Gathering from an Old Orchard

On a crisp second-Saturday morning in October,
Neil has agreed to help me pick up apples.
Though I am nearly fifteen years older,
his hair shows even more gray than mine.
That difference in years has not kept us
from becoming good friends
and I am grateful for good help
and even better company.

Through a few miles
of the curves and hills of northeast Kansas,
we drive my small truck over to the orchard
and down the slight slope to my favorite trees.
Even though the branches are bare
I hope that there are still apples.

Thick fescue sagged by last night’s heavy frost
tangles beneath the hanging branches
of apple trees nearly the age of old men.

This year’s bounty lies hidden beneath the blades:
some already rotted,
some halfway there,
some matted into the soft dirt,
and yet some that are fit for table display.

For cider, it doesn’t much matter, anyway.
Apples that most people wouldn’t even touch
will yield juice that is golden and sweet
and so I tell Neil,
“Unless it’s got mold on it
or is so soft your finger goes through it
when you try to pick it up,
it’s good enough.”

In spite of the stinging nettle
and the stick-tights that make the back
of our gloved hands look like a porcupine’s topside,
we find plenty that are good enough for cider
and some I will save for pies and drying.

We fill our buckets, carry them to the truck,
and dump the apples into the bed.
In forty-five minutes,
we’ve gathered over five hundred pounds.

“Let’s do one more bucket and call that good enough.”

Carrying on the conversation that men carry on
when they think they are done with work,
we walk around the orchard and find one more tree
that has several apples still hanging on its branches.
We pick for a few minutes and I tell Neil we have enough
but he keeps picking for another bit.
He reaches for one last apple and says,
“This might be the one that makes a difference.”

I grin at that and think to myself,
“That’s a mighty good thing to hear
from a man who makes his living
teaching high school kids.”

It will take three hours for the washing,
disinfecting and rinsing,
and then several hours more
for the grinding and pressing
in a hundred-year-old hand-cranked mill.

It takes a lot of work
to turn what was left to rot
into something good and pleasant and sweet.
God’s own work reflected in the labor of our hands.

H. Arnett
10/15/19

Posted in Christian Devotions, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Running through the Mud

To run or ride through plowed ground
is not a thing done easily.
Most would say
that after three inches of rain
it is not a thing to be done at all.

Feet sink below the surface,
each step a measure of determination
and conditioning.
Mud sucking at the shoes,
thighs and calves confused by the notion.
Each wrenching loose and subsequent re-setting
becomes some sort of existential argument:
“If we are working this hard to move from here
shouldn’t we be seeking some place
more suited to what we are doing?”

And yet on two Sunday afternoons
exactly two weeks apart,
I push myself to do this 5K course
though mud and pond, woods and wetland,
feeling in shins, thighs and hips,
the pulling strain, the draining force.

Given enough of making ourselves do
what is not easy,
we will find ourselves finishing the course
a bit quicker than we did before

and learn again that it is the training
that makes body, mind, heart and soul
able to carry a heavier load,
endure a greater testing,
achieve the harder goals of believing.

And—along the way—be reminded
that those who long for a higher place
will usually find the pace of discipline
something other than easy.

And look forward with greater hope
to the incredible blessing of rest.

H. Arnett
10/7/19

Posted in Christian Devotions, Christian Living, Exercise, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation, Sports | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Few Miles West of Medicine Lodge

A few miles west of Medicine Lodge,
an odd rising of red dirt looms up,
a showing of ancient waters carving the soft earth of gypsum.

A few miles south of One-Sixty and a quick look
might have some travelers
thinking they saw something like Arizona or Utah:
small buttes and little mesas trapping early shadows
and a lonesome black cow bellowing from the ledge
just below an old pickup truck strangely abandoned
high above the red grit road.

We park for a little while
and walk to the line of a barbed wire fence
staked to the edge of the universe.

Just beyond, heavy sod gives way to the bluff
that falls away for a couple hundred feet,
a sudden and unexpected transition
into miles and miles of open range,
a valley that runs to the horizon.

A strange year of heavy rains
running all the way from spring into fall
has stained the hills and slopes—
all other than rock and bare ground—
with an unseasonable green.

