In the early morning air, the trip to the hospital took on an urgency all its own. Somehow, the crispness of a breath outside at 6:30 a.m. merely punctuated the departure from normal. I was headed to the city for an early pre-surgery visit with a church member.
Thankfully, I only have to do this occasionally. But when these early morning surgeries happen, folks still find it comforting to see their pastor and have a word of prayer beforehand. She’d protested that her heart procedure was quite common these days, practically a slam dunk in the modern medical world. This dear lady invited me to not make too much of a fuss and come all the way over from our smaller town.
Two thoughts on that, and by two I mean three. First, modern church experts say ministers should no longer make these kinds of pastoral care visits. But I find those saying this sort of thing have long since not made their paychecks from a church. Their theories don’t find rooting in everyday life on matters like this, although I get their argument philosophically.
We are still expected, so we go. Good luck to those who dare try not going.
The other two thoughts? First, if it’s my surgery, there is no minor or common surgery. If it’s my hang-nail debridement or my open-heart surgery, it’s all the same. So, I go because it’s a way I can demonstrate to our members that I honor what really is a big deal in their lives.
Finally, there is no more sacred part of my calling from God than being a spiritual presence with my people in the highs or lows of life. Some would call this a priestly function. Because being there is ministry.
So it was that I followed my routine on these early morning road trips. I have come to notice that my wife will often fix for me two travel mugs or tumblers. She doesn’t have to get these ready. I could do this, but she shows her love this way.
She long since learned that I still want my cup or so of milk with my breakfast cookie as I drive. I’ll also take a mozzarella cheese stick to have with the cookie. Then, the other mug will have a warm beverage to follow up with, usually coffee.
I drove my normal 20 minutes across our town and out into the country. Instinctively, I knew I would soon pass my beloved country store, Bubba-Doo’s. At this hour, if the sun isn’t up, the place can still sneak up on me a little bit. Which made me almost spit a mouthful of hazelnut coffee across my dashboard when I saw bright lights up ahead.
At first, I wondered why an ambulance or a police car might be at the store this early. Winston was just getting going good at this point, and customers only began to trickle in before seven. As I got closer, I realized what I was seeing. Bubba-Doo’s had gotten a new video board sign.
“What in the world?” I mumbled aloud as I drove by.
Heretofore, they only had a standard or fixed sign. It was aging, and bare wood had begun to show lately, so badly did it need repainting.
“What in the world?” I mumbled aloud as I drove by. My responsibility pushed me on, but I made a mental note that I would have to stop as I came back through the area.
In the hospital, the gracious woman I had come to visit gave me more than I did her. Precious Cora was approaching 90 years old, but the doctor felt safe about doing this surgery given her real body health and active lifestyle. When I offered to pray, she said I could but only if she could join in. So, I offered a prayer on her behalf.
Then, from the preoperative gurney she chimed in, “Lord, I thank you that I have confidence. However today goes, I’m gonna be OK. I’ll either wake up fixed or I’ll wake up with you. And, Lord, I thank you for my pastor who loves us and looks out for us. Look out for him, just like you do everyone else. We sure do love him. Amen.”
Well, OK then. You come here to tend to someone, and they end up wanting to be sure God tends to you. Cora, a woman of deep faith and devoted service, simply could not be outgiven. I felt loved in a way that pastors never forget.
“I felt loved in a way that pastors never forget.”
Now, I drove back toward our small town. As I pulled off at Bubba-Doo’s, I sat admiringly as I gazed at the new sign. I even got out of my car and stood near the door looking back at it. Affixed to a small platform just off to one side of the driveway, it proudly proclaimed the store’s name.
I also noticed the sign could be programmed to rotate various messages, in turn, as the screen changed with sharp, bright pixels. Mostly, and smartly I might add, the sign gave the store name prominently. But the current gas price popped up for a few seconds. A soft drink 3-for-$5 special was advertised.
About the time the screen changed to “World Famous Hamburgers!” I heard a voice walking by me exclaim, “I don’t see why in the world we needed that monstrosity out here in our peaceful countryside. The thing just assaults the eyes.”
Right by me marched a woman I never would have mistaken for dear Cora. I didn’t know this particular customer, but I supposed she must live closer to Bubba-Doo’s than I. She probably didn’t know it, but her face carried a message as vivid as the new video sign. It read, “I could cloud up and rain all over you at any minute.”
So, the sign had at least one detractor. “Hey pastor! Whatcha think about our new sign?” a jubilant Ralph asked as I came in. “Doesn’t it look sharp?!”
By my math, it was 1-to-1 so far on the reactions. “I like it,” I answered him. “In fact, I’m kind of envious, I think. Wish my church had something like that.”
When Winston finished with a customer over at the checkout counter, I congratulated him. He creased a smile on his face instantly. “So, what kind of feedback are you getting so far on the new sign?” I asked him.
He pointed over at the gripey woman, now off in a far corner of the store for a minute. He whispered, “So far, she’s about the only one who’s complained. Maybe one other, who I think just doesn’t like change at all. Of any kind.”
