Part of the Family

“The following came up from the towns of Tel Melah, Tel Harsha, Kerub, Addon and Immer, but they could not show that their families were descended from Israel….”
Nehemiah 7:61 (NIV)

A few years ago, I signed up on a site called WikiTree. It is a free online effort to create one massive family tree. The volunteers at WikiTree are not just trying to find their family, but to connect their family to all other families in the realization that, ultimately, we all came from the same woman.

I’ve dabbled in my family’s history for decades. The reality is that I come from pretty common, everyday people. Carpenters, farmers, and poor immigrants who left for the new world to make a better life for themselves and their descendants. That’s my lineage.

WikiTree, however, has a feature in which you can discover how you are connected to various historical people. It’s not a direct blood relationship, but because it’s one massive global family tree you begin to realize that through marriage connections and sibling connections there aren’t that many degrees of separation between you and royalty. For example, there are only 18 degrees of separation between me and King Henry VIII:

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah goes to great lengths to record the returning exiles. Interestingly, he doesn’t do it by name but by families and genealogical records. In the Hebrew system, your family of record was a huge deal. Your career and your social standing had everything to do with your family tree. You’ll notice that some of the exiles were labeled as descendants of “the servants of King Solomon.” Those who had no genealogical record are found at the bottom of Nehemiah’s list. They were the poor dregs.

One of the paradigms that Jesus came to radically change was this genealogical system. In the system that Jesus established, a person’s standing in this temporal, Level 3 world was of no value at all. In the radically new paradigm, Jesus established “the first will be last and the last will be first.” In the introduction of his Jesus biography, the disciple John writes:

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

John 1:12

For those in the entrenched Hebrew family system of genealogical records and social status, this turned the systemic realities of their society upside down. And, from a spiritual perspective, it’s absolutely life-changing. Anyone, anyone, anyone, anyone can be a child of God, a member of the family, and a partaker of the divine inheritance through simple faith in Jesus. No more pecking order. In fact, interestingly enough, if you look at the family records of Jesus listed in Matthew and Luke you’ll find both Jews and Gentiles, men and women, kings and prostitutes. It’s like a word picture of the spiritual family Jesus came to introduce us to.

In the quiet this morning, I am mulling over that which WikiTree regularly reminds me: We’re all connected. I think that Jesus, the Author of Creation, understood that more than anyone. I’m also pondering on the spiritual, systemic paradigms that I so easily forget and am so quick to corrupt:

“Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”

Jesus
A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Musing on Mudslinging

I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”

They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.”

But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”
Nehemiah 6:8-9 (NIV)

We live in fascinating times.

I have been intrigued by the massive shifts I’ve witnessed in my lifetime on almost every level of life from technology, religion, politics, law, government, and business. Obviously, some of the things we’re experiencing are new as in the incredible speed and growth of technology in recent years. At the same time, how we react, respond, change, and adapt follow certain human norms. As the teacher of Ecclesiastes observed: “There’s nothing new under the sun.”

One of the things I’ve noticed of late is the way accusation has become a popular social and political weapon. Sling mud in the courtroom of public opinion. It may not destroy my enemy, but some of the mud will stick and may even cause injury in multiple ways. This is not new. It is a tactic as old as humanity. I believe, however, that it ebbs and flows in its frequency and effectiveness. My observation is that it’s flowing more frequently of late.

In today’s chapter, the enemies of Nehemiah send him an “unsealed” letter. The fact that it wasn’t sealed meant that it wasn’t for his eyes only. It was meant to look like an openly circulated letter or a broadcast email. In that day it was a way of saying, “Everyone knows!” Contained within the letter were completely fabricated lies about Nehemiah wanting to make himself king and rebel against the Persian Emporer (whose family had a long history of violently suppressing rebellions and acts of treason). There wasn’t a stitch of truth in the allegations. They were making shit up in an effort to discredit, discourage, and derail Nehemiah’s restoration project.

I found Nehemiah’s response to be a fascinating example:

He saw the message for what it was. He knew it was all lies and knew exactly what his enemies were trying to do.

He chose neither to react nor respond. An emotional reaction of anger or vengeance would have been a victory for Nehemiah’s enemies. It would have been proof that they had gotten under his skin. Responding to them would have been wasted time. They’d already sent several other messages and Nehemiah’s attempts of respectful reply were disregarded, and the whole affair had become a distraction from accomplishing the work to which he was called.

He prayed. For those with no faith, this may seem a silly waste of time as well. For Nehemiah, this was modus operandi. He had already seen how God had answered his prayers every step of the way from Persia. He chose to trust that God was going to bless the work to which he was called, to uphold his reputation against false accusation, and to manage his enemies.

