Foundations Matter

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The White House is arguably the world’s most famous private residence.

Who knew that it could also qualify as the ultimate Fixer Upper? 

From its earliest days, America’s presidential mansion has seen its share of setbacks.   

In 1814, an invading British army set it ablaze.  First Lady Dolly Madison, keeping her wits about her, saved a number of priceless artifacts.  With a sharp knife she sliced the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington (the one that still graces our one-dollar bill) right out of its heavy frame.  Because of a drenching thunderstorm, the exterior of the building was left standing.  Despite calls to tear it down and start over, Congress approved enough money to rebuild.   

By the time Abraham Lincoln and his family moved to Washington in 1861, the White House was a shambling wreck.  Three years later the commissioner for buildings declared it unfit for human occupation.  The Lincolns stayed anyways. 

In 1867, official plans were set in motion to build a spectacular presidential palace on hundreds of wooded acres just outside the city.  Architects dreamed of creating something that would rival Versailles.  But as historian Rick Beyer points out, President Grant and his wife Julia actually liked the clunky old place.  They appreciated its proximity to the D.C. action.  The Country Manor version of the White House never came to be. 

Before becoming president in 1881, Chester A. Arthur had lived in a beautiful New York mansion.  He was horrified by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

“I will not live in a house like this,” he declared.  The Senate approved plans to tear it down and build a replica on the spot, but the House of Representatives blocked the funding.  Some things in Washington are predictably changeless. 

By 1947, the White House was literally on the verge on collapse.  Experts discovered that the foundation was sinking into the swampy soil on which the nation’s capital had been built. 

Harry and Bess Truman noticed that sometimes the upstairs level seemed to sway.  The president was warned not to sleep in the primary bedroom or use the adjoining bath.  When a piano fell through the second floor and crashed into the dining room below, the Trumans wisely decided it might be time to move out for a while.  Renovators preserved the famous exterior façade.  The interior, however, was completely gutted and rebuilt, as shown in the picture above. 

In the 21st century, the White House is at last considered a safe place to sleep, raise a family, and make decisions with world-changing implications.    

Two millennia ago, Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son, made some important observations about home construction. 

Foundations matter. 

According to Jesus at the end of his Sermon on the Mount, building a life is like building a house.  All of us are building a life.  That’s not negotiable.  Storms and floods will one day beat against our lives.  Major turbulence will test the integrity of what we have built.  That’s not negotiable, either. 

But there is one variable factor: Are we building our lives on quicksand or on bedrock?    

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”  (Matthew 7:24-27)

On this Presidents Day, it’s a relief to know that the White House is finally standing on solid ground.  All of us are called to pray for whomever happens to reside there.

Likewise, every glimpse of the executive mansion can become a reminder:  

Is our own house in order? 

Are we currently building our lives on the promises and commands of the only One who can keep us secure through every storm?