13. Apples, Walnuts, and Pears: Bounty and Scarcity

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

My grandfather built the cottage in the nineteen thirties; my great aunt and uncle later lived here and sold apples from the front yard. When the contractor husband’s parents, Joe and Clara, bought the orchard from my grandfather, Joe took classes in orcharding, pruning, and spraying from Penn State. They ran it for several years, but eventually they divided the property into three parcels and sold the orchard acreage. It’s been sold twice since then, and the fruit trees that remain are broken down and unproductive. We wanted to make sure Apple Hill Road lived up to its name, so that first spring after we acquired Apple Hill Cottage, we planted a few fruit trees.  

Joe named the road and made the sign, and now it is even listed on Google Maps…

For a time the old orchard property (which still has a greenhouse and a barn) was being rented by a local couple who were trying to make a go of a small nursery. So we drove the tractor over one sunny May morning and purchased two apple trees — a Honey Crisp and an Ida Red — and two pear trees — a Bartlett and a Luscious. Each year we’ve tried to plant at least two more fruit trees or berry bushes: we now have sixteen fruit trees, a dozen berry bushes, two grape vines, and an English walnut tree–all in varying degrees of fruitfulness.

The walnut tree was a total surprise. One bright October afternoon the contractor husband came into the house holding six or seven brown English walnuts — the kind you buy in the stores at Christmas time. “Look what I found in the yard,” he said. “There’s a lot of them.”

I followed him back out to the edge of the yard and we gazed up into the leaves to see hundreds of green husks just beginning to open. When the husks open, the brown shelled walnuts fall onto the ground, the road, the neighbor’s driveway…Within two weeks we had racks and racks of walnuts drying all over the house. The walnut tree is either feast or famine: we had two years of bumper crops; then two years of none. Two years ago we counted as we harvested: 993 walnuts, give or take 20. (It’s hard to remember your count when you are bending and stretching and picking up nuts from the ground…) Maple glazed walnuts in a Mason jar make lovely Christmas gifts. But last year there were none. (That was easy to count.) Bounty and scarcity, plenty and want.

The apple trees we planted five years ago are just now getting to the age where they will produce apples regularly. So far the only good producing trees are the two bent, aged trees that were here long ago, leftovers from the old orchard. We’ve pruned them back hard, but they won’t last much longer. The young trees have had a few apples here and there, but they are mostly what my grandfather used to call “little bits a nothin’.” The trees were set back several summers ago by a devastating plague of seventeen year locusts.

Periodical cicadas to be specific; and they decimated the young fruit trees we had nurtured. At the time it seemed to us a plague of biblical proportions, but all the trees survived, though not without damages. Then there was their recovery summer, and we were hoping last summer would be the year of the apples, but instead we had a week of 20 degree temperatures in May–and two days of snow–after all the trees had blossomed. The only fruit we had were a couple of quarts of blueberries. There are so many factors that can intervene to ruin apple crops: early blossoming, pollination failure, late frosts, too much rain, not enough rain, insects, deer… Even when there are apples on the tree, they can be lost or ruined by June drop, scab, insects, and various blights. Bounty and scarcity, plenty and want.

The two pear trees were much taller than the two apple trees we planted at the same time, so it’s likely they were a year or so older. Four summers ago we had our first real crop of pears. The Luscious tree yielded a bushel of large picture-perfect pears that we saved for eating fresh and giving away. The Bartlett tree yielded a bushel of many small pears that I canned and made into pear butter. In September, we were overrun with pears; by December the fresh ones were gone and we were left with canned ginger pears in the cupboard. Oh, they are good, but there is nothing like a juicy fresh pear. But since then? We had a summer of locusts, a summer in which only one tree produced, and the summer of frosts. Bounty and scarcity, plenty and want.

Bounty and scarcity. Plenty and want. The seasons of our lives are marked by these contradictions. At any time the loss of a job, a spouse, or health, can change our financial realities from prosperity to poverty. Here in 2020, this time of Covid-19, it’s become very obvious how prosperity can turn into poverty in just several short months. How do we live successfully through lean times? If and when good times return, can we live in compassion and generosity by remembering our own past troubles?

Paul writes of this in Philippians 4:11-12 when he says, “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

I want that. I want his secret of being content in any and every situation. I don’t want to want fresh pears in February. I have delicious canned pears in my cupboard; why isn’t that good enough for me? During a lean month (a contractor’s life consists of always trying to maintain the right balance between lean months and months of plenty) I don’t want to worry about bills. Don’t we all want that peace of being content in every situation? What is Paul’s secret? — he tells us in verse 13 — “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.” 

Put your needs, your wants, your discontents, in God’s hands, not the world’s hands. Don’t look at those fresh pears from Australia or South America in the grocery store. Prayerfully think instead, “I don’t need those; I have a cupboard full of pears; I am blessed. Thank you God for those canned pears.”

It isn’t easy, here in the land of plenty, where companies and advertisers make their living on making us want their stuff so much that we think we need it. Can’t live without it — or maybe we know we could live without it, but we can’t live well without it.

How do we balance the world’s idea of living well with God’s truth of how to live well? Because the world’s truth and God’s truth are polar opposites, just as plenty and want are polar opposites, and we need to learn how to do this balancing act if we are to live out our faith.

I am no mathematician, but here is my vision of that balancing act. Draw a circle and a point on the boundary of the circle. An antipodal point on a circle is directly opposite another point on that circle. Label one point Plenty; label the other point Want. Between those two points can be drawn the true diameter. Truth. God. Draw a little triangle below that line in the middle of that circle that represents the balancing that God requires of us. It also represents the center of our lives, where God needs to be. (The triangle is a nice metaphor for the Trinity—God, Spirit, Son—don’t you think?

The worry about unpaid bills, or your job, or your relationship, or (fill in the blank here) is not to be in the center of the circle. Banish it to the outside point on the circle of your life and make God the center. The treasure. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21) And Matthew gives us another verse later on that lets us know what will happen when our heart is in the center with God: “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 12:28-30) Jesus tells us that when He is the center, we can rest in Him. Rest from the world’s worries. Rest from your anxieties. Rest from the fear of scarcity.

The story from Luke, Chapter 21 about the widow’s offering helps to remind me of a good way to actually live out banishing the fear of scarcity to the outer point of the circle, and how to keep Jesus in the center. After watching a poor widow put two copper coins in the offering plate, Jesus says, “‘I tell you the truth,’ he said, ‘this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:3-4) Remembering this story encourages me to give extra when I am feeling poor, because I have never given all I had to live on. Even when we are feeling that there isn’t money to put in the offering plate on Sunday, remember this story and do it anyway. Can I just tell you?  So far, the bills have always gotten paid.

There’s one more practical way to help combat those worries when times are lean: remembering your blessings. It’s hard to worry about an empty cup, when you are recounting remembrances of that same cup running over. Counting your blessings, as the song says, is the way to see what the Lord has done. 

For further study, read Philippians 4.

Questions for reflection:

  • Recount a time (or times) when you felt poverty or want. Did you feel worldly anxiety or God’s peace?  Now remember a time when you were poor and God provided. Thank God for His provision and blessings for your life. Be specific.
  • How can you live more generously? Be specific here, too.
  • There’s a quote from Matthew Henry that goes something like this: “It is not poverty that makes one unhappy, it is discontent.” And contentment can be found anywhere, any time through Jesus. It strikes me that sometimes discontent can be monetary, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. Discontent can come from a scarcity of ___________. Fill in the blank. How do you center yourself on Jesus in times of discontent?
  • Paul gives us plenty of concrete ideas on how to rejoice always in Philippians 4:4-9. List some of them.
  • Just a week or so ago, when I was getting this post together, Psalm 37 was part of my reading. I was blessed (again) by two prayers in Tim Keller’s book The Songs of Jesus. I have combined them for us here:

“Lord, how easy it is to put faith in power and money. If I know the right people and have plenty in the bank, I’m secure–an illusion! Through the cross my great debt has been paid, and through the Resurrection my future wealth is assured. Let me rest in that daily. Lord, it is difficult for me to trust in your provision for me enough to be radically generous with my money. But if Jesus had been as grudging with his life and blood as I am with my money, then where would I be? Make me a joyful giver. Amen.” (pages 74-75)

11. Sundays at the Cottage: Rest Is Ordained by God

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

May, 2014

There’s been much chaos in my life lately….

Dashing between two houses, fixing up one to live in, fixing up one to sell, both of us working jobs, and trying to balance everything? I feel as though I am failing at it all.

We knew that redoing this little cottage would be hard; we were committed to having no downtime, but we forgot to factor in that we would also have another house to fix up too—the one we would be selling. After two years? I’m tired. Contractor husband is tired. We have iron-poor blood. Burnout with a capital B; Exhaustion with a capital E; Drained with a capital D. Bed—I just want to sleep for three weeks straight.

In about three weeks the job that I have loved for nine years will be ended, our city house will be almost on the market and we will be gently moving all summer (or until the house sells) to this unfinished cottage. (Please understand: I am not whining or complaining. I still love the cottage. I can’t wait to get here–I just want to wimp out about the rest of the work we have to do.)

Just looking at this To Do List makes me tired. (You might notice that “write” is not on the To Do List.) And this is only my list; it doesn’t begin to cover the contractor husband’s list.

Lately, because we are focusing on getting the city house ready to sell, we’ve only been at the cottage on Sundays. There’s no time to do projects, so it has been a day of rest for me. (Not for husband—he has to get the tractor out and mow because the grass is growing like it’s spring or something…)

At first I fought it and called it forced rest. But today I am sitting on the porch with my glass of cider, heeding the rules of the Sabbath. We need this weekly rest. God knew it and named it–Sabbath rest. I sit here and look at the sky and the trees and listen to the bird song and the trill of a woodpecker and the sack of burdens on my shoulder lightens with each breath. Today it’s a little chilly, so I have a blanket and a kitty for warmth. Yes, there is a breeze.

There’s a ton of stuff I have to do. I see my To Do List when I close my eyes. I hear the world’s voice in my worries: If you don’t get that house on the market by June, it will never sell. And then what will you do? You need to be more efficient with your time. Etc. Etc. And then sometimes, when I’m listening, I hear the still, small voice: Peace my child. I am in control. Give me your worries and submit to my time. That’s what a Sabbath rest is for, and it is why God ordained it. He knew we would never stop working, shopping, tending, doing, (add your verb here) long enough to just sit and listen for His voice.

Today the sun is golden in the blue sky and I am resting in the white fluffy clouds of God’s magnificent creation. Savoring nature is the easiest way to still the never-ending, jumping-around, neuron-colliding ruminations in my head.

But there are other ways to hear and feel God’s voice. He speaks through scripture and, often as not, when I am sitting on the back porch swing I have a Bible open on my lap. Sometimes it is my study Bible and with it, a notebook to write down difficult passages or Aha! moments. Just last week I purchased a journaling Bible that has no notes, no historical references, no maps. In that same vein, several reading Bibles have just been recently published; while divided into books, they have no chapter or verse markings to distract. I’m thinking I would like to read the Bible that way, too. 

I can sit on that back porch swing and sing my favorite Godsongs. Although my voice is not as sweet as the wood thrush who lives in the nearby woods, it is a little better than the squawking crow who is calling to his mate from the barn roof.

I can also read worthwhile books. Some on my to-read list: Life Together by Bonhoeffer; The Brothers Karamazov, which it pains me to say I’ve never read; A Severe Mercy by Sheldon Vanauken; Just As I Am by Eugenia Price; A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry; The Place of the Lion by Charles Williams.

I have consciously put away technology for this afternoon. I don’t want to look at that To Do List; but, I do have books on my Kindle, and a study bible on my iPad. The problem is that it’s much too tempting to maybe just check my email for a second, or the stats on my blog for the day. I don’t do Facebook, for that very reason, but we all know how enticing technology is when the phone, the iPad, the game controller, or the remote is in your hand. Fasting from technology on a Sunday is a good thing to do.

There is no law for believers to rest on the Sabbath. We don’t want to be like Pharisees about this. On occasion we go to grocery stores after church, and in the summer I work in my garden on Sundays. (To me, that isn’t work). But we are not now bound by laws—Jesus is our rest, our peace. If you have to work on Sundays, that’s the way it is; just be encouraged to take some other time during the week to rest, to listen to God, to pray. He made us to need Him; don’t think you can do it on your own. Take a rest from doing, and Be.

The Hebrew word for Sabbath, or rest, is Shabbat and was also “one of the terms employed by the Jews for ‘salvation’” (according to John W. Bowman who wrote The Layman’s Bible Commentary to Hebrews). In Hebrews 3 and 4 the author discusses the concept of Jesus as our Sabbath rest. Jesus, through his sacrifice on the cross, frees us from the works of the law and allows us to rest in the work of Jesus. That same sacrifice paid the price for our salvation. Jesus calls himself the “Lord of the Sabbath” (Matthew 12:8), the Lord of rest. He says, “Come to me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…” in Matthew 11:28. If we rest in the work of Jesus, we will know that salvation—it is waiting for us eternally, and now in this world too. We no longer have to worry about our works gaining us good standing with God; we no longer have to worry about all those laws that God ordained for His people to keep (just read Leviticus if you don’t know what I mean!); and, as a result, we can have peace if “we draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews 4:16

And so for today, I am efficiently using my time—resting and listening and being thankful for that grace and mercy provided to me by my savior—and he is allowing me to banish any visions of the To Do List that might flutter across my eyes.

For further study, read Hebrews 3 and 4.

Questions to think about:

  • Write your to-do list, tear it out, and either crumple it up or burn it or shred it. (Burning or shredding is better—then you won’t be tempted to dig it out of the trash and smooth it out.)
  • How amazing is it that Sabbath rest and salvation were used interchangeably in the Old Testament. How does that make you feel about resting on Sunday? Do you struggle under the burden of resting? What can we rest from?
  • Hebrews 4 also makes clear the connection of Sabbath rest and salvation. One verse reads, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.” That is a scary verse! Yet just a few verses later the writer encourages us with the thought that we have a great High Priest in Jesus who understands our temptations and our humanity because He was human. How do you view the ending of Chapter 4?
  • Perhaps God has given us a “Sabbath Year” in this pandemic? The Jews were to have a Sabbath Year every 7 years (ours is way overdue) and then a year of Jubilee every 50th year (the end of seven seven-year cycles). That year was to be a year of debts forgiven, slaves and prisoners set free, and the mercies of God would be manifest. (It’s not clear if the chosen people ever celebrated this year of jubilee) Michael Card writes and sings, Jesus is our Jubilee. What take-aways have you learned from this Sabbath year of forced rest?
  • I just want to remind you that not too long ago we talked about busyness being self-importance. It’s so easy to forget, isn’t it?

10. Paint It White: The Covering of our Sins Has Been Accomplished


Has anyone noticed pictures of mudrooms lately? They are white with clean shelving, unmuddied boots, and a few jackets hanging neatly on pegs. So unlike what a true mudroom in a country house looks like. I wasted many hours looking at photographs of mudrooms. Mudrooms in magazines. Mudrooms in real houses. Mudrooms in Decorator houses. (I’ve lived in thirteen different houses in my life, and I had never lived in one with a mudroom.) But one thing was clear from the beginning—I didn’t want the mudroom to be white.

We collected things in a hodge-podge fashion: terracotta tiles for the floor and a new entry door from a Habitat for Humanity ReStore; small French doors to open into the kitchen from Construction Junction; a wood stove for the corner that was in the basement of the city house. I repurposed the top part to an old desk and painted it green to coordinate with the kitchen, and it is now a combined shelving unit and coat rack for one wall. We have done this mudroom one wall at a time, at about the speed of one wall per year. Including the floor. Including the ceiling. What was once the three-year plan turned into five years. But now that it is finished, yes, the walls and the ceiling are painted a creamy white–just like the other rooms in the cottage—and just like the white mudrooms that I originally rejected. 

Have you wondered about this white trend of living? Kitchens are white, bathrooms are white, living rooms are white, mudrooms are white. I’m guilty. All the walls in the cottage (except for a couple of accent walls) are creamy white. It just speaks to me of how we try to whitewash everything for the world—from the concrete nouns of our houses, cars, and things, to the common every day sins of our lives…

The contractor husband was my first boyfriend. In 4th grade I was invited to his 10th birthday party, except he failed to inform me it was a birthday party. (The first of many miscommunications…) I thought we were just going roller skating. I was fearful because I’d never roller skated before, but I went because I liked him! Rita, his sweetheart of an older sister, took care of me that afternoon and taught me to roller skate—held my hand as we went round and round, helped me up when I fell, and encouraged me the whole time. Then we went back to his house and the kids put their birthday presents at his feet! I was mortified that I didn’t have one for him. I must have cried because his mom, Clara, put money in an envelope and gave it to him and signed my name. Their whole family took care of me that afternoon! Six years later we were boyfriend and girlfriend again—for two plus years in high school. We broke up in college, married others, had children, lived our lives, and saw each other once every five years or so at high school reunions. Thirty years later, we met again…and now are happily married, redoing a cottage, and painting it white. 

A happy ending, yes, but there was divorce and sorrow in between. No matter, we like to paint our pictures with the happy endings, the fun trappngs, and sweep the other stuff under the rug. There are no unhappy photos on Facebook. Got an ex-husband? Block him. Don’t like what someone says? Defriend them. Our public lives are white; what color are our private lives?

Here is an unpopular truth that we all must hear and know: All suffering is caused by sin. Please note what I did not say: I did not say that God sends suffering. But He allows it, doesn’t He? And I also did not say that your suffering is a direct result of your sin. It certainly could be; but it could also be the direct result of someone else’s sin, and for some reason, perhaps a reason that you will never know, God is allowing it to affect you. And you can block God, or defriend Him for awhile, but can I just tell you from experience? It doesn’t work well for the long term.

Here in the twenty-first century western world, we don’t talk about sin very often. It’s pretty much out-of-fashion. While reading Yours Jack, by C.S. Lewis the other night, I came across Lewis’s writing on the seven deadly sins:

 “I was thinking of the old classification of the seven deadly sins: They are Gula (Gluttony), Luxuria (Unchastity), Accidia (Indolence), Ira (Anger), Superbia (Pride), Invidia (Envy), Avaritia (Avarice). Accidia, which is sometimes called Tristitia (despondence) is the kind of indolence which comes from indifference to the good…⁠1

That letter was written in 1930. Today, ninety some years later, many of these deadly sins are just a regular part of modern life. Gluttony is now called being a Foodie. In most circles one would be laughed (or scorned) out of the circle if one referred to their sexual proclivities as sin. Indolence is simply depression or despondence, which Janet Porter called the “new trendy illness” in a 2010 article in the Daily Mail.⁠2 Envy is capitalized upon by every television advertisement and just considered part of life. Avarice or greed is covered over by calling it financial planning or retirement strategies. Pride is simply caring for yourself, isn’t it? Being yourself, doing right by yourself, having confidence in yourself, taking selfies of your self, self, self. The only one of the seven that still gets a bad rap is anger, and these days even anger seems to be prevalent and OK. Just start reading comments on social media posts….

The main drawback to denying the sin in our lives is that in order to need a savior, we must acknowledge our neediness. If we are doing fine, we won’t need Jesus; it’s hard to repent when there is no problem. We have painted everything white. From kitchen cabinets, to mudrooms, to bedroom carpets, we have whitewashed our sins by incorporating them into regular life and making them normal behavior. And we are all fine, thank you very much.

In that same letter, Lewis speaks of besetting sin. What he means is that each one of us has a tendency toward one of those seven sins—our main character flaw. I can’t speak for you, but at different times in my life, each one of them has been a besetting sin. Yes, I own them. Many, many sins. But God is gracious and merciful to all us sinners who ask for His mercy. My bible is full of verses meant for us sinners to hear: 

For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” — Hebrews 8:12

“There is no one righteous, not one….” — Romans 3:10

“For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” — Romans 3:23

“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the worst.” — 1 Timothy 1:15

“…He will never leave you, nor forsake you.” — Deuteronomy 31:6

“Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.” — Romans 4:7

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” — Romans 8:1

There is no need for us to whitewash our lives, our mistakes, our sins—for Christ has already done it for us. His white paint, or bleach, was His own red blood. I’ve often mused on the words, cleansed by His blood. Those two words are such a stark contrast —cleansed and blood. I think the juxtaposition of those words is meant to be strikingly severe, so that we will never take the sacrifice of Jesus, of God, lightly. Blood covering us? No, it’s not so appealing, especially someone else’s blood; it only works if it represents something so amazing, so glorious, that we can hardly comprehend it—only then would we ever submit to such a crackpot idea.

That’s part of the gospel’s magnificence—it is so shocking, so unbelievable. Really, if someone wanted to make up a religion, who would ever have come up with such a preposterous, miraculous, staggering scheme? Only God. The apostle Paul tells us this in 1 Corinthians 1:27-29:

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.

And again in a later chapter, he writes in 1 Corinthians 3:18-19:

Do not deceive yourselves. If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a “fool” so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight…

Yes, by the world’s standards blood cannot cleanse; happiness is all important, so do what feels good; if you are suffering, it must be someone else’s fault; and listening to (or believing) some ancient prophet and His followers’ writings is indeed, foolishness.

But in a sermon two weeks ago, I was reminded of some other words of C.S. Lewis: liar, lunatic, or Lord. He is one of the three, and we have to choose—no whitewashing, or wishy-washing. Jesus Christ is either what He claims—the son of God who comes to take away the sins of the world, or He is crazy and deserved to die on that cross, or He is lying about being the Lord of the Universe, and at the very least deserves the ignominy that He is receiving in the world today. Here is the official quote from Lewis:

You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”⁠3

I’m writing this on the Saturday that is sandwiched between Good Friday and Easter, so the Cross of Jesus Christ is definitely on my mind. Last week in church we sang “My name is graven on His hands, my name is written on His heart…⁠4 It is a beautiful worship song and it reminds me of one of my favorite verses in Isaiah, “Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name, you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

And I picture that hand of Christ outstretched on the cross, that wounded hand dripping blood, forming my name on His palm. I have fallen at His feet and called Him My Lord and My God. And His blood is allowing me, a sinner, to come before God. Cleansed by His blood, indeed.

For further study, read Romans 8.

Questions for thought:

  • Picture Jesus on the cross, His arms stretched wide, saying “I love you this much.” Write a love letter to Jesus.
  • Lesslie Newbegin talked about bending the majesty of Christ into our own likenesses rather than making His greatness the focus of our lives. How do you see that happening in the church? In your own life?
  • Romans 8 is filled with familiar cherished verses that are worthy of memorizing. Which is your favorite and why?
  • Verse 26 says the Spirit intercedes for us, and verse 34 says the Christ also intercedes for us. So not only did Christ die on the cross for us then, but He is still interceding for us now–to allow us to come before God. This realization should surely make us “more than conquerors”. Is your God too small?
  • Name your favorite hymn or praise song that sings the gospel story of Christ so much it brings you to tears almost every time…

1 Lewis. C.S. Yours Jack, p. 11.

2 Porter, Janet Street. accessed at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-1278510/Depression-Its-just-new-trendy-illness.html

3 Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity. New York: MacMillan, Rev. ed., 1960, c1952, p. 41.

4 Cook, Vikki and Charitie Lees Bancroft. “Before the Throne of God Above.” Published by Sovereign Grace Worship.

9. Demolishing the Strongholds: Don’t Neglect God’s Word

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

November, 2013

Before we acquired the cottage, it sat empty for several years; before that, my mother-in-law had lived here alone as a widow and had difficulty maintaining it. Critters moved in. It’s the country after all, and raccoons used the cat door, mice lived in the cabinets, and hornets made nests in the closets.

So we strapped on our armor this past week: safety glasses, breathing masks, and gloves. We were doing battle against the creatures who have lived and died in our walls. For this particular project the question was, What is dead in the walls of your house?

It’s never pretty, and it isn’t picture-worthy. No one wants to see pictures of mummified mice, decaying nests, dead ladybugs, shriveled hickory nut shells, scat, and spiders. Throw in dirty insulation, rusty nails, and forty-year old newspapers that have been stapled to the walls, and dust, lots and lots of plaster dust…

Lesson learned: If you neglect your house, unwanted creatures will move in to dwell with you.

Reading your Bible every day will fortify you with God’s word. It will keep those unwanted creatures from moving in. Remember the story of the man who swept his house clean and put it in order? The spirit then goes to find seven other spirits more wicked than itself, they all move in, and the final condition of the man is worse than the first. (Luke 11:24-26) This will not happen if you are immersed daily in God’s word.

I have tried to stop dithering about what is to be done next and just go with what is. Everything we do to this old cottage is an improvement, so does it matter if one project (the kitchen) isn’t quite finished before we start the next? Or, more accurately, does it matter how many rooms are torn up in the effort to finish them all? We currently have gutted (and not finished) the mudroom, the living room, the dining room, and the kitchen. There are messes everywhere: plaster dust, tools, tarps. Not only does the armor get uncomfortable fast–(safety glasses fog up, hands sweat in gloves, it’s hard to breathe through those masks) –but there is nowhere to go in the house that is a respite from the messes. Sometimes it seems as though we will never get finished.

Lesson learned: Demolish the strongholds of ugly stuff today; the longer you wait, the bigger the job. 

In 2 Corinthians 10, Paul is defending his ministry to the Corinthians. He tells them that he has divine powers to fight the ways of the world and demolish its strongholds. And what is that divine power? Is it something only the apostles had access to? He says in verse 5: “We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” The New Living Translation puts it this way: “We destroy every proud obstacle that keeps people from knowing God. We capture their rebellious thoughts and teach them to obey Christ. We all have access to this divine power Paul speaks of — it is God’s word, prayer, faith and the Spirit inside us. We get to know God by reading his Word. Listening to it. Studying it. Taking captive every thought and making it obedient to Christ, the living Word.

We thought we would be doing this cottage one room at a time. It’s easier to manage that way; it’s easier to think about one room at a time. But the inter-connectedness of the wiring, walls, roofline, ceilings–all makes that impossible to do. And I’m trying to be okay with that.

There are holes in the mudroom walls that go into the living room. An air conditioner was once there; a log box for storage and easy access for fireplace logs was once there too. Now they are just gaping holes that have to be repaired. Wiring is another issue. The wiring in the living room is just hodge-podged up there and has to be replaced. The electric panel is in the mudroom, and right now, with those holes between the two rooms, it is a perfect time to rewire the living room too.

When we bought the window for the mudroom a few weeks ago, we also ordered a new series of windows for the living room. (Can’t pass up a sale on Anderson windows!) In order to take out the large window in the living room to replace it, we had to take off the current trim and a bit of the old paneling. Once we had some of the paneling off, there was a terrible stench. We have had bad smells at this place pretty often; we have torn up carpet, peeled off wallpaper, and scrubbed walls to get rid of smells. This one was very bad, so we had to keep tearing out to find the root of the evil, er…the smell.

We are now down to bare studs on the living room wall. (We were hoping this wasn’t the plan…) But three dead mice later, the smell is gone. So now insulation is a necessity too.

Lesson learned: Every part of a house is interconnected and can’t be dealt with one room at a time.

Your spiritual life is connected to every other part of your life. God is everywhere in the world and in your life, and if you neglect Him here, then over there it won’t be working so well either. What are you neglecting? The Word? Prayer? Worship? Quiet Time? Those are the most common ways to converse with God. One point I love to remember is that God made us for community with Him. He yearns for conversations with us. Not because He needs us; not because He doesn’t know what we need; but because a relationship with Him is the most vital thing we can do in this life. This relationship with God works both ways: God made us to yearn for Him too. The Psalmist says, “My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:2) He loves us with a perfect love. We can never match it; we can never measure up. But every time it crosses our minds just how much He loves us, we can offer Him a thank you song, a thankful prayer. I don’t know how it is with you, but the more I am grateful, the more I am likely to take up my Bible and read. The more I am reading my Bible, the more I am likely to pray. 

When we can be thankful for His grace and mercy in our physical life, our spiritual and emotional lives feel His presence too. He has given us this interconnected life so that every part of us need Him. We worship Him with our hearts, our minds, our voices, our souls, our bodies — with every part of our being and with everything we do. Be and Do. With every thought captive to Christ.

I was planning on writing an essay on the finishing of the kitchen, but it will just have to wait. And that’s okay too. After all, the whole cottage has to be finished for us to get featured on “This Old House”.  🙂

For further study, read 2 Corinthians 10.

Questions to think about:

  • What part of your spiritual life is being neglected in this season of your life? 
  • Be and Do was mentioned above. That means not only our behaviors but also our thoughts. I don’t know about you, but my behaviors aren’t usually the worst of me–it’s my mind and stupid thoughts I need help with. Knowing scripture can help with this thought control, yes? I’m thinking of Romans 12:2; what are some others?
  • In 2 Corinthians 10:5 Paul tells us “we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” What does this mean? Can the inner thoughts of a person come out in their actions?
  • What are some other ways to get control over disabling thoughts and demolish strongholds? (Read Romans 12:9-21)
  • I wrote “sometimes it seems as though we will never get finished…” Our journey with Jesus sometimes feels hopeless like that when we dwell on ourselves and our shortcomings, rather than dwelling on Him and what He has done. We sinners can take Hope-full and make it hope-less in an instant. If we could just learn to dwell in Jesus… How do you do this? Be specific.

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.