Ups and Downs

Saturday was cool but beautiful with the wind speed at less than half the rate of the day before. Randa and I picked up the winter’s scattering of branches and spruce cones, stacked them in a pile and set the pile on fire. Even toasted marshmallows over the bed of coals.

Easter Sunday was a day of dismal weather: gray and chilly. The day started with drizzle and shifted to snow in late morning, concluding with a light freeze overnight. Today finds us with chilly breeze and scattered breaks of sunlight. Such is the nature of nature in this section of the world. Ups and downs in weather, news, and other views of things.

It’s not unusual in life that some downturn accompanies each lifting:  the clear sky sunrise with sub-freezing temperatures, unseasonable warmth with romping storm. There is little gain of this earth that does not bring with it some disadvantage, some attached care or concern, some moment of pain.

On the flip side, it’s a rare day of gloom that does not have with it some glimmer of light. There is beauty even in the storm and the hovering mist on a winter’s day tells us there are places in our life that are warmer than the cutting chill. We have both and choose our own focus. Except for witnessing darkness, we could not define light.

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Years ago, when our drive home from eating out required fifteen miles of narrow, winding road, a car pulled up close behind us, lights on bright. It stayed close and the lights stayed on bright. There was a time when I would have slowed down to thirty-five or so, maybe slower. This technique usually irritates the other driver, which allegedly pays them back for their inconsideration. If you also add the technique of slowing down further on the curves and hills and speeding up quickly in the passing areas, you can move from “irritating” to “infuriating” and produce a myriad of road rage possibilities. So, I didn’t use that technique.

Instead, I pulled over onto the shoulder and let the other vehicle go by, then swung right back onto the road and proceeded, without incident, on my way home. The whole thing slowed us down by no more than ten seconds.

We have all sorts of opportunities for those “small” moments of vengeance when we can re-pay with evil the evil done to us. “Evil” may sound like exaggeration and over-statement, but it’s not really. Whenever we pay back inconsideration for inconsideration, rudeness for rudeness, it is vengeance and it is evil.

Sure, they “deserve it,” but so what? A life of grace is not about getting or giving what is deserved. I could have slowed down and inconvenienced the other driver but in the process I would have extended the duration of my own irritation, too. And… increased the likelihood of more serious retaliation. That’s how it always is with vengeance, even in its smallest and most mundane forms. Isn’t it better to contribute more kindness to the universe rather than adding to the darkness?

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Sticking With It

Years ago, another school principal and I were discussing the prides and perils of school administration.  Talk turned, as administrator talk inevitably turns, to the subject of teachers.  “You know,” she mused, “I think a big part of success in teaching is endurance.  Just sticking with it.”

In teaching, yes.  In work.  In marriage.  In raising crops, sunken ships and children.  It’s not totally unlike running a marathon or other distance race.  It’s the capacity to endure the stresses, the tensions, the relentlessness of the problems encountered.  In pursuing an education, in building a business, in forging a career, in growing a church.  In living a Christian life.  The capacity to stay with a thing after the novelty and pleasure of it has dissipated.   In this job, the novelty and pleasure phase may not last any longer than a snow cone at a Texas barbecue.   Making endurance a very important quality in prospective employees.

That afternoon, my staff and I interviewed an applicant for a teachers’ aide position.  In the course of our questioning regarding experience in working with kids, she revealed that she had been a single mother of three boys for a number of years.  I asked her, “In the course of that time, those years, what is it that you are most proud of?”

Without an eyelash flicker of hesitation, our candidate responded, “I didn’t give up.”

We knew right then that we had our new teachers’ aide.

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Last Monday Morning in March

A slow-motion tinge of green
spreads across the fields,
fringes the edges of the yard,
and begins to fill the ditches.

Swelling bursts of buds erupt in red clusters 
toward the ends of gray-splotched branches
on the three maples that have chanced to grow
in paddock and pasture.

A scattering of thin-bladed sprouts
stick out through the hoof-pocked muck
of the dry lot where last week's rain
changed the sloping terrain from calm to caution.

