“Unless the LORD builds the house,” sings the Psalmist. “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”
When I was eleven, I watched the walls of our new house go up. Finally. The basement had been dug months before, when I was still 10, but then the summer rains began. That enormous hole would fill with muddy water, which not only had to be pumped out, but allowed to dry completely, because concrete couldn’t be poured into a hole that wet. Then, just when they thought they could bring in the big cement mixer, it would rain again.
This went on for some time.
But once the rains finally stopped, that house went up in a hurry. In a single day the walls were framed. Suddenly, it went from a flat pad to the skeleton of a house. My house.
I ran from room to room through the studs. “Which room is this, Mom?” “You’re in the kitchen. See the pipes coming up from the floor?” “Oh, yeah. And what about this one?” “You’re in the living room now. Turn around and you’ll see the opening for the front door.”
I wandered around some more, then finally called out, “but where is MY room?” I wanted to stand in that space, enclosed in the place that would be my own.
The House the Lord Built
We finally moved into that house many months after its original completion date. I could now stand in my room and look out the window at the street below. I could even ride my bike to school with a friend who lived down that street.
Meanwhile, another house was still under construction, the house that was started the day my parents repeated their vows to each other. Prompted by the rector of their church, they had promised, “before God and these witnesses,” to love each other under every imaginable human condition, summed up pithily in the phrases “for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live.”
That project was going to take a good while, but they weren’t in a hurry since it wasn’t scheduled for completion until the day one of them died. So they kept at it. Sometimes they faced set backs, due to heavy rains. Before long they found themselves knee deep in the mud and mess of raising children. Other times they built walls between each other with their own hands. These had to be torn down, sometimes with the help of a counselor or friend. Every so often, they tore down a bearing wall in anger or ignorance. Rebuilding was the hardest work, frankly impossible without the Lord’s partnership.
But 50 years later, the house of their marriage stood firm, and it was high time to give thanks. Instead of putting their money into a 50th anniversary party, they decided to celebrate God’s faithfulness by building one more house, this time for a family they had never met.
Meet the McKinney Family
It’s easy to complain about your house, especially when the refrigerator breaks or the roof leaks. It’s also easy to take your house for granted, pulling into the driveway without thinking that someday you might not be able to. That day came as a shock for the McKinney family.
Their house, for all its faults, was no longer theirs. Maria, who lost her husband in 2005, A eviction notice pinned to their door announced the harsh reality. They were forced to move in with their grandmother to assess the situation. After that they spent two years in public housing. True to its name, public housing never became a home. It turned out to be no place to raise her family, thought Maria, or to build a stable platform for launching her seven children into life.
They struggled and floundered together. Things went from grim to hopeless.
That’s when they heard from Habitat for Humanity. In 2001 the McKinneys were selected to put sweat equity into their very own home; they would put up some of the financial equity, too, but that cost would be shared by a Habitat donor, they were told. Maria and all seven kids showed up the first day, ready to work. Our whole family was there, too, from my 78 year old father to our 15 year old youngest daughter, gleefully celebrating mom and dad’s 50th anniversary in jeans and work gloves. Other Habitat volunteers joined us, hammering, sawing, lifting, fitting, sweeping, cleaning, painting, planting. It was hard, sweaty, glorious work.
Seven days later, we handed the McKinney family the key.
The House that Love Built
What difference did that 50th anniversary gift make in the lives of that family? I found out only recently.
In 2016, fifteen years after they had moved into their house, the McKinney family was interviewed by Habitat for Humanity. By now all the kids were grown and were excelling in their careers. A family of talented musicians, they had been able to develop their gifts in ways that wouldn’t have been possible without the steady support of a place to call home.
Maria reflected on how it felt to have complete strangers helping them, not just donating money, but rolling up their sleeves and sweating to give them a fresh start. Her son Emmanuel remembered how worried they had been about paying back their part of the loan that was part of the project. It wasn’t the loan that scared him, but the quickly accruing interest that would double or triple it. When he finally drummed up the courage to ask how much interest they would owe, he held his breath.
Then came the answer. There would be no interest on the loan they took out for their part of the project. None. Zip. Zero. Zilch. The McKinney family had been given not just a house, but the dignity of paying back a loan they could afford, on a house that they could call their own.
Celebrating God’s Love
Now that they had a home base, life opened up. They were a gifted family. Daughter Evvie, used her musical gifts to win a reality show called The Four in 2018 and subsequently inked a record deal. Two of her brothers took turns spending time with her in Los Angeles. A few months later Evvie and her brother Gedeon, who had been a contestant on American Idol, were invited to return home and perform at the Habitat family reunion event in the fall of 2018.
That day was a celebration, not just of the 500 homes Habitat had completed over 35 years in Memphis, but a celebration of God’s love. Gedeon explained to the interviewer, “After you’ve hit rock bottom, you can’t believe that things will ever change. This house paved the way for everything else.” And behind this house was love, not just the love of my parents, but the very love of God, channeled through the gift of two people who had experienced his faithful love through the ups and downs of 50 years of marriage.
“When you think back on how far and what God brought you from, it can’t be nothin’ but love. Nothin’ else. That’s what this house means to me.” We return to the Psalmist’s words, “Unless the LORD build the house, those who build it labor in vain.” This project was a joint effort. The fact that it bore such fruit reveals the divine partnership.
Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.Psalm 127:1a
“Everything started from this house.” That’s how Gedeon put it. This house, the one the LORD built, gave our family the chance to share the joy of their family. The joy of a house that still stands.