Except for these heavy cedars,
barkless and gray,
windward side charred with grim testimony
of drier times and darker days,
when wildfires swept their way,
driven by fifty-mile-an-hour winds,
fueled by three years of drought
and poured from the very spout of hell.

Given enough time, enough rain, enough seasons,
and even these monuments of pain
will ease into the long slope of vanishing memory.
Scars become nothing more than barely remembered blots of time.

Other shapings will move across the face of sod and stone,
each covering become part of history and home,
until we have gained some place
beyond the forming of fire and rain,
the whisperings of the wind.

H. Arnett
9/30/19

Posted in Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Poetic Contemplations, Poetry, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sharpening the Axe

Ever since reading Thoreau’s Life on Walden Pond when I was in high school, I have made a deliberate effort to return anything I’ve borrowed in better shape than it was when I got it. In Henry’s case, all he had to do was sharpen a neighbor’s axe. I needed to wash a friend’s ATV.

I’d used it to pick up the trail arrows and marking flags from our annual 5K mud run for South Central Kansas Medical Center. A mile of freshly plowed field just after two inches of rain left a very heavy coating of mud on the Polaris Ranger.

Happily, the hospital has a few strategically placed faucets around the outside of the buildings, including the maintenance shop. Unhappily, all of them require a special handle that I didn’t have. “Ah, well,” I mulled, “I can sneak a couple of miles down the back road and use the car wash at the Casey’s store at Skyline and Summit.”

The possibility of getting ticketed for illegal operation of an off-road vehicle in an on-road situation didn’t really appeal to me. Could easily turn into a very expensive car wash. “Well,” I thought, “there are several houses between here and there; I’ll just stop and ask if some generous soul will let me use their outdoor laundry facilities to give this here mud buggy a good washing.”

Less than fifty feet after I’d pulled out of the hospital’s service and delivery entrance and headed south on 61st Road, I saw a white SUV turning into the driveway of the next house. By the time the couple got out of the car, the Ranger was sitting in their driveway.

I explained the situation to Garrett and he acted like helping me return a clean ATV was the very reason he’d gotten out of bed that morning. He unrolled the hose, brought me out a bucket, two cleaning cloths and a bottle of dishwashing soap.

Three things amazed me in the next hour: 1) how many places there are on, in and around a Polaris Ranger that can hold bits of mud and matted grass; 2) how accessible most of those places are, thanks to some excellent engineering work; 3) how delightful it is when strangers show us generosity and consideration.

I’m a bit suspicious that the Good Lord laughs out loud when we discover how cleverly he uses us to help take care of one another—even in a situation as mundane as a vehicle needing a bath. I’m quite sure Jesus loves making us cleaner than he found us!

H. Arnett
9/25/19

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Itty Bitty Miracles

I suppose there’s some debate about the definition of the word “miracle.” Granted, it’s often used in ways that seem to sleight the word. “It’s a miracle I was able to get out of bed this morning!” Because when you went to sleep you’d been paralyzed from the neck down for the past twelve years?

“No, I was really tired last night.” Okay, doesn’t seem like much of a miracle. Lots of people were still tired this morning but got out of bed anyway.

At the other extreme are those who apparently take the view that if it happened, that’s proof it isn’t a miracle. They pretty much force themselves into denying the possibility of “miracle” and therefore reject any sort of supernatural possibility. No doubt, the multitude of false and fraudulent claims that have been made over the years greatly supports their skepticism.

However… I’d suggest that if unwarranted faith can lead folks into false belief, excessive skepticism can have the opposite effect of false rejection. I’m sort of in between those two extremes.

I am disgusted by the television ad where the religious huckster is urging people to send in for free “Miracle Water.” I’m also disgusted by the amassing of personal wealth and luxurious lifestyle of those who have found the Gospel of Christ to become a means of selfish accumulation. (Some days, I myself don’t know if my feelings on the subject are nothing but sheer jealousy or if they truly stem from righteous outrage.)

