The Power of Listening

As principal of an alternative school, I frequently dealt with individuals who lacked self-control: prone to outbursts of anger, often guided by selfishness and immaturity, inclined to blame others for their own choices and actions, frequently using profanity and insulting language to punish others, etc. And, as I used to joke, the students had problems, too. Wink, wink…

Whether dealing with frustrated adolescents, stressed out staff members, aggravated colleagues, or parents who simply had no idea what to try next, I garnered a few insights.

I listened to dozens of students, parents, staff members, colleagues, board members, and other concerned citizens. I had seen again and again, both in education and other settings, how quickly anger fed off of anger, and how wrath rapidly escalated in the face of hostility.

In contrast, I remembered my mom quoting an old scripture (Proverbs 15.1) that said, “A gentle answer turns away wrath but a harsh word stirs up anger.” I prayed for wisdom each day and tried to keep that verse in mind during the toughest conversations.

As I repeatedly saw juveniles and adults become calmer as we continued talking, I knew I was witnessing the truths that the Writers of Scripture had recorded. It was actually pretty rare that students or adults ended up with what they claimed to want when we first started talking. But at the conclusion of our conversations, even if we didn’t agree completely or even partially, they knew they had been heard. Someone in authority had actually listened to them.

Which is what they really wanted in the first place.

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Trying to Trick God

I keenly remember first hearing about young Solomon’s prayer for wisdom when I was still a young child myself. “Wow!” I thought, “He asked God for wisdom and God gave him that abundantly and made him really rich, too!”

Devious little stinker that I was, I started praying for wisdom myself… and hoping for wealth. Ahh… sigh… what level of deliberate foolishness does it take for us to convince ourselves that we can fool God? 

God didn’t turn me into Solomon in either respect, but he did give me more than I deserved on both counts. In regard to physical property, I have more than I ever expected to have. I finished out my career making more money than I ever imagined I would make when I started teaching high school back in the Seventies at an annual salary of nine thousand dollars.

In regard to wisdom, I made it through high school without getting into any of the sorts of mischief and bad choices that often typify those years. As I progressed from young adulthood to my middle years, occasionally, older people would comment to me, “You have wisdom beyond your years.” 

I have to admit now, though, as I near seventy, I haven’t heard that in nearly thirty years! I’d like to think it’s because of all this gray hair, not because I’m getting dumber.

H. Arnett
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The True Source of Sin

Ever come across one of those Bible verses that you’ve known about for years—decades, even—but then suddenly, it hits home in a different way?

I was just a kid when I first heard, learned, and even memorized a quote from James Chapter One that identifies the source of sin as being within us. “… each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire...” (verse 14). Even as a little church brat, I had a pretty good understanding of that. In fact, I quite easily applied the notion to a variety of sins and behaviors… in other people’s lives.

But I was nearly forty years old before the Holy Spirit finally slapped me upside the head with it.

For nearly all of my adult life, I’d blamed a particular weakness, fault, habit, errr… sin of mine on a variety of events, situations, and even other people. But one night, in a mysterious bout of self-examination, I finally realized and admitted out loud to myself, “You did that because you liked it. Period. No other reasons, no excuses; you nourished that temptation into sin because you liked how it felt. YOU are the only reason and explanation.”

Physically, emotionally, and spiritually, I wilted like a honeysuckle bloom plucked off the vine and tossed onto a gravel road on a hot August afternoon. It was simultaneously devastating and liberating. Finally, I was able to begin to escape nearly thirty years of slavery to my own evil desire. Even though I was not completely free of the temptation itself, I at least was no longer under any delusions about its cause, source, and power.

True repentance seems impossible without that recognition. It is the beginning of true liberation. No matter how long we think we’ve been saved, that notion will always be pivotal to our escaping the sin that lies within us.

H. Arnett
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There are times when the ache of a northwestern wind
sends a renewing stir of still wary memory
of days spent working in unheated space
when I could trace the lancing cold
as it moved along my bones,
making me long for the warmth of home
and a quiet chair in front of softly crackling flames
dancing in the shadows of a black-framed hearth.

