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.






215. garbage and glory

Looks like spring is actually going to stay true this time. Okay a dip here and there for a day is acceptable as long as the wood stove does not need to be relit. Bulky item drop off at the township dumpsters is a holy rite of rural spring. Though it pains me to dump a perfectly good sink and a usable ceiling fan into a landfill, I’m less guilty about the 50 year old fake Christmas tree and the carpet remnants from my office floor. When is the earth going to explode in a methane gas belch as its landfills and dumps digest all this waste? You know there has to be something valuable in the buried mix, don’t you? Today’s archeologists dig through history’s landfills for priceless treasure. I hope this trend continues, and one day Dr. Reckyclousson of the University of Stockholm finds my petrified ceiling fan.

“Professor, come qvickly. Bjorn have unearthed somesing you vill like.”

“Look! It’s a nearly  complete Harbor Breeze ceiling fan from the 1980’s. Even the viring harnesses are intact. Be very careful with it. We’ll take it back to the lab and clean it wiss pneumatic tools. Oh, yes! I can’t wait to tell my colleagues and publish my findings. This is purrrfect.”

landfill photo: Landfill w/ Truck landfill.jpg

Doubtful, I know, but it distracts me from the Tic Tac of guilt upon the back of my tongue. I want to be a good steward. Even before I  had kids and a grandchild I wanted to work with nature, always believing in her restorative ability. Growing up before all the environmental protections went into law, there was a lot of stupid litter, dumping, pollution, and general disrespect of the environment. It was not unusual to find a mattress thrown off the side of the road or an old television, a freezer, the ubiquitous tires, or even an old car abandoned in the woods. That’s better now.

I remember an old John Prine song from my teen years… “Paradise”

Well, sometimes we’d travel right down the Green River

to the abandoned old prison down by Adrie Hill

Where the air smelled like snakes

and we’d shoot with our pistols

but empty pop bottles was all we would kill

And Daddy won’t you take me back to Muhlenburg County

Down by the Green River where Paradise lay

“I’m sorry my son, but you’re too late in asking,

Mister Peabody’s coal train has hauled it away.”

Old Mr. Peabody, a robber baron land rapist. What an ugly legacy to leave behind you in Kentucky. You can’t unrape the landscape. You can just start over again with the spring, trying to teach the next generation the lessons forgotten by your own. But I do recall wandering the woods around my childhood home, and the air did occasionally smell like snakes around damp dumps mostly. We would dig through the mess looking for bottles to recycle for 2 cents each as we walked to the store down the hill on Kings Highway.

But there is less unscarred ground and pure water left. I have faith in nature to redeem itself; I have no faith in mankind to do the same. Men are essentially short sighted, selfish, sucky creatures. That’s our nature, folks. Which is why we need a redeemer beyond nature, or a supernatural redeemer. We can’t do it on our own. When will we get that through our cave man minds? When human beings clean things up, it’s not long before other humans make it a mess again. We do not learn from history, therefore we repeat it it over and over and over.

It’s Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar. Passion Week has begun. What a strange upheaval in one short week that shook history. On this Sunday Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey like a hero on a budget. His ministry had been up and down for three years, but now “Hosanna” filled the air. The next thing you know he’s saying goodbye to his closest followers at his last earthly supper, washing their feet. We have the advantage of knowing how the story ends. His disciples did not. They seem rather slow to pick up his messages and realize what’s going on. They had not seen the movie yet, where he is arrested and tried and sentenced to a horrible death.

Free Bible images of Jesus riding triumphantly into Jerusalem on a donkey while the crowds wave palm branches and shout, ‘Hosanna’. An event remembered on Palm Sunday. (Matthew 21:1-11, Mark 11:1-11, Luke 19:28-44, John 12:12-17): Slide 19

So why didn’t Jesus just throw down the miracle to end all miracles and clean up the mess that men had made? He could have crucified his crucifiers as easily as cutting his toenails. Where is his force and power?  Our human nature cries out for it. Knock some heads around like Rambo. Round them up for justice like John Wayne. So we miss it again, because we don’t think spiritually. The horrible surrender of God’s son to the ants of the Roman Empire overcame a spiritual not a material kingdom. It was not Caesar’s defeat for a century but Satan’s defeat forever that resulted from his humble acceptance of our sentence. Each one of us will die. Some in awful agony and others in our sleep, and our material lives will end. No matter; he has washed our filth off.

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Think of this: you have choices, millions of choices in your life. Imagine a key ring with a thousand keys on it. You can use most of them or nearly all of them. But if you leave unused the supernatural key of Jesus, it won’t matter how many really good natural choices you have made. You will be spending eternity outside the presence of God, whatever that looks like. Even if it’s not fire and brimstone, why would anyone not want to know the God who loved mankind so much that he sacrificed His own son to redeem all of them? All of them, even the sex offenders, addicts, and murderers. Even those folks you can’t forgive… he has.

Each one is a choice every day. How will I live? Why?
Yes, time rolls around again. My body is weaker each year and closer to death. So what? I have chosen that Jesus key which opens the door of eternity. Maybe I’ll see Mr. Peabody there. I’ll be sure to give him my two cents.