July 2012

If you don’t have a life, you may have noticed that this blog has been sporadic and quiet of late. I would like to be able to report that it is for some noble cause (rescuing baby otters / trekking up Mt. Kilimanjaro / rescuing baby otters who have failed in their trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro), but the truth is that none of those things were the case.

My name is Danny, and I am a victim of flat-packed Swedish furniture.

If you have never been to the zip code known as Ikea, then you’ve come to the right place. My friends, I have seen the face of evil, and it comes in a heavy cardboard box. After two months of furniture assembly, I finally screwed the final part number 1300567 into drawer slide RL at about 1:15 this morning.

You’ve never traversed those Swedish waters, you say? Let me break it down for you:

Step one: discovery. (approximate time investment: 20 minutes) No one just stumbles upon Ikea.  Nobody drives down a major interstate, sees a building slightly larger than the Pentagon, and thinks, “Hey! There’s furniture in there!” No, there is always a friend who exposes you to the seedy underbelly of do-it-yourself trundle beds. Much like incorrigible teenage thugs, these “friends” tell you of their great deals and huge savings and chic furniture. These same friends also go into the witness protection program and block your number in their cell phone as soon as they hear you’ve rented a U-Haul to go pick up said furniture.

Step two: the warehouse. (approximate time investment: 7.5 hours) My family and I blocked out a Saturday to take a day trip to Ikea. Family. That was mistake number one. Families go in, but families do not come out. Perhaps the same number of people come out, but they are most certainly no longer family. They are individual units that refuse to speak to each other on the two hour drive back to Durham, but they are not family. My wife very astutely observed, “Ikea could triple their profits if they’d set up marriage counseling stations throughout this place.”

We were in Ikea for longer than we would have been on an international flight to Stockholm. We had kids ranging from sixteen years to 22 months old. And we involved a special friend just because we wanted her to see that the pastor and his family is perhaps unsaved.

The day began with lunch at the cafeteria, which had been touted for its cheap prices. And in this case, “cheap prices” meant “nearly 40 dollars worth of nasty meatballs.”

From the cafeteria, we wandered around 1.56 million acres of furniture showrooms. We stepped over the carcasses of shoppers who had gone before us and failed. We wrestled the aforementioned 22 month old in a corner hidden away behind futons, as we fruitlessly tried to get her to take a nap. And in one desperate moment, I considered writing my Social Security number and “tell my wife I love her” on my arm with a Sharpie, because I got separated from my family and the dehydration and delirium was setting in.

We argued. We fought. We said hurtful things that we could never take back (and that was just me and the idiotic shopping cart with four independently pivoting wheels…my conversations with my bride were much worse).

If you’re unfamiliar with the process, we used Ikea’s very helpful system of picking furniture that we would collect at the end of the day. The helpful system translates to using a tiny golf pencil and a tiny score pad to write down item numbers containing approximately 47 digits, plus another number for an “aisle,” plus another number for a “bin.” I thought “aisle” and “bin” were fun euphemisms for employees that would deliver these things to us while we sipped ligonberry smoothies in the lobby, but no. “Aisle” and “bin” are actual “aisles” and “bins” separated by several square miles in no obvious pattern. What that meant was after several lifetimes of picking out furniture, we had to spend several more lifetimes picking up the furniture. I’m fairly certain I saw several Hindus be reincarnated through a few life cycles while we were there.*

Here’s a rule of thumb to remember: picking out the furniture generally only causes your spouse to hate you. Picking up the furniture allows your children to hate you, as well. “NO NOT THAT SIDE! YOU LIFT ON THIS SIDE! IT’S LIKE I DON’T EVEN KNOW YOU ANYMORE!”

Step three: the assembly. (approximate time investment: 8 weeks) It’s best to assemble your furniture on a flat surface with plenty of workspace and no one around to hear you scream. I say this because any modicum of respect my family had for me after step two flew out the window once I realized that the assembly instructions include diagrams of pieces of wood with seven no eight no 36 pre-drilled holes and you had to make sure you were working on exactly the right piece of wood or else you would get to step 137 in the instructions and realize that in step one you were supposed to have a piece of wood with 36 pre-drilled holes but instead you picked up the piece of wood with 35 pre-drilled holes and now not only do you not know how to undo what you’ve done but also you’ve spent so much time on this piece of furniture up until this point that you no longer remember what you’re assembling.

