Tag Archives: Walls

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.

Building Silos

This is what the Lord commands for Zelophehad’s daughters: They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan.
Numbers 36:6 (NIV)

Almost every morning Wendy and I meet in our dining room for our requisite cups of coffee and tea. We read the newspaper together and start each day catching up on current events and solving the worlds problems. Over weeks and months and years we begin to see patterns that you can count on. For example, no matter what piece of legislation is presented by Congress here in America, all parties will get out their crystal balls and predict either blissful utopia or utter apocalypse depending on which side of the aisle they butter their womb-to-the-tomb pension and benefits package. The same clichés will be used like worn-out rags for the public while behind closed doors congressional staffers will be hammering out appeals and deals.

Along life’s journey I’ve observed that there are always unintended consequences to virtually any law. Laws may benefit the majority but will typically have unintended negative effect for others. Laws always get amended, altered and changed by additional legislation or by interpretations and clarifications from the judicial branch. It’s just the way the system works.

In today’s chapter we finish our journey through the ancient book of Numbers with a rather odd, anti-climactic story. A few chapters ago the unmarried daughters of a guy named Zelophehad approached Moses and argued that their father’s inheritance should pass to them, even though they were women. Women in near east cultures of that day could not own property and, in fact, were typically considered the property of their fathers or husbands. In a law that was incredibly progressive for the time, Moses agreed with the orphaned daughters and set up a new law granting unmarried daughters of a dead father the father’s inheritance. The inheritance would then pass to their husband if/when they eventually married.

Today we have an appeal to the original law. The ruling men in the tribe begin to ask themselves “What ifs.” It would not surprise me if multiple men from various tribes were lining up in an ancient version of The Bachelorette. Marrying Zelophehad’s daughters and getting your hands on Zelophehad’s inheritance would be a lucrative deal. “Mazel tov!”

The problem was that tribal inheritance in the promised land was to be set in stone and absolute. Land was not to pass back and forth from one tribe to another. The case of Zelophehad’s daughters created a problem. Their father’s land would go to their future husband. If they married outside the clan then their tribes land would be owned by another tribe. Moses quickly amends the original law stating that Zelophehad’s daughters must marry inside their own tribal clan.

Of course, when you follow the news long enough and acquaint yourself with human history you begin to see patterns. Today’s amendment will have its own unintended effect. When human tribes isolate and insulate themselves socially it creates “us versus them” mentalities. Eventually the tribes would turn against one another in a protracted civil war.

This morning I’m thinking about tribes and clans. In the business world we often speak of “Silos” in which departments and divisions of corporations operate within themselves and largely function in exclusion to the corporation as a whole. In the world of institutional Christianity we see this same paradigm in silos we call denominations. Across the U.S. I see silos in politics and in my own community I see silos culturally among groups with different ideas and interests. Silos we build with the best of intentions to shore up the identity and cohesion of certain groups become exclusionary protectorates that eventually contribute negatively to the whole.

The further I get in my life journey the more inclined I am to stop building silos and to start tearing them down.

 

 

Every Leader Wears a Target

The burden bearers carried their loads in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and with the other held a weapon.
Nehemiah 4:17 (NRSV)

Along life’s journey I’ve learned that when set yourself up to lead almost any effort, no matter how noble your intent, you will always encounter opposition. Parents trying to lead their family well will experience opposition from children, so-called experts, other parents telling them they’re doing it wrong, or the grandparents telling them they’re screwing up the kids. Teachers leading a classroom have to wear emotional body armor against the slings and arrows they get from all sides. Every preacher on Sunday morning, no matter how true his or her message, has at least a few congregation members who will serve up roast pastor for their Sunday dinner. The greater the task being led, the more virulent the opposition will be.

patton george bailey w text

In this life, God has not led me on roads where I have been called upon to take on monumental leadership roles. I have never been Patton called on to lead armies in saving the free world from Hitler’s minions. I have always been George Bailey fighting the relatively silly skirmishes of Bedford Falls. Still, I am always amazed at how universally this paradigm holds true. People are people. Stand in a position of leadership and you wear a target on your chest.

