Two Men Singing in the Dark

In a hollow room at the thin end of a gravel lane,
we sit on plain lawn chairs brought in from the chill of night.
A dim lamp with no shade set close against the window panes
barely gives enough light for us to find the frets.

The shadows of our faces trace patterns in the singing
of old songs and the playing of even older guitars.
Two small jars sit on top of a makeshift table:
an abandoned dryer hosting slow sips
of wonderfully smooth Knob Creek Smoked Maple.

We sift through stable memories and verses,
choruses of Johnny Cash and John Prine,
Guy Clark and some fine bluegrass gospel,
songs I have sung for as long as Ben has been alive
and others we have learned together.

I make no pretense of hiding my pride
as he fingerpicks a song I don’t recognize,
a mellow tune and gentle lyrics of love
that sound like they could have been born
in a place just like this.

It is a fine thing to see a gift shared,
for a father to see his own love of playing and singing
bringing such good pleasure to a son,
to know that although Ben has practiced more and pushed further
yet he still holds to the pure joy of good music.

Somewhere toward midnight,
he begins the soft chords of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah
and I lean into the chorus, our voices echoing from pine planks
and laminated flooring, pouring what we are and what we feel
into the liberating loneliness of such lyrics and haunting notes,
scaling the crescendo and yielding to the primal lift
as surely as if fire flickered on the walls of this wooden cave.

It is a fine thing to sit in the deepening shadows before the dark,
feeling the heart of something so ancient and strong,
to know these notes will still shape memory and melody
far beyond this good night,
long after morning’s light will fade the frost
forming in the valley that defines the furrows of these mountains

while we sit, singing in a hollow room
at the thin end of a gravel lane.

H. Arnett
5/4/18

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Hiking the Mountain

Ben fits Kinnon into the backpack hiking carrier, then lifts it up and positions himself into it. Straps adjusted, he gives a final twist to settle it into place and we head up the old road. It is a cool afternoon in mid-April in the coastal hills of California, near Atascadero. Even though it is mostly sunny, a strong breeze pushing through the trees leaves us grateful for two thin layers and committed to keeping Kinnon’s little knit beanie in place on his head.

We are hiking uphill alongside a spring-fed creek on Beauty Springs Ranch. Raging waters from last month’s flash flooding undercut the bank, nearly taking out the road in a couple of places. Layers of debris and driftwood tangle the road surface in the cuts and curves. Nearly all of the old smooth stones that once lined the face of the trail washed away. What are left now are crisp and sharp-edged, brutal for tires and tough enough on hiking shoes.

From time to time, we take a closer look at the creek, the occasional cropping of boulders and large stones forming pools underneath the tangle of oaks and other trees. I draw in the fresh scent of woods and clear water and the soothing smell of wildflowers once in a while. I watch Ben and his sure strides, bearing and balancing the weight of his fifteen-month-old, and remember how I hiked with him and his siblings a few decades ago. Those are good memories, long walks taken in the woods and alongside sandstone bluffs or limestone cliffs high above the Kentucky River. Early morning fog and summer sunsets. Sometimes the whole crew and sometimes just two or three of us.

We walk on, conversations about safe water and hunting wild turkeys, taking care of a place and what it means to have a job you like. Kinnon ratchets his head from side to side, sudden twists toward sounds or sights. Three-quarters of a mile up the hill, we come to a clearing and the empty stables. Black cattle graze in the pasture beyond the barns. Over five hundred feet above the houses in the valley, we look out over miles of California hills, April green and leaning toward the ocean. The sun is warm on our faces and the wind cool against our skin.

There is a nourishing in such things as this, a closeness of the divine in such fellowship of creature and creation. It is a drawing from ancient springs, the things that bind father and son and son, an understanding of those finest strands that grow stronger with time, the things of love and understanding. Things made even finer by shared faith and forgiveness, the deepest blessings of blood and choosing.

I close my eyes gently, concentrating on Ben’s voice and Kinnon’s happy babblings. For a moment, I feel that I could hike clear back to Kansas if they would stay with me. I smile to myself, open my eyes and Ben asks me, “Are you ready to head back down the mountain?”

I believe I am.

H. Arnett
5/3/18

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

Observations in Extra Innings

Okay, so you’re not a baseball fan. Stay with me for a couple of minutes anyway; it’s short and there are no exaggerated sound effects…

It was a dismal April for the Kansas City Royals. Batting averages slumped and ERA’s soared. Temperatures and ticket sales sagged into the freezing zone. In one agonizing streak, the Royals lost fifteen of seventeen games. For the Boston Red Sox, it was just the opposite; they were on fire, winning twenty games before May and thereby tying a major league record.

So, when the Royals took them into extra innings at Fenway last night, it was pretty special. When KC managed to grind out a run in the top of the twelfth, it was just plain exciting. In the bottom of that inning, the Royals’ closer promptly got the first batter out. As the second guy stepped in, I noticed what looked to me like a rather worried look on his face. That look did not change after the first pitch was called a strike. I said to Randa, “That is not a look of confidence on that batter’s face.”

He knocked the very next pitch clear over the top of the Green Monster, Boston’s hallmark towering left field fence. Game tied and two more outs left for the home team. Grrrr… We turned the TV off and headed to bed.

Thanks to an unrelated bout of insomnia, I learned just after midnight that the Royals scored three runs in the top of the thirteenth inning and held the Sox to two runs in the bottom of that one to win the game. Three wins in four days. Not bad for a team on the skids!

Observations: 1) Looking confident is not nearly as important as accomplishing the deed. In other words, it’s not how good you look; it’s how well you do the job. God doesn’t care how impressed others are by your claims of faith; he cares about whether it’s real or not. 2) Even on a losing streak, good things can still happen. Never give up hope and never quit stepping up to the plate and taking your turn. 3) It ain’t over till it’s over. Yeah, it’s an old cliché but it’s still true in opera, career, baseball and life.

H. Arnett
5/2/18

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

California Morning

I have come here from Kansas,
having left the still brown landscape
of winter’s left over stems and stalks,
a flinching retreat of spring in the still-stinging cold
of an unexpected snow bruising the early blooms.

I rise on the first morning of the conference,
go to the window and look out
from two hundred feet above the street.

Beyond the glass,
out past the nearer sounds and shapes,
underneath long streaks of gray clouds,
between here and the blank banks of mountains miles away,
rivers of lights swirl and stream along the streets,
roads and highways
as the beginnings of another day
merge and mesh and mingle
and occasionally confirm that the rules of physics
are not often bent by the will of the impatient.

Beyond the noise and motion,
in the quiet gray that eases in against
the stone-bare chill of a distant ridge,
there is something that seems like the edge of time,
a place that welcomes the mind
to think of things that calm and quiet,
things of good and beauty,
things worthy of praise, even.

Things that speak to both heart and spirit,
an inviting nearness that brings both strength and soothing,
a readiness for moving into the next part
of this day the Lord has made,
no matter how far from the wide open space
of the familiar plains.

H. Arnett
4/12/18

Posted in Christian Devotions, Poetry | Tagged , , , , , ,

In Turbulent Times

I used to marvel at the changes my parents had seen during their lives. Born into an age of horse-drawn implements and hand-dug cisterns, they lived to see space travel and micro-computers. By the time Mom and Dad died, preschoolers were toting cell phones and a few driverless cars were spiriting about the streets of cities.

My parents saw similar changes in other aspects of culture. Music shifted from crooners to shroomers, from pastoral to psychedelic, from ragtime to rap, from big band to heavy metal. Dozens of clothing fads came and went and cars morphed from gas-guzzling dreadnoughts of solid steel to fuel-scrimping concoctions of minimalist synthetics. America went from what they thought was a monolithic reflection of their own views and values to a hodge-podge of religions, politics, culture and sub-culture and micro-culture. Somehow, simultaneously, things shifted from when majority views trumped the Constitution to times when it seemed that the more ridiculous the individualistic perception, the more forcefully it was defended by the courts.

In retrospect, America was never as uniform as Mom and Dad might have believed. They grew up and lived much of their lives surrounded by their own reflections. It seemed they believed that America was white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, that the Bible was the universal standard of truth, and that middle-class values were the gold standard of the world. Even through the cultural chaos of the Sixties, in the midst and immediate aftermath of riots and mob actions, the shape-shifting Seventies, they still thought that they were the genuine reflection of America and that eventually their silent majority views would prevail.

Of course, during that whole time, a counter-culture continued to gain in political power and influence. This way of thinking rejected traditionally defined gender roles and even concepts of gender orientation; it also rejected traditional concepts of marriage, work, morality, religion, society and global roles. Where others perceived stability it perceived repression. Where others saw principle, it saw exploitation. What others viewed as sacred moral principle, it viewed as rigid imperialistic tradition.

Even though the clash is often framed in terms of moral absolutism, it really isn’t as simple as Good versus Evil, though there are certainly elements of that perceived. What is often going on is more a matter of very different perceptions of what truly is “good.” And, another aspect sometimes voiced but often unseen even by those most affected, is fear. Fear of losing power, fear of being dominated, fear of being forced to accept things that we do not want to accept. Fear of seeing what we disagree with enthroned in power.

Unfortunately, fearful people often become dangerous.