In the quiet this morning I am reminded of particular stretches of my journey in which people were making stuff up about me and there was nothing I could do about it. I’m thinking about friends and individuals who find themselves in that same circumstance now. It’s part of the journey, especially when you are called to do things that others don’t want to see you accomplish.

I find myself reminded of sage advice Wendy’s mother gave us when we were going through a particular stretch of false accusation: “Make like a turtle. Pull in when you need to and let it bounce off. Then keep moving forward.” As Aesop’s fable so aptly reminds: slow and steady wins the race.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Motives and Example

So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?”
Nehemiah 5:9 (NIV)

In 1993, the state of Iowa experienced historic flooding. An army of volunteers sandbagged along the Des Moines River attempting to protect the Water Works plant, but it was eventually inundated, leaving a quarter of a million people without fresh water. My family and I had just moved back to Des Moines in the weeks before the floods peaked.

I was working for a non-profit organization at the time and was dispatched by my employer to assist in any way I could. I ended up working at an emergency shelter for victims whose homes were flooded.

My experiences as a volunteer during those days opened my eyes to a side of national emergencies that we will never see on the news. I overheard conversations as relief officials and corporations negotiated the amount of aid they were willing to “give” dependant on the publicity they would receive and the level of the government official who would be present to publicly accept the donation in front of the cameras. I witnessed relief officials act as casting directors, sizing up flood victims as to which news outlet they would be perfect for on camera. I watched news producers coaching victims how to sound and look more pitiful, and making the victim’s situation seem far worse than reality.

I realized during those days that national emergencies are big business. They tug at global heartstrings, earn lots of viewers (and ad dollars) for news organizations, earn publicity for donors, and generate millions of dollars in revenue for relief organizations. And it’s all done under the humanitarian guise of helping our neighbor.

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah is in the midst of his emergency construction project to shore up the walls of Jerusalem. He begins to witness things that open his eyes, as well. What becomes clear is that the dire situation among the people in and around Jerusalem is not just the lack of protective walls and gates around the city. The wealthy have been using the tough times and difficult circumstances as an excuse to extort interest from the poor and take people’s land and children away. Nehemiah calls an assembly and demands that they stop using their position to take advantage of others.

Nehemiah goes on to explain that, as Governor, he led by example in these matters. He didn’t accept all that was due him as Governor nor did he levy taxes on his people to line his own pockets as Governors usually did.

In the quiet this morning I am thinking about motives and example. When the people’s motives were out of whack they acted accordingly to the detriment of all. Nehemiah’s appeal was not just about changing their behavior but about changing their hearts. Nehemiah’s motives were to do what was right for the people which translated into behaviors that were consistent with those motives.

I find myself doing some soul searching today and a little personal cardiology examination. It’s easy for me to accept that my motives are right and my behaviors towards others are aligned, but how do those under my leadership see it? What do my actions and motives look like from their perspective? When I get uncomfortable with looking at it that way, then I’m pretty sure I’ve got some changes of my own to make.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

The Nehemiah Two-Step

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Nehemiah 4:8-9 (NIV)

This life journey always comes with a certain amount of opposition. It can come from any number of sources, and it can take multiple forms. Opposition can be spiritual, emotional, relational, physical, personal, internal, public, subversive, passive, violent, and etc. We all face opposition, conflict, and threats from time to time, even if it is in relatively small ways.

In today’s chapter, the exiles attempting to repair the walls of Jerusalem encounter opposition from the neighboring tribes. Conflict with these tribes and towns had been part of the political landscape of the area for centuries, so it was not a surprise. It was expected.

I found it fascinating that Nehemiah records a “two-step” response to the threats. I think the “Nehemiah Two-Step” is a great move to know when I find myself dancing with the fires of opposition in any form that the antagonistic force might present itself. The first step was to pray. The second step was to respond with the appropriate action.

Along my life journey, I’ve experienced many times when I get this very simple dance move wrong:

  • I pray without responding with action. In hindsight, I realize that sometimes I have placed all the responsibility on God with the expectations that He will supernaturally make it all okay without me being responsible for doing my part.
  • I act without praying. Other times, a threat or attack comes and it elicits from me an immediate reaction. When I react without praying, I’ve come to realize that I have refused to seek, submit, and subscribe to my higher authority. My reactions are often raging but not rational, passionate but not prudent, willful but not wise.
  • I act before I pray. When I get the order wrong, I find myself determining the response I think is warranted and then ask God to honor my plan rather than honoring God to seek His plan for how I should respond.

In the quiet this morning, as I pondered these things, I was reminded of this quote:

“Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.”

Albert Einstein

The great scientist’s words have always reminded me that no matter what I set out to accomplish, I can expect opposition. And, it’s likely that the greater endeavor I attempt, the greater opposition I’m likely to face.

From a spiritual perspective, God’s Message continually reminds me of the same thing. Specifically, that spiritual opposition is always a threat:

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.

I Peter 5:8 (NIV)

I long ago recognized that the time I spend, first thing in the morning, in quiet reading, writing, and contemplation has a positive effect on the rest of my day. It’s another form of the “Nehemiah two-step.” Pray, then act.

So, now I’ve prayed. It’s time to take action on today’s task list.

Have a great day, my friend.

A note to readers: You are always welcome to share all or part of my chapter-a-day posts if you believe it may be beneficial for others. I only ask that you link to the original post and/or provide attribution for whatever you might use. Thanks for reading!

Labor for the Good of the Whole

The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.
Nehemiah 3:5 (NIV)

Over the years I’ve come to learn that there are three issues that create more marital issues than any other: money, sex, and the division of labor. Each of these marital land mines contains a potentially explosive form of relational power and/or control that can be exhibited in both passivity and aggression. I have found that most couples somewhat expect the conflicts around money and sex, but the division of labor often catches them by surprise.

How we go about dividing roles and responsibilities for the everyday tasks of life together can be as unique as the individuals involved. I’ve found that there are all sorts of elements that factor into both the conflicts and the resolutions including history (how it was modeled in our homes growing up), personalities (and the respective concern with order and detail), giftedness (the ability or lack of ability to do certain things well), interest (one person’s desire/need to have things done a certain way), character (the willingness of an individual to work for the good of the whole), and spirit (the willingness to submit my needs/desires for the sake of my partner).

In today’s chapter, Nehemiah describes all of those who pitched in to help repair the walls of Jerusalem. Different individuals and groups took responsibility for certain sections of the wall that surrounded the city. What stood out in his list is the one group of “nobles” (the Hebrew word used here means “magnificent” or “mighty”) who refused and were unwilling to throw their back into the manual labor. Nehemiah’s calling them out points to an issue of character. The nobles of Tekoa appear to have been unwilling to work.

In the quiet this morning I find myself thinking about the work required for the success of a marriage, a home, a team, a business, and/or a community. I’ve observed on many levels that when an individual and/or group refuse (or are not required) to get their hands dirty in the grunt work required for the well-being and success of the whole, then a chain reaction of issues are likely to be set of which will strain the system and may even threaten to destroy it.

I am reminded of the words of King David to his son, Solomon, whom his father tasked with the construction of the temple that the exiles we’re reading about rebuilt. It’s become a life verse for me:

“Be strong, and courageous, and do the work.”

King David (1 Chronicles 28:20)

Which reminds me. I have work to do. And, I imagine you do too. All the best to you in your labor this day, my friend.

Popcorn Prayers

The king said to me, “What is it you want?” Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king…..”
Nehemiah 2:4-5a (NIV)

I was honored a few weeks ago when I was asked to pray for our meal at my high school reunion. In part, I was honored because it has become increasingly common for prayers at public events to be ignored our outright forbidden. I also realize that I and my classmates grew up in a time when public prayer was hotly debated along with questions regarding whether it was appropriate for public school choirs to sing sacred music at events such as commencement.

I can remember during some of these debates about “school prayer” that it was humorously acknowledged that the school building will always be the center of a million prayers during finals week. Of course, there is a difference between a public prayer at a school event and the silent prayer students staring at the test that has just been placed before them.

For those who are not regular readers, I have been blogging through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message in recent months. These are the writings of the ancient Hebrews who experienced being taken into captivity by the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Medo-Persian empires. They eventually returned to Jerusalem to rebuild and restore their homeland. Being an exile, in its very essence, means living away from home, and being in exile often means a loss of power, control, and public standing. My local gathering of Jesus’ followers is currently exploring the notion that the people of God are, by nature, exilic and what that means for us in the 21st century.

Nehemiah was a cupbearer for the Persian king, Artaxerxes. In today’s chapter, Nehemiah could not hide his grief while serving in the king and queen’s presence. It was, in those days, deemed inappropriate to show any kind of negative emotion in the presence of the king. On a whim, the king could have his servant executed for such an infraction. So when Artaxerxes notices the depressed look on his cupbearer’s face, Nehemiah’s immediate fear was warranted.

What I found interesting is that the phrase “Then I prayed to the God of heaven” is sandwiched in between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. There is no way that Nehemiah said, “Can you hang on a few minutes while I get on my knees and pray for a while?” Nehemiah’s prayer to the God of heaven had to have been what I call a “popcorn prayer.” A popcorn prayer is the silent, sudden, internal exclamation of my spirit to God’s Spirit in an instant. It’s exactly what I did as a student before every Biology test (science was not my thing).

According to a 2017 survey by the Barna, 79 percent of Americans said they had prayed in the previous three months. Barna found prayer to be the most common faith practice among American adults, but it was also the most multi-faceted. In fact, the researcher concluded that “the most common thing about people’s prayers is that they are different.”

Along my spiritual journey, I’ve discovered that my own prayer life is much like Barna’s research. It’s multi-faceted. I do, at times, spend set periods of time in prayer. Sometimes, I audibly talk to God while I’m alone in my car driving. Wendy and I pray together before meals, and often we will pray together when it is just the two of us traveling in the car. I’ve sometimes described my life journey itself as one long, uninterrupted conversation with God. I’m constantly aware of God’s presence, and my “popcorn prayers” are popping constantly in the heat of Life’s microwave oven.

Our culture has shifted in the 35 years since I graduated from high school. I know some who see this as a source of grief, anxiety, fear, and even anger. Sociologists and scholars are calling our current culture the “post-Christain” world. Frankly, I’m not that worried about it. In fact, I think it might just be a good thing. Throughout the Great Story, it’s clear that God’s people flourish, not when they are in power, but when they live in exile. It’s a paradox that Jesus said He came to model and that He told his followers to embrace:

“You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around, how quickly a little power goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant. Whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. That is what the Son of Man has done: He came to serve, not be served—and then to give away his life in exchange for the many who are held hostage.”

Jesus (Matthew 20:25-28 [MSG])

Paul, one of Jesus’ early followers, put it this way:

That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul of Tarsus (2nd Letter to the Corinthians 12:10 [NIV])

In the quiet this morning I find my head swimming in thoughts of culture, and power, and exile, and prayer. Nehemiah found himself a servant to the King of a foreign empire. Artaxerxes had the power to execute Nehemiah for having a frown on his face, and yet his precarious position of impotence led him to depend on his faith in the power and purposes of God. Isn’t that the very spiritual reality that Jesus wanted us to embrace?

As I finish this post I’m saying a popcorn prayer for any and all who read it. Hope you have a great day, my friend.

Foolish Anxiety and Real Threats

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 (NIV)

The immigration of large people groups tend to happen in waves. The town of Pella, Iowa, where I live was founded by a group of Dutch immigrants in the 1800s. It happened, however, in waves. The first group arrived on the Iowa prairie in 1847 and began a settlement. They were the trailblazers. In his book Iowa Letters, Johan Stellingwerff, chronicles the letters sent back and forth between the first wave of settlers and their families back home who were still preparing to make the voyage:

“Dear Parents,

I write specially about the expenses of my journey…The journey from Borton, New York, or Baltimore is tiresom and damaging for freight because of reloading. It is better and cheaper via New Orleans…..

Hendrik Hospers

It is important for readers to understand that for the exiles returning to the city of Jerusalem from their captivity in Babylon and Persia, the same is also true.

For many years, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book with two sections. They were authored by two different leaders of the waves of returning exiles. There were actually three waves of people who returned. The first was c. 538 BC led by Zerubbabel (the rebuilt Temple of Solomon is commonly referenced by historians as Zerubbabel’s Temple). Ezra led the next wave c. 458 BC. Nehemiah led the third c. 432 BC.

In today’s opening chapter of Nehemiah, the author records the word that came back to him from the returned exiles in Jerusalem. The news was not good. The walls of Jerusalem were in ruins and the gates of the city were burned and useless. It’s hard for us to appreciate the magnitude of this reality for the people of that time. Raiding armies were common among the many tribes and factions in the region. Plundering and pillaging were common and walls were an essential deterrent. The success of the exiles in their return and rebuilding of the city was in peril if there were no walls or gates to protect them from outside armies and/or raiding parties.

It may be hard to relate to everyday life in the 21st century, but the truth is that in life and in business, I find myself mindful of potential threats. There are threats of weather for which we must prepare our home and property. There is the threat of catastrophic life events against which we buy insurance for our health and lives.

Along my life journey, I have struggled to find the balance between being prepared for unexpected threats and being worried about them. I am more convinced than ever that I live in a culture in which politicians, media, special interest groups, and corporations peddle a non-stop stream of fear and apocalyptic predictions, which in turn create human reactions in large numbers of people, which in turn leads to clicks, views, ads, votes, sales, revenues, and etc. Wisdom is required.

Yesterday, among our local gathering of Jesus followers I was reminded that the Kingdom of God is not in trouble.

Nevertheless, I have a responsibility to my wife, my family, my employees, and my loved ones. There is wisdom in taking honest stock of potential threats that could seriously affect our well-being, and to take realistic precautions. When Nehemiah heard that the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins and the gates of the city had burned down, he was not motivated by unrealistic fear but by wisdom with regard to very real threats to his loved ones and his people. Two previous waves of exiles had failed to address a very real threat to their existence, and Nehemiah immediately knows that something must be done.

As I begin this new day and this new work week, I find myself asking for wisdom in discerning between fear-mongering, foolish anxiety, and real threats.