Hellooo, Jerry: How the Law Works

I spent a good amount of some this summer working on an unexpected chore. In February, the Building Inspector assessed the building I manage with 8 pages of building code violations.

Ugh.  His name was Jerry – from there on I referred to him as, Hellooo, Jerry.

The owner and I and my roommate weren’t really wild about this at first – but push came to shove and the list had to be addressed. Something had to give – and it wouldn’t be the inspector. And he announced his revisit would be in August.

My home is an old building, with old building problems, but in order to save some money for the owner I told him I would try my hand at the repairs. One I just couldn’t do – I didn’t want to try my hand at replastering the ceiling. But the rest seemed managable for a moderate home repair person. I’m a beginner, but I figured with some time I could probably learn most of what needed to be done.

Some of them were as simple as turning a screw driver. Some were kinda fun, like when I had to replace some windows by busting out the old ones.

I pretended I was breaking and entering.

Then some were a little more complicated. Like learning more about home electricity. Yes, I did shock myself a couple of times. 120 volts running through my body kinda tickled…

Electricity is really interesting. We take it for granted, but learning the basics of a home wiring system gives a new appreciation for how everything in your home gets power. Grounding wire, GFCI receptacles, hot wires, circuit breakers – all combine to produce one of two results: pass or fail.

So when Jerry would come by, and tested all of those receptacles and outlets I replaced, there was one of two responses: pass or fail. There was no middle ground.

It reminded me of my days when I would work on my engineering problems at IIT – first I’d look at the problem, look at the example given in the text, try the problem set. Then I’d see if I got the answer right by looking in the back of the book.

Typically, I didn’t get it on the first try. Back to square one.

So then I’d labor through some person’s attempt to write an engineering textbook, get frustrated on how poorly and boringly it was written, look at the example again, and then retry the problem. I’d check the answer again in the back of the book, again.

Repeat this loop until success, then recopy onto a nice sheet of graph paper with pretty lettering and simple sketches that look, oddly enough, like the example problems.

(Maybe that’s why engineering textbooks were so poorly written…the intent was to observe carefully for real, pertinent information and learn to sift through vague instructions, fluff, poor teaching, superfluous information, and a lack of direction. In retrospect, it was great training for the real world – I get lots of superfluous information every day that I have to sift through to determine what really matters.)

One class I had in concrete design, the professor put his books on the table the first day of class and simply said,

“If you don’t do your job right, people die.”

Kinda intense, huh?  Yeah, but it was worth intensity.  Sid Guralnick then proceeded to talk about American engineers who had their license revoked for substandard design and building failures.

Needless to say, he had everyone’s attention.  I never fell asleep in that class.  I respected his teaching more than anyone because he wanted everyone to know that what we did mattered. In the end, you knew if you were right or wrong, and it wasn’t very subjective. Either the problem was right, or it was wrong. Partial credit was good for the classroom, but if you didn’t design a column properly, a building could collapse.

A partial building collapse is still a collapse.

When I got back a grade on a problem set, it was clear to see where I had gotten things right and wrong. When Jerry would come for inspection of my home, things were either up to code, or they weren’t. It was that clear.

But in my world now, such clarity is a dream. When I watch football or baseball, as I did today, it’s so nice to instantly know the outcome of a play or a pitch. We don’t leave a sporting event at the end of the game wondering, “gosh, I wonder who won?” It’s all nice and clear.  At the end of the game, we know who won, who lost, who performed well, who failed, and the talking-heads can generate more words regarding all of those things than I could think in 10 years.

This week I took a huge risk in speaking at our first large group on…Leviticus.  Lots of things die in Leviticus – animals, plants, and one-year Bible journeys.  Because most people wonder what the heck is going on with all of those sacrifices and rituals.

And it typically makes us all scratch our heads and we move on to something nicer.

But it’s in these rituals, these symbols, that God chooses to give physical manifestations of spiritual realities.  The Old Testament Law works in lots of ways – many Christians choose to ignore understanding it because they say, “Well, I’m under grace, not the law.”

That’s true in part, but not in full.  Any study of the law ultimately points to grace – that something else takes the punishment of our sins.  We’re given a way out – that something else takes away our sin.  The law was a shadow of the things to come – a present physical manifestation of a future spiritual reality.  But the law is great for teaching real lessons – that our sin is costly, our sin matters, and it is messy, and something outside of ourselves has to make it right.

The law points out our need for grace; it’s the great teacher that shows how we fall short, how we need something else, how we are unable on our own.  Disregarding Leviticus only makes us ignorant of the depth to which God tries to teach his people with real, everyday things.

Inspector Jerry reminded me that left to ourselves, we’d easily fall short of the standards required for what is right and good.  So it is also true with the law of God – that we do fall short of those standards, but realize what is needed to make those standards is outside of ourselves and found in Jesus.

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September 2008

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