Leaning Toward the Leading

Almost exactly two months before the date, I began preparing a sermon for this past Lord’s Day. Bible Christian Church in Arkansas City, where Randa and I lived for five years, provided the opportunity. Even though that is two-hundred-and-fifty miles away, I looked forward to the opportunity with anticipation and appreciation. As soon as my friend, Mark Flickinger inquired as to whether I would be interested and available, I knew my topic: Unity.

And so, as I prayed, studied, reflected, and contemplated, I prepared for that theme. Picked out a few pertinent scriptures and gave much thought to them. I jotted down some notes and even wrote a song for the occasion. As the time drew nearer, I developed an alternative version of the song. I was quite confident that the sermon topic was pertinent and appropriate. Surely it doesn’t take a lot of meditation to conclude that “unity” is a good subject for believers to consider in these times that we live in.

And so, on Saturday morning, less than twenty-four hours before the scheduled time, I continued praying, studying, reflecting, and contemplating. Taking advantage of Mark and Diane’s hospitality, I sat outside in the shade of a cedar grove at their home adjacent to Camp Horizon, relishing the view of their landscaping: stone walls, flower beds, accenting shrubs and bushes, the woods lining the perimeter of their yard. And thinking. Even though I was confident of my planned subject, there was something that kept tugging at a loose corner of my consciousness. Something just wasn’t quite right.

“Well,” I finally said to myself, “I’m going out to the back deck and I’m going to pray until I reach a breakthrough on this mental logjam.” And so… I did.

It took about an hour. As I continued praying, thinking about unity and the scriptures I’d been studying, I thought about another song that I’d been considering singing as part of the service, “I Will Sing of the Goodness of God.” I remembered how profoundly the song affected me the first time I heard it. At the line, “I have lived in the goodness of God,” my spine tingled with goosebumps, and I began weeping as I realized, “Even at the very worst times in my life, I have lived in the goodness of God.”

During that prayer on the Flickinger’s small deck, once again I felt the surge of tingling on the back of my neck and along my spine. I knew, instantly, that the Holy Spirit had given me a new topic and direction for my sermon. In just a few minutes, I was looking up new scriptures. I read Romans 8:28, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose,” intending to use that as a key verse.

As I scanned back to the beginning of the chapter, and then read through the whole chapter, I realized, “This entire chapter is about the goodness of God!” And so, a new sermon began forming. And along with it, finally, after two months, a sense of peace about the lesson I would share. Mark and Diane reinforced my sense of peace with the feedback they gave me Saturday evening. And, on Lord’s Day morning, the Spirit worked in me and in the congregation to provide even stronger confirmation.

Throughout my life, I have always found contentment, fulfillment, and affirmation when I have listened to the leading of the Spirit. Without exception.

I’d rather not discuss the results of when I refused.

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Quiet Waters

I pause for a few moments on this concrete bridge on a gravel road in northern Oklahoma. It is well past sunset, close to the moment when dusk closes into darkness…  and miles from the nearest paved road. 

A half-moon rises high above the hardwoods lining the banks of this small river. It stretches east and west in this particular section, following for a bit the rising and the setting of the sun.

The blue of the evening sky, and a tiny image of the moon reflect in the still waters. Looking down directly below the bridge, I see a few flecks of leaves floating on the surface of the stream. 

As far as I can see along the trail of the river, not a single ripple interrupts the mirrored surface of the water. As far as I can see in either direction looking north and south on this gravel road, there is no hint of rising dust, or low rumble of a farm vehicle, or any other sound or indication of travel. It is just me, the moon, and the calmness.

I am more accustomed to these still moments in the early hours, before the stirring of daily business. It is good now to reflect upon this good day, my safe travels, my good visits with friends, and visits to come, Lord willing. The quietness speaks to me in the calmness of evening air, the nearly black reflections of cottonwoods and other broadleaf trees. I feel its peace in the smooth colors of reflected sky, and feel a deeper peace within my heart and spirit.

Whether at the end of day’s travels or their beginning, it is good to give thanks, and pause for a moment to let the presence of he who has made us and loves us fill our hearts and minds. And guide our travels. 

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Reflections on a Spring Morning

Sitting on the covered deck of my friends’ house, I take in the sights, sounds, and scents. A gentle breeze stirs spring-like air on this June morning. A line of hardwood trees fringes the edge of the yard at this place where I am blessed to be guest. Just beyond those trees, a small pond traces the contours of its terrain. Even in this cooler than normal spring, its surface is already blanketed by green algae. 

Less than twenty feet away, a tulip poplar blooms, lifting waxy pods of light orange, soft green, and a hint of yellow above clusters of four-pointed leaves. Above and beyond its branches, beyond the line of trees defining the yard and woods, a hint of storm shows in clouds stretching from the horizon. Wisps of darker blue drift across their view and through the occasional stretching, a hint of pale skies above that. Toward the east, a quick blaze of sun burns through a thin opening in the clouds and then disappears. 

