The Baker’s Bench

In the early days of Covid-19 Kay and I found ourselves standing at the baker’s bench in Niedlov’s Bakery in Chattanooga. My grandson asked his father why the baker’s bench was so long, and he replied that it took many hands to prepare the bread dough for baking. The heartbreaking fact at that time was that the professional team of bakers that once formed the assembly line along the Niedlov’s baker’s bench were now in the long lines of the unemployed.

Niedlov’s was deemed essential in those early days and so the larger orders for bread had to be filled after hours and by unprofessional hands. So four adults and two grandchildren took up positions along the baker’s bench and went to work.

While we worked I listened to my son-in-law, Erik, explain his philosophy around the idea of the baker’s bench and why it is so long. It is an assembly line of sorts with different stages of preparing the dough before it can be placed into the individual pans and put into the oven to bake. I learned quickly that the preparation process is labor intensive.

At that time, those of us in our little group were/are literal family connected by blood and marriage, but most who gather around the baker’s bench are not so related. Regardless, everyone who comes to the baker’s bench gathers for a single purpose. Those who come to the bench would rarely gather in other situations except for bread making. It feels like church, Erik remarked. As different as we all might be in life and likely never to congregate outside the sanctuary of the baker’s bench, by this simple act of making bread people become one in heart and mind.

By such action we are in community. We are honoring our labor. We are bearing witness of and to each other. And in our unity we are serving the world at large. Yes, it was like church. Most of us will not have the experience of gathering at a baker’s bench. But in countless other ways we can join others in putting our physical and mental and spiritual energy in the service of others. By thinking less of ourselves and more of other people we get to experience a unifying moment that could very well be transcendent.

Whatever form the baker’s bench takes in your life it offers opportunities to show simple acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion that can boost the morale of the world with demonstrations of love to our neighbor.

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Faustian Bargain

Way back in the day during the early years of my theatre training, I read Christopher Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus. It was my first literary experience reading about the human power of choice and its consequences. We like to think we have power, and on some level, we do, but most of our perceptions of power are mere illusions. The real power we have is the power to choose.

In the years that followed my first exposure to this medieval tale, I read Wolfgang Goethe’s Dr. Faustus, followed by Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. Then several years ago Kay and I did a Pacific Coast Highway adventure from Washington down to northern California. We took the inland route back to Seattle and spent twenty-four hours in Ashland, Oregon. That night we saw a production of Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The language was powerful and the visuals stunning. It was one of the many theatrical experiences we shared that we still remember years later.

Dr Faustus decides to sell his soul to Lucifer in order to obtain power. What he gets in exchange for his soul is the luxury to travel far and wide, to gain great knowledge, to learn and perform different types of magic, and to indulge in every kind of sensual pleasure. Faustus spends the majority of his time using his powers to his own amusement and advantages. When faced with the opportunity to repent, thereby saving his soul—he comes close a few times—but never actually does it. When Lucifer returns to claim his end of the deal, Dr. Faustus has now lost the power of choice and is dragged off to a very unfortunate end.

Since the beginning of civilization we humans are always in search of a bargain. We believe we have to sell something to gain something. We can easily become dissatisfied with life and believe we are owed something better or that we can achieve something better. Ambition is a worthy notion when in service of the greater good. But too often pride will turn ambition in on itself and the end result is never pretty.

There are great things out there in the world to discover and enjoy. There are great people out there, as well, to share in the pleasure of all sorts of creative activities. So, in that powerful moment of choosing, remember what the old knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade advised Dr. Jones, “Choose wisely.”

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A Family Tradition

In 1976 a small group of friends that included my parents wanted to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of our nation. What started out as a small block party on Whitland Ave in Nashville, Tennessee grew into a major event with a few thousand in attendance each year who gathered to enjoy a parade, music, potluck, and a special program honoring our collective experiences in what it meant to be an American.

Each year the program included a featured moment. Two stand out in my memory. Due to poor health, a Navajo Code Talker who lived in middle Tennessee was unable to attend a ceremony in Washington D.C. to receive the Congressional Gold Medal, so he was brought to the Whitland Ave celebration. He sat in his wheelchair surrounded by his family and members of his native tribe while an official military delegate spoke of his heroism and awarded him his medal. But then members of his tribe began a rhythmic beating on their drums and a Navajo dancer came out from behind the crowd in full tribal dress and danced a warrior’s dance in honor of this brave veteran.

