached sponge with relatively little ability to absorb and retain much water and quite definitely unsuited for cleaning spills or washing a car.

As I walked along the sidewalk running east and west beside the rocks, I noticed a tiny tree growing from one of the holes one of the big rocks. The shape of its leaves suggested “birch” but there may be a dozen varieties of trees whose leaves take that shape in their early stages. Again by estimation rather than actual knowledge, I imagine a seed drifted about in the south Kansas breeze for some time, eventually winding up in that particular hole in that particular rock.

There may have been some similar means that brought about a small deposit of dirt and humus in that same hole. Recent rains added moisture, the sun added its abetting and the seed did what seeds are made to do; it sprouted.

I’ve seen similar events in many of the places I’ve hiked over the years. Tiny trees growing in rocks and boulders. I’ve even seen large trees, comparatively speaking, growing from the face of a bluff. Most often, it’s either a cedar or some sort of scraggly pine or yew.

As said, I’ve seen many trees surviving even when growing in a rock.

But I’ve never seen a tree that I would say is thriving in such an environment. A tree can sprout in a rock, yes. Sometimes it can grow and send its roots through the seams of stone into something resembling soil. It can hold on for years, even decades. But to truly thrive, it needs a deeper store of moisture and nurture, a setting more suited to achieving something beyond survival.

I’ve seen humans in similar settings.

Sometimes it’s a marriage that turned out to be far less than what we imagined. Sometimes it’s a work situation. It can even be a church. Whatever it is, we feel that we are starving, exhausted and thirsty and there’s just no source of nourishment for us in that setting.

Sometimes, we effect a change of some degree. Sometimes, the degree seems drastic. A new spouse, a new job, a different church. Sometimes, we seek that change too quickly. We forget that our God can use ravens to feed a prophet, that He can send forth water from a rock. We forget that the strength needed to flourish in the green season often comes from time spent in the dry. Roots with easy moisture do not seek the deeper store.

Still, it is sometimes true that the place where we are first planted is not the place where we are intended to stay and grow and serve. Until that time of replanting comes, we can control our attitude, focus on the good and be grateful for that. We can also consider the needs of others.

When we seek to move the small tree from the rock into the garden, we must work with gentle hands and caring hearts. And it is good for us to remember that though we are limited, we are not helpless. Even when we cannot completely change the situation, we can offer support and encouragement. If we cannot move the tree or even budge the boulder, we can at least bring water.

H. Arnett

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Shakespeare in Kansas

No, this isn’t another version of someone seeing Elvis on the Amtrak to Memphis or Michael Jackson spotted at a secluded resort in Argentina. I’m not claiming that I caught a glimpse of Shakespeare coming out of the Piggly Wiggly. I’m not sure we have Piggly Wiggly in Kansas. What I am sure of is that Cowley College’s drama students have pulled off another fine presentation. Of course, they had some mighty fine help and lots of cooperation and working together.

Altogether, about thirty-five students had parts that involved being on the stage for something other than moving props. There was the star elfin character who hung above the stage in a black silky cocoon for over twenty minutes before emerging at the start of the play. There was the sweet little five-year-old girl whose nocturnal imagination appeared to be the stimulus of A Mid-Summer Night’s Dream. Then there’s the host of playful fairies, elves and misshapen creatures. Add on the troupe of vagabond actors, lovers and rivals and parents and what-have-you. Well, there are a lot of performers in this production.

Then, there are all the supporting cast. People doing make-up, helping with costume changes which could not have happened without procuring, altering and making costumes. With the sensual scenes of nymphs and fairies, some costumes took less material than others, I suppose, but all of them took time and talent. Then, there are the dozen sets or so of long, pointed ears, the transforming make-up of distortions and deformities. Throughout the play, there were people pulling ropes, handling off-stage tasks that make it possible for things to appear and disappear. Another twenty or so of these folks.

And, of course, you have the people who built seating for the stage so that the play could be performed “in the round.” Enough seating so over a hundred people could enjoy the intimate performance. Ushers and escorts to get us all to those seats. People to serve refreshments at intermission…

All of those hours of memorizing lines, blocking, rehearsals, choreography and on and on and on. There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into theatrical performance. Those mesmerizing dances and synchronized motions were mapped out by a choreographer, someone with a vision for physical movement. Those performers did not just come up with that, it took the talents of Cara Kem, our dance instructor, blended with those of the actresses and actors.

And, of course, everything hinges on one other person, someone whose job it is to take responsibility for everything that we see and experience during a production. All of that is guided by a director.

