lessons learned from a red stapler

Last night, I was in charge of both leading and playing piano in the evening service. I’m getting the hang of balancing these two responsibilities together, but it puts a certain amount of time pressure on the preparation for the evening service. This would be apparent to anyone who listened to my opening spiel last night.

Given what a disaster it was, I thought I’d run through my preparation process, so that we can all have a better idea of what went wrong.

Normally, I try and put something creative and (dare I say) mildly funny together. If I run out of time, I’ll go with something more solemn and reflective – either work perfectly well as a start to the service, but for the sake of gathering everyone’s attention, I find something creative works better – people are more engaged with the service. (Perhaps this is just my own vanity creeping in: feel free to give me feedback either way.)

Hopefully, whatever I come up with will be tied to the theme of the service. Of late, I’ve been given a bible verse as a starting point: this is actually harder than choosing your own starting point, but I digress.

This week’s was Leviticus 11:45. Now don’t panic when you hear “Leviticus”, the verse was actually a pretty good one to work from.

Lev 11:45 I am the LORD who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.

The notion of holiness – you may be aware – is about being set apart. This verse (though it’s in the middle of a section on what the Israelites could and couldn’t eat) paints a picture of God having set the Israelites apart for himself. Having made them into a nation and brought them out of slavery in Egypt, he requires a certain type of behaviour from them.

How this reminded me of staplers is much harder to explain. it was one of those flashes of inspiration that might work, or might not. Judging by the looks of agreement I was seeing around the room, people were with me in thinking that a stapler is the kind of office equipment that – more than anything else – people form an emotional bond with. This is my stapler; you can’t take it away.

If I’d just stayed with this concept, I could have worked together a few similar ideas:

  • we call out our own stapler from among all the other staplers
  • in many cases, we mark the stapler with our own name
  • we expect a certain loyalty from our staplers: not to go off with someone else

As you can see, this is already a fairly long bow to draw, but salvageable. In a service opening, you’re not looking for exhaustive explanation of the passage, just something to mark out that a service is beginning.

The trouble, though, was that I didn’t stop at just thinking about my stapler. Instead, I let my thoughts wander to the openning of the movie Office Space, and its famous red Swingline stapler. This would have worked at building up the notion of the stapler as a device people form an emotional bond with, but not so much as a segue into the verse.

Through reasons of time pressure (and foolishly thinking that I’d be able to explain myself from the bullet points I wrote out), I ended up hopelessly stuck, unable to bridge the gap between the red stapler and the people of Israel.

After an agonising few seconds, I simply moved onto the next part of the service, leaving the people who arrived on time at best amused, and at worst, horribly distracted.

What should I have done differently? Given the time constraints, I should have gone with a straight opening, and not tried to be clever. I should have written out the opening longhand, not hoped to be able to "wing it" from the bullet points I wrote out. I shouldn’t have run with my last idea, unless I was certain that it would have fit together with the rest of the introduction.

Ah well. Reminders that I’m fallible are always useful, as long as I learn from them.

I doubt anyone has had quite this experience, but does anyone else want to share their horror stories of trying to explain something in a public forum?

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  1. I don’t reckon you are alone by any stretch of the imagination! The likelihood of things jumping out of your brain is as likely, if not more so, in front of a group of people as in a less public conversation. I’m sure I’ve had similar occasions, although can’t think of specifics right now. On the holiness topic, we’ve done quite a bit of thinking around holiness and thinking much more of it as “fit for the task”, “something that is whole”. I’ll send you some stuff on it.

  2. Dave –

    If you were a rhetorician in 1st century Corinth, then you would be howled down for what happened last night. It was unprofessional, poorly planned and terribly executed.

    And it was a wonderful moment for grace and freedom to triumph. You did something that fell flat, AND you had the courage to admit immediately that it had failed. You stopped pretending that you could get it all together, and you gave us an opportunity to show grace.

    So I didn’t go home thinking, “What a disaster.” Instead, I will remember for a long time your willingness to just say, “Guys, this is not working. So cut me a little slack.” Most of us had a little chuckle about it, and that’s good for us.

    So don’t go beating yourself up about it. Your introductions will always be ‘Dave-ish’ and that’s all they ever should be. You are not someone else; you are the person Jesus made you to be. And sometimes you make mistakes – like me. And you need grace – as we all do. Without it, we’re sunk. With it, we’re gloriously free to try our best, and to dust each other off and encourage each other when things don’t go quite as we’d planned. Go the mighty red stapler!

  3. Wanted to comment it was good chatting on Saturday!
    Also, when we stuff up (and we all stuff up) let’s just rejoice, that “God uses the lowly things, and the despised things, and the things that are not, to nullify the things that are!”

    I think stuffing up up the front is very helpful for everyone – helpful for the person up the front (keeps our pride in check) and helpful for everyone else (reminding all that we’re all under grace).

    26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”[d]

  4. I too encourage you to carry on. As you know I don’t even need a public forum. It happens automatically. I was told the other day to learn from yesterday, live for today and pray for tomorrow. God uses and will continue to use those who are faithful to Him.

  5. I haven’t had that experience with the opening of a service, but I definitely have with the ‘Pastoral Prayer’. I tend to write down bullet points too, and sometimes it works brilliantly and other times there’s a lot of ‘uhm’s in there between sentences, and he flow is completely ruined. Strangely enough, the two times I have lead a service after less than three hours sleep, the words have flowed the best!

  6. Hey Dave, didnt hear it but was it taped? Your first mistake was you should have used the electric pencil sharpener or hole punch. Im a paper clip man myself and dont like staplers that much. You’ve really opened up yourself here.

    But seriously, thankfully it was only an introduction (not that I think it’s not important) and used in a sermon. If you feel its too much, just keep it simple (speaking from experience). Im sure your next turn at leading will be much improved. Keep up the good work!

  7. Hi all, thanks for your encouragement. When I’m preaching, I tend to go from a word-for-word script to avoid this kind of thing – service leading is a good time to remind myself why I do that.

    B1: look forward to the info
    A: glad I don’t live in Corinth!
    B2: thanks for the perspective
    George: it was good to catch up, and thanks for the reminder that it’s not about flawlessness.
    Tristan: for once, I’d had plenty of sleep, so it wasn’t that!
    Tom: it probably was taped, but you’re not likely to hear a podcast of it any time soon.

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