Spelunking at Home Depot

I finally had enough of a weekend free to put up the backsplash in our kitchen. It was neither a huge nor complicated job, and I had done some floor tile before, but never tackled a backsplash.

My wife had helped me pick out the tile which was more like a mosaic of rough stones. I got to Home Depot, found the tile, and started to count them out. I needed twenty-three pieces, but only found thirteen on the shelf. Come one, there must be more back there. It was on the very bottom shelf, so I stooped down and peered into the abyss. Was that another box back there? I couldn’t quite see. I lit up my phone light and shined it in, and yes, it was another box of that tile!

OK, now I have to get it out of there. Surely I can find someone to help me. I looked up and down several aisles and of course, saw no one in an orange apron. I guess I’m going to have to do this myself.

I got down on my stomach and crawled into the space between two other stacks of tile. Not much room to spare. Thank you paleo and CrossFit for helping me shave off a couple of pounds. I got all the way in up to my waist and got a hold of the box. It was a whole box of ten tiles, still wrapped in plastic, exactly the number I needed! As I wriggled out, I wondered how many had walked by wondering what I was doing. I expected a tap on the leg and the question, “Do you need some help?” But as I extracted myself, I was still the only living soul in the aisle.

Mission accomplished. Backsplash done. Not bad for my first time.

“Got any nails?”

A man was standing out in front of our house the other day, and I knew exactly why he was there. The truck pulling a trailer filled with extension ladders said it all before he even spoke. He and his small crew were out looking for work trimming palm trees.

He had rung our doorbell, but I had disconnected that a long time ago so the sound wouldn’t wake up napping grandchildren. So I walked out front and we began talking about my four palms badly in need of a trim. After he made an offer, I said, “Can you do it today?” He quickly replied yes, and we shook on the deal.

Now my front yard palms are well over twenty feet tall, requiring a much bigger ladder and a lot more courage to climb than I possess to maintain. I was really interested to see how they would get up there. The three man team had clearly worked together for a while. One guy set up the ladder and climbed to the top. The second disposed of the branches he cut off. The third owned the company and he watched while they did the work.

Back to guy number one. After leaning what looked like a twenty-four foot ladder against the tallest tree, he started up a chainsaw, hung it from his belt, and started climbing as it idled. At the top, he belted himself to the tree, and then quickly trimmed the tree to a neat “ten and two” (think clock). I thought the guy at the bottom would load up the trailer with branches. Nope. He just dragged them off into the adjoining vacant lot. I don’t know it you’re supposed to do that, but I didn’t ask any questions.

While all this is going on, my across the street neighbor is hauling some trash out to the curb. The third guy picked up a piece of plywood and proceeded to use it to repair a hole in the bed of his trailer. He yelled to me, “Got any nails?” I did and brought a box over to him. With a smile, he said, “My man!” and took a handful to fix his trailer.

When he was done with the trailer repair, he sat on my front porch with me. He asked for a Coke. All we had was Lacroix. He was thankful. I offered three, but he said the other guys wouldn’t like it. He asked me how long I had been in the house. I’ve been here twenty three years, but he has lived in Flagler County his whole life, sixty-one years, the same age as me.

He then told me about his first job in Flagler County when he was sixteen. Back then there were few roads through what is now our city. He and two friends were looking for work and came across a construction site. His friends were bolder than he was and went right to the foreman. When they asked for jobs, he asked, “What can you do?” They both said, “We’re operators.” He handed each a spade and showed them where to start digging. Then he asked this man, “What can you do?” He looked at his friends and said, “I’m not an operator!” The boss pointed to a truck and said, “Can you drive that?” He said, “Yes.” “Ok, pull it around here.” He did and that was his job. His friends all had blistered hands while he got to drive the truck.

My palm trees were trimmed and my yard was all cleaned up in about 30 minutes. The trees looked great! What a difference. And what a nice afternoon talking with a few guys just out making a living.

