The Presbyterian Pulpit

NORMAN

Delivered 6/29/03
Text: I Corinthians 13:1-3
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Let me say at the outset that this is not my sermon. It comes from a preacher by the name of Mike Adkins. A friend of mine heard it on the radio, recorded it, and gave me a copy of the tape in hopes that, one day, I might pass it on.(1)

The story is Mike's own experience. It is set in his hometown. Let me share it with you from his perspective.

This is about a fellow that everybody used to laugh at, the kind that kids used to throw snowballs at in the wintertime. You know the type. He was WEIRD! His name was Norman...Old Norman. He was six-foot-two or thereabouts. Wore an old felt-looking hat that had so much dirt and oil in it that you couldn't tell what it looked like originally. Wore grease-soaked overalls. He would go around town in old house-slippers that would flop when he walked. He walked real fast up and down Main Street and then suddenly he would stop and start talking to himself...ababababa. People passing by would raise their eyebrows and whistle, (Twilight Zone Theme). Weird!

He owned a house across the street from me. The bushes were all grown up, the old chocolate paint was falling off, the windows were filthy. It looked like nobody lived there.

One day, while I was out working on an old tree stump, Norman came out and began to putter with his ancient lawnmower in the backyard. Something was wrong with it - it wouldn't run. He was working on it and working on it. I watched. It looked like he was getting more and more disgusted. As I watched, I thought, "Boy, is he STRANGE!" Then he did something I will never forget for all eternity - he stood up as tall as he could, and raised his arms like the Incredible Hulk. He glared at me and RAN from the back of his yard down the side of the house right at me stopping at his sidewalk and he screamed at the top of his lungs...AHHH! My heart was going rat-ta-ta-ta-ta. I had a tool in my hand, and I thought to myself, "Lord, I know we're supposed to love everybody, but if he comes over here I'm gonna defend myself." Norman went back to the lawnmower, fooled around with it a little more, got angry some more, ran at me again. Three times he did that; three times he stopped at his sidewalk.

Suddenly, a sense of peace settled over me. And when it did, I did something that surprised even me. I got up...barefoot, coveralls...and walked across that street, walked up to Norman in his backyard by his lawnmower. I said, "You havin' trouble with your lawnmower, Norman?"

He looked at me and he said, "You havin' trouble with your lawnmower, Norman?"

I said, "I just said that." I said, "I'm not much of a lawnmower mechanic, Norman," and I heard him say, "I'm not much of a lawnmower mechanic, Norman," but I cleaned that spark plug, tightened a screw or two, (knowing NOTHING about a lawnmower) and I prayed...then I pulled that cord and it ran like it had just come out of the shop. It just hummed...HUMMMM!

I got up and looked at Norman. He looked at that lawnmower. And he did something that I had never seen before: he grinned. And when he did, what should appear but a big green and yellow tooth right here. And there was one over here and one here and one here. It was quite a sight with those glasses that looked like Coke bottle bottoms...whiskers...that old hat. (Twilight Zone Theme.)

One night there was something special at my church...and the tradition was, after church, everybody would go to the Dairy Queen. Everybody would be waving and smiling. I was sitting there eating my ice cream, waving and smiling just like everybody else, and guess who walked in in the middle of all that. Uh, huh.

Norman came and got his ice cream cone, sat there...and you know that everyone of those good church folks rushed over to greet him. Me too. Right! I did what everybody else did - gave him room...acted like I didn't see him. But somehow, the Spirit of the Lord was working on me. I said to my wife, "Pray for me. I'm gonna go over and talk to Norman."

"Hi, Norman, you remember who I am?"

And he said, "You remember who I am?"

"Norman, listen, I'm your neighbor."

He said, "I'm your neighbor." Had those same glasses on. He had a glob of dirt in his left ear. He had an ice cream cone. He had eaten part of it, had part of it in his whiskers. It was a sight.

A couple of nights later, the Lord spoke to me again: "Take Norman somewhere with you."

I said, "Lord, I'm not gonna do it now. I'm goin' to Opryland! Norman at Opryland?" Well, to make a long story short, a few days later, we were headin' down the highway to Opryland, Norman beside me, my wife and the kids in the back. But something was happening to Norman - he was getting to be relaxed around people. He was beginning to be less nervous and he didn't talk to himself as much as he had before.

