So the decks off the back of my house needed to be repaired and stained yet again. They are twenty years old, maybe 22. It doesn’t matter. They have been exposed to the blistering southern sun and cold western winds that sometimes whip against my house all these years. Rain is never far off for long in South Central PA, so the old pressure treated wood rarely gets to dry out. Then the filthy maple tree drops leaves and helicopters and bird poop steadily from April to October. All this exposure encourages warping, splintering and cracking. You don’t think on the last day of construction that you are obligating yourself to ongoing maintenance, not when everything is new and clean, straight and plumb, square and true. The piney smell of fresh sawdust sprinkles the air above the decks on the day you walk across their near perfection. Like a brand new marriage on your wedding day, you can’t see the splintering flaws hidden in your future. They are unimaginable. What could possibly go wrong?
My friend Jeff built these decks and the staircase that connects them way back when. He did a great job at cost, leaving me to finish the pickets and the braces, as well as finishing the installation of lag bolts here and there. I know I got the pickets installed, forgot the braces and might have installed the lag bolts incorrectly. It didn’t seem to matter because the decks looked so good. I put the tools away and just enjoyed what was there. From the start of it all, you see, I slacked.
Just for the sake of comparison, I got married 36 years ago. Yup. Been many a storm and drought in those years. Lots of bird poop and dead leaves have fallen on us, but so has new growth and some amazing blessings. Three wonderful daughters any parent would be proud of. A great son in law. An adorable granddaughter. Like our old double decks, our marriage looked good from a distance. If you walked around my marriage often enough, however, you’d notice the sway and unevenness here and there. The corners were pulling out of square. The steps wiggled a bit. A couple of short cuts were visible. Things didn’t line up exactly and gaps appeared. Oh well, that’s okay. Good enough. It would not collapse outright, but it might be unsafe without routine inspection and maintenance… because I slacked at times. Nails instead of screws, screws instead of bolts. A good deck needs nothing but use, right?
So this past weekend I power-washed both decks and the staircase in the middle of a rainstorm. I blasted old stains, mildew, dirt and gunk for three plus hours. This rain soaked duty is something I would never have willingly done if it weren’t for the acute urgency I felt to make changes now. I’d been a poor and lazy steward of these decks. The steps had not been stained last time around I noticed. Likely because I’d said to myself, “I’ll get back to that” and never did. Many thoughts passed through my mind on that rainy day. Remorse and hope arm wrestled one another like I wrestled the power washer wand. “Why did it have to come to this point? Clearly it did not. Neglect, whether of a person or a thing, leads to decay.”
Nails had worked themselves up and out of their holds mysteriously. It was a simple matter to pound them back in or replace them with galvanized deck screws. I felt a measure of self contempt and self satisfaction as I repaired the results of my neglect. I looked at my physical efforts as half a metaphor for my marriage relationship: can I do the same things with my good, solid wife? Can I draw the corners of our relationship back into square and make our rails plumb? And what did I contribute to their warping? My harsh judgments had been blisteringly unforgiving, simmering under the painted surfaces, cooking the sap of her timbers. My icy words and frosty silences froze her heartwood, cracking and swelling each carefully laid board. I did not cherish or respect her enough to do the needed maintenance cheerfully. Only when life was power washing me did I do the right stuff.
I bit my lip harder as I self confessed my arrogant stupidity. Twenty years ago I used to paint others’ houses with great care and precision, taking great pains to make them look good. Many a fellow painter said to me, “Just make it look good from the street.” That rubbed me the wrong way. Yet, in retrospect, I see that I did to my house what I did to my marriage and family: I often gave my best overs to others and my left overs to my loved ones. Who does this? Who is more present, respectful, patient, etc. for strangers than for their own family?
I remembered the old joke about the painter who thinned the paint he used for painting the church’s steeple. He thought no one would notice and he’d pocket the difference. As he was finishing the scam, the voice of God shook his scaffolding.
“Clarence, you have cheated the church and me. You did not cheapen the paint but you did cheapen yourself. You have seriously sinned here, Bro.”
Clarence, “Lord, Lord, I am sorry. What should I do?”
The Lord, “Repaint, repaint and thin no more.”
As I reclined with a sore back that night, I thought about those braces. I had bought some 2×4’s along with extra stain. Before the sun went down, I went back out and cut and screwed three of them on the diagonal into the staircase supports. Amazingly the wobble was gone. The shaky shake stairs were suddenly rock solid. I was thrilled with the difference. I could not wait for my wife to walk down them like a new bride– safely, steadily and securely on a fresh new promise.
“Repent, repent and sin no more.” I can do the first and struggle hard against the second… but only through the power of my gracious God can I succeed. Amen.