November 14, 2007

Unless the Lord

It is quite an experience to walk up on Saturday morning to a grassless lot with only a bare foundation standing on it, only to return Sunday afternoon to discover a finished home—fully landscaped and ready for carpet, paint, and trim. Amazing!

Yet this sort of weekend-transformation goes on all the time around the country, wherever local Habitat for Humanity affiliates undertake what is affectionately known in the ministry as "Blitz Builds." Altavista's Habitat affiliate undertook its first Blitz Build this past weekend, partnering with a family in need of sustainable housing to construct a new home with them in only 48 hours. We did it! (Take a moment to check out our pictures here.)

As a Habitat board member representing our church (together with Doug Hecht and Bob Steele), needless to say I had home-building on my mind all weekend. I kept thinking about Psalm 127, which begins:

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the Lord guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain.

For me, there has always been an indelible mystery tied up in how it is God promises to work through our efforts to bless the world. The psalmist does not explain how it is God does this, only that is so. I wonder if we often assume too great a dichotomy between our works and God's, as if one either struggles anxiously (trusting in oneself) or relaxes nonchalantly (turning over everything to the Lord). "Let go and let God" was a popular Christian bumper sticker a generation ago, but I'm not certain the Psalmist would agree.

"There is building to be done by you," I hear Psalm 127 saying. That much is true. "Get busy with your life. But know this: Unless the Lord builds with you, through you, in you, don't expect much in the way of serious return."

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives sleep to his beloved.

Rather than the endless "grace vs. works" debates of the Protestant Reformation, it may be time for us to reconsider how it is that graced people work—not to earn our salvation, but in glad response to it. After all, God's grace is not a free pass from life's labors. Salvation does not change the quantity of our labors so much as it transforms their quality. Rather than laboring in "anxious toil," we labor in love. Perhaps our bumper stickers could read: "Let God work through you."

My beloved … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure. - Philippians 2:12-13

And right there is where a ministry like Habitat for Humanity serves as a beautiful metaphor for the Christian life. Building a house requires diligent labor. Christian goodwill and good intentions are not enough. There is real work to be done. Yet all weekend long at the Blitz Build I noticed a certain joy in the air, an unspoken sense that this project was somehow greater than the sum of its parts. Everyone seemed to intuit that there was a generous grace at work all around; without the Lord's blessing, this house would not turn into a home. Without Jesus' second commandment ringing in our ears, this would have been just another vacant lot under development. Grace makes all the difference.

And so it is for us, I think, whatever our "building" may be—home, marriage, family, vocation, church, or community. God will not normally do for us what we can do for ourselves, yet what we do in this life will mean little if God's grace is not somehow woven deep into the effort. This is an indelible mystery that is difficult to explain, but so easy to experience.

Sisters and brothers, I invite you to dedicate all your labors—great and small, public and private—to the glory of Father, in the manner of the Son, and for the blessing of others.

After all , those who build for the Lord never build in vain.