Friday, December 31, 2010

Nehemiah Part Three - Making the thank you list

Some musicians love to thank a huge list of people in their album liner notes. I don’t. What if I forget to mention sensitive people who would take offense at the neglect? Or maybe so many people had helped me that listing them would take several pages of a CD jacket. Typically, I leave my thanks to “God and everybody else”.

One complaint many people have with reading the Bible has something to do with the list of names. “So and so begetting so and so,” and so on. It can feel like God is the drummer of your band who wants to thank everyone individually, even if that person only helped load the van one time.

The majority of Nehemiah three covers the names of people who worked on rebuilding the wall and gates. A casual reader may easily let his eyes glide over this passage as if the words had a non-stick coating. When I took a closer look, though, I saw fun asides Nehemiah threw into the thank you list.

In verse five, he takes a shot at people who think that power negates responsibility. “Moreover, next to him the Tekoites made repairs, but their nobles did not support the work of their masters.” A few verses later, he mentions a guy named Hananiah, “one of the perfumers,” making repairs. Can you imagine a chemist building a house? That’s the image I got. One of Jerusalem’s officials worked on the walls with the help of his daughters. Hey, if those nobles won’t do the work, why not some young women?

Terry Virgo, the leader of New Frontiers International, talked about this tendency of God’s to mention all those names. “Everyone counts. They all matter. God doesn’t want a faceless army because God loves every face.”

I think God has a good reason for thanking the guy who loaded the van. He wants to reward those who obey Him. Those people rebuilding the wall took on an enormous task for the sake of God’s glory. Who wants to walk away from a job like that and get an anonymous pat on the back?

We can easily get trapped in a sense of false humility when we do God’s work and say we want no reward for the work that we do. When I led the worship team in high school, I dreaded people telling me that they enjoyed it. Enjoy my worship? It felt like being spied on in the shower. That’s between me and God, thanks. At the same time, I couldn’t get angry with the people saying these things because they wanted to express how the worship blessed them. How could I deny their joy? So I’d tell the people, “I’m just worshipping God like the rest of you. The only difference is who has a microphone.”

What a load. I especially knew it with people who were either more musically capable or totally tone-deaf. God gave me a gift and asked me to use it. He hadn’t asked them to do what I did on those nights. Not as far as I know. Why did I feel so awkward about something that should have encouraged me?

I find it interesting how God made it clear in scripture that He intends to reward us when we do His will. 1 Corinthians 3:9-13 even uses a metaphor of building.

For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (emphasis mine)

I don’t want to get into a discussion about what reward God gives for our good service. The point is that He wants to bless us. It’s one thing to do a good job and receive a reward, and another to do your work with a sense of entitlement. For example, look at the man who hired people throughout the day to work in his vineyard in Matthew 20. He paid everyone equally, even if they worked half as long as the others. The people who worked all day were bummed out that the latecomers were paid just as much as them, so they figured the owner should pay to scale. For some reason, they assumed that their labor had appreciated in value. Instead, the owner gave them what pay they accepted before the work began. His blessings weren’t based on a scale of equality, but generosity.

Jesus ends the parable by saying, “So the last shall be first, and the first last.” Can you imagine a well-meaning worker telling the owner, “Oh no, I don’t deserve this. Not if these other people did more than me. Here, give them half of my wages.” Sadly, I can imagine this because I have that attitude sometimes. “Hey, if I came here last, I should be last. Fair’s fair.”

Pretty stupid, huh? Aside from losing out on a great reward, I’d also subtly question God’s goodness. Not His goodness to me, but others. It’s passive aggression, the most awful kind of aggression. If we were to look at this attitude for what it really is, the supposed egalitarian stance really tries to put us as God’s equal or superior. We know best. We have the right to tell Him when He’s wrong.

Ten chapters before this parable, Jesus promises something to His disciples that would totally outrage the egalitarian mind. Matthew 10:41 says, “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet's reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man's reward.” Look at the mechanics of that statement. The people taking care of the prophet or righteous man receive the same reward as their guests! They’re getting paid for a job they didn’t necessarily do!

But from where does this false humility come?