In our case, a director of unusual ability. A director whose own original plays have been performed in New York City. An incredibly talented man, one John Sefel. A man with a gift for drawing from others and from his own imagination. A guy with the ability to see in his mind how a scene or a set or an entire production should look, sound and feel. A person with passion for his craft and for the people who pursue and perform it. When great love and great talent come together, amazing things happen. I saw that last night.

I see it in plays, in workplaces and in churches. I see it in colleges and campgrounds. I see it in concerts and choirs. I’ve seen it in tobacco fields, hayfields and hospitals. When talented people devote themselves to a common cause, when each one performs the individual role with passion and selflessness, amazing things happen.

Especially when we stay in step with our Choreographer and follow the guiding of our Director.

H. Arnett

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City View

Nineteen floors above the floor of the city,
I sit by the window in a room too dark for reflections,
invisible to the middle-aged man
watching TV two floors above me in the opposite wing.

Beyond and below me the river holds its channel
parallel to Lower Wacker Drive.

I take in the tall and narrow view defined by
stone-edged buildings reaching far above me.
Beyond the bridge on Michigan Avenue,
the lights of cars pulse and throb along their lanes.

Their sounds are faint and dull,
like trivial memories of a long day’s traveling.

Just north of the bridge, the concrete curves
off to the right, gently swooping into the flight of stairs
leading down to the walkway along the water.
A series of smooth white arches sweep into the overhead curve

holding the span that keeps what is beneath
safe from what is held above.

Lights reflect across the breeze-brushed surface of the river,
a soft glimmering in the night,
another bit of beauty shining up from the floor of the city
while men sit chin to knees propped with wrinkled cardboard signs,

living off the pity of strangers
and sleeping in the doorways of burnished buildings.

I sit in the midst of this privilege, this seeing in the darkness,
slowly sipping cream sherry
while I contemplate another day of education conference,
walking the halls and aisles of this grand hotel,

a small piece of pasteboard pinned to my lapel
telling an indifferent world who I am and where I am from.

H. Arnett

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I sat last evening, chatting with colleagues, just before Cowley College’s annual awards banquet was to begin. Nearly every table in the Wright Room was packed with people: students to be honored, parents and guests, teachers and other staff members, trustees and administrators. Salads at every place, cheesecake at the ready and four buffet lines set to start. We were all ready for an evening of accolades and laughter, accomplishment and recognition.

Just five minutes before the ceremony was set to begin, I got a text from Randa: “Give me a quick call before it starts.”

I quickly excused myself and headed outside where I could get a good signal and not be surrounded by two-hundred-and-fifty people in animated conversation. At first, I couldn’t get a signal (thank you “America’s most reliable service.”) The screen showed Randa’s number dialing but there was no connection. I walked farther away from the building and tried again. Connection.

I don’t know if it was a weak connection or my hearing impairment coming into play but I couldn’t catch everything she said. I did hear “Sam… suicide bomber… Kabul…”

I don’t know that you would even have to know that Sam is my second oldest son to imagine the effect those words had. He is in his second deployment to Afghanistan, his third or fourth to the Middle East. Perhaps you’ve seen or read or heard by now about the bombing in Kabul yesterday that killed several people and injured hundreds.

Before I had time to ask or understand anything further, my chest began to crush my heart, my stomach clenched as if suddenly twisted into cable and my throat closed up like a clenched fist. I asked the question that is the first reaction of every parent, every spouse, every child, every sibling, every loved one, “Is he okay?!”

As it turned out, Sam is fine. When Randa started a sentence with “Windows were broken…” I thought Sam had been in Humvee that had run over an IED. But no, what happened was that the explosion broke windows and knocked pictures from the walls in the building where he was working but no one there was injured. All of the people in his work unit were fine.

Three of my sons are on active duty and all three of them have deployed at least once into the Middle East. All of them have taken fire of one form or another. I do not dwell on the possibility of phone calls that do not end as this one ended. I also know that car wrecks, construction accidents and falls in the shower can also result in similar calls. We live in a world filled with dangers and every moment that we breathe is one more than we are guaranteed.

I said goodbye to Randa and looked around at roses blooming under gray skies. I took a few deep breaths and headed back inside to enjoy an evening with a large group of good people. People who believe in love and faith and hope, who strive for excellence through service, who are raising their children and grandchildren to do good work, help one another and treat others as they would like to be treated.

I took a bit more notice of my food, my water and the people around me. I delighted in their company and in our camaraderie. I presented an outstanding student award on behalf of a chairperson who could not be there and introduced presenters from other departments. I joined in the applause and the recognition. And in the giving of thanks.

H. Arnett

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