When my husband was offered a posting in the Middle East, I would be lying if I said the prospect of a driver who would also help me with jobs around the house hadn’t featured in my decision-making process. And now that I’m here, for the first time in a decade wearing clothes that have been ironed, I’m not complaining. Do I think the benefits of a driver outweigh the reasons for needing one? That’s perhaps another post…
The challenge now is not to become Lady Muck. Regrettably, she paid us a visit just before Christmas. I’d been wanting some of the beautiful wooden garden gates a lot of people on the compound have instead of the standard issue metal ones. And I finally got some, second-hand, from a couple returning to the UK. The only thing I needed to do was arrange for them to be rehung in our garden.
My husband was away during this episode. For once, I didn’t mind. That sexy pilot will airlift you out of a war zone if you need him to but he’s not known for his DIY skills. No one has ever bought him that classic man-present for Christmas: a Black and Decker. And there’s a reason for that. The boys in our house aren’t allowed to play with sharp things and we don’t apply an age limit to that rule. Some of our worst disagreements have been during our house moves when we get to the bit where my husband attempts to hang our pictures. We spent weeks in one military quarter wondering where the hallway light switch was… Who would have expected it to be behind the hallway mirror?
Being a modern military wife, maybe I should have hung the gates myself. But I was doing that other military wife thing of trying not to fall apart. I was struggling with being here by myself and to be fair, no one’s ever bought me a Black and Decker either so I can’t lay claim to be a DIY diva. The proper thing to do was to call the official maintenance men in. In fact, there was a rule stating that residents were not to pay privately for these sorts of jobs. The penalties were severe. Not for the residents but the person doing the job, who could be docked wages or even sent on their way.
I’d heard stories about how long it might take the real maintenance team to do something like this. Feeling impatient, I got in touch with someone who I’d heard did private carpentry work. I would pay him well, I told herself, this was a good thing to do… But when the carpenter came over, he quoted me so much I declined his offer, suddenly deciding the proper channels suited me better after all. So I called in the real maintenance people. They promised to get back in touch but they never did.
During my long wait for proper help, the original carpenter turned up on my doorstep, lowering his price. Having been stung by my own poor haggling skills when we first got here, I’ve became a hardnosed negotiator. The carpenter came over every night for a week, always whilst I was cooking dinner. As I rushed to save my children from the smoke fumes coming from the kitchen for the fifth night in a row, I justified the deal I’d just struck.
The following day, the carpenter came, half got the gates on, then ran away when he saw someone from the maintenance team. The garden stayed like that for several days, with us trapped inside the house because our 3-year-old Houdini easily escapes from gardens that do have gates. I couldn’t call in real maintenance to help as that would have involved a lot of explaining and my lovely husband, who by this stage I would have let loose on them, was still away. I asked the carpenter to come under cover of darkness but he wasn’t keen. Finally, he appeared as I was leaving the house one day. He promised to have the job done by the time I returned. Lovely. I breathed a sigh of relief.
Later on, when I came home, I ran outside to see my new gates. They had been hung. I could say that. But they had been hung at different heights and they wouldn’t shut. Houdini could still escape. It took a while to work out what had happened. One of the gates had been hung upside-down and back-to-front. Like me with my decision to go off-piste with the whole gate-hanging, the carpenter had soldiered on with his mistake, drilling new holes all over the place, ripping off bolts and door handles and repositioning them to try and make it all work. He was nowhere to be seen and I really, really couldn’t call real maintenance now.
So Iike the carpenter, I ploughed on with my muddle, ringing him to come back and sort it out. He returned with his tools and I disappeared into the house. ‘What’s that noise, Mummy?’ Houdini asked me when the sound of breaking wood was so loud we could hear it inside with the door shut. I couldn’t watch. My lovely new gates…
I ended up praying about the situation as I listened to the cracking and splintering. As trivial as it was in the grand scheme of things, the whole thing had left me feeling shabby and a bit desperate. By this point, I just wanted the gates to work so we could use the garden again.
When the carpenter called me outside, I waded through the ribbons of wood that were strewn around the garden, the result of some serious planing? Yes, there was the big gouge in my gate where he had taken the plane. And the holes from moving the bolts and handles. But at least the gates now shut.
I think we can all agree that I don’t emerge well from this story. Maybe that was why I kept reflecting on it afterwards. I’d flouted the rules and potentially put this man’s job in danger. We sometimes think of ‘rules’ as boring but in straying from them on this occasion, I’d acted to the detriment of others.
As Christians we sometimes think God’s guidelines are boring. Around this time, I was reminded of Micah 6:8- ‘What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.’ God’s desire for our lives is summarised in this verse. It’s a measure to live by. It encourages us to treat people well. And there’s nothing boring about that.
I sometime get myself into situations where I wonder what’s the ‘right’ thing to do. Even in this story, I spent time wondering whether breaking the rules and paying the carpenter privately might be the ‘right thing’ since he was going to make more money, which he might then send home to his family. But Micah 6:8 would have got me to the right answer. Maybe Lady Muck would have kept away if I’d thought about it earlier.
Having broken the rules, I felt I couldn’t go back to real maintenance, who were an extension of the rule makers. It’s easy to feel that way with God when we’ve messed up in some way. We might even try to hide the mess we have made from him, as I did when I suggested the carpenter returned at dusk.
When we do the wrong thing, we can end up cut off and alone with our mistakes. The incredible thing about God is that when we stray away from him, he always wants us back. The perfect picture of this can be found in the story Jesus told about the lost son whose poor decisions and mistakes left him destitute. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.’ (Luke 15:20). We don’t have to wait for God to ‘cool’ off or to start to like us again- his welcome home is always immediate.
What of the scars on my gates? The gouges and holes that were the result of my poor choices? When we make mistakes in life, people, including ourselves, might get hurt. I have a tiny scar on my eyebrow from when I opened a cupboard into my head during my wilderness years. That part of my life is forgiven and healed but I still have a scar from that time. When God forgives and invites us back, he doesn’t always eradicate what happened as though it never was. Sometimes we still have to face up to the human consequences. The good news is we don’t have to do so alone- He helps with even that part, as this song explains so beautifully.