The Agony of Insufficiency

Every humble person—and most of the rest of us as well—have at some time or another come to the realization of their own inability in a particular situation. Perhaps it was in face of an unfolding disaster, whether epic or minute. Perhaps it was in confronting some injury or disease. Maybe it was in consequence of financial misfortune. Maybe it was in those awful hours wrapped around the final moments of a loved one’s life.

Whether in a sense of complete powerlessness or in the “just not quite enough” scenario, we confront our lack of capacity to do whatever it would take to make things right again. Or, more accurately, make them as we wish they were. It matters not how deeply we care, how much energy we are willing to exert, or how amazing our intellect or compassion; it just isn’t enough.

We stand with tear-etched faces beside a closed casket, just outside an ICU room witnessing accomplished frantic action, in the mesmerizing paralysis of a flame-engulfed home, or just beyond the wreckage and turn our faces as the bodies are removed. Some endure the mutual self-blame and eviscerating disappointment of being truly in love and desiring yet incapable of conceiving children. Or perhaps simply ache with a broken-hearted teenager experiencing first betrayal or rejection.

In these—and innumerable other eruptions of humanity—we are made acutely aware of our own limitations. In this, it may be that there is a key difference between us and the truly humble: they were aware even before tragedy became personal experience.

Regardless of prior awareness or state of submission, a humble acceptance moves us toward greater awareness and appreciation of our deep need for God and for one another. Or, in darker response, we may grow more bitter or resentful of the One who has made us and this deeply flawed world in which we live. And oblivious to the empathy of others.

Connecting with that tendency, there’s a John Prine song with these lines: “Father forgive us for what we must do. / You forgive us, and we’ll forgive you.”

On the one hand, there is an almost blasphemous notion that we are ever in a position of judging and then forgiving God. And yet on the other hand, it could be an expressed awareness that no matter how ridiculous the idea might seem on its surface, it is the secret of moving through and beyond the most painful absurdities of this patently unfair existence.

Then again, if this world were truly and inflexibly fair, most of us would have perished long ago.

Aware of that, I choose to live with the occasional agonies of insufficiency, yet always cloaked with immutable grace and often spared by inexplicable mercy.

H. Arnett


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After the Barn

Most of the time in the dry weather,
all it takes is a few scrapes
through the stiff brush bristles
of the boot cleaner mounted on an old slab
of two-by-eight to make the dirt and dust
and light crust of sand and dried horse manure
drop right off and be gone.

But on those rainy days
when the thick, sticky clay is ground and pounded 
into the treads of my heavy muck boots,
it takes a shooting stream of compressed water
piercing into the cleated corners
to pry out the mud and yuck
of the round pen.

Most of the time, when my walking in this world
has mostly been what it should have been,
it only takes a minute or two
to send the thoughts I shouldn’t have
flying on out and away,
just a bit of prayer, as it were,
to restore focus on the things that are above.

But on those days
when draping darkness clouds my thinking
and leaves my soul sinking and sliding
like hard-hooved feet on soft mud over frozen ground,
mucking and miring every corner of my heart,
and it seems that holiness can barely make a spark,
then, my friend, it takes something more, way more:

it takes the down on-my-knees,
begging You, please, O God of My Pain,
soul-sobbing, vein-throbbing,
gut-twisting, eye-misting,
of deep-aching contrition
and pride-breaking submission
to get my spirit clean.

Yeah, it takes that.
And then… Yeah, I’m good, again.

H. Arnett
Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Farming, Metaphysical Reflection, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Prayer, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

No, I Don’t Know How You Feel… But I Do Care

A small essay I published yesterday including a couple of examples of things not to say to someone dealing with the death of a loved one. My oldest sister, Freeda, responded with, “You could have added, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’”

That reminded me of an incident from about eighteen years ago. A young man in the church Randa and I were pastoring died in a tragic accident. His death devastated his sister and their parents. One morning soon after the funeral, I felt stirred by the Spirit to give his sister a call.

As we talked, I told her, “You don’t know this, but I have five siblings. And I don’t know that if all five of them died at once that I would feel what you’re feeling.”