A few feet away from me, a solitary butterfly stretches its wings flat against a porch plank, raises them up into vertical touch for only an instant, and lowers them back to horizontal. A cluster of gold colors the wings close to its body while at the tips, a black background with white dots offers greater contrast. 

A sprinkling of rain begins to dabble the painted boards of the deck.

Somehow in the vastness, and diversity of all that I see in this limited view looking west, there is harmony. It is as if everything, no matter how different or even strange, was intended to be a part of this and to exist in some sort of harmony. The shapes of branches, the texture of grass, the patterns of color on the leaves of ornamental plants and the wings of butterflies, all fit into this. Each thing not only fitting but making the view richer, more vivid, or just more pleasant.

It seems it would be good, too, if we as other elements of what God has created, might give more attention, and make greater effort, to fit into this divine plan, without resentment of those whose form and nature differs from ours.

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Unexpected Life

Last June, a bit of a windstorm visited us on its way to the Great Lakes or some other exotic location. In the way of pre-emptive souvenirs, it left a number of small dead branches scattered around the place. And in the way of those “I like you better than the others” mementos, a one-ton mulberry branch carefully dropped across the electric fence that formerly divided our small horse paddock into two smaller sections.

Being eager to get to mid-Ohio in time for Paul and Debee’s Golden Anniversary, I left the larger than life-size reminder where it fell. Randa’s brother, Kevin, came over and sawed the big beast up into smaller, more manageable beasts. They stacked them against the bottom of the huge mulberry tree from whence they came. Sort of a memorial of sorts, I suppose.

Just a few minutes ago, I was down at the scene of the crime, trying to remove the remnants of the whole sordid affair. You know, promote healing, destroy the evidence of my year of neglected homestead duties, etc. Also, since I have a friend in Wichita who likes to work with “green wood,” and I am planning a trip to the area anyway, I decided to haul some of it out to him.

So, I backed my little ’97 Ranger (Ford, not Forest) over into the vicinity and dropped the tailgate. I initiated the loading session by wrestling a chunk about the size, shape, and weight of a teenage walrus into the back of the truck. Then, I picked up two much smaller pieces that had been lying between the walrus and the tree. I could not believe what I saw when I picked up the second one!

No, and I’m sure some of you folks will be right disappointed, there was no coiled up rattlesnake hiding underneath. What was there was equally surprising, less threatening, and generally much more enjoyable. On the side of this piece of “dead” wood which had been lying there for eleven months and two weeks, was a very green and very alive mulberry sprout!

Enough sap had remained in that section of the branch to nourish a small eruption of growth a few inches long that included at least six fully formed leaves!

Somehow, through the remainder of a long, hot summer, across the duration of a long, dry autumn, through the full extent of a fairly dry winter as well as a drier than usual spring, that lone segment managed to store, keep, and retrieve in due season sufficient nourishment to form a single green sprout.

If this thing happen “in a dry wood,” literally, imagine what generous growth the Lord will provide those who are fed by his Word, nourished by his Spirit, and consecrated by his love and grace!

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Guide, Guard, and Direct Us

In those old white-frame church houses where my dad preached in western Kentucky, men of the earth would often pray. In that area, in those days, it was common for men other than the preacher to lead the congregational prayers.

Farmers and coal miners with hard, callused hands scrubbed clean for the assembling, would bow their heads before the Lord, and lift up their prayers. Though every one of them were more educated and more articulate than stereotypes would suggest, their prayers were plain and direct, pretty much void of lofty language or any attempt to impress the congregation.

Men like Ernest McElwain, James O’Bryant, Euoll Andrus, Jack Harrison, Buell Hargis, and dozens of others, led our supplications and thanksgivings. One of the common phrases so often used it might be mistaken as a cliché, was “guide, guard, and direct us.” As a young child and even later as a teenager, I didn’t really give it that much thought. I suppose it’s human tendency to not give much thought to the things we hear over and over.

In my later years, though, I’ve given that phrase a bit more attention. And subsequently, a greater appreciation. It really covers quite a bit in short order, doesn’t it?

“Lord, give us wisdom and understanding. Help us to be sensitive to your leading and submissive to your Spirit. Let your Word live in us and help us to follow your teaching.

“Lord, keep us safe from the Evil One. Place a hedge of protection about us and send your angels to keep watch over us. Let us not yield to temptation but rather choose righteousness. Let us not be deceived by the illusions and attractions of this world.