Another year a Federal Immigration Judge spoke of the many reasons people give for wanting to become an American citizen. After his speech he turned to a group of about thirty people seated in a special section off to the side of the podium and led them in the Oath of Allegiance. This is the final step of naturalization in becoming a citizen. It was so moving to hear a dozen or more international accents repeating the words of the Oath that has been spoken by every new citizen since the eighteenth century.

Over the years, the program also included my sister, Nan Gurley, who lead the crowd in singing patriotic songs. But regardless of the variety there was one moment in the program that never changed: my father would read from the Declaration of Independence while some of Nashville’s finest musicians played Aaron Copeland’s “Ode to the Common Man.”

When Dad departed this life, the mantle was passed to me. I still wear the shirt he wore, read the same words he read, and experience the same thrill he experienced each year. I could not be prouder of my parents, Bud and Bernie Arnold, and this great tradition they left their family and the community they loved.

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Son of a Teenage Runaway

How does a father teach a son to be a man? What is it to even be a man…to be a father…to be a son? In 1944, Dad ran away from home at the age of seventeen, hitchhiked from Richmond, Virginia all the way to Ft. Lauderdale, spent a few nights on a park bench, lied about his age to the Army recruiting officer, and then worked as a bellhop in a swanky hotel until he was inducted into the Service. Somewhere between bellhop and paratrooper, Dad called his parents and told them what he had done.

Before Dad ran away from home he had suffered a few blackout spells, and the doctor had cautioned against overexertion. He could have had a medical deferment for his unreliable heart, that fact, plus being an only child, would have kept him out of the military, but then Dad would never have had his personal odyssey, an adventure he had been planning for some time. He had run away in his mind long before he slipped out the door when his parents weren’t looking. My father understood who he was and dreamed of what he might become, then made the bold choice to defy his overprotective parents.

Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel said his father once told to him, “If you don’t know me you can never know yourself.” Two nights after Dad died I was sleeping in my old bed in my old room. We were in the midst of the wonderful chaos of family and friends sharing our grief and celebrating a life well lived. It was easier to stay home with Mom.

That night, Dad appeared to me in a dream. When he walked into the bedroom, I sat up with a start. He was wearing his Army dress uniform with a chest full of medals. He was smiling as he sat down on the foot of my bed. He gave my legs a gentle slap, and said, “Son, you’re gonna be just fine.”

I believe I went to sleep a boy and woke up a man. That began a journey for me of knowing my father, remembering experiences we shared as father and son, and hearing stories of my father from other friends and family members. Maybe for the first time I was really paying attention.

Dad taught by doing. Watching him in my memory, I began to know myself, what it meant to be a man and a father. I wish I had paid more attention while he was here on this earth but thank God for memory. If running away from home helped produce the kind of man my father became, then I say I am the proud child of a teenage runaway. Oh, the wonder of fatherhood and the miracle of manhood!

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Treasure From the Five and Dime

The first time I was proactive in getting a gift for my mother without the aid and support of my father was the purchase of the necklace pictured here. With my pockets stuffed with coins, I peddled my bicycle over the railroad tracks behind our apartment building to a little shopping area where the store was located (a five-and-dime, not a Jared), and returned a successful hunter/gatherer with my prize in a paper sack.

Mom wore it proudly to church that Mother’s Day Sunday, and countless other times. I was told often that this necklace was the favorite piece of jewelry in her collection, and for a time I believed that my offering eclipsed her wedding rings, pearl ensembles, and jewel-encrusted broaches. When Mom died in 2015, my sister, Nan, was in charge of dispersing Mom’s jewelry collection, and the first thing she located was the blue necklace and returned it to me.

Presenting Mom with the necklace that Mother’s Day brought tears to her eyes, a reaction I continued to induce for years to come though rarely for such sentimental reasons. Isn’t that what sons are supposed to do, make their mothers cry? If so, I most likely exceeded the allotment of times a son is given to bring his mother to tears.

Those weepy occasions began to taper off when I married Kay. I think Mom’s quote to my bride on our wedding day was something to the effect of, “I’m handing him off to you. I did the best I could.”

In the long march to my wedding day, before the “handing off,” Mom said that she had long ago given up praying that I would have good friends or get through high school and then college or just go to church once in a while. She finally resorted to begging God to just keep me alive, at least until she could find someone else to take over. I know, poor Kay.

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Death is Near/Don’t be Stupid

Last fall we rented a place in Monteagle, Tennessee to celebrate my bride’s birthday. I’m not divulging her chronology. That could prove my death sentence. But I will say she does not look her age. Must be those daily sips from the fountain of youth.

For several days there was a steady flow of family and friends all there for the single purpose of celebrating Kay. As it should be. Some stayed for a long time. Some dropped by for an hour or two. When I reached the saturation point of the constant flow of humanity, I threw the three grandkids in the back of my car and we took off to the Fiery Gizzard trail.

As my three grandkids are prone to do, they can build up a head of stream of excitement when released into the great outdoors and become, well how can I say this politely…stupid. I guess there are no polite words. It’s the same principal of the mentality of the unruly mob.

I always carry my walking sticks with me when I go on a trek because I’m old and wobbly. As we approached the trailhead I raised my sticks in front of the kids like a gate to stop them from running ahead of me. The north entrance has some steep inclines and drop-offs that can cause serious bodily harm. If one is not paying attention you can take a tumble.

“All right, Kids,” I said. “I give you today’s motto, ‘Death is near/don’t be stupid.’ Now go have fun.” What’s great about my grandkids is that they did not require any interpretation. Our family teams have been on enough trails together in various places on the planet that they get it when the adults offer clear directives. A trio of park rangers was nearby who overheard my instruction and asked if they might use that for future signage. I told them they could have it for free.

Did my admonition spoil the fun? I don’t think so. We tramped for miles, built dams, climbed trees, scaled boulders, and had the contest of who could make the biggest splash in a large pool of water. I won. No way I’m letting my grandkids outdo me.

Now we have a new addition to our slew of family mottos. This one might not rank up there with Solomon’s book of “Proverbs,” but they are words to live by.

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I Go To The Rock: The Gospel Music of Whitney Houston

Feature Documentary Film
Directed by Barry Jennings
Produced by Paul Sizelove & Barry Jennings
Screenplay by Henry O. Arnold
Distributed by Estate of Whitney E. Houston & Primary Wave Music
Release date: 2023

The documentary TV special, I Go to the Rock: The Gospel Music of Whitney Houston hosted by multiple GRAMMY Award-winning artist CeCe Winans and produced by Barry Jennings, explores the steadfast faith that accompanied Whitney to stardom, from her first-ever performance in front of an audience to her many breathtaking appearances performing gospel songs. It features unforgettable performances at the NAACP Image Awards, at the American Music Awards, and at Ebony’s 50th Anniversary TV special.

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Fires and Floods and A.I., Oh My

I came across a quote by Seneca the Younger, the Stoic philosopher who lived in first century Rome. He wrote, “Floods will rob us of one thing, fire another. These are conditions of our existence which we cannot change. What we can do is adopt a noble spirit.” Natural disasters are one thing, but we are rapidly approaching the time when A.I. technology can do all our thinking for us. This is a disaster of our own making.

I see you rolling your eyes and thinking me a Luddite. The Luddites were skilled textile workers in nineteenth century England. Ned Ludd, their fearless leader, directed the revolt against manufacturers who began using machines to get around standard labor practices. Luddites feared that the machines would replace their role in the industry.

It was a difficult transition for me to go from pen and pad to typewriter to computer. But I made each leap embolden by Seneca’s words to “adopt a noble spirit.” I love and appreciate that technological advances appear on the scene almost daily, but when is enough, enough?

There is currently a dustup about A.I.’s ability to not only write decent poetry (though not a good limerick), but term papers as well on subjects far and wide. Is the short story and novel in danger? You know what’s said, “If it were easy, then everyone could do it.” With the right A.I. then maybe everyone could write that “great” novel. How can anyone distinguish oneself if you don’t have to struggle and suffer as you go about making your art? The capacity to imagine is lost when we allow our technology to remove all unwanted struggles and suffering.

Now I hear a team scientists are working on what is called a “thinking hat.” After the proper programing, it is said the wearer need only think of a question and the computer will answer it. So imagine if one thinking hat wearer goes on a dinner date with another thinking hat wearer they can just skip the pleasant conversation all together and go about eating their meal without any verbalis interruptus. It is the equivalent of talking with your mouthful. So what do they do when it comes to the goodnight kiss? Think it?

