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Too Deep For Words

“Too Deep For Words” by David O. Bales
“Mustard Seed Yard” by David O. Bales

Too Deep For Words
by David O. Bales
Romans 8:26-39

Dear Mom and Dad,

As I told you a year ago, my old mentor at seminary suggested we always put off a thorough report to our parents about a congregation until we had been there a year. Over this year I have had lots I could say — interesting, confusing, even ghostly. Only a few things one would call “extremely out of the ordinary.” I am going to smooth over some details, round some rough corners, and withhold identities. The delay for you in a detailed summary of these twelve months has proven wise (or lucky), because yesterday was a special congregational meeting called in order to fire me. Now is the perfect time to tell you about my first year here as pastor.

First: Most interesting in the congregation is that the church custodian (which the committee told me was a disabled pastor) had been this congregation’s pastor 33 years ago. The things that a calling committee won’t tell you! I found out about him on my first Tuesday here. He’s still on his pastor’s old schedule. Takes Mondays off. My first Tuesday morning in the church, I’m wandering downstairs to orient myself room by room to the building. I hear this “aawww, aawww” coming from the basement chapel, like the soundtrack of a horror movie. I push the door open slightly to peek in and an old guy with tousled white hair is on his knees in the front pew making this sound. I dash up to tell Gladys the secretary and see if she knows anything about him. She laughs and says, “Dear Old Pastor Bob.”

She told me that he had served as pastor here 16-17 years ago and at age 49 had a stroke. He does not speak. After thirty years, nobody is sure he can. Later that morning he came to my office and stood in the doorway as though I should know who he is. No expression on his face. No offered hand to shake. He just motions for me to follow him to the custodian’s closet. The closet walls are draped with upside down antique carpet sweepers, like props for a science fiction movie. He points to this large wall calendar. Scratched day by day is the month’s schedule. He points me to the note above that states he must (I repeat, “must”) have instructions written and posted on this calendar a day before anybody needs something special, like a room set up for a meeting. Do I understand? I acknowledge “yes,” and with a slack face he brushes by me with a large broom to start on the halls. His calendar states: Tuesday, sweep halls. He vacuums the sanctuary at 1:30 PM on Sunday. I watched him begin his work and wondered what goes on in his mind.

Gladys is waiting for me when I get back to my office. She is grinning. “You’ve now met DOPB.” She laughs and says, “Dear Old Pastor Bob.” She tells me as much as she knows about him, which isn’t a lot. He was here before she was hired but she doubts that many people hold him dear. “Fewer and fewer people were even here thirty years ago — but he does his job,” she said. “Never asks for a raise. And, as you can see, never argues with anybody because he doesn’t talk. People write him notes, leave them in the custodian’s closet and stay out of his way.”

“What about that noise he made in the chapel?” I asked.

Gladys became serious, “That’s the only sound I’ve heard from him and the only place I’ve heard it. I think that’s his prayer — every morning when he comes to work. Some days louder than others. No matter how early that is. By the way, you’ll be glad to know that in the middle of summer, he shows up at four to open all the doors and windows to cool the place.

“He fixes everything. Wouldn’t let anybody touch the dishwasher when it went out. Took it to pieces, parts strung all over the kitchen, then back together and nobody better mess with it again! The carpet sweeper is from the 1950s. Forty pounds at least. They don’t make them anymore. That’s why he scavenged so many for parts.”

As I said, old Pastor Bob is definitely the most interesting thing about the church; but a few other matters run a close second. One lady has been able to prevent the choir’s swaying as they sing. You read that right. I am told it was four or five years ago the choir was singing a spiritual and they swayed together right and left. Makes sense to me. However, this particular church member said that it made her seasick and had to leave quickly or she would vomit. So, we have what I call a “rigid choir.”

A special Sunday attraction is that several bring dogs to worship. Over a decade ago a pastor agreed to a “blessing of the animals” service. The congregation liked it so much some continued to bring their dogs. If others don’t like it, they haven’t gotten around to forbidding it. An interesting consequence is that during worship a half dozen grade school girls sang “This Little Light Of Mine” and did a really good job. However, every time they hit a particular note, one dog whined. No one dared an embarrassing chuckle. I experienced how much energy it takes to keep a straight face and not break out hysterically in laughter — which, by the way, people did outside the church immediately after worship.

On the less than hysterical side: A panoramic view of the congregation holds three obvious attractions on the horizon. This is the matter that the couple of pastors who guided me to this congregation warned me about.

They told me of three families. No mentioning of names. They are three farm families who have anchored the congregation for generations. And, they have constantly quarreled over irrigation rights for their farms. They do not show it at church. All nicey-nicey. They might want to quit attending so they would not have to relate civilly to the others, but they fear if they did the other two families might garner community support against them.

For the last twelve months various members have spoken out of the corner of the mouth or came right out and stated it: They are tired of these families upsetting the ministry here. One older lady even guessed that years ago it was the tension of dealing with the “terrible three” that triggered Pastor Bob’s stroke.

I made sure in the first three weeks here to visit one of these families each week. Word got around fast that I had appointments, who with and when. Consequently, each of these evening calls were transformed into family dinners and I mean family. Dining room bursting with all ages. Each generation had a token at the table and each family curried my favor — without saying it, of course. It was slightly comical. I have done my best in every way to maintain an even-handed relation to these three families — equal access to any need, as I do for all members. I must, because sometimes in the past, two families have allied against one, then back and forth against one another as their legal actions trickle through the courts.

I have attempted to do my ministry and not be much distracted by those families’ problems. Until ….

A middle-aged mother in one of the families became ill. Hospitalized and undiagnosed. Don’t ask why she wasn’t transferred to a major hospital complex, but she was hospitalized here for ten days. I visited every day and sometimes twice, especially when I knew that other family would be with her and would also need my support.

That did it. Seemed like favoritism. The situation grew quickly into two families against one and I was linked with the one-out. Consequently, a quick call for a congregational meeting yesterday, dogs and all. Somebody brought in a guest speaker and I had to sit in the congregation during worship, powerless and weak with worry over nothing I had done wrong. Trying to pray, yet with no clear sense of what to pray for. After worship, the meeting started at 12:30 and I was exiled to my office to wait. Took a layer off my stomach lining.

At 1:37, Gladys dashed into my office holding her sides as she burst with laughter. She kept hiccupping with giggles as she told me what had happened. In the meeting no one really spoke openly against me. The families would lose face if they seemed vindictive because of my ministry to a hospitalized member of their enemy family. They haggled about procedure and Robert’s Rule Of Order for over an hour. A lot of ho-humming about my not being quite the right pastor for this congregation … until 1:30.

I heard it from my office: The carpet sweeper winding up, sounding like a road grader, and then, “aawww, aawww aawww.” Gladys nearly fell over telling me. She had been up front taking minutes of the meeting and at 1:30 sharp,  on goes the vacuum and with it DOPB with a sound that no one other than she and I had heard many times before, “aawww, aawww aawww.” People are twisting their heads around. Some are gasping. All are soon looking at the old custodian making this strange sound, and an antique machine like an animal angrily gobbling down the center aisle.

In the confusion, an older man in the center of the congregation stood with a broad grin and said with a voice of doom, “I move the meeting be adjourned.”

Before anyone could take another breath, a person across the aisle shouted, “I second,” and a third said, “I call the question.” At which any semblance of Robert’s Rules had gone out the window. Someone then said with a cheery voice, “All in favor.” The congregation spoke in unison, “Aye,” and stood to flee, stumbling over their dogs, and exiting quickly out the side aisles. Dear Old Pastor Bob charged forward with that impassable face, yanking the carpet sweeper down the center aisle left and right, and who knew what thoughts shrieked out in his sighs too deep for words?

Preaching point: All sighs in prayer — with our many feelings and motives — are acceptable to God.

* * *

Mustard Seed Yard
by David O. Bales
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

“It’s in the agreement,” Marlin said to Gilbert. “It’s standard.”

“I didn’t understand when I signed it,” Gilbert said. “Can’t you just let me, as a friend, I mean.”

“It’s not between you and me,” Marlin said. “It’s the way properties are brokered. The company has operated like this long before I got here. If you show up at the house when I bring prospective buyers, what are they supposed to think? Are you pressuring them or you don’t trust me?”

Marlin and Gilbert had been friends in Kiwanis for decades. Now Marlin’s real estate company had listed Gilbert and Louise’s house; yet, Gilbert arrived at Marlin’s office asking to be present when it was shown.

Gilbert rubbed his hand on the arm of his chair, then stood to leave. Marlin said, “I’m really sorry.” Gilbert walked to the door and turned. “Just the backyard? That’s all I’m talking about. Let me tell them about moving the dirt and making the terraces. That’s what’s important.”

“Dirt and rocks?” Marlin said with a questioning frown. “Like I said, Gilbert, it’s not personal. It’s just unusual.”

Gilbert stood at the office door, brushed his hand over his chin and spoke with a sorrowful tone, “Once,” he said, holding up an index finger with a hopeful look. He could see Marlin was softening. He continued, “Let me tell that first customer about the backyard. I’d be telling you at the same time and then you could tell others. I won’t go in the house. Won’t be watching them gawk, or mock the place.” He leaned towards Marlin. “Just once.”

“For crying out loud,” Marlin said. “You should’ve been a salesman. Okay, one time, and don’t tell anybody about this — especially any of the bosses.”

“No problem. Got it. Thanks Marlin,” and for a moment Marlin thought Gilbert was going to cry. Until now the process of listing his house had seemed business-like. Gilbert and Louise had moved to assisted living six months before. Their house just came on the market, a choice house on a big lot in a select area. That’s all the background Marlin knew. Another associate had handled the signing and posted the website details. It would attract a crowd of prospective buyers. If Gilbert’s being present once at a showing ruined a sale, others would be standing in line to view the merchandise.

Three mornings later Marlin arrived late with clients. Gilbert was waiting outside. Marlin hustled over to him at the curb and spoke quickly, “I’ll introduce you to the clients — they’re a nice young couple, met them yesterday — and we’ll do the backyard first.” He slapped a hand on Gilbert’s shoulder, “I assured them you’re not a kook and you’re not here to influence them in any way.”

Gilbert met Carlton and Wyna Cotton in the driveway and the four walked around the house to the backyard. Gilbert was all smiles, as though about to lead a grand tour. Carlton and Wyna hung back. Marlin hoped that Gilbert hadn’t put them off already and, although he wanted to sell the house, he didn’t want the morning to become a bad experience for Gilbert. By their expressions he considered that the couple might not really be interested in the house. This could be just for practice or entertainment.It wouldn’t be the first time he’d dealt with such customers.

The backyard held three high walled terraces, ground close trees, multicolored flowers in stripes and bunches and a water feature trickling down one side. “I call this the ‘Mustard Seed Yard,’” Gilbert said, spreading his arms. “When we moved here, this backyard was a hillside so steep you couldn’t walk up it. Had a zig zag trail in order to get to the top. Quarter acre of hillside.”

Marlin took a step back so he could watch how Carlton and Wyna responded.

“My wife has always been an artist,” Gilbert said, “mostly oils, and she’d been crippled with polio when she was a kid. When we moved here 42 years ago. We’d been married six years and the doctors confirmed we couldn’t have children.” Gilbert’s expression registered Carlton and Wyna’s response of “what have we gotten into?”

Gilbert waved his hand as though trying to regain their attention. “That’s when, over about six months, Louise transitioned into a fulltime, commercial artist, right here at home. Don’t know if you’ve been around artists,” Gilbert said, directing his statement to Carlton and Wyna. They timidly shook their heads.

“This backyard grew from her perfecting her craft.”

Carlton and Wyna listened, but Marlin saw they were only being polite, and they wanted it over quickly. So did Marlin.

“So, the backyard came into being when I’d tell her it was time for us to do something else, like eat,” he laughed, “or go to bed, or get in the car and go to the market. She’d say, ‘Just a couple more strokes,’ or something about feathering a cloud, puckering a nose, or plummaging a tree, which could last anywhere from two seconds to an hour and a half. For the first few months I was bothered by having to wait. Know what I mean?” To which Wyna peeped a “Yes.”

“That’s when I lit on the idea of doing something with the time. I built it myself. Kept a shovel and wheelbarrow here and I’d just step out and take a few more shovels full.” He smiled as though his smile would help them understand.

“That’s the only time I worked on this project,” he said, waving up the hill, “just while I was waiting for Louise.”

The three almost gasped as gazed up the hill and considered how he conveyed half a mountainside into huge terraces by hand.

“I want whoever buys our house to know just a bit at a time. For a long time. Freed Louise to develop her talent, do what she was good at and what she loved. Brought her joy and joy to others. She still teaches oil painting one morning a week where we live. But this hillside was an investment of small moments.” He gave an exaggerated nod of the head, like he’d thoroughly explained everything that needed to be explained. But he was clearly not communicating what he felt was most important. “Just by a few minutes waiting,” he said, restating his meaning.

Marlin hadn’t known what clients might think of Gilbert, but they appeared anything but enthusiastic. He couldn’t tell if Carlton and Wyna looked foolish or embarrassed. Mostly they looked like spanked puppies. Gilbert slumped in disappointment. He cast his head toward the hill and back a couple of times, as though trying to find something else to mention that could convey the hillside’s great significance. He mumbled goodbye and trudged away like a teacher who’d failed his students.

As Marlin showed Carlton and Wyna through the house, he decided that in the afternoon he’d drive to Gilbert and Louise’s apartment to explain about Carlton and Wyna. He’d seen them when they arrived to his office that morning, twenty minutes late. He could tell they were angry with one another and only toned down their argument slightly as they entered. Carlton had turned away from Wyna to speak to Marlin. “Sorry we’re late,” he said with a grimace. “I have a wife who’s always slow to get ready.”

Preaching point: The small starts of God’s grace.


StoryShare, July 26, 2020 issue.

Copyright 2020 by CSS Publishing Company, Inc., Lima, Ohio.

All rights reserved. Subscribers to the StoryShare service may print and use this material as it was intended in sermons, in worship and classroom settings, in brief devotions, in radio spots, and as newsletter fillers. No additional permission is required from the publisher for such use by subscribers only. Inquiries should be addressed to permissions@csspub.com or to Permissions, CSS Publishing Company, Inc., 5450 N. Dixie Highway, Lima, Ohio 45807.
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