A Tender Helplessness

As a preacher and pastor over the past forty years, I have often been called upon in times of grief and bereavement. I have been at the side of the elderly as they have passed from this life into their rest. I knelt beside the lifeless body of a 21-year-old man after he crashed his ultra-light airplane in his parents’ backyard—as they watched horrified and helpless. I have spoken with the families of children killed in accidents and of a man murdered in his own bed. I have hugged the baby and prayed with the widow left behind by a man killed in a coal-mining accident.

Some of these deaths were tragic, some were horrific and some were a welcome release. Even in the ones that brought release from long, slow tortured dyings, there was still loss. In some cases, the loss is so shocking, so painful and so unfair that there are no words to describe the agony nor are there words to take away such pain. In greater frankness than some will find comfortable, I will tell you that my own belief is that sometimes there is no “why,” no grand reason, just physics and/or human choices. But even if there is a “why,” does that really console us?

Ultimately, it is not explanation and understanding that we want. No philosophy, no cliché, no rhyme or rationalization can heal the hole that we feel within us. Even the greatest expressions of empathy, though precious and treasured, cannot fill the measure of our loss. While the tears and prayers of others show us that we are loved, and our own deep faith somehow sustains us, these things cannot erase the blackness that sinks its fangs into our hearts. Anger, wrath and rage, even vengeance may divert us with blinding darkness but they cannot take away the loss. Not even the heaviest justice of the courts can give us the deepest desire of our heart.

What we want, quite simply, is to have the thing undone. We want our friend, our child, our sibling, our parent, our loved one given back to us in good condition. That is what we want. We want the empty chair filled, the empty plate served full and warm, the silence filled by the former sounds. We want to hear the laughter, feel the warmth, see that lopsided grin and know once again the closeness. That is what we remember, what we cherish and what we want.

And it is precisely that thing that we can never have again—at least not in this world, though perhaps in a better one—and it is that knowledge that pierces us through with sorrow.

But does this sorrow have to leave us in despair? Can we grieve and ache and yet still live on? Even though things will never be the same again, can we yet find strength to face another day and grace to move forward? Can we continue with Life yet still honor the love and memory of those we have lost?

I believe that we can; I believe that we do; I believe that we are. The empty chair testifies to the hole that is left in our lives, an empty space the size and shape of our relationship with that person.

And yet all the other chairs, the ones in which we survivors sit, testify of something else. Something ageless and wonderful. All these chairs say, “We are still here, in spite of all of life’s loss and heartache, in spite of all the misery and challenge and the drudgery of our most mundane moments, we are still here and we will not give up nor give in. We will continue loving.”

In spite of these awful achings, we remember also the things that give us joy, that give us hope, that give us light. We are still grateful for all the good that is in our lives, for whatever measure of peace we have found and for these others whose presence tells us that we are loved.

Even in this tremendous agony, God is yet at work for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. And a certain immeasurable part of that calling and that purpose is for us to share the sorrow and sow seeds of kindness and compassion in these times of tragic loss and terrible cost. Our purpose is not to take away the pain, but to show that we care.

H. Arnett

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Life Both Blessed and Cursed

We have all made decisions that we’ve regretted. We’ve all rushed forward when a bit of hesitation would have resulted in a much better situation. We’ve all made mistakes in a world that is sometimes tolerant and absorbent and other times completely inflexible and unforgiving. Most of us have never made a mistake that cost someone else their life. Most of us have loved someone whose life has been taken. Most of us love someone who has made at least one tragic choice.

We all know people who need greater grace than we can comprehend, people who need to experience that peace that passes understanding. We know someone who needs comfort and courage, strength and stamina. We know someone whose heart is filled with an aching pain that crushes with an unbearable weight. We all know someone who needs to know that we care.

Let us not forget that our prayers touch places our hands cannot reach and that the God Who Loves Us can heal all wounds and soothe every scar.

H. Arnett

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Bad Cider

Well now, folks, that fine, fine moment finally arrived this past week. After all the finding and grinding, all the packing and pressing, the time finally came for testing this year’s first batch of hard cider.

It’s no small thing making hard cider the way I make it. Randa and I gathered up several hundred pounds of apples. Jay and Leah and Kevin spent a few hours helping grind them up. We sorted out the twenty-something gallons and shared some with friends and relatives. About twelve gallons went into the fourteen-gallon fermenting vat that I bought several years ago just for such occasions. I hauled that vat of super-fresh, undefiled and unadulterated juice all the way from nearly Nebraska to nearly Oklahoma.

Apparently cider yeast enjoy agitation and unseasonably warm weather nearly as much as a busload of social activists after a power plant explosion.

Usually, it takes several days of aerobic phase fermentation to get the cider ready for the second phase. That’s when you screw the lid down good and tight and put the special water valve in place that lets carbon dioxide escape and keeps oxygen from getting in. You see, my friend, oxygen is the enemy and you want to keep it away from the cider. The inverted tiny plastic cup in the water valve rocks and tilts and releases the carbon dioxide from inside the container and keeps oxygen from going the other way. Early on, that little booger is practically dancing. As things slow down it might only gurgle once in ten minutes or so. Eventually, it’ll quit but you want to bottle the cider before things get to that point.

Trouble was in this case, things were already at the point. The unusual warmth (and maybe the two-hundred-and-fifty miles of agitation) had so encouraged the little fellows that they had just really outdone themselves. They were done. I tried adding sugar and different yeast and finally went ahead and hand-bottled the whole batch. I stacked the nine half-gallon growlers and the three crates of bottles in the utility room and hoped for the best.

I popped a top on a sample bottle last week and was very pleased to see some carbonation. A half-inch of fizz formed at the top of the glass as I poured the cider. “Ah, good,” I thought, “maybe this is going to turn out okay after all.” Then I lifted the glass up to my face.

My hopes took a mighty hard hit at that point. The bouquet was somewhere between nasty dishrag and low-grade disinfectant. It didn’t smell like something had died but it was proper sick for sure. The flavor, actually, was considerably better than the aroma. Definitely sour and definitely disappointing but tolerable. Assuming the cider is very cold, the day is very hot and the consumer is very thirsty.

Sometimes in spite of our very hard work and everything else we have put into something, things just don’t work out the way we had hoped and planned. Sometimes they stop a bit short and sometimes they turn out about as opposite as possible. It’s disappointing, yes, and sometimes it’s heartbreaking. But it’s nearly always survivable and even thrivable if we take the lessons learned and turn them into better choices on the next go-round.

So… I’m looking forward to next season and looking for some folks who like the taste of pale ale accompanied by the smell of vinegar. If I don’t find them, I’m thinking this stuff might work as weed-killer or concrete-etcher. Just not ready to pour it all down the drain just yet.

H. Arnett

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My Favorite Holiday

While exchanging pleasantries in a place where men are forced to face certain realities, a colleague and I reflected on our recently passed break. About two short sentences each into the conversation, he said, “Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday.”

This particular colleague is half my age, twice my size and of different ethnic persuasion. I don’t know what differences there might be in our preferences, prejudices and predispositions but I do know this: we concur on the matter of favorite holidays.

Now for you scoffers, scorners and would-rather-be-aloners, go ahead and get it out there. “Of course it’s your favorite holiday; you’re men! All you have to do is eat, belch and watch football.” Now, I’m not sure exactly what the resentment might be but I suspect that a key factor is a failure to grasp just how much effort is involved in properly watching a football game. And besides, I did make fruit salad and I actually washed dishes on Thanksgiving. Back in ’04, I think…

But even with the obvious and irrefutable gender chasm in regard to responsibilities, I think there’s more to it. I think deep down underneath the few layers of social complexity and undeniable unfairness, there’s another aspect. I think it has to do with not worrying about others’ reactions.

“Here’s my fruit salad. If you like fruit salad, you’re gonna love my fruit salad. If you don’t like fruit salad, there’s mashed potatoes and gravy, homemade rolls and green bean casserole. Oh, and pumpkin pie.” Here it is, help yourself to some or just pass it on to the next person. Hard to screw that up.

Everybody that wants to can bring something they’re good at, enjoy what they like and not be forced to have any of anything they don’t want. Eat till you’re full, stuffed or just until you’ve had enough to get you to the next meal. Up to you. In between, visit with your cousins, laugh with your siblings, share stories, watch the kids play touch football, stand around in the kitchen and listen to the others, watch the smiles. Heck, you can even share some tears and still not ruin the holiday. Remember those who can’t be here, tell “that story” one more time and realize that even without them here, it’s still good to get together and make a few new memories.

Gratitude, good food and being together. Thanksgiving. My favorite holiday. It seems possible it might be a better way to celebrate faith, hope and love than all that hullabaloo that we put ourselves through at Christmas. I’m pretty sure nobody has to worry much about me being disappointed at Thanksgiving and real sure I don’t worry so much about disappointing others.

And that’s the real reason why I enjoy Thanksgiving so much.

H. Arnett

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December Dawning

There is a bit of a sting in this early morning air.
Even though the branches are not yet fully bare
there is a hint of winter in the way the wind
sends its clear touch against the face,

Just enough of a chill to pull your shoulders up
as you walk a few blocks
and think maybe a coat would have been better
than just a light jacket.

But it is sunny today and if you can make your way
out of the wind for a few minutes
and keep your face tilted toward heaven for a while
the day will seem warmer.

And the next step out into the cut of the breeze
will seem a little less like something that could
take your knees out from under you
and more like just a passing change in the weather.

And besides, a rising sun beyond a white-crusted field
bordered by black trees stretching against a morning sky
has a way of bringing day from night
in a manner that seems to say that as long as there is light

There will always be hope
of a Greater Warmth.

H. Arnett

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Life Ain’t Fair

I learned early on in my life that life is not fair and that characteristic sometimes works to my advantage. If I’d always gotten what I deserve, I’d have been executed many years ago and beaten like a rented mule several times since then. So, I’ve made some degree of peace with life’s capricious nature. That does not, however, mean that I never take any action to try and rectify what I perceive to be a wrong or injustice.

It’s that perception thing that gets to be the tricky part.

