I lived most of my childhood in a lovely house on 12th Avenue in south Minneapolis. My earliest childhood memory is walking through the back door of this house for the very first time at age 3. It was a splendid new place with lots of room, a yard and only a few dark, scary places in the basement.
As a young child, of course, I had no understanding of what it meant to have to fix up a house after moving in. I had no particular standards for how things should be, as long as Mom and Dad were there, the house was warm enough in the winter (barely!) and there was food to eat. Our survival was never in question and I was blessed to feel secure in my new home.
However, as time went on, my father did a lot of fixing up. Again, it wasn’t anything I thought about. It was as normal as snow storms in winter. I used to spend long hours watching him at work. Some rooms had wallpaper on them that my father scraped off with great care. It didn’t matter how many layers had been there. It came off.
My father did a meticulous job. Perhaps this was because he was a chemical engineer whose career revolved around paint. Perhaps it was just his personality. In any event, if there was old paint on a window frame, it all had to be scraped off before any new paint could be applied. This meant the application of a paint stripper and the painstaking scraping of every little groove. Sanding to ensure a smooth surface was often a necessity as well.
I have fond memories of the summer the garage door had to be painted. Now that was a big job, approached in quite a different manner. Naturally, the old paint had to come off first. Endless hours of fascination ensued, watching my father wield a propane torch, then scrape; burn, then scrape. He was always very careful and, as much as I’m sure I would have liked a turn with it, I never got one.
It wasn’t until my early adulthood that I came to realize that not everyone approached a paint job like my father. When I moved into urban neighborhoods, typically older houses that had been divided into rental units, I discovered all sorts of horrors. Not only were there many layers of paint piled one on top of the other, there were places where people had obviously painted over flaking paint with little or no attempt to scrape.
How could this be? It did not take me long to realize that most property owners (of decaying properties in decaying neighborhoods) simply didn’t care to put in the work. They just wanted to touch things up enough so that they could move in new tenants.
Strange that all of this imagery should come to me this evening – while celebrating Eucharist with a small group of the faithful in Cleveland’s near west side. I was blessed tonight with the privilege of proclaiming the Scripture from the Acts of the Apostles (5: 17-26):
Then the high priest rose up and all his companions, that is, the party of the Sadducees, and, filled with jealousy, laid hands upon the apostles and put them in the public jail.
But during the night, the angel of the Lord opened the doors of the prison, led them out, and said, “Go and take your place in the temple area, and tell the people everything about this life.” When they heard this, they went to the temple early in the morning and taught.
When the high priest and his companions arrived, they convened the Sanhedrin, the full senate of the Israelites, and sent to the jail to have them brought in. But the court officers who went did not find them in the prison, so they came back and reported, “We found the jail securely locked and the guards stationed outside the doors, but when we opened them, we found no one inside.” When they heard this report, the captain of the temple guard and the chief priests were at a loss about them, as to what this would come to. Then someone came in and reported to them, “The men whom you put in prison are in the temple area and are teaching the people.” Then the captain and the court officers went and brought them in, but without force, because they were afraid of being stoned by the people. (emphasis mine)
In another translation, the emphasized words read, “tell the people all about this new Life”. Last year, in the Easter season, I wrote of this very same passage (The new life). But what strikes me this year is the need for the stripping down to nothing that must occur in my life before I can fully receive the new.
And this is where the image of my father entered my mind unbidden. Stripping, scraping, burning, sanding away every last bit of the old paint before he applied the new. He didn’t just slap another coat on over the old – to hide its flaws or dinginess. No, he worked with great care. Remove the old. Then apply the new.
In His grand design, our Father in heaven works with a similar level of care. Once we left His way, falling into sin and death, His plan was neither to abandon us nor to simply cover over our brokenness with repetitious rituals, hiding from us the reality of our true state. No, He made a plan, born of Himself, to give us a new life.
In this plan, we have work to do. Much like the “strip, scrape, burn, sand” of my father’s toil, we must labor to remove the layers of old life, of false life – of what is broken, sick or damaged. We must strive to strip away everything that is not Him.
Is there anything I would not give up for the Lord?
This question both haunts and inspires me forward in the labor. Not just thinking of the possessions in my life, though certainly there are too many of them. But what of other aspects of my life? Would I be willing to give up my reputation? My career? My family? My intellect? My ability to walk or see or hear?
It is not that I anticipate God asking me to give up all of these things – but the surrender of any or all of them could be part of the plan at any point.
Is there anything I would not give up for Him?
Of course, of myself, I cannot do this. Hence, even the effort to strip myself down to nothing for the new life is not something I can accomplish without the help of His Spirit. But I must be willing. Even more, I must want to with all of my heart.
If all I want is a quick coat of paint to hide my defects, the world will give me that in a hurry.
If I want a new life in Christ, I must offer myself to be stripped down by His love until nothing remains but the bare wood.
The bare wood of the Cross.
My life, my hope, my salvation…