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.