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.
Our dryer was in a thousand pieces scattered across the laundry room floor, and I had a huge lump on the back of my head the size of grapefruit. Yes, I am ashamed to report these two seemingly unconnected things were very much related. It all began a few days ago when our dryer began making noises that no appliance should ever make. It sounded like a coal train leaving the station, and laying down rails through the middle of our house. With a little investigation I discovered our faithful Kenmore had a bad drum wheel. It was a simple $10 repair if I did it myself, but it would be much more if I called a serviceperson.
Money, short as it is for everyone, I elected to fix the dryer myself – or at least attempt to fix it – and to do so posthaste, as there was no time to squander. Just a couple of days without the ability to wash and dry clothes, around our house with three growing boys, is nothing short of a disaster. A hazardous material team would have to come in to clean up the fallout.
So with dirty laundry and little boys’ underwear quickly piling to the rafters, I picked up the part, removed a couple of screws, and went to work. And you guessed it: Once the work began, it was much more than I had bargained for. In addition to a bad drum wheel, there was a rotting dryer belt, loose wires, and years of dust and debris had collected inside. Once opened, the dryer contained loose coins, lost socks, pencils, bouncy balls, and about ten pounds of candy wrappers – all of these chocking up the works.
To make matters worse, my skillful hands dropped a screwdriver down the hole that held the lint filter. Now, I had to disassemble the entire infernal machine to retrieve it, and in the process, yes, the top lid fell on my head knocking me nearly unconscious. So much for a simple $10 repair.
Through it all, and a hundred other such catastrophic home repairs over the years, my wonderful wife assisted me. Not at first, mind you. She usually lets me get into trouble before coming to my aid, a wise practice to avoid blame I think. But she always shows up when I need her most. The dryer was no exception. She handed me tools, held the flashlight, and turned the wrenches herself. She praised me when I succeeded and scolded me when I swore. And she was quick to provide band-aids, Advil, and icepacks when these were needed. That’s how love works.
See, life is filled with disastrous repair work. We start out and everything is so simple, so easy to solve, and so uncomplicated – no assistance required. And then we learn otherwise. There is dust, muck, the failure of good planning and good intentions, dirty laundry stacking to the roofline, and smacks on top of the head.
We end up sitting in the floor, more than a bit dazed, with curses and prayers mingled together on our lips, trying to put the pieces back together, cleaning up the messes of others and the messes we have made ourselves. Such is life, and it is a good thing – a very good thing – to live this life with those you love and those who love you.
Love empowers and enables us to do the hard and heavy lifting of life. Love helps turn the wrenches. Love sits with us in the clutter of living and lends a hand. Love comes bearing the gifts of bandages and pain-relief. Love bears all things, believes all things, and endures all things. Love never fails.
My wife is famous for saying, “Love doesn’t fix things.” And she is right. All the love in the world couldn’t put our dryer back together, or miraculously stitch up a busted noggin, or wipe the floor clean of years of dust and grime. But love can make these things much more bearable, because love doesn’t change “things,” love changes us.
There’s an old joke about a man who arrives at the gates of Heaven. St. Peter asks, “What is your denomination?” The man says, “Methodist.” St. Peter says, “Okay, go to Room 24, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” Another man arrives. Peter asks, “What is your denomination?” The man answers, “Catholic.” St. Peter says, “Very well, go to Room 18, but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” A third man arrives at the gates. A third time St. Peter asks, “What is your denomination?” The man says, “Baptist.”
“Go to Room 11,” St. Peter says, “but be very quiet as you pass Room 8.” The man said, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass Room 8?” St. Peter said, “Well, the Presbyterians are in Room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”
Of course, in any retelling of this joke, “Presbyterians” can be substituted for any group, because such exclusive, boundary-drawing mindsets are common. These attitudes are not funny, however. They are a severe detriment to God’s witness in the world.
A story from Jesus is apropos here. It is a story about a landowner who hired laborers to harvest grapes from his vineyard. Some employees worked all day, others labored for part of the day, and some arrived to work only at the last hour. In Jesus’ story, the landowner, inexplicably, pays those who were hired last (and worked the least), the same wage as those who were hired first and worked all day long.
No matter which way you cut it, this doesn’t seem very fair: Especially for those of us raised with the good old Protestant work ethic, with entrepreneurial capitalism passed along to us in our mother’s milk, and with a sense that “membership has its privileges,” membership we have duly earned. So imagine the scene as it plays out. The tired workers form a line at the end of the day to receive their wages. The landowner asks that those hired last be paid first, and he gives them all a full day’s wage. Those who were hired first see this and are thrilled: “Those who worked only an hour got a full day’s pay! Just imagine what we are going to get!”
So when the Director of Human Resources gets to them with their paycheck, it is for the same amount as those who worked only an hour! Everyone is treated equally. Quickly there is the threat of a labor riot or at least a lawsuit for unfair labor practices. The landowner gives this response, “I haven’t been unfair! Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?” It is a direct and accurate reply, for the angry workers were not enraged over injustice. They were angry because the landowner was generous and gracious to others that had not “earned” their way. The landowner gave grace – making the last first, and opening the door to all – and this is what infuriated the other workers.
With this story, Jesus has dug his fingers into a very sore spot for we who are religious people. We preach grace, but we don’t always practice it. We talk about God’s mercy, but we don’t always want the people who need it most to get in on it. We say we are in the redemption business, but we are not eager to open the doors to all would-be patrons. My friend Landon Saunders says it like this: “Figuring out who is in and who is out is just too much work. It’s too heavy of a burden! So I just try to treat every person I meet as if they will be sitting beside me at the table in eternity.”
Such a small change of perspective would do more to advance the kingdom of God on earth than a thousand aggrieved churches that pound their pulpits and point fingers, condemning and excluding others from the love of God and the gates of heaven.