Saturday, February 14, 2009

Playing the Fool

I have played the fool, and have erred exceedingly.

                        1 Samuel 26.21 (KJV) 

Flawed Character

Saul, the first king of Israel, and David, his successor, rival one another as the most deeply flawed character in the Bible. While David’s weaknesses aren’t manifested until taking the throne, both are plagued with restless minds and insecurities that breed paranoia and stubbornness. Their relationship is gnarly—overly competitive, violent, erratic, and pummeled by jealousy. Saul is picked to rule Israel after he proves his prowess in battle. Yet military genius also cripples his ability to follow God’s orders, plunging the general-king into black moods. At the suggestion of those who’ve heard of a rising star named David, Saul calls the young singer-songwriter to court to soothe his troubled mind. Soon thereafter, slaying Goliath makes David a national hero, and he and Jonathan, Saul’s heir, become attached at the hip. (We’ll let that be for now.) All of this should please the embattled king, but it only feeds Saul’s instability. David’s further triumphs inspire a popular saying: “Saul has killed thousands, David tens of thousands.” This isn’t good. Things come to a head when Saul’s horrible job performance leads God to bypass Jonathan and appoint David as Israel’s next monarch. After that, the current and future kings square off for a fight to the death.

Unaware and Vulnerable

Twice the young warrior catches Saul unaware and vulnerable to assassination. The first time he’s literally caught with his pants down, having ducked into a cave to relieve himself while David and his men lurk in the shadows. The men urge David to end the conflict then and there. Instead, he chooses mercy. He sneaks up to Saul and cuts off a piece of his robe. As Saul returns to his men, David follows him out of the cave to show him the piece, upending malicious rumors he intends to kill the king. This moves Saul greatly, but he eventually relapses into paranoia and resumes his hunt to destroy David.

Saul’s literally asleep on the job the next time David catches him. Again, David’s urged to murder Saul with the same logic: “Today God has delivered your enemy into your hands.” Yet again, David opts out and takes Saul’s spear as a souvenir proving he could have killed him. But this time David berates Saul’s guard for shirking his duties. The yelling wakes Saul, not only out of sound sleep, but also out of unsound desire to avenge imagined crimes against him. “I’ve been such a fool. I’ve made terrible mistakes,” Saul confesses. “I promise I’ll stop all this madness.” It’s a big admission from a once-big man severely reduced by jealousy and distrust. It’s particularly touching because Saul’s wounded pride stops short of actually begging forgiveness. Still, David respects the apology lining the confession. Both men go their separate ways in peace.

Heart Trouble

Valentine’s Day seems a most appropriate occasion, I think, to consider how easily malignant thoughts trigger heart trouble. Although Saul’s problems with David are baseless, from him we see how unresolved grievances—real and imaginary—infect our entire system, gripping us with obsessive hatred, jealousy, and suspicions. Ill will often drives us over the edge to malicious fantasies and behaviors. Longings for vengeance, actively pursued or passively harbored, leave us like Saul, playing the fool, sometimes caught with our pants down, sometimes sleeping on the job. When we find we’re making fools of ourselves, though, we should also do like Saul: admit it inwardly and confess it to those we’ve wronged—even if they’ve wronged us. It’s not easy. But it’s right.

Forgiveness is triangular. We forgive. We ask God to forgive us. But the triangle isn’t complete until we ask forgiveness of others. Since it’s the last thing we want to do, we leave it for last. Yet Jesus says the forgiveness triangle must be assembled in sequence, starting with apologies to others. “If you’re at the altar and remember someone has something against you, first go and be reconciled with him/her; then come back.” (Matthew 5.23-24) Once that’s cleared up, we forgive, and then ask God’s forgiveness. “But if you don’t forgive others, your Father won’t forgive you.” (Matthew 6.15) After Saul blew his first chance to apologize, suspicions and resentments returned to haunt him. He figured it out the second time and, though he and David separated, they left united in peace.

Forgiveness is triangular. Until we ask forgiveness of others, the triangle is incomplete.

