“And Jesus said unto them, verily I say unto you, if ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove; and nothing shall be impossible to you.” Matthew 17:20 KJV
Back when I was at the University of Wisconsin I was living in a rooming house with 13 other guys. By then, I’d been playing guitar for three or four years and with the exception of three or four lessons I was self-taught. In the evening, I’d sit in my room, softly playing my Fender electric guitar, and friends would occasionally wander in to listen. One friend in particular kept telling me how much he wanted to play guitar. “I’d give my right arm to be able to play guitar,” he’d say. I’d look at him and answer, “If you want to learn to play guitar, give me fifteen minutes of your time every day and I can teach you what I know.” “Fifteen minutes? he’d say, I don’t have the time for that!” I used to kid him saying, “You’d give your right arm to learn to play guitar, but not fifteen minutes a day?” If I’d been up on my bible, I would have told him to “Remove hence to yonder place!”
I believe Jesus when he said “nothing shall be impossible to you.” But if you want something to happen, you can’t just wish on a star. The only similarity between Jimminy Cricket and Jesus Christ is they have the same initials. Wishing doesn’t cut it. Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Faith alone will not get it done.
“Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.”
James 2:17 KJV
If you commit yourself to serving the Lord, He will give you all you need to accomplish His work. But don’t expect it to be easy.
“No matter what they tell you there’s no free lunch
No guaranteed money in the bank
You can’t get to Heaven in an Easy Chair
You’ve got to give it everything it takes”
Drowning in the Details of Life - Words and music by Jerry Rasmussen
God don’t abide no Easy Chair Christians.
It stood there dark and menacing, like something out of a Stephen King story. In its youth, it was bright and vibrant and the air was filled with laughter as children splashed gaily in its waters. But time had not been kind to it. The children had long since grown and moved away, and the once sky-blue lining had turned a murky dark green. Sitting at my computer in my downstairs office, I was haunted by the tales my neighbor George told of the time the pool burst, spilling four feet of water loaded with chemicals onto the neighboring back yards. It had taken a long time for the lawns to recover. The pool was just ten feet from the window well to my office and I could picture a torrent of water cascading into the room. Never having owned an above ground swimming pool, I had no idea what the life-span of a pool liner was, but I was getting nervous about ours. It was time to get some professional advice.
When I walked into the pool supply store, the man greeted me with a friendly “Hello.” I’d certainly given him enough business over the last seven years for him to smile broadly when he saw me come in.
“I want to find out about replacing a pool liner, “I said.
“How old is it?” he asked?
“I’m not sure. I responded
What kind of money am I looking at to replace it? I asked.
“How big is the pool?” he asked, and I told him “It’s 30 feet in diameter.”
“The pool lining, installed, is going to run you about sixteen hundred dollars,” he said.
“We haven’t used the pool for three years,” I responded, and I don’t know how old the
pump and filtration system is. That sounds like more money than makes sense to me.”
“How long a lifetime do pool liners have? I asked nervously.
“Eight to ten years,” he answered.
“I don’t know how old the liner is but it’s got to be pushing ten years at least. We’ve been in the house seven years and the liner didn’t look anywhere near new when we moved in.”
I thanked the man for the information, walked out the door and drove back home. Standing there in the back yard, glowering at the pool, I remembered that scriptural promise about having faith even as small as a grain of mustard seed, and the song we used to sing with my gospel quartet, The Gospel Messengers.
“All things are possible, if you only believe.”
Only Believe – Traditional
I looked at the pool and said to myself, “Remove ye hence,” but nothing happened. Maybe faith can move mountains, but it doesn’t work on swimming pools. I couldn’t see any way around it. It would cost at least a couple thousand dollars to have the pool taken down and have everything hauled away. I was going to have to take the pool down by myself.
The morning finally arrived when I summoned up enough courage to tackle the job. I went out armed with a large screwdriver and a small sabre saw. The first task was to remove the top ledge of the pool. I knew I had my work cut out for me. Over the years, the pool had been painted several times and the slots in the large bolts that held the top on were dim memories. But, with a lot of patience and an aerosol can of WD40, I finally got enough of the bolts out so I could start cutting up the metal sides. I’d already drained the pool, so I cut out a six foot section of the wall and started cutting out the pool liner. My worst fears were confirmed when I had drained the water out of the pool. The seam in the liner looked like it was starting to come apart. We had been living on borrowed time. With the help of my wife Ruth, I cut the pool liner into strips which she rolled up so that we could load them into the car. Then I slowly cut up the rest of the wall in six foot sections which Ruth folded in half, ready to take to the dump. After many trips to the dump. I was ready to start breaking up the concrete sidewalk that had been around the pool and remove the metal posts that had held up the sides. For that job, I enlisted my son-in-law Pasha to help.
The next morning, Pasha and I went down to the local Home Depot and rented a jackhammer. We’d rented one once before to bust up the concrete bases of a couple of fence posts, and I tried my hand at the jackhammer for a couple of minutes just to say I’d done it. I knew this would take a lot more than a couple of minutes. We started around nine in the morning alternating between operating the jackhammer and loading the busted-up concrete into a wheel barrow, dumping it near the fence on the edge of our property. Ruth assisted with picking up concrete, and watched to make sure we didn’t jackhammer the power cord. If that had happened we would have gone on to glory on the spot.
When we’d removed the sidewalk, the first thing we discovered was that the metal rim that held the base of the wall together was so badly rotted that in spots you could crumple it between your fingers. We’d taken the pool down just in time. The most unexpected discovery was a solid ring of concrete 8 inches wide. We started to dig it out and when we got down a foot, we hit a concrete footing. We started to dig out from the concrete rim to see how wide the footing was, but after a width of a foot, we still hadn’t found the edge. We stood there scratching our heads, wondering what the wall could possibly have supported, because it was larger than the old pool. Maybe it was an ancient structure built by the Druids. Connecticut Stonehenge. Whatever it was, we knew we’d have to break off several inches of the top of the wall if I was ever to have a lawn in the area. Chipping the top off a solid wall was much harder than busting up the sidewalk but we had no choice. Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. The whole job took five hours, without taking a lunch break.
Working in the blazing sun that many hours took a heavy toll on us. It was probably hardest on Pasha because he is Muslim and he was observing Ramadan. Ramadan honors the month in which the first verses of the Qur’an were revealed to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. It is observed by fasting to teach patience, modesty and spirituality. During those 30 days Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink while the sun is up. Pasha had eaten his breakfast before sunrise that morning and even though we were working in the hot mid-day sun, he couldn’t drink any water. As we stood there leaning on the jackhammer and shovel for support, our conversation turned to Islam and our differing faiths. Pasha was raised in the Christian faith but converted to Islam back in the 60’s. We’ve had many long respectful conversations about our faiths, seeking common ground rather than arguing about our differences. We both serve the same God, and when I say grace over meals, I always lift our prayers in the name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and Allah. I had just watched a program on television the night before, discussing the difference between Sunnis and Shiites, so I asked Pasha,
“Are you a Sunni or a Shiite, or do those terms even apply to Muslims in this country?
“I’m a Sunni Muslim,” Pasha answered. “Shiites believe that Muhammad’s son-in-law Ali was the rightful successor to Muhammad.”
Sunni Muslims emphasize those passages in the Qu’ran that speak of the sanctity of life and believe that suicide is a sin. The Shiites interpet other passages in the Qu’ran which they believe justifies suicide, when done in the service of the Lord. Acts of terrorism are elevated to holy missions, with the perpetrator raised to glory for their acts. Shia Muslims make up less than a third of the Muslim world but are in the majority in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon. As a Sunni, Pasha believes that encouraging suicide is a distortion of the teachings of the Qu’ran. And we were launched into another discussion on religion.
The previous Sunday my friend Ken Smith, pastor of First Baptist Church in Shelton, CT had given a sermon drawn from several passages of the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus was speaking strongly about how the Pharisees had taken the simplicity of the Ten Commandments and created a bewilderingly complex set of laws and rituals. Much of it was done for show. Christ spoke, saying:
“The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat.
All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say and do not.
For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.
But all their works they do for to be seen of men, they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments.”
Matthew 23:2-5 KJV
Pasha and I talked about the difference between faith and religion and I told him of the pastor of a church where I did a concert last year. When he welcomed the audience he told them
if they’d brought their religion with them, they should take it out and put it in their car. It was a shocking statement, and yet I understood it. From the beginning of time, people have shaped and molded basic tenants of faith to serve their own desires. Christians are as guilty of doing this as much as Muslims. Despite our differing faiths, Pasha and I serve the same God.
Working there in the relentless sunlight, I thought back to the ‘6o’s and the young kids who wandered into the coffee houses in Greenwich Village, lost in the romance of folk songs. They’d get up on stage at the hootenannies and solemnly pronounce that they were going to do an authentic work song from the chain gangs of the south. When they sang, they’d utter a “whumpp” and then let out a grunt, pretending that they were swinging a nine-pound hammer, while plucking the bass string on their guitar with a little more force. Pasha and I weren’t singing “Take this hammer and carry it the Captain,” and whatever grunts we might have emitted were hard earned. We were exhausted from the heat and the weight of the jackhammer. After working for five hours with a 90 pound jackhammer that rattled the fillings in your teeth, a nine pound hammer sounded pretty good.
The morning after our road gang workout, I expected to awaken aching from head to toe.
I’m not used to such heavy physical work. To my surprise, I felt better than I had in months. I guess all that work loosened up my old muscles and stretched me out. It was good it had, because the hard work was still to come. I was faced with getting rid of what looked like a ton of sand, as well as the mountain of busted concrete we had created. I had talked briefly to my buddies Ralph and John down at the City Dump about bringing the sand there but we hadn’t gotten down to
specifics. In the last few weeks with all the trips I’d taken to the dump, I’d spent more time with the two of them than I had with almost anybody other than my wife.
The next day when I took another load of the cut-up swimming pool to the dump, I stopped and talked to Ralph.
“Hey, Ralph, I need some help,” I said. I’ve got a ton of sand to get rid of, and you said that I could bring it here. How does that work?”
“You can bring it here a car load at a time and dump it, or if you’re interested, we have a small dumpster you can rent,” he answered. We can deliver it to your house and when you fill it half full, we’ll come and pick it up, and then bring it back for a second load.”
“How much does that cost?” I asked.
$250 bucks,” he replied.
“That sounds a little steep for me,” I said. How much does it cost if I bring it here a car load at a time? I asked.
“Six dollars a ton,” he answered.
“Let me think about it. Thanks for the information,” I responded.
The next morning I had a heart to heart conversation with my contractor. I looked in the mirror and asked him, “So, what do you think I should do?” “We’re a little short of help these days, with the economy being what it is, so you’re the only worker. How do you feel about hauling a ton of sand a wheel barrow at a time until you fill a dumpster?” I figured it was going to be hard enough to haul the sand out of there a car load at a time. I couldn’t imagine having to do the whole job by myself in two or three days. Besides, six dollars a ton sounded a lot better than the two hundred and fifty dollar rental. There was something oddly appealing about the seemingly impossible job of hauling a ton of sand to the dump a few bags at a time.
My next trip to the dump I brought eight bags of sand I’d loaded into the heaviest trash bags they sold at Walmart, and pulled up to the weighing station. Ralph gave me the high sign after he’d written down the weight of my car, and I drove to the edge of the dump and emptied the bags. When I drove back onto the weighing platform, Ralph weighed my car again to see how much the sand I’d dumped weighed.
“So, how much is the damage?” I asked?
“You owe me forty eight cents, “ he said, and we both laughed.
Two and a half weeks later my tab had risen to six dollars, and I realized I’d hauled a ton of sand. I was just a little over a quarter of the way done. I could see my ability to estimate what a ton of sand looked like left a lot to be desired. I don’t remember ever having seen a ton of sand before. They say that when the prayers go up, the blessings come down. I’d prayed for the strength to do the impossible, and the Lord answered my prayers with several tons of blessings.
It was just going to take longer than I had planned on.
Several weeks later when I was dropping off my umpteenth load of sand, I noticed that Ralph was calling people over to the window to talk with them at length. When I got up to the window, Ralph came out and told me his story. He and John were in danger of losing their jobs. A year or so ago, the City of Derby changed from having Union men operate the dump to using an outside contractor. Now, the Union was trying to get the jobs back under the Union’s control. If that happened, Ralph and John would be out of a job, as they weren’t Union workers.
“It burns me up!” Ralph sputtered. “We’ve really cleaned this place up in the last year, and now they want to get rid of us!” We’ve made a lot of major improvements around here, none of which were required, and we didn’t get paid extra to do it.”
“I can vouch for that, Ralph.” I’ve seen all the work you’ve done since you’ve been here.” I replied. Some of the changes are whimsical, like the artificial tree someone left in the dump which is now "planted" next to the entrance with a discarded park bench next to it. Some have been substantial, like clearing out large areas that had been abandoned and overgrown. Most of all, I appreciated how helpful all the guys were who worked there. They were friendly and polite and went out of their way to make things easy for you. It hadn’t always been that way.
