Dust hung in the air. My skin was rough from living in this house for so long. The taste thick at the back of my mouth, though I was getting used to it. Somehow that was the scary bit.
It was brick dust, the one with the thicker, grittier texture and almost biscuity taste: dry and distinctive. I’ve got to know the different kinds of dust since living here. Brick dust is different to plaster dust which is different to sawdust. They look different, each kind with its own colour and texture and size, that’s the obvious bit. They taste different too, and they smell different. You can walk into a room and identify the kind of dust with your eyes closed, and how wet it is too. These are skills I never expected to develop.
We’ve spent the last 20 months renovating our home. It was intended to be a large project, the house is around a hundred years old and hadn’t had anything done to it for at least the last third of a century. It was going to need plenty of work: new heating, new wiring, new kitchen, some re-plastering. We were on a tight budget so were going to do a fair bit ourselves. I’ve seen enough Grand Designs to know that projects spiral in size, and done enough DIY to know that when estimating time you double your number and change the units. A two hour job takes four days. Of course, that wouldn’t happen this time! Of course it became bigger than we thought. People are small, we’re bad at estimating scale. I think if we weren’t we would never start anything.
No one told me about the dust.
I could have told you before that when we make things we are to some limited degree acting like God. Perhaps that there’s a Hebrew word for ‘making’ which both us and God do, and another for ‘creating’ which only God does. That we somehow get to both join in with his activity and to extend it. That when we engage in Tolkien’s idea of ‘sub-creation’, especially in the telling of stories—because God creates with words—we experience a little of what it is like to be God.
I think that’s all true. Profoundly true. But until your skin is cracking from the repressive dust, until your hands are spasming from long days of tool use, until you’ve broken something down to its parts and remade it in your own image, I don’t think you know. I didn’t.
There’s a feeling that comes with long difficult work that ends in forming something that you made. It’s hard to find the right words for it, but the nearest I can think of is transcendence. That incredible effort can be turned into something new, that speaks of you as its maker and bears your stamp on its every surface. That blood, sweat, and tears can be poured into a place until you have a form. As I write it is yet unfinished, but the shell is taking on warmth and life. Bricks are becoming a dwelling.
I tore out a stud wall upstairs to move our bathroom and toilet into the same room. The beams were full of woodworm. Wonderful, don’t fill the bath, you’ll fall straight through the floor. Thankfully we couldn’t make that much hot water anyway.
Wind forward a few months, those beams are being carefully replaced and every bit of exposed timber has been slathered with chemicals to kill any woodworm we hadn’t cut away. We’re taking up the floor in what will be the kitchen, and it’s surprisingly bouncy. You can see it coming but we couldn’t. It looks like the joists in the corner are rotten. Strip up the floorboards and get a look at it. The joists are full of woodworm, it all needs to go.
This room was our dining room, it has a piano sat in it. We regularly hosted ten or more hungry students before renovations reached that part of the house. You can crumble the joists in your hands, the builder shows me, crumbling them away. There’s a four-foot void under our house. How didn’t we all fall through? We have no explanations, maybe angels held us up.
It isn’t the only time they’ve saved us in this house, let’s not talk about the time it nearly burned down.
When the joists were stripped out and we stood on the earth below where our floor should be, it was a long way to the high ceilings in our 1920s art deco house. We felt small.
We are small. I’m a strapping 6’3” man whose writer’s fingers have turned calloused from hard labours. I don’t feel small very often. It’s good for me to remember.
I felt small trying to wrestle this house that kept fighting back. Taking the bare bones of timbers and bricks, stripping back the plaster to find chaos reigned, and slowly, methodically trying to bring it into a semblance of order.
This is how my making is unlike his making. The Lord took watery chaos and spoke. No wrestling. No fighting. No victory over the dragon Tiamat and making the order from her oceanic corpse. He spoke. The chaos quickly got itself in line.
His labours, all six days of them, were careful and thoughtful and spoken into existence. Mine are bloody and sweaty and exhausting. Now he rests, active in his restful completion. I’m still learning how to do that.
We will be until the new week, the new age, the new earth fully arrives. It began shortly after five in the morning on the fifth of April 33AD just outside the walls of Jerusalem when a mid-thirties carpenter walked out of a tomb bearing the scars of his ordeal and never worked again. When we walk through death’s door into that bright new day we will rest.