We got to Opryland. I didn't put him on the Wabash Cannonball because he was about 62-years-old and I was afraid he might have a heart problem so I tried to pick out a ride that he could handle...Bumper Cars. I said, "Norman, did you ever ride in..." and he said, "Nope." I said, "Here's how they work - get in, push the peddle, turn the wheel, and have at it."

So we got him in one...right there in the middle of all those girl friends who wanted to hit their boyfriends, mothers who wanted to ram fathers, and he got everybody in the place caught over to one side. He had that car turned sideways, everybody was penned in and they were MAD! And he was looking around at them and at me, not knowing what to do, and we just began to laugh...so hard that tears start coming to our eyes. Finally somebody got loose. The ride was about half over, they felt like they'd been cheated, and they were in a hurry - they came all the way around that rink and they wanted to hit SOMEBODY before that ride was over, and there sat Norman. And they hit him full speed ahead. And then he really tried to get that thing going. Here came someone else (and they were really starting to get loose now in great numbers) and they came around one by one and hit Norman.

And the Spirit of the Lord came to me again, right there at Opryland, and said, "That's what they've been doing to Norman all his life. People have been hitting on him and hitting on him. When they throw snowballs at him like he's not a human being, when they bring him old junky clothes they wouldn't wear anymore themselves, they hit on him."

And then the Lord said something else: "That's what my children do to one another. They get mad because they can't be an usher or they complain about the preacher, gossip about some lady or some man." And then the reminder came of the 13th chapter of I Corinthians: "If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels...if I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries...if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not LOVE...I AM NOTHING."

I had taken Norman an old suit that I didn't wear anymore. I went over to Norman's and looked in his closet - old shoes of every description, old suits and sweaters, all kinds of ties - bolos, big wide ties, little ties - nothing that anyone would want to wear. The Lord said, "Buy him a suit." So I did. I took Norman downtown, told him to pick out whatever he wanted. He did...good taste too - dark blue, good fabric, expensive. It was nice.

I said, "Norman, have you ever been clean?"

He said, "It's been years." He said, "I'm a hermit, you know. My dad got killed in the coal mines about fifty years ago. I was just a little boy. He went to work one day. He didn't come home."

I said, "Norman, I'm gonna run some water for you in your bathtub. I really want you to get clean because tonight I want to take you down to a musical program at our church."

I went in Norman's bathroom and couldn't believe my eyes. The floor was like dirt, the tub was filthy - I had to take all the paper sacks out of it first (he saved paper sacks, I don't know why). I took them all out, cleaned the tub with SOS pads, and when I turned the water on, the faucet fell in the tub. I got it back up, taped it back on, got some hot water going and went out and said, "Now, Norman, you got a new white shirt and tie to go with your new suit, new socks and shoes, new underwear, so let's really get clean. And when you're through, holler at me, OK?"

So Norman went in the bathroom, and I went into the living room of that unbelievable house. Wallpaper sagging where the rain had gotten through the walls and ceiling...dirt everywhere. There was an old coal furnace that smoked in the wintertime - something was wrong with it...I don't know how he lived when he turned it on. He probably didn't use it. There were several covers on the bed, so he'd just crawl under. An old mattress (swayed) like that. I shook the curtain and (cough) dust just billowed out. I heard him in there in the bathtub. I heard him soaping "op-ee-dop-ee-dop-ee-dope." And he finally said, "OK, I'm ready; I'm clean."

I went in and told him to just get out of the tub and put a towel around him. There he stood - his glasses were dripping water; the floor was all wet. And there he stood. Have you ever seen mud that has just been smeared? I said, "Not clean enough, Norman. I want you to get back in the tub. Now, Norman, I'm serious. I want you to get CLEAN." I went back in the living room. Norman called. Same thing. That went on time and time again. The floor was wet, the mirror was wet, the tub was wet, I was wet. And when Norman got finished, I scrubbed his head. I got him down like this - didn't hurt him, but I got him in a headlock where he couldn't get away. I got an SOS. I got some Lava soap, a sponge, and began to rub the top of his head, and he'd go "UM-M-M-M," and pretty soon I looked and there was a bunch of white showing through - he had BEAUTIFUL white hair. I scrubbed some more. I said, "Put your face up here," and he went (scrunched up face), and I scrubbed his face and gave him the sponge and said, "All right, big boy, from the neck on down, it's yours. Get it clean." When we got finished there was water all over the place, but you could rub your thumb on Norman anywhere and he'd squeak.

