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Tearing Down and Building Up

I have no illusions that the photo is going to take home any awards—even an amateur photographer like myself knows I can do better than this. Heck, a four year old with an iPhone could do better. But it’s the photo I took, and while the truth is that I’m tempted to drive around the corner and redeem myself with a Pulitzer-worthy shot, there’s actually something about the photo’s completely uninteresting composition that captures the heart of what compelled me to pull over in the misty rain on my way home from the gym this afternoon.

I first heard about the plans for this property a few years ago when a rumour started swirling that the long-standing church located on a corner lot at a busy intersection in our neighbourhood would be torn down and replaced by stacked townhouses. The plan was for a new church/community centre to be constructed on the opposite end of the property. It’s no secret that Canadian churches are struggling to stay open—that story has been told time and time again—but to see a church literally and physically being torn to the ground, well that’s not something you see every day.

My first thought was to snap a photo and send it to a friend of mine who is especially jaded with church, pointing out the macabre irony of an excavator ripping down the walls of a sacred space, but something about that didn’t sit well with me. No need to add fuel to that fire.

And so, day after day, I have driven by, glancing out the window as I pass to catch a glimpse of where the work crew was at in the demolition process. They started by ripping off the facing of the building, perhaps to salvage the bricks, or at least to separate them for transport off site. Then they tore out the hallway that joined the two main segments of the building, and as of yesterday, all but two of the main walls had been torn down, teetering as they were in their final hours, creating an eerie sight as the structure seemed to be making one final push to hold off the forces of darkness closing in around it.

But today even those walls had collapsed. In my admittedly mediocre photograph, you can discern the remnants of a couple of shorter walls which I’m certain will be leveled by the time I’m done typing this paragraph. In the photo, you can see a set of three windows, perhaps looking out from a hallway, or an office, or maybe even a nursery where babies once cried, turned into toddlers, then returned twenty-odd years later with a crying baby of their own. But none of that matters because the windows are gone now and whatever has taken place in those rooms will never take place in them again.

Which is where my mind went as I drove past and then finally decided to pull over, throw my four-ways on, and snap a shot out of the rolled-down passenger window of our Corolla. I wasn’t thinking about the state of churches in Canada or even church buildings, but about people, and specifically about people who know the experience of tearing down and building up a life.

My mind went there because of a phone call I received this morning from a 25-year old young woman who was calling from a small community in Northern BC, reaching out to see if she could attend an upcoming event hosted by Transformations, an organization I am working with that connects with people in remote First Nations communities, providing opportunities to experience healing and rediscover purpose in life.

As she shared her story with me, I was keenly aware of the beauty of what was happening: someone was unraveling some of the most significant struggles of her life with a complete stranger on the other side of the country. After going into detail about the distorted shape her life had taken on, she explained that she had come to the point where it was either end her life or ask for help. I assured her that I was beyond glad that she chose to reach out and reminded her that she had so much to live for and that our team would be there to help her find her way.

Her story is unique because it is her own, but in its structure, it’s not all that unlike my own story or maybe yours either. Of course the details differ, and in significant ways, but the struggle doesn’t—the struggle to tear down an old life in order to build up a new one. 

The older I get, the more human I become, which is true both in quantity and quality. Yes the lines on my face are deepening, but my experience of life is deepening, too. And the more human I become, the more impressed I am by the challenging work of undoing those things that need to be undone in order for us to move into healthier and more hopeful spaces. I am continuing to do this work in my own life and find myself increasingly drawn to people who are committed to the same. 

The thing you’re tearing down may be an addiction, a belief system, an unhealthy relationship, or a vocational path, but whatever it is, the work is bound to push you to your limits. There is nothing easy about envisioning a new life for yourself while you’re still living the old one. I’ve listened to enough stories to know that there is nothing painless about watching those walls crumble and those parts of you fall to pieces—even if they hurt you and trapped you and wasted years of your one life away.

In the photo I took, all of the elements that surface in this kind of life transition appear. Starting on the left in the foreground and moving to the right and further off in the distance, I can see those two short walls standing as the last vestiges of the old life refusing to give in, then a pile of rubble representing the mess that a tear-down inevitably leaves behind, and right beside that the excavator as the method of demolition, a machine that is anything but gentle.

But if you hang in there and refuse to believe that destruction is the end of the story—refuse to believe that it will be the end of your story—you’ll find the new, partially built structure rising in the background. Who knows what this church/community centre will look like in the end. Will it have the same mystique as the original building? Will it gather the same stories? Will the same people show up? Probably “no”s across the board. But, honestly, who cares. It’s new, and new is not old.

Except where it matters the most.

When the demolition crew arrived at the lot around the corner, the first thing to be removed was the cross. For decades it stretched high on the west-facing wall, announcing to motorists and pedestrians alike that this was a place where followers of Jesus gathered on Sundays and did whatever it is that people do in churches. I assume the cross was taken down out of reverence, although I half-wonder if it will be integrated into the new building somehow, which would be a hopeful move if I’ve ever seen one.

As much of your life as you may need to tear down, there is always something essential that remains. And what remains is “you.” You are not the walls or the lights or the pews or the carpet, and for goodness’ sake you are certainly not whatever name was fastened in white letters to the side of the building that you once called your life. Let it go; let all of that go. You are something and someone so much more than any of this.

To everyone who has stepped out to begin the work, who has fenced off the property and announced to the neighbourhood that things are about to change around here, I offer a prayer for the courage you will need to allow the old walls to come down so that inspiring stories can be written within the new building that will slowly become your life.


 

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