I once approached my life and work as if I was building a house. Drive a nail here. Lay a block there. Smear a bit of paint in the corner. Cut out a window now and again. Figuratively, this is how I treated my life, and it is a solid, powerful image. It is also an image with plenty of biblical roots.
None other than Jesus himself said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Anyone who listens to my teaching and follows it is wise, like a person who builds a house on solid rock.” Of course those who ignore his teaching, Jesus said, are like those who build their lives on a sandy foundation with collapse all but imminent.
Paul stuck with the theme as well, and he spoke of the possibility that our lives can be soundly constructed from things that will last like bricks and mortar – gold, silver, and precious jewels he called them. Or, Paul says, we can foolishly build with the combustible and momentary materials of wood, hay, or straw.
It all reminds me of the story of the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf: Some things are built to last. Other things blow away about as quickly as they were created, in spite of our brave squeals and the hair of our chinny, chin, chins.
I haven’t given up on this building metaphor completely, but recently I did adopt a new narrative. It’s not about construction, but deconstruction. Last year I visited a housing project in San Salvador that is home to more than a thousand people. With homes, churches, markets, and a school, it is a safe and healthy neighborhood, thus far insulated from so much of the gang violence, extortion, and troubles of the city. It is no utopia, but it is a shining light within a very dangerous section of the city.
The land upon which this neighborhood sits was given to a group of US American volunteers by the city of San Salvador because the city had basically given up on it. It was nothing but a forsaken junkyard, filled with crushed cars, old buses, dilapidated construction equipment, and families: People were living in the junkyard because they had no place else to go.
Ultimately, these people were moved out, new homes were built, and the people moved back in. My favorite part of this venture, and my new narrative, involved a dump truck that was just too big and heavy to move. It sat in the middle of the jobsite untouched, until six eight-year-old boys attacked it.
Every day these little boys, none past third grade, would come to the site with their hacksaw blades, pieces of t-shirts wrapped around the edges for handles, and they would saw away. Then they would take whatever they cut off and sell it for a few pennies at a time on the street, helping to meagerly support their families.
This went on day after day, week after week, and month after month until one day, almost like magic, this huge dump truck weighing tens of thousands of pounds was just gone. Six elementary school-aged children had consumed it, like vultures consuming a carcass.
One of the onsite missionaries told me that when he felt like quitting, that when he thought what he tried to do didn’t matter, or when overwhelming odds made it all hopeless, he would revisit the memory of those little boys confronting their dump truck day after day. They knew, as only children can know, that if they stayed at it long enough, nothing would be impossible. The truck would one day disappear.
Those little boys can help reorient our lives. We may not “build” a whole lot with the few years we have been given, and parts of what we build will get blown away. But with the blessed ignorance of children, we can keep sawing – keep parenting, keep teaching, keep fostering, keep nursing, keep showing up at whatever it is we do – until finally, almost like magic, the dump trucks disappear.