Wednesday, October 24, 2007

God's Name, Our Delight

O Lord, let you ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name . . . I was cupbearer to the King (Nehemiah 1:11a).

Atlantans love their decals. Around here, decals are one of the ways that people tell you who they are; little bits and pieces of their identity are stuck to the back window of the SUV. If you spend any time in a car-pool line you are likely to learn where people vacation, what other schools they’ve attended or attend, how many years they gave money to that school, what sports their kids play and in what program. It’s a mini-resume on adhesive. We have a school decal on both of our vehicles, so I write this as confession, not criticism.

The decals make me wonder about how we understand our identity. What is it about our life that most truly captures who we are? What are we most eager for someone else to know about us? What would help a person truly “get” us? If it’s not the decals on our car, then often it’s the job we wake up to every morning, or the neighborhood we live in, or the friends we run with, or the clothes we wear, or the degrees we’ve earned.

The real action of Nehemiah begins in chapter two with his journey back to Jerusalem and his midnight inspection of the city’s walls. But everything that Nehemiah does is grounded in who Nehemiah is; his own deep sense of identity defines his commitments, the task to which he gives himself. To understand who Nehemiah is, we need to hang out a little longer in chapter one.

There is something distinctive about how Nehemiah understands himself, his life, his identity. He only makes one reference to his job. “I was cupbearer to the King.” Plenty of folks would have killed for that job – prestige, access to the King, authority over a large staff. It was a decent job, to be sure. But Nehemiah only mentions it once – almost a throw-away comment. When it comes to his identity, Nehemiah’s word of choice is “servant.” He is a servant of God. The English word “servant” (NIV) shows up seven times in Nehemiah’s prayer. At the end of the prayer he gives the word a definition: servants are those who “delight in revering [God’s] name.”

What would change about this day and your plans for the weekend if above all else you saw yourself as God’s servant? That means that today in the office, tomorrow at the game, next week on the business trip – whatever and wherever you are - you are God’s servant. This is who you are, and it shapes what you do and how you do it.

When Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls it his aim was not merely well constructed and fully repaired walls around the city. Nehemiah’s aim was to honor God and God’s name. Because of that – because he defined himself as a servant of God, he went to work restoring order to the city. More than anything, God calls you to serve him. The great news is that you don’t need a special assignment to do that. You can start today, right where you are.

There are days, O Lord, when I forget who I am. I define myself in ways and with words that come from the world around me. These leave me unsatisfied, restless. Remind me today of who you created me to be and teach me to be your servant in all that I do. Amen.

Friday, October 19, 2007

God is Still Great

“When I heard these things I sat down and wept . . . then I said: “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God . . . let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night . . .” (Nehemiah 1:4-5)

“God is great, God is good.” For many of us, these were the first words of prayer we ever learned. Before we could adequately pronounce those simple words, and long before we could ever grasp the meaning of what we were saying, we learned to fold our hands and affirm the goodness and greatness of God.

And then we got older. As we got older life happened, and those happenings sometimes challenged the words of that prayer. Sure, we may still teach the words to our children, but silently we have some objections – or at least some questions. We’ve seen things, or experienced things, or learned some things that make us wonder about the goodness and greatness of God.

Those six little words we learned as toddlers are joined by a maturing vocabulary: death and divorce, breakups and bankruptcy, I.E.Ds and M.I.As. The list is long. Our sentences become more complicated, the verbs more harsh and the adjectives more grim. We begin to wonder about the greatness of God. In our wondering we come across a book title that bluntly rejects what we’ve always believed, or tried to believe – “God is Not Great” sneers at us from the cover of Christopher Hitchens’s recent volume. Part of us resents the book, and part of us wonders.

After learning of the wretched conditions in Jerusalem, Nehemiah prays. The opening words of the prayer are remarkable, stunning even. In his grief and anguish over Jerusalem we might excuse Nehemiah for railing against God. The NIV bible uses an English word to describe the state of the city: “disgraced.” Grace removed, undone, taken away. Jerusalem is dis-graced, and when grace is nullified God’s character may likely be vilified. But that’s not what we get from Nehemiah. Instead, what we hear from this heartbroken man is the kind of thing that flows naturally from the lips of children. God is great. Great and awesome.

We might think of Nehemiah as a “visionary” because he was able to see what the walls of Jerusalem could become. Not so. Nehemiah was a visionary because he saw the true character of God: great and awesome. Once he grasped the reality of God he began to see what God wanted for the city.