Ironically, one of the criticisms that made of them is that they sometimes would lend a hand if someone was trying to unload something from their car that was too heavy for them to handle.
“They tell us that we can’t help people unload stuff, because we might get hurt,” Ralph said. “If I’m driving along the road and I see someone who needs help, I’m going to stop and help them. And they tell me I can’t do it here? They say it’s against Union Regulations.”
“I suppose they’re concerned that you might hurt yourself and they’ll be legally liable,” I said. “Still, that doesn’t seem right.” I see some of the old-timers who are really struggling to unload their car, and I’m with you. I’d be right there, lending a hand.”
I asked when the hearing was going to be, and told him I’d be there. It was then that I realized why he was stopping people to talk to them as they were coming in. He was trying to get people to come and speak on their behalf.
The night of the public hearing, I arrived early. I’d never been to a public hearing in Derby, although I’d survived countless others when I was Executive Director of the Stamford Museum & Nature Center. The hearing was held in a small room, and there wasn’t a whole lot of “Public” there. As it turns out, I was the only one to show up to speak on behalf of the guys at the dump. Ralph was there, and I knew he appreciated my coming.
After a few preliminary items on the agenda the time came for the public to speak. I stood up and introduced myself and gave my address and said I was there to speak on behalf of the crew at the Dump. I told the Board that my wife and I had moved to Derby seven years ago and if they gave out frequent flier miles for each trip to the dump we would have earned a trip around the world long ago. I spoke of the improvements that I've seen since the men were hired, and how helpful they are to everyone who comes there. "Some people come to work and do the minimum they have to in order to get their paycheck, and no more,” I said. ‘Not these guys. They take pride in their work. “They're conscientious and polite and do everything they can to help others." "I glanced over for a moment to look at Ralph, sitting in the back of the room. “I don’t really know the men who work there. They're not personal friends or family members. I just wanted to publicly thank them for the wonderful job they were doing.." I thanked the members of the Board of Aldermen for the hard work that they do to serve the community, and sat down.
There was a time when people took pride in their work. They lived the old adage, “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.” When I see people who take pride in their work, I thank them. It doesn’t make any difference what the work is. There is honor in doing any job right. No work is unimportant.
Sly and the Family Stone love everyday people. So does God. So do I.
The Other Shoe
This morning I took my first load of sand to the dump. I was trying to get it in before it started rain. Sand weighs enough without being wet. Yesterday I gave copies of this chapter to Ralph and John and when I pulled up in front of the check in booth, Ralph called out with a big grin, “You’re some kind of writer!” I got out of the car and walked over and we were both excited. Ralph wanted to tell me that he’s going to take the chapter over for the Mayor to read after the dump closes. I wanted to tell him about the e-mail I received from my friend Rene in Paris. I e-mailed this chapter to Rene yesterday and there was a response waiting for me when I came down to my office this morning. Rene was as enthusiastic as Ralph. He particularly responded to the comments about people who only do the bare minimum at work to get their paycheck. Like many people, Rene doesn’t enjoy his work. When he talks to his brother about work, neither of them enjoy their work because they see all the political aspects of it. It’s the same all over. Then Rene wrote:
“Still, yesterday I realized this sort of thinking makes me sad while my intellect tells me it's a good thing to be "aware".
Every once in a while, still, I'll go and do a little more than what I'm being paid for, just because it will help a co-worker or two. And that makes me feel good.
Last month I received my retirement results and it showed I still have 10 more years of work ahead of me before I can retire.
On one hand I can't wait, on the other hand, I believe I'd better make the best out of these 10 years, because my life is taking place now, not 10 years ahead.”
When I told Ralph about this, his face really lit up. He wanted to talk about how good it feels to
be helpful and treat people with respect. I told him:
“So, here you are Ralph, trying to do the best job you can at the Derby Dump, and you’ve
caused my friend Rene over in Paris to re-think how he approaches his work. That’s the
way it works.”
In Christ there is no East or West
In Christ no South or North
But one great commonwealth of love
throughout the whole wide earth.
In Christ There Is No East or West Words by John Oxenham
(I asked Rene for permission to include the lines quoted above, and he enthusiastically
agreed. Then he said, “The next time you see Ralph, tell him Rene says Hello.”)