I’m sitting at my desk in my office at the episcopal residence in Clive, Iowa. Facing west, I can see the sun set and the silhouettes of two men, who are still working on the roof of a new house that is being built across the street. It’s a large house, and I can hear the hammering sound of shingles. I do not have any practical skills in the building trades, but Gary and I have had considerable experience leading building projects in various churches we’ve served. The name that immediately comes to my mind is Frank Lloyd Wright, who taught me the theology of building and of spirituality.
Frank Lloyd Wright is synonymous with architectural genius. Wright is known for his innovation, creativity of design, and attentiveness to detail. Anyone who has ever studied Wright’s architecture immediately recognizes his work because it is so distinctive.
There is a story about Frank Lloyd Wright, how he always sat down with prospective clients before finalizing a contract because he wanted to offer four pieces of advice about how contracting and construction work will disrupt their lives. Wright’s counsel is timeless and is applicable to most any building project, including churches, as well as to life in general.
He would say, “One – the project will take longer than you planned. Two – it will cost more than you figured. Three – it will be messier than you ever imagined. And Four – it will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.”
Not only do I believe that Wright is correct, but also that he has given us a metaphor for the Christian life. For the construction of a new building is very similar to what God calls us to do with our own lives. Just as our church buildings are in need of repair, remodeling, and new construction from time to time, so many of us may look okay on the outside, but on the inside, we, too, could use some repair work. Each one of us needs to continually reinforce the foundation of our spiritual lives. I believe that Jesus, the divine architect, has some advice for us in the next four weeks as we explore Frank Lloyd Wright’s principles for building projects as well as for constructing our life in Christ.
Today our theme is: the project will take longer than you planned. We know from first-hand experience that this is a general truth of contracting. There is no telling what unforeseen obstacles may emerge that will cause a delay in a building project. If the architect says you can begin in August, don’t be too surprised if the start date is in December. If the contractor says the project will take six months, you might want to add two or three extra months to be safe.
I remember when we decided to gut the lower level of the historic 14th century Tudor Gothic style First United Methodist Church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, which was founded in 1836. Gary and I served there together for thirteen years, and Gary continued there as senior pastor for seven more years. Wesley Hall, which is used for a yearly juried art show as well as for many other events, hadn’t been renovated in decades.
In discussion with our architects, we told them what our timeline was. We wanted to be finished by the end of January so that we could proceed without delay with Celebration of the Arts and our Lenten activities. As you might expect, we were told, “No problem! You’ll be in the new Wesley Hall in plenty of time, with a cushion built-in as well.”
We all felt the timetable was very achievable. Then the building environment changed. Within a month, contractors found themselves fully committed, with more work than they could handle. Some builders decided not to even bid on the project.
We shouldn’t have been surprised because Gary and I purchased our first and only home the year before and spent much of the summer installing new windows. Unfortunately, a one-week project turned into a month. Work that was supposed to be done entirely from the outside turned into a mammoth mess when inside walls had to be cut into so new headers could be installed.
Frank Lloyd Wright was a brilliant man – and he was realistic and honest. When people engaged his services, he warned them of the pitfalls and peculiarities of construction. Building is no simple thing, and the challenges encountered are often unknown. Frank Lloyd Wright’s first piece of advice to would-be builders is that it will take longer than you think. Plan on delays. Count on setbacks so that when they come, you won’t be surprised. Even though it took longer than we thought, Wesley Hall looked stunning after the renovation and is used for many different activities over the course of every week.
In many ways, our Christian life is also like the construction of a building. The gospel lectionary for March 7 was John 2:13-17 (CEB), where Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover and discovered people in the Temple selling cattle, sheep, and doves as well as exchanging currency. Jesus was furious because of the disrespect he witnessed, so he chased everyone out of the temple. Then he overturned tables and said to those who were selling doves, “Get these things out of here!”
When the Jewish leaders questioned Jesus’ authority, he replied, “Destroy this temple and in three days I’ll raise it up.” They responded, “Hey! It took us 46 years to build this temple.” Sometimes building projects drag on so long it seems like 46 years! But Jesus was actually referring to himself, that after he died, he would lie in the tomb for three days before rising from the dead. It was only after Jesus’ resurrection that the disciples remembered and believed.
As it is with building, the construction of a Christian life calls us to follow through on our decision to claim Jesus as our Savior and Lord. What if the builders of the magnificent First UMC, Grand Rapids, when the current structure was constructed near the beginning of World War I, had made the decision to create a new church building, then simply stopped the process? What if they had not followed through? Church members would still be in their old, aging, cramped building that was affectionately known as the Church of the Holy Toothpicks because of its many spires!
Decision must be followed by commitment and determination. The choice to live as Christ would have us live is not the end of the journey. It’s merely the beginning. We then pursue the long, challenging, and gratifying road of Christian growth and service, a road that will sustain us for a lifetime.
In the same way, Christian “follow-through” goes far beyond having one spiritual experience or making one significant decision. It involves finding a church home, attending worship regularly, practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer and Bible study, sharing our financial blessings with the church, and reaching out to others in mission and witness.
As I watch the house across the street go up board by board, nail by nail, and shingle by shingle, I realize that maturing in the Christian life is gonna take longer than any of us can plan. It’s not just the right “talk,” it’s the right “walk.” We need to adjust, be flexible, and keep our eyes on the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.
And, yes, it’s going to mean commitment, trust, action, and community. In fact, practicing our faith is a life-long journey. So, we press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)
Thanks be to God!