(Tomorrow: Yours Always)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Letters in the Dirt

Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.”

                        John 8.6-7

20 Questions

A friend of mine keeps a list of 20 questions about nagging details the Bible never bothers to explain. Two examples: Where did Cain’s wife come from, and what was Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”? The Scripture just drops these bombshells without elaboration, which makes my buddy crazy. So he memorized his list, hoping he’ll get answers in the life to come. With little prompting, he’ll rattle it off, bottom to top. His number one question arises from today’s text: What did Jesus write on the ground? I kid him about this. It won’t matter after we get to Heaven, I say. 1 Corinthians 13 says what we don’t understand now will be explained later. You won’t need to ask, “So, Lord, what was up with those letters in the dirt?” At the same time, I must confess it’s impossible to read how brilliantly Jesus eludes the trap set by the adulterous woman’s accusers without wondering about it.


Here’s what happens. A group of men bring Jesus a woman allegedly caught in an extramarital affair. They challenge Him with this: “Mosaic law calls for us to stone her to death. What do You say?” Ironically, they’ve bungled the edict they’re keen to exploit. The Law states both offenders—male and female—must die. Doing half a job is their first mistake. It’s obviously a set-up, as either anticipated answer gets Him in trouble. If He consents, He defies laws against adjudicating crimes and punishments outside Roman courts. If He doesn’t approve, He refutes Moses. People like these always perceive issues as either/or; there’s no middle ground for understanding.  How pleased they are to hatch such a failsafe scheme, to throw Jesus a problem without a viable solution! That’s their second mistake—thinking on their own and not like Him.

Jesus stoops down and begins writing on the ground with His finger. He stops after they won’t stop hectoring Him, stands up, looks them in the eye, and invites anyone who’s perfect to throw the first stone. He then returns to His writing. The Bible says the crowd dispersed one at a time, with the oldest men slinking off first. But it never looks over His shoulder to read His words on the ground. What does He write?

All of the Above

Over the centuries, scores of scholars have tried to solve the riddle, leaving theories galore—some so arcane and convoluted they can’t be condensed into a few sentences. One idea links Christ’s gesture to the “bitter water test” Numbers 5 prescribes for wives accused of infidelity. (I won’t drag you through the protocol, but if you question what inspired the ordeals of the Spanish Inquisition and the Salem Witch Hunt, see verses 11-31.) The problem with this connection, however, is its not carrying a death sentence, which is what’s on the table here. A more palatable suggestion ties back to the very first law forbidding adultery—the seventh of Ten Commandments God personally etched in stone with His finger, just as Jesus writes on the ground with His finger. In this light, what He writes becomes less important because His gesture and words to the connivers say it all. It was about them—not the woman or Jesus. In their haste to ensnare and condemn, they forgot to account for their motives and behaviors.

In Matthew 5.17, Jesus tells us He didn’t come to destroy the Law, but to fulfill it. Throughout His ministry, but especially here, He shows the Law is designed to deepen our understanding of God’s ways. In writing on the ground He impresses on us that obeying our Maker overrules conforming to man’s laws and religious tradition. Pleasing God, we steer clear of condemnation on all sides. It stops us from disregarding our social responsibilities and disrespecting our faith heritage. In Acts 5.29, Peter and the other apostles declare, “We must obey God rather than men!” They were with Jesus. They read the letters in the dirt. They learned obedience to God’s Spirit isn’t a matter of “either/or.” It’s “all of the above.”

The mystery of what Jesus wrote on the ground is solved by His gesture and comment.