In times such as these, we become so polarized that we gladly embrace lies that align with our preferences and become unwilling to even consider any contradicting evidence. We are so eager to have our own views re-established as dominant that we no longer care about the character of those who carry them forward. We are so tired of seeing our values trampled on that we are willing to abandon the best parts of our own beliefs. We forget about turning the other cheek, returning good for evil, responding with compassion for cruelty.

In such times as these, we desperately need the peace, power and incredible release of loving our enemies. We need to remember that we are called to speak the truth, yes, but we are called to speak that truth in sincere and gentle love. Walking in holiness does not require hostility.

H. Arnett
4/10/18

Posted in Aging, Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , ,

Warm Blessing on a Chilly Day

In spite of threatening skies and a chilling wind, I decided to spend a couple of hours riding my bike yesterday afternoon. Usually, when I am leaving the house, I tell Randa the exact route I plan to ride. Might make it easier to find the remains, you know, should something go terribly wrong. I also give her an estimated time of return so she’ll know when to send out the search party.

I paused at the door yesterday and told her I wasn’t sure where I was going to go. She asked, “Are you sure you want to head out in this?” and showed me the weather radar on her iPad. It showed a large sweep of green with a little seam of red, swirling down from the northwest and pushing right across Ark City and south central Kansas. I shrugged, “Guess I’ll take my chances.”

Within five minutes of leaving the house, I felt a few sprinkles on my face. For thirty minutes or more, it looked like that could turn into a pour. Then, the heavier clouds passed and I made the rest of my ride in mostly sunny times. About ten minutes before I completed my loop, I thought about stopping to text Randa a request that she go ahead and run me a tub of hot water. That’s mighty soothing after twenty miles on a chilly day. I decided, though, I could just run my own water after I got home.

Back in our driveway, I did a gliding dismount and rolled the bike into the garage and closed the big door. As I walked through the entry room and turned down the hall, I noticed the bathroom door was closed. I was surprised to see Randa sitting on the couch, since the bathroom door is almost never closed unless the room is occupied.

Randa smiled up as I walked into the living room, “How was your ride?” “It was good,” I grinned, “Only got a few sprinkles and saw some pretty sights. Some dramatic lighting with the sun shining on some really dark clouds.” I pulled off my hydration back and set it on the kitchen counter for cleaning later. Headed down the hall to start the bath water.

When I opened the door, I felt the warmth and saw that the tub was already filled. I walked back into the living room. “Thank you!” I smiled. “I actually thought about texting you about ten minutes ago to ask you to run water for me.”

Randa smiled warmly, “I know.”

In response to my slightly puzzled look, she shrugged her shoulders slightly and shook her head slowly, “I just sensed it.”

“When was that?” I queried. She responded, “No more than ten minutes ago.”

I am blessed beyond what I deserve but not beyond my awareness.

H. Arnett
4/9/18

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Exercise, Family, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , ,

Kicking Against the Goad

What is the part of you that God has been working on the longest? What is the part that seems to be taking the most time and effort to re-shape into the reflected image of Christ?

Some people might say, “Oh, just all of me, mostly,” and others might say, “Just the deepest parts.” Still others might say “Well, if you can’t tell I’m not going to tell you!”

At the moment, I’d have to admit that’s the way I’m leaning. I figure that my faults are evident enough and you could probably list more of them than I’d want to listen to anyway. And therein is a hint of the honest answer. Deep down beneath the ground level of what seems to show pretty quickly, my answer would be “pride.”

I don’t think it’s the kind of pride that walks through the room feeling superior to everyone else or even to anyone else. Not the kind of pride rising from privilege, ancestry or one’s station in life. No, it’s more the kind of pride that likes to handle things in its own way. The kind that prefers to be left alone to do what needs to be done. The kind that believes it’s fully capable and will figure things out and find a good route to getting where it needs to get.

At an even more basic level, it’s probably the pride of wanting my own way. Isn’t that what all pride usually is? Thinking I should be in charge of everything pertaining to my own work and will and happiness?

I keep telling myself that I’ve made some progress over the years. Much more inclined in many situations to recognize the gifts of others, encourage them to use their areas of strength and figure out how to blend mine with theirs. I’ve focused more on giving credit to others and taking more of the blame myself. Making sure the focus is on those whose work is really responsible for the good that is gained.

I guess that is progress but I have some pretty regular reminders that I’ve still got a ways to go. Seems like any time I quit focusing on humility God reminds me of my pride. But sometimes it seems to take me quite a while to figure out that’s what he’s doing. I’m not sure why I’m so reluctant to remember that “God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

I’ve got this feeling that he’s just going to keep doing this for as long as it takes. Humility is often the quickest path to ending our own self-induced suffering.

H. Arnett
4/6/18

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