I suspect that it comes from one of several places. It can come from a place of hurt in our lives. The reason I began to play music had to do with love for music. The reason I started playing in a band had more to do with getting people to like me. The girls who wouldn’t date me. The dudes who wouldn’t let me play ball with them. The kids who threw rocks at me. Those people. I wanted to show them how they had rejected the coolest guy on the planet. When I heard the song “Stop” by Against Me, I felt so exposed. It summed up my secret agenda so well. “All of our lives in waiting. All of our lives traded for their roses and applause. All of our lives dedicated to shoving it right back in their f*ing face.”

But I knew that worship differed from playing in a punk band. I took on this Reverend Dimsdale kind of posture where I served God but secretly beat myself up for all the horrible things I’d hidden from the church. Would they have made me the worship if they knew I was still experimenting with drugs only a year before, or masturbated daily, or had language that could draw blood? In punk music, I could talk about all this stuff. But in church, I let it corner me into thinking I didn’t deserve God’s grace. I didn’t deserve His attention, let alone His pleasure. So I acted like a guy who loaded the van and shook hands instead of the beloved son for whom Jesus died.

Two Pictures of Humility

Humility first begins with understanding our proper place in creation. God is the ultimate, perfect, and self-sufficient being. We are His creation, given dignity because we are made in His image. Even though He gave man authority in nature (Gen. 1:28-30), man’s authority still came from and was accountable to God. We can see this in how He set boundaries of right and wrong for man. In every covenant that God made with man, God set the terms without negotiation. I’ve told people that the true sin of Adam and Eve came from the lie that they might be “like God” (Gen. 3:5). They wanted to define good and evil for themselves, to have a say in what God determined. The world has suffered the consequences ever since.

Going back to the sermon by Terry Virgo, he gave an excellent explanation of Moses’s journey from prince of Egypt to Hebrew deliverer.

Think about Moses as the prince of Egypt. He has one of the strongest nations in the known world at his fingertips. Not bad for the adopted son of a Hebrew slave. Keep that in mind as you read this passage from Exodus 2:11-14

“Now it came about in those days, when Moses had grown up, that he went out to his brethren and looked on their hard labors; and he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his brethren. So he looked this way and that, and when he saw there was no one around, he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day, and behold, two Hebrews were fighting with each other; and he said to the offender, ‘Why are you striking your companion?’ But he said, ‘Who made you a prince or a judge over us? Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was afraid and said, ‘Surely the matter has become known.’”

I believe that Moses went under cover during these four verses in order to help his people. He killed an abusive Egyptian and hid him in the sand. That’s some serious vigilantism. Moses, the savior of Israel. But instead of getting a hero’s reception, as I’m sure he expected, the other slaves showed him contempt. “Who made you ruler or judge over us?” asks the equally abusive Hebrew slave. If Moses were still dressed in the royal robes of Egypt, there’s no way a slave would have talked to him that way. To do so would mean certain death.

The slave asks another question, which I read with a sneer. “Are you intending to kill me as you killed the Egyptian?” Moses wanted to be a hero but worked according to his own power and wisdom. Because of this, his people saw him as a bully and a killer.

Later, we read how Moses flees punishment and becomes a shepherd in the land of Midian. This job was only slightly better than that of a slave. Culturally, children worked as shepherds. The forty-year-old prince just opened a lemonade stand.

Then on day, Moses sees something interesting. Any change from the day-to-day may have caught his attention. He saw a bush burning on a mountain, but the fire didn’t consume it. As he approaches the bush, God speaks to him in Exodus 3:10. “Therefore, come now, and I will send you to Pharaoh, so that you may bring my people, the sons of Israel, out of Egypt.”

Hey Moses! You wanted to be a hero to your people. Now’s your chance. But Moses says, “Who am I, that I should go to Pharaoh, and that I should bring the sons of Israel out of Egypt?” This response echoes what the slave told Moses before he fled Egypt. “Who do you think you are?” It seems that Moses has answered with, “Nobody.” Moses spends so much time telling God that he’s the wrong man for the job he forgets that God is offering the fulfillment of the dream. He also misses the part in Exodus 3:8 where God says, “I have come down to deliver them from the power of the Egyptians”. God’s doing the work, Moses only has to go and send the message. Instead, Moses protests and God gets pissed.