On the other hand, I’ve personally witnessed a few things that defy natural, logical explanation and that I refuse to attribute to “coincidence.” I saw a woman who could barely move without pain get up from her bed and practically dance about the house after two friends prayed over her. I saw a chronically depressed man suddenly have a calm and radiant faith even though his wife and his daughter were separately hospitalized. I saw an unemployed couple open an envelope given them by a friend; it contained a thousand dollars in cash. I saw a chronically abusive and insulting man become suddenly gentle and humble. Sometimes, the miracles I witnessed were much smaller.

On Tuesday of this past week, I lost one of my hearing aids while I was working on the hospital grounds to help prepare for our annual mud run. That’s about twenty-five hundred dollars there, friends. On Friday, another employee helped us stuff runner’s packets for the race. She then stayed around for our preparation committee meeting. Only meeting she’s been able to attend over the past three months.

During the meeting, I apologized for having to continually ask people sitting on my right to repeat what they’d said. “I lost the hearing aid for my right ear,” I explained. Patti looked like she’d just found out her scratch-off card was worth a hundred dollars.

“We had someone turn in a hearing aid over in Physical Therapy! We figure it belonged to one of our patients and were trying to figure out how to find out who’s it was.” Well, I believe I can solve that mystery for you…

The odds of someone finding a hearing aid in the grass near a parking lot? The fact that that was the only meeting Patti attended? The coincidence of me mentioning the loss of the hearing aid? That all of those odds blended together at just the right time?

Is it possible that some supernatural force guided each aspect of that in order to bring about such a wonderful result? Some might scoff at the mere suggestion that there was anything extraordinary or even unusual about it. “You just got lucky, dude.”

So, maybe I am one of those who sometimes uses the word “miracle” when really it’s just something truly unexpected. Something that completely defies the odds. Something of extraordinary timing and extreme unlikelihood… uhm, wait a minute… isn’t that close enough?

Whatever the definition, I’ve found that believing that miracles are possible and genuinely appreciating them when they happen works pretty dang well for me! So, if you don’t want any in your life, I know some folks that will be glad to take them.

H. Arnett
9/24/19

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Listening to the Leading

While I was in the kitchen early Saturday evening, absorbing the smells of onion, peppers and spice swirling up from the cast iron skillet, I had a Christian song from over twenty years ago come to mind. At first, I couldn’t remember enough words or notes to bring lyrics or melody to mind, much less to actually sing it. “What is that song?” I asked Randa, as she added a little more to the skillet. “You know, the one about…” and then I struggled to remember a single solid phrase. After a while, with a few more fragments pulled from memory’s hard drive, Randa had it. “Light the Fire Again?”

Yep, that’s it! Nope, it’s not a Jose Feliciano song.

Brian Doerksen wrote the song in 1994 and is also the author of another one of our very favorite worship songs, aptly name Come, Now Is the Time to Worship. At first, I thought I’d just happened to think of a song that I really liked and that was it. Something about Light the Fire Again was compelling, something more than just remembering a really great song.

As Saturday evening eased on into the dark hours, the compulsion became stronger. I looked up the song chords, changed the key and started practicing it. Even though it had nothing to do with the sermon I’d been working on through the week, I just felt that I really needed to sing it at church Sunday morning.

So, I did.

As I introduced the song, I described what happened to me Saturday evening and said, “I haven’t been stalking any of you of FaceBook but I’m pretty sure someone here needs this song today.”

Then, I talked about how sometimes we feel empty, exhausted, worn out, ground down. “I’ve got a little Ford Ranger pickup that I love. I’ve worked that thing to death for the past twenty-two years. The gas gage needle can get way down below ‘E’ and I still have a couple of miles of gas left… but I need to go four more miles.”

I read the NIV translation of Isaiah 57:15,
For this is what the high and exalted One says—
he who lives forever, whose name is holy:
“I live in a high and holy place,
but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”

Just before I sang the song, I tried to offer persuasion and encouragement, “I want you to know that God is here today to revive your spirit and your heart.” While I was singing, I could see several folks in deep thought. One or two folks were weeping and some others looked like they were on the verge of it. There was such a strong sense of Presence.

I know that someone there needed that and there was no natural explanation for how I could know that. The natural explanation doesn’t matter even slightly to me. I’d felt a spiritual, mystical, or supernatural drawing to that song and I listened. I was nothing more than an instrument being used to bring someone else a message of hope and encouragement that they needed. Lord knows, I’ve been there often enough in my life.

