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Builder or Wrecker

By Rev. Dr. David Alicea, UCC of Paradise Hills

     It was 1989 when Hurricane Hugo descended upon Puerto Rico, battering the island with gusty winds upward of 105 mph.   As pastor of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Manati, a small city now considered the Athens of Puerto Rico thanks to its innovative industrial and home development, I had organized a team to help our members prepare for such devastation and to reach out to neighbors in need of assistance.  As Hugo drew near I approached a neighbor setting up his shutter windows, described our project and volunteered to help him.  He agreed, handing me a hammer and nails.  That’s when the trouble started.

     First of all, my shutter was upside down.  I didn’t even know they had up and down sides!  Then I had trouble figuring out which shutter fit which window.   And, worst of all, I had to nail the things into the wall.   I tried, hitting everything except the window, shutter or nail.  What a mess!  That’s when my neighbor said, “Reverend, stick to preaching!  The hurricane would do less damage!”  We remained friends but every time we met he would tease me with, “Remember the shutters!”  It was an experience I have worked hard to forget – but can’t!

     It is not easy to build something, to meld creativity with environmental concerns.  With that in mind, I have been seeking to understand Nehemiah, who rebuilt the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was an excellent planner, a most important talent when building.  He, of course, was not building from the ground up.  He was “rebuilding” and that’s a different ball game.  The foundation was already established. And, to make matters worse, trouble and confrontation were always near to fossilize progress. Nehemiah had a big question to answer:  Am I a builder or a wrecker?

     For us the key question is, “How can I rebuild the city of which I am a part?”  I offer a few hints based on Nehemiah and his work in Jerusalem.  First, thinking of Nehemiah, understand that what is being rebuilt is a city.   To rebuild our city, the United Church of Christ, we need to consider a number of important elements, among them people of many racial, cultural and ethnic backgrounds whose theological, sexual and social perspectives vary greatly.  Our city must be inclusive and diverse.  Our city must embrace everybody, must provide space for growth, must represent everybody’s contribution, must be free of walls.

     The second hint is that Nehemiah started rebuilding the city by setting up locked and fortified doors.  This I consider to be a major flaw, while understanding that within the historical context of his time a city protected by fortified gates was necessary.  Our city, however, does not need fortified doors.  Closed doors both keep things out and keep things in.  A city with closed doors is a city condemned to die.  Our communities have suffered and are still undergoing a “demographic mutation” of great proportions.  If we do not recognize and deal with such change, we are rebuilding on the basis of segregation and bias, which determine who may open and close the door.  Closed doors would turn our city into a country club, a place for the elite and the powerful. My beloved family, we don’t need that!

     My final hint is that our city must be free to reinvent and renovate our theological, cultural and social standards AND our statement of faith and way of conducting ministry.  Why?  Other cities are also experiencing growth.  Islam, for example, is now absorbing some Christian tenets as it reshapes itself.  Mega-Churches are beginning to suffer what they once criticized, becoming “Institutionalized Religion” as they seek to deal with decreasing attendance.  People have realized that personal interaction is important and yet our traditional historical churches are not being inundated in the wake of the mega-church exodus.  Many who leave are, instead, forming groups at home and hiring retired ministers for the implementation of the Sacraments.  Their tithes and offerings are sent to non-profit organizations helping the communities in which they live.

     Change is in the air!  Our UCC churches are coming to a significant crossroad.  I encourage every man and woman in ministry, every lay leader and the members of every congregation to meet within your associations with this in mind, moving beyond the walls of your own church to enter into a more diverse experience of faith.  Let us embrace doing ministry together.  Let us worship together and study scripture together, rotating meeting places.  Let us deal with our community’s needs as a team of churches, each contributing from our resources to “make a whole.”   Let us sing together, pray together, work together.  And, in this way, let us rebuild our city, the United Church of Christ, embracing our differences, abandoning pride and casting away whatever distances us one from the other.  And, as we rebuild our city, let us start looking at each other knowing that we are one in the Spirit, one in Christ and one at the table of God.

     Recognizing that such change is not for the contemplative or for Christians in eternal vacation mode, our church must move forward to rebuild a city that represents our people’s needs.  It also needs to open its spiritual ears in order to understand and accept God’s will.  What God wants us to do is paramount!  To that end, each of us should start by answering the basic question, “Am I a builder or a wrecker?”  The following poem by an unknown author, may help you answer that question.,

 A Builder or a Wrecker*

As I watched them tear a building down
A gang of men in a busy town
With a ho-heave-ho, and a lusty yell
They swung a beam and the side wall fell.

I asked the foreman, “Are these men skilled,
And the men you’d hire if you wanted to build?”
He gave a laugh and said, “No, indeed,
Just common labor is all I need.”

“I can easily wreck in a day or two,
What builders have taken years to do.”
And I thought to myself, as I went my way
Which of these roles have I tried to play?

Am I a builder who works with care,
Measuring life by rule and square?
Am I shaping my work to a well-made plan
Patiently doing the best I can?

Or am I a wrecker who walks to town
Content with the labor of tearing down?
“O Lord let my life and my labors be
That which will build for eternity!”

     I hope I find you soon at the foot of the walls as we rebuild our city.   God bless!
*The Increase, 35th Anniversary Issue, 1993, p. 9

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