This week we are meditating on Nehemiah 2:11-18. In a way, I am sorry that this blog is about the condition of our cultural walls and is being shared on Memorial Day weekend. On Memorial Day, we remember the sacrifice made by the soldiers of our nation for our freedoms. In a way, however, there is no better honor we can give our fallen soldiers than to confront the reality that our culture needs all of our sacrifices to maintain our freedom and way of life.
Most pastors don’t miss building programs in retirement. Since I was elected a deacon almost forty years ago I have participated in six or so building programs. They are always stressful. On the other hand, building programs do teach you a few things. One thing I’ve learned is how important plans are. In every building program since I came to Advent we have used a company known as “Barnes and Brower.” Jeff Barnes is a member of our church. When we have a building program, we have meetings between the building committee, the architect, and the builder. Jeff always emphasizes that the detail of plans is important. If plans are too vague, construction workers don’t know exactly what to do. If the plans are detailed, it’s easier to build a project because the builder knows exactly what is needed and the foremen and construction workers understand what they’re supposed to do. The better the plan, the better the building.
This morning, we are talking about how important planning is in rebuilding our culture. As a young person, I wasn’t particularly interested in planning. In my thirties, I was often engaged in projects that went on for a number of months and had many steps. One of the most enjoyable and important tasks was developing a long list of of the various stages needed to complete the transaction and what exactly needed to be done. For example, if you’re going to buy a company, there are many stages beginning with a letter of intent, then due diligence, negotiating a contract, getting any regulatory approvals, arranging financing, and finally closing the transaction. Sometimes there are hundreds of steps. I found it was kind of fun thinking things through.
No plan is ever entirely accurate. Something always goes wrong. You always forget something and things change. Nevertheless, knowing where you’re headed is important. General Eisenhower once said that before the battle planning is everything, but once the battle is engaged no plan is worth anything. That doesn’t make planning unimportant—planning gives you a place to start thinking through what to do next no matter what happens.
The Midnight Ride of Nehemiah.
Our text is from Nehemiah 2:
I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few others. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on. By night I went out through the Valley Gate, toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire. Then, I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate. The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work. Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?” I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.” (Nehemiah 2:11-20).
Prayer: God of Order and Reason: We confess that too often we forget to plan our lives carefully. Help us to learn that to renew our society and rebuild its institutions will take planning.
The Right Beginning.
Today, we are studying one of the most famous incidents in Nehemiah. Two weeks ago, we talked about Nehemiah as he learned about the condition of the walls of Jerusalem, mourned for his people, fasted, and prayed to God for wisdom. Last week, we spoke about Nehemiah’s courageous faith as he stepped out and asked King Artaxerxes for permission to return to his ancestral home in Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. This week, we’re going to build on last week and talk more about planning. If we want to renew our society, it will take a lot of planning.
Last week, I introduced a five-step process needed to renew our culture consisting of prayer, thought, faith. courage, and action. Last week, we learned that, as Nehemiah prayed through the project he had in mind, he also thought about what was needed to complete it. He realized he would need letters of safe conduct, lumber, and other items to be successful. However, he wasn’t finished planning. This week, we are going to think again about the way Nehemiah planned the work.
Rest, Reflection and Review.
This has been a hectic week. Sometimes when I’m busy, I actually try to do too much. Psychologists call this “over-functioning.” I don’t fully understand the concept; but basically it means that, if you try to do too much too fast under too much pressure, you make mistakes. One frequently quoted piece of advice that almost all leaders ignore is the need for rest and reflection.
Nehemiah was a good leader. He had made a long trip (over 600 miles) through sometimes dangerous territory. By the time he got to Jerusalem he was tired. In addition, although we know that he had family in Jerusalem, he probably didn’t know a lot of people. Our text notes that he waited three days before he did anything. What do you suppose he did during those three days? I suspect he slept, visited with family, walked around Jerusalem, looked at the walls from inside the city, introduced himself to people, and rested. I would bet you money that as he walked around Jerusalem and rested, he reflected upon the job he had committed to do. He thought about what was going to be required. He contemplated the people of Jerusalem and how he might appeal to them. He wasn’t ready to begin the job. He was getting ready. Rest and reflection are part of getting ready.
After three days, he went out one night and rode around the city. Nehemiah left the city at about the place where many tourist buses enter the city today. It is near the current Temple Mount. He then rode counterclockwise around the city, through the Kidron Valley, around the north side of Jerusalem, and then back to the gate through which he left. For part of the time, and especially in the Kidron Valley, he was riding over pretty rough ground.
Nehemiah specifically indicates that he did this at night. Why do you suppose that was? Obviously, he could have made a closer inspection during the day. On the other hand, while he would have been able to see better during the day, other people would have been able to see him. Perhaps he didn’t want to raise expectations until he was ready. Perhaps he didn’t want the enemies of Israel to see him. In any case, he was trying to be wise.
It is necessary to plan and think carefully before acting in order to renew an organization or nation. Americans are fond of action. The media and the Internet have made us even more fond of immediate reaction. Often we react emotionally as Nehemiah reacted when he heard the condition of his people, but we don’t take time to think and plan as in Nehemiah thought and planned. A good plan takes a lot of time and thought.
On our communion table during this series, I have placed a large stone. The stone came from one of our walls during a prior building program. It was too big to be placed back in the wall, so it was laid back by the forest. It took both David Shotsberger and me just to lift this stone! Guess what? The stones in the city walls of Jerusalem were much, much larger and much, much heavier than the stone on our Communion Table. It was going to take a lot of people in order to rebuild that wall. It was going to take a lot of hard labor to rebuild that wall. Nehemiah had some idea of how hard it would be before he arrived in Jerusalem. However, he needed to ride around that wall to be sure it was possible to rebuild it and to sense how many people and how long it would take!
Our Broken Walls.
Before renewing our society, we need to take a long look at the walls. If we took a ride around our society, we would find that there are a lot of “cultural foundation stones” lying on the ground. This week I thought about some of the problems our culture faces. You might come up with a different list. However, I’ll bet each one of us would come up with a pretty long list.
- First, Personal Brokenness. If you talk to older pastors, everyone believes far more people today have emotional problems and have difficulty navigating through what used to be pretty ordinary life situations than forty or seventy years ago. My mother died in 2014. She had been an Elder and Deacon in our home church for many years. She and I talked about the difference between ministry in her church in the years before she died and in the years around 1960.
- Second, Family Brokenness. In 1960, more than 70 percent of children grew up in two parent households. Today, the number is much lower. Today, most children in America will experience living in a single parent household at some point in their upbringing, Not only is divorce more frequent, but birth out of wedlock has become much more frequent. in 1930, less than 10 percent of children were born out of wedlock. Today, that number is over 40 percent. Our families are in trouble.
- Third, Community Brokenness. Many American cities have become infected with drugs, gangs, domestic violence, and other social ills. In Memphis, large areas of our city are blighted in a way that was not common seventy years ago. All over America cities and communities need to be rebuilt.
- Fourth, Economic Brokenness. Over the last few years, the income disparity between the richest one percent of Americans and everyone else has grown. In particular, the middle class and lower middle class have seen their standard of living fall. Our economy is not producing enough quality, full-time jobs to fully employ all Americans. In addition, the education we are giving our children is not necessarily aligned with the jobs being created around the world.
- Finally, Political Brokenness. Increasingly, our political system does not work for ordinary people. This week I read an article about the way in which members of Congress are lobbied by businesses and other organizations, how wives and children are often employed by such organizations or other organizations active in politics, and how the procurement system in many government agencies breeds corruption. The way in which advertising and media has become central to our politics means that vast amounts of money are needed to run for office and incumbents are rarely defeated. Money is a factor in politics like never before. This is not healthy.
These are only some of the cultural walls that are broken in our society.
The Hour of Decision.
When Nehemiah ended his ride, he concluded that the wall could be rebuilt. He knew it wouldn’t be easy, so he called together the leaders of the people and gave them a word of encouragement:
“You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.”
So much of our political leadership today involves talking a lot but actually avoiding problems. We need leaders who are knowledgeable and solve problems. Nehemiah did not mislead the people. He didn’t say these are the greatest days of Jerusalem. He acknowledged that there was a problem. He acknowledged that the city was in disgrace. Having acknowledged the problem, he motivated the people and they responded by saying, “Let’s get started building” (v. 18). Good leaders do not avoid problems, minimize problems, ignore problems, or blame others for problems. Good leaders solve problems.
I put two posts on Facebook this week about the importance of planning. For whatever reason, Americans are not particularly good planners. For example, most Americans reach retirement age without a plan for being retired. Many people enter times in their life when one can expect medical bills without planning for their medical needs. I cannot tell you how many people I’ve counseled over the last twenty-five years who bought houses or cars without considering whether or not they can afford them.
Planning is important. A strategy to solve problem that is based on prejudice or emotion won’t work. We face serious problems, and we need leaders with the willingness, skill, and capacity to think through problems and find a realistic solution. As Christians, we need learn from the example of Nehemiah and think deeply and plan carefully concerning how we’re going to solve our personal and national problems. America needs our sorrow, our prayers, our faith, and our willingness to think and plan as never before.
Copyright 2016, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved