In the eucharistic liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church, just before communicants receive the host they respond to the celebrant, who invites them to receive their Lord who will dwell in the temple of their bodies:
Priest: Behold the Lamb of God, behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.
People: Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.
The people’s response is drawn directly from the account of the centurion in Matthew and Luke who recognizes the healing power of Jesus that issues from a sheer act of grace and authority. His reply shows humility and great faith (or trust). “He knows in his knower,” as my grandma would say, that the Lord can bring healing to his servant and to his house. God’s healing presence can come under his roof (Matt. 8:5-13 and Luke 7:1-10).
This centurion’s reply reverberated in my mind two summers ago as my wife and I purchased a house. For six months our lives were full of shopping for mortgage rates, selecting the right Realtor, and settling in for the long haul of house-hunting in a market experiencing historic levels of growth and competition. When I told friends I was looking to buy in Nashville, the most common response was “Good luck.”
Buying a house appeals to basic human desires of independence, order, tranquility, family, status, and acceptance. When these desires are disordered, however, they can quickly be leveraged to justify extravagance, such that the prospective homebuyer ends up parking in the driveway of a house that can never truly be home, given that it now exists primarily as an immediate and protracted financial burden. The real estate road is littered with such homebuyers.
On the other hand, there are plenty for whom their vision of what a home might be is not too large, but far too small. My wife and I have friends and mentors who offered great advice, and through prayer and God’s grace, we’ve ended up with a house that we hope will be a cradle of healing and God’s presence, both in our ministry and our family.
Here is a manifesto on home-buying for Christians, driven largely by thoughts that surfaced and developed in the last few months. I am a novice in owning property, but I share this in hope of spurring others towards reflective and prayerful buying.
1. Consider how the space of the house affects the development of your children and family rhythms. Consider how the home will affect your family’s desires. Is the home built around a screen, around individuation, or around a subterranean existence? Is the home oriented around a front porch, an outside gathering space, or large windows offering cascading rays of illumination? Each has its place, and each forms the desires of our heart in different ways. In his book The Architecture of Happiness, Alain de Botton recounts how the architecture and setting of a McDonald’s affected his desires:
The setting served to render all kinds of ideas absurd: that human beings might sometimes be generous to one another without hope of reward; that relationships can on occasion be sincere; that life may be worth enduring … The restaurant’s true talent lay in the generation of anxiety. The harsh lighting, the intermittent sounds of frozen fries being sunk into vats of oil and the frenzied behavior of the counter staff invited thoughts of the loneliness and meaninglessness of existence in a random and violent universe. The only solution was to continue to eat in an attempt to compensate for the discomfort brought on by the location in which one was doing so. (p. 108)
De Botton rightly supposes that humans are different people in different places. One must consider the affect the architecture of any potential house will have on the formation of virtues and vices.
2. Consider that you need less (for yourself). Having less room to fill might keep you from buying more superfluous goods. My having the time to write this post reflects the incredible luxury many have in comparison with countless others throughout human history (and throughout the world today). Will your potential house cause you to dive headfirst into the waters of consumerism? Will it contribute to the displacement of others (Christians need to think long and hard about the affordable housing crisis in many of our cities)?
3. Consider that you need more (for others), such as common spaces, screen-free rooms, natural lighting, trees. Read Making Room by Christine Pohl and ask whether the purchase of this house will help or hinder you being grounded in the lost virtue of hospitality. Will the potential house be a source of healing and growth — for your family, for the land, and the hummingbird? If so, make an offer, and then buy a bird feeder. Keep bees. Keep chickens. Keep a bottle of wine ready for when the stranger appears at your front door. Consider that welcoming the stranger is a primary function of the Christian home (from coffee to afternoon tea, to overnight guests, to crises). You never know who might show up (Heb. 13:2).
4. Maintain an honest assessment of your capabilities, skills, and budget, lest you buy a home beyond your financial reach or one requiring renovations beyond what you’re prepared to take on. Chip and Joanna Gaines of HGTV’s Fixer Upper may be fun to watch, but in house-hunting you must be honest about the margin you have to take on a project. Do not get in over your head. Learning how to count the cost is a vital skill in the kingdom of God, but as Jesus reminds us, planning, building, and completing are all oriented toward the telos of discipleship, which includes the willingness to give it all up to carry your cross elsewhere (Luke 14:25-33).
5. You do not need the best of everything. On the other hand, cheaper isn’t always cheaper. Make a smart investment and buy a house that shows craftsmanship and care from the previous owners or the builder. Do not reward poor aesthetics and cheap labor and materials. If you live in Texas, consider using TreeHouse to upgrade your home.
6. Once you buy your house, invest in a good knife set for your kitchen and cook often and for others. Read The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon.
7. Be fine with inviting people into your unfinished home, for this is the human condition writ large. When people see your unfinished brickwork, or basement, or your 1950s pink-tiled bathroom, they may just realize that you are not finished either. We need to be reminded of this often for true humility and vulnerability to manifest. The home must be a place where people can be vulnerable, for the home is an irreplaceable training ground for life.
8. Keep a tidy home. It is not the case that your house must be spotless or that you need to bring out the fine china and silver for every guest. But having a home that is aesthetically pleasing and uncluttered can create a haven for relationships and life to flourish. A house that feels like a museum will rarely feel like a home, and the same can be said for a house of disorder and neglect.
9. A beautiful home cannot make up for a broken soul; a serene house does not equal a serene disposition. Saints have lived in settings ravaged visibly by sin, and the worst of sinners have lodged in pristine abodes. De Botton reminds us:
[W]hatever the theoretical affinities between beauty and goodness, it is undeniable that, in practice, farmhouses and lodges, mansions and riverside apartments have played host to innumerous tyrants and murderers, sadists and snobs, to characters with a chilling indifference to the disjunctives between the qualities manifested in their surroundings and in their lives. … Architecture may well possess moral messages; it simply has no power to enforce them. It offers suggestions instead of making laws. It invites, rather than orders, us to emulate its spirit and cannot prevent its own abuse. We should be kind enough not to blame buildings for our own failure to honor the advice they can only ever subtly proffer. (p. 20)
10. Buy a good house, and upon buying, make a renewed commitment for your home to be a cradle for encountering God. Pray the Offices, read Scripture daily, have a house blessing, and plant a crape myrtle. We are not worthy that God should come under our roof, but it is his joy to do so.