I got totally inspired last night when eating with friends from church as we were discussing Psalm 127 - "Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build labour in vain."
One of our members is a very gifted linguist and was sharing an insight into the cultural context of the psalm, namely that house building in that age (c 10th century BC) was primarily conceived of as horizontal rather than vertical. The addition of rooms adjacent to an existing structure, around a courtyard, would have been the main understanding of the idea at the time, rather than of building higher into the sky. (In fact, a quick look through a concordance reveals a rather negative view in the Old Testament when it comes to tall man-made structures - think Tower of Babel, etc)
This insight got us thinking about how the idea of "the Lord building the house" does not have to mean that one thing completely depends on another for its stability. The building process is more "organic" than "engineered", if that makes sense. This approach contrasts with a view of the Christian life that is unduly shaped by linear processes determined by stated goals and targets.
The idea that we have a vision/target/goal, and that we are to work backwards from that point to construct our Christian lives is one that is widely held and practiced. If, however, we define our goals more broadly - I would argue more biblically - then we can allow for developments which are apparently more random, which do not appear to fit into an engineered model of a narrowly-defined goal-focused life. Biblical goals, for instance, include such elements as, “we make it our aim to please him”, “the goal of this instruction is love” and the command to “walk in the Spirit” and to be “transformed through the renewing of our minds.”
Building, in this sense, is more about God-centered character development, ethical behaviour in the personal and social spheres and spiritual maturation, rather than the accomplishment of tasks which lead from one to another in a structured sense. This organic vision of “house building” is more communitarian than individualistic, is as concerned with ethics and process as it is with outcomes, and is also able to incorporate elements which would not normally be part of a design if we were to think purely functionally. Elements such as Joseph being sold as a slave, Jonah running away from God, and David’s adultery were all elements that, in the gracious and judicious divine house-building process, could be incorporated and used to further the life and purpose of God in the lives of these individuals.
Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build labour in vain.
Here endeth the first lesson.