In 2007, I was asked to preach at a small church in Leavenworth, KS. It was the beginning of an encounter with a collective of people that I now know and love.
Upon my arrival, I was introduced to this jazz drummer who my girlfriend at the time (now my wife) referred to as “Cool Guy.”
“Cool Guy,” was a lighter skinned, elderly, black man. His body was slightly hunched and swayed to one side, bearing most of his weight upon a favored foot. Observing his stance, I noticed that the rest of his weight was held up by a long black cane. Through a quiet voice with a slight rasp, he extended his hand to mine and spoke,
“How ya doin’ there? I’m Brother Arnold.”
My wife and I were married that same year and over the next 8 years, I would get to know Brother Arnold in greater detail. He had been a drummer, and even though he wasn't as mobile as he used to be, he still liked to play. As often as I would see him, he was ever encouraging and kind. The more we got to know each other, the more I understood why he was known as "Cool Guy."
“Matt,” he would say, “that message you ministered was real good. It blessed me so much.”
I would offer him my thanks and we would talk for a spell.
If you’ve ever spoken in front of an audience, then you’ll know that while you don’t do it solely for the slaps on the back and kind words of affirmation, they certainly do help. It can be crazy encouraging to have someone tell you that your message spoke to them deeply.
“I tell you, Matt…you're good at this. Really good,” Brother Arnold would say.
“I want you to know that I pray for you and Casey everyday. I mean it. Everyday.”
Now, there’s no shortage of people in church culture who make statements like this. To hear someone say, “Hey man, I’m prayin’ for ya,” is often taken as a gesture of wishing someone well. Sometimes, it’s almost like people are saying, “Well, dang, that sucks. But I really wish it didn’t. And by the way, prayin’ for ya.”
But each new encounter with Brother Arnold ended the same way:
“Matt, I just love you and Casey and I want you to know that I’m praying for you.”
My wife's mom later confirmed it. He was, in fact, praying for us as often as he said he was. Sometimes he would even call Casey’s mom and pray for us over the phone with her.
To be honest, it took some time for the weight of his words to hit me. Think about the impact of someone who is daily lifting you up in prayer. It’s a selfless act, for someone to regularly put their life on hold to consider yours in prayer to God.
It’s both powerful and immensely uplifting to know someone is talking to God on your behalf every single day.
Over time, I was able to piece together the more acute details of Brother Arnold’s story.
Once, while we were both present at a men’s Bible Study, the group began discussing a certain passage from the book of Proverbs (an often quoted book here at WATV).
During our discussion, I had brought up the passage in Proverbs 20:29 which reads that the glory of young men is their strength, and the splendor of old men is their gray hair. I expressed how this was a temptation for me; to use my youth and strength as a young(er) man (I was 32 at the time) for the sole sake of earning money.
[Note: This idea is later deconstructed by King Solomon himself, who says in Proverbs 23:4 that we should not overwork to be rich, but that in our own understanding, we should cease.]
At this moment in the discussion, Brother Arnold chimes in and begins to tell a story. He explains that in the mid-90’s he had been working long hours and sleeping just one hour a night. This had been going on for years, and on this particular night, he went to bed feeling sort of funny on one side of his body. He decided he would get some rest and after waking up, if he felt any worse, then he would seek medical attention . Unfortunately, when he woke up, he could hardly speak or drink anything out of one side of his mouth. His body had suffered a stroke in his sleep and he was unable to move his entire right side.
“That was about 20 years ago,” Brother Arnold said at the end of his account.
“So I know, if you try it, it’s not worth it.”
I was cured.
An account of this magnitude had me resolved to keep my health and life-balance in check. We’re only as capable as our bodies will allow.
Still, despite his physical challenges and general struggle to get from one place to the next, (its hard to move when one half of your body is locked up) every Sunday, while in Kansas, I would see Brother Arnold come to service with a smile upon his face and warm handshake to greet me after the message.
“You did good, Matt,” he would say. “That really blessed me.”
Many of us are familiar with heroes who wear capes, but what about those who spur us on with their words?
Through our sequence of encounters, I felt Brother Arnold became a hero of encouragement in my life. At every turn, he would build me up with his words.
As far as I could tell, there was no particular reason for the joy in his life. By every measure, Brother Arnold had every reason to be unhappy about his set of circumstances.
Here’s a man, who’s been paralyzed in half of his body for 20 some years, and rather than turning bitter he greets me with love and encouragement. Instead of being put off by his daily challenges, he steps through them and chooses to keep moving forward. It takes a special grace to walk through circumstances like this.
Apart from God’s mercy, and Brother Arnold’s reliance to lean into the love of God, I know that there’s no reason for his constant joy. It’s almost as though he allows God to uphold the half of him which he physically cannot...this, only being possible, because spiritually, God upholds the whole of him.
We live on, most of us, physically, fully capable of doing what we need to, but is our reliance upon who it should be? We profess Christ as the Lord over our lives, but how often do we properly surrender that control to Him?
Is our trust in our own strength, or is it settled in the wisdom of the one who upholds us?
My friendship with Brother Arnold reminds me that humility, vulnerability, and transparency of soul, are the real qualities of character to be found in serving Jesus.
He reminds me that when we lean upon Christ, He upholds us. Completely.