At first glance, it may seem that Moses displayed humility in his question, “Who am I?” But Virgo points out that this humility was a cover for disobedience. In many ways, it sounds like the lie Adam and Eve bought in Eden. What Moses really meant was, “I know better, God. I can determine between right and wrong just like you and I say you’ve got the wrong guy. I don’t want to do this.” Moses didn’t properly recognize God’s supremacy and his own place in creation. False humility is really a passive aggressive pride. It’s sin.

Now let’s look at Jesus. You may see some parallels with the story of Moses. God the son came down to earth and became human to act as our deliverer. Like the quarrelsome slave, most people didn’t recognize Jesus as the Messiah and treated him with contempt. But when God told Jesus to go to the cross and offer salvation to those enslaved in sin, He went in obedience. Of course it was agonizing. Of course it was humiliating. But then Jesus got up. As one writer put it, “He arose victorious”. God won and got the glory.

This leads me to believe that true humility comes out of obedience, where we recognize God’s authority and submit to it. That doesn’t mean we reject God’s pleasure in us, or like Moses try to diminish our calling. We can be proud when it comes to doing what God wants.

The band Roadside Monument wrote a song with the line, “May we not be forgotten!” I had no idea what the song was really about beyond the desire we have to make our mark on the world. That lyric ran through my head all through high school. Some of it came form the wounds of rejection, like I mentioned earlier, of having something to prove. Some of it came from fear that my life would have no meaning, no impact. But when I thought about God, my attitude would change. At church, I would think, “Maybe nobody should remember me. John the Baptist said that he must decrease so Jesus could increase…” So I took on this tortured servant attitude. It seemed noble at the time. But like Moses, my attitude got in the way of obedience when God gave me opportunities for success. I wouldn’t let people find joy in my music, worship or otherwise. I didn’t want that attention anymore. That kind of thinking drove me into hiding for a while and I stopped blessing people with the gifts God had given me to use.

It surprises me how often I forget that God wants to bless us. There are countless examples and promises where God blesses obedience. Jesus said in Matthew 10:32, “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven.”

The parable of the talents in Matthew 25 gives us a picture of God’s pleasure with those who do His will. To the two servants who used what the master had given, the master rejoices, “Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.” But to the one who used humility as a cover for fear and pride, hiding his talent and returning to the master “what was his”, the master goes into a rage. He takes the talent from the servant, giving it to one of the faithful servants, and banishes him. That servant believed the same lie as Adam and Eve.

Let me put this in another light. If we are right in only taking what we deserved or earned, then we’re doomed. Paul writes in Romans 3, referring to Psalm 14, “as it is written, ‘There is none righteous, not even one; there is none who understands, there is none who seeks for God; all have turned aside, together they have become useless; there is none who does good, there is not even one.’”

We’ve all at one time or another believed the lie that we might know better than God. All sin is based in this lie, it drives us to do what we think is right. And this is what separates us from God. This is what God, in His justice, could not tolerate. We all deserve punishment for this rebellion.

Salvation comes only through Jesus and what He did by dying on the cross. We didn’t deserve it. We didn’t earn it. And yet He offers salvation to us. Speaking of Jesus, Galatians 4:4-5 says, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.

And a loving father names his children. He doesn’t adopt them and expect them to stay out of the way, or to be a “faceless army”.

It’s true that we must give God all glory, honor, and praise. But that doesn’t mean we act as if He’s wrong for showing people favor. He made the album, let Him thank who He wants to thank.

Nehemiah Part Two - Prayer and persecution.

An initial answer to prayer

The beginning of chapter two in Nehemiah’s book says,

“And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.’ Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, ‘Let the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?’” (Neh. 2:1-3)

As a cupbearer, Nehemiah knew the risk what he planned to ask of the king. In his prayer, he asked God to show favor because to anger the king could mean his death. Putting myself in his shoes, I imagine psyching myself out before I walk into the same room as the king. “Okay, okay, you can do this. Just tell him what’s going on. He’ll understand.” But would he understand? Essentially, Nehemiah would ask the king to give him the authority of a ruler. Ever wonder if the janitor asks for a promotion to an executive position?