A big slice of today

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

I had the first appointment of the day when I recently took my car in on a Friday morning for some routine maintenance. With computer, journal and coffee in hand, I found a table when I could read, write and wait. Other than a few service people, the place was mostly empty. Over the next hour or so, I watched as the receptionist, sales, finance, managers and, eventually, a few customers arrived.

As I eavesdropped on casual conversations about their plans for the weekend, one outburst caught my attention. “I’m ready for this day to be over!” He passed by so quickly I never got to find out anymore details. But I thought to myself, “What a dismal way to begin your day!” The sun is barely up, and you are already yearning for dusk.

Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe he had a funeral to attend, a root canal scheduled or knew he was about to get chewed out by the boss. So he just wanted to get it over with.

I wonder if he’s the only one. Are there others who just want to get life over with? What happens to your soul when each day crawls by with nothing but boredom, pain or loneliness?

When I catch myself just wanting it to be over (and yes, sometimes that happens), I remind myself that I really don’t know what this day will be like. I don’t know who I’ll meet, what I’ll learn, or what will arrive in the mail. I have to remember that what I dread usually only takes up a small slice of a day rather than defining the whole thing. Most compelling stories begin with a person with a problem who learns something about themselves and creates new possibilities. I want to be a part of such stories, so I don’t want the day to be over until I’ve experienced all of it. In other words, give me a big slice of today!

How about some grace?

So, if I weren’t a pastor and I went to a church somewhere, what would I expect of the pastor?

I think that’s a heck of a question, one worth asking from time to time when I wonder where my time went. Am I doing more than I need to do? If so, then why? How much time am I spending on unimportant tasks? Why am I doing that?

OK, here is my list. Yours may be different, but that’s OK.

I would expect the pastor to proclaim God’s Word to me. Preach the word. What is God saying to us through his word right now? I expect that the pastor has studied and prepared some good news for the congregation from scripture.

I would want the pastor to be a regular person. Wife, kids, hobbies, joys and frustrations. If I stop by his house, it’s not perfectly kept. If he comes to my house, he’s right at home.

I would want the pastor to baptize, marry, and bury those whom I love. In those very special, emotional moments, please remind me that God is a part of those moments, too.

I would want the pastor to project grace. I don’t need someone to tell me what to do or how to do it. I already have plenty of people in my life who do that. But grace is hard to find. Maybe the pastor can bring it.

That doesn’t sound too tough, does it? Yet, when you are the pastor, you feel like everyone expects a whole lot more from you. You feel like everyone is expecting you to

  • make the church grow
  • keep the kids engaged
  • attend any and every meeting
  • bless things (crocheted prayer shawls, bibles, necklaces, urns, bricks, cross necklaces…whatever)
  • keep the church sanctuary at a comfortable temperature
  • go after those people who don’t even want to be a part of the church
  • make people behave better
  • tell people how they ought to vote at election time
  • visit people in the hospital who didn’t tell you they were in the hospital because they thought somehow you knew
  • perform a funeral for someone who never came to church but was a pretty good person most of the time
  • conduct a wedding for a couple from out of town who wanted to be married on the beach because you live at the beach
  • remember who can’t drink wine, eat gluten, or likes to drink from the common cup

I don’t know if everyone really expects those things. It’s just that I think people expect those things. We should be able to reach a compromise here. If you expect grace and I expect grace then I can let go of many expectations and simply give you the best gift of all. Grace!

Is it warm in here, or is it me?

Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

As you know (or maybe don’t know) anything can happen on a Sunday morning. As a pastor, you want your Sunday mornings to be uneventful. Should the Holy Spirit choose to blow through and dramatically change someone’s life, I’ll go with it. But in general, I prefer no surprises.

Especially the physical plant surprises that might crop up at any moment. In Connecticut, the worst thing that could happen in the winter was no heat. In Florida, however, throughout the year, the one thing you don’t want to encounter is no air conditioning.

I arrived a little earlier than usual last Sunday morning. I was staving off high-pollen laryngitis and wanted to give my voice a little more time to wake up. It was gravely, but would endure the morning with lots of water and no singing. After running through my sermon, I noticed that the sanctuary was strangely silent as six-thirty AM came and went. Usually, the big AC units kick on at 6:30 to begin cooling down the room for worship. Especially on a humid February morning.