We rearrange mud into new things. He spoke mud into being. That’s why Tolkien’s description of story-telling and myth-making as ‘sub-creation’ really works for all human making—we are made of stories, after all. We make out of what is created. We take all the raw ingredients he’s left us and transform them through effort and ingenuity into things: suspension bridges, chairs, aeroplanes, and brownies.
We can’t make something from nothing, we can’t create. But it feels like it. When I slap board onto my shabby bricks and my wife skims it with gypsum whipped to a batter, it feels like making something from nothing. Before there were walls, now there is a room. Before there was a hovel, now there’s a home. It’s the closest we can come I think to sharing in our Lord’s labours, to do something where we make a thing and it feels like you turned chaos into order.
It is our task.
We are made of dust, we’re the only thing we’re told that God makes out of something else. We are more of this planet than everything else we see on it. We’re literally made of it.
When I read that I’m made of dust, I picture fresh life-giving soil. What would change if I pictured the dust that eddies around my bare rooms? Perhaps I am less than I thought I was. Or, if I have an accurate vision of myself, perhaps God is more than I thought he was.
As ever, I’m sure it’s both.
This is hardly the most earth-shaking theological insight; it is the stuff of a thousand evangelical sermons. God is bigger than we think he is. We are smaller than we think we are, at least in comparison to his magnitude. These are truisms.
Yet, I think they are clichés that when ignited in a flash of grace lift our eyes and change the orientation of our lives.
I wonder if you’ve seen a bare wall with the plaster stripped off? And not a new wall with bright red bricks and neat pointing, an old wall with smeared mortar, loose bricks, and cracks that you’re trying to figure out if you should be worried about. Until you know what you’re looking at it all looks like a problem, it all looks like a stiff breeze (or wandering wolf) would blow it over. I have a better idea what problems look like now. Honestly it’s amazing anything stands up.
My life is more like my house than I would have hoped. Covered over with smooth plaster and bright paint. Fake like a moulded Instagram account, curated to look perfect, unsound underneath.
Except, that’s not the lesson. Broken and shattered bricks are held together by the strength of those around them. That’s the lesson. Plaster to cover scars isn’t hiding away, though it can take an experienced eye to know the difference. We’re all broken, we’re all dust, and some of the problems need swift action, but many of them are well supported by the bricks around them. We are living stones—lifted from the earth—we’re told (1 Peter 3), each supporting the next in the Temple of God. Boarding and plastering our bricks wasn’t hiding them, it was fixing them. Sometimes a clean covering over scars isn’t a mask, it’s a new beginning. You do have to strip the old one off to find out though.
My house isn’t unsound, not anymore. The woodworm ridden beams have been torn out, the wiring and pipes replaced, the plaster stripped off and redone. Enormous steels and concrete lintels have been fitted where required to support new rooms. I sit typing in my dining room, which a year ago was a mud-ridden bog in our back garden that we affectionately referred to as the Somme. It is incomplete, but whole. Like me.
The smoothness that covers the broken bricks is not a false façade but a finished house. A builder needs to build. When the creator builds and shapes and changes creatures, he makes them new with his words from what he finds there in the start. It is not a façade to be made new carrying wounds, it’s what encountering the Author does for us. His new body carries wounds too, the promise that one day ours will not.
It’s slow, it’s often painful, and sometimes your cornice falls off the wall because you don’t know what you’re doing. You have to cry for a few days, but you learn how to reattach it. You demolish what is old to rebuild, preserving the original features that are savable.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.Psalm 103:13–14
He shows us compassion because he knows our frame and remembers that we are dust. The Lord doesn’t expect much of you and I, dear friend. We are dust. He only expects that he, the potter, will take that dust, whip it with the water of the Spirit until he’s formed a clay that’s good to work with and throw a pot. He’s a very good potter: he turns dust into beauty.
Will there be dust in the new creation? The ubiquitous by-product of making? Perhaps. But since I am and will remain dust, transfigured, there will be dust forever.
Did you know you are made of mud? Surprised you’re nought but flesh and blood? At the end we are human dust; And have no option but our trust. The God of gifts comes like a flood; Newness of life begins to bud. May our self-centred sin combust, We follow the king who is just.