Several short sweeps of slick mud
show where hard hooves slid
in search of traction as the geldings
made their way toward the tarp-covered hay.

Beyond the heavy trunks of ancient elm
and the interlacing undergrowth 
of mulberry, oak, and hackberry, 
jangled along the eastern edge of the yard,

The first hard glare of a fireball sun
breaks out from behind a blue-slate cloud,
piercing the last remnants of last night's
shroud of darkness

In yet one more joining of prayer and prophecy,
transforming dawn into morning
amidst the mingling shafts of light and streaks of shadow
of this new day that the Lord has made.

H. Arnett
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A Mighty Fine Hello

I just opened an email from a dear friend that I’ve known now for over thirty-five years. Her encouraging words sure brought a great big ole smile to my face, a smile that stretched all the way to my heart. Hearing from her again reminded me of something another friend said to me back in the early Eighties.

“Have you ever noticed how with really good friends you can go without seeing each other for a really long time but whenever you do meet up again, you just take up wherever you were? It feels like you just saw each other last week.”

Boy Howdy! It really is like that, isn’t it?

A few weeks ago, a good friend and I met up with a mutual friend that I hadn’t seen in several years. The three of us have been good friends since 2004. Felt just like it was only yesterday. We sat and talked, joked, and laughed together as if we’d been spending time together every weekend.

I love how that is! How deep down good it feels and how wonderful and reassuring! How delightful it is when true friends spend time together!

Even when years pass by without so much as a “Hi, how are you?” once you’re back together, it’s like it hasn’t been any time at all. No matter how many months and miles have passed between you, you still feel close. Every time that happens, I think again about those friends I miss and yearn for. I remember the last time we met together, and I am reminded how thrilling and fulfilling it is to be reunited.

Whenever I hear from an old friend or get the chance to meet together with them again, I think, “Man! Heaven is going to be so tee-totally absolutely awesome!”

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God in the Tulips

From the time of my youth, I’ve had the impression that all of nature/creation bears witness of a creator. Well before I’d read Romans 1:20 (“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made…”), it seemed to me that every sunrise, every flower, every beat of a hummingbird’s wing—and a million other things—suggested proof of a greater being.

It is not necessary to become a rock-climbing landscape gazer in order to be saved. Nor is it necessary that one crawl about the back yard with a magnifying lens in order to grow in faith, hope and love. One can study scripture and cultivate a saved relationship with their Redeemer without a single stroll in the woods or a solitary issue of National Geographic.

But the one who has never gaped in wonder at ice ferns on a winter window, who has never paused in driving to watch in silent awe as a fading sun flares an evening sky, who has never grinned in realization of the promise inferred in the opening of spring’s first tulip, the one who has never taken the time to take in the marvels of the handiwork of God cannot comprehend the nature of their Creator. 

While the beauty of this world may be fleeting, it is not incidental. From the raw, savage energy of an erupting volcano to the momentary crystal of frost, it is clear that the One who made us is one who delights in color and pattern. From the orbiting within the atom to the infinite orbits of the cosmos, our universe resounds with the message that it has been shaped by a God of Power and Beauty.

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Moments of Glory

Sometimes, when dawn comes just before the leading edge of a storm front has stretched entirely toward the east, there’s the least bit of a rim of clear sky, a border of light between the night that still covers the earth and the flush of morning’s coming. I remember one of those times from many years ago when we were living in Cynthiana, Kentucky.

Driving to work in the slow brightening, I saw the occasional paleness leaching through a thinner section of dark, dappled clouds. Halfway between Leesburg and Oxford, as the curve of the road coincided with a dip in the near ridge line, giving me a view clear to the horizon, I saw, suddenly, a blast of red filling the break between earth and storm dome. Not in hues and tones like the light of a fire but a solid shade, the red of steel ripe for the anvil. Brilliant but not blinding, it forged a beacon in the sky. Then, in only a moment, it passed into softer shades, strangely dimming in the rising of sun, then covered by ridge and clouds.