I checked everything I knew how to check. As I often tell my leaders, I barely passed my HVAC class at the seminary. I just knew it was going to be warm if something didn’t happen soon.

About 7 am I called the AC guys. I know that I woke up the owners wife who was handling the phone that morning. They would send someone out.

As the musicians arrived to warm up and early arriving worshipers arrived, the worship folders doubled as fans to cool a quickly warming room. About five minutes before worship was about to being, an AC tech showed up and pondered the mysteries of the box which controlled everything. All I could do was remind myself that it wasn’t that hot yet. Surely he would figure it out soon.

About 30 minutes later, I could feel cold air beginning to circulate through the worship space. Thank you, Lord! It’s not like we can crack a window or anything. We opted out of that when we built. As cool air began to course through the room, those fanning themselves soon put their sweaters on. Feast or famine. Sahara or Arctic, I guess. By grace alone we made it through the morning.

Today (Monday morning), I arrived at the church to begin another week, and noticed that all the big units were running. Still running. I looked at the status display, and it read, “Forced schedule.” Now what do I do? A little later a tech showed up and explained what the other guy did and what to do next time. It’s not an elegant solution, but it will work.

I have plenty on my mind every Sunday morning. I’d like to focus on preaching and teaching. In my dreams! I usually have to deal with electrical (the lights won’t come on), acoustical (my microphone is popping), atmospherical (it’s kind of cold in here, pastor) and medical issues (someone passes out in church). I hope you’ll forgive me if I lose my train of thought.

Getting rid of stuff

I think it started with the remodel. It intensified with the reading of Marie Kondo’s book on “tidying up.” It hit the fan with Josh Becker’s Minimalist Home. We are getting rid of stuff. Here’s a short list:

  • Forty-year old high school and college year books (they’re all online anyway)
  • Plastic storage containers (with lids)
  • The spoon my mom fed me with when I was a baby.
  • Mugs of many shapes and sizes (we use the same two or three every morning)
  • Clothes we don’t wear (some with price tags still attached!)

Kitchen gadgets: apple slicer (we have knives, you know), herb scissors (never used them), angel food cake pan (don’t make angel food cake here), knick-knacks (that have been stored in the attic for years), a portfolio of kids’s art (I took pics of everything), and a whole bunch of picture frames.

This process reminds me of my move from a rented duplex in Austin, TX to the seminary thirty-seven years ago. I didn’t have much, but I left plenty on the curb before I headed off to the seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN. I left behind all my math books (that was my major in college), cheap sofas and chairs, and who knows what else. I sold my bike and trombone. I fit everything I owned into a Volkswagon Rabbit diesel car (remember those?) along with Gabriel, my Labrador Retriever) and headed off to study to be a pastor.

I know. What if I need those books I never read? What if I need that shirt I’ve never worn? What if…

Four years ago we cleaned out my dad’s house. We kept virtually nothing. We got rid of everything. Guess what? You can get rid of a lot of stuff right now!

There’s no coffee.

As I finished up the first worship service last Sunday and walked out the front door, I was greeted by a great friend of mine who said in a subdued voice, “We’ve got a little problem.” Usually, if someone says we have a big problem, I don’t worry about it too much. Such situations are generally blown out of proportion. Conversely, if you tell me we have a little problem, you’ve got my attention.

“We’ve got a little problem. There’s no power in the kitchen. So there’s no coffee.” What? This is serious. Everyone know that’s one of the signs of the apocalypse. There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. How in the world are we supposed to do Sunday morning without coffee?

We did just fine, but it made me wonder, “Why do we have coffee on Sunday morning?” When did that tradition begin? Who first had that idea to serve coffee on a Sunday in conjunction with gathering for worship?