Technology can do so much for us. It can solve so many of life’s challenges, but it cannot give us meaning or tell us why we exist and for what purpose. For that we must face our affiliations, reclaim our personal tragedies and comedies, and from them, create our stories. I call that living with a noble spirit.

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Never Lost the Boy

I love this kid in the picture. It happens to be me. While the moves might not be those of a future dancing prodigy, the swinging arms, the knee lift and the happy face reveal an exuberant joy that cannot be denied.

My dad is standing right behind me. The other men were members of dad’s Lipscomb University Men’s Glee Club. And you thought “Glee” was just a TV show. Dad could bring the glee, and apparently it was infectious because here is his son cutting the rug or pavement in this case.

During the spring break at the University Dad would load up his merry band of young men and they would tour the regional south singing for the church crowd. I got to go along as the Glee Club mascot. And as you can tell, we all wore the suit and tie even on the bus. Probably a requirement imposed by my dapper dad.

What strikes me in this picture is the expression of youthful pleasure in the form of a spontaneous roadside dance. The “get down” just could not be contained. Later in my youth, I remember finding a religious tract inside a rack in the vestibule of a church with the title “A Dancing Foot and a Praying Knee Are Not on the Same Leg.” It had never crossed my young mind that one could not dance and pray at the same time.

The history of religious tracts can be traced back to the seventh century, way before the printing press. While religious apologetics was and is a viable literary form of persuasion, I put the “Dancing Foot/Praying Knee” in the category of religious folks with power who tie up heavy loads of rules and regulations, dump them on a person’s shoulders like a pack mule, offer no help to bear the load, and walk away saying “good luck with that.” It’s the equivalent of throwing a kid in the pool and saying, “Hope you can swim.”

As I look at this picture and think over my life, I realize that I never lost the boy in me. A little-boy exuberance has stuck with me. It certainly got me in trouble at times, but I believe people who maintain a childlike curiosity and “joie de vivre” will not only take more pleasure in life and their relationships but are better prepared to tackle opportunities that come their way.

If you have lost or misplaced your youthful joy and exuberance for life, then come back into the light, joy is waiting to greet you with an excited, “You’ve been missed. Now let’s dance.”

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The Potemkin Effect

We humans are adept at creating and concocting lies, and then once the lies have been spoken into existence, deeply believing them. Such concoctions, if not explicitly designed to sow the seeds of chaos, are intended to produce a preferred narrative for the liar(s). Such a stratagem can be used to advance an individual or propel a nation to act outside acceptable norms. When nothing is true, when we cannot distinguish between good and evil, then what moral compass do we have to provide us guidance?

This makes me think of a story I recently read known as the “Potemkin village.” Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin was an eighteenth-century Russian minister. Over his lifetime, Potemkin served in many capacities for Catherine the Great: builder, diplomat, officer, and lover.

In 1789 Catherine decided to tour her empire down the Dneiper River through the Ukraine and Crimea. To impress Catherine with his administration of the region, Potemkin is alleged to have ordered that everything be hurriedly spruced up along the way using painted facades to fool Catherine into thinking that the area was far richer than it was. This ruse involved the construction of painted façades to mimic real villages, full of happy, well-fed people, for Catherine and her officials to see.

In a fit of zeal to make a favorable impression on Catherine and her entourage during her inspection tour down the river, the countryside was whitewashed. New villages sprang up that consisted only of fake pasteboard facades. This extravagant staging might be exaggerated by some critics, but you know we can’t let pesky facts get in the way of a good story.

Whatever the level of truth, the whole effort was a sham and a fraud. Potemkin concocted and created the lies, believed by the highest levels of government because they wanted to believe. Is our morality nothing more than a “Potemkin village”?

Our best attempts at goodness and morality are no better if our hearts and minds are not regenerated by truth. We long to be of good character. We long for those around us to also be of good character, those we associate with, those with whom we choose to invest our time and treasure, those we choose to elect. Don’t we want those around us to have the substance of real character or be feeble imitators? Sound character can only come when a heart has been touched by something greater than itself…something profound, transcendent, and holy, not whitewashed.

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