The Houses We Build and Burn

The alarm buzzes. It’s 2 am. My husband and I rise, silent in the dark. The ocean sways beneath us. We fumble for our clothes, put on rubber knee boots, gloves and layers of warmth against the winter cold. We stumble out onto the beach, turn on the outside light, pull in the boat loaded with 4’ x 8’ sheets of plywood and begin. We’ve waited until peak high tide so the ocean would bring the boat closer to shore. Duncan slides the first two sheets off to me. I bend, take them onto my back, cinch my arms around the wood behind me and awkwardly walk them up the beach then to the level spot we’re stacking them. There are 160 sheets of plywood in this load. We’ll work as quickly as we can in the dark and the wind to get the plywood out of the boat and onto level ground, but we know the real work comes in the daylight.

And it does. We get up again when it’s light, about 10, and start again. But the wind has come up, and now the plywood must be carried on our backs up a long steep hill to our new house. I nearly blow away in the gusts with my wooden sail. 160 sheets.

This is our winter work this year, building a house on a wilderness island in Alaska where no one has lived for 30 years. Now there are two. We’ll work day and night, racing to get the house erected and livable by the next commercial salmon season. All our supplies come by boat. We will do most of it ourselves, including digging a well by hand, hauling water by hand. We live in a shack over the water.

If someone had come along that night and asked me, “Why are you working so hard?”  I might have growled, with labored breath,“Out of love, pure love,” as I trudged up the long hill, bent in half.

It’s possible. I could have. Because I know the difference. I know how it feels to build without love.

For most of my childhood, I worked with others in rebuilding ancient, shambling houses, most of them our residence at the time. We worked when most of our friends played: afternoons after school, on weekends, over holidays. We carried wood, sanded, painted, tore down walls, cleared woods, and a million other tasks. The work was never done, and it was always done for others. When one house was finished, it was sold and we started over again with the next dilapidated house. We worked to eat and live, but food and breath wasn’t enough.

Decades later, I’m still building houses. We all are. Mine are now made of paper and ink and blood, a load heavier than those sheets of plywood. My tenth book is due to the publisher in 6 days. It is my hardest book ever. I am laboring hard, day and night into early morning, carrying images, memory, and pieces of the Word of God itself up a long hill.  Last night I asked some friends for prayer to complete this work, and someone marveled that I "took writing so seriously."  This isn't simply work that I do: this is how I love God and serve His people. This is how I breathe. This is how I learn. This is how I tell the story God is writing through my life. But these buckets of blood and ink are so heavy up the hill!

You're building too. I see you, how hard you work in your houses. We're all builders. The New Testament uses the metaphor often. Jesus is the “chief cornerstone.” St. Paul has, by God’s grace, “laid a foundation as a wise builder,” and we are, all of us, building upon it. But Paul warns us, “Each one should build with care.”  

I will amplify “care” to this: “Each one should build with love.” That’s what was missing all those years of my childhood. I built out of fear. Out of worry. Out of compulsion.  I’m sorry for that wasted work. I did not know then the God of love, nor the love of God for all the earth and all the labor in it. When fire comes on that final day, if my work is the measure, all those houses will burn down.


I pray the houses I have built since will stand when fire comes. And yours as well. For love has come through Christ. And let love come to all our houses, to all the places we live and labor. Let Christ be with us as we haul the wood up the hundredth hill. Let Christ lift up our hands. Let Christ lift up our feet. For the work is His, and all the labor done in love will stand, will last, will rise up into a holy temple where the Spirit of God indwells.

Keep building, friends, and do not stop: Your work. His love. Your hands. His House.