I’m straining to remember what it was like in the church where I grew up. I don’t know if they always had coffee, but I do remember our youth group sponsoring a coffee 1/2our from time to time to raise money. My mom drank a lot of coffee, so maybe it was even her idea. I didn’t drink much coffee as a young adult, so I can’t remember if it was available at my church in New Jersey. At my first call in Connecticut, I remember sometimes having to unplug the pot Monday morning. I don’t know if we ever got that on-all-night-burned-to-the-bottom taste out of the pot. We also all tried bringing our own mugs so we didn’t use as many styrofoam cups. In Iowa, the elder on duty prepared and plugged in several giant coffee pots. Try as they might, they just couldn’t get that duty removed from their job description.

I think we’ve had coffee on Sunday mornings most of the twenty-two years I’ve been at my church in Florida. Some of it was pretty good. Some of it was horrid. Every volunteer barista had their own recipe. Some used a whole one pound can to make a forty-two cup pot. Others would only use a cup. Some thought it frugal to use the grounds someone had left in from the previous Sunday. From time to time, someone would forget to put coffee in at all. The water still came out brown, it just didn’t have any taste.

Since I’m still preaching full time, I don’t get to visit many churches. But I’ll bet you won’t find many worship gatherings without available coffee. Trying to discontinue the custom can be dangerous, as described in this article. If it gets people to slow down and talk to each other rather than sprinting to their cars to see who can be the first one out of the parking lot, I guess it’s a good thing for the church.

Yes, I write my own sermons

I stumbled across this blog post the other day: “So, do you write your own sermons?”

I felt compelled to mention here that yes, for better or worse, I write all my own sermons. (I wonder how many think I don’t?) I once ordered a kit for some midweek Lent worship services that included bulletin covers, liturgies, and sermons. Even though I liked the themes and some of the ideas, I had to rewrite all of them. They just didn’t sound like me and needed to be adapted for my specific audience. I didn’t waste my money on any more kits.

It never occurred to me that pastors wouldn’t write their own sermons. My seminary professors — from the historical, exegetical and systematic departments as well as homiletics — spent a lot of time preparing us for the pulpit. Then again, I did have a colleague when I was of several pastors at another church who received some kind of subscription of sermon resources. He never shared them with us, so I don’t know how much he drew from them.

I may pick up some ideas, themes, titles or illustrations from stuff I read, but I have to shape them into my own words. Otherwise, it just doesn’t feel natural. I don’t even go back and use sermons I’ve written in the past. Although I have copies of just about everything I’ve written, I never like them as much as the new material I write.

Yes, I write my own sermons. And just in case you’re curious, here’s the process I generally follow each week as I prepare for a Sunday morning. It’s not a hard and fast schedule, just a routine that works for me.

Monday On Monday morning, I read through the texts for that day (Old Testament, Psalm, Epistle and Gospel) and decide which one I will preach on that week. I’ll work through that passage mostly in English to come up with a title and basic outline of what I want to say. I usually use the “Lowry Loop” to accomplish this, since it moves my thoughts towards a goal or a “so what” for the week.

From time to time may preach a topical series of sermons, for which I pick the biblical texts. In the past I’ve preached series on the Great Commission, Tearing Down our Idols, Watching Your Mouth, Stewardship, Witnessing and lots and lots of Lenten series.

Tuesday On Tuesday, I’ll work on the passage again, checking other English translations and looking at the Greek or Hebrew to see if there are any interesting words or phrases that catch my attention. I try to anticipate any questions the hearer might have, too. I may look at a commentary to learn more about the passage’s context and interpretation, too. I like to have my introduction and conclusion figured out, too.

Wednesday On Wednesday, I put the sermon onto Keynote slides which will help me remember. I don’t write out the whole sermon but use bullet lists on each slide. My sermons will generally be eight to twelve slides. I style each slide to be more of a story at this point, and put a picture with it, reminding me to show not just tell. It’s also a great mnemonic device.

Thursday Thursday is practice day. The pictures on each slide will be mentally slotted into rooms in my house, which easily helps me remember each one. Then I practice the sermon out loud several times in the sanctuary as if it were Sunday morning.

Friday Friday is my day off, so I try not to work on church stuff at all.

Saturday (and Sunday) Sometimes I’m off on Saturday, sometimes I have stuff to do. But I will always practice the sermon once before bed and then once more early Sunday morning before anyone else arrives at church.

Granted, that’s an ideal week. Some weeks the sermon comes easily and is done early. Other times I feel like I’m Jacob trying to wrestle blessing from God and I’m actually still working on it on Saturday. But it’s always worth the effort. Most days I’ll block out a couple of hours to work on my sermon. Sometimes I have less; sometimes it takes more. Bottom line: it’s not really a message worth preaching unless it has touched my own heart. Then it’s ready.

And actually, the sermon isn’t ever done until I’ve preached it to the congregation. It’s always a little different in front of a live audience. The sermon writing task is rewarding, frustrating, stimulating, agonizing, frightening and exciting all at the same time. Sometimes I hate my sermons. Other times I love them. I can put people to sleep. Other times I can wake them up. Such is the preaching task and the power of God’s Word!

A dream come true? The Crayola Experience

It’s cold. It’s a little rainy. We need something indoors to do with our grandchildren. My daughter-in-law suggests, “You could go to the Crayola Experience in Plano.” Really? I think I was more excited than anyone.

It’s only twenty minutes away. We got our tickets online at a discount. Loaded up the van and we were off. Pretty easy to find. Whoa – when we stepped out of the van we remembered just how cold it was, especially for us FL folks. But it was only a short walk and we were in.

If you like to color, like I still do, you are a fan of Crayola. RoseArt? No thank you. I need the real thing. I remember opening up that new pack of twenty-four at the beginning of each school year. The thrill was quickly eclipsed by the kid in class with a box of 48. But the real oohs and aahs were reserved for those who brought a box of sixty-four with the built-in sharpener.

When we walked in, we stopped at a kiosk where you could personalize a wrapper for a red, blue or green crayon. For a token, of course. Uh-oh. Tokens? Each of us got two with the price of admission. We might need to get more. We’ll see. I made a blue one for my grandson and I think my granddaughter made a red one.

No time to waste. Off to a coloring center. Here you sit at a counter and there are bins and bins of brand new crayons right there in front of you. Classic colors. Metallic colors. Pastels and browns and blues. Niche colors, like Mac-n-Cheese. It was amazing. Off to the side, you could stand in front of a camera and have a line drawing of yourself printed to color. Very cool. I made sure I scanned the pic on my phone so we could make more later.

We didn’t stay there long. There’s a spin art station. You put a crayon in a slot, the paper spins, and melted crayon makes a sunburst design. A second crayon adds an additional color. It quickly dries, we carefully take it from the spinner, and put it in our plastic bag keeper.

Just to the right was another station. A melting station, Here, you put a crayon in the melter and watched as it dripped into a mold. A blower cooled it before your eyes and just like that, you had a ring formed from a crayon. My granddaughter commented, “I never had a crayon ring before!”

I was always fascinated by melting and melted crayons. Growing up I had a high intensity desk lamp which generated more than enough heat to melt a crayon. I remember spending a lot of time creating mountains from melted crayons. I would melt the metallic colors first – gold, silver and copper. I would cover them with other colors, and then go mining for precious metals. On a sunny day, a ray of light and a magnifying glass melted deep holes into melted crayon hills.

What makes a crayon so appealing, so special, so unique? The smell, the assortment of colors, no drying time, the ease of making a shape and filling it with color. An art supply that appeals to both young and old.

Crayola has it’s own formula of a Play Doh-like substance called Model Magic. It’s a tad more elastic, but harder to separate than Play Doh. We had about an hour’s fun with that, too.

They had a show to watch, a live-video hybrid demo of how crayons are made. I was rapt. We got a free crayon on the way out, too.

On the way out, you go through the gift shop. One wall is completely covered with crayon towers in every color they produce. You can mix and match your own box, just like picking an assortment of craft beers for a six pack. You just can’t walk out without some crayons!

I would go back or to another location at the drop of a hat. What a great way to spend a morning!