The Good Life

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.” (Matthew 7:24)

Pat and I built a stone house in Palmyra, Maine in the late 1970’s. This was not ornamental rock veneer as in many upscale homes these days. Rather, it was self-supporting masonry with natural uncut fieldstone walls nearly a foot thick, resting on massive concrete/stone foundation walls. Roughly 100 tons of stone went into the construction, each stone lovingly harvested from rocky fields and overgrown walls throughout our rural town. The house site was carefully selected to command a sweeping view of grass fields bordered by woods, all gently descending towards the Sebasticook River. The house itself was to have a single level with full basement. Our initial plan called for massive footings to support the weight of the walls. But when the site was dug out, a solid but sloping rock ledge was uncovered that could not be penetrated by excavating equipment. The ledge dropped from about one foot below ground level on one end of the house site to about nine feet below ground at the other end. This meant that the house would have a crawl space on one end, increasing to a stand-up cellar on the other.

The inspiration for building a stone house came from a book entitled “Living The Good Life” by Helen and Scott Nearing. The Nearings were pioneers of the back-to-the-land movement in the late 1960’s, advocating a self-sufficient lifestyle that involved growing organic vegetables and living in houses built with local materials, which in their native New England meant fieldstone. Their book was part how to build a stone house, part how to raise an organic garden, and part how to live intentionally within a community. For a baby boomer depressed by the war in Vietnam and trying to “find himself,” what they preached was intoxicating. And what they taught about how to build with stone, though labor intensive, seemed straight forward enough.

Although the rock ledge meant we would not have a full basement, it also meant that there would be no need for an enormous footing to support the foundation and house walls. The solid rock ledge was stronger than the stoutest constructed footing, and thus we decided to build fourteen inch thick foundation walls directly on the ledge. And so, ever so slowly, over the summer of 1976, with the use of slip forms, the walls were laid up one stone and one shovelful of concrete at a time – over two hundred linear feet, average height about five feet. It was the hardest physical work I have ever done, yet it was never drudgery. Watching piles of sand and gravel and stones slowly transformed into perfectly formed walls was magical. It would be yet another summer before the stone walls of the house would rise up another eight feet from the foundation walls. Massive stone walls for a house literally built on a rock. To have put up a house of this weight on anything less would have been folly. The old-timers were well aware of this practice, and many early Maine farmhouses, whose lines are true to this day, were constructed on gigantic granite blocks. Houses built on less can shift and crack when the underlying soil conditions are affected by heavy rains and repeated freeze/thaw cycles.

The principle of building on a good foundation is obvious even to those with no building experience. The picture of a house built on rock has a feeling of permanence that few other images can evoke. No doubt this is why Jesus uses it as a metaphor in concluding his Sermon on the Mount. “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.” (Matthew 7:24-27)

To understand the metaphor, it is helpful to remember that in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus is teaching about life in the kingdom of God and inviting us into that life. It is a life that is pleasing to God and therefore the only really good life of human existence. This is a life of self-sacrifice with abundant spiritual and physical benefits. Jesus promises blessings for the humble and those who pursue its defining qualities of holiness, mercy, purity, and peacemaking. He pronounces judgment on the angry, lustful, dishonest, critical, and hypocritical. He proclaims the virtues of generosity, prayer, and compassion. And through it all, he teaches about the nature of a kingdom heart – a heart that is unworried and confident of the future even as it is filled with love for others. This is Jesus’ vision of the good life – a decent human existence that is radically different than the norm of his time, and indeed, that is radically different than the cultural norm of our modern world.

When building the house in the 1970’s, I was not thinking about the Sermon on the Mount, I did not know Jesus, nor did I have any interest in matters spiritual. I was following a dream – a dream of living a “good life” – marked principally by a vision of self-sufficiency. To this day, I still appreciate many of the ideas advocated by the Nearings. Building one’s own house and living off the land in harmony with the natural environment still stir my emotions, even if it all seems more distant and remote than when I was in my 20s. What I failed to understand at the time was that happiness is not found in a house, or a garden, or even community. Not that these are bad things, just that without a spiritual foundation they are unable to deliver a good life because when the storms of life hit they collapse like a house built on sand. For what good is a house if it is not filled with love? What good is a garden if the soul is starving? What good is a community if it is not infused with grace? If we are to believe Jesus, the only “good life” is life in the kingdom of God, built on the rock of obedience to his teaching.

Eventually Pat and I left the homestead – the garden went fallow and the land and stone house sold. We had achieved much of what we had set out to do; yet, I had not experienced the contentment of a “good life.” Nearly thirty years later I took up and read another Book about living a good life. This one spoke of a King with an everlasting Kingdom who gives the assurance of a truly good life for all who trust and obey him. And so, in 2000, I accepted his offer. These days I find myself in a kind of building project once again. Not a stone house with fieldstones from the rocky soil of Maine, but an eternal house with “spiritual stones” having names like patience, kindness, purity, humility, etc. Some are small, and some I can barely lift. Like the first house, it is slow going, one stone at a time. Sometimes one of them slips and I have to rebuild part of the wall. But with Jesus as the cornerstone, the burden is light.

My prayer is that all who obey the Lord will one day experience the good life so beautifully described by the prophet Isaiah. “The Lord will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail. Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations; you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.” (Isaiah 58:11-12)