7. The Ceiling Is Up, and Divorce Is Narrowly Averted: Silence Is Sometimes Preferable 

For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. — Hebrews 3:4

Labor Day Weekend, 2012

There were only two of us who showed up to work this weekend, and the grunt laborer should have called in sick. The pay isn’t good enough to work through sneezing, coughing, nose running, head aching, sore throat type of days. But this is no union job, as the contractor husband reminded her several times.

We had only four days to get the job finished. It was already a week behind schedule (lumber shortages), so when the truck pulled in with thirty fourteen-foot pine boards strapped to the roof, everyone was ecstatic. (The contractor husband was driving the truck, so everyone amounted to one person.)

Fourteen-foot boards are long. Very long. Picture the Three Stooges episode with Curly carrying a board, turning around, and hitting Moe in the head. Each of these thirty fourteen-foot boards got moved at least nine times during this project. When the laborer complained that we seemed to be moving the boards a lot, the contractor husband got huffy. The contractor husband got huffy at least nine times during this project; the laborer complained — whined even — at least ninety-times-nine times during this project….

So, the laborer thinks, the wood is delivered, let’s get this stuff up and call it a day and have a beautiful new ceiling.

Hah, that’s why the laborer doesn’t get paid the big bucks!

First, the contractor husband goes over the boards with a micro-lens to detect knots, holes, and the tiniest indentations. Each imperfect spot is circled and wood putty is put on the small problems; bondo is used for the bigger holes. The repairs have to dry, then be sanded with fine grit sandpaper.

Then the boards are moved to a new spot and primed. Then the boards are moved to a new spot and sanded again. Then the boards are moved to a new spot and painted with a coat of semi-gloss latex…wait, am I repeating myself? There are thirty boards. It’s a small house. We covered the front yard, the back porch, and the living room.

It took three days of preparation before we could even think of putting them up onto the ceiling. Of course, they had to be moved again — outside to the saw — and cut to the correct length.

So far you have only heard the board story; the ceiling story is bad too. Of course, the ceiling isn’t level; it’s an old house and the kitchen is not exactly on a foundation — more like attached to the foundation. Shims take a long time to put up, but the laborer was busy painting and whining while the supervisor was quietly putting up shims and trying to not fire the laborer.

Monday morning dawned with a beautiful sunrise and the work crew was ready. By this point, all expectations of finishing the job were gone; but one point to remember is this: Prep work takes patience (I think I’ve mentioned before that I might be somewhat lacking in the patience department…) but if it’s done correctly, then the finish work goes quickly! The contractor husband has enough experience to know this; the laborer is still learning.

We worked well as a team on Monday (finally). Of course, the team effort had the contractor husband cutting the boards, as well as air nailing them in place. It was also his bright idea to wax the boards so the tongue would slide easily into the groove. All the laborer did was hold up her seven-foot half of the board and pound it into place.

At 4:30 we were having celebratory glasses of wine while looking at our new ceiling, all complaining, whining, nitpicking, and disagreements behind us.


It wasn’t an easy weekend, and there wasn’t much laughter. And later, looking back on the lack of good humor, it was clear that I was largely responsible. Aside from the fact that I felt lousy and calling in sick wasn’t an option, one of the main virtues that I did not exhibit was holding my tongue—or practicing the discipline of keeping silent. 

1 Peter 3:10 tells us that “Whoever would love life and see good days must keep their tongue from evil and their lips from deceitful speech. Paul writes in Ephesians 4:29, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” I have a friend who tells me that is her morning prayer each day—that God would seal her lips and keep her from hurtful talk, that He would “set a guard over her mouth and keep watch over the door of her lips”…(Psalm 141:3)

And what did I spend the time doing? I whined. I complained. I second-guessed the one who had infinitely more experience than I did. I proved the old axiom, “If Mama ain’t happy, Ain’t nobody happy.” And here in this confessional, I still find myself wanting to say, “Yes, but….” 

No buts allowed. Silence is a virtue that we can learn. And when we want to say “Yes, but…” or “I don’t think…” or “That’s crazy! Wouldn’t it be better if…” or “I can’t believe we are doing this again…” just stop. Take a breath. Ask the Holy Spirit to keep those words in your mouth. Swallow them whole. They taste bitter going down; how much worse they sound coming out. Picture your words floating around in the air, never to disappear. Pray for silence because sometimes that’s the best we can do. 

Do you know what that silence does? It buys us time: time to rethink what we really want to say; time to consider the conversation that we want to have;  time to pacify the irritation, the impatience, or yes, the anger that sparks within. Remember the great forest that can be set on fire by the small spark of the tongue? The power of the Holy Spirit is a spark within us too, to help us overcome our sin nature and empower us to keep silent. Maybe in the end we will decide it is a conversation we need to have—when we are no longer angry. Or maybe it will be just another time of irritation that can be forgotten, and we can be glad that nothing unkind was said. 

Ninety ninety-nine percent of the disagreements that I have with the contractor husband begin by one of us getting defensive or defending ourselves against an accusation. Even if it isn’t an accusation, but just sounds vaguely like it might be a criticism, we jump to it and explain, justify, and defend until it becomes a full-blown argument. In his essay “Five Vows for Spiritual Power,” A.W. Tozer lists never defending yourself as one of the vows that will give us spiritual strength. He says, “If you turn the defense of yourself over to God He will defend you.⁠1 

How much more peaceable life would be if I could do that. Even the quiet little words, “But let me explain why…” seem to leap out of my mouth unbidden. Do I have to win every word battle? What makes me this way? I am reminded of Paul’s anguished comment, “…For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing…” (Romans 7:18-19) Oh wretched woman that I am… Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? And the answer? “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)

The next time I am tempted to defend, insist, or grumble, I will put in my earphones and play worship music. How can I be disgruntled while singing,  “More like you, Jesus, more like you, Fill my heart with your desire to make me more like you⁠2.” 

  • I do not want to be a woman of unwise words. 
  • I do not want to be a woman who whines and argues. 
  • I do not want to be a woman who uses words as swords.

Jesus, touch my lips with holy fire, and make me more like you.


For further study, read James 3:1-6.

Questions for thought:

  • James writes in verses 5-7: “…Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire…It corrupts the whole body…” If this doesn’t scare us to silence, what will? Consider when it is hardest for you to hold your tongue and why. Confess this to God, and end with a prayer asking Him to help you with keeping silent.
  • There are times when disagreements need to be aired; I’m certainly not suggesting otherwise. How can we tell the difference?
  • In Ephesians 4:22, 23, & 24 Paul writes, “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self…to be made new in the attitude of your minds… and to put on the new self…” Three repetitions to change your attitude and your self. Yet we can’t do it on our own; the spirit has to help us. I began writing this essay many years ago, and now seven years later, I can say with complete truthfulness that it does not seem like there is any improvement. It’s absolutely depressing. Here’s what happens: I bite my tongue and don’t say the words, and then the bitterness explodes up into my brain. Where the thoughts fester. I just can’t seem to get rid of that old self…
  • Sometimes it seems so hard to change my besetting sins. One of which is needing to say what I think ALL. THE. TIME. Here is where I need one of those arrow prayers — one sentence to pray each time I’m tempted. “Lord, set a guard over my mouth…”
  • Here is a link to Tozer’s Five Vows for Spiritual Power.The five vows are:
    1. Deal thoroughly with sin
    2. Never own anything
    3. Never defend yourself
    4. Never pass anything on about anyone else that will hurt them
    5. Never accept any glory  Even though in this essay, I wrote about number 3, number 4 is also relevant to our tongues and keeping silence. Interesting that of five vows for holiness, two are about words that we say…. Thoughts? (You might want to check out this short reading–the next essay here will be about number 2: Simplicity and your possessions…)

1 Tozer, A. W. Five Vows for Spiritual Power. http://www.neve-family.com/books/tozer/FiveVows.html

2 Brown, Scott Wesley. More Like You, Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing, Inc. 1997.

6. Being Thankful for Failure Takes a Better Man than I: God Shines through our Weaknesses

For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. — Hebrews 3:4

I don’t fail very often any more, and it certainly isn’t because I’m great at everything I do. No, it is much more because in my seventh decade (!) I’m fairly aware of my limitations, and I stick to what I do well, or at least, what I’m pretty sure I won’t botch badly. I don’t try high diving or skateboarding or basketball; I don’t try to fix my own computer or my leaky roof; I don’t do electrical wiring or corporate taxes.

