Monthly Archives: June 2008

Make the Right First Step

Blind Faith (No. 26, 2008)

A casual observation of a condition in our backyard turned into a
project that consumed 3 or 4 of the last several days. Our house is nestled
onto a sharply sloping hillside. The good news is that our walk-out basement
provides excellent severe weather shelter, and it stays cool during the
sweltering summer days. The bad news is that stepping from our patio into the
backyard always presented a precipitous challenge, with unsure footing. Other
access points require a long walk around a mammoth gingko tree, or skirting the
stairs up to the deck. A path down the slope, leading more directly to open
space in the yard and to the pear trees called for some action.

A solution attempted by my wife was laying several 18-inch concrete
pavers on the slope. While the pavers offered firm footing, their steep angle
was not much improvement over the bare ground. Talk show warnings about
“slippery slopes” took on actual relevance! So, we observed, we really ought to
level the pavers, to make a sure-enough set of steps from the patio to the yard.
And thus, the excavation began!

Building a set of steps drew my theological imagination into play almost
immediately. Just the notion of steps started my sound track for the
work. With each shovel of rocky soil dug, I kept hearing the worship chorus,
Step by Step:

Oh God, You are my God, And I will ever praise You.
I will seek You in the morning, And I will learn to walk in Your ways.
And step by step You’ll lead me, And I will follow You all of my days.
(step by Step, Beaker, 1991)

After awhile, my free-association on steps subsided, and I began to
search for deeper spiritual analogies for the work.

I gave some thought to similarities between removing the dirt that I was
shoveling away to reveal productive terraces for each step, the way all kinds of
sin must be shoveled out of our lives for us to become the productive persons
God intends us to be. That metaphor broke down almost immediately, though. I
knew that excavating the area for the steps depended entirely on my
sweat-drenched effort. Clearing sin (attitudes and actions that damage my
relationship with God, other people, and my authentic self) from my life,
however, is beyond my capability. No matter how hard I try, my effort just will
not get rid of sin. Only God’s grace can do that (see Romans 7: 15-25).

Digging from the bottom step toward the top, I thought about ascending
progress in our lives dedicated to following Jesus. Hebrews (one of my favorite
New Testament books) does caution us (see Hebrews 6:1-2) to get on with maturing
as believers, not remaining only on the bottom level of understanding repentance
and faith, although these are crucially important. Other than doing the work of
going up the hill, I just couldn’t get any metaphors of Christian maturation to
gel. Extra attention required to remove stubborn rocks and concrete spurred
some notions of struggling to break pernicious habits, but I felt I was slipping
too far into allegory, rather than developing a useful image.

When we started to set the first step, the metaphor began to fall into
shape. We spent a considerable amount of time and energy investigating the
position, support, and importance of the first step for all the others. Every
other step would be measured by its relationship with this first placed one. If
this step proved to be not level, out of square, or not on a firm foundation,
then the entire set of steps would be a disaster. Everything depended on laying
the right, solid foundation. Here was an experience in a known area – building
steps – that could help to explain and to understand another experience – living
by faith in Christ. This is the true purpose of metaphorical language.

In order to live as God intends for us to live, the only sure foundation
is Jesus Christ. We can investigate all the philosophies offered by every race
and tribe of humankind. We can strive to reason our own answers to the great
mysteries of existence. In the end, all such work on our part is merely site
preparation. The apostle Paul was an expert in the Jewish religion, a scholar
educated in the finest schools, a leader with sterling credentials, and a
citizen of the highest order. He worked hard at every task he undertook, both
as a zealous prosecutor defending Jewish identity, and as a missionary for
Christ. Yet, his arduous work was only site preparation. Paul describes the
situation well: ” You are … God’s building. {10} By the grace God has given
me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on
it. But each one should be careful how he builds. {11} For no one can lay any
foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1
Corinthians 3:9b-11 NIV) Paul is pleased with the work he has done well, but he
recognizes that the crucial element for building followers of Jesus is Jesus
Christ, himself. Every determinative measurement of the Christian life is taken
from Christ. Paul returns to the metaphor in another letter: ” you are citizens
with the saints and also members of the household of God, {20} built upon the
foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the
cornerstone. {21} In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a
holy temple in the Lord; {22} in whom you also are built together spiritually
into a dwelling place for God.” Ephesians 2:19b-22 NRSV) We are being built
into the marvelous dwelling God has planned, we do not just emerge onsite fully
constructed. God has provided master builders (and many apprentices) to work
alongside him, according to the plan, and always taking the measure of their
work from Jesus, the Cornerstone. How the finished project turns out depends on
how faithful to the foundation – Jesus – we remain.

I was very pleased with the garden steps we built. Not bad for a blind
retired guy and a non-builder co-laborer! What God can make of us is much more
amazing. If we set out to build a life by our own design, no matter how hard we
try, we can’t remove the sin problem, nor can we get the right starting point to
make everything fit together correctly. But as God’s building, set on the
cornerstone of Jesus Christ, we become the place where God lives. That is high
commendation for the quality of the construction project!

What is the foundation from which you take measurements for your life?
Do you pay careful attention to make sure you are beginning with Jesus, rather
than with your own work? Does each step rest upon Jesus, as you scale the
slippery slopes of life? As you walk up a set of steps outside somewhere,
recall the importance of what underlies and supports them, and remember to refer
back to Jesus as your first step. Then grow your own metaphor of living as a
follower of Jesus!

J. Edward Culpepper, Ph.D.