There are those moments in life, like the first lifting of a toddler’s hands, to stand unsupported, for only an instant, while parents applaud. Like the first word of a grandchild on the phone five hundred miles away. Like an unexpected call from a friend from years ago or the embrace of a grown child back home from overseas.

In mind’s eye and memory, the fragile joys of this life are held, not so much for remembering the past as for reminding us of a greater glory.

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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 brown 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.

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California Dreaming

Randa, Susan and I were singing in the dining room last night.  Occasionally, in fact, we were all three singing the same song.  But, when we flipped to the oldies, Susan thought of something else she needed to do and so Randa and I ended up by ourselves, searching through a new old songs book.  As you probably guessed, given the title of today’s devotion, we came across a classic Mamas and Papas tune. 

For those with a good memory and those who happen to research thirty-five year old music, you may recall that in the song, the persona takes a walk on a winter day and ends up taking refuge from the low temperature by going into a church and pretending to pray:  “You know that preacher loves the cold; he knows I’m gonna stay.”

Lots of times, it is the cold of this world that drives people into church: the cold of sickness, the chill of misfortune, the pangs of loneliness, the bitter cut of tragedy and despair.  Sometimes they come seeking sympathy, sometimes seeking financial help, sometimes seeking deliverance, sometimes not really knowing what they seek but knowing they want to find a place of warmth, a refuge from the haunting emptiness of un-defined life.  It is a good thing that they come in and churches should be a place where they can find fulfillment for all of those needs.

But it would be a good thing, too, if you and I were more often blankets that go out into the world.

H. Arnett


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Bucket List

Over my decades of remodeling and home construction projects, I’ve needed lots of buckets of water. Sometimes for mixing drywall mud or masonry mortar, sometimes for preparatory cleaning, sometimes for washing up afterwards. Most of the time, I’ve used five-gallon plastic buckets. Most of those originally contained drywall compound. It’s been mighty rare that I bought a new bucket; just seemed like a waste of money.

Regardless of source or expenditure, filling those buckets has sometimes been a source of embarrassment. Fairly often, especially when filling the buckets using the kitchen sink instead of an outside hose or hydrant, I’ll persuade myself that I have time—while the water is running—to take care of some other simple chore. Frequently, though not invariably, while doing that simple chore I’ll think of another simple chore… and another… By the time I remember the original task of filling the bucket, the bucket has been well filled. And more.

Most times, it’s fairly harmless. The overflow drains right on down the sink and there’s no consequence other than wasted water, personal embarrassment, and reminder of how well-earned my reputation for distractibility and/or absent-mindedness is. A couple of years ago, though, I left water running in the sink and didn’t discover it until hours later. Had to replace a few pieces of laminate flooring in that particular episode. Grrr…

With that lesson somehow fading in memory, I was helping Jeremiah (my youngest son) and Misty with some remodeling at their place back in January. Sure enough, I left a bucket filling in the sink and returned later to find Misty turning off the water as the bucket overflowed. No harm done other than to my ego.

It became a joke while I was there. “Are you running water in the sink, Papa Doc?” “No? Are you sure?”

While trying to soothe my ego and salvage my reputation after I returned home, I began reporting to Misty whenever I’d managed to fill a bucket without mishap. I even sent her a video a few days ago to document that I’d successfully completed my sixth consecutive bucket filling. I was going to send her another text day before yesterday congratulating myself on my eighth victory when a more serious thought occurred to me.

Anticipating her asking me to what I thought I owed my recent success, I half-jokingly thought, “It was when I quit lying to myself about what would happen if I walked away from the sink while the water was running.”

We human types long ago perfected the art of self-deception. Again and again and again we somehow manage to convince ourselves that “this time will be different” even though we keep doing the same blasted thing. Magically, the same behavior will yield different results this time. Why? Well, because we want it to!

Sometimes it’s just embarrassing. Too often, those lies we choose to believe about our own actions leave us with a much bigger mess than a few gallons of water on the floor.

H. Arnett


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