Morning Prayers (this past Thursday):

Dear Lord, thank you that my church didn’t burn down yesterday when the chicken blew up.  Also, thank you that no people were injured in the blast.  As you know, we did lose eight carrot sticks and four celery stalks.  Oh… and the pan the chicken was sitting in.  But other than that, no permanent damage.  Thank you that I almost have all the scorched chicken grease out of my hair, although I’ve had to shampoo it four times so far.  Thank you that Gayle Barnes and I now know more about kitchen safety than we did two days ago.  And thank you that 30+ people enjoyed a “southern dinner” at the church, even though we couldn’t serve chicken and dumplings, due to the chickens exploding.  Amen. 

Diary entry (this past Thursday):

Well… the chickens blew up right in the middle of confirmation class.  The kids were in the Albright room when it happened, talking about whether they wanted to join the church after confirmation was over.

 While the kids were perfectly safe the whole time, the chicken skins were simmering away in a big pot of water, all of us unaware that they were about to detonate.  They were being cooked less than 20 feet away from me, the door open so I could hear and smell if there were any problems.  In the past, it has taken me about 30 minutes to make the stock for chicken and dumplings.  

The kids were talking about whether or not they wanted to join Grace Church once confirmation ended.  They were a little uncertain.  One student expressed it this way, “we have enjoyed these past several months, but in the past this church has been pretty lame. What guarantee do we have that it won’t go back to being lame in the future?”  The kids agreed that if the right people weren’t in charge of things, including their youth group, “lameness” would surely be their lot. They didn't know whether they wanted to join such an “iffy” church. Kids say the darndest things. 

I was struggling with how to answer their worry.  After all, my tenure as their pastor is up at the end of this month, and I’ll no longer have any power to stimulate their church, raise their spirits, gather them to me, make them laugh, or affirm them by paying attention to the qualities of their personalities and character.  I know all too well that church can indeed get “lame,” …and not just for kids.  

While I was fumbling for an answer, Liam announced that he smelled something burning in the kitchen.  At that same moment, Gayle Barnes had just walked into the kitchen to help with the cooking.  She instantly noticed smoke and rushed into the Albright Room asking about it.  

I barged into the kitchen to see what was the matter.  Sure enough, the pot with the chicken skins, lid still on, was oozing black smoke.  In the next few seconds, I would learn a couple lessons.  

I put on an oven mitt and grabbed the pot from the stove.  This is a big industrial stove, with more than a dozen burner knobs, and I couldn’t see right away which one turned that particular burner off.  Then, hoping that the chicken might still be salvageable, I took off the lid to look.  More black smoke came billowing out and I couldn’t see a thing at the bottom of the pot.  If this ever happens again, I will put the lid right back on.  In fact, if it happens again, I won’t even take the lid off.  But that’s for the next time.  This time I peeked under the lid, then walked the pot toward the nearest counter top, thinking it would be a safe place for everything to cool off. 

I'd only taken took two steps when the inside of the pot exploded into a fireball… about a yard in diameter. I couldn't get my hand close enough to get the lid back on, the fireball was too big and the heat too intense.  Instantly, trying to protect myself from the raging fireball, I tossed the contraption onto the counter top and backed away.  It slid into the (empty and dry) sink and exploded again.  The flames were leaping almost to the ceiling.  Gayle grabbed the fire extinguisher and asked me if I knew how to use it.  No, never had the opportunity before.  

Meanwhile, the confirmation kids crowded into the doorway to watch and take pictures.  This was the best confirmation session of the whole year!

Back to Gayle and me.  We both fumbled with the fire extinguisher for three or four seconds, which seemed like three or four minutes, with the flames lapping at the ceiling fan.  There was a pin at the top of the extinguisher.  Gayle asked me if we should pull it out.  I guessed we probably ought to, so she pulled out the pin, both of us hoping that the fire extinguisher was not a grenade in disguise.  Gayle held the extinguisher and depressed the lever and I worked the hose.  The fire went out immediately.

The smoke was horrific, reducing visibility in the kitchen to almost nothing.  Gayle groped her way to the back door and threw it open and stepped into the ally to get a breath. The smoke started pouring into the hallways and into Otterbein Hall.  I closed the doors to try and keep it contained in the kitchen as much as possible.  The confirmation kids ran through all three stories of the building searching rooms and closets for fans.  Coral, sitting in her office unawares, until we burst in to tell her, got on the phone to Tia, who came over immediately with fans and mops for cleanup.

In less than half an hour, the fans and kids and Tia… and adults who were arriving to help work… had the kitchen cleaned up from all the soot and extinguisher goop. The smoke was being blown out open doors and dissipating.

We still had an hour and a half to cook our soul food dinner for an expected crowd of 30.  

The smell of smoke soon gave way to the fragrance of fried chicken.   

By 4:30 almost 20 people, of all ages, were bumping around the kitchen, chopping onions, frying chicken, mashing potatoes, stirring gallons of gravy from the drippings, assembling corn casserole, learning how to make skillet okra, cooking collard greens, slicing bananas for the pudding, frying hoecakes, and discovering the delights of grape dumplings.  Dinner was served to everyone a few minutes before six.  Nothing stops Methodists from eating. 

At one point, I brushed the top of my forehead and several flakes fell to the floor.  I had no idea whether they were the leftovers of the chicken skin, chemicals from the fire extinguisher, or my hair.  When I got back to the parsonage last night, I looked in the mirror to see if I still had all my hair.  While much of it was missing, I had gotten a haircut the day before, and I couldn’t really tell how much the barber clipped and how much the chickens had taken off.  Whatever the case, my mop of hair smelled like burnt chicken grease.  It took multiple shampoo rubbings before my head stopped smelling like a Weber grill.

You are probably wondering how confirmation class turned out.  Right before the chicken exploded, I was trying to explain to the confirmation kids what they could do if the church ever goes “lame” again.  I was grasping for an answer I couldn’t quite formulate.

That’s when the chicken blew up.  It occurred to me afterward that not a single confirmation kid thought we were a “lame” church yesterday.  We were the best place in town!  The solution to a “lame” church, the one I couldn’t quite get to the tip of my tongue, was “fire.” 

If the church goes lame, set something on fire.  How appropriate that the Grace Church chicken skins ignited just five days before Pentecost.  As the disciples were gathered together, a sound like a violent wind filled the room, and flames of fire appeared, a tongue touching each disciple  …and they began to speak… and people noticed them… and by the end of the day they were united in fellowship, prayer, sharing meals, praising God, telling of the great works of God.

Of course, the biblical solution for a “lame” church is not really an exploding chicken.  

Okay, maybe on rare occasions it does come in the form of a chicken.  (After all, God once used a talking ass to jigger things up.)  But there is more than one way to start a fire, and more than one kind of fire.  The chicken wasn’t the only thing that got fired up yesterday:  so did our fellowship, our collaboration, our joy, our forbearance, our concern for one another, our gratitude, our common sense … and our common story.  

Yes! That’s it:  our story, our common memories, our common cause, our common delights… it is us that caught fire.  The chicken flamed but a short while.  We, on the other hand, confirmation kids included, are going to stay hot for some time… until the next adventure, which will be better planned and controlled, hopefully.  Our story, the story of any good church, is one of going from fire to fire, Pentecost to Pentecost, the flame of the Holy Spirit touches first one of us… then another.  Loyalty to our community… and our repeated telling of our stories… those keep the fire alive… so that we and all around us might be warmed and transformed by its grace and power.  

Memo to the Church Safety Committee (this past Thursday night)
From: Pastor Mike Smith

1.     Please schedule a visit from our county health department and the Geneseo fire department to visit our church and ask for a review of everything ranging from equipment safety to safe preparation and storage of food.
2.     Please have the kitchen fire extinguisher recharged and find out how long since the other extinguishers in the church have been checked.
3.     During joys and concerns, before the end of the month, have someone stand in front of the congregation, explain how to use the fire extinguishers, and tell everyone where they are all located throughout the church building.  Also point out where the exits are as some people are not familiar with the layout of our church building.  I will trim 5 minutes off the sermon if you will use the time for that.
4.     Once a year, gather the 25 people most likely to use the church kitchen, fix them lunch, and review the 20 most common accidents that can happen in a kitchen, and ask everyone to join a covenant to keep each other safe.
5.     Decide if our current stove still belongs in our church kitchen, or perhaps better in a museum.
6.     Tell my successor to handle chicken skins in the following manner:  have someone in the room the entire time they are simmering for stock; if they start to smoke, don’t look… just turn off the burner; leave them in a safe place, with the lid on, until the whole container cools down.  (Seminaries just don’t teach pastors some of the main things we need to know.)