Step three involves lots of Very Bad Words** that are constantly present in your heart and your mind but also occasionally cross the threshold of your lips. Sometimes the Very Bad Words emerge because you realize that you have the furniture assembly skill of a toadstool, other times the Very Bad Words spill out because you made your ten year old balance a piece of wood over his head for far too long and his little arms gave out and when the piece of wood came crashing down the side of your head was in the path of part number 4566219 and that part gashed your skull and also caused tremendous amounts of damage to your Vlöörmokpt side table and you don’t know how to clamp pieces of broken fiberboard together and now your household furniture is going to look like you preserved it from your college dorm room.

I harbored Very Bad Words about the furniture. I harbored Very Bad Words about Ikea. I harbored Very Bad Words about the continent of Europe and NATO treaties and the Swedish foreign exchange student that lived with my wife’s family when she was in tenth grade.

Step four: repent of step three. (approximate time investment: ongoing) 

Step five: repeat the process. (approximate time investment: unknown) I would like to say that we have learned our lesson. I would like to say that we will never ever ever purchase flat packed furniture again. I would like to say that I will take a longer amount of time to save money towards furniture or that I’ll take a side job or that I’ll sell a vital organ so that we can do whatever it takes to buy pre-assembled furniture and never have to see the oddly-shaped Ikea man in the assembly instructions again.

But I know it just ain’t so.

I know that one day soon, I will be sitting on my Odklørpf easy chair, thumbing through the Ikeapedia of a catalog that we picked up while maneuvering our independently-wheeled cart through the cavernous warehouse, and my eye will rest on a black-brown entry hall table, and I’ll think, “How hard could that be?”

And then I’ll go ahead and sign up for marriage counseling, because you just never know.

* only kidding. No false religions were harmed in the making of this blog post.

** “shucks.” “Darn.” “By golly.” What did you think I meant?

I can’t believe that I missed the opportunity last week to take you down a runaway destructive memory lane. Last week was ServeRDU, which makes me sad because no other ServeRDU will ever top the summer of 2010 in terms of property damage.

There’s no way to set it up, and no way to describe it in words. Just trust me: click here.

Three links. Three things I’m reading. In three…two…one:

Who Let This Guy In The Building? As usual, an instant win by Seth Godin.

Are you letting other people talk to your customers? You may not have the authority or the control to decide who gets to talk to your customer before you do. Doesn’t really matter, though, because the customer thinks you do.

What They See When They Come To Your Church Thom Rainer beats my favorite drum.

When a guest has a good experience, he or she is more likely to return. When they return they are more likely to hear about and experience the love of Christ.

Packing Tips For Every Trip 

There is no right way to pack. Some feel comfortable carrying around enough outfits to last a week and one or two for the club. I have seen others that have only the clothes on their backs (filled with holes, mind you). While I do occasionally miss my jeans, I much prefer packing less.

Yes, I took a couple of those cows home.

A few weeks ago I was invited to attend Chick-Fil-A’s Customer Appreciation Night here in Raleigh-Durham. Dan Cathy, President and COO of my favorite chicken chain, was in town and we were going to party till the cows came home (did you see what I did there?).

It’s no secret that I’m a raving fan of Christian chicken. I’d eat it every day if I could. And on the seventh day – when I can’t eat it – I’ve been known to adapt the manna principle and buy extra on Saturdays. I have one kid in the business and another one that’s just biding his time until he can start working there. Our entire family dressed up as cows last week to get free food. I’m an admirer and student of the principles that Chick-Fil-A is built upon, and how those principles keep customers coming back time and again for the food and for the service.

The night was one “wow” after another, exactly what you’d expect from the company that constantly delivers great experiences at their restaurants. But there were four key principles that I took away from the evening:

Merriem & Austin, our current cow-in-training.

1. Culture starts with leadership. That seems simple enough, but it’s obvious that Truett Cathy instilled the “customer first” mindset into his children first, and then down the line to the Chick-Fil-A family. Dan said that he’s not so much a President as he is a customer service specialist. He models the principles that he expects every employee to follow.

2. Small tweaks make a huge difference. Dan said they’re constantly looking at new ways to improve the customer’s experience. Tiny things like having an employee carry a tray to the table for a mom with kids, but carrying that tray in their left hand so they can pull out her chair with their right hand. Tiny things like having a manager carry out all catering orders to the customer’s car. Tiny things like  honoring all CFA coupons, no matter the expiration date (I just used one from 2004 last week. No kidding.).

While no one of those tiny things will make or break a company, the accumulation of them is what sets Chick-Fil-A apart from their competitors.

That’s Dan Cathy. You’re gonna have to trust me on this one.

3. Focus on building people rather than employees. I’ve seen this borne out in my own son’s time behind the counter: CFA leadership focuses on character. In Jacob’s first day on the job, his orientation revolved around keeping a focus on his school work, being a reader, developing leadership skills, etc. His manager didn’t say a word about how to run a register or how to perfect an Icedream cone.

4. Repeat your vision. Repeat your vision. Repeat your vision. By far, my favorite takeaway from the evening was a montage of clips featuring founder Truett Cathy. The video featured him in interviews, employee meetings, training sessions, and CFA conventions. And in every single clip, this is what he said:

“If, during the course of our work, a customer should thank us for some small act of service that we should perform, what should be our response?”

The answer, of course, is “My pleasure.” But it was the tenacity, the consistency, and the simplicity of Mr. Cathy’s question that helps me understand why those two words are so ingrained in Chick-Fil-A culture. He drills this truth over and over and over again. For years, he’s asked this question. For years, he’s sought this answer. Our pastor often says, “When you’re sick and tired of repeating your vision, your people are just beginning to hear it.”

Don’t discount the power of shared vision. Don’t shortchange your people by telling them something once and expecting it to impact them the way it has impacted you. That montage of clips – almost humorous in their presentation – spoke volumes about why Chick-Fil-A culture is the way it is.

How about you? What have you learned about the leadership principles or customer service that is uniquely Chick-Fil-A? Comment below.

I’m not exactly what you would call a public restroom aficionado. As a born-and-bred germaphobe, I’m not a big fan of hanging out in the bacterial rodeo we call the men’s room.

I believe that a great bathroom should be completely hands-free: automatically flushing toilet, automatic sinks, automatic soap dispenser, automatic paper towels, and a door that pushes open from the inside. (Don’t get me started on air dryers; those things are nasty.)

I believe that the ninth circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno would have included none of those things, but rather those sinks where you have to keep pressing the faucet with your elbow in order to get a 3.8 second stream of water and that lotion soap that takes a sandblaster to get off of your hands.

My point? I think if more business owners used the bathrooms that they expected their guests to use, their bathrooms would look a lot different. They’d be more user-friendly.

My real point? Which “bathroom” do you need to check out in your weekend service? What frustrates your guests? By golly, what is your lotion soap?

(Can’t get enough potty language? Check out Travel + Leisure’s list of the World’s Best Public Restrooms.)

Flashback Friday is back after its summer vacation. Today’s journey in the wayback machine actually opens up a rabbit hole of sorts to a week-long Audience Participation Week series, where commenters chose three random words that I had to work into a post.

Yes, it sounded like a great idea at the time, thanks for asking.

Here’s a teaser:

When a secondary issue becomes a primary issue, you have a recipe for disaster.  Whether it’s an individual who makes their cause of utmost importance or an entire church that takes its focus off the gospel and places it on something silly, secondary issues should remain secondary, not primary.  That’s why they’re called secondary, yo.

As a church staff, we’ve tried our best to identify those things that are our primary issues, and stick to them.  The result has been a church where the ministry lines are cleaner, the community aspect is deeper, and the worship experience is richer.

Read the entire post here.

Yes, I realize I’ve taken nearly a whole week to write about wedding ceremonies. And while that’s far from the standard fare for this blog, I’m secretly sitting back and waiting on the lucrative writing contracts to roll in from high-end magazines like High Maintenance Brides and the Grooms Who Fearfully Endure Them.

If you missed posts one and two, you should read them here and here.

5. Your wedding day should be all about you. Wait, what? You talkin’ out of both sides of your mouth, there, preacher boy? Ain’t that different from what you said on point #4 yesterday? And did you just completely switch personas as if you’re an entirely new character in this series? Well, yes.

Your wedding day should be a reflection of you. It should embody your personalities, your relationship, your story. And while, yes, it should ultimately point to and celebrate Jesus, it should also celebrate what Jesus is doing in you.

If you are a fun-loving couple, then make your ceremony fun. If you’re a stick in the mud couple, then make your ceremony fun (trust me, your guests will thank you for it). Make sure your pastor knows you well enough that he knows how to craft a service that looks like you.

I used to say that I don’t do cookie-cutter ceremonies. I tried to write a fresh message for every couple I married. After nearly 30 ceremonies, I’ve realized that there are only so many ways you can marry a couple. So short of having them zip line down the aisle in Star Trek outfits, there’s a fair amount of cut-and-pasting that I do nowadays.

But that still doesn’t excuse me from making parts of the ceremony as personal as I can for that particular couple. A good pastor will work with you to figure out how to do that.

Oh, and a word on tradition: there’s no such thing anymore. As long as you exchange vows and rings, there’s really not a right or wrong way to work through a ceremony. If you don’t want a unity candle, no problem. If you want a banjo instead of a grand piano (true story), be my guest. Don’t hang on to something because it’s what your meemaw expected you to do. Make your wedding look like you.

6. Don’t schedule a 6 AM flight the next morning. I can’t tell you how many couples I’ve married who have had a reception late into the evening and then had to be awake at 4 AM to get to the airport so they could fly to Cabo san Nassau, Puerto Rico (not a real place, calm down). Let me shoot straight with you: you will be exhausted on the day after your wedding, and not just from your – ahem – new favorite hobby.

You’ve spent weeks preparing for a wedding, sending invitations, and yelling about stupid people who don’t RSVP to invitations. You’ve spent several days hosting your bridal party and stacking chairs after rehearsal dinner and pretending to like your extended family. Don’t sabotage your honeymoon by trying to get to a faraway location too soon. If you have a flight, wait a minimum of 36 hours after your ceremony to take it. If you have a more-than-three-hour drive, don’t start it until early afternoon the next day. Find a nice hotel close to your wedding venue and for the love of all that’s good and holy, relax and sleep in. You’ll avoid 42% of future counseling sessions if you will do this.

Undoubtedly, there’s a 7th or 8th thing that I’ve missed. How about it, pastors and/or married people? What would you add to this list? Comment below.

In the last post, we cranked off the first two things Uncle Danny thinks you need to know about your wedding ceremony. I said that we’d continue that discussion “tomorrow,” which of course means, “I’m just kidding, silly, it’s going to be the day after tomorrow.” (Really, you should pay more attention to what I mean. Shape up!)

If you missed that first post, catch it here. (Go on, catch it.) And now…the next chapter:

3. A good wedding director is worth their weight in gold. Ideally, your wedding day will be your first and last matrimonial rodeo. There will be things that you’ve never thought about before, like how your bridesmaids will get down the aisle, what side of the church the groom’s parents are supposed to sit on, and what to do if a dove poops on your dress (true story). Bottom line: get an experienced, trustworthy wedding director.

“Experienced” doesn’t mean your aunt who has watched 71 episodes of Say Yes to the Dress and got married a few times herself. “Trustworthy” doesn’t mean that your wedding director shows up to rehearsal fifteen minutes late and says “So I know we talked about this, but remind me: what did you need me to do?” (true story)

A good wedding director will offer insight and counsel, but not hard-nosed decrees. A good wedding director will work with the pastor to make sure the wedding rehearsal is wrapped up in a reasonable time (way less than an hour) and everybody knows what they’re doing. And a good wedding director will be the walking encyclopedia on your wedding day who makes sure that your grandfather stops telling stories in the foyer and gets to his pew and your groomsmen aren’t late and the church has left you a key to the locked thermostat box so that it’s not 189 degrees in the auditorium (true story).

4. Your wedding day shouldn’t be all about you. It’s true. I know, you’ve waited a lifetime to find Mr. or Ms. Right. You’ve found the perfect dress and your mom got her hair did and you wrote cute vows that highlighted you chasing squirrels through a park (true story). But your wedding day is an almost guaranteed time where unbelieving friends and family members will be in attendance, with their rapt attention towards celebrating what’s happening in your lives.

That’s why you have to do all you can to point people away from you and towards the gospel. Make sure your pastor knows that he has the freedom to celebrate the cross and the resurrection (hopefully your pastor is gospel-centric enough that he ain’t gonna ask permission). Choose a pastor that will not tell you how to have 14 steps towards a happy marriage, but instead will tell you and everyone in the room that sin destroys relationships, but two sinners can find grace when Jesus is at the center.

Make much of Jesus. Don’t make much of you.

Parts 5-6? They’re coming tomorrow (no seriously, they are. I’ve already scheduled them. Pay more attention to what I mean.)

Gather ’round, children. Uncle Danny is going to divert from the normal posts about guest services and Muppet videos and be pastoral for a moment. Maybe even Grandpa-like.

It’s wedding high season around these parts. I’ve officiated three ceremonies in the last two months and have another one coming up in just a few weeks. I am a veteran of nearly 30 weddings (those are the ones I’ve officiated; I’ve only personally been a veteran of one). And during those 30, I’ve learned a thing or six that needs to be passed along to the hitching generation.

Please note: these six things are related to the ceremony itself. Yes, I believe that a couple should have biblically-based counseling prior to getting married. I believe that Sacred Marriage is required reading for every single couple. (And I believe that China patterns are overrated and if they’d had those scanner guns at Target when I got married that process would have been a lot more fun and maybe I’d have a super sweet Nintendo 64 right now.) So save your emails about how you think that number seven on this list should be that you get the father’s blessing before popping the question. I get it.

But here’s what I believe every marrying couple needs to know about the day of their wedding. Get out your notepads and prepare to ignore the irrelevant old preacher man:

1. Take your photos prior to the ceremony. That’s right. I’m coming off the top rope early in this round. When Merriem and I got married, my brother was our photographer. When he made this suggestion, I thought my future wife and her mother would each claw out one of his eyeballs. But he finally convinced us that pre-ceremony photos allowed us to get a massive time-stealer out of the way and kept us from playing beat-the-clock with the reception. We took every single photo prior to the ceremony except the one with our pastor and the ones with our grandparents.

“But wait!” you say, “What about the big reveal? Didn’t you lose a huge moment by not seeing her walk down the aisle?” Nope, and here’s why: Merriem, her mom, and me and my brother were the first to arrive at the church. She put on her wedding gown and I tuxed up. My brother put on some weddingish music in the auditorium while I stood at the altar. My mother in law swung open the door so I got my first look at my bride as she walked down the aisle.

Merriem and I were alone for the next 20 minutes…laughing, crying, and talking…opportunities we wouldn’t have had with a few hundred friends in the room. For us, it made the rest of the day a piece of cake. Nearly twenty years later, we don’t have one single regret about heeding the “photos before” advice.

If you don’t follow my counsel on number 1, I won’t be mad at you. I will, however, clean out the appetizer trays at your reception because I’ll get hungry waiting on you.

 2. Expensive doesn’t equal memorable. We live in a day of Bridezillas and TLC specials. Everybody wants their ceremony to have a full orchestra, their reception to have life size ice sculptures, and each of their guests to get their own tuxedoed chihuahua as they go home. I’ve presided over $50,000+ weddings and less than $5,000 weddings, and the one that I still talk about was the one that was undoubtedly the least expensive to pull off. The ceremony was in a tent on a horse farm, the reception featured a make-your-own-s’mores campfire and cornhole boards, and the groomsmen wore suits they already owned rather than rented tuxes. And yet, it was without a doubt the most fun experience I’ve ever had, and the one that people still refer to as the benchmark for a unique ceremony.
You do not have to mortgage your house to have a great wedding. Your friends are there to celebrate you, not your prime rib. If you have the means to throw a lavish wedding and it not make a dent in your budget, then don’t let me stand in your way. But don’t do it as a way to keep up with the Kardashians.
Things 3-6? They’re coming tomorrow. Stay tuned.