She broke down. I could hear her crying. Then, she choked out in softly broken words, “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate that. I am so tired of people telling me, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’ They don’t know; they can’t know how I feel.” I could feel an intense pain and passion in her voice, and I’ve never forgotten that conversation.*

Ever since that conversation, I’ve been very careful not to use that phrase or anything that resembles it. It’s a cliché that we’ve all heard so many times that it becomes automatic. It’s not that I don’t realize that people mean well when they say it. And I think we should cut people a bit of slack whenever they mean well.

What they mean is probably something along the lines of, “I’ve lost someone, too. My mother, my father, my closest friend… Hurts like hell, doesn’t it?” So, when we’re on the receiving side, let’s try to lower the level of judging and up the level of appreciating that they want us to know that they care and that they understand it’s a painful situation.

As to what we ourselves say, probably good to avoid that one. As Freeda reminded me, “Every relationship is different.” What if this person’s father was a secret abuser? What if their mother used to pour scalding water on them when they misbehaved? What if the last thing this person said to their lost loved one was something really mean and hateful and now, they can never apologize for it? Even if we’ve been where they are, we still don’t know how they feel.

If I got really deep down honest, I’d have to admit that I rarely know exactly how I feel in the aftermath of loss and tragedy. So I know exactly how you feel? Not likely. But I appreciate that you understand that it’s a painful place. And that we’re sharing a life that isn’t often easy but is always better when we care about each other.

Especially when that caring shows.

* Immediately after that conversation, a song began forming in my mind. I pulled my guitar out of its case and started writing. It’s a song that seems to speak to people in that initial shock of loss and pain. If you’d care to listen to it, (awesome saxophone playing by Michael Reining) try this link:

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Start With “Hello”

If you're reading this, there's a fairly good chance someone you know is dealing with some sort of personal challenge or misfortune. Maybe they're seriously sick or have a chronically sick kid. Maybe they've had some sort of personal calamity because of this weird weather of late. Maybe they've lost a job, or a loved one, or... whatever.

If you're over forty, the odds have upped a bit. If you're over fifty, pretty much a sure bet. If you're over sixty, it's just about a given. Probably also a pretty good chance that that someone has been you at some point or another.

If it is you, you probably have a pretty keen recollection of the folks who reached out with a visit or a card or a phone call. And... of those that didn't.

As a pastor and as an occasionally human being, I've often heard folks say, "I just don't know what to say." 

We're afraid we might say the wrong thing or say it the wrong way and it's certainly possible. Hardly any grieving child or parent or spouse or sibling or friend wants to be standing by a casket and have someone walk up and say, "Oh, I am SO glad that your loved one passed away! I think the world will be a much better place without them."

Not the way to go here, trust me. Also would suggest you avoid, "Oh, I know exactly how you feel about losing your mother. My cat died last month and I still haven't gotten over it!" Boo hoo hoo...

But aside from such guaranteed calamities as that, you're probably worrying too much. Having been in some of those situations from the losing side and in several more from the caring side, I will tell you that there are very few things that you can say that will hurt worse than this: not saying anything at all.

I really encourage you to take time to go visit that person. Cancer isn't contagious. Tornadoes aren't spread through personal contact. At least make a phone call if the person is physically able to carry on a conversation. Of course, if the family has requested "no personal contact," honor that. Send a card. Send a text. Send both.

The reason why I offer this encouragement is simple: otherwise, they're likely going to assume you don't care. And that can be crippling to someone already struggling with the loneliness of disease or disaster. It's not the eloquence of your words that makes a difference for them; it's the evidence of your concern.

So... don't know exactly what to say? Start with "Hello." Then let love and the Lord take it from there.

H. Arnett
Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Death & Dying, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation, suffering | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

A Moment of Seeing

The first few slants of light
hit the trees with glowing cast,
a gentle burning that will only last
for two or three minutes
until the blue gray of overcast skies
dulls the dawning of this chill morning. 

But I will remember the way
that this day started
with that warming light
stroking the birches
like God's own touch.

