324. Stains, Repairs and Marriage.

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?

The answer is a moron, i.e., me.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

238. thuffering thistle thorn thermon

[Purple haired Thistlus puncturus Americanus, stinking punk for short]

I was gardening barehanded recently in the back yard, out beyond my usual plucking zone of weeds. The smorgasbord of undesirable greens had gotten ahead of my good intentions. Rabbits, squirrels and groundhogs ignored these leafy dishes. I figure these weeds must taste as bad as they look. Mostly it’s the thistles that are repulsive with their fine needley leaves. They appear soft, but whoa Martha Stewart, they have enough tensile strength to penetrate thick fingers and palms and embed their unwanted syringey selves into one’s flesh. Unlike a bee’s stinger, there is no plunger on the other side; the bare, ignorant gardening hand does all the pushing. All the thinking or lack thereof belongs on the ungloved human side. [ It appears that my anti-melodramatic prescription needs a refill.  I need to call the Wal Mart automated pharmacy line immediately or bad things will happen.]

So last Sunday I was standing in church singing a praise song and “ouch!”, wouldn’t you know it? One of those tiny, almost invisible, eyelash thin thistle thorns in my left thumb was pressed just enough to set off a nerve signal of pain to my distracted brain. Dang! it sent a tiny but nasty bite up my arm, stinging, like tender flesh caught in the zipper signal to my brain. If I had been spirit-minded, I was suddenly flesh-focused on that nasty little zinger in my thumb. I explored the source, pushing around my thumb to find the exact puncture point.  “Douhoughouh”, I ejaculated, which is the phonetic spelling of Mandarin Chinese for “That’s it, Jerry Jeff Jesus!”

Throughout the next few songs and well into the sermon, I explored the surface of my thumb with the index finger and thumb of my right hand. “Douhoughouh” again. I connected this pain signal with the concept of sin as I mentally dipped into the figurative  pool of prickly pain and that other pool of spiritual protection. I don’t recall if the pastor referred to Ephesians 6:10, but I will. “Our battle is not against flesh and blood but against powers and principalities.” Well, at that second I was holding a  tiny though bloodless skirmish against my flesh and nervous system. I wanted that little demon irritant out of my body. As I sought to get rid of the annoying penetration, I pondered if this was a mini-sermon on sin.

[Elvis and Priscilla in a fairy garden, waiting for Frank Sinatra.]

After all I had done the stupid thing– barehanded weed plucking. I should have used protection. I was impatient, impulsive and did things my way. That’s always a good way to get bad results. I applied all the careless pressure and ignored the lessons of my past. “In my own will”… that’s the mantra of the sin-filled man. Whether Sinatra or Elvis sings, “I did it my way”, it comes out the same. Pain and irritation if you are lucky. Of course it could get worse with allergic reactions or infection later on. As I know full well, there is a crop of poison ivy loitering along my back fence line. That would have been unnerving if I’d grabbed onto some of that. My Broken Blog Farmers, sin and weeds are out there. You don’t have to look too hard to find a pile of either. But God gives us “gloves” to handle such things.

As I was analyzing this analogy, I pinched the puncture point and got lucky or blessed since I was in God’s house. I pulled the offending zinger out of my thumb. I couldn’t believe it at first, so I pressed the puncture again. A sense of soreness had replaced the stinging sharp prick that had been whining at my brain from that area code. The nearly microscopic thorn was too fine for my eyes to see in the dim church light. I just knew by feel that it was gone. Amen.

Now about those holy gloves, what would they be?  Let’s start with discernment. Not every prickly thing is a sin just as not every prickly plant is a thistle.  Take pineapples for example. No, I mean for real. Pick one up. Ahh, not so fast, right? You could saw your arm off trying to harvest one of those juicy wonders. So you need some careful discernment, friends.

You need protection. Ephesians 6:10 tells us to put on God’s armor in preparation for the darts and verbal volleys of the enemy. Put on the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shoes of peace in God’s gospel, the shield of faith, and the sword of the spirit, which is the word of God. But you might say, “I’m just going out to pull a few weeds, man. Who needs all that?”  You do. I do. We all do. It’s a battlefield out there, especially when it appears calm and lovely. Do you put on your seatbelt and keep your airbag activated? Do you keep your car inspected and your brakes working?  Well, sure you do. Why? For your protection, my friend. Accidents and stupid human tricks are not hard to find. And God, do they hurt.
And after all of this preparation, what to do?  Stand, pray, be alert. Don’t become complacent and/or smug in your protection. That’s when the camel gets its nose under the tent. The next thing you know, the camel is ordering off the menu and smoking at the table over coffee. Keep your camels tied firmly outside your tents, my blognomads. For they are unclean beasts. As Moses told his brother Aaron, “Get that filthy beast out of here.” This incident did not make the final cut of the KJV Bible, but I’m sure it happened a time or two.   Anyway, weeds are sin; sin is bad; camels are dirty beasts. Amen.

;