So it was that Nehemiah and the people building the walls of Jerusalem encountered opposition from their neighbors and enemies in today’s chapter. Their enemies did not want the wall rebuilt. They did not want Judah to rebuild its regional power. They wanted the walls and gates to remain in heaps of rubble. And so, with the threat of their work being attacked, the laborers had to build the wall with one hand, and had to be prepared to defend their work with the other.

I love that word picture as I wear my relatively minor mantels of leadership. I have to be prepared for opposition as I lead any kind of task. Of course, I’ve also learned that not all opposition or criticism is malicious or divisive. Quite often it is criticism that makes me aware of my blind spots and helps me shore up areas of need. Wise King Solomon said, “The wounds of a friend are better than the kisses of an enemy.” Word. I’ve discovered that wisdom is often required to discern the difference between constructive criticism and opposition of ill intent. I’m still learning.

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When the Walls Come a Tumblin’ Down

[The travelers from Judah] replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”

When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:3-4 (NRSV)

In ancient days, a nations walls were everything. Every major city (which subsequently controlled the nearby lands) was surrounded by walls. Walls were your security, making it impossible for enemies to easily invade. Walls were your pride. Their height, width, and engineering told the world how prosperous, industrious, and educated you were. Your gates were your calling card. Being the weakest point of defense, your gate said everything about you. The more secure, enamored, and embellished the gate, the more your city state would be held in high esteem.

The book of Nehemiah is about the walls and the gate of the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed (along with Solomon’s temple) by the Babylonian empire in 587 B.C. Most of the nations best and brightest were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Ezra, Nehemiah and their families were among them. As the scene is established in the opening sequence of today’s chapter, Nehemiah runs into some travelers who had arrived in Babylon from back home. He inquires about the state of their homeland and capitol city, and learns that the walls and gates had been utterly destroyed. The remnant back home feel utter shame.

If you have no walls, you are nothing.

Nehemiah’s reaction to the news was telling. He is grief stricken. He weeps. He fasts. He prays and confesses to God his sins, the sins of his family, and the sins of his nation.

We don’t have literal walls surrounding our homes and capitols [Unless you live in a gated community…there’s a good conversation to be explored there. Trump’s promised border wall is another interesting parallel conversation, but I digress] Walls as a line of defense became obsolete hundreds of years ago. The word picture, however, still carries weight for me in my personal life. I still build walls, metaphorically, around my heart and life. I build walls of protection against forces spiritual, emotional, relational, and cultural. I erect walls of possessions and words revealing to others what I want them to see, while hiding safely that which I desire to hide. I engineer relational walls that warn people off, walls that keep people out, and gates of relationship that open and close at my will.

And, my walls can crumble and fall just like Jerusalem’s.

On my left bicep I have a tat that references Psalm 51. It is an ancient song of confession, the lyrics written by King David at a moment when the walls of Jerusalem stood tall and proud, but the walls of his personal life had come crashing to the ground. The gates to his soul lay in utter ruin. It is on my left bicep because the ancients identified left, and left-handedness (I’m a lefty, btw), with foolishness, iniquity, and sin. It is on my bicep because it is a reminder to me that my strength is not in the quality of the walls I build around myself, but in humility and the utter honesty of my confession.

Nehemiah is having a Psalm 51 moment. I have had my own (multiple times). Walls crash and burn. Life sometimes lays in ruin before us. I have learned along the journey that in those moments when life crumbles around me the key to finding seeds of redemption and restoration lie not in the strength of my biceps, but in the condition of my spirit. Nehemiah gets it, too.

Confession of a Spiritual Brick Layer

 For there is no difference between Jew and Gentile—the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him.
Romans 10:12 (NIV)

Six years ago Wendy and I were in London and had the pleasure of attending the National Theatre. The production that night was a fascinating play about the different waves of modern immigrants who flooded into London over the past few hundred years. The play was set in one low rent tenement building that became home to all of these various ethnic groups, and in the pub on the street below.

When the French Huguenots moved in the poor Brits in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing French!

When the Indians moved in the assimilated French Huguenots in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing Indians!

When the Irish moved in during the Great Famine the assimilated Indians in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing Irish!

When the Russian Jews moved in during the Russian pogroms the assimilated Irish in the pub grumbled about the “F*#@ing Jews!

You get the picture. We are such a homogenous and exclusionary society. Even in the “great melting pot” of the United States, which over the past 250 years may have easily become the most racially and culturally diverse society in the history of the earth, we still grumble about the next wave of immigrants. We feel suspicious about people who aren’t “American” and don’t speak English.  We talk about building giant walls to keep people out.

I have observed that followers of Jesus are not immune to this phenomenon. As children we are taught to sing:

“red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in His sight,
Jesus loves the little children of the world.”

What our Sunday School teachers left out was the bit about these children not being particularly precious in our sight. They didn’t teach us the qualification about these children being “precious in His sight in their own country of origin.”

In today’s chapter, Paul announces to those following Jesus in Rome that the walls the people of Israel had built up in their hearts to exclude non-Jews (known as Gentiles) had been toppled once and for all by Jesus. Beyond that, read the Jesus story and you discover Him toppling walls between genders, walls between social strata, and walls between political camps. Wherever those walls still exist today (and they exist all over the place), it’s because we who have followed Jesus have exerted ourselves to rebuild those walls in our hearts, lives, homes, churches, and communities.

Today I’m reading my own post and examining my own heart. As usual, as I point my finger at others there are three pointing back at me. I live in an incredibly homogenous community comfortable in its lack of diversity. I must confess to you: evidence suggest that I am quite an accomplished spiritual brick layer myself.

God, will you lend me your sledgehammer?

Thanks.

Step back, please.

 

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Foundational Inscriptions

2010 03 Playhouse BasementUnless the Lord builds the house,
    the builders labor in vain.
Psalm 127:1a (NIV)

When I was a teenager my parents began making regular summer visits to the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. When I was just out of college and the girls were babies, my folks would rent a house for a week or so each summer and invite the family to join them there. I can remember taking long sunset boat rides during those years. Dad would gun the engine and we would jet off across the water. Conversation was nigh unto impossible, so I would sit in the bow of the boat just dream. I would day dream of owning my own place on the lake someday, though at the time I considered it a pipe dream.

By the time the girls were in elementary school my parents had bought a small trailer home on a lakeshore plot there. Just over a decade later they were ready to sell, and Wendy and I were in a position of investing in the place. What had only been a pipe-dream a decade or two before was actually becoming a reality. We pulled the trailer home off the land, had a walk out basement foundation poured and put a manufactured home on the foundation. In the spring of 2010, a group of friends gathered in the bare basement to begin a summer long task of finishing it.

The first morning of construction I gathered the guys together and handed them each a black Sharpie. With the above verse fresh on my mind, I asked each of them to pray for the place, to pick a verse from God’s Message and to write it somewhere on the bare cement foundation. The verses they each wrote on the walls are covered over with insulation, framing, and drywall, but we will never forget what is written there.

Next weekend I’m taking a small group of guys for a little winter retreat at the lake. In another month or so Wendy and I will begin making regular trips down to prepare for another season of family, friends, fun, rest, relaxation and sun. It’s become a part of the seasonal flow of life for us. I don’t know about Wendy, but I still shake my head with wonder from time to time. We have been blessed, and I don’t want to lose sight of the source of our blessings nor cease to forget what is written on the foundation. I want the love, laughter, tears, and conversations which take place in that house to have eternal value. I never want our labor to have been in vain.

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