Then, when the king saw Nehemiah’s face, he knew that his attendant dealt with an inner struggle. I wonder if the king wrongly suspected Nehemiah of betrayal. It was the job of a cupbearer to test the king’s goblet for poison. The position required absolute trust from the king, so of course the king would ask that Nehemiah share his thoughts.

I wonder if Nehemiah suspected this possible suspicion. If they were just buddies, wouldn’t the king’s question about a “sadness of heart” sound like concern? Why would that cause him to fear?

Nehemiah proclaimed, “May the king live forever!” Or, as I read it, “I don’t want you to die! I’m for you, not against you!” Since his body language gave away his emotion, Nehemiah had no choice but to explain the meaning of his sadness, namely the ruin of Jerusalem.

Verse four has two important parts. First, the king responds to the news of Jerusalem by asking, “What would you request?” God is answering Nehemiah’s prayer! He had asked for favor, and here the king opens a discussion.

Because Nehemiah had requested favor in his first prayer, I believe he knew what he wanted. He wanted to go rebuild Jerusalem. But even when we have been gripped by the vision God gives, we can’t assume that we know how to make the vision a reality. This leads me to point out the second have of verse four, where Nehemiah throws an aside into the text, “So I prayed to the God of heaven.”

It’s crucial to understand the importance of prayer in a situation like this. The king and queen are sitting there, waiting for an answer, and Nehemiah has his chance. Instead of simply asking for what he desired, he took a moment to pray.

Have you ever done the right thing the wrong way? There have been times where I’m so certain of the direction and vision that God has given me that I will run over anyone that gets in my way. I’ll hurt family and loved ones. I’ll trumpet the vision to people who would of course ridicule me, which makes me think I can justify calling my pride “righteous anger”. I’ll even forget that God, who gave me a vision in the first place, has to show me the steps I need to take in order to get there. But even in a situation of pressure, Nehemiah prayed.

In verses 5-8, Nehemiah requests a letter giving him authority, assurance of safe passage, and the right to surrounding resources for his project. The guy works as a wine butler, as you may recall. What an insane request! But the king showed him favor. Nehemiah says in verse 8, “And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.”


Grand Rapids used to have the greatest all ages venue in human history. My friends Mirf and Annette opened Skelletones in 2000 in the Heartside District on South Division, setting up shop right next to the homeless shelters, working girls, and hustlers. The day after they opened, I was about a mile away at the community college taking my SAT exam. Because I was too arrogant to bother myself with preparation tests, and because I find it difficult to skim while I read, I thought for sure I bombed what everyone called the most important test of my life.

Afterwards, I walked south on Division Avenue toward a hole in the wall record shop I’d spotted once when I wandered around the city. The owner, an old man named Dodd, roused himself from what may have been a sleeping position when I walked in the door. He mumbled out a “hello” and I braced myself for an hour of flipping through unorganized piles of dusty records. Before long, I found a sealed copy of Anthrax’s Attack of the Killer B’s, factory stickers and all. When I paid the man at the counter, he looked at the record as if he vaguely remembered having it in stock for fifteen years.

My friend Justin called me on my way out the door. “What are you doing right now?” he asked.

“I’m at Dodd’s trying to buy happiness after failing the SAT.” I exaggerated.

“Dude, I’m right down the street. Mirf and Annette opened a coffee shop. I stopped by for lunch. Come over.”

From then, I hung out at Skelletones just about every weekend if not every day. Within a few weeks of opening their doors, Mirf began booking shows. A couple named Bob and Marcia would bring a PA and microphones for bands that didn’t have their own sound system. Bands had to do all of their own advertising. Skelletones had essentially provided the space and opportunity for young bands to play.

At first, this seemed familiar to underground musicians in Grand Rapids. We had played all sorts of places like barns, basement and garage parties, rented halls on the brink of condemnation, financially unstable coffee shops, and uninviting bars. Nobody expected Skelletones to last any longer than those other places. Mirf told me a story about a guy who worked at one of the bigger venues predicting his failure because he wanted Skelletones to be an all ages venue instead of a bar. “You won’t last six months,” said the guy. “Not without a liquor license.”