But as the laborer at the cottage, I’ve been trying some new things, with a modicum of success. My confidence was up (inflated perhaps) until this past weekend. I’ve been sanding the old windows that will go above the kitchen sink. I took out the glass — pane by pain (no blood though) — and then I scraped, sanded, and primed. Eventually it was time to replace the glass; the correct term is reglazing, and there used to be people who did this as a profession. They were called glaziers. They have my utmost respect.

I had visions of becoming the new DIY blog maven when I wrote the article, “How to Reglaze your Old Wood Double Hung Windows.” (Note that is not the title of this essay.) I took plenty of photos and even cleaned my fingernails.

A very good question to ask is: “Why would you be so sure you could do this?”  Here are some random answers:

  • I am fairly good at artistic endeavors: I can sew, knit, and make scrapbooks. I have made a couple of quilts. I can do passable graphics, and I’m really good at using scissors and coloring.
  • I am particular and neat about my final work, tending toward perfectionism. (This could have been a warning sign…)
  • I am very good at reading directions.
  • I nailed the first part of the glazing process.

I took about twelve good photos from the first part of reglazing, which is called the back bead. In effect, it sets the glass in place and seals the inside. It is easy. Just make snakes of the glazing putty, push the glass in, put in the small metal points to hold the glass, and scrape off the excess putty. Yes, I nailed this first part.

The window is then turned over, so the outside is facing up. New putty snakes are made and pushed against the frame. Then the glazing tool is carefully held at the correct angle and pulled across the putty to make a crisp, even edge. No, I didn’t nail this second part.

I worked on making the putty smooth and even with the glazing tool for two hours. I kept reminding myself it was the outside of the window and hardly anyone would notice it. This was one pane; there are six panes per window and four windows = twenty-four panes. I pulled up the snakes and started again at least three times. I angled the glazing tool a hundred different ways. When the contractor husband came in from his own window project and asked how it was going, I’m not sure I answered him. I acted as if I were age 2 instead of my real advanced age number. He took the glazing tool from my hand and said, “Well, let’s see…”

When the going gets tough, the tough go take a nap. After two hours of napping and taking the longest, hottest shower I could stand, Voila, the contractor husband had the entire window finished. Technically, I am delighted that he could do it, and it looks great. I am glad to have a talented husband. The thing is, I’m supposed to do the unskilled labor and leave the jobs that only he can do (and there are a lot of those!) for him. I was supposed to be able to do this… This is a lesson in humility.

Oh, I know that Dr. Seuss had his first book (I Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street) rejected multiple times. Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Wrinkle in Time (which later won the Newbery Award) was rejected twenty-nine times. It took Thomas Edison 10,000 times to get the filament right on his first light bulb…I KNOW ALL THAT! And these failure quotes that you are about to read — I’ve read them all a dozen times. They are platitudes; but they are also true.

“There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.” — Colin Powell

“Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” — Henry Ford

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” — Thomas Edison

“If you have made mistakes, even serious ones, there is always another chance for you. What we call failure is not the falling down, but the staying down.” — Mary Pickford

“You build on failure. You use it as a stepping stone… You don’t try to forget the mistakes, but you don’t dwell on it. You don’t let it have any of your energy , or any of your time, or any of your space.” –Johnny Cash…and my personal favorite:

Yes, that’s what happened; I certainly lost my enthusiasm and never regained it. The ironic thing is that we had just had a discussion about fear of failure in church the day before. God asked Moses to lead His people out of slavery, and Moses politely declined at first. “Send someone else, God. I’m not really good at what you want me to do…”


We all fear failure, but as those quotes above point out, failure is always a lesson. It could be a lesson in hard work, or lack of preparation; it could be an opportunity for a second chance, or to encourage creativity and enthusiasm;  it could be a lesson in losing gracefully or developing patience; or it simply could be to learn humility.

Moses finally accepted God’s plan for him and went to Pharaoh to ask for the people’s freedom. Seven times (at least) he went. Can you imagine what he was feeling that last time? “Oh no, Lord! Do I have to go again?” God chose Moses, so His strength would shine through Moses’ weaknesses and failures. Failure is not only all those lessons above; it is a God-given gift. Grace. So we won’t live proud. So we can be thankful for those failures. Our God can take those failures and lessons and use them for His glory. When we take on something we feel we can’t do, then God gets the glory, not us. Moses whined to God many times, finally saying, “…O Lord, please send someone else to do it.” (Exodus 4:13)  (Sometimes I think that part of Moses’ “punishment” for whining was that, in turn, he had to listen to the Israelites whine in the desert for 40 years….)

“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things–and the things that are not–to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” — 1 Corinthians 1:27-29

Jesus chose twelve ragtag disciples who failed over and over again (taxing even Jesus’ patience!) yet look at what they became: Apostles, evangelists, missionaries to the world. Their successes were born of their failures, and of their willingness to trust Christ Jesus who is our wisdom, our righteousness, our holiness, our redemption… Therefore, let us boast only in Him, not ourselves (see 1 Corinthians 1:30-31).

Let’s go beyond the disciples though, and bring into your mind a picture of Jesus dying on the cross. His followers crushed by the seeming injustice, the awful atrocity and scandal, they scattered and hid from the oppressors, weeping and mourning that they could have been so wrong. By human thinking this was perhaps one of the most spectacular failures ever–they had trusted him and left everything for him, and now, their hero has suffered the shame of crucifixion.

God’s motif, His pattern for humanity, is to learn wisdom, success, holiness, righteousness, redemption through suffering, ignominy, and shame. He allowed it for His son; He will allow it for His children. Our efforts and our performance count little for Him; what He wants is our whole lives, our trust.

I’ve been reading Hebrews this week, and as I made my way through my journaling Bible, I came upon this that I’d written sometime in the past: “We can fail by not yielding to God control of our lives, by thinking we can and want to be masters of our own destiny. Our own effort and performance counts more to us than yielding to a God we cannot see.” And I’ll add today: When we humbly yield to Him, the creator and the one who never fails, think of what peace can be ours.

I’ve got three more windows to work on. I will certainly do the inside seal, but I’m not sure if I’ll try the outside bead of putty again. Perhaps I just need to practice…or perhaps it is a skill I won’t ever master, but I need to trust that God is teaching me to yield to Him in my failures. What looks like a failure on this side of earth, may be the exact opposite to Jesus.

In the meantime, I’ve ordered some cotton fabric printed with Granny Smith green apples, and I’m sewing  kitchen shelf liners, because my pride is wounded after this extremely unsuccessful enterprise. I have confidence that I can do a sewing project.


For further study, read Exodus, Chapters 3 and 4.

Questions for thought:

  • The Bible is filled with lessons of failure. Who are some of your favorites? There are always good reasons for God allowing us to fail…which one strikes your heart?
  • I read of a missionary once (Gladys Aylward) whose calling to China was repeatedly thwarted (before she even got there…) and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, if that had happened to me, I would have just assumed that God didn’t want me to go’. It’s likely I would have not persevered. Do you have a story of rewarded perseverance?
  • What might God be calling you to do that is out of your comfort zone?What excuses do you use?
  • Have you ever thought of your failures as something that could be looked at as a success? Turns the world upside down, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly what Jesus did. How can this help you rethink some things in your life?
  • “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” is from Philippians (4:13) and one of my favorite verses of encouragement. Do you have one? (Philippians 3:13 is another…)

5. Dithering: God Is in Charge Over it All

for every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. — Hebrews 3:4

September 2013

Here at the cottage we spend a lot of time dithering…Trying to figure out every angle before we start, so we won’t be surprised. It never works, and we usually end up with a work stoppage.

Yesterday, after a morning of spectacular dithering, I wondered to myself why we don’t discuss these problems in the car on the way back and forth from house to house. We’ve got plenty of time; the drive is at least an hour, and that’s if all the cars and drivers are behaving. (And the cat; when the cat misbehaves we end up with a conversation stoppage.)

But then I realized that we don’t discuss these problems because they are unforeseen, unexpected, unknowns. While we were dithering about the project, before we started, we never thought THAT would happen, even though we thought that we had thought of everything; and then the dithering begins again.

When the cottage first became ours, it was rather like a new romance. We wandered around thinking of possibilities — how grand it would be if we could put in hardwood floors here; and maybe we could raise the roof there; and perhaps if we enclosed this part of the back porch it would make a lovely guest bedroom…

The basic plan was to bring the cottage back to the way it looked originally (as close as we could get it, at least…) That wasn’t dithering; it was dreaming, and wondering, and expanding possibilities. But the honeymoon is over now because we have spent almost every spare moment of the last year working on this cottage. Nothing can surprise us now, and some of the charm has been lost in the reality of sweat, blood, finances, time, arguments, discussions, and just plain exhaustion. Reality always invades fantasy, doesn’t it?

It’s an old house. Suddenly we have to move to Plan B because the furnace blew up. Or suddenly we have to leave Plan A to fix the roof because it is leaking. Or suddenly we have to change Plan A because the new siding isn’t quite the same as the old siding. Can we just be done already and get on with life?

No? Then, let’s at least stop dithering and get on with the plan. (Was that Plan A or Plan B?) Troubles come when glitches occur in the actual plan. Like life, glitches abound. And are we going to dither; or are we ready to accept the problem, embrace the setback, and make the delay part of the plan?


One of my mistakes when we first started working on the cottage was thinking that after the construction part was past, we would get moved in and the dithering about incidentals would mostly get incorporated into daily life and wouldn’t seem so overwhelming.

So what happens when one finally gets settled into a routine at the cottage where one has spent three years preparing to live?

Life.

Yes. Life.

Yes. Life. Happens.

There’s a new job. There’s a volunteer commitment that was made before the new job happened. There’s cooking to do, gardens to plant, flowers to grow, cushion covers to make, Bible to study, VBS to get ready for, neighbors to visit, friends to talk to, firewood to haul, and, yes, there are still boxes to unpack, files to organize and a room to paint. As well as the bathroom to gut and redo, the back porch to finish, and the spare room to think about.

It’s the rhythm of life. Suddenly there is much going on, but it is the routine of day-to-day, interspersed here and there with a gorgeous full moon, the bloom of a new starburst flower, the scent of peonies, a gentle sunrise.

But that is life, isn’t it? Making the most of those boring bits of life in-between the great, amazing stuff that, if we are honest, doesn’t really happen all that often.

It’s what we do with the routine, the interruptions to our routine, and the ditherings that follow that are important. Read this C.S. Lewis quote and put it on your fridge.

The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s “real” life. The truth is that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life — the life God is sending one day by day: what one calls one’s “own life” is simply a phantom of one’s own imagination.

(Lewis, C.S. Yours, Jack: Spiritual Direction from C.S. Lewis, edited by Paul F. Ford, Harper One, c2008, p. 97-98.)  

I try to practice this — you know, the Keep Calm and Carry On philosophy — but I’m not often successful. Imagine if we could just always think of those interruptions, disruptions, intrusions, ditherings… as our real lives. Forget about our own plans for that perfect day, that perfect week, that perfect life, for those plans (and those lives) don’t exist. Just because our plans are perfect in our imaginations, does that mean it’s real life? Lewis calls them phantoms.

Our plans are phantoms of real life, not the real thing. The real thing is the unremarkable, the humdrum, the commonplace, and the bumps — that’s the life God is sending us. And do we sing on the way to work, or grump about the trucks that are making us late?

Do we gripe about having to fix dinner on the day when events conspire to make us not get home until 6:00, or do we look into the fridge and make it a game with ourselves to come up with the best we can with what’s there?

Do we stop and take time to visit the neighbor when we think we should be doing whatever is on our to-do-list for the day?

I have to admit that I’m only good at loving the uneventful life sometimes. I try to remember that God has given us this ordinary life to live for him. He has sent it to us whether if fits into our own inconsequential plans or not. He sees when we grumble at our husbands for no good reason except a mood; he knows when we choose to be in a funk, rather than pray; and best of all, He understands when we chafe against the boring bits of ho-hum pfhht that so much of life seems to be…and he graciously gives us new eyes to see beauty in the familiar.

The earlier we learn this in life, the happier we will be. The sooner we learn that every event in our lives is sent to teach us, the more joyful and purposeful we will be. Whether it was actually in our plans or not, God sent it to us to be a part of our lives. No Whining.

In times of boredom, ennui, or depression, Jesus can give us joy. Take those times to pray, to reread your favorite passages of scripture, cook a favorite meal, or do something that will remind you of the joy and hope you have. Do something for someone else, to forget yourself. God made us to rest in him. Do that and you will be able to forget your shouting inner self. (Sometimes…)

In times of disruption, leaning on Jesus can ease our anxiety. If we are trying to live life according to His plan, well then, it’s His plan — it’s not our plan. We just like to think it’s our plan and that we are in charge. And when we get too uppity about it, God will remind us. Most of the time He reminds us gently, and that’s when we are to say, “Oh, yes. God, it is yours, not mine. Forgive me for trying to take over.”

Sometimes it’s a big thing; sometimes we just see through the glass darkly and we fight and kick and struggle for weeks, months, years… until the glass clears and we finally get it — the fight belongs to Him, not us. “It is He who made us and we are His. We are His people, the sheep of His pasture.” (Psalm 100:3) We dither because we are sheep. I know, it’s not a pleasant comparison, but there it is. Picture sheep running around the gated pasture bleating in confusion. Going nowhere and running in those circles cause agitation, befuddlement, bewilderment, and demoralization. Don’t ask me how I know this.

But we have a good shepherd to lead us — one who never gives up on us no matter how far we wander; one who loves each one of us not because we are good, bad, black, or white, but simply because we are His; one who rejoices when that one lost sheep is found; one who constantly cares for us if we would just allow it.

Note to self: Dithering is believing that your own plans might be better than God’s amazing plans! Embrace the delays and remember that you are being taught something important.

Note to God: “Yes, God, it is truly yours, not mine. Forgive me for trying to take over.”


For further study, read Philippians 4:6-8 and Proverbs 3:5-6 and Proverbs 16:9

Questions to think about:

  • What are you dithering about that needs to be given back to God?
  • Why is it so hard to give up control of our plans? We want to be the focus of our lives rather than focusing on God and his faithfulness and love?
  • Is it easier for you to see God in the ordinary or in the interruptions to the ordinary?
  • I don’t know about you, but I hate waiting. All of us have something that when it happens it makes learning from it almost impossible. I can say that God is trying to teach me, but I never seem to learn patience for waiting (and I have a husband who tests me on this constantly). I need a trigger or maybe a verse to say while it is happening? What derails you and have you solved this in your own life? How?
  • “Busyness is moral laziness [because it is often a statement of our self-importance and our excuse to be inattentive to people] . . . But God has given us just enough time to do what we need to do moment by moment to respond to him. And his grace is there; it is eternally present. Every moment is a sacrament where time touches eternity and there is exactly enough time to do what God has called us to do.” This is a quote from Bruce Hindmarsh, who utilizes part of a C.S. Lewis quote inside it. There are two ideas I love in this quote: a) busyness is self-importance (!) and b) the idea that we have just enough time. So should we not worry about frittering it away? Or should we be mindful of how we are spending it?
  • The other day I was blessed by this prayer in Tim Keller’s book The Songs of Jesus: “Lord, since it is you who feed us and you who meet our needs, ordinary human labor such as farming, cooking, and knitting have great dignity. They are means by which you love your creation, Help me to sense that dignity so I can do the simplest of tasks to your glory. Amen.”

How comforting that my knitting can be done for God’s glory…

4. The Sanding Queen: Taking off Layers of Gunk

We have officially started working on the kitchen. As in taking out walls (that was another chapter); but for the past few weekends, I’ve been sanding. Not just smoothing rough edges, but taking off 4 coats of paint and the original varnish of kitchen cabinets. Oh, did we dither (that’s another chapter too) about kitchen cabinets! They are so expensive, and I want white. The white cabinets that one can purchase at the big box stores are not wood: laminate, thermafoil, melamine, lacquer, acrylic–they have all sorts of fancy names and initials for what is really just plastic or junkboard. I’m a purist; I like real; I like old; I like authentic, and I wanted wood cabinets. The unfinished cabinets at Home Depot and Lowe’s are oak. It seemed a shame to buy oak cabinets and paint them white, so we haunted the Habitat for Humanity Restores and Construction Junction. It took several visits in all places–and we found some other cool stuff in the meantime–but one day we came upon Really. Ugly. Cabinets. They were so ugly, we almost passed them right by.

Looks like a square robot from The Flintstones to me…

But when we stopped and figured it out, they were almost a perfect fit for the sizes of cabinets that we needed. Straight out of the early fifties–made from sandable birch plywood all through, they weren’t quite the doors I wanted, but for $225 they will work. Since we saved so much money on cabinets, the plan now is to buy really expensive countertops!

So now I am the sanding queen. You know the song. Unfortunately the only words I know are the sanding queen, da da da da da, she’s the sanding queen, da da da da da da the sanding queen. I didn’t even know it was an Abba song until I saw Mamma Mia! with Meryl Streep. (In my defense, it probably came out in the late seventies, early eighties when I was busy with babies.)

My cabinet shop was on the back porch until this past weekend when the temperatures soared into the nineties, so I moved into the air conditioned comfort of the living room and contractor husband hooked up the sanders to a vacuum. It’s a complicated system of hoses and extension cords and duct tape, and they all get entangled with each other, but the dust is cut way down, and I can sometimes take off my mask.

Sanding is boring. The arm gets tired. The sander is loud. The vacuum is louder. The back starts to hurt. The mind wanders. There’s plenty of time for thinking, for praying, for counting blessings, for wondering, for comparing sanding to real life. Cleaning off layers of grime, old paint, and junk to expose the beautiful wood beneath. That’s what trying to live a holy life is like, isn’t it? Always we’re scraping off the gunk that the world leaves on us. Some of it’s been there for years–applied incorrectly, but still it sticks until we really try to scrape it off. And, oh boy, is it hard to get out of the corners! I’m thinking of the book I read last year called Somewhere More Holy by Tony Woodlief. It is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read; he talks about home being where the sacred and the mundane meet when we search for God in the small everyday things–like sanding, like cleaning, like taking something ugly and reclaiming it. Next weekend I’m going to be sanding again. And the week after. And the week after. I’m sure I’ll tire of it. I just have to keep remembering what the finished product will be. Beautiful. Free of gunk. As good as I can make it.

The trouble with all metaphors is that they break down at some point. And here is where this breaks down: In a faithful life of belief, we don’t do the sanding or cleaning or scraping off of gunk ourselves. God does it. And it’s sometimes painful, repetitive, boring…I’m reminded of how many times I don’t learn the same lesson. That gunk of the world is still stuck in my corners, and God must be just about at His wit’s end with me. Really, Carol? How many times have I tried to teach you that? And our best response is the same as blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-48) and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

But the best news is that Jesus will never give up on us no matter how many times we forget, or screw up, or just get tired. Even when we are not faithful, he is. Jesus was faithful when he went to the Cross for us; he was faithful when he taught the disciples the same lesson over and over; he is patient even when we are not. His love for us was and is deeply personal and indescribable, and we could never in an eternity pay him back. In return, we owe him honor and praise and obedience–not to earn his favor, but  to be thankful for his patience and faithfulness to us sinners.

The really hard question here is how do we become more holy? And of course, that question is fraught with paradoxes: We can’t try to become more holy to save ourselves; and we can’t pat ourselves on the back for the things we finally manage to get right; and we shouldn’t try to be holy just for holiness’ sake. So how do we clarify that desire to be holy to please the God who died so we could take on His righteousness? Obedience and conduct and love,  1 Peter tells us in verses 14 and 22 of chapter 1. Don’t be conformed to the world and your passions. (Paul tells us almost the same thing in Romans 12:2) Holiness is to be set apart–to be like Jesus, loving as He loved. Peter uses familial language here–invoking the love of God our Father– and calling us to be obedient to Him as we would to our parents; not to earn His favor, but to reflect Him, and love Him, and be thankful to Him for His mercy.

The same cabinet as above, sanded clean and repainted…

Every day we must give up our own will, our ambitions, our possessions, our pride–and confess our sins–so Christ will heal us anew. Only he can peel off the layers of dirt and sin to expose who we are really designed to be underneath. Everyone knows that if you don’t get all that old paint, varnish, and gunk off before you repaint, the job will be botched and the piece ruined. Are we willing to undergo the pain of the peeling and burnishing of our souls to be ultimately refined and made holy by God? Jesus went to the Cross for us, are we brave and courageous enough to be reclaimed by Christ?


For Further Study, Read 1 Peter 1:13-25

Questions to think about:

  • The other common metaphor for God cleansing our sins is peeling an onion. When each layer is peeled off, there is another layer of sin. And tears. Like sanding off layers of paint and varnish to expose the beautiful wood underneath, sanding off the layers of sin involves patience and sometimes feeling as if you can’t breathe. It also involves fresh coats of varnish or paint to protect that clean precious wood. What steps can we take for protection against our most common sins?
  • Verse 15 in 1 Peter reads, “…but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct….” Sometimes, many times, I just feel as if holiness is something that totally eludes me and that I am making no progress toward a holy life. Is there a cure for this? Surely, I am not the only one who feels this way; what do you do?
  • Here’s a paperwork assignment: Read the 1 Peter section of Chapter 1 above (entitled Be Holy) and write down all the concrete ways he gives us to help us in becoming holy. The section of Ephesians 4 & 5 — Living as Children of Light or Instructions for Christian Living–also gives us concrete ways of life to adopt for holiness. Check those out again, too.
  • Another thought — my go-to remembrance verse is in this section too: “…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:18-19).

3. Tearing Down Walls: Open the Room in your Heart

We were a bit hesitant to tear out walls.

Dusty, everyone said.

Old Plaster, the contractor husband said.

What will we do with it? I said.

I was a bit hesitant to write on this topic of walls. So metaphorical, walls are — especially tearing them down…. I could wax poetic, except I’m an unexceptional poet. I could philosophize, except I’m an unexceptional philosopher. I could spout theology, except I’m an unexceptional theologian. And yes, I’m an unexceptional photographer too — it’s particularly difficult to take pictures of walls that aren’t there any longer.

The Oxford American Dictionary tells me that the word wall is from the Old English word weall — a vertical structure, usually solid, that defines and sometimes protects an area. In fact, if walls divide and separate us, we could discuss the new trend in houses that opens up kitchens to the living areas of a house. So do we want an undefined and unprotected kitchen? Yes.

I have read Jane Powell’s “Bungalow Books” extensively. Her humor,  her authenticity, and her strict ideas against “remodeling” feed my soul. Don’t do damage to your old house, she says. If you keep to its period, no one will hate you in fifty years. No one will have to rip out the trendy 4×8 sheets of fake paneling that you have carefully installed in the family room. I especially liked Bungalow Kitchens, and yes, I read Bungalow Bathrooms too. I renewed them both until the library wouldn’t let me keep them any longer. Powell says, Never under any circumstances should one listen to an architect who suggests changing your bungalow to an “open plan.” (Not a direct quote, but pretty close…) Two points are especially important here: 

1. We don’t, technically, live in a bungalow Although it was built around the time of many bungalows, and it might fit the definition, as in being one story and a modest, affordable dwelling, the cottage has no architectural presence. There’s nothing that makes it stand out except the clipped gables. There’s no beautiful woodwork; no lovely front porch with the classic bungalow pillars; no charming little windows, stained glass or otherwise… My father put it succinctly — that house growed like Topsy…(from Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe). The closest the cottage gets to architectural charm is a couple of nice built-in cupboards and a big brick chimney, all of which we are taking great pains to keep.