Might be that today or tomorrow or sometime soon, you’ll get a sense that you should make a phone call, write a note, send an email, go by someone’s office, stop off on your way home. Don’t worry about rationalizing, analyzing, or explain-alyzing. Just do it.

H. Arnett
9/23/19

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The Rest of the Ring Story

Even though I have written about my cut-off, repaired, restored and refurbished wedding ring each morning of this week, I ask you to bear with me for one final episode.

In spite of its brighter than new brilliance, I have worn the ring only sporadically since its restoration. When I tried wearing it as a pinkie ring on my left hand, that finger began to swell as well. As it turned out, small nodules had formed on the primary tendons of both my ring finger and little finger of my left hand. That was what had caused the tightness that caused the swelling that had led to having to cut the wedding band off my finger over a year ago.

As a result of the nodule, my pinkie is now as thick as my ring finger was thirty years ago. So, I wore the ring a few times on the little finger of my right hand. It was slightly loose but snug enough that it wouldn’t just sling off.

Last Monday was one of those sporadics. As I finished dressing for work, I decided to wear the wedding ring and the diamond ring Randa had given me fifteen years ago. Even though I’m not much of a jewelry guy and I know a man’s pinkie isn’t the designated host for a wedding band, I thought the rings looked nice on my hand.

At noon, as I was leaving the hospital where I work to head home for lunch, I felt for the wedding ring and noticed it was gone. The other ring was still there on my ring finger but my pinkie was bare. I headed right back toward the office and looked in the sink where I’d washed my hands earlier that morning. Nothing there.

I stepped back out into the main office area and queried our administrative assistant. I think Shawna sensed something was amiss before I even asked her, “Has anyone turned in a wedding ring they found in the bathroom sink?” She looked at me quizzically and responded, “Nooo…”

“Dang!”

At first I thought, “Which one of the people that work here would find a ring and not turn it in?” Almost as quickly, I realized the answer was “No one.”

A few minutes later, after mulling things over, I realized I’d probably accidentally pulled the ring off when I was drying my hands. “It’s probably in the trash can inside that wad of paper towels I used to dry my hands.” I happily went back into the bathroom to start digging through the trash can.

It had just been emptied.

In less than half a minute, I found one of the housekeeping staff and asked her if she knew who’d emptied the trash from that bathroom. “Oh, that would be Ginger.” I explained that I was pretty sure my wedding ring was in that trash and she immediately took off down the hall to find Ginger.

Within a couple of minutes they were both back. “I already put that bag into the dumpster just a while ago,” Ginger explained. I asked to borrow a couple of disposable gloves. “I’m going to go dig through some trash,” I vowed, “but I don’t expect you to help do that. This is on me, totally.”

They ignored that and so the three of us headed down the hall to the service door while I pulled the thin blue gloves onto my hands.

As soon as we opened the door, we saw the fifteen-foot-long dumpster in a near vertical position, hitched to the back of the garbage truck. I heard the whirring, grinding sound of fully engaged hydraulics as the compactor pressed the last bit of mess from the dumpster into the load of trash inside the back of the truck. I felt my whole body slump in disappointment.

After all I’d been through wearing that ring. All the work that had gone into repairing and restoring it. All the years of reminded and remembered promises. Having just gotten the ring back into wearable condition and now having lost it because of my own lack of attention.

I thought—for only the briefest instant—about stopping the guys and asking them if I could dig around in the back of their truck for a few hours. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I would have spent the day in our dumpster but I wasn’t willing to ask them to let me unpack the back of their truck and completely disrupt their afternoon. Maybe they would have happily done that and helped me look for the ring. Maybe, even they had, we never would have found it.

As I stared at the scene, barely believing the timing, I thought of Solomon’s advice from a few thousand years ago: “There is a time to search and a time to give up searching.”

Far better to lose the ring than the relationship that gave the ring such significance. To keep that from happening, I’d search through the entire landfill.

H. Arnett
9/20/19

Posted in Christian Living, Family, Metaphysical Reflection, Relationships, Spiritual Contemplation | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment