The Limits of Decency

It is all very well for the Bible to command us in one place to be urgent (2 Timothy 4:2) and in another to do all things decently and in order (1 Corinthians 14:40).  The problem is the Bible does not tell us which commandment applies to which situation.  Thus, some Christians -- like the Methodists -- are regularly more urgent than decent and some -- like the Presbyterians -- are regularly more decent than urgent.


This issue came home to me in the following situation.  I consider myself a first-rate handy person.  (Actually, I think of myself as a handyman, but the other day when my son referred to the “postperson” I realized I would have to change my language.)  If things have to be done right (like wallpaper) then of course Margaret, my wife, does them, but rough jobs of plumbing, electrical wiring and carpentry are for me.  I will not admit that there is anything that I cannot do if I have the proper tools.


I was not always so skillful.  the first time Margaret decided that our roof needed to be re-shingled I happily agreed to call someone to do it.  However, she said we could not afford to hire someone and she would do the job herself if I did not have time.  Well, that was the purest blackmail.


Doubtless, a modern liberated male would simply smile and hand her the nails, but those of us who are gentlemen of the old school were taught to “thank God for little girls” who are “made of sugar and spice and everything nice.”  Boys, and presumably men, on the other hand, are “made of snails and puppy dog tails.”  Much as I might wish otherwise, I knew it would be impossible to read a book in peace and with profit while my lady wife was hammering away on the roof over my head.  So, with as much ill grace as I could muster, I borrowed a 60-foot ladder and started to learn to shingle, uttering curses in liturgical Latin as we were taught to do in seminary.


Things went well for a while but there was one part of the roof which sloped sharply away from the ladder no matter where I placed it.  I solved that problem by parking the car in the back yard, attaching a long rope to the door frame, draping the rope all the way over the roof, and tying it around my waist.  Then I would run up the slope and nail a shingle in place before I slid down again.  I have always prided myself on my personal gravity.  For days, our friendly neighbors gathered in the yard to watch this process (or as we native Southerners say, to hoot and to holler).  Their helpful comments I will not repeat.


However, I was completely nonplussed when I reached a place where I could not use my rope trick and the ladder would not reach.  So I walked around town until I saw some professional roofers and asked them how to proceed beyond the ladder.  They told me to nail a two-by-four to the roof and stand on it.  So I went home, extended the ladder as far as it would go, reached off and nailed a two-by-four to the roof and climbed onto it.  I later discovered that the roofers assumed I would have enough sense to nail the two-by-four into the studs of the attic, but they did not tell me to do that and I didn’t .  I anchored by 16-foot two-by-four into one-half inch of rotten wood shingle.  Thus, as soon as I put my weight on the two-by-four it came loose and rolled off the roof.  I followed it immediately and slid down the roof coming to rest at the edge of the gutter and under the ladder with my legs stuck through the rungs.  I could not move the ladder at all because I would then fall to the ground.


Thinking with lightning speed and accuracy I realized that if Margaret would hold the ladder at the bottom I could extricate myself from it without grave bodily injury.  Thus perched precariously on the edge of the roof I calmly asked one of the children to please call their mother.  Apparently my request was too calmly delivered because they went into the house, returned in a few minutes and informed me, “She said to tell you she is busy.”

At that point I decided to jettison 400 years of Presbyterian, decently-and-in-order tradition and made my request with an urgency that would not have embarrassed a shouting Methodist.


Charles Partee
Presbyterian Outlook
January 1999