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An Unfair Deal

By the Rev. Zachary Bartels

All the hot, muggy weather lately reminds me of a story. Twas more than a dozen years ago—1997 to be precise. It was a different world back then. Postage rates were increasing. Wolf Blitzer reported the news. People spent their free time listening to “CDs” and talking on “cell phones.”

Okay, so it was pretty much the same world. But it was very different for me. I was a sophomore in college. My buddy and I (his name is Mark Sunman, but I just called him The Sunman) shared a crummy two-bedroom apartment with no air conditioning. And that summer, there was a massive heat wave. I mean, it was ridiculously hot. . . the kind of ultra-humid, oppressive heat where you could swear your clothes themselves are actually sweating along with your body.

Anyway, it was so hot, that despite our being more or less broke, subsisting on your standard college diet of corned beef hash and Jolt Cola, the Sunman and I actually broke down and decided that we had to buy an air conditioner. Unfortunately, by the time we made the decision, every single A/C unit in all of Kent County had been purchased. I am not exaggerating. We called every appliance store in the phonebook and more than one laughed when we asked if they had any in stock.

Then: the hand of God! (The first American Baptist settlement wasn’t called “Providence” for nothin'.) Our church had finally sprung for central air in the parsonage and so my pastor and his wife had an extra window unit. Could we use it? they asked. You bet! I immediately filled up my gas tank for $19 (so, maybe it was a different world in some ways) and drove over to retrieve the blessed device.

When I got it back home, however, I realized that we had a slight problem on our hands. The air conditioner was a standard window unit, meant for windows that open by sliding the bottom half upward, yet our apartment had tall, skinny windows that cranked open on hinges like a door. Now, you can’t just rotate the air conditioner 90° and make it fit or you’ll spill oil all over. You can’t just prop the thing up near the window; it kicks out as much heat from the back as it does cold air out the front. Finally, after much discussion, it was decided that we would build an adaptor of sorts to modify the air conditioner to fit our windows.

The next day, we both called in to work and headed to Home Depot, where we bought sheet metal, wood, nails, caulk, several feet of dryer exhaust hose, and a ton of duct tape. We then constructed the most pathetic structure ever built on American soil. (See the picture at left).

First, we opened the window and replaced the screen with a custom-cut piece of plywood. We then put together a tenuous wooden stand that propped the A/C unit at about window-level. We built a false back onto it with sheet metal and duct tape, from which two exhaust hoses transferred the hot air out of the unit, through the hoses, and out two holes in the plywood. Two more hoses brought air from outside and were taped directly to the A/C’s air intake. Then, for good measure, we attached two box fans—one on top and one on the bottom—to push the cool air throughout the apartment.

It may have been ugly, but when we cranked that puppy on, it started producing nice cold air and, before we knew it, the temperature in the place had dropped noticeably. The only cause for concern was that, while it succeeded in transferring the hot air outside, the sheet metal attached to the back got really hot—like, fry-an-egg-on-it hot. And this sheet metal was inches away from the curtains which we were unwilling to remove for a variety of reasons.

We made a pact never to leave the unit running while we were not home. With that out of the way, we left the unit running and drove off to Martha’s Vineyard (the pretentious shoppe, not the toney vacation destination), to buy a couple Jolt Colas to celebrate. There, we ran into some friends and were invited to join them for hot wings. Before we knew it, several hours had passed. As we drove back home, we joked about how the whole apartment building would be a pile of ash when we returned—burned to the ground by our immediately violating the rule we had agreed upon. About two blocks away, Sunman said, “I think I see smoke.” I chuckled. “No really,” he said, “I see smoke up ahead.”

I saw it too. Then I saw the two fire trucks in the parking lot and the firemen milling around. The car squealed to a stop and, for a second, we just stared at each other in disbelief. One of us (I don't remember who) chastized, “We joked about this!” Without thinking, we tore out of the car and raced into the presumably burning building, up the two flights of stairs to our apartment, despite the yells of protest from the firemen as we jostled by (not sure what we were planning to do to counteract the flames).

We unlocked the door and spilled into the place. There was no fire. In fact, it was a very comfortable 71°. Rushing over to the window, we could see clearly that the firemen were walking in and out of the apartment building across the parking lot from us. Our gaze moved from the fire trucks to the other apartment to the air conditioner and back to the fire trucks again. Finally, we flopped down on the couch and breathed huge sighs of relief.

Then we started to laugh. It was the kind of laughter that gushes out of you when tension is released, rather than when something is funny per se. We sat there and laughed and laughed because deep down, we knew that we deserved to lose our apartment and all our earthly possessions over such a bonehead move. This wasn’t accidentally leaving the coffee pot on or forgetting about a candle. We knew what we were doing and we did it anyway!

That was also the first semester that I took a class on Homiletics (which is just a fancy word for preaching). My first sermon in that class was from Romans 3, about how all have sinned, all deserve eternal separation from God, everyone deserves to go to hell if they are judged by their actions. I got hammered for that sermon, since the whole thing was built around one illustration: the rather long story about our air conditioner.

And that’s okay, because it really wasn’t a great sermon, but I still like the illustration. We can all relate to that kind of near-miss. That little bit of luck (or grace) when we knew that we deserved to run into that tree or get caught sleeping on the job or fall three stories onto a picket fence—but, for some reason, we didn’t get what we deserved. Those moments are great pictures of grace. We humans are obsessed with fairness when we think we’ve been shorted, but you never hear people complaining that they didn’t get what they had coming if it would have been something painful or unpleasant.

And while Romans 3:23 tells us that we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, don’t forget verse 24: “. . . and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” The best thing that ever happened to us was when we got that unfair deal from our Heavenly Father.

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