When the elusive Donna and I moved into our fourth place to live in 2 years of being married, I felt the need for a pet. The cockroaches that visited us by night, and sometimes by day, didn’t cut it for me so I persuaded the elusive one that we needed an aquarium. She kindly indulged my impulse and we hit Wal-Mart for a 10 gallon kit with everything in the world you’d ever need for keeping pet fish except for the water and the fish themselves.
We took the box home, settled on where it would go and I began the process of setting up the tank. Under-gravel filter, gravel, fake plants, ceramic log, water, heater, lid with light and thermometer bar stuck to the outside of the glass. Then I “conditioned” the water. That meant waiting for the fish. I’m not good at waiting. When my oldest was born I went out and bought an electric race track and a Nintendo game system. By the time he was actually old enough to play, you couldn’t give a Nintendo game system away. But for the fish I waited.
Finally the day came when we could put in some fish and have confidence they’d survive in water that had bad stuff subtracted and good stuff added. I searched from store to store for just the right kind of fish. I decided I’d start with angel fish and build my little aquatic world around them. I chose one that was black with white stripes, one white with black stripes. Ying and Yang. Plop. Plop. I have to say they took to their new world right away and seemed deliriously happy. I can only imagine the relief a fish might feel when he gets to escape the invisible walls of a plastic bag that made the future seem very limited. I also assume that, based on brain size, by the time they pass the full length of the aquarium they’ve already forgotten where they came from the and return trip is a fresh discovery for them.
Once in their new world I turned on and cranked up the heater to make sure the temperature was just right. The thermometer on the side didn’t register a temp yet in its’ limited range. I came back a little later to see how the heating process was going.
Still nothing registering on the thermometer.
A little later I check in and the fish are doing laps. They appear to be delirious with joy and deep appreciation for their benevolent god (me) who supplies every good thing. I look at the thermometer and the temp still hasn’t started to register yet.
The next morning I wake up and go to say good morning to Ying and Yang and bestow upon them some food flakes by the almighty hand from above. My two angel fish had ceased swimming and were, well, bobbing. I opened the lid and gently reached in to lift their bodies from the water.
And burned my hand.
I had cooked my fish.
“Stupid Wal-Mart thermometer!” I yelled. I unplugged the thermometer and then carried the wee bodies of Ying and Yang to the bathroom, spoke a short but heartfelt eulogy, dumped and then flushed. Then I headed back to Wal-Mart, defective thermometer in hand.
I explained to the girl at the customer counter what had happened. She could tell I was still emotionally traumatized by discovering the two dead bodies that had formerly worshipped me and she acted quickly. Mere moments later a new aquarium box had been opened and another thermometer pulled from the box and given to me with their apologies.
I hurried home and put the new thermometer on the tank and waited for the water to cool down.
A day later I was adding two more angel fish to my new, cooler aquarium. I plugged in and turned up the heater and waited for the temp to go up to the correct level. I’d already decided not to name these two until they’d made it a week – no use setting myself up for the emotional pain.
A little while later I check again and still nothing registering on the thermometer. “No problem,” I thought, “you can’t get two defective thermometers in a row!” And I waited. A few hours later I checked in on my little angels and discovered, again to my horror, their little bodies bobbing on the surface. I ranted and raved, I called Wal-Mart and all their Asian suppliers all sorts of names and made all sort of accusations and threats of legal action. Then the elusive Donna interrupted me with a simple thought.
“Brian, maybe it’s not the thermometer. Maybe you’re cranking it up so high that it heats up past its’ range before it can even register the temperature.”
“You’re saying it’s my fault my fish are dead?”
“Well, that’s not how I put it but yes, that’s what I’m saying.”
I pulled the thermometer off the aquarium and tested her theory. Turns out she was right. Their boiled fish blood was on my hands.
I’ve been thinking about that experience lately as I’ve been considering metrics. Not the metric system but the system, any system – formal or informal, conscious or un-conscious that we use to measure our success. I’m particularly interested in how we measure how we’re doing at this thing we call church.
Over the next few posts I’m going to think out loud and run the risk of boring you but I think it’s an important question in a time where we have churches that count thousands or tens of thousands while the church down the street only has to count tens (or to ten). Is it numbers in the seats and in the offering that matter most? Is it the number of people who have “made a decision” this year?
Ultimately it’s a question for all of us, in or out of church, interested or bored by it. What is the measure of your success?