I held my first paintbrush when I was twelve years old. I was supposed to stain the south side of our house – the side no one could see. That meant getting up early in the morning, before the sun was blazing in full force, and working in the evening, as it was going down. It took me two weeks to finish.
I proudly showed Dad what I had accomplished. “Good,” he said. “But next time avoid the brush marks and the sags.” Oops.
When the next summer rolled around, I tried again. It took me almost twice as long as before, but this time there were no brush marks nor any drips or sags. “Fine job,” Dad told me. “Now stain the eves, and be sure to wear a cap.”
I hated to wear anything on my head, so ignored his advice about the cap. It only took five minutes, however, to realize I needed a hat or else my hair and face would be permanently stained brown.
I learned to paint houses by trial and error – mostly by error. But I got pretty good at it, good enough to do other jobs in the neighborhood. With a bristled brush, a can of paint, a scraper, a bit of sandpaper, and some mineral spirits, I found a relatively easy way of earning extra income.
By the time I was a senior in high school I went further afield. I once made a bid on a small stucco rental house in the next neighborhood over. It looked simple enough – no scraping, no sanding, very little overhang. This house, however, called for latex paint, which I had never used before. I started with the eves, but something was wrong. My bristle brush kept gumming up, and I couldn’t hide the brush marks either.
So I decided to work on the stucco siding instead. The same thing happened. Hours later, with one painstaking stroke after another, I had managed to complete only a tiny section of stucco. At that rate it would take me the rest of the summer to finish.
Then an old geezer, a contractor, came by. He was there to put in a new bathroom. He looked at what I was doing and proceeded to burst out laughing. “What the hell are you doing kid?” “Well, who do you think you are, and calling me kid?” I thought to myself. “Haven’t you ever heard of a paint roller?” he asked. “Besides, this house first needs a good scrubbing. All you’re doing is pushing chalk-dust around. Who taught you to paint anyway?”
Embarrassed, and my pride wounded, I suddenly realized I hadn’t a clue what I was doing. This house was a completely different animal and demanded an entirely new approach: scrubbing with soap and water and bleach, not scraping and sanding; cutting in with a nylon brush and using a roller, not brushing the surface with strokes; fanning the paint vertically, not horizontally. I needed to learn a whole new way of painting.
The New Year is upon us, but whether or not it will be “new” remains to be seen. It may be just another year in the sequence of time, replacing the previous one but not necessarily changing for the better. We may tackle it with a bit more determination and resolve, making a few adjustments here and there, but without a fundamental shift we may still end up painting life’s surface as we always have, gummed up and going nowhere.
When Jesus came, he spoke of “new wine and new wineskins.” He also taught his followers a “new command,” a “new and living way” which brought forth peace. He came to establish a “new covenant” based on a “new birth” wrought by the Spirit. Those who followed him would become “new creations,” known by a “new name” and living life in accordance with a “new order.” Jesus proclaimed the in-breaking of God’s kingdom in anticipation of a “new heaven and new earth” – a life built on an entirely new basis, involving a different set of tools and an altogether different approach.
In other words, Jesus came to transform life – all of it. He didn’t come to put another coat of paint on the way things are, on the pre-fab houses of our consumer-driven lives, fresh as the paint might appear. No, he came to wash us clean and to join us together into a new household – a community built on faith in him, not in our economy; a society welded together by humble service, secured by mutual forgiveness, and free of mistrust and ruthless ambition. He came to re-create our world so that the needs of people, not property, are in the center of our lives. Jesus brings new life – abounding in fellowship, nourished by genuine, childlike joy, and enriched by love that won’t let us down.
Our world is freezing in fear. Too many of us are slogging away but going nowhere, without purpose, feeling alone, frustrated, and empty. Too many spheres are unraveling before our eyes, and we’re reaping some bitter fruit as a consequence. Might this not be the result of going about life wrongly?
Jesus said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Indeed, he alone can make things new, including this next year, but only if we allow ourselves to be changed from the inside out. This will demand a great deal of humility on our part, as well as a readiness to be equipped with a new set of tools in which to paint a very different kind of world. We need to learn how to do life differently – very differently. If this can happen, surely a new year will come.