“I think I’ve known a few like them in every church I’ve served.”
I responded, “I think I’ve known a few like them in every church I’ve served. Tell me, how did you go about choosing what sign you were going to put up there?”
Winston responded in a surprising way. I figured he had just gotten up with a sign company, made a choice and got on with the installation. Instead, he’d all but drummed up a committee for the thing.
“I got a few regulars here and there. Talked with them about what I had in mind. Of course, Ralph and Mr. Fred weighed in. Once I got down to a couple or three location options that would fit code, I ran those by my little group. Same with the sign board choices.
I narrowed it down, but I wanted some input by folks who come by here on the final one. I think you were out of town when I finalized things. I should’ve had you in on the process,” he said.
“I don’t think you would have done any better with me messing around in things. You did good!” I affirmed.
“So, you don’t think it’s too much?” Winston queried.
“I think it’s just right. It’s tasteful, but it speaks of new life in an old store. It’s really positive, I think.”
Then, things got funny. Winston said, “I had one lady I asked. She’s cultured, educated and had some good input. She suggested that since there are a couple of houses across the street that maybe we shouldn’t run the sign all night. You know, put it to rest during sleeping hours. She also has encouraged me to change the messages fairly often. You know, keep it fresh.”
“Yeah, those are good ideas.”
“Wait, there’s more. She said I should only do words on there, especially at first. Just advertise my messages tastefully but resist all the dancing monkeys and stuff.”
“Just advertise my messages tastefully but resist all the dancing monkeys and stuff.”
My mind raced back outside now, wondering what it might look like to pass by the new Bubba-Doo’s sign and see a dancing monkey or two. I also wondered what product might call for such a thing as a visual.
“Dancing monkeys, huh? I think I’ve known her in every congregation I’ve served, too, Winston” I laughed.
Now the unpleasant woman who had passed me mumbling on the storefront made her way to the counter. He processed her items, bagged them up and collected her money. As the woman got ready to leave, she looked at Winston and said, “You just had to do it, didn’t you. I can’t believe that thing.”
With that, she whirled and took her bag out the front door. Winston and I looked at each other. When she was safely gone, we both exhaled our stifled laughs. “Well, you got her two cents worth,” I said.
“You’ve never been in here when Harold’s here and she comes in, have you?” he said. “No, I guess not. What in the world is that all about?”
“Well,” Winston began, “You know Harold works a few hours a week. Waits on customers, stocks shelves and sweeps up. Keeps him busy, gives him something to do.”
“Yeah, gotcha. But what does he do when she comes in?”
“Oh, you oughta see it. Sometimes he stays put. Always he gets real quiet. But sometimes, he’ll just walk around the corner of the counter where the display will hide him. Then once she gets in good, he’ll go find something that needs doing outside away from her car until she’s gone again.”
“You mean, that ole tough Marine hides from her?”
“She’s an equal opportunity crab. She’ll get anybody, any time. But you know what? We mostly just let it go. Everyone except Harold, I guess. He’s just tangled with her once too often. She hasn’t been the same since she lost a son and husband within only a couple years of each other,” he explained.
“I think it broke her, and she’s just been so mad ever since.”
“I think it broke her, and she’s just been so mad ever since. The sign is only the newest thing. It can be anything, really.”
In response, I said, “I hate to be the one to point it out. But among other things, you’re running a little congregation here, I think. They gather. They come and go. They know each other and become friends. Some of ’em come in daily. Some of ’em you only see once or twice a year with everything else in-between. A few are difficult. Most are pretty cool, though.”
“But they’ve all got an opinion,” he added.
“Well yeah, there’s that too” I confirmed.
We chatted about how nice it was that most everyone else liked the latest addition to the storescape along the highway. He even explained to me that the whole deal is operated off some software on a laptop behind the counter. “I can stand right here and take off a message, put up a new message. Make the letters bigger or smaller. It’s great.”
“So, what’s that little white thing or two I see hanging off the side of the pole?” I asked.
“Oh, that’s the weather gizmo. I can display time and temp right up there anytime I want.”
“Wait a minute,” I grinned. “You mean this little crossroads just got its first local weather station of sorts?”
Winston thought for a minute. “I hadn’t even considered it. But I guess so, at that. Yeah, Bubba-Doo’s has brought computerized weather to our community now! Maybe I need to run that in the rotation continuously. I think I will, soon as I learn how!”
Oddly, I felt accompanied. So pastors aren’t the only ones who occasionally think they’ve made a progressive move, only to find that there are very few unanimous votes. I also felt hopeful for Winston, that he was taking the store into the 21st century. Another dynamic that isn’t always popular in every church.
I pulled out of the driveway and headed to the office. I was happy and surprised. Still, an instinct gripped me and I took one more glance back at the sign from my rearview. I guess I wanted to be sure that there weren’t any of the dreaded dancing monkeys parading across the video sign.
Charles Qualls serves as pastor of Franklin Baptist Church in Franklin, Va. He is the author of eight books.
Articles in the Bubba-Doo’s series: