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.
Eight years ago, my niece Amy married Nathan, a great guy. They moved into a starter home in the country. Over time, and with the addition of a son and daughter, the small house felt smaller. With a third child on the way, they decided to sell their house and find a larger home, a place closer to town with neighbors for the kids and a garage for the cars.
They put their house on the market late last October, and within four days they had signed agreement. Which meant they’d better start looking for their replacement home.
Two weeks later they fell in love with a house in their preferred neighborhood, at the right price in the perfect size, and with an attached garage. (It usually takes only one Michigan winter to make the most frugal-minded puritan lust for a garage. They endured seven winters.)
Their bid was accepted. But the inspection uncovered rotted roofing, siding, and windows, and substandard plumbing. All of which was going to cost them more than $40,000. The owners wouldn’t budge on the pricing, so Amy and Nathan reluctantly released the house. They moved in with Nathan’s family a few weeks before Christmas.
Imagine an extended time of suitcase-life with two kids, living in someone else’s home, and pregnancy. (I can imagine all but the pregnancy myself.) Their family-host was gracious, but weeks of this lifestyle took its toll, as though they were imposing on friends. They searched, and searched desperately, for their next home.
They soon found another house that thrilled neither of them (except for the hope of living on their own again); they made a bid that was accepted; the inspection turned up arsenic in the water; the owners refused to re-negotiate; and Amy and Nathan decided again to wait.
And they waited and waited, and weeks turned into months.
A friend once told me of a dark moment in his life, a time when he felt alone, frightened, and falling apart. He described his interior life like this: “I was an engine without oil.”
My friend instinctively took a common but abstract experience—loneliness—and brought it to life by painting a picture of his pain. He imagined his life as a movie screen and he projected onto himself the image of a motor thrashing about without lubrication.
In his four short words, “an engine without oil,” I saw a machine grinding to a halt as it ripped itself to pieces. I imagined hidden gears scrapping against rusted cogs, and friction, chaos, and destruction. I gasped as something inside me connected with his pain.
Metaphors speak to our hearts in ways detached concepts fail. If I say my wife is mad, we all have some cerebral sense of her state. If I say, “She’s a mother bear with her cubs,” we picture bloody teeth, razor claws, a ferocious growl, and an uncontrollable rage.
The rising bubble of my New Year enthusiasm was burst last week when I read a prayer in the Imitation of Christ. It terrified me. Does it scare you too? (Misery loves company.)
Purely as a scientific experiment, pray the following words out loud (or under your breath if your spouse is nearby and already suspicious of your sanity). I’m curious how it speaks to you.
Lord, you know what is best for me; let this be done—or that be done—as you please. Grant what you will, as much as you will, when you will. Do with me as you know best, as will most please you, and will be for your greater honor (Book 3, Chapter 15).
The first phrase is easy: “You know what’s best for me.” Sure, God knows everything better than anyone, Theology 101. The second phrase gets prickly: “Let this—or that—be done as you please.” I’m okay with “let this” be done as long as it means financial or physical health; but what if it means something else? I imagine stock market crashes and cancer.
The next phrase scares me, “Grant to me what, as much, and whenever you want.” I want (right now) a home with a roof and a checkbook that can pay the bills. But what if what he grants is “Never,” or “Not very much,” or, “A lifetime of struggle”?
The last phrase put an exclamation point on my fears: “Do with me as you please.” What if God thinks my greatest need is a trial by fire, betrayal by friends, or a financial melt-down? What if my wife and I end up homeless, or that my life’s work looks like campfire smoke that vanishes in the evening sky, forgotten by tomorrow?
Why did Jesus have to rise bodily from the dead? Why not just return spiritually to the Father?
Of course the song of resurrection inspires us. It harmonizes beautifully with all our other commonplace choruses, “It’s darkest before the dawn,” “Spring follows winter,” and “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.” I once even heard a preacher conclude his Easter sermon with, “So Christ rose in our hearts.” The idea of resurrection feels good.
Such choruses are simply sappy, sentimental attempts to feel good in difficulty. But Paul claimed, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor. 15:17). If Jesus didn’t really, physically, bodily rise from the dead, our faith is just horse manure.
The resurrection is a big deal. But why? Isn’t the real gospel that he died for our sins?
When I was twelve or thirteen, I went on a church retreat in the middle of January. The temperature was below zero. With friends I crossed a low bridge that spanned a three-foot-deep stream. We wrestled a bit, and I accidentally fell off the bridge into the stream.
I was plunged into a pool of stabbing cold; I gasped in shock; the bitter chill astonished me. The icy water began to suck all heat from my body (though technically, I’m told, my tiny body tried to heat hundreds of gallons of ice cold water). We later measured the water to be just above freezing. It felt unbelievably cold. And so did I.
That is the condition of humans after sin; our life is being sucked away in an icy river of death. Sin is not just bad behavior (“I lied,” “You cheated”). Sin is the power of death that ceaselessly, relentlessly, inexorably drains every unit of warmth of every cell from every human being.
I was ten years old the first time I ever heard God speak to me personally. The new school year had just begun, and a new fad spread among my classmates, cussing.
I was raised in a conservative Christian home. At church, Sunday school teachers taught the Ten Commandments. They were vague about adultery so I wasn’t too concerned. They weren’t clear about coveting either, so I felt kind of safe.
They made up for their ambiguity when it came to cussing. Instead of an elusive, “Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain;” they precisely taught, “Don’t swear.” And that meant, “Don’t cuss.”
Cussing was a sin on the order of mass genocide.
One day, while playing schoolyard tag, I tagged my girlfriend Diane, and she shouted, “Shit!” I felt a horrific shock as though hit in the gut with a sledgehammer. Forty-five years later, I still feel that visceral punch and I can exactly picture the playground corner where Diane cussed.
Looking back it seems silly that a cuss could cause such a shock, but it did. I expected God to throw down a lightning bolt and burn her to an ash. The thought almost paralyzed me.
But not quite. I leaped backwards in case the bolt went wide.
I used to work for a company that created software for publishers. It handled mail orders that were accompanied by checks, cash, or credit card information.
We had a balancing tool that ensured all the money that came into the mailroom was entered into the system and deposited in the bank. It protected against embezzlement.
In 1988 we installed the software at a large Christian publisher. When management heard of our checks and balances, they were appalled. They felt it questioned the integrity of their employees. They asked us to turn off the balancing feature.
A year later, a timid, gray-haired, rooster-pecked grandmother—a long-term employee of the publisher—stole fifteen thousand dollars.
Afterward I asked her, “Why?” She shyly stammered, “It was so easy. The money was just sitting there. It was just so darn easy.” She added,
“I’d heard of embezzlers before. I always said, ‘I’d never do that.’ And then I did.”