You may find yourself in your own season of mourning and weeping. Something you care deeply about is damaged; it seems that grace is absent. The good news this morning is that God is still great. Don’t simply ask God to fix a situation. Ask for a restored vision of who God is; the kind of vision you might have had a long time ago when you learned the words of that simple prayer. The prayer words you learned when you could barely talk may be the prayer you need to pray today. Learn from Nehemiah. There is a foundational truth that will not be changed by bad news and dis-grace. God is still great.

Great and awesome God, when I look at the trouble and devastation of the world around me I get things backwards. You seem distant and small. The problems of the world seem enormous. Help me to see things rightly. Restore to me a vision of your great power and love, reminding me that the whole world is held in your mighty and tender hand. Amen.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Broken, then Busy

When I heard these things I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven (Nehemiah 1:4)

“For some days . . .”

These three words from Nehemiah 1:4 are misleading. We are likely to read right over them; blow right by in our rush to get to the real drama of the book – the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Our failure to grasp what’s happening in this little phrase is only reinforced when we read the words of Nehemiah’s prayer as recorded in verses 5-11. I just finished reading the prayer out loud at a deliberate pace. It took me one minute and twenty seconds. You could easily get through it faster.

What only takes eighty seconds to read is given to us as a sample of what Nehemiah did “for some days.” And what’s more, the “some days” is actually closer to four months. Nehemiah learns of Jerusalem’s condition in the month of Kislev (1:1). He finally presents a plan and request to King Artaxerxes in the month of Nisan (2:1). That means Nehemiah’s prayer is no meager “Please help us God” offered up in an eighty second interlude before getting down to business. No, Nehemiah’s weeping and fasting and praying covered a period of four months.

This was said a couple of days ago, but it’s worth repeating: before Nehemiah presents a plan to the King he offers prayer to God. Lingering prayer: repetitive, passionate, heart wrenching petition. Brokenness precedes busyness. Those who are broken before God will be used by God to change the world.

I am particularly challenged by Nehemiah’s example at this point. I never fast. I see plenty in the world to weep over, but my tears are slow to come. And then there’s the praying. I wish I were better at it, more consistent. I’m afraid I give up on prayer to easily, or I’m quickly satisfied that I’ve said all that needs to be said to God. No need to go on for four months, or a year, or four years. God knows my heart. Make the request clear to God a few times and then let it go at that. Mine is not a problem of belief, but a problem of will. I believe in prayer, but I don’t wrestle with God for as long as it takes.

Getting our arms around the city begins with kneeling before the God who loves the city far more than we do. In fact, getting a handle on anything that matters deeply to us starts with prayer. Prayer is not a substitute for action. It is the soil out of which meaningful action grows. Maybe you’re facing something today that confronts you with two temptations. On one hand, you may be tempted to despair and you’ve stopped talking to God about whatever it might be. On the other hand, your fear may be driving you to take immediate action, to get busy and get busy now.

Maybe this morning God is simply inviting you to linger in his presence; to linger and to listen. In his presence you may weep, you may complain, you may question. Our confidence to pray, and keep on praying, comes from knowing that God gladly hears it all and is already at work in those things that concern us.

Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my sighing. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. In the morning, O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation (Psalm 5:1-3).

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Escape or Engage

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men . . . I was cupbearer to the King (Nehemiah 1:1, 11b).

On Mondays I leave the house early to get to church for a 7:00 men’s Bible study. Two left turn lanes funnel traffic from the south Marietta loop to I-75 southbound to Atlanta. Typically I avoid this route, but the early hour on Mondays usually works in my favor. While waiting for the green arrow that will allow me to take my place in the stampeding herd, I strain to look over the bridge railing to the south. In the early morning darkness red taillights provide an indicator of what awaits me. When the glowing red is well spaced and moving swiftly, that’s a good sign. Thick red that creeps like sludge means I should have gone another way.

Funny thing about the morning commute: thousands of people get up every day and make their way into the city . . . for the purpose of being able to avoid the city. The work that brings them into the city makes it possible for them to create a citadel to which they will escape at day’s end. The fortress they take refuge in may be a gated apartment complex, a home surrounded by spiked wrought iron, or a house on a quiet street with garage doors that can be opened safely from the car and closed upon entering the citadel . . . uh, house. Of course, there is nothing wrong with pursuing the American dream. But in the pursuit we may one day discover that we’re actually running from something; running from the God who pursues us and wants to use us in the world.

The thing that draws those thousands of taillights onto I-75 every morning was something that Nehemiah had obtained. Nehemiah had a comfortable place and a respectable position. As his story opens, he is in the Citadel of Susa. Susa was the winter residence of the King of Persia. There in the fortress Nehemiah was highly trusted as the King’s cupbearer. This position meant that Nehemiah was more than a royal official; he was intimately acquainted with the King’s household, practically a member of the family. Who could ask for more? A comfortable dwelling (citadel) and a prestigious job (cupbearer) – millions chase that dream every day.

And who would ever want to leave that kind arrangement for the poverty and rubble of a wrecked city like Jerusalem? We work hard to protect ourselves from poverty and trash. But here’s the thing: You can’t put your arms around the city if you won’t leave the citadel. Every day we are confronted with a choice about how we’ll live life. The direction of our life’s energies will be aimed either at escape or engagement. You can work hard to escape the brokenness and shield yourself from it, or you can work hard to engage the brokenness and bring about transformation.

How are you living life today? Did God put you here and place his gifts in your life so that you can hunker down in your citadel, collecting comforts, distancing yourself from pain? Nehemiah, highly esteemed and very comfortable, ached to get back to the shattered remains of Jerusalem. What are you aching to do with your life? Where does God want to use you today?

Gracious God, send me into the world today intent on engaging those you love, ready to bring your grace wherever it is needed. Don’t let my energies be spent avoiding what you are doing in the city around me. Give me courage to step outside the gates of the fortresses I’ve so carefully built, and help me to put my arms around the city. Amen.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Never Too Far Gone

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” (Nehemiah 1:3)

When my cell phone rang, disturbing the relative quiet of the Border’s bookstore, the caller i.d. displayed “Al’s Automotive.” I was eager to hear from Al – or his guys. Our not-often-trusty family vehicle had been leaving a spotty trail for some time. Seems that wherever we parked we would leave the world an oily reminder of our presence there. The left side floor of our garage was a mess. Time to get that fixed, and so to Al’s. When the call came in I found a secluded place between some tall bookshelves and answered.

Al – or whoever actually called me – didn’t have good news. With language that escapes me now, he detailed the parts of the engine that were loosing oil; this was done with a pleasant and helpful tone, as if he were giving me directions to the Georgia Aquarium. The report concluded with a grand total figure, a figure that easily exceeded the value of the vehicle. Reality began to set in as I realized that toddler-hood along with nine years of wear and tear had taken its toll. This time things were simply too far gone.

Nehemiah’s story is slightly different. When Nehemiah learned from Hanani about the condition of Jerusalem, he was not learning something new or unheard of. In fact, roughly 140 years before this event, long before Nehemiah’s birth, Jerusalem had been destroyed by Babylon (587 BC). To some extent, the destruction of Jerusalem had been a persistent problem throughout Nehemiah’s lifetime. He could have written Jerusalem off as too far gone . . . but he didn’t. One of the first remarkable things we notice about Nehemiah is the absence of a resigned fatalism. Nehemiah is deeply stirred by the plight of Jerusalem – even with its long standing and deeply entrenched problems. The city is not beyond hope and help; things are not too far gone.

The fact that Nehemiah can still weep is significant. Typically, long-term persistent problems that never change leave us numb. We wake up to the same thing every morning just as we have for a thousand mornings, bracing ourselves for a thousand more. Whatever it is, God seems to have forgotten it and we’re left to live with it. We stop weeping. Sure, we want to believe that God is still around, somehow tending the shop, but the realities we see mock that kind of thinking as escapist or childish; wishful thinking, not faith. When the world we see appears to be beyond repair, we don’t know what to believe. We don’t know how to believe. Nehemiah’s example emboldens us because he insists on dealing with God about an intractable issue that won’t go away and can’t be fixed, or so it seems.

Like Nehemiah, we bring before God those issues that have dogged us for years; a marriage that’s long been on the brink of collapse, an addicted family member who can’t get on top of their illness, a persistent health problem, relentless financial crises that won’t stop coming. Nehemiah reminds us that things are never too far gone, never beyond the scope of God’s reach, never outside the sphere of God’s grace. It was true of Jerusalem, it is true of Atlanta, and it’s true of your life.

But before Nehemiah formulates a plan he offers a prayer. His brokenness precedes his busyness. Maybe before we work with God we’ll need to deal honestly and directly with God. We’ll be thinking this week about what that means. With Nehemiah we go to our knees, and we start right now.

Merciful God, when I think about the problems that confront our city, I am tempted to see the place as beyond help, or at least beyond my help. The same is true of the wreckage I see in people’s lives and even in my own life. Give me a new vision for what you are doing in me and around me. I bring my city, my very life, before you today in Jesus’ name. Amen.