And the red fox trotting
up from the pasture
—such graceful legs—
then stepping up and walking along the tops
of the old railroad ties
bordering and bounding the strawberries.

She paused there for a moment,
ears pointed forward,
studying the horses,
then stepped down,
moving through a shaft of sun
on her way toward the shed,
an impossibly brilliant form
passing through the torching light.

Even though we live 
in the presence of God,
such moments as this
let me feel his touch. 

H. Arnett
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For the past couple of years, Randa’s 2005 Chevy Silverado has had problems with what some folks call “parasitic battery drain.” Some component might be drawing electricity even when the truck is turned off. It’s possible there’s a wire with a short in it that’s leaking off current. Whatever it is, it’s been draining the battery.

In the summer, if the truck sits without being used for a few days, it requires a jump start. In winter, that could happen in as few as two days.

Armed with the right instruments and full electrical wiring diagrams, someone who knew what they were doing could go through one module at a time and find the exact source(s) of the problem. I’m not that person.

I’m the person who knows how to disconnect the negative cable. It only takes, literally, a half-minute normally. Double that amount of time if the wind-chill is at minus-twenty or lower. Still, a pretty quick ounce of prevention. Disconnect the cable when leaving the truck for more than a day or two, reconnect when wanting to use the truck. Twist, twist, wrench, wrench. Battery connected.

The quasi-perfectionist in me suggests that this little workaround of mine is an inferior solution. Doesn’t really fix the underlying problem, you see. The hyper-pragmatist in me suggests the other dude go fix something else. Or at least just go somewhere else. “It works. Saves the battery. Truck starts. End of discussion.”

There are times in life, in relationships, in jobs, in global economies, and such when it is really good and helpful to fully understand the problem. Sometimes, we just need a “workaround,” something that will get us through the next trip, the next day, the next shift, without making things worse.

It’s good to truly “fix things” but coming up with a good “workaround” can help us stay sane long enough to figure out the solution.

H. Arnett


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A Slight Storm

The grays and tans of gravel and sand
barely show through the thin glaze
of this day’s winter storm.

A light forming of freezing rain
slickened the graveled surface beneath
the thin whipping streams of powdery snow.

Knurled husks of ice form on the galvanized steel
that frames the round pen
while the wind sends whirling swirls

into the hoof-pocked trompings
of frozen muck and mud 
all around the big round bale in the feedlot.

Along their necks and shoulders and the sides of their faces,
a dried mat of plastered mud
from where the geldings rolled in the wet pasture 

is covered now
by bristling threads of frost plaiting every strand
of tail and mane and stiff hair of coarse winter coat.

The pair stand beside the gate,
heads held above the top rail,
watching as we shuffle our way

across the treacherous crust from house to barn,
their warm breath curling softly for only an inch and an instant,
then whipped away by the wind.

Ears tilted toward us, 
they wait for their tending
of pelletized grain and chopped hay,

the sweetness of beet pulp and alfalfa,
and a place then to stand out of the harsh breeze.
Their own daily bread: sheltered by the shed, watered and fed.

Randa and I make our way
back alongside the frozen ruts,
feeling the tracing cut of the north against bare faces.

Inside, we shed boots and layers of upper covering,
heavy gloves and wool hats,
then sit down on sanded stools in the warm kitchen,

and give thanks for warm, buttered toast, 
strawberry jelly,
and steaming cups of fresh coffee.

H. Arnett
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Zaccheus Impresses Jesus

If your childhood, like mine, included Vacation Bible School, you might well have sung the “Zaccheus Was a Wee Little Man” song. Or maybe you learned about Zaccheus from your own perusal of the Gospels. (Luke 19:1-10) Then again, maybe you’ve never even heard this particular Bible story.

Really quick version: Zaccheus was a short rich dude who was a well-despised chief tax collector living in Jericho in the time of Jesus. Big crowd of people were gathered to see Jesus and the Z-Dude wanted to get a look and couldn’t because he was such a wee little man. So… he ran ahead and climbed up in a sycamore fig tree (whatever the heck that is) so he could see Jesus. Jesus sees him there, calls him by name and tells him to get down out of the tree because he wants to hang out with him at his house. He climbs down, Jesus goes home with him, and the crowd doesn’t like this. (Let your friends know you’re watching the Super Bowl with a couple of IRS auditors and you might get a similar reaction.)

In addition to being open and known collaborators with the occupying Roman government and therefore being generally regarded as traitors, tax collectors of that day had a reputation for charging more than required by Rome and lining their pockets with the extorted difference. Therefore the muttering about Jesus going to be the guest of a “sinner.”

“Sinner” was pretty much the Jewish expression of the day that could be roughly translated as “low life despicable scoundrel” or other terms that might be more drastic and generally regarded as bad language, so I won’t use them here. If you know, you know, but I ain’t telling you.

Zaccheus hears what they’re saying, stands up and declares, “Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”

Well played, Zaccheus! Well played!

That’s pretty tangible repentance there, folks. Lot more convincing than a mumbled apology and a sad look. It’s also possible that Z-Man is challenging his accusers to step forward with evidence that he is the great cheat they all assume him to be. “Show me my wrong and I’ll make it right, four times over.”

Like I said, impressive stuff: giving up half of his wealth for the poor plus whatever else it takes for restitution. But the thing I love most about this story goes back to the very beginning of it.

I’m pretty sure seeing a grown man climbing up a tree in public wasn’t much more common two thousand years ago in Jericho than it would be today in Topeka. Much less a rich man with a prominent position in the community. Zack didn’t care; he was determined to see Jesus. When we are so committed to getting our own true view of The Carpenter that we don’t really worry about how the critics (or our friends) will respond, we are quite likely to become the sort of disciples that he wants.

Especially if we do it in the spirit of true humility and courageous contrition that Zaccheus did.

H. Arnett


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Signs and Wonders

I love the way wet snow shows which way the wind was blowing during the time of the storm–the way white holds to the windward side of fenceposts and tree trunks.  How even dried thistle blooms are bearded with tufts of clinging snow.  

I love how the missing spots of a dilapidated barn roof show sudden and dark in patterns of old decay in the midst of the gleaming light and how the morning sun glistens and sparkles on the thousand icicles hanging from the ending edge of tin.  

I love how big tan-colored hay bales the diameter of a man's length break the blanket of white and how much they look like huge bites of frosted shredded wheat.  

I love how a plank fence plots patterns of light and shadow on the unrippled snow and how scallops of drifted banks facing the east glow blinding pink in reflected sun.  

I love how cows will leave the chilling cover and lay down on the trail of hay winding across the frozen pasture and how their breath steams, curls and disappears.  

I love how the fields and ponds, pasture and small ditch lie as one surface beneath and how a single trail of footsteps from the back door to the barn shows that someone cares for their livestock on a single digit morning.  

But more than all that, I love knowing a God for whom all of that could be a coincidental beauty left in the wake of a winter storm 

and how, on the other hand, He could have placed each snowflake in just the place He wanted.

H. Arnett 
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Not Much

If I never spoke another harsh word, there would still be too much harshness in the world. If I never again set loose the searing sting of my tongue, there would still be too many scars in the world. If I never again bared the barbed point of my scorn, there would still be too many wounds in the world.

I cannot alone do much to lessen the pains and pangs of this life.

If I never again failed to speak with tenderness, there would still not be enough compassion in the world. If I did not let slip by a single opportunity to soothe a troubled heart with comforting kindness, there would still not be enough caring in the world. Should I, in every circumstance, speak only gentle words, there would not be enough peace in the world.

I cannot do much alone to bring greater grace and goodness to this earth.

It is true that one alone cannot do much.

But every measure taken in the way of what is right and godly both lessens the evil and increases the good. Every word and deed of righteousness increases the light that is in this world. Every decent thing done diminishes indecency and increases what is pleasant and worthy. If only one good thing were done in the world this day, then this day is not completely evil.

How much better then if you and I decide that in the smallest of actions taken today, and in the greater ones, too, we will increase the good that is done? And if we both do that, then neither of us will act alone.

 H. Arnett

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