On top of this, many people knew that Mirf and Annette were Christians. They prayed before opening every day. They played Christian punk and hardcore records on the stereo. Even though they let just about anybody play on the weekends, rumors spread that Skelletones was a Christian venue that only booked Christian bands. I heard people making fun and even expressing their hate for a few years over Skelletones.

But the vision Mirf and Annette had for South Division began to work. Shows got bigger. Bands from all over the country began to stop there on their tours. Businesses began to open in the old, abandoned buildings up and down the block. Still the haters kept talking.

Like Nehemiah, though, Mirf had been gripped by a vision. Even when the city of Grand Rapids made it purposefully difficult for him to open, he kept going because God had given him work to do. And when people within the Skelletones family made mistakes or lost heart, he and his wife challenged them, comforted them, and many times reawakened the vision in them.

Every good story has an antagonist. Nehemiah had a handful. Some of these haters are introduced in verses 9 and 10.

“Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the River and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel.” (Neh. 2:9-10)

Already, Nehemiah saw the benefits of asking God for direction before leaving on his mission. He had asked the king for a letter of authority because of other territorial governors like Sanballat and Tobiah. It’s possible they would have killed Nehemiah had he not presented a letter from the king or found protection with the army escort.

It amazes me how God works in perfect time but we always feel like He’s late. Graham Cooke once said, “God is never late. He just misses a lot of opportunities to be early.” For Nehemiah, it seems that God broke down the steps for him by prompting him to ask for a letter of authority and the right to natural resources. It prepared him for obstacles he may not have foreseen. I sometimes wonder if God prepares people for their own preparations.

As we read on, Nehemiah prepared for the work of his vision very carefully. He stayed in Jerusalem for three days before even inspecting the walls. One night, with only a few men and one riding animal, he walked around the perimeter of the city to take the full range of ruin into account. He had not told the people of his vision at this time, which would explain the undercover walk at night. A few men and one animal wouldn’t make a lot of noise to draw attention.

In those first three days, I believe Nehemiah also had time to survey the ruin of the peoples’ hearts. Why were they held in contempt? Why had they not begun the restoration themselves? The prophet Haggai had once called these people out on their priorities. The people kept saying, “It’s not time to build the temple of the Lord yet.” Instead, they tried to establish their homes and businesses before taking care of God’s house and serving Him. Haggai said, “Now therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Consider your ways! You have sown much, but harvest little; you eat, but there is not enough to be satisfied; you drink, but there is not enough to become drunk; you put on clothing, but no one is warm enough; and he who earns, earns wages to put into a purse with holes.’ Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains, bring wood and rebuild the temple, that I may be pleased with it and be glorified,’ says the LORD.” (Haggai 1:5-8)

I think he also wanted to make sure people had time to recognize him as the king’s ruler. That kind of recognition isn’t simply a matter of knowing who’s in charge, either. My punk rock heart often resists trusting an authority based solely on appointment and title. I have to witness qualities of leadership that cause me to trust the person. But don’t worry, people, I still pray for them. I still remember Romans 13:1. My point is that I respond better toward authority I’ve come to trust.

Again, this isn’t an authoritative commentary on the book of Nehemiah. You’re basically reading my inner monologue as I read the book. Maybe the people were so downtrodden that they’d accept authority from anyone bearing the king’s seal. Maybe. But look at the reaction they gave Nehemiah when he told them of his plan in verses 17-18.

“Then I said to them, ‘You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates burned by fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a reproach.’ I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us arise and build.’ So they put their hands to the good work.”

Nehemiah had made sure to know the full extent of the situation and offer assurance of the king’s pleasure in the work. He spoke to the heart of their condition, addressing the gates and walls “so that we will no longer be a reproach”. I love how he cut short this part of the address. Surely, after weeping over this situation for so many days, he must have had so much to tell the people of Jerusalem. Instead, he says, “you see it already”. It’s two sentences to describe what they need to do in order to become the city God intended. He cut to the chase. It’s “Banned In D.C.” vs. “Sister Ray”. One says it all before you realized anyone said anything. The other goes on and on until you beg for the end of the record.

