This Old House: DIY Soul Improvement

New home owners tend to buy a lot of stuff to fix up their new digs, which helps the economy. My spousal unit gave me an early Christmas gift: a cordless drill-driver. Now I’m helping to drive the economic recovery by making lots of visits to hardware stores.

It has been fun taking on home improvement projects. I built a headboard for our bed out of pieces from an old pipe organ. I put up some display shelves in our dining room that are made from 100 year-old floor joists. I tore down an old plaster ceiling in a closet, replaced it with drywall, patched and painted the plaster walls, and installed some shelves. We also painted a chess board on a cafe table for our living room.



Our house will be 100 years old this year. It has some standard old-house issues: drafty sash windows, doors that won’t close, lead residue in the soil, and so on, but the previous owners made a lot of wonderful improvements and took good care of it. Regardless, when you buy a house, you commit to an unspecified series of home improvement projects. Even in a new house, there will always be something that needs fixing.

Last week, my friend Bill Morgan preached a sermon that referenced John Wesley’s house metaphor about salvation. Wesley said that prevenient grace, the grace that comes before we’re even aware of God, is like the porch of a house. Justifying grace, when we commit to enter a new life of faith, is like the threshold. Sanctifying grace, the process of God shaping us and growing us in love, is like the house itself.

Bill extended the metaphor a bit and talked about moving into an old house. and part of his message was that this old house always needs work. There is always a room that is messy, or a leak that needs fixing, or something that needs painting. Some of us may need major foundation work. But all of us need repair.

After the sermon, I thought about the word salvage that is hidden in the word “salvation,” the idea that God is on a major salvage operation in our lives and our world. I thought about how Jesus was a builder who probably worked contracting jobs in Sepphoris, and I had a picture of Jesus showing up at our house, like Norm Abrams from This Old House, saying “Today we’re going to work on your contempt issues. We’re going to have to do a lot of sanding to get down to the original grain, but there’s some beautiful stuff under here if we can just scrape off some of this accumulated gunk.” After some work he says, “Ah, see here? You’ve got some self-loathing down here rotting out these supports. You need to get rid of that or the contempt will come back.”

I thought about Jesus walking through the rooms of my life, tool belt hung at his side. He takes a look at a project I’ve done myself. He whistles. “Well, no offense, buddy, but this is something you need some professional work on. You can’t just spackel over this.” I anxiously ask him to take a look at another problem spot and he says, “Aww, no, this isn’t a big problem. We can take care of this.”

Some people will claim that sanctifying grace is all about just turning it over to the master builder because we can’t do anything on our own. Do-it-yourself soul improvement only gets you so far, because we have a tendency to think we can tinker our way to some kind of spiritual enlightenment, but the reality is that we’ve mortgaged our soul to the forces of death and domination. The salvage we need is not just cosmetic, but a total purchase-and-renovation. While I think this is true, I also think part of the joy of sanctifying grace is the invitation to participate with the master builder, to learn by watching, then doing. We “work out our own salvation” because God’s salvage operation requires different things for different people. I think God’s intention in our salvage is that we put in some sweat equity and take responsibility for our spiritual growth. Growing in grace has to be intentional.

“Do it yourself” doesn’t mean “do it alone.” It means joining a community of people who admit they all need work. Thankfully, we have a master builder who invites us to be apprentices and puts into us a passion for salvage work.

I imagine asking the master builder what I need to do. He chews a toothpick thoughtfully. “Well,” he says, “every job is different. Every soul has its quirks, and sometimes you can’t really tell what it’s going to require until you roll up your sleeves and get started.”