English scholar N.T. Wright uses a powerful example of how our lives fit into the big picture of what God is doing in the world: It is that of a stonemason working on a great cathedral. When these architectural wonders were built during medieval times, the construction process lasted for decades, even centuries. It would begin when an architect drew up schematics and then passed his instructions to a team of masons. One mason shapes stones for a particular tower; another carves gargoyles or statues of saints, martyrs, or royalty. Others labor in the quarry cutting roughhewn blocks. And all the while other entire departments are busy with their work too.
When the workers are finished with their projects, whatever they may be, those projects are handed over with little knowledge of how they all fit together, or how these pieces contribute to the final product. Since most of the workers will not live to see the building completed, they are forced to trust that the architect will make their work count. Wright concludes his example by saying that the “work we do in the present only gains its full significance somewhere in the future.” It is a future we may not live to see, so we must trust the Architect to fit our lives and our work into the cathedral he is building.
Nowhere is this illustration more apt than when it comes to our families. We carve the stones that are our children or grandchildren. We chip away at those strained relationships with our siblings or parents. And we sand and cut the stones that make our marriage. We don’t know what it is all going to look like in the end. But we do the work put before us, and we trust God to put the pieces together.
Certainly, we know the work of “family construction” that is put before us is hardly ever easy, even though we preacher-types don’t always acknowledge this fact. We are swift to give the impression that if your family is not constructed of a strong, spiritual bring-home-the-bacon father, a faithful, loving stay-at-home mother, and two and a half obedient, always compliant children, then your family isn’t “biblical” and your work is defective in some way. This is absolutely preposterous.
If ineptness at home were a disqualifier, no family would ever have a future, for every family is dysfunctional in one way or another; it is simply a matter of degree. This proves true especially with the “biblical” families found in the Scriptures. You will be hard pressed to find a family in the Bible – not even Jesus’ own family that once tried to hide him in a padded room – that is not seriously flawed. “Biblical” families, with all their murder, adultery, polygamy, sexism, violence, and envy are far less operational than most of our families, and I think that’s the point. If God can use them, if God’s goodness isn’t thwarted by them, if God can build his glorious cathedral with them, then he ought to be able to use, bless, and preserve our families as well.
So if this is your third marriage, well make this third one the charm, and keep working at it. If one of your children will not talk to you, talk to the ones who will, and keep chipping away. If your in-laws hate you, treat them with respect and just get your work done today. If you are constructing familial reconciliation and your efforts seem stymied, swing the hammer and chisel in your hand, and trust the Architect to make it all fit together – even if that work is completed long after you are gone.
When it comes to family, there is the way we “wish” things were, the way things “ought” to be, the way things “should” be, and then there is the way things really are. God and grace come to us there, not in the hypothetical, but in the actual. And his grace will be enough to beautifully construct what we cannot build on our own.