building, guarding, and our work

As I’m on the verge of matrimony (less than 7 weeks!), I’ve been thinking a lot about Psalm 127:

Unless the LORD builds the house,
those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchman stays awake in vain.
It is in vain that you rise up early
and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep. (v. 1-2 ESV)

It’s a passage worth applying to collegiate ministry, too. I first wrote this reflection from Fargo, North Dakota, on Road Trip 13… but I think it’s especially valuable as we near the end of another school year.

A huge portion of our time as college ministers is spent on the two tasks from verse 1: building and guarding.

We’re building our ministries as a whole, we’re building individual activities and projects, we’re building our students as a group, and we’re building individual students.

We’re guarding, too – guarding students from spiritual failure, guarding from unhealthy groups and people, guarding from problematic campus forces, and even guarding from group members or overseers who might misunderstand (and derail) what’s being accomplished.

So if that’s true, then Psalm 127 intersects with most of what we college ministers do on a daily and yearly basis. And I’d argue that the passage actually reveals TWO similar truths that prove powerful in their slight differences:

  1. We desperately need God to work
  2. We don’t desperately need our work

On the one hand, these verses shout our desperate need for God Himself to BUILD and to GUARD. If He doesn’t, then our efforts at building and guarding – again, a huge portion of our ministry work – are in vain. If He doesn’t act, if He doesn’t “show up,” if He’s not architecting and watchman-ing, then we college ministers are better off going into Sales, taking a year off, or taking a nap.

But on the other hand, this passage shouts that we don’t desperately need us. This truth means, despite the message in pop-Christianity, that I’m not actually supposed to “work like it all depends on me.” It’s easy to read verse 1 and miss this side of the coin, but look closely: we are not exactly “co-builders” or “co-watchmen” here. We’re Assistant Builders and Assistant Watchmen, at best. Still a duty – but vanity, vanity if He’s not the true Builder or the true Guard.

And that’s why verse 2 connects here, because it suggests that not only is work-without-God-working an empty proposition, so is overwork. Yes, we do work – verse 1 makes that clear. But we aren’t allowed to work as though it’s up to us, sleeplessly and anxiously. So though we work… we rest, we hope, we trust, we wait, and we’re open to the “adventures” that may come.

It’s the latter truth God had to remind me of the week I first wrote these ideas. But both of ’em together can make a huge difference in how we carry out our tasks of building and guarding.

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