“Banned In D.C.” has another application here. The surrounding rulers were pissed when they saw that Jerusalem began to rebuild. At first, the rulers tried using ridicule laced with threats to shame the workers.

When Skelletones opened, a large anti-Christian music sentiment began to creep into the music scene along with the rumors that Mirf would only book Christian bands. Some other coffee shop owners mocked Skelletones for its punk image and Christian ties. I remember one flyer where a coffee shop (that had the permit for smoking indoors) took a picture of Jesus carrying the cross and dubbed a cigarette into his fingers. The caption read, “Sometimes, you just need a smoke.” The city of Grand Rapids halted the restoration of the building housing Skelletones because of a supposed violation of code. The back door had to open at least eighteen inches wide. The inspector claimed that the last stair in the atrium stairwell prevented the door from opening all the way. This stalemate went on for weeks until Mirf measured the distance for himself. Eighteen inches. The work began again the next day.

I respect the hell out of Mirf. You might hear me say his name an annoying amount of times. He loved people and still knew how to stand up for himself and others.

Nehemiah’s response to the ridicule and threats was no less direct. Verse 20 says, “So I answered them and said to them, ‘The God of heaven will give us success; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no portion, right or memorial in Jerusalem.’”

Nobody actually waged war here, but clear battle lines had been drawn. Although I believe the Church should show compassion, extending love and grace, I also wish it had Nehemiah’s spirit. When opposition comes, claim God’s promises and stand in the face of opposition. And I’m not talking in terms of political platform. The “Good Work” set before us is to spread the gospel and build the Kingdom of God. So many things try to shame us from this work, to threaten us. I think Christians throughout history into the present day have listened to those rulers in their own lives, bringing the work to a grinding halt.

So listen up! You see the condition we are in. God’s favor is on His servants. He will glorify Himself and has commissioned His church to do this good work on earth. But enthusiasm isn’t enough for adventure. It’s the thing that encourages people to begin.

This is the beginning of Nehemiah’s adventure.

Nehemiah Part One - When I heard these words, I sat down and wept

I first heard punk music when I was twelve years old. A local college radio station played interesting music that my brothers didn’t own, and I felt compelled to explore this side of music previously hidden from me. My parents home schooled me at the time, which meant that I could finish all of my work in about an hour and go through the rest of the day learning how to play the guitar. So I sat listening to this radio station for hours with a blank cassette paused and ready to record should some amazing song come on the airwaves. I’d record the song, missing the first few notes, and then teach myself how to play the basic chords on my dad’s guitar.

One day, I had the radio on while solving some number puzzles for math class when “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones ruined my concentration. I put the puzzle book down and let my jaw hang slack. I waited for a guitar solo that wouldn’t come. Surely music like this had to have been new, I thought. Even grunge bands had solos. And then it was over before I knew what had happened. Only my quickened heart-rate and a sense of mania remained.

That’s when I realized that I hadn’t taped the song. When the radio station announced the phone number to their request line, I called them every half hour asking for “I Wanna Be Sedated”. Some of the women deejays would be nice to me and give me hope for my request in the coming hour. The dudes would either make fun of me or tell me to stop calling. One even said they didn’t play “classic rock”, which utterly confused me. Classic? Just how old was this music? Anyway, I never heard Ramones on broadcast radio again.

Thankfully, I knew a kid down the road from me who had been to the Van’s Warped Tour and owned lots of punk records. He made me a tape of his favorite bands, like NOFX and Less Than Jake. I ate this stuff up.

Then I started reading articles and books on the history of punk music and punk bands. They typically glorified individuals uniting together to make their own culture. They did everything themselves. They made their own music, artwork, films, and books. Their society felt like a community, one where the skuzzy, weird, and otherwise unloved found acceptance. I ached to belong to something like that.

Eventually, I found that many of the lyrics in punk music contained serious philosophy. Bad Religion might have perfectly explained the despair of existentialism in “Stranger Than Fiction”. “Life is the crummiest book I’ve ever read. There isn’t a hook. Just a lot of cheap shots, pictures that shock, and characters an amateur would never dream up.” I didn’t agree with everything these bands said, but I appreciated music that made me seriously consider how I viewed the world.

