From the February 2011 archives:
A couple years ago my wife and I decided to undertake a little house renovation project. I know what many of you are thinking: Famous Last Words leading to a string of complications, frustrations, and semi-tragedies. And, yes, it turned into some of that, although in the end it was a worthwhile venture. So let me flesh out at least some of the rest of the story.
One of the features we’ve always enjoyed about our house is the large covered deck just off the kitchen/dining area. The previous owner of the house added it, and he obviously knew what he was doing. I eventually added screening to keep birds from nesting in the corner rafters, along with an adjoining mini-deck and patio. From late spring through autumn we enjoyed our time there (granted, the middle of Missouri’s typically ultra-hot and muggy summers kept us in the air-conditioned inside of the house, but still…).
Somewhere in the back of our minds was the idea of converting that space into a sewing room where my wife’s burgeoning interest in creating quilts could flourish year-round. And so we engaged an architect (we just happened to have one in our congregation) and found a contractor. But as it turned out, the concrete piers on which the quite-sturdy deck was built descended just 30 inches below soil level. That was probably good enough for a deck back in the day, but today’s building code requires a minimum of 36 inches of concrete to handle the possibility of frost upheaval here in western Missouri.
One potential contractor suggested we simply tear away both the deck and its shingled roof, leaving the latter in a single piece in the backyard until it could be dropped back in place on top of a new room. You know, I think he actually thought that could not only work but was a great idea. Fortunately, our concrete guy came up with a far better one: prop up the existing roof, tear out everything underneath, pour a new foundation, and fill in everything in-between with new construction. Long story short: that’s exactly what we did. I’ll skip over the part of this story about it taking longer and costing a bit more than we’d planned (I’ll just mention in passing that I kept our contractor on speed dial). This was a home remodel, so anybody who has ever done this sort of thing knows already that’s pretty much standard.
Renovating a house may look “kind of like” a start-from-scratch housebuilding project, but it’s really a whole different animal. When building a house from scratch you first dig a hole where there’s been nothing before, pour concrete footings and walls on top of that, then you build a sub-floor on top of the concrete walls, followed by walls, and then a roof. Once these steps are accomplished in that order, the rest of the building can be filled in.
That’s probably the image that initially comes to mind for most of us when we read Apostle Paul’s counsel to the Corinthians about laying a spiritual foundation:
For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. — 1 Corinthians 3:9-15
The thing is, who gets to start from scratch, to build a foundation where there’s been nothing before? Of course, that works for parents who are raising children, assuming they start from Day 1, if not earlier. But for the rest of us, there’s that pesky matter of already having some kind of foundation (as well as the metaphorical floor, walls, and roof) already in place. And unless we want to enter total spiritual rehab, some accommodations need to be made. Most likely, we don’t need to replace everything. But like the house remodel I’ve written about, it just may require propping up the parts you want to keep so the new spiritual construction can begin.
Having Jesus Christ as the foundation for our life–who we are, what we do, and whose we are–is the beginning point. Filling in all the rest will most likely be a bit messy at times, it can be costly, and it will undoubtedly take a lifetime to complete–and maybe not even then. Okay, I’ve probably extended this metaphor as far as I should (no metaphor is perfect, after all). Instead, hear the words of the psalmist:
Teach me, O Lord, the way of your statutes, and I will observe it to the end. Give me understanding, that I may keep your law and observe it with my whole heart. Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain. Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways. Confirm to your servant your promise, which is for those who fear you. Turn away the disgrace that I dread, for your ordinances are good. See, I have longed for your precepts; in your righteousness give me life. Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord, your salvation according to your promise. –Psalm 119:33-41
But this new spiritual structure, this temple, is not solely for our own benefit. As the writer of Leviticus points out,
When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien: I am the Lord your God. –Leviticus 19:9-10
Obviously, what we’re doing here involves a community (or, if you prefer: It takes a village). And Jesus had something to say to that:
“You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. –Matthew 5:43-48 NRSV
Like I pointed out before: Once we start down the path of spiritual renovation, who knows exactly where it will lead? But this much we can know: It will bring blessings, for us as well as others, and it quite possibly will mean blessings for generations to come.
My book, What Was Paul Thinking? (Isaac’s Press, 2010) is available at both Amazon.com and Barnes& Noble.com in print ($10) and e-book ($5.99) editions. If you’ve ever wondered just what Apostle Paul was getting at (and let’s face it, Paul can be hard to understand and appreciate at times) this is a good place to start.