April 10, 2011

Coffee with Stan

I wiped a hand across my face as I put down the pen. I’d been at work on the coming Sunday’s sermon for two hours. Though it was only Thursday, I had made a long-term commitment to finish writing my sermons by Friday. This gave them time to marinate for a few days, allowing the message to sink into my mind. It also ensured a much less stressful weekend and provided time to spend with my family. Momentarily however, I was at a wall. The words wouldn’t appear on the page no matter how hard I stared at it. I decided it was time for a stretch.

Pushing my chair back from the desk, I made my way around the office . The heavy mahogany door swung slowly open as I stepped out. I shut it behind me. The sanctuary lights were off, the only illumination shining weakly through tall stained glass windows. Outside, the afternoon sun was bright, but you couldn’t tell in here. I paced the plush carpet between rows of empty pews, racking my thoughts.

Then I heard noise coming from the kitchen. I smiled. It was probably Stan, the church custodian. He came in faithfully every week to clean the building, a job that was growing more difficult as the youth group grew in size. I wondered if he felt up for conversation. I’d found human company could do wonders for inspiration. Besides, I could do with a cup of coffee. I made my way to the back of the sanctuary and down the hall.

Sure enough, there he was, cleaning up the kitchen after Wednesday night youth group had left it ransacked of anything remotely edible. His wrinkled, merry face looked up at me as I walked in. “Hey there Pastor! How’s the sermon coming?” he asked. “Well, it’s coming to something. Not sure what though. I’m having difficulty finding the proper illustration to underline my main point. Figured a stretch and a drink might help.”

“Already thought of that.” He said, inclining his head towards the coffee pot, which was just finishing its brew. “You’re the best, Stan the man. Thank you so much! Care for some?” I said as I poured myself a cup. He rolled his eyes. “Stan the man? Really? I don’t think there’s a Stan on the planet who hasn’t heard that one before.” I just grinned. “Hey, you are good at what you do! I really appreciate it by the way. Do I ever thank you for that?”

“Plenty of times Pastor. About twice a day actually.” He smiled in response. “And sure, I’ll have a cup o’ Joe myself.”

“Well better to thank you too often than not at all, right?” I looked around at the work he’d been doing. At the moment I entered he had been sweeping up the floor, but it was evident his cleaning had included a much wider range of tasks. “Wow, they sure make a mess, don’t they?” I asked, referring to the church’s rowdy teenagers. Stan just shrugged, “I’m used to it. Had to deal with it when my own kids were teens. ‘Sides, I’m just happy to have a youth group to wipe up after these days.” I conceded his point.

After a few more minutes of banter I finished my drink, set my cup in the sink and made for the door. As I was leaving I shot off one more comment. “Do a good job Stan! I want this place as spotless as if Christ himself were coming to visit us!” I’d meant it as a jest, but the custodian seemed to take me seriously. He said nothing, but set his coffee down and crossed both arms atop his broom. Then he gave me a look.

“What?” I asked. “You hear that one a lot too?”

“More than I like. Honestly though, Jesus was born in barn. You think if he were to pay a visit to New Hope Community Church he’d care about how clean the kitchen was?”

His response took me off guard. “I don’t know.” I admitted, “As a majestic king I would think he’d want this place pretty clean though, don’t you?”

“People say stuff like that, yeah. All I know is, if I found out that Jesus himself were coming here, I could care less what the building looks like. I’d be much more concerned with getting my heart in the right place. You know? I think Jesus would be interested about what’s on the inside.” He crossed over to me and jabbed me in the chest with a finger. “Jesus cares about what’s in here, Caleb. That’s what he wants cleaned up.”

I admit it was humbling, hearing this from my janitor, but Stan was tough as jerky. He didn’t pull punches with anyone, including his minister. “You’re right, Stan. That’s the truth.” I thought he was done then, but he was just getting warmed up.

“There are people in this congregation who get pretty upset when I come to Sunday services in my coveralls. The ones that glare at me when I walk in, they say that playing dress up is a way of showing respect to God.” He harrumphed. “As if wearing a three piece suit and a tie gets ‘em that much closer to Jesus. But it don’t, Pastor Caleb, it don’t! They forget that the clothes they have on their backs are worth more money than Jesus ever made in his whole lifetime!”

I bit my lip. “I guess you have a point there. And I’m sorry about those people. I, for one, am glad that you feel comfortable enough to wear whatever you want. And it’s also nice that somebody uses the front row.”

“Haha, that’s cause you scare the rest of ‘em away! Not me though. I ain’t afraid of you. God’s the only person that scares me these years. It’s when you speak his truth that you can be intimidating!” I laughed, and asked,“Still, don’t you think it’s important to show respect for God and the church?”

His eyes went wide. “Why sure I do! Through conduct and character and the fruits of the spirit! Not in trying to make this place look like a museum. There’s folks here who’re more concerned over a stain on the carpet than they are the sin stainin’ their own hearts.” I frowned. “You really think so?”

“Of course. You’ve seen it, Pastor. It’s all about being respectable. People like to be respectable. It’s what made the pharisees so full of themselves. Jesus let ‘em get puffed up just enough to pop. That’s what he’ll do with us too, if we’re not careful. He hates pride you know.”

I watched as Stan walked over to the sink and picked up my coffee mug. Then he opened the coffee filter and smeared the wet grounds all over the inside of the cup. He brought it over to me.

“Pastor, this is a clean coffee cup, ain’t it? All nice and pretty white.” I smirked, knowing where he was going, but played along anyway. “Yes, I’d say it looks rather good.”

“You’d think that, wouldn’t you, by the looks of it? ‘s not though. On the inside it’s all gross and icky. No one would want to drink out of this thing. A lot of Christians are the same way. Good lookin’ as a Polaroid picture on the outside, but their hearts are a mess. Now Jesus, on the other hand, he didn’t care about lookin’ respectable. Hung out with prostitutes and thieves, went to all the wrong parties, but he was the holiest man that ever lived. Figure that.”

“I hear you Stan. Are you sure you don’t want to preach on Sunday?” I joked.

“I might one day, if you don’t mind a little axle grease on the pulpit.” he rejoined with a wink.

“Well,” I said, “Thanks a lot. I knew talking to you would help. I think I’ve got just the thing for a sermon illustration now.”

“What, you planning on preachin’ in bluejeans or something?”

“Haha, not if I want to keep my job! I’ve got something else in mind though. You’ll find out on Sunday.”

“If you say so.”

As I was leaving he called after me, “Caleb, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your sermon on?”

“Matthew twenty three.” I called back, “You should try reading it sometime!”

He was still laughing by the time I made it back to my office and shut the door.

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