I remember wondering what it would be like
to die stranded and alone in the slowly killing chill,
to feel life leaving one cell at a time
until that last lingering flicker dulls in the mind
and finally finds nothing else to hold on to
and simply fades away and all becomes darkness.

The closest I’ve found—and it’s more than close enough—
is walking in loneliness beyond the feel of friendship,
a sense of distance that cannot be bridged
no matter whether standing alone on some ridge
of bare-crested stone in the pale glow of a crescent moon,
or sitting in a crowded room of people you’ve known for years
afraid of showing the slightest sense of what’s going on right now
in that echoing shell that has grown inside you.

And there’s not a day that goes by
that I don’t close my eyes and sigh a prayer of thanksgiving,
grateful to my core
that I do not live there anymore.
Thankful that I found 
mercy beyond merit,
grace beyond belief,
love beyond measure.

H. Arnett
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Dollar a Blister

I was seven years old in the Summer of ’61 and my brother Paul had just turned eleven. That was the summer that Dad tore down the old two-story brick house we’d lived in for a few years on our farm in Todd County, Kentucky. While the old house was being torn down and the new house was being built, we lived in the garage. Four-to-six kids, depending on the day, two parents, and the occasional cat, perhaps, if Dad wasn’t home at the time. It was a two-story garage and it sat less than a hundred feet away from the rubble of the demo project.

Neither wanting to use the old bricks in the new house nor throw them away, Dad figured he could sell them. If they were clean and usable. “Clean” in this case primarily meaning having all the old mortar cleaned off. Having contemplated, perhaps, cleaning them himself, he realized that he had too much more important stuff to do. Cleaning bricks makes a minimal contribution to the operation of a two-hundred-and-fifty acre dairy and row crop farm.

Right in line with that minimal contribution idea, Dad decided to offer a penny a brick to anyone willing to tackle the job. I don’t remember if Paul contemplated the prospect or not; I’m rather confident that if he did, it did not progress much beyond the contemplation phase. He’d definitely rather be riding a tractor. 

My tractor riding was pretty limited in those days and besides, I was a materialistic little rascal: I wanted the money.

And so, after a minimal demonstration and warning that only whole bricks would earn any money, Dad left me alone with a rather large pile of bricks and a few tools. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the chisel tip rock hammer was my best option. Mostly using the long, curved blade with the sharp edge, I chipped away at the mortar. On many of the bricks, the mortar was soft and broke away in large chunks. Not unexpected from a house over a hundred years old. On those, I could clean the long, wide faces with just two or three whacks. A single blow often cleared each end. Those were the easy ones.

On the others, mostly ones that had been used for repairs, the mortar stuck tighter than pride and prejudice. Such bricks took forty or fifty whacks to clean each wide face. After a few blisters, I decided to skip those bricks. Occasionally, seemingly just as I was nearly done cleaning a brick, I’d give it a lick at the wrong angle and it would break. Definitely disappointing and to a lesser human, demotivating.

I was a novice at cussing back then, lacking the experience I’ve gained over nearly seven decades, but I did okay for a seven-year-old. When no one was around, of course. At the least, I’d have gotten a fresh taste of homemade soap. More likely, I’d have felt the warmth of fresh leather across my back side. Along with a growing knack for naughty language, I acquired a reasonable amount of skill in cleaning bricks.

Well before the first frost, and maybe in as little as two or three weeks, I’d cleaned over a thousand bricks. It wasn’t so much my great speed, really; I was just a determined little brat. Whatever time wasn’t spent in my required duties in the milk barn were spent on that pile of bricks.

I’d like to think that I have a deeply ingrained work ethic and sense of commitment, but it was probably nothing more than the prospect of the money. At that point in my life, I’d rarely touched paper money and had never held my own five-dollar bill. Each Sunday, Mom would give me a quarter. For the collection plate.

I’d never had my own bottle of pop or a whole pack of gum. I wore patched jeans and homemade shirts to school and watched with unpolished envy when the other kids at school brought in their treasure troves the morning after Halloween. We weren’t allowed to go trick-or-treating. I don’t think it was because of religious concerns; I think it was just considered rude to haul your kids into town so they could go around asking for candy from strangers. Even if the strangers seemed to really enjoy it.

