April 09, 2009

Putting the Pieces Together

I understand the biological differences between males and females that lead girls to play with their dolls in a nicely contained corner of the house, while boys dump out their thousands of legos, blocks, etc. over as much of the house as possible. I understand how the spatially-oriented mind works. I even understand why: more white matter in the brain, a heavier reliance on the visual cortex, and so on. But still...

The other day I arrived home to discover a massive construction project underway in the living room. Apparently my wife found a "really good deal" on a toy roller coaster set that, when completed, would reach over five feet tall. "It was only eight dollars at the yard sale," she proudly declared. A bargain, to be sure.

I watched as, over the course of several days, my youngest son meticulously followed the phone-book sized instruction manual to build the framework of the roller coaster. The entire living room, I should point out, was given over to this project. I also watched as his older brother "helped" by declaring it all wrong, and undoing what had been done. As this back-and-forth partnership continued, frustration began to mount, and the project came to a standstill.

Finally I picked up the instruction manual myself. It was one of those manuals that use lots of diagrams and as few words as possible, because all the words are in about ten different languages--kind of like the instructions to the table I bought from Ikea a few months ago, except a lot more complicated. I looked at the box for an age range, but couldn't find one. It was probably too big a number to translate into ten different languages.

Eventually I determined that part of the problem was that not all the pieces were there. This determination came about not by counting all the pieces; no, that would take too long. When asked how I knew pieces were missing, I said, "We can't figure it out. It's not because we're stupid. Obviously, something's wrong with the set." (I used the pronoun we, because by that time, I was hopelessly involved as a "third partner" in this venture.) My youngest son responded to my declaration by insisting, "We don't have to follow the instructions; they're just suggestions, anyway."

A truer statement I never heard. I'm not sure what part of the male brain leads to this type of reasoning, but hearing him say it brought a proud tear to my eye.

I said to him, "Do you mind if I work on it a bit? Would it be OK if I take off some of the track you've put on and redo it? I won't touch the tower and framework you've built, I just want to fix the track." Notice how sensitive I was here?

"Yeah, whatever," was the reply. Clearly he had lost interest.

I figured a few small, minor adjustments were all that was necessary. So naturally, I worked on the roller coaster for the rest of the day and into the night. Even though some (many) of the pieces were missing, I was determined that it would have a loop, just like the one in the picture on the box. Finally, it was time for a test run. I put the car on and fired up the battery-powered launchers. The car shot up over the hill, down the other side, through the loop--and got stuck at the top of the loop. One of the miniature riders slipped out of the car and fell to a horrible death. Oops.

I took the car off, squeezed the track rails ever so slightly, trying to smooth them out. I replaced the car, and tried again.

This time, the car made it through the loop and completed the entire circuit. I let out a manly whoop, which brought the boys scurrying out of bed and into the living room. I ran it again, and the boys cheered. "Dad fixed it! With a loop and everything! Just like on the box!"

Fortunately for me, they hadn't looked at the box too closely.

We ran it through a couple more times, until my wife made the boys go back to bed. Each time, the car made it all the way around the circuit, without stopping, and without losing any more riders. Amazing.

Early the next morning, before anyone else was awake, I fixed myself a cup of tea, sat down, and pondered the (almost) five foot tall roller coaster. If I could build a roller coaster, I thought, I could do anything. Perhaps I could even be able to build or revitalize a church. I thought of the various workshops and conferences I've been to which focused on revitalizing and transforming congregations. I thought of Unbinding the Gospel, the book on evangelism I've read through twice and am now reading, for the third time, with the elders of my church. I thought of the Faithful Planning process I helped lead my previous congregation through--a process that we almost, but didn't quite, finish.

And then I remembered what one conference keynoter said. She had been flown into the conference because of her success at revitalizing and transforming her own congregation. I and about 80 other pastors and lay people spent two days at a dumpy little hotel listening to her, hoping some of her wisdom and insight would rub off on us, hoping to learn the way to revitalize our own congregations.

I remember that at one point during the conference, she said that she never really had a plan. She just started doing something, and the things that didn't work, she stopped doing, but the things that did work, she kept doing. "There isn't just one right way to do this," she said. "You just gotta figure it out as you go. And what works in one location might not work in another."

The instruction books are helpful. They provide a good starting point for conversation, and have some wonderful ideas. But the pieces you have may not be the same as what the authors of the books, the "professionals," have. Just do something, and figure it out as you go.

Disclaimer: one of the photographs accompanying this essay is not of the roller coaster we built. It does appear to have come out of a box, but the folks who put it together weren't able to figure out how to put in a loop.

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