Bringing Down the House

I got a note from Mrs. Spyker yesterday.  She noticed that I would be having a birthday soon and sent me her best wishes, along with some news about how her family was doing.  I haven’t seen her for forty-five years.  It’s great that we’ve been able to renew our very old friendship, but her note brought an old memory to mind; not a very enjoyable one, but it was one which had some part in shaping who I am.

The Spykers (pronounced “speaker”) are missionaries in Mexico even still, although at one time, Mr. Spyker was also a building contractor.  The family took a break from ministry for a few years about the same time we were getting settled in the home in which I spent most of my growing up years.  The incident I recalled recently, happened while they were building their house which was essentially next door to ours, although a narrow side street separated us.  The house was made completely of concrete block, including the inner walls.  It was a little unusual, but block buildings tended to be cooler than most homes constructed of other building materials and, being in a very warm climate in the days before air conditioning was common, it made sense.  Of course, it was impossible to keep a six-year old kid away from the construction site, with the cement mixer and power tools filling the air with attractive noises, and the structure rising up from the ground.  Where there had been an empty lot, a building was literally growing, since all the block walls had to be laid from the ground up at the same time.  It was not just one wall being put up at a time, as you would expect with a wood structure.  My intense curiosity was to have disastrous consequences.

On this particular day, all the walls had risen to about five feet tall, towering above my head.  I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I snuck in anyway, just to watch the block layers plying their craft.  They worked quickly, first slathering a layer of mortar on top of the last course which had been laid, taking the eight-inch blocks from their helpers who constantly kept them supplied, and setting them into place, tamping them down with the handle of their trowel.  They would level them up with the string which had been stretched from one end of the wall to the other, pausing to make sure of the level after each course was completed.  Every once in awhile, one of the block-layers would take a funny top-shaped steel device out of his pocket and holding the string it was attached to at the top of the wall, would let the “plumb-bob” dangle down to the floor, checking to be sure the walls were plumb and not leaning at all.  This is where my part came in.  As I watched the men, I had gradually leaned against a short stub wall behind me. In height, it was just as tall as the others, but it was only a short length of wall between interior doorways.  Because of this, it wasn’t connected to any other walls.  You can guess what happened in short order.  As I leaned, the wall began to tip.  I yelled; one of the men carrying blocks dropped his load and leapt behind the wall, pushing it back up into position.

It wasn’t immediately clear to me why the men were all so angry, but I knew I had done something terribly wrong, even though my intent hadn’t been malicious in any way.  Mr. Spyker was immediately in front of me, asking me, no…telling me in very clear language that I was not to enter the building zone again.  He did explain to me that if the wall had gone over into the next wall, they might have been rebuilding the whole house, since the domino effect was a definite possibility.  He finished up by saying, “You have to keep your eyes open if you’re in here; and, you have to know what you can lean on and what you can’t.”  Crying and ashamed, I headed for home and went straight upstairs to my bed and bawled.

Lessons learned?  Wow!  Where to begin?  To start with, this domino effect was a new idea to me.  To think that one little error at a single point in a huge house could cause a problem which might require a complete rebuilding of the whole project, was mind-boggling.  It was just an accident!  Was it really possible that a little boy of forty pounds, leaning against a wall of sturdy concrete blocks much heavier than he, could wreak such havoc?  In spite of my embarrassment, I was unbelievably relieved that the man had caught the wall.  I thought that would be the end of the incident…right?

Not quite.  It seems that the section of wall I had tipped that little bit, had to be completely removed and then rebuilt, block by block, from the concrete floor, all the way up to the level at which it had stood before.  As the wall tipped, it broke the mortar joint at the floor, changing the level of each course.  Obviously, it would no longer be plumb either, so down came the wall, right to the floor; a fate I thought had been avoided by the quick thinking of the fellow who caught it as it tottered there.  So, in spite of my relief, workers still had to spend precious time and energy rebuilding a wall that moments before had been perfect and solid.  All because of one little six-year old boy.

My mom was fond of maxims.  You know, “If it had been a snake, it would have bitten you”; “Don’t cut off your nose to spite your face”;  that kind of thing.  Her comment this time was, “Curiosity killed the cat.”  I wasn’t sure what it meant, but I didn’t think it fit.  I wasn’t hurt a bit, but I had caused all that damage for others to deal with.  What a burden for a small lad to carry.  I still remember the shame and the desire to find a hole to climb into.  But, like most things, I got over it within a few hours.  Hopefully, the lesson has lasted a little longer.

What are you leaning on?  Pretty solid, is it?  Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.  If your prop gives way, who else is going to be hurt?  It’s easy to think that our actions and decisions will affect only ourselves.  But, time and again, that proves to be a falsehood, because everything we do has a domino effect.  It might seem a little less severe than that; more like a ripple effect, but the end result is the same. Lives will be upset and turned upside down, needing to be put right.  All because we are putting our trust in something that isn’t solid, isn’t able to stand up to our weight.

Sometimes what seems to be solid ground is nothing more than shifting sand.   You might not expect the six-year old to know the difference, but we’ve got a little experience under our belts now.   The more I consider it, the more I realize that we’ve come to put our trust in stubs of walls, not able to hold us up; Money in the bank, Governments, homes, guns; the list goes on and on.  Maybe that’s what the Psalmist was thinking when he wrote, “Some trust in chariots, some in horses; but we trust in the Name of the Lord our God.”  Now there’s something solid on which to lean!

No more leaning against unfinished block walls for me!  Now if only the rest of the decisions in life were that easy to figure out.    

“When I was a child, I talked like a child; I thought like a child; I reasoned like a child.  When I became a man,  I put my childish ways behind me.” 
(I Corinthians 13:11)

“Lean on me when you’re not strong.
I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.”
(Bill Withers~American singer/songwriter)

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