“Good Ground” : Dr. Duane Arnold PhD
This week I’ve spent a good bit of time looking at a picture. It was taken back in the early 70s. There are ten of us on a stage sitting atop amps, guitar cases and a Hammond B-3 and Leslie speaker cabinet. All of us were involved in the music and teaching outreach of our Fellowship group (which latter morphed into a church). We were all in our late teens and early twenties. With the long hair, beards, jeans and flannel shirts, we looked like we could have been the road crew for Eagles or The Allman Brothers or another band of the era.
I’m sure we must have scared to death many of our older brothers and sisters in the faith, especially those in the numerous mainline and evangelical churches in the community.
Last week, one of the people in that picture died of a massive heart attack at the age of 62. Jim was the first of us to go. It was completely unexpected and it broke my heart. He had started the Fellowship with me. For some years, he was my best friend. We worked together, debated music together, traveled together, lived in the same house, went together to buy his beautiful Gibson Gospel acoustic, talked about songwriting, played practical jokes on people, came up with the worst puns in the world and prayed together…
And now he’s gone…
Jim had continued on from the Fellowship to college, then a post-graduate degree, eventually ending up in an academic position on the east coast. As I scanned the photograph, I thought about the rest of us. One became a successful businessman; four of us had taken up our theological education and gone into the ordained ministry; one is an executive with a global missions program (having married another person in the picture) and the remaining two in the picture are dedicated lay people in their respective churches.
I’m sure, at the time, few would have predicted such an outcome.
Maybe, however, some who helped and mentored us at the time might have hoped that we might turn out alright. A local physician actually purchased our first building for us. He turned over the keys, made no demands on what we did or did not do in the building and continued to generously support us through the years. In fact, the only time we saw him, was when he would drop off books that he thought would be helpful to us – Francis Schaeffer, Os Guiness, C.S. Lewis, and a host of other authors, some known to us, others a new revelation. A local UMC minister encouraged his son to attend our Bible studies and coffeehouse, as the youth group in his own church was not very active. While in no way interfering with what we were doing in the Fellowship, he would drop by brochures on seminars and conferences dealing with subjects as varied as pastoral counseling, ministry to young married couples, and nursing home visitation. If we were interested, he would sponsor us and pay the expenses incurred. Additionally, if he had a special speaker come to his church, several of us would be invited to meet them and have one on one sessions with them regarding their particular expertise. One older gentleman in the community owned a auto body and repair shop. A fundamentalist, he remained on the fence as to whether or not rock music was of the devil, but when our band acquired a cargo van, he volunteered to paint it and help us fit out the interior for touring.
I could go on with example after example of the graciousness and generosity of these “older” believers who looked past the hair, the beards, the jeans, the music and all the rest to see something of value; something worth encouraging. By all rights, they should have been standing on the front porch yelling at us “kids” to “get off my lawn”. Instead, they not only allowed us on the lawn, they invited us onto the porch and into their homes.
Sometime back, I visited the physician who had been so generous to us all those years ago. He was dying of cancer. He had only weeks to live. I had kept up with him from time to time in those years, often sending him copies of my books and articles or letting him know if I was appointed to a new position, but I wanted him to know more. I wanted him to know about the others. I wanted him to know what he had done. He was very weak when I came to visit, but his eyes still sparkled. First we talked a bit about my career and then we moved on to the others. I shared with him what they were doing and all that they had accomplished. He was completely engaged. At the end, I thanked him for what he had done all those years before and told him that he was a part of everything that all of us had done in our lives and ministries. He turned to me and said, “Duane, when you plant a garden it doesn’t look like much. You hope that it’s good ground, you plant the seeds and you get out of the way, nourish and help where you can and wait. You and your friends were ‘good ground’ and the garden is beautiful…” His voice trailed off, his eyes filled, we embraced and, before I left, he gave me a book (of course) that he thought might be of interest to me. Then he said, “Now it’s your turn.” Of course…
The death of my friend, Jim, reminded me that, indeed, it’s now our turn and the time left to us is limited.
I’ve read a great deal about Gen X and the Millennials, most of it written by people my age. Usually the articles are laced with thinly veiled caustic comments concerning skinny jeans, music, man-buns, microbrews, ink and all the rest. These observations are usually linked to sarcastic off hand remarks with regard to weak theology, vapid worship and the strong implication that somehow they are responsible for the decline of the Church in the early twenty-first century. The idea that we, in fact, may be responsible for problems of our own making, tends to be ignored or, if raised, shouted down.
For myself, I’m going to hope, like my friend, that there is “good ground”. My task, in the years that remain, is to plant some seeds. I have some nourishment to bring – theology, church history, ethics, tradition and a bit of experience – but I also will have to learn to get out of the way and allow the seeds to grow.
It might just be a beautiful garden.