2. We didn’t hire an architect No, we didn’t. My sister and her husband were the closest to architects that we could find for free (she’s an interior designer and he used to do the windows for Gimbels in downtown Pittsburgh) and they said, “Oh, take out this wall. Yes, take it down.”

The most important thing to do before tearing down a wall is to determine if the wall is structurally necessary.  The contractor husband is an expert on whether walls are structurally necessary, so he climbed up into the attic above our bathroom, dodged cobwebs and spiders, and checked out which way the joists and rafters run. It turned out to be safe to tear down the walls. Full speed ahead: open up the room; let in the light; make the rooms bigger; invite everyone into the kitchen.


Walls are human made things. The only thing that I can think of,  in the natural world — in God’s creation — that might be a prototype for a wall would be mountain cliffs. Walls were made to define, to protect, to separate, to divide…. (That’s not to say I’m totally against walls — walls around a bathroom are a fine idea) but mostly God wants the walls around us gone.

It’s scary taking down walls. What if you take a support wall down and the structure starts to crumble? What if you expose what’s underneath? Let me tell you, it’s guaranteed to be messy and ugly; it’s also guaranteed to be hard work; and there will be surprises. So why even try?  

Because when that wall is down, it opens up the room that is your heart; it makes the room bigger; it lets light into your life; it allows for true relationships, both with people and with God.  We all have walls around us —  some are wallpapered nicely to conceal the cracks, nicks, and holes that would show if it weren’t for that expensive wallpaper we bought to cover them. And it took years to get that wallpaper fixed on right, didn’t it? We’ve all got our own cracks, chips, and gaping holes that we keep covered at most any cost. But God knows what they are. If we allow it, he will work on us until we admit that yes, the damaged wall needs to be taken down. Exposing what is underneath is scary — it’s been covered for so long, we barely know what is there; but once it is gone, the light — God’s light — exposes it for what it was: sin. 

This is the message we have heard from Him and declare to you: God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, purifies us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7)

This might bear repeating: If we walk in the light, if we follow after Christ, we will have true fellowship with one another. If we tear down the walls that keep us bound in our own prisons, if we tear down the walls that keep us in darkness and the light flows in, we have true fellowship  — with one another and with God.

Jesus Himself said He was the light of the world. “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.’” (John 8:12)

Why would we not tear down the walls that confine us and follow the light of the world?


For further study,  read about living as Children of Light in Ephesians 4:17-32 and Ephesians 5:8-14.

Questions for thought:

  • What walls do you have around you that prevent true fellowship with other people? Shyness, Pride, Arrogance, Selfishness, Busy-ness, Lack of self-confidence, Fear, Money, Not enough money…It also occurs to me that (in the light of the first essay) these are all idols that we allow to be more important than God.
  • The quarantine and lock-downs we are facing with Covid-19 have now lasted longer than a year. It seems to me that the lack of gathering with our brothers and sisters in Christ has allowed us to hide behind our walls–and this in the name of public good. The introvert in me is finding it more and more difficult to go out into the world; frankly it has allowed me to hide behind my walls. Do you think this will damage Christ’s Church? Our witness to others? Our love toward each other?
  • We just added a giant south-facing window to the final room we are re-doing, and now that the light streams in, I can clearly see the dirt in the room. I love this metaphor for the light of Christ exposing our sins. Any thoughts?
  • When we walk as Children of Light, we set an example to those unbelievers who still walk in darkness. The struggle is how much of the world can we let in, and still be living as the light-filled children God wants us to be…
  • Write a prayer to God asking Him to help you tear down your walls and let in His light.

 

 

Jane Powell’s books include Bungalow Kitchens; Bungalow Bathrooms; Bungalow: The Ultimate Arts & Crafts Home;   Bungalow Details: Exterior; and Bungalow Details: Interior all published by Gibb Smith Publishers.

 

2. Stumbling on the Steps: What Is your Stumbling Block?

September, 2012

We had just settled the legal issues of the house and were starting to look around to see what the first project would be, when we got our first bit of bad news. The insurance company was canceling the insurance on the house because it was vacant. No matter that it had been vacant for three years; as soon as there were new owners who told them the truth: that we were going to be remodeling it on weekends and living somewhere else, they said, No Deal.

We interviewed insurance companies, or rather, the insurance companies grilled us. The first young man who visited, looked around, and said, “Wow. You gotta lotta big trees.”  (In our naïveté, we thought that big trees were a plus because of the shade and didn’t know that insurance companies see them as a liability.) We finally found an insurance company that grudgingly agreed to cover the house IF we trimmed the trees, fixed the chimney, and added another railing on the other side of the back porch steps. That list wasn’t too troublesome: we were going to fix the chimney anyway, and though the back porch steps were eventually going to be rebuilt, the contractor husband put up a simple railing that satisfied them. When I realized that it would be awhile before the back porch was redone, I repainted the stairs and both railings a lovely shade of back porch red and everyone was satisfied.

And just for honesty’s sake I will now tell you, gentle reader, that it was six more years until we redid the back porch and there are no plans to rebuild the steps…

It’s a beautiful back porch. It looks over green Pennsylvania woodlands.   To the left is the little barn where cider was once stored. There are wild cherries, oaks, maples, hickories, walnuts, catalpas, and berries. The birds sing all day and and the beasts are abundant. We once saw a male turkey spread his fan for his lady, and we listen to the ethereal song of a wood thrush piping in the shadows of evening. The binoculars just stay on the porch table and the bird book sits nearby on the porch swing. In spring the honeysuckle and the wild roses bloom and the rain brings sweet air. The porch faces east, so sitting on the swing with morning coffee is awe-inspiring; it is easy to be peaceful and praise-full for God the Creator on that porch. 

Yes, it’s a porch ripe with possibilities. And rife with problems.

The stairs up to the back porch are simple bleacher steps — six of them — long and low and wide. The tread will fit a very large foot, and the rise between them is only about five inches. The main problem is that the staircase is seven feet between the railings, and the door at the top is a regular 35” door. That leaves two feet or so on the top step that ends at a wall. To be accurate, it is a sliding glass door. So even though you might not stumble going up the steps, you might hit your head on a glass wall at the very top. It’s really no wonder that the insurance guy didn’t like it; those steps are absolutely a stumbling block.

The half of the sliding glass door that opens, opens out into nothingness. Why Joe and Clara put in sliding glass doors that they couldn’t open without walking off into mid-air is beyond us. Maybe they decided building a staircase along the entire width of the porch was too much. Or maybe they got a deal on five sliding glass doors — Buy four, get the fifth one free? Yes, there were five sets of aluminum sliding glass doors in the cottage when we inherited it — one at every entrance and two more inside the house that opened out to the porches. (It took six years, but the house is finally free of drafty 70’s aluminum sliding glass doors) At any rate, free or not, those sliding glass doors have been a stumbling block to us too.

We bought lovely secondhand French doors to replace the ugly metal screen door, and the contractor husband brought home a gorgeous old porch window with old-fashioned panes that someone was replacing. I had already begun with the sanding, priming, and painting of them when we discovered that they were all painted with lead paint. So work stopped on that project until we could figure out how to safely redo them. Just in case you are counting, that is three stumbling blocks in one twelve-foot-area of the back porch.

Here are some “after” shots:


While I was still an unbeliever, there were three main stumbling blocks for me: God Himself, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Isaiah, the Old Testament prophet tells us that this will be true, that God will “…lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall…” (Isaiah 8:14) And if you aren’t sure what Isaiah means, Paul clarifies that for us when he writes his letter to the Romans. He writes, “…but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone…” (Romans 9:31-33)

Jesus as the Stumbling Stone

The Israelites were sure that they could work hard enough, keep the law good enough, and be righteous enough for God, even though God told them over and over they could not. They left God over and over again, thinking they could do it better on their own. And when grace appeared, in the person of Jesus Christ, He became the stumbling block for them — for several reasons: they didn’t think their Messiah would be a humble carpenter, but a King who would rescue them from their earthly political situation; their Messiah would never be crucified on a cross like a common criminal; and they were so used to believing that their righteousness came from themselves and following the laws correctly, that free grace from God was almost unbelievable. Do any of those resonate with you also?

Do you think your Savior (or at least His representatives here on earth) should be rich and powerful?  Do you have trouble believing in the resurrection? Do you think you can read self-help books and fix yourself that way? You see, God has indeed laid that stone that causes people to stumble and the rock that makes them fall. Yet Chapter 2 of 1 Peter reminds us that we too are like living stones and we “…are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood.” (1 Peter 2:5) He goes on to say that to those of us who believe, this stone is precious — a cornerstone to our spiritual house — the building block of our faith. But those of us who don’t believe will be tripped up by that same cornerstone.

God as the Stumbling Stone

Perhaps Jesus isn’t what is keeping you from being sold out to God? For me, God Himself was a stumbling block. I remember very clearly deciding that I should read my young son some Bible stories so he would at least be familiar with them. He was about three years old, so on our weekly trip to the local library (before I worked there) we checked out a nicely illustrated Children’s Bible. We made it through the Creation story; the tower of Babel was interesting; we enjoyed Noah and the animals, and even were amazed by the flood. Then we came to Abraham and God calling on him to sacrifice Isaac, the son whom he loved. Sitting next to me, listening to me read, was my son whom I loved, and I couldn’t finish reading him this story. I snapped the book shut in the middle and said “Well, that’s enough of that.” And that proved to me then, that I was right about God. He was a demanding, vengeful being that unenlightened cultures had made up to better understand the natural world around them.

And now, years later, I’ve read the Bible through many times, and I know that all those grim Old Testament stories that have terrible elements to them — like child sacrifice; a giant sea creature swallowing a human man; the beloved king committing adultery and murder — all those stories are pre-figurations of the Christ to come, the perfect man. Those Old Testament stories prove that we humans cannot save ourselves, but Jesus, the God-man, could and would and did save us. Jesus would be the perfect king, unlike David who was human and a sinner; Jesus would be perfectly obedient, unlike Jonah who went his own way instead of where God told him to go; and God the Father would sacrifice His son, His perfect son whom He loved, to save us all from the destruction of Sodom. (God, please keep us from looking back at our earthly treasures and being turned into pillars of salt in our front yards.)

The Holy Spirit as the Stumbling Stone

The Holy Spirit was a stumbling block for me also. I simply couldn’t believe in an unseen presence that lived in me. At the time when I was growing up as a Presbyterian, the Spirit was generally called the Holy Ghost. That was an even more difficult visual —  a ghost floating around helping me to do good? No thanks. Give me my own do-gooder works, and I’ll get by with that, thank you. 

Only I didn’t get by very well. I could never do enough, and I always felt guilty about it. After awhile, I didn’t even try, and that made the feelings worse. Do you think the Spirit inside you should be a feeling? Sometimes it is. I have had — all believers have had — times when we felt the spirit present in us in powerful, amazing ways. But there are many other times, when the spirit feels absent, even though it is not. Instead of trusting our human, sin-filled feelings, we must trust God’s promises instead, for God has promised all believers that He will never leave or forsake us. 

If you are unsure about or when you tend to forget God’s promises, just read these verses: 

“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; He will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6) 

“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)

“The one who calls you is faithful, and He will do it.” (1 Thessalonians 5:24)

“…And surely I am with you always, even unto the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20)

Then there is this verse above all others — it is one of many times that Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to His disciples: “If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever — the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you know Him, for He lives with you and will be in you. (John 14:15-17)

Those verses are head truths — knowledge — that we can count on, not mere feelings. Here is what C.S. Lewis tells us about feelings: “Don’t bother much about your feelings. When they are humble, loving, brave, give thanks for them; when they are conceited, selfish, cowardly, ask to have them altered. In neither case are they you, but only a thing that happens to you. What matters is your intentions and your behavior.⁠1

Whatever your stumbling block, be assured that others before you have stumbled on that same stone. Some have been tripped up by the virgin birth, some by the crucifixion, some by the resurrection, some have fallen over the stone only to stay face down in the dirt and dark. But some have turned that stumbling stone into a stepping stone, which in turn leads to a path, which in turn leads us on a journey — a journey that brings us ever closer to God and His mission to reclaim us, and through us, the world. 


For further study, read Genesis 1; then read John 1:1-18

Questions to think about:

  • What is/was your stumbling block?
  • True confession: even after I’ve been a believer for 20 years, the Holy Spirit sometimes seem elusive to me. I call on the spirit, and so many times, see/hear/feel nothing in return. It truly is like an invisible ghost. It’s not that I don’t believe, but I fall into that same trap of thinking I should FEEL the Spirit…
  • Our idols can be stumbling blocks to living a redeemed life–perhaps even more so AFTER we have given our life to Christ. And I think they can change from time to time, given where we are in our journeys, our trials, what’s going on in the world. To be truthful, during this pandemic, I have let so many things get in the way of trusting God–the shape of the world, the virus, the political upheaval, my own isolation… Add yours here.
  • Possiblities vs Problems…It’s a glass half-empty or glass half-full outlook, isn’t it? But Christ can take our basic personality traits and use them for His good. We really don’t need self-help books, do we? Any thoughts on this?
  • Sometimes, when I’m struggling, I just go back and reread Genesis 1. It’s such a beautiful poem-gift from God that it often lifts me out of whatever funk I’m in and reminds me of God’s creative power. Do you have any sections of the Bible that help you fight against stumbling stones?
  • I love the metaphor that Jesus is both the cornerstone of our faith and the stone who can cause stumbling. Thoughts? Read Psalm 118:19-29

1 Lewis, C.S. Yours, Jack, p. 169.

1. The Gift of a House: Where Is Your Treasure?

December, 2012

Sometimes I wonder how we ended up with two houses. We still mostly live at the city house. It’s where work is. It’s where the mortgage is. It’s where old friends are. But it isn’t necessarily where the heart is.

I wonder about that because I miss seeing friends. We just resigned from our church–our life for eight years–because we are never there on weekends, and it is a loss. And neighbors–I’m never in the yard working with my flowers or in my garden, so I don’t see them anymore.

The city house is really much more beautiful than the country house. It’s a stone Tudor cottage with character; the wildish flower garden in the front yard was one of my joys. It was the house of my dreams when we bought it eight years ago. I still love it. But my heart isn’t there anymore.

The country house has a long, storied history. In the 1930s my grandfather wanted a house in the country where he could live on weekends with his family. During the week he was a county school superintendent in town; on the weekends he was a farmer with a cattle farm, a peach orchard, and an apple orchard. He built this humble two-room-cottage (with an outhouse in the back) on the edge of the apple orchard. It was a place where the family spent weekends in the summer; it was a place where the city cousins came to spend weekends in the country to work on the farm and in the orchards. 

Later after the orchard became established and successful, rooms were added here and there: a bathroom was carved out, a garage attached, a bedroom and partial basement added. My grandmother’s brother and his wife lived here for twenty years, caring for the orchard, selling apples, and raising their son. My sisters and I spent time here also, grading apples in the barns, selling cider, riding in the back of Pa’s pickup truck, and probably generally getting in the way. Though no one ever told us so. 

In the mid-seventies my not-yet-husband’s parents, Joe and Clara, bought the orchard from my grandfather who was eighty-two and wanted to officially retire from farming. They remodeled the house and lived here together until Joe died in 1995. Clara stayed on as a widow in a house that soon became too much for her, an older woman alone.

As Clara got older she couldn’t manage living in the country anymore, and the house sat vacant for several years. Her good neighbors kept an eye on the place and mowed the grass. When it seemed obvious that she would never go back to the house, it was set to be auctioned on July 12th to pay for her care. 

Clara died on Friday night, July 8th. (Some have thought that she died then so she wouldn’t have to hear about the house being sold.) On Saturday morning my now-husband and I sat up in bed, looked at each other, and simultaneously said, “We don’t have to sell the house anymore…” To cancel the auction we had to write the auctioneer a check for $5200 (that was a hard check to write…) but all in all, it was a small price to pay for a house with such a story. We buried Clara on the day that the auction was supposed to take place. I think she is smiling…

It’s an amazing story, really, and it has always seemed so to us, that this house—with connections to both of us—came to us in such a way. I can’t wait to move; yet the ties that bind me to my old city life are not yet cut.

I am fractured sometimes; split down the middle. Anxious to go, yet hesitant to make the move. We didn’t put up a Christmas tree this year. Where would we put it? The house where we are? Or the house where we aren’t? So I have pine at both houses… Yes, I pine at both houses.

Thankful for these blessings, I try to be mindful of them and not see any of it as burdensome. Yet the details are exhausting sometimes. We are always on the move, not here, not there. And we always forget something. Or two somethings. And often that tool, the piece of clothing, or that cooking pan we want is at the other house.

As I am reading this story about the beginnings of our adventure, I have the advantage of hindsight; this was originally written eight years ago. The city house has now been sold and we are years into living here full time at the cottage. We are settled, we have a new church, new friends… and rereading this is exhausting; yet something else jumps out at me.

I am reminded by Matthew that where my treasure is, there my heart will be. (Matthew 6:21—I checked the citation in my Bible and discovered it quickly; it was underlined in red pen.) But the beginning of this paragraph tells us: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.” (Matthew 6:19-20)

I never wanted to make an idol of this cottage. I’ve tried to guard against it from the beginning, and I haven’t always been successful. I love beauty, and I love surrounding myself with beauty, and that in itself is not a sin. After all God made this amazing world and filled it with beauty for us to enjoy. But when one is rehabbing a house, and the starting point is gutting almost every room (it was vacant for several years and very much in need) there’s a whole lot of money that has to be spent. And a whole lot of time deciding how much to spend. And what can be bought secondhand. And what can be splurged on. And…And…And…

Sometimes I just got caught up in the whole world of Houzz.com, decorating blogs, and Pinterest. (Thank goodness we never got the HGTV channel!) I un-followed blogs when I became disgusted at the materialism; yet at the same time, here I was spending hours trying to decide what color I wanted the kitchen to be painted. Beauty? Yes; a treasure on earth? Yes, to that as well. I fought the idol and sometimes I won. Sometimes I didn’t.

We bought all our kitchen cabinets at secondhand places; we sanded, primed, and painted them, and gave them new hardware.  The lighting was mostly secondhand too; we bought every old schoolhouse light globe we could find, as well as the metal hardware to go with them. We bought the cheapest flooring we could find (black and white Vinyl Composition Tile) and refinished the pine floors that were under layers of carpet and linoleum in the living room. Floor tiles and doors were purchased at the Habitat for Humanity ReStores. (We haunted them for several years on a weekly basis.) Our kitchen island was bought for $100 at an antique store, but we splurged on the kitchen countertops and the kitchen faucet. There’s a chapter in this book on the kitchen faucet. 

It’s a battle I am still fighting because our bathroom has not yet been redone. Oh, it works. There’s a toilet, a sink, a shower with plenty of hot water, a place to store our towels, hooks to hang our clothes, and a place to store toilet paper. What else do we need? It’s plenty more than most of the world has. But it is really ugly: chipped and cracked plaster walls of different colors where wallpaper has been peeled off; a seventies moulded plastic shower stall with moldy caulking that just won’t come clean; and a ceiling that sheds clumps of paint and plaster. It certainly isn’t a treasure on earth. 

All of us who live in the first world need to guard against making idols of our things. We have so much, and others have so little. How do we balance looking at our treasure as  gifts from God, yet easily let that same treasure go if necessary? That is probably why it is so difficult for us rich folk to get into heaven. (Matthew 19:23) We allow our stuff, our treasures, to become more important to us than God. Yet that same paragraph in Matthew ends with the disciples asking in discouragement, “Who then can be saved?” (Matthew 19:25)

Jesus answers with one of the most beautiful affirmations of grace in scripture—“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Matthew 19:26)

Richard Foster writes about the gifts of God in his chapter on Simplicity in Celebration of Discipline. He writes:

“The majority of western Christians have never seriously wrestled with the problem of simplicity, conveniently ignoring Jesus’ many words on the subject. The reason is simple: this discipline directly challenges our vested interests in an affluent life-style.”

I might add, it directly challenges what we treasure. Do we treasure our stuff, our idols, our worldly gifts? Or do we treasure God, his wisdom, his love? Jesus speaks over and over of our hearts, and how little God cares for show, for money, for human power. Instead the servant who gives all will be elevated over those who love things, pretense, and show. Jesus devalues money, and instead puts value on our hearts. Lord, make us willing to give and share and not care so much about those worldly treasures that moth and rust destroy…


For further study, read 1 Timothy 6:6-19 and Mark 12: 41-44

Questions to think about: 

  • Where is your treasure? I read once that if you think about what makes you happiest, what makes you angry, and what you fear the most, then where your answers intersect can point you toward your treasure or your idols. My own test is this: Lot’s wife was told to leave and not look back.  She failed. What would I have to take one last longing look at before I left it behind?
  • Our treasures can be things, but it can also be persons or family or fears and worries. What are you most prone to make an idol of? How do you fight it? (See Colossians 3:1-3)
  • How can we guard our hearts against the world’s temptations to lay up treasure for ourselves?
  • Our treasures occupy our heart (Let’s face it–God designed us that way, and every good and perfect gift is from Him) so how can we best submit our treasures to God to care for, instead of stubbornly keeping a tight grip on them?
  • It occurs to me that we can fight our idols by being willing to give them away–or as Richard Foster says, share them freely with others. Would this work for the particular idol you are wrestling with?
  • Paul writes to Timothy, “Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.” This is much more specific than Matthew’s command to “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” Any thoughts?

Foreword: Faith and Grace

for every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. — Hebrews 3:4

Rebuilding a house is an exercise in faith and grace, hammers and nails. And screwguns, and table saws, and paintbrushes, and caulking guns, and… The list of tools that reside in our basement and the still unfinished rooms goes on and on.

It’s been eight years since we’ve begun the work on our Apple Hill Cottage. God’s presence has been everywhere — from the very way we acquired the place, to now, as we continue to work on it while we live here, working and living out our faith with fear and trembling.

I don’t think it is a stretch to write about this old cottage and the metaphors of God that sometimes my mind manages to unscramble. Scripture is full of metaphors, parables, and figures of speech. Jesus himself was accused of not speaking plainly by his disciples in John chapter 16 when they said, “…Now you are speaking clearly and without figures of speech.”– John 16:29. This was just before they agreed that he knew all things and came from God.

Scripture also compares physical houses with spiritual houses. The most famous scene that comes to mind is the parable in Luke 6:48-49 about the foolish builders who built their house on sand versus the wise builders who built their house on the rock of Christ. But there is also the story in Mark 13 when Jesus tells us about the man who leaves his house and puts his servants in charge at the door to keep watch. The servants do not know when the master of the house will return and some fall asleep. For we do not know when the owner of the house will return; and we don’t want him to find us sleeping. Jesus is really telling us that our spiritual house must not be in disarray when we meet him–we don’t want him to find us at the door, nodding off.

Paul also compares buildings and spiritual houses in Ephesians when he tells the Ephesians that they are members of God’s household, which is “…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus Himself as the chief cornerstone. In Him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord.” (Ephesians 2:20-21) And then he says, we too are being built together to become a dwelling where God lives by His spirit.

Comparisons of physical and spiritual buildings aren’t just in the New Testament:  Isaiah says, “You counted the buildings in Jerusalem and tore down houses to strengthen the wall. You built a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the Old Pool, but you did not look to the One who made it, or have regard for One who planned it long ago.”(Isaiah 22:11) Our buildings, our houses, our walls — the physical accoutrements of our lives — must be accounted for and approved by God who ordained from long ago the way we are to live now.

And Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord build the house, the builders labor in vain.” I wrote that several times on various unpainted, rough plastered walls throughout the cottage. Unless our spiritual house–our faith–gives glory to the Lord, our works (or fruits) are empty and useless in God’s eyes.

 

FAITH IS THE HAMMER

Faith is one of those slippery words. It’s hard to hold on to; hard to explain; hard to wrap our brains around. When I was a young teenager asking my mother hard questions about God, her answer was “You just have to have faith.”

I wish I had been told, way back then, that it was okay to have doubts; that the doubts precede and make stronger one’s faith; that doubts are just a part of faith: a stumbling block that one trips over, but Jesus is there to grab your hand to keep you from falling. Alas, I was a young skeptic  — and where does faith live when the house is empty of belief? Or if Jesus is not there to keep you from falling? As a teenager I had no foundation to my house of beliefs, so when they were challenged, it was easy to open the front door and wave goodbye. Carefree, I didn’t have to think about those troubling stumbles any longer. I was free to run.

But I wasn’t free. I was chained instead to the world and its culture of self. Even though it worked for awhile, when the self realized that it was fallible and not such a good self as originally thought, the house nearly collapsed because it was built on the sand that shifts with high tides and storms.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering and thinking about faith: where it comes from; why it appears, and then becomes as if it has always been. When faith shows up, it becomes the rock and all the previous wonderings and doubts become less important. But that rock of faith is shaped by our own knowledge and insight; all faith is prejudiced. Someone who has faith believes based on their own personal experience. God has made himself real and that awareness of God — the Holy Spirit — is foolishness to those who’ve never experienced it–unlike reason, which demands impersonal evidence and proof. (Strobel, Lee. The Case for Faith. Zondervan, c2000, p. 33)

Madeleine L'Engle quoteMadeleine L’Engle says that “Faith is for that which lies on the other side of reason.” (L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water. Waterbrook Press, c2001, p. 15) Notice what she did not say–she did not say that faith is the opposite of reason, or that faith is contradictory to reason, or that reason is real and faith is illusory. Faith is for the events or ideas, the tragedies or joys that we cannot understand. When reason fails us, faith can sustain us.

Hebrews 11:1 emphasizes this paradox of faith by actually using the word evidence in the description of faith — Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Another translation, the ESV, writes it this way: Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. The strong concrete words that describe faith –Evidence;  Substance; Assurance; Conviction–are the same strong hammers that build our houses of faith, belief, hope.

Jesus reassured us in Matthew 17:20 that if we have a small faith — the size of a mustard seed, we will be able to move mountains and nothing will be impossible. What glorious words to fall back on when our fears and insecurities and doubts threaten to overwhelm us. It is just one more paradox of faith — that we don’t have to have it all figured out, that indeed, if we just have a tiny seed of faith, it can be used by God for seemingly impossible things.

William Lane Craig said, “You don’t have to have all your doubts answered to come to faith.”⁠(Craig, William Lane. Found on www.reasonablefaith.org)  An even more affirming thought on doubt comes from Francis Bacon: “If we begin with certainties we will end in doubt, but if we begin with doubts and bear them patiently we may end in certainty.”⁠(Bacon, Francis. De Augmentis found in L’Engle’s Walking on Water, p. 135.) May we all journey through doubt, disbelief, hesitation, and end in certainty.

bent nails

 

GRACE IS THE NAIL

The hammer of faith has to strike over and over — our faith can be challenged daily by the world, our jobs, our acquaintances, our families, our circumstances.  But the grace of the nail is this:  it holds; it bonds; it joins unequal things together; it supports and grasps and keeps from falling. Without seeming to work, the nail connects to something larger. It pierces with a hole and then fills the hole with itself, a secure fastener.

Read that paragraph again and use Christ instead of the word nail. I think of the title of Max Lucado’s book– He Chose the Nails. Christ himself was pierced with those nails on the cross, but in His case it wasn’t the physical nails that held him to the cross. It was His love. For us. Those nails were love; those nails were grace.  For us. “But God demonstrates His own love for us in this:  while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8

Belief in God, or faith, begins with the realization that you, me, we are not those good people we thought we were. That our selves are prideful, envious, selfish, lustful, lazy, greedy, gossipy, murderous even. But grace… Grace is admitting you have a hole and asking God, Christ, to fill that hole. But we have to ask. We have to say, Yes, God, I am a sinner and I need you in my life.

grace in God's heartGod and His grace are everywhere —in a newly built house, clean and sparkling and ready; in a humble cottage, bursting at the seams with children, love, strife, emotions; in the cold mansion on the hill, where it seems nothing will grow; in the tumbling-down shack in the country; in a crowded apartment in the city…. We all grow at different times and hear the word in different ways, but through grace, God is always available to us. Yet He will never force us to believe. His love though? His love is with everyone — those who scoff, those who question, those who seek, those who have faith, those who love Him.  All we need to do is hear and respond. And I am thankful that, after a long time in the desert, He gave me ears to hear, eyes to see, and a heart that is open to Him. A heart that used to have a hole in it, but now is filled. I pray that everyone comes to know this faith. “Righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” Romans 3:22-24

Entire books have been written about grace and faith; I cannot possibly do them justice in this small introductory essay, but when I opened my bible to make sure that I had the exact wording of the Ephesians 2:19-22 text above — God’s household is built on the chief cornerstone of Jesus Christ — I discovered these defining words in the margin: Grace is the pure, undeserved goodness of God. All that is needed of us is our willingness to accept that grace through faith. Yet, that faith, is given to us through grace. When faith increases, so does grace; it is God’s circle of life.

William Lane Craig said, “You don’t need to have all your questions answered to come to faith.”  I wish someone had told me that earlier. But maybe someone did. Maybe someone planted that seed that just took a long time to grow.

Fifty years have passed since that first conversation about faith; I never did get hit with a lightning bolt, but life itself — the Spirit of grace — eventually brought me to belief. To hope. To faith. Later than many would have hoped. I read. I studied. I looked at sunsets, and flowers, and all of nature which reflects God. And eventually I prayed. And God made himself known.

I whined. God, why didn’t you make yourself known to me earlier? Then I could have raised my kids in faith — in your love… I would have lived for you longer, better, more effectively. But God is outside of time; he operates simultaneously in the past, the present, and the future, so all of God’s actions within time happen at just at the right time. He is never too early or too late.⁠ (Wilkin, Jen. None Like Him, Crossway, 2016, p. 71.) It is only our own perceptions of time that put boundaries on God. He is God Himself, who is eternal, everlasting, endless. He will redeem our time, grant us grace, but rarely on our ephemeral human time lines.

If we go back to Ephesians, Chapter 2, you will find the major passage in the New Testament for understanding grace. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast…” (Ephesians 2:8-9) So, God reveals His gift of grace to all of us at just the right time. May these small house stories — metaphors of faith and grace — either be a seed for you, or add to the hope of your own faith story. And may they be at just the right time.

Books read while writing these essays:

  1. Everywhere God, Alicia Brummeler
  2. Scribbling in the Sand, Michael Card
  3. Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle
  4. Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis
  5. He Chose the Nails, Max Lucado
  6. In the Grip of Grace, Max Lucado
  7. Grace Transforming, Philip Ryken;
  8. The Case for Faith, Lee Strobel
  9. Sacred Marriage, Gary Thomas
  10. None Like Him, Jen Wilkin
  11. Notes from the Tilt-a-Whirl, N.D. Wilson
  12. Somewhere More Holy, Tony Woodlief
  13. Surprised by Hope, N.T. Wright
  14. What’s So Amazing about Grace? Philip Yancey

Blogs read while writing these essays: The River Walk, Desiring God, Informing the Reforming, The Housewife Theologian, Reasonable Faith.

All Bible quotations use the 1984 NIV translation unless noted otherwise.


Note: In some ways this introduction is the hard theological part of the chapters that come next. The essays that follow are generally concerned with just one aspect of life or faith, while this introduction is more of a broad discussion on the basic and overarching doctrinal principles of faith and grace–two big fuzzy words that often get thrown around without delving deeply into what they mean. Let’s be less concerned with what the ‘theologians’ say about them, and concern ourselves with the personal: What does Faith mean to you? What does Grace mean to you? And what are your most personal and favorite Bible verses about Faith? Grace?