Build (verb) 1. to construct by assembling and joining parts or materials: to build a house. 2. to establish, increase, or strengthen (often followed by up ) --Random House Dictionary
Have you ever watched a house being built? It is an amazing site. Beginning with just a ragged hole in the muddy ground, a structure emerges, slowly pushing up towards heaven. First a foundation, then the ground floor decking, all flat and smooth, then walls built and raised up, then a second floor constructed, then a roof, with its triangles of protection from the wind and the rain. Sometimes to build up a home: it can even be a miracle.
Last week I returned to the city of New Orleans for the seventh time, to help build a Habitat for Humanity house. I’m one of more than 1,000,000 American volunteers who have traveled to the Crescent City since August of 2005 to help rebuild that place after Hurricane Katrina. It’s been six and half years since the storm hit and the floods overflowed New Orleans in the worst natural and manmade disaster in the United States in a century. Remember? Hundreds of thousands of folks fled the rising waters in the largest domestic migration since the Civil War. 182,000 homes were destroyed or damaged. Then to add a cruel twist to recovery, in April of 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded off the Gulf Coast and spilled millions of gallons of black crude into the waters and upon the shores of the region.
But still New Orleans: it continues to be built up, rebuilt, and built anew. Not just because Uncle Sam has poured billions of dollars into the region, though that helps. No. Ask a New Orleanian what has made the real difference and they’ll tell you. It is all the folks from all around the country who have gone down there as volunteers to work and to build up. From all fifty states. From churches and mosques and synagogues. From colleges and corporations and non-profits like Habitat for Humanity, which today is the second largest builder of homes in New Orleans.
Its awe inspiring work to take part in. That’s why I go back year after year with folks from the church I serve. I’ve worked side by side with college kids from Philadelphia, New York City, North Carolina, Michigan and many other places. I’ve raised walls with fellow Christians from Delaware and South Carolina and Vermont, and tacked up siding with America Corps workers from Texas and Missouri. The oldest volunteer I’ve met is 80, the youngest a 12 year old girl who worked with me on the house she now calls home.
What binds all these diverse folks together is this: a commitment to be a person in the world who builds up rather than tears down. Who constructs rather than destructs. Who sees a chance to serve others, a neighbor in need and says, “I will do something. I can do something. I must do something.” A child of God like you or me who sees a devastated neighborhood, a city hurting, or folks without a home and declares that rather than decrying the problem she will be a part of the solution. To build up.
The week I was in New Orleans the news was dominated by a story about radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh who on his program, verbally attacked and tore down another human being. He called a young woman named Sandra Fluke a “slut” and a “prostitute” for her public stand on a controversial issue. Regardless of the pros or cons of the debate, it was a shocking example of what happens when we humans choose to tear down and not build up in this life.
Because each and every day that’s the choice God gives us: to be one who builds up others and the world or to be one who tears down people and Creation. It doesn’t have to be on a national stage like Limbaugh’s. Most of the decisions we make about being positive or negative or constructive or destructive, take place in the little dramas of daily life.
What language do we use with our families and loved ones? Are our words respectful and kind or sharp and cutting? How do we act at work and in public? With patience and care or rudeness and a dismissive attitude? Do we smile and offer a gracious “thank you” to the person who serves us or walk away in silence? On the sports field: are we the obnoxious parent who yells and rants at the coach and referee or a fan who cheers for everyone? How about the poor? Are “they” just slackers who need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps or are they folks who need a helping hand and some compassionate care? In politics: is our opponent the enemy or the loyal opposition?
In every human encounter we have a choice: to build up or to tear down. My prayer is that God will give all humans big hearts and hopeful souls and a shared commitment to always be the ones who build up. To see a hole in the ground and imagine a home. To see a stranger as a friend we’ve yet to make. To see a world in desperate need of repair and decide to be constructive. To take a hammer and some nails and then make a difference.
To build up or to tear down? How will you live today?