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A Yardstick of the Soul A Yardstick of the Soul
    by Philip Gulley

    In the summer of my twelfth year, a new family moved into our neighborhood. They were from Chicago, which made them a novelty in my town. Had they been Unitarians, it wouldn’t have caused the stir being from Chicago did. To return to school the day after Labor Day and write in your what-I-did-on-my-summer vacation essay that you had visited Chicago automatically propelled you into the ranks of the worldly. Smoking cigarettes on the playground paled by comparison.

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    They moved into the old Sweeney house which we thought beyond redemption — thereby confirming our suspicions that people from the city, while sophisticated in some ways, were in other ways woefully unenlightened. The Sweeney house, to put it kindly, was the quintessential “before” picture. Its chief role was to make the rest of us content with our lot, and it served that purpose wonderfully. A man down on his luck could wander by the Sweeney house and come away feeling blessed beyond measure.

    The only thing the Sweeney house had going for it was a strong foundation, which is not to be discounted, though in this case it was not enough. After all, what rests on a foundation is every bit as critical as the base itself. What rested on the Sweeney foundation were boards spongy-soft with rot. It was like pulling on five-dollar pants over hundred-dollar shoes.

    What the Chicago family had hoped for was mere cosmetic change, a facelift for an old and sagging lady, but it was not to be. Halfway into the summer they realized that surgery of a more invasive nature was needed. I remember that day well. It was the Fourth of July neighborhood cookout. The men collected around the grill, talking home maintenance, while we boys listened from the fringes. The Chicago man said he was going to start over at the foundation. The other men nodded their sympathy, though I sensed in them a smug pleasure that their assessment of the Sweeney home had been confirmed.

Tearing a house down is infinitely sadder than building it.
    Tearing a house down is infinitely sadder than building it. When the house my wife and I lived in during the first years of our marriage was torn down, we stood outside watching. The pain was surprising in its severity. We had hoped someday to drive the children by and point out where Mommy and Daddy had lived years before, where the star from our first Christmas tree had scratched the ceiling, where we had refinished the rocking chair we’d used to lull them to sleep. Now there was nothing to show.

    The day the Sweeney house came down, we gathered to observe. Even the Sweeneys came by. The demise of this neighborhood eyesore was so pleasant for us that we scarcely noticed the grim set to their faces. Twenty-five years later I remember it and wonder what memories that house held for them. What is junk to one is priceless to another.

    Still, even in dying, a hint of promise can be found — a sensing that death, in its cold way, is simply a stepping aside so new life might have its turn. In this manner new life came to the Sweeney house as fresh, white lumber rose up from the hundred-year-old foundation. I watched it ascend board by clean board. The man from Chicago would stop every couple of hours to drink a Coke, and we would talk of carpentry—mostly about framing a house and how it was imperative that everything be plumb-straight lest wind and time reduce the house to rubble.

    I drive by that house today and admire its clean lines. Though it is not an altogether attractive house, it is strong and crisp and thus has my respect. It reminds me that we are not called to be pretty, but to be fruitful and faithful and true. Besides, time has a way of conferring beauty, which is why a simple Shaker meetinghouse still moves us after two hundred years.

    As with houses, some lives are more true and commendable than others. We have an odd way of showing this in our culture — showering athletes with acclaim and fortune while paying social workers a relatively meager subsistence. What is needed is a unit of measure which more accurately reflects one’s constitution and contribution — a yardstick of the soul, so to speak. In the fruit of the Spirit such a yardstick is found.

    On the wall of my workshop, my children’s growth is carefully recorded. Once a year they stand in stocking feet, a line is drawn on the wall marking their height, and the date is recorded. (Whenever I get a job offer, I ask myself if the new job merits leaving that wall behind.) My parents have a similar wall in their home. A look at it indicates that my height leveled out years ago. Now another way to measure my development has taken its place — my growth in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). Some days I measure up; some days I don’t. Still, stretching ourselves against this wall of spiritual fruit and taking our measure is an important exercise and one we ought to continue.

    The purpose of such a measuring is not to provoke guilt, but rather to remind us of those treasures which never lose their value.

    While you read this story, and the other stories here at Heartlight or in one of my books, I ask you to remember that a once-beautiful home was laid waste by neglect and inattention and that a man from Chicago labored to make it useful and true once more. And I ask you to celebrate the Christ who can cause the most barren life to yield sweet fruit. I pray such a life for you.

From the book Home Town Tales: Recollections of Peace, Love, and Joy by Philip Gulley. © 1999 by Multnomah Pub., used by permission. Also available on audio cassette!

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A full archive of past articles by Philip Gulley is maintained. Access recent articles like Cyrus and Doral, Sally and the Pythagorean Theorem, and dozens more.
See Also...
Related Heartlight Resources:
Our Kindness Quotient
Love Perseveres
Gallery: Psalm 127:1
Gallery: 1 Peter 2:5
Related External Pages:
Home Town Tales

About the Author...
Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor who ministers in Indianapolis. He is married and has two preschool sons. In addition to pastoring and writing, Gulley enjoys spending Sunday afternoons in his hometown.

Title: "A Yardstick of the Soul"
Author: Philip Gulley
Publication Date: February 24, 2000



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HEARTLIGHT® Magazine is a ministry of loving Christians and the Westover Hills Church of Christ. Edited by Phil Ware and Paul Lee.
From the book Home Town Tales: Recollections of Peace, Love, and Joy, by Philip Gulley. © 1999 by Multnomah Pub., Used by permission.
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