(Tomorrow: Playing the Fool)

Thursday, February 12, 2009


“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

                        John 5.7 

Stranded on the Edge

When feeling led toward a post that speaks to everyone yet pointedly resonates with GLBT and other alienated Christians, I’m often led to scriptural stories like today’s. These stories are problematic for me because they’re about outcasts—lepers, pagans, eunuchs, sinners, and other “types” stranded on the edge of society. I don’t doubt why the Bible is riddled with them. Its heart pounds with assurance that God welcomes the rejected, despised, and afflicted, all of whom Jesus voluntarily became to ensure acceptance for all through the cross. Yet I’m always wary lest frequently returning to outcast stories be misconstrued as an opinion that ostracized gay believers and their straight counterparts are damaged or dysfunctional. Then I take comfort in realizing we’re all--gay or straight, accepted or ignored--damaged and dysfunctional in some way. We’re all the same, outsiders all, stranded on the edge just like the invalid in John 5.


He’s been paralyzed for 38 years and a longtime fixture at the Bethesda pool, where many disabled people gather in hopes of being healed. It’s said an angel appears once each season to stir the water and the first person diving into the pool is cured. The Bethesda phenomenon is no urban legend. The invalid’s seen it a number of times. He tells Jesus this when the Lord talks with him during a Sabbath poolside visit. Learning the man’s been disabled nearly four decades, Jesus asks, “Do you want to get well?”

Anyone aware of Jesus, His compassion for the diseased and oppressed, and His miraculous power would instantly reply, “Yes! I want to get well!” Spending all of his time watching the water, waiting for the tiniest quaver, renders the invalid clueless about Who stands before him, however. Ignorantly, if respectfully, he launches a woe-is-me alibi without answering the question. “Sir, I’m stuck without help,” he explains. “When the water moves, I’m trying to get in when somebody else beats me to it.” But ignorance never offends Jesus, nor does He ever confuse it with indolence—lazy resignation to one’s condition. He commands the invalid: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” It’s the happiest day of the man’s life. Yet, given the day, his healing makes a lot of people very unhappy.

Floating, Flouting, and Flaunting

It’s the Sabbath. And here’s the invalid, up and about for the first time in 38 years, floating on a joy-cloud, totally oblivious to the mat rolled up on his back. People don’t know his story. All they see is someone flouting tradition. “It’s against the Law to carry your mat on the Lord’s Day!” they tell him. Again, he has an excuse: “The man who cured me said I could do it.” And who is he? The invalid has no idea. Now it looks like he’s flaunting his healing, refusing to comply on another’s authority. On one level, he’s justified; Jesus habitually broke Sabbath law by attending to urgent matters. Yet he’s also wrong. Why even carry a mat he no longer needs? Hanging onto it only causes problems for him. And why rush off before getting his Healer’s name? Didn’t it occur to him he owes Christ praise for his healing? Later, Jesus meets the man in the temple and sternly scolds him: “Now that you’re well, stop sinning or something worse may happen.” He takes heed and changes his story to glorify Christ.

The invalid gives all of us—gay believers, particularly—an excellent example of what not to do. If we sit too long at poolside, staring at still waters of sanctioned intolerance, hoping they’ll spring to life, we’ll never know Jesus, His love for us, or His life-altering power. Yes, sometimes the pool stirs in obedience to God’s Spirit, welcoming those stranded on the edge. But why wait for help getting in when Christ Himself offers to remedy our situation? He makes us rise and walk. Then, it’s ever important not to float away in exuberance without considering believers who sincerely conform to rigorous ideas and traditions. Romans 14.13 cautions: “Stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way.” Freedom from the Law doesn’t free us of responsibility for those who keep the Law. We take care our liberty isn’t perceived as flouting long-held beliefs or flaunting our restoration in Christ. There’s no reason for hanging onto mats—mindsets and motives—that cushioned our poolside vigil; they cause needless trouble, potentially leading to setbacks we can ill afford. Finally, we never fail to give our Healer total praise. It’s the least we can do after all He’s done.

The pool at Bethesda.

(Tomorrow: Letters in the Dirt)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hard Answers

I am the LORD, the God of all mankind. Is anything too hard for me?

                        Jeremiah 32.27

Unlimited Power

When we lift this question off the page to stand alone, the answer is a no-brainer. Nothing is too hard for God. Living by faith starts here. As a matter of fact, the whole of Christendom hinges on a maiden’s belief that God can do anything. After hearing she would deliver the world’s Savior, Mary naturally had a few questions, which the angel settled straightaway with one sweeping statement: “Nothing is impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) Had she doubted this, it’s unlikely she would have met the challenge bestowed on her. Mary’s faith in a God of the impossible (or is it a God of the entirely possible?) lives on in the teaching of her Son, Who in Matthew 17.20 tells us if we can muster a tiny seed’s worth of faith, “nothing will be impossible for you.” So Jeremiah 32.27 aligns with other declarations of God’s unlimited power. Now let’s replace the question in its original context to see why He asked it and what we should draw from it. Things get very interesting very quickly and very possibly raise more questions instead of inviting an easy answer. For example, we may feel tempted to wonder why serving an omnipotent God is so marvelous after all.

Sealing the Deal Sets the Stage

God poses His question in a conversation Jeremiah recounts to the king of Judah, who’s arrested the prophet to silence his prediction that Judah will soon fall to the Babylonian army encamped outside Jerusalem. Jeremiah says God instructed him to purchase a field, seal the deal with a witnessed transaction, and store two copies of the deed—one sealed, another unsealed—in a clay jar to outlast the imminent siege. After the Babylonians leave, He promises “houses, fields and vineyards will again be bought in this land.” Jeremiah knows God is speaking and does as he’s told. Yet being an inveterate pessimist clouds his thinking in a peculiar way. He has no problem with God standing down so Babylon can invade Jerusalem. Clearly in his mind Israel has brought this attack on itself by neglecting God’s ways. He just can’t figure out God’s plans for complete restoration after a season of despair. In other words, Jeremiah’s cool with Act I; it’s the second act that perplexes him.

“I’m the God of all humanity,” God replies. “Is anything too hard for Me?” He details His plan for Israel step by step, explaining His authority extends beyond Israel to command unwitting obedience from all nations, including pagan powers like Babylon, to bring His people back to Him. His objective isn’t punishment; it’s correction seeded in His desire to heal His broken relationship with Israel by proving His faithfulness once again. And He directs Jeremiah to buy property in a plummeting market to teach a priceless lesson the prophet—the first of the red-hot fire-and-brimstone preachers—truly needs. Sealing the deal sets the stage for Jeremiah to experience Act II up close and personal.

History’s Whirlpool

By the time God’s scenario plays out, Jeremiah will know to look beyond judgment and see mercy. He’ll stop railing against causes and start rejoicing in cures. He’ll suffer national disasters yet gain individual development. Particularly in these times of global uncertainty, we should pay special attention to Jeremiah. He’s stayed true to his Maker all along. His concern for his fellow citizens runs so deep he’s not ashamed to confront their self-indulgence and non-compliance to God’s will. He probably deserves to be spared history’s whirlpool. He isn’t. He faces the same indignities and deprivation of the unrighteous. But while they panic and offload assets to offset losses, Jeremiah holds on to a promise tucked inside a clay jar. It’s worth little in the current economy. The day will come, however, when it brings much profit. Then Jeremiah will see the power of redemption and end his love affair with retribution.

Every day more of us are getting sucked into history’s whirlpool. There’s no good reason why—we’ve done nothing wrong. We’re caught in the currents of God’s plan and forced to swim alongside those whose greed and corruption troubled the waters. Rather than succumb to the downward drag, we must hold on, clinging tenaciously to promises tucked inside our jars of clay. Before all this started, we obeyed God’s voice. We bought real estate in His Word. We invited others to witness the transaction and we sealed the deal. While He proves His Lordship over all humanity for the nth time, He asks, “Is anything too hard for Me?” The question begs hard answers, yet knowing what’s inside us eases our minds. It may seem worth little now, but faith within always survives trouble without. While everything else plunges in value, it increases in hope of a day when trust in our all-powerful God will be redeemed for all its worth.

In the face of certain hardship, God instructs us to buy the field, seal the deal, and tuck the deed away in our jars of clay. The day will come when He redeems our faith for all its worth.

(Tomorrow: Poolside)

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.

                        Deuteronomy 33.27 

The Poet Who Didn’t Know It

In Exodus 3, Moses balks at God’s instruction to plead the Israelites' case before Pharaoh because he’s “never been eloquent” and is “slow of speech and tongue.” Once he submits to God’s plan, though, Moses becomes the Bible’s poet who didn’t know it. He speaks with astounding force, giving the ages a wealth of quotes that cut to the marrow our beings with brute simplicity: for example, “Let my people go!” and “Stand still and see the salvation of the LORD!” On other occasions, Moses waxes rhapsodic. His prayer in Psalm 90 captures the fragility of human existence on a level unmatched by any other scriptural passage. And his blessing on the tribes in Deuteronomy 33 is flush with eloquence at its finest.

In verse 12, for instance, Moses describes Benjamin as “the one the LORD loves [who] rests between his shoulders,” and in verse 17 he says of Joseph, “In majesty he is like a firstborn bull; his horns are the horns of a wild ox.” He begins to wrap things up in verses 26 and 27 with an indelible portrait of Israel’s Maker and Defender: “There is no one like the God of [Israel], who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms.” Much of the confidence in Moses’s words springs from his ability to articulate them so splendidly. This once tongue-tied recluse marvels at what God inspires him to say with such bold beauty. He exemplifies what saints Down South used to call “a new way of talkin’” and he reminds us that God places potential above capability. It’s not what we can do for Him, but what He can do—and does—with us.

A God Who Endures

The phrase Moses chooses, “the eternal God,” has been variously translated as “the former God” and “the Ancient of days,” meaning He predates and transcends time. He is a God Who endures. While it’s not hard to acknowledge that, it’s also easy to set the concept aside before sufficiently internalizing what it means. Our God is impervious to history, human progress, current events, shifts of thought, and life changes. Exciting breakthroughs and exasperating breakdowns aren’t news to Him. Ecclesiastes 1.9 tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” God exists in a perpetual state of “been there, done that.” Rather than interpret this to suggest He regards our ongoing and immediate issues with blasé diffidence, we take courage in our belief that His experience with impossible, unmanageable situations supremely qualifies Him to see we will endure. In the moment, in the day, the month, or the year—however long our trials continue—He’s there. He’s always been there and always will be there.

Hidden and Held

Moses calls the eternal God our refuge, an indestructible safe house in which we can dwell, hidden from dangers and miseries threatening our security. In Psalm 27, David proclaims, “The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid? For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his tabernacle and set me high upon a rock.” While hatred, deceit, anger, envy, intolerance, greed, and many other diseases of heart and mind infect our world, we take divine refuge from harms they pose. Yet if we believe this, why do we incessantly expose ourselves to their poison? Ephesians 4.30 tells us we’re “sealed for the day of redemption”—hidden away in protective custody in our God Who endures. When we give in to fear and doubt, we break the seal to jeopardize our wellbeing and security.

And with God as our refuge we’re nothing if not secure because underneath it all are His everlasting arms. What an extraordinary picture Moses paints here—an image of tireless strength and reliability. These magnificent arms supersede serving purely as a solid foundation. They function in every imaginable capacity for our good. We’re held by them, enfolded in them, shielded, rescued, defended, and lifted by them. As we hide in God, amazing things happen underneath. His everlasting arms remove obstacles, topple barriers, and scatter adversaries. They change the landscape of our lives, smoothing out some rough places and carrying us over others. Nothing’s better than watching God in action—other than the serenity and safety of being held in His arms.


Strong? Yes. Pretty? Perhaps. But not even remotely comparable to the enduring strength and beauty of God's everlasting arms.

(Tomorrow: Hard Answers)

Monday, February 9, 2009

Not Our Kind

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came to the place where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him.

                        Luke 10.33

Note: This runs substantially longer than the typical post, but I hope you’ll take a few extra minutes to read it through and pray you’ll benefit from it.


In the late Seventies, a group of fatuously privileged college grads hammered out a bestseller called The Official Preppy Handbook, a coy, self-satirizing guide to all things upper-crusty. As a middle-class preacher’s kid about to enter a snooty Midwestern university, the book was a godsend in that it tipped me off to the customs many of my classmates learned growing up. The lifestyle and behaviors it described gripped me with anthropological fascination. The Handbook included a glossary of coded lingo snobs used to talk above or about outsiders. All these years later, one phrase sticks in memory: NOKD, an acronym for “Not our kind, dear.” I remember it because it alerted me to two unalterable facts about myself. First, no matter how well I mimicked my school chums, I would always be NOKD in their eyes. But more important, its cruelly elitist, out-of-hand dismissal of less fortunate people violated every value and principle of my Christian upbringing.

Crossing the Street

Reading Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan inevitably brings NOKD to mind. A traveler gets mugged. Thugs rob, strip, and beat him, leaving him half-dead in the gutter. A priest comes along, sees the victim, and crosses the street to avoid him. A Levite soon follows and does the same. Both dismiss the wounded traveler as unworthy of their time or attention, possibly thinking his misfortune results from his own criminal pursuits, the proverbial deal gone wrong. Then a Samaritan arrives. Crossing the street never crosses his mind. Without questioning, the Samaritan treats the man’s injuries, puts him on his donkey, and checks into an inn, where he spends the night caring for the victim. The next day he leaves after paying for the traveler to remain until he recovers. He asks the innkeeper to look after the traveler, promising to return and reimburse any additional expenses.


Ironies abound in this, Jesus’s most touching story on record. To start, it’s illuminating to note what prompts it. A legal expert challenges Jesus to single out the most important law. He immediately identifies two: Love God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. We see this as the watershed moment when Christ crystallizes His core ideal. But the lawyer hopes to trick Jesus into playing loose and fast with the Law. So he presses Him, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” Once Jesus finishes the tale of the Samaritan, no doubt the lawyer regrets he asked. This initial irony introduces the others.

By not assigning a nationality to the traveler and setting the story on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, Jesus makes it plain he’s a Jew. What’s more, a passing detail—the man’s nakedness—rules out the priest and Levite’s NOKD responses might be justified since simply seeing the traveler is circumcised reveals he is “their kind.” Jesus’s choice of both occupations also carries ironic indictments. Together, they represent the religious and legal establishments’ heinously phobic rejection of “unclean” members of society. There are also contradictions exposing each man’s failure to do his job. The priest practices salvation through blood sacrifices; yet he refuses to stain his hands with the traveler’s blood while ministering to him. The Levite embodies the Law; yet he overlooks the love-your-neighbor statute Jesus just quoted from Leviticus 19.18. What we’re left with is intolerant religion and skewed legalism at their worst.

Jesus’s point would have been taken had He stopped there. But He lands the final blow by making a Samaritan His story’s hero. Centuries of animosity divided the Jews and the Samaritans. The latter regarded themselves “the forgotten tribe” of Israel. They practiced a variation on Judaism that also worshiped the One True God and awaited a Messiah to restore status unjustly denied them. This infuriated the Jews—God’s “chosen people”—no end. And here’s Jesus, saying a Samaritan who stops to care for a half-dead Jew does the work of a priest, a Levite, and then some. He’s not concerned about dirtying his hands to save the man’s life. He fulfills the law to love his neighbor. He gives up comfort, time, and money for the man’s welfare. He promises to settle the traveler’s tab, knowing in all likelihood he’ll never receive the gratitude and recognition he deserves. The biggest irony of all: from the Jewish perspective, the Samaritan is NOKD; from the Samaritan’s perspective, however, the Jew is “his kind”—a neglected victim urgently needing compassion and care.

“Go and Do Likewise”

After the story, Jesus asks, “Who was the man’s neighbor?” “The one who had mercy on him,” the lawyer concedes. “Then go and do likewise,” Jesus tells him. The abiding power in “The Good Samaritan” rests in its explanation of how to obey Christ’s commandment to love. It’s easy for gay and other ostracized believers to read the story and latch onto the traveler, closely matching their personal experiences with the religious and legalistic prejudice he suffered. And it’s easy for all Christians to picture themselves as the open-minded, concerned Samaritan. But what about the priest and the Levite? It’s not merely easy, it’s lazy and incorrect for us to smugly look down on them as “not our kind.” Indeed, it saddles us with the very sin we revile in them. Loving our neighbors as Christ expects starts by accepting God has no NOKD children. Everyone is “our kind”—including those who have no time and interest and feel no obligation to care for us. Samaritan love is an all-or-nothing proposition. Instead of listening to reasons why others don’t merit love, we hear and obey Christ’s voice. Go and do likewise.

"Love your neighbor as yourself."

(Tomorrow: Underneath)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

A Mind to Work

So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.

                        Nehemiah 4.6 (NKJV) 

In Position to Act

Nehemiah is a captive stripped of his rights and identity whose sole possession is his past. He’s the butler to King Artaxerxes of Persia, whom he serves gladly and dutifully. Word reaches him that Jerusalem has fallen to ruin. Its wall lay in rubble with its gates burned to ash. This grieves Nehemiah, yet he’s reluctant to disclose his sorrow to the king. He also, however, recognizes he’s firmly in position to act on behalf of his people. When the king inquires about his downcast mood, Nehemiah explains why he’s so sad. Artaxerxes honors Nehemiah’s faithfulness by dispatching him and a group of helpers to repair Jerusalem’s wall. On arrival, he recruits local Jews to assist in reconstruction. The foreigners presently occupying Jerusalem jeer them. Still, they continue to work, day after day in the face of open ridicule. “We got the wall rebuilt to half its height,” Nehemiah says, “because they people had a mind to work.” There is much to accomplish, and it grows more apparent their opponents are poised to do all in their power to defeat them. But they keep working.

Needed to Lead

We’re all aware of situations in our lives where we’re needed to lead. People and places we love have been torn down and they’re waiting for someone to take the initiative to help rebuild them. Others are aware of them too, but they haven’t the vision or wherewithal to mobilize. Our witness as people of compassion and tolerance gains us favor. And our commitment to justice and respect inspires others to identify with us. Like Nehemiah, we’re in a position to act. Yet also like him, many of us are reluctant to reveal how deeply the sorrows of others affect us. We resist mentioning it to others for fear we’ll be characterized as “bleeding hearts” or create trouble by having to defend our feelings. We do ourselves—and those we’re concerned about—a major disservice by this, however. Quite often added assistance we need to change things is ours for the asking. But until we ask, how can we know?

Worth Fighting For

Anything worth doing is worth fighting for. When we start out to invest our talents and lead others to fix damaged situations, we’re sure to provoke jeers. And as we succeed, it’s likely some will plot against us to defeat our efforts. But we have a mind to work. Nehemiah’s adversaries go so far as to conspire to murder those who work on the wall. Still, he remains confident God ordained this task. He tells his people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your homes.” (Nehemiah 4.14) While half of the workforce keeps watch against attack, the other half continues building the wall. “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it,” he writes, “we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.” (v15)

It’s quite often the case that people who oppose our efforts to help others are cowards and bullies—small-minded individuals looking for a fight. It’s not our job to give them what they want. We stay focused on real, urgent needs we’ve been called to meet. We live in a world of rubble. Destroyed lives, dreams, opportunities, and efforts surround us. Something must be done to rebuild them. We have it in us to lead and when we move out in faith, trusting God to ensure our success, He provides others who, like us, have a mind to work. It’s not enough to feel sorry for those in distress. There’s work to do and we’re just the people to get it done.


When we take the initiative to help others rebuild their destroyed lives and circumstances, we can lead those around us with a mind to work.

(Tomorrow: Not Our Kind)