And so it was, after I had a dozen piles of a hundred bricks each, some guy backed a truck up in the yard, loaded them up and handed Dad a wad of cash. A bit later, Dad handed me twelve bucks. It figured out to nearly a dollar a blister and I was Mister Mister in my own mind for weeks after that. Seven years old and I’d earned more money than I’d ever held before. 

I’d also earned a continuing awareness that as long as you’re willing to do what others don’t want to do, you can earn money in this world. And if you’ve got some measure of skill as well… well, that just increases the options and opportunities. 

As long as you don’t mind a few blisters.

H. Arnett
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Election Results

I was not yet seven years old but the memory is still keen sixty-two years later.

We lived in western Kentucky in a two-story brick house built before the Civil War. The only indoor plumbing we had was cold water at the kitchen sink, no indoor bathrooms, no TV. It was warm in winter as long as you were near a fireplace. It was hot in the summer no matter where you were.

It was three miles of gravel road to the nearest highway, six miles to the nearest town. We had one neighbor who lived less than a mile away.

For some reason, even though I was the youngest of five kids, I was the only one not already upstairs in bed for the night. Dad was sitting by himself, right beside the radio, head bowed, expression grim. He was listening to election results in November of 1960 and did not like what he was hearing.

The emerging pattern of the more populous states indicated that the rich, privileged, Yankee, Catholic, Democrat was going to be next president of the United States. Dad and many others like him across the South were sure that it signaled the end of all that was precious and sacred.

Finally, when he’d lost any hope that Richard M. Nixon would win the election, he angrily switched the radio off, stood up, and headed to bed.

I don’t know if he got any sleep or not, but we all rolled out of bed the next morning. The cows got milked, the hogs and calves got fed, the sun came up. The kids went to school and the grown-ups went to work.

And life went on.

And, fifteen presidential elections later, it still does. Sometimes I’ve celebrated, sometimes I’ve cursed, sometimes I didn’t really care much one way or another.

The perceptible quality of my life has usually, if not always, depended more on who my neighbors are rather than who happens to be occupying the White House. For the most part, I’d reckon that the way I represent my religion affects the people around me more than who represents them in Congress. My citizenship in the kingdom of heaven has always mattered more than what country I happen to live in.

The old hymn reminds me, “This world is not my home, I’m just a’passing through. My treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue.” As long as I keep my focus on the only place where the things that really matter cannot be rusted, cankered, or stolen, I’ll be okay. Jesus warned us, “Do not love the world, nor the things of the world.”

Making one’s calling and election sure will always matter more than who gets elected.

H. Arnett


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Meditation on Love

Love rises early in the dark of a still and quiet house,
knowing its own sounds of footsteps softly taken
so as not to waken those whose dreaming sleep
has not yet given way to the duties of the day.
Love rises early.

Love moves quietly in the kitchen,
tending to chores meant to make 
less abrupt for others
the transitions of forming day.
Love moves quietly.

Love works gladly throughout the day,
bending mind and body to the demands of living
and earning a reasonable measure
of the things needed for sustenance and pleasure.
Love works gladly.

Love prays deeply in the quiet moments,
nourishing the spirit in times of peace and plenty
and seized as needed when cares rage beyond expectation,
boldly laying hold of hope and faith and promise.
Love prays deeply.

Love walks calmly in the depths of life,
carries every burden as if a gift,
lifts the limping heart and strengthens the gimping soul,
brings all before the throne of heaven,
and stands its ground in every storm

because love is anchored to the very heart of God. 

H. Arnett
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Extraordinay Seasons

Being neither botanist nor dendrologist, I’m not sure that I have an accurate explanation for the phenomenon I’ve witnessed this year in regard to the particular patterns of color on the fallen leaves from the Bradford pear tree at the edge of our horse pasture. I can say this without fear of successful contradiction: they are the most amazing I’ve ever seen.

Typically, the entire leaf gradually turns a deep red color, something like a blend of bronze and burgundy. This year, though, the leaves are mostly brown. Doesn’t sound terribly impressive, does it? But there’s more to the story…

Along the center spine of the leaf is something radically different. On many of the leaves, a smooth abstract pattern of rounded lobes emanates from the middle, often fringed with a thin border of green. The main part of this is red or orange. Even when seen while the leaves are lying on the ground, the colors/patterns are striking. When held up toward a backlighting sun, they are stunning!

The green fringe becomes neon, and the reds/oranges glow as if illuminated. It doesn’t seem even slightly overwrought to apply the term “spectacular.” I’ve lived for nearly seventy years and cannot recall ever seeing anything like this in the annual transition of seasons.

I think it was triggered by two nights of hard freeze just two weeks ago when we had consecutive lows in the upper teens. Instead of the usual shifting of colors triggered by a good frost, I think the leaves lost the opportunity for gradual change. It’s as if the last bit of chlorophyll suddenly shrank in toward the middle of the leaf, fringing the changing color and acting as buffer to the sudden brown caused by the freeze.

Sometimes, the slow changes we anticipate in our lives are preempted by some seeming catastrophe. Without the expected opportunity for gradual adjustment, we react from the gut core of our emotions and unanalyzed responses. Shifting suddenly to some other mode, we discover another dimension of being and feeling. In some cases, we manifest an unknown quality of character.

Exposed to new challenges, we reveal the beauty of God’s work deep within us and witness the glory of his hand in response to the unsought demands of this world’s changing circumstances. It is not in the ordinary of shifting seasons that we learn the depths of unshakable faith and relentless love.

H. Arnett


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Fishing for a Better Catch

There’s an old adage, at least in the sweet recesses of my memory, that says, “You usually catch what you fish for.” I was too young to realize at the time I first heard it that it was often used in a more than mildly disparaging manner to blame some unfortunate female who found herself hitched to a man of low character. Folks didn’t seem to take into account that maybe the dude pretended to be nice, considerate, and caring until after they’d married.

Social commentary to the side, there is more than literal truth in the down-home advice, “don’t bait your hook with stink bait if you’re trying to catch trout.” And, if you’re looking to put rainbow in the hold, a muddy farm pond ain’t your best bet on prospects. Fishing and real estate have at least one thing in common: location, location, location.

Perhaps oddly enough, it might seem, it is an early morning contemplation on “peace” that has led me to this particular stream of consciousness.

From time to time, I read or hear people voicing their desire for peace, most often in a personal rather than national or global sense. Sometimes, I find myself taking particular pleasure in settings and experiences that seem to nourish that quality. And, as I think about it, I remember that the scriptures (Psalm 34:14 and others) urge us to “seek peace and pursue it.”

That sounds to me like deliberate effort, self-responsibility, and choice. And it takes me back to the old “catching what you fish for” philosophy. If we seek daily doses of controversy, spend our time reading or listening to people who make their money stirring up discontent or peddling ill will toward others, we can’t expect to find our souls and spirits soothed and comforted. If we spend time provoking others or looking for opportunities to be provoked, we will certainly catch what we’re fishing for.

But it will not be peace.

H. Arnett


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A Contemplation of God

Lord God of Heaven,
you have created the wonders of this world—
both seen and unseen.

You have formed the worm and the stars,
fashioned the flower and the towering tree.

You distill the wonders of the world
in a single drop of dew,
string the strength of steel
in each new strand of a spider’s web.

You have given us food that grows below the ground,
and fruits that are found in exotic places.

You stretch out the span of space
in dimensions that defy comprehension,
and executed the concepts of physics
in nano fractions and the infinite actions of subatomic particles.

The warmth of a single star so far from here
that travel is measured in years
grows our food,
marks our days,
gives us life,
keeps us from the frozen fate of night.

I marvel at the work of your hands,
the wonder of your mind,
and find you in everything that surrounds me.

You are beyond understanding,
yet intimately expressed in the full form
of a carpenter’s son who loved his mother,
saw her own heart pierced by the spear in his side,
and spilled heaven into the dirt below his cross,
died to reveal the true cost of sin,
and then rose in the power of light
so that we might understand the illusion of death.

And know that we are loved.

H. Arnett
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