“Lord, we recognize there are times when we need a firmer touch to keep us on the Path of Light. When we do not recognize or yield to that “still, small voice,” then use the thunder. When we fail to heed the gentle breeze, then bring us to our knees in the heart of the storm. Do whatever it takes to draw us completely to your Will.”

Given sufficient thought and consideration, even the cliches of our youth can richly inform our maturing years. And make our prayers more meaningful to ourselves.

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The Deceit of Nostalgia

Do not say, “Why were the old days better than these?” For it is not wise to ask such questions. (Ecclesiastes 7:10)

There is something intriguing about the human fondness for nostalgia. Perhaps it’s the manifestation of selective memory, the way we can conjure up such deliberate omissions of undesirable aspects of personal and collective history. By focusing on the pleasant moments and memories, we convince ourselves that whatever chosen segment of our past was remarkably void of the undesirable aspects that plague current existence.

Nostalgia makes an art form of selective memory and often distorts both the past and the present. In that carefully crafted and custom created mental reconstruction, it was indeed a remarkably wonderful world. A world in which all schoolchildren happily pledged allegiance, recited the Lord’s Prayer, and dutifully went about their daily chores with nary a complaint.

We somehow forget the mandatory nuclear bomb drills, the sinister black-and-yellow insignias designating fallout shelter spaces, and the fact that we have always had over-populated prisons. We skip over the days of poverty and starvation during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, conveniently ignore a world war or two, along with the Korean War and the rampages of polio and tuberculosis. We forget that in the days of our youth, every local cemetery documented with monuments the deaths of infants, toddlers, children, and soldiers sacrificed in both Lost and Won Causes.

It would be good to pause in our mythological reconstructions and remember that every era, every generation, every decade has had its horrors as well as its joys. In the midst of human suffering there have always been stories of the triumph of the human spirit. In the midst of deprivation and affliction, there remain faith, hope and love.

Quite possibly, the ancient collector of proverbs and scribe of wisdom believed it was better to focus on searching for and celebrating the good that is still to be found around us than to afflict ourselves with distorted views of the past. Better to appreciate one’s daily bread than to long for the days when wafers formed like dew in the grass.

God’s own manna is still provided those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Better to be grateful for strength that sweats the brow and gains food to eat now than to curse the loss of Eden. And, perhaps, to note that in another forty or fifty years, people will swear that these are the good ole days.

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Reunion and Rejuvenation

Neither one of us could actually remember the last time we were together but we’re pretty sure it was around fifteen years ago, even though that didn’t actually seem possible. But time has a way of getting away from you and so we agreed on “fifteen.”

I first met Shayne when I worked as a developmental education specialist at Highland Community College in northeast Kansas. We ran a version of Supplemental Instruction, and I hired him and a couple of other football players as math study group leaders. All three were studious, friendly, and very courteous. Precisely the type of people you want in a position where peers have to be leaders.

In addition to that role, I hired Shayne, Tristan, and Tristan’s buddy Cody for personal chores as well. They provided very needed and much appreciated help with repairs and remodeling on the three-unit apartment building that Randa and I owned in Saint Joseph at the time. Any Saturday that we were going to be working began with breakfast at our house, usually waffles, sausage and scrambled eggs.

The meals were infused with getting to know each other and discussing issues of interest and concern. In other words, we got to know each other. Years later, Shayne told me how those meals had become an example to him of fellowship and building relationships. Of course, that aspect was something that continued as we worked after the meals, whether it was tearing out old cabinets, cleaning out the storage space or painting. Over the space of that year, I got to know these young men pretty well. And have continued intermittent communication with all three.

It was very affirming and comforting that each of them, on at least one occasion, conveyed to me how much they appreciated our relationship and the influence I’d had on them. It wasn’t something I’d given much thought to; I just enjoyed being around them and tried to offer meaningful commentary on the topics we discussed.

And so it was with particular delight that I responded a couple of weeks ago when Shayne let me know that he was going to be delivering a guest lecture to a group of engineering students at K-State this past Monday. It seemed fitting since he’d once arranged for me to deliver a guest lecture to the same group. Around fifteen years ago. We agreed to meet up in Topeka after his presentation when he’d be on his way back home to Bentonville, Arkansas. (He and Kristin and their three kids have lived there for several years as he continues his career as an engineer with Walmart.)

With keen anticipation, I rode my Honda Shadow over to Blind Tiger Brewery & Restaurant on Topeka’s south side. After the hostess led me back through a short maze of dining areas, I told her I was expecting a friend. “He’s about six-five, handsome, and around thirty-five years old.”

“Well,” she replied, “I’ll certainly look forward to bringing him to your table.”

In just a few minutes, she did just that. I stood up, grinning like possum in a persimmon patch and got one of the best hugs ever!

The next two hours seemed more like two minutes as we caught up, shared faith experiences, and just enjoyed seeing each other. The food was pretty good, too. And while I’d have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed and deeply appreciated every bit of our conversation, there was one aspect that was especially glorious.

Shayne shared with me the story of his own spiritual seeking and growth, how the Lord had led him beyond his background, and in his words, “out of my comfort zone.” He told me about new things he was doing, books he was reading, and how in all of it, he was becoming a stronger Christian. I can’t think of anything more rewarding, more comforting, more encouraging than learning that someone we love is not only being faithful to their calling but is growing in the Lord.

At the end of our visit, we walked outside, and had a brief moment of prayer together as I asked the Lord to continue his anointing on Shayne’s life. “Give him wisdom and insight, and help him to continue to be a blessing to his family and those around him.” I knew even as we hugged goodbye that God would be faithful but just a few minutes later, I had confirmation.

Shayne pulled out of the parking lot and headed to northwest Arkansas, I headed to northeast Kansas. As I rounded the curve onto the turnpike access, a red ball sun settled into the horizon. A few miles later, as I rode into the Kansas River valley, a stream of layered shades of red, pink, and blue stretched out from the west, like the layers of blessing upon blessing that God pours into the lives of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.

People like Shayne.

H. Arnett


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Old Lou

"They always go off to die," Mom said,
maybe to me and maybe to herself,
to the slaw she was chopping on the counter.

Old Lou, the brown and white border collie 
that we’d been given by Mom’s brother.

We’d had her for as long as I could remember
and she’d been missing for three days.

I loved the way she’d chase the cows,
saving me a mile of walking and an hour of work
every morning and every afternoon, 
when she’d help me bring the herd of Jerseys up for milking.
I’d watch as she’d swing around the herd,
rushing up to nip any stragglers on the back of their hocks.

Sometimes Lou would walk with me along the pasture paths
headed toward the woods or the creek
until she saw or smelled something
and would streak away and show back up hours later.

She loved to lay over on her side,
curl her front feet up and stretch out her back legs
so I could scratch her belly for a while.
She also liked to be petted,
soft strokes flowing from her nose
clear back to the front part of her rump.

Whenever anyone headed toward the barn
or field or anywhere away from the house,
she’d jump up and take off with them.

"Mr. Raymond Stokes said he saw her—
Thursday evening—going down the road
carrying the biggest groundhog he'd ever seen.

"Most dogs can't kill a groundhog by themself," she said,
a hard slam of the heavy knife
finishing off another chunk of cabbage.

I had seen her and Sandy catch one—
Old Lou grabbed it by the neck 
and Sandy bit into its hind legs.
Shook it between 'em. Broke its back. Or its neck. 
Killed it and then ate it.

This one, Old Lou must've killed by herself.
Went off. Never came back.

Mom stopped for a moment,
looked over at Grandpa's picture on the dining room wall.

"They always go off to die," she said again,
dumping a tablespoon of vinegar
into the carrots and cabbage and salad dressing.

As if life needed any help with the bitter.

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Riding through a Kansas Spring

Sitting in the Shadow’s saddle,
I weave through gentle curves and sloping hills,
feeling surging power from twin cylinders,
the soft rumble of chrome pipes
and responsive throttle vibrating through gloved hands
as I pass through miles of fertile land.

Nearing Valley Falls, the deepening green
of northeastern Kansas spring polishes its sheen
in splotches of sunlight passing through broken sky.

Hard-tilled fields wait for warmer temps
to send seed sprouting into the light,
an ancient calling toward growing 
and the perennial hope of autumn yields.

Recent rains have brought the needed gain of moisture
into the heart of dark soil but a hard freeze two nights ago
punctuates several days of lower-than-average daytime highs.

It takes more than one thing in our lives,
something to both sprout and nourish the better seeds,
something more than a day or two of needed sun
to move us into the sure run of growth 
and fruitful bearing that fulfills purpose and desire:

a fellowship anchored in the fire of faith,
sustained by hope and forged in love,
and hands working together the fruitful work
of hearts set on the things that are above.

H. Arnett
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Good to You

Whether in the midst of drought’s stern form
or in the aftermath of pounding storm,
whether deeply held in aching grief
or in celebration of true release,

whether in the midst of life’s hardest working
or enjoying the rest of a few days’ shirking,
whether enjoying the peace of solitude
or surrounded by a boisterous brood,

whether in the midst of a long journey’s roam
or in the warm grace of your own home,
whether pursuing the dream of some great goal
or content in the wellness of your own soul:

I hope that on this good day,
   the truest of peace will come your way.
I hope that God’s own grace
   will help you through whatever you face.

I pray that you will clearly see
   the goodness that has found you
and feel the soothing presence
   of the love that surrounds you.

H. Arnett
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