As much as I love Christmas and all the wonderful things that come with it, maybe my favorite time of the season is in the afterglow, the days between Christmas and New Year’s, and sometimes a few crisp January days after that. It’s a different time of the year, and with God’s mercy, it tends to be a little quieter as people recover from the holidays and try to muster up the gumption to fully engage a fresh calendar, which means they sometimes leave me alone. A little.
And that is precisely why I take some time off after the holidays and usually find myself working on a project around the house that has waited already for six months. The current project is big, installing ceramic tile throughout more of my house than I care to think about; it will be a long-term project, but it feels incredibly good to have actually gotten started. Besides that, it involves hours and hours spent on my knees, which looks good on a pastor’s resume.
Laying ceramic tile is the kind of job where you either need to be an obsessive/ compulsive perfectionist or so relaxed that you’re not bothered by lines and joints that don’t match up. You may have guessed that I’m the former, and because I tend to be OCD about grout lines and intricate patterns, tiling is not a fast project in my world. When you have the tendency to measure four times, lay the tile run to a straight edge that you’ve checked for straightness three times, and make sure that 1/8 inch between the tiles is exactly that everywhere—tiling can seem more evolutionary than revolutionary. The fact that it’s all being stuck to cement with cement—makes a detail guy very much aware of the potential permanence of his potential mistakes. For example, if the tiles don’t run straight, a less-OCD tile man might be tempted to think, “Oh, they’re just off a little, it’s just an eighth of an inch. Who will notice?” The reality is that while one-eighth of an inch is only about the thickness of a nickel, by the time that deviation compounds itself out across an entire room or down a long hallway, you’ll be close to two inches off the straight starting line and disaster will find you at the end of the line! That’s why I sweat the layout for hours before I ever mix the mortar, that’s why I check the straightedge three times, and that’s why I tweak the spacing of the tiles and trust the truth of the straightedge. It’s either straight, or it isn’t.
Come to think of it, (and I did this afternoon on my knees), life is a lot like laying tile. As believers we have a straight-edged standard to live by-God’s truth- made clear to us in His Word. While our world has pretty much abandoned the idea of absolute truth, we who follow Jesus don’t have that convenience. We either live by the standard, or we don’t. And I’m not talking perfection here, because only One man ever attained that standard; he knew I couldn’t, that I wouldn’t, so he took the pain of my sin and through it perfected and provided grace, for which I am so grateful! Still, imaginary perfection aside, we know the standard and we pretty much always know how our lives measure up with it. And, like my tiling project, we need to realize that if we choose to ignore those areas in our lives where we miss the mark, even small deviations from the truth will eventually take us way off course as they play out in our thinking and behaviors. Just as a two degree deviation of a jet-liner’s flight path will find it landing on the wrong continent; small errors in my understanding —or small disobediences I choose—can find me farther away from the land of truth far faster than I’d care to imagine.
You get the picture? OK, then, let’s nail this point and one other down so I can get back to my tile job. A New Year is a great time to do some personal evaluation, and we get in trouble if we choose any standard besides the Truth. Spend some quiet, honest time with God and ask Him to show you where you’re “off course.” Read Psalm 51 and Psalm 139 for an attitude check. Then seek His forgiveness and the transformational power of Jesus Christ, which is the only way any significant lasting change can ever happen. On our own, we’ll always be an eighth of an inch off, or maybe several miles!
Lest you think this is a negative sermon about all the things we do wrong, we can also use the same lesson in a very positive way. Small, God-honoring, beneficial changes in your habits early in a year can find you in a far better place by the end of that year. It’s true physically, and just as true spiritually—the best way to get healthier is to start. But not by running a marathon! The best way to start is by taking small steps that serve to re-align your life with the Truth. How might your life be different in January 2019 if you started now and in the coming months spending at least a few minutes with God each day—time in prayer, time reading His word, time consistently in worship with his people? This is about re-aligning some priorities, and every time I try to do that it tends to cause a stampede of my older priorities. Expect trouble. But be glad that while there are times that only a 180 degree change is effective, far more often it’s just “an eighth of an inch” played out until we find ourselves closer to where we really wanted to be; by that time, the change will have become our new normal, our new priority.
David’s prayer works for us too: “Search me and know my heart oh God, test me and know my thoughts. Help me see where I have gotten off course and gone my own way, and then show me the path of everlasting life.”