We went to church that night, and, as usual, people came up to greet me: "Well, good to see you. And who's your friend?" And about the time they'd get his hand, I would say, "That's Norman," and they'd go (...disbelief...)!

One Sunday right after that, the Spirit of the Lord spoke to me and said, "Today is Norman's day. Take a Bible, and go talk to him." I walked across the street, into that dilapidated old house and began to talk to my new friend. I told him how we have all come short of God's standard, but that Jesus had come, had paid the price for our sin, and how we could receive salvation. At first Norman didn't understand, and then he grasped it. He said, "Oh, I see what you mean. I used to listen to the radio when I was a little boy. My Mom would play it when that preacher was on." He said, "You mean, like...my windows are so dirty right there...you mean that Jesus, if I'll ask him, will clean my heart up like sometimes when I wash my windows?"

I said, "Yeh, Norman. He'll clean up the inside of you and then the outside too."

He said, "I would like that." In that old house, with the wind blowing through it and the cracks in the walls, Norman prayed a simple prayer. He said, "Jesus, my friend here said that if I asked you to, you'd come into my heart, and I'd like that. Come in." And Norman was washed white as snow. And God began to do a work in him.

But God continued to work in me as well. God said, "Are you willing to keep on helping Norman? No matter how long it takes? Are you willing to help him, take him places, make him a part of your life? Are you really willing?" I said, "O God, he's so unlovely sometimes. I don't know."

I had done so many things in that house - it was beginning to be a routine: back and forth and back and forth across the street, and one night God challenged me one more time. I was standing looking at my handiwork in Norman's bathroom - I had fixed the faucet, fixed the sink, got some new walls up, put a new Celotex ceiling in...but there was one thing in that bathroom that I would just not touch. It was over in the corner, and, uh... It was DIRTY. I just said, "No, no, no, no. Now, God, sing in the choir, teach Sunday School, serve on committees, OK, Lord, but THAT..." Gee, I fought that thing. But the Spirit said, "All I want you to do is fix that lid." But I just couldn't do it. All I had to do was take a bolt off, put the new lid on and it was done, but I just couldn't do it. I mean, you've got to HUG those things to work on them. No way, Lord.

But I could not get it out of my mind. One night I was sitting watching television but I couldn't concentrate because I was so bothered. Finally, I turned to my wife and said, "I'm not gonna do it." She was looking at the Sears catalogue or something, and looked up at me like... I couldn't stand it. About an hour later I went up and got my coveralls out of the pantry, put them on, put the collar UP, pulled the sleeves DOWN, found some gloves that came up over the sleeves. My wife laughed and told me later that if I had had a surgical mask, I'd have had THAT on. I got my toolbox, and crept across the street, real late, over into Norman's bathroom, got the tools out and started working on that thing and that one bolt that was left on it after all these years...I tried to get a box-end wrench on it, just wouldn't... Finally, I laid down on that old filthy floor, to see up under that thing, took that wrench, and finally moved it a little bit, and as I did, old rust and dirt fell down and hit me right in the eye. But the Spirit of the Lord took care of it - He spoke to me in that moment and said, "When you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me."

That changed me. I didn't care if anybody noticed. I didn't want any acclamation for it. I didn't want any money. I didn't care anymore. I began to see when it said, "If I give away all my possessions and if I hand over my body...but I have not love, it's for nothing." I began to see what Jesus was talking about when he spoke of loving your neighbor as yourself. God is not done with me yet. I know God has more for me to learn, but now I know that the lessons God has us sometimes come from the strangest places and the strangest people...even through strange old men named Norman.

Amen.


1. Eventually the story resulted in a book which contains a much more detailed account than is presented here - Mike Adkins, A Man Called Norman: the unforgettable story of an uncommon friendship, Pomona, Calif. : Focus on the Family Pub. ; Dallas, Tex. : Distributed by Word Books, 1989

The Presbyterian Pulpit Sermon Library

Mail Boxclick and send us mail