The punk kids I met over the next three or four years made me wonder if it were indeed possible to live out those ideals that I had read in punk history. They had cliques and gangs, obligations and grudges, just like everybody else. The only difference between the kids I dealt with when I listened to the Who and Led Zeppelin in elementary school and the punk kids I hung out with in high school was hygiene and fashion.

My friends and I used to sniff at the older punks who were burned out and drank too much. If you don’t believe in it, I said, why do you still call yourself punk? But our generation was riding on the high of discovering something new. We had the folly of youth carrying us through the problems we faced. But we ran into the same problems as our drunken, leathery predecessors. We had never defined the “it” that punks were supposed to believe in.

In the book American Hardcore, Jello Biafra explained a facet of the flaw. He said that people within this supposedly egalitarian movement had a strong sense of “us against them”. The problem was that nobody defined “us” or “them”, so the terms could be used arbitrarily to describe people who agreed or disagreed with you individually. You and your friends were “us”, anybody you disliked was one of “them”. Listening to the song “My War” by Black Flag probably best communicates this despair. In the song, vocalist Henry Rollins is a man panicking at the betrayal of people within the movement. “My war! You’re one of them. You said that you’re my friend. But you’re one of them!”

Entropy, like a conqueror worm, broke down something I thought was beautiful. In time, I gave up on the punk ideals while keeping the attitude. Eventually, I became that dude in his twenties, pessimistic, and drinking too much. I became one of “them”. When younger punk kids scorned me, I really couldn’t argue with them. It broke my heart to think that they would be in my place within five years. Punk began as a vital movement of expression and then splintered into a growing list of impotent subcultures.

Worse yet, I saw instances where one group of kids would have a grudge against another group. Both sides would be at the same show where the band one group supported was opening for a band the other group supported. These two sets of kids would stand on opposite sides of the room sizing each other up and everyone could feel the tension. I couldn’t even have fun at these shows because I was too busy making sure I wouldn’t get caught in the middle of whatever trouble they started. When trouble did start, the bands would typically stop the show and plead with these people from stage to cool it. Any of my friends who weren’t a part of the scene would see stuff like this happening and totally disregard punk in general. I couldn’t blame them for their contempt. From their perspective, it was a bunch of angry, dirty kids taking swings at each other to the sounds of angry, dirty music. All of the talk of unity and celebration of individuality rang false and hypocritical.

I often faced this problem of definition because I had never adopted the punk fashion. Many new friends were surprised to learn that I played in punk bands for the better part of a decade and still listen to the music. In fact, it’s my favorite kind of music. If I were banished to the furthest parts of the nether-regions with my ten-dollar portable cassette player and only allowed to listen to one genre of music – punk, no question. But as an idealistic movement, I’ve given up on it. As far as I can tell, there’s no hope for a universally accepted punk ideal because of that lack of definition. At best, we might agree with D. Boon of the Minutemen in saying, “Punk is what you want it to be,” and leave it at that.

It’s hard for me to think about the history of punk without drawing parallels to the Christian Church. Of course they have their differences, and I certainly regard my faith with much more seriousness than my favorite style of music. But think of this, Christianity began as a vital movement that swept the known world. It changed the course of Western history.

Then it became politicized when Emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official Roman religion. As a major political force, the church had the power to introduce the truth of Scripture as a basis for living. Instead, the new power led to corruption, uncompassionate accumulation and use of wealth, and a host of other problems. To make matters worse, the Church forbade the translation of Scripture into common, everyday language. Keeping the Bible written in Latin meant that only the well-educated could read the Word of God. This put the common man at the mercy of the clergy, who could interpret and teach the Bible in ways that secured their jobs and fill their coffers.

All that to say that some splits were probably necessary. The Reformation needed to happen. It reestablished Christ as the head of the church instead of “infallible” popes. The common man could read the Bible to understand justification by faith alone instead of paying indulgences and receiving certificates for salvation.

Even so, nