17. The Black and White Floor: a study in contrasts

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

I’ve had black and white on the brain lately.

Everywhere I look, I see black and white together. Dark and light. Absorbing and reflecting. Hot and cold. Opposites. Contrasts.

Black and white together–it is bold. Courageous. Balanced. Stunning. It takes a stand.

And it’s our new kitchen floor..

I generally believe in hardwood floors or muted rugs because I don’t think it’s a floor’s job to be noticeable.

But this is bold.

The contrast of black and white tiles laid next to each other makes this floor shout out Look. At. Me.  One of my friends shook her head when I told her what we’d be doing with the floor. “If one color doesn’t look dirty,” she said, “the other will.”

Yes, it’s a worry–I’d better be able to keep it clean…


Contrasts, paradoxes, opposites–these have been on my mind lately too. Paradoxes of faith fill the Bible, and sometimes it’s hard for me to get my head around them. I just read today in Joshua 1:7–There are many other verses that tell us to keep straight on, not veering to the right or the left. (Deuteronomy 5:32; Deuteronomy 28:14; Joshua 23:6; 2 Kings 22:2; Proverbs 4:27; Isaiah 30:21 are just a few…)

Our Christian faith is filled with the enigmas of contrasts, opposites, and tension:

How do we, as people of faith, deal with all these contrasts? We can get stuck on one side or the other, veering off to the right or to the left and lose focus on what is straight ahead. In truth, the world (dare I say Satan?) wants us to veer off to the right or to the left. Even those words right and left are loaded with the world’s values, aren’t they?

And some of these “right and left” issues are fracturing the church and Christian testimony right now. Look at some of those contrasts in the list above, and think about which ones trouble you the most.

Think of it as walking on the top of a mountain (on a narrow path with no guard rails) and trying not to lose your footing. We don’t want to fall over too far on the side of social justice, yet over and over God calls us to care for the widow, the poor, the immigrant, the orphan. We need to love people and show them Christ’s love, yet at the same time we can’t ignore flagrant sins. But what about our own sins? Just because we are believers and forgiven, it doesn’t mean we are sinless. How do we show non-believers Christ’s love and forgiveness without seeming judgmental or holier-than-thou? Is that mountain path turning into a slippery slope yet?

One point to remember is that Christ’s Church will never go along with the world. God calls us to be different, to be a peculiar people. He called the Hebrews in the Old Testament to be His people and they failed spectacularly. Jesus came and called anyone who repents and believes to be part of His Church, and now we are failing spectacularly. After all, the church is made up of sinners, and even though we have the Spirit, even though we are forgiven, and even though Jesus is our cornerstone, God’s blessed Kingdom has not yet come. We are still tempted and tried by the world and its curse of sin. And so often, we fail.

BUT, if we believe the promises of God, our spectacular failures might be just the opposite. The world’s wisdom is foolishness to Him, so why should we call it failing? It might be just what God has ordained to happen. But if we trust His promises, we must also trust that He will take care of things in whatever way He chooses, whenever He chooses. When we spend too much time tilting to one side or the other, we are paying too much attention to the world and not enough to God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit.

There is one verse that covers the Lord’s general requirements of us: Micah 6:8

Jesus’ life is the perfect picture of that balance: between be and do; between stillness and action; between justice and mercy. He is the one we are to emulate for He was and is the perfect man, sent from God to redeem us. Sent from God so we would know what perfection and holiness and balance really look like. Jesus is not an American conservative. Jesus is not an American liberal. To follow Jesus is to take on a radical agenda–loving your neighbor, serving others, praying for all, and gently urging everyone (including yourself) to live the holiest life we can through the guidance of the Holy Spirit. 

If we believe the Bible, we know that God is over all, above all, and all in all. He knows we are prone to leaning dangerously to one side or the other, rather than keeping our focus straight ahead. So we are to make peace with that tightrope, knowing that those paradoxes of our faith could well help us keep our eyes on the end rather than looking down. And if you need reassurance, then remember that even falling off that tightrope or the narrow mountain path is not fatal. The only fatal sin is thinking you can walk through that tightrope of life yourself without needing God.

No, the issues that are fracturing us are not black and white. But what we must all take to heart is His love; His redemption; His power. Written over both the black and the white, the contrasts of faith, is His love–written in His blood–written forever, no matter who we are, what we do, or how many times we fall from the narrow path. His love covers us all. He is the Lord over all the puzzling paradoxes–from the wise to the foolish, from the rich to the poor, from the believers to the non-believers–He is the Lord. He is the Door. But He knocks gently, and we are the ones who must open the door and let Him in… 


For further study, read Matthew 5:1-20

Questions to think about:

  1. Paradoxes/Opposites abound in the Bible. Can you think of others? Which one(s) do you struggle with the most? Which one brings you the most peace?
  2. At least one other opposite is Jesus fulfilling the Law, yet abolishing it. Check out this article: https://carm.org/bible-difficulties/did-jesus-abolish-the-law-or-not/
  3. I think the Sermon on the Mount is one of the most difficult passages to take to heart. I think that sometimes it’s just easier to have cut-and-dried rules to follow instead of trying to keep your balance on a narrow path with steep cliffs on either side…. The Pharisees thought that too, and Jesus saves His harshest rebukes for them. Has American Christianity devolved into rule-keeping one one side because it is easier, and too much friendship with the world on the other side, because that’s easier too?
  4. I felt like a heretic writing the words that the church is failing spectacularly. Sometimes I think it is; but other times I think it is amazing that the church has endured through worse times than ours. Yet We are the church; it is not some nebulous administrative bubble somewhere in the heart of a city, so what does this say about us?
  5. How can we make peace with the sword of division that Jesus says He brings?

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?