Unexpected Grace, Unexpected Place

On my home Tuesday evening, I stopped by Wal-Mart to pick up my prescription and a few important groceries. You know, things like bananas, Oreos, “Bunny Tracks” ice cream. Those things so vital to surviving a few days of freezing drizzle and temperatures that would send penguins in search of footies and wool blankets. As my debit card was processing in the self-checkout machine, I realized that I also needed a little folding money to help face the prolonged adversity.

So I picked up a couple of Snickers bars, just to be sure I didn’t suffer from protein deficiency, ran those across the scanner and tossed them into the bag with the other things. Upon cue from the monitor, I added a hundred bucks cash back. I provided the necessary reassurance that yes indeed, I did want that extra cash and entered my PIN. A few minutes later, I walked out into the darkening gray of this particular day’s fading.

It was soon after lunch on the next gray day that a faint tugging turned into full realization: I’d walked off and left my hundred bucks in the dispensing tray at the self-check machine in Wal-Mart. Like Connie in Sylvester Stallone’s movie version of the play Oscar, I felt like an ox and a moron.

Now, being adequately familiar with another human’s afflicted condition, I might be swayed to donate a tither’s portion of that hundred bucks to assist in alleviating his or her plight. The thought of unintentionally giving up the whole hundred to the first sneaky soul that passed by failed to bring me any sort of pious satisfaction.

In a somewhat desperate move, I called Randa and had her send me a picture of my receipt. It clearly showed the two Snickers bars and the $100 cash withdrawal. I printed it out and hauled that over to Wal-Mart. I waited—with extraordinary patience—for the one person on the entire staff of Wal-Mart who could assist me. After those three minutes had passed, I waited another eight minutes with my usual level of patience, randomly kicking passing shopping carts and screaming at the floor tile. Okay, I’m exaggerating a bit. I merely went over to the self-checkout area and stood eighteen inches from the woman’s elbow until she felt obliged to acknowledge my existence and come to my assistance.

She checked my receipt to determine which machine I had used. After directing me not to follow her, she unlocked the Door of Highly Secret Activities and disappeared for a moment. She came back out with five twenty-dollar bills clipped together with a note stuck on top. After one more look at my receipt to check the exact time of the transaction, she handed me the little bundle, “Here you are.”

I have to admit, I was elated and stunned. Right here in the local Wal-Mart store, where nearly the entire spectrum of humanity passes on a daily basis, right here where the more refined among us find all the proof we need that our society is permeated with infiltrators who have no sense of culture, decency or how to dress before going out in public, some stranger had noticed my cash lying there abandoned and unclaimed, and had turned it in to the nearest available employee.

Whether it was because of calmest honesty or sheer fear of being caught on video surveillance didn’t matter to me. Sometimes it’s best not to worry too much about motive as long as the right thing is done.

H. Arnett

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Just Barely Enough

It was only a slight bit of freezing drizzle. Just barely enough. But as some of us remember more vividly than others, when it comes to freezing rain, just barely enough is quite enough. Enough to walk walking risky and driving dangerous.

But there was still enough residual heat in the ground and pavement that I was able to drive up the big hill near our house without any trouble. Out on the highway, though, there were some spots that were pretty slick. Most of the drivers that I encountered were staying well below the speed limit. Sometimes, though, even that isn’t quite slow enough.

Just before my turn to work, about two miles north of town, I saw a car sitting up on the road bank, headlights pointing toward the ditch. “Must have been in a bit of a hurry to get away,” I thought, “going off and leaving their headlights on.” Then I realized there was still someone sitting in the car.

I eased over slowly onto the wide paved shoulder, parked and turned on my flashers. As I walked carefully across the frozen shoulder, I saw the car’s tracks. The vehicle had slid off the highway at about a thirty degree angle, crossed the wide sloped ditch, then up and along the bank. By the time it came to a stop in the tall prairie grass, it was turned almost perpendicular to the highway.

The driver, a woman in her early twenties, had called her father and was talking to him on her cell phone. While she continued her conversation, I checked out the situation a bit more. There was not enough freezing rain to make the grass and ground slick. The slope back down and up out of the ditch wasn’t terribly steep. There was no mud or water in the smooth cup of the ditch. I walked a ways along the ditch and checked for anything that could damage a wheel or snag a vehicle. It seemed clear.

I headed back to the young woman. After she finished talking to her dad, we took a look at her car and it seemed fine. “If you take a bit of an angle,” I encouraged, pointing out what I thought was a good line, “I think you’ll be able to drive off from this.”

She got into her car, and headed down the bank slowly and into the ditch. I would have used more speed and a more gradual angle but she made it up the opposite slope just fine. After driving a couple hundred yards along the highway she pulled off onto a side road. Once again, she got out of her car. Without the tall grass surrounding her vehicle, she inspected it once again. I pulled over to check on her. Both she and the car seemed fine. I lowered my window and asked her where she was headed. “To work in Wichita.”

“I’m glad you’re okay,” I said. “Even when it turns out that you’re okay, those slides are pretty scary.” She nodded her head in clear agreement, looked me in the eye and replied, “Thank you for stopping.

After checking carefully for traffic, I pulled out across the road and headed on to work, less than a minute away. As I started braking for my turn beside the motel, my car slid just a little ways. Just enough to remind me how easy it is.

I reflected later on my commute and realized I really hadn’t done anything to help the woman. I hadn’t even made a phone call. Hadn’t helped push her car out. Before I even stopped, she may have already planned out how she would get across the ditch and back on the highway.

Then again, maybe I offered just barely enough encouragement to help her believe she could do it. Sometimes, that’s all it takes.

H. Arnett

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Pictures in the Dark

From here in town
it looked like that low shroud
of winter gray touched the ground.

All day long
the freezing fog had held
close and cold like bad memories.

And so I’d hoped
for some good night shots
of softly glowing lights in muted air.

But when we drove up there
above the hill and away from the house
we found the freezing mist had thinned and lifted.

It’s not often
and I’ve tried hard
to keep from being disappointed

when things
seem to go a bit better
than what I had expected.

It’s a twisted spirit
that finds itself more comfortable
when the darkness deepens and draws close—

and a cold soul
that feels more at ease
in the presence of pain and ghosts.

Soon enough
it will be spring again
and I’ll walk this slope in warmer air,

cared for
and carried by
hands stronger than the seasons,

part of a plan
longer than my years
and greater than my reasons.

In that
I will rest
no matter how close the fog

nor how cold and deep the darkness.

H. Arnett

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

A Bit of Green

The Bermuda grass, which kinked and crawled and crept across the small row of lilies, seeming to spread three feet or more in a single season, is brown and dormant. Presumably, with the warmth of April—or maybe March—it will turn green again and continue growing.

Last year much of it died during the winter. According to the guy who works for Gottlob’s Landscaping, it was most likely due to the dearth of moisture. From October through much of March, we had almost no rain or snow. “Even though it’s dormant,” he said, “the roots still need water in the soil.” If that’s the key factor, this should be a banner year for Bermuda.

Per the Community Collaborative Rain, Snow & Hail Network, Cowley County, Kansas has recorded right at twelve inches of precipitation from September till now. Even though the yard is still mostly brown, there’s a tinge of green underneath the elm trees in the west yard. Some of the creeping fescue and red fescue that I sowed last summer is still holding on. It’s a thin stand but it’s enough to make me want to plant some more this year.

That’s the power of even modest success.

It gives us hope for the next effort. Even a little bit of stubborn green standing up in the lonely tones of mid-winter is enough to makes us think that it’s worth the long hours of working the dirt, planting the seed and watering its needs through the long hot summer. Even though the bigger part of what I planted last year didn’t survive, the part that did gives me hope for the work that is coming.

When we choose to focus on what good surrounds us, when we deliberately consider what has been blessed, when we decide to learn from the past, something as simple as grass can teach us a thing or two about moving ahead. Even in the most barren spans of our lives, we can usually find something that has thrived.

And keep pressing forward.

H. Arnett

Posted in Christian Devotions, Gardening, Metaphysical Reflection, Nature, Spiritual Contemplation, Work | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Good Friends and Great Music

About twenty-five years ago, we “discovered” Fernando Ortega’s music while browsing through CD’s at a Christian book store in Lexington, Kentucky. It was pretty much love at first listen. His clear, beautiful voice, his gentle melodies, and his touching lyrics drew us right in.

Over the years, we’ve continued to appreciate the blending of folk influences and the diversity of his poetry and musical compositions. His song Angel Fire is haunting and touching, mourning the loss of a spouse and touched by the beauty of the San Gabriel Mountains. Mi Abuelito celebrates the life of his grandfather and his burial near the tiny village of Chimayo (also another song) east of Albuquerque. City of Sorrows, blending visions of Old Testament prophets and modern history, pays empathetic homage to Jerusalem. Old hymns, fresh tributes, sacred selections and odes of deep love and respect. His music has become part of who we are.

We have sung and still sing his songs in our living room and in our churches. Stricken, Smitten and Afflicted is a perfect communion hymn, as is Here Is Love. We plan to include Angel Fire in our respective funerals. His albums are among our most enjoyed and appreciated possessions.

We were delighted to find out a few months ago that he would be performing at Tabor College in Hillsboro, Kansas. Immediately, we invited a couple of friends to join us. And so, with joyful anticipation, we headed north Saturday afternoon with Mark and Diane Flickinger. It didn’t hurt anything that they were both alumni of Tabor. It also didn’t hurt anything that they suggested we have an early supper on the way at “The Bread Basket” in Hillsboro. A hearty meal of Swiss Mennonite cuisine turned out to be a perfect prelude for Fernando’s concert.

Set in the almost brand new and certainly beautiful Reichert Hall, the concert was everything we’d hoped for and more. We’d done so little research over all these years, we didn’t even know that Fernando plays the piano. And plays it quite well! His voice—even in live performance—was as clear and beautiful as we expected. His sense of humor was another discovery. Quick and charming, he shared witty remarks and occasional stories. A couple of the stories were ended abruptly with, “I’m not sure where I was going with that.”

During the concert I sneaked a few looks over at our friends. Even though they weren’t as familiar with Fernando’s music as we were, the looks on their faces seemed to make clear that the Flickingers were enjoying the performance as much as we were.

In addition to the songs and stories, Fernando also shared deeply personal insights and experiences, including the loss of family and friends. As he recounted his own struggles from about five years ago, he confessed, “There were times when I’d just go to my knees and pray, ‘God, just get me through these next five minutes.'” There was poignancy in such deeply personal revelation.

Sharing times of fear and despair, moments of joy and sorrow, experiences of pain and fulfillment, this is the basis of relationship, the foundation of meaning and connection. In my admittedly limited experience, it is rather rare that a concert includes such things as this. But then, Fernando Ortega is a rare talent, a man anointed for worship and sharing in song.

Whether as internationally known performers or known only by a handful of friends and family, such sharings enrich our lives and draw us closer together. Even quiet conversations that fill in the miles of long travel through the rich darkness of a Kansas night become precious threads in the ties that bind us together.

Those, too, are parts of the soul’s own music that bring us all closer. In Fernando’s words, “Heavenly Father, remember the travelers; bring us safely home. Safely home.”

H. Arnett

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Woodchucks & the Rapture

So… tomorrow is Groundhog Day, eh?

So what happens if the dude decides not to show up? What are the implications if Ole Punxsatawney Phil rightly figures it’s way too cold to come poking up from the deep warm recesses of his winter rest? What if every Marmota marmax in the whole dang country boycotts? What if they’re snow-blind and even though the shadows are there, they just can’t see them? What if they’re so struck by the beauty around them they simply forget to look down?

No matter what happens in and among the population of our overgrown prognosticating ground squirrels, I reckon we’ll probably manage to deal with ever how many weeks of winter remain. If Felipe and his tunneling kindred are no more accurate than the various political polls that told us Donald Trump didn’t have a snowball’s chance of becoming president, then I’m guessing we’ll just have to learn to live with yet another errant prediction.

Regardless of the predictions and prognostications, we’ll still have to pay our heating bills, deal with our seasonal affective disorders and pay our taxes. Some folks swear at the weather, the groundhog, the bills and the president. Others say, “I hear there’s six inches of fresh powder up in the mountains. Kids, layer up and grab your snowboards!” And, I think there are still some folks who take a look outside and say, “What a perfect day for a cup of hot chocolate and reading a book.”

Predictions and prophecies, prognostications and pontifications, and all such run the gamut all the way from “the sky really is falling” to “Nirvana is just around the corner.” Other than occasionally buying an extra loaf of bread and voting for people who actually seem capable of rational thought and reasonable compromise, I really don’t bother with much in response to all the noise and chatter.

I try to be like the old black preacher I heard in South Fulton, Tennessee about forty years ago explaining why he and his brethren didn’t get caught up in the contrived controversies about millennialism: “Some folks say there’s going to be ‘Thousand-Year Reign’ and others say it’s just figurative. Some say there’s going to be a rapture first and then judgment. We don’t care one way or another. We know that either way we’re gonna be with Jesus and that’s all that matters to us.”

Kind of funny how many things don’t perturb folks who have their priorities properly sorted out.

H. Arnett

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Hard Times

With the current Arctic Atmospheric Orca sending its blast across a vast part of the country, it occurred to me this morning that this is a mighty fine time to be inside.

A mighty fine time to have a furnace that works and insulated walls to help stall the loss of heat. A mighty fine time for cars that start and heaters that work. Layers of warm clothes accented by insulated gloves and boots. It’s a mighty fine time for being blessed with the things that make the difference between comfort and discomfort, pleasure and pain, living and not living.

And as I thought about that, I thought, “What a lousy time to be homeless.”

What a lousy time to be stuck outside, to be searching for a warmer box, a bigger barrel burning under a bridge, a safer place. What a lousy time to be broke, poor and hungry.

And as I thought about that, I wondered, “When is a good time to be homeless?”

Haven’t figured that one out yet.

H. Arnett

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