My wife’s and my first home was a trilevel, with only two of the floors completed. We decided to finish the third floor ourselves, creating a family room, office, and second bathroom. I had done lots of carpentry, wiring, and plumbing before. But I had never mudded drywall.
My first and only selfie: Sam Williamson, June 1984
I figured the drywall mud would sand down easily, so after hanging the drywall, I caked on mud like a teenage boy piles his plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And then I went back for seconds.
Alas. It took us more time to sand off that surplus mud than it took me to frame in and wire three rooms and to plumb the bathroom. Carla and I spent scores of hours of bored agony, sanding, wet-sponging, power-sanding, and bathing off our layers of dust:
I had thought mudding was the easy part.
The history of the world is the long story of bad answers.
Most of my life I failed to appreciate beauty. Oh, I loved the look of sails on the sea and snow on the mountains, but mostly I liked sailing those sailboats and skiing those slopes.
Fifteen years ago, I learned to scuba dive. On our first dive, my sons and I wobbled our way to the sea in unwieldly gear, inserted our mouthpieces, lowered our heads beneath the waves, and dived. In fifteen feet of water, we entered a cloud of thousands of small yellow and white, black-striped fish. We could see nothing but a beautiful gallery of sparkling fish.
And the beauty of their colors, and the shimmer of their glory, delighted and enthralled me.
Yesterday I joined two friends to talk with a woman about her calling. And she talked only of beauty. She shared the glory of seeing a sunrise, and sparks of hope in the cracks of a frozen harbor, and satisfaction in a sunset-pond. And she spoke of the healing wholeness of beauty.
Hearing her reminded me of the first time I was captivated by beauty.
This morning I read Psalm 27 as part of my Scripture meditation. When I read verse 4, something again was awakened:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: … to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….
And I wondered, “What the heck does it mean to gaze on the beauty of God?”
I hate the presidential election season, the rhetoric, emotional responses, hushed conversations, and mud-slinging candidates. I especially hate those damned, political phone polls! Don’t worry, this is not about the election. It’s about when good Christians do bad things.
And yet, weeks after the elections, the rhetoric is still meteoric and the mudslinging has not abated. Friends of mine from both political camps willingly participate in this mud bath. And it gets nasty. Winners ooze smugness and losers dribble bitterness. We all get spattered.
And both believers and non-believers, from the right and the left, hurl slurs. Their opponents are racist or communist, uncaring or unthinking, dumb or dumber.
This absence of distinction bothered me. I had hoped Christians would handle their victory or defeat with better grace. But we didn’t. Just this morning a thought raced through my mind:
A “good” Christian knows that our atheist neighbors are often better people than us.
A year ago, my wife and I decided to sell the farmhouse we’ve lived in for twenty-five years. While we were excited about moving into the next chapter of our life, the grown kids were less enthusiastic: our daughter’s next blog was entitled, Don’t Buy This House.
Nevertheless, we followed all the commonsense guidelines for home-sales:
We decluttered our closets, removed beds and furniture to make the house more spacious, and rented room at a storage facility.
We removed antique wallpaper and painted the walls with neutral colors.
And we updated older appliances and countertops, and revitalized the landscaping.
No bites. Not a nibble. Undaunted, we hired a stager who suggested we suck all personal intimacy from our home. Family photos were banished and personal artwork was expelled. Including the life-size, cowboy-hat-wearing skeleton in my office (in my office, mind you, not my closet).
Next our stager replaced every stick of sitting furniture with pure white pieces: sofas, easy chairs, and love seats. Which we immediately covered with sheets. Our stager styled it Farmhouse Chic. Our kids dubbed it, Farmhouse Sheet.
After hundreds of hours of expectant preparation for the dozens of hopeful showings: Nothing.
Last week my wife and I realized we spent our last twelve months living in limbo, neither here nor there. We were like swimmers treading water, going nowhere.
For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.
Look at the hopeful assurances offered:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)
The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)
When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.
I recently feel a need for action, practically (selling our house, helping a ministry I support, promoting my book) and humanly (a friend in divorce proceedings and other friends with health or financial woes). A season of doing has descended on me.
But where should I best invest myself?
There is no shortage of advice. Recently, resources I used to like for their insights have transformed themselves into Giant-Task-Lists. Books, blogs, and conversations bombard me with action-items, strategies, and plans:
Last May, an author sent me 26 emails (twenty-six!!) urging me to sign up for his “Three Principles for Successfully Building a Tribe.”
A friend told me of his Four-Step action plan to make a church more mission minded.
A house-stager made a Two-Page list of exactly what to do to make our house “Pop.”
And in one week, a blogger I used to like offered: (a) Six Steps to Becoming Happy, (b) Five Keys for Achievement, (c) Seven Steps to Getting Unstuck, and (d) Eight Secrets to Escape Exhaustion. (My escape from exhaustion began when I quit reading his blog).
Despite the verbal bombardment of tips and techniques for doing, God has also been speaking in a quieter voice, with a single thought that seems more invitational than edict. It’s this:
The Life of God begins to work in me at the moment of my inability.
My grandfather was a missionary in China from 1917 to 1936. He once told me of some early Pentecostal missionaries to China. They decided it was unnecessary to study Chinese before traveling because they “spoke in tongues.” But when they disembarked in Hong Kong, their abysmal language skills made them a laughing stock.
My grandfather (who was also a Pentecostal missionary) said to me,
“They refused to be of the world, which was good, but they completely forgot that they still must live in the world.”
Discouraged but determined, they took language classes. One man learned quickly, so they paid for him to study the advanced art of Chinese oratory. He would be their primary preacher.
After months of preparation, the missionaries organized their inaugural evangelistic event in a local town square. They shook their tambourines, sang several songs, and soon a crowd gathered. Their confident preacher began to speak.
To hear a foreigner speak such grand rhetorical Chinese was a novelty, and the crowd grew, but soon the yawns began, hecklers laughed, and the crowd shrunk. A less fluent missionary stood up and urged the crowd to listen. He bumbled his way through his own conversion history, and he stumbled through his story of hearing God for the first time. The crowd listened in silence.
Those missionaries traced their first convert to that botched-up-Chinese testimony.
“After learning to be in the world,” my grandfather reflected, “they forgot not to trust in it.”