From the Pulpit: Chalk lines and plumb lines

“The Lord was standing beside a wall ... with a plumb line in his hand,” Amos 8:7.

“So the law was our pedagogue until Christ came,” Galatians 3:24.

Talking to a veteran carpenter and fairly new American are the bases for my invitation to you this Saturday.

Starting with the new American: She is a Chinese woman in her early 20s. She came to America in time to start high school; she graduated from a prestigious college in New York. Almost no trace of any accent after only eight years in America.

Someone had given her a note written in English. Cursive, actually. She asked me to read it to her because, “I can’t read cursive. I understand English when it is straight up and down.”

While I know some fonts are more readable to me, it had never occurred to me that someone would learn to read English, yet could only read English in a non-cursive font. This new awareness made me realize that I cannot read Hebrew in some of the modern fonts. I realized that if someone were to have asked her, “Can you read English?” her answer, in all truthfulness, could have been either, “Yes, and No,” or “It depends.”

She knew the word “cursive.” How to pronounce it, how to spell it, but she didn’t know how to write in it or read it. Someone recently said, “No one writes in cursive anymore.”

Oh to have had a crystal ball back when my teacher gave me poor marks for penmanship! I tried using the Blue Horse lined paper. I believe my parents even bought me some special paper that faintly showed the proper way to form the cursive letters, with arrows showing the looping sequence.

Golfers talk about muscle memory; gym teachers talk about hand-to-eye coordination. In theory, with the Primary Tablet, one follows the guidelines and, in time, one has beautiful writing that anyone can read. (Or anyone who reads cursive, I now know.) I will come back to this thought.

We have had some exciting carpentry work taking place in our sanctuary. The key idea is to make the choir loft more “user-friendly.” Some demo has been done and some additional framing has been constructed. I asked the carpenter about a mysterious red chalk line on the subflooring. It didn’t seem to be in keeping with what we were trying to do; anything built upon it would be less than useful. The carpenter said, “That’s the original chalk line. You can’t get rid of those. It will always be there.”

I sought clarity. “This clear straight line on the sub-floor is just an old remnant from the past and not a basis for what we are trying to build now, right?” Right.

I thought about a carpenter’s chalk line. I thought about the wood and wire gizmo our teacher Cleo Cope used to hold multiple pieces of chalk to create lines on the black board upon which we were called forward to, publicly, show our mastery (or lack thereof) of cursive writing. (Girls did so much better.) I thought about our music teacher who had a similar device to lay out a musical staff upon which notes could be drawn.

I thought about Amos’ plumb line -- God’s standard for what’s right and true.

Paul, in writing to explain his change of mind about the law, reached back to his own school boy days. A student would have a tutor, a writing coach. The tutor would faintly write the letters and then the student would write over them in his or her own hand. It would be equivalent of our writing it all out in pencil and then writing it out in pen, over the template.

Paul encouraged his readers to see the law as the precisely penciled pattern awaiting the ink of Jesus the Christ. He uses the word “pedagogue” to describe the role of the law; it was a tutor. In a broader sense, a child learns to trace over what his mother and her father have set as a pattern. This is true in handwriting and in how we see much of life -- including race.

I go back to our good carpenter. Those old lines don’t go away, but a new vision can emerge. We don’t have to build on the old lines. And, let’s be honest, the old lines can confuse us and make us second guess. Before you cut the lumber, make sure you are using the new standard.

This remnant chalk line served a purpose at one time. Something was built upon it that worked for a while. Some who signed off on the original design thought that it would stand the test of time, but needs changed and it was time for a new chalk line.

Amos came to see that what looks plumb by our standards, in our sight, may not be right by God.

We are in a special time. It feels like unneeded demolition to some, progress to others, and just plain old change to yet others.

Two questions emerge for me: What would happen if we became aware that some people can’t understand some things that are so clear for us? (Our thoughts might be is cursive to them.) What would happen if we each asked, with genuine humility, this question, “How can I build upon God’s plan, God’s lines, rather than those engrained patterns that seem right or look right to me?”

Jarred Hammet is the pastor of Macon’s Northminster Presbyterian Church.