My most recent opportunity for that particular bit of trickiness arises from a hearing held yesterday in Topeka. A contest was announced in 2011 for a mural to be placed in the State Capitol Building which would commemorate the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision. This was the decision that declared that racial discrimination was a violation of the United States Constitution, eventually resulting in school desegregation across the country. At the hearing yesterday, four artists presented their mural proposals to the committee in charge of selecting the “winner.”

My perception is that the committee basically suspended the rules and guidelines it had stipulated and changed the criteria at the final hour. It is my further perception that it did so in order to appease a a very present and very vocal special interest group.

At a truly basic level, for any semblance of full disclosure, I have to admit that one of the finalists is a very special friend and colleague. Mark Flickinger is the chair of the Visual and Performing Arts department at Cowley College where I am the Vice-President for Academic Affairs. He is colleague, friend and fellow believer. Further disclosure would admit that had the changes made by the committee resulted in Mark being selected as the winning artist, I’d be writing a very different reflection this morning, absolutely convinced of the necessity and justice of the changes.

I don’t know the winning artist and anyone who tells you that doesn’t color my perception of the outcome doesn’t know me or human nature very well. How we feel about the winner always colors our perception of the outcome, whether it’s the World Series, the NCAA championship, or a presidential election. Even if it’s only for class president in a very small school.

If our team wins, we’re pretty darn sure it was a fair contest. Tilt the score the other way and our righteous indignation is heartily aroused.

My sincere belief is that Mark’s mural proposal was superior to the “winner” historically, educationally and aesthetically. The objections raised by the Brown Foundation for Educational Equity, Excellence, and Research (family members of the Brown family as in “Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education”) strike me as petty and contrived. They clearly disagreed.

In their final deliberations, the committee first decided that the winning artist had to be from Kansas, even though they’d selected a New York artist as one of the four finalists. Eventually a majority of members followed the Brown family’s recommendation, even though their selected artist’s proposal seemingly failed to truly follow the stipulations originally set forth by the committee. What was intended to commemorate the history and consequences of a Supreme Court decision with multiple, highly complex international ramifications was reduced to a fairy tale depiction that could be readily absorbed by third-graders in five seconds. Another bit of history reduced to a palpable lie that “wouldn’t hurt anyone’s feelings.”

In regard to my feelings, I have to say I couldn’t have been more proud of Mark’s presentation in the Capitol Building yesterday. It was articulate, intelligent, focused, gently passionate and exceptionally well-founded. Committee members’ comments and questions showed clearly that they were pleased and impressed.

I was even more impressed by Mark’s response in the aftermath. After all those hours of work, thought and focus on this project over the past five years, it would be understandable if he’d gone on a three-day drunk or at least a three-hour rant. Instead, on his three-hour drive back to Ark City, he was trying to figure out what he was supposed to do with all the work he’d put into the project.

Trying to figure out how to turn disappointment into accomplishment. No wonder I admire the dude.

H. Arnett

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Love Your Neighbor

Two blocks away, a glow of artificial light polishes the dome of the Kansas Capitol Building. Already, cars pulse their way along Topeka Boulevard. Beyond the waning reds of passing cars and the dark silhouettes of downtown buildings, a blue dawn warms the southeastern sky. Sketches of trees fill the lower gaps as morning makes its coming.

We have spent the night here in order to be with friends today in a unique moment, an event unlike any other that we have known.

Mark Flickinger is a painter, professor, department chairperson (Cowley College) and artist. He is also a dear brother. He and Dianne raised four children together, for several years living the lean life of a professional artist in Kansas.

Five years ago Mark began this journey, this pursuit, this dream. The Kansas State Legislature is seeking to place a mural in one of the Capitol wings. A mural commemorating a United States Supreme court decision that held that all citizens of this country should be treated equally, that regardless of the color of their skin, their children should receive an education worthy of citizens of this country. That case was born right here in this city.

In its Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education ruling, the Supreme Court officially declared that it was not consistent with the principles on which the nation was formed that children of poverty should be intellectually impoverished. De facto segregation, the court ruled, was de facto discrimination. And in 2011, folks in the state capitol decided that there should be something in the State Capitol to honor the significance of that court case and the change and hope it has brought to millions of lives.

And so, they announced a competition. Mark Flickinger, whose heart and mind find truth, justice and love to be ideals worthy of pursuit, entered the competition.

Eventually, his proposed mural came to be one of four selected by the folks who do the selecting. In a couple of hours, that group will open the final phase of the competition in that building with the shining dome just two blocks away from here. One by one, Mark and the other finalists will present their design, explain their concept and answer questions from the committee. By the end of the day, we believe, the committee will announce its selection.

I have prayed and continue praying that God will grant Mark wisdom and grace this morning and that he will find favor with this group. I believe that his mural concept “Love your neighbor” is very much at the heart of the Supreme Court decision being commemorated. I believe that it expresses both the nature of the case and its intended legacy of justice and hope. I know that with Mark and Dianne Flickinger, that concept is very much at the heart of who they are, what they believe and how they live.

Regardless of how the day ends, it is an honor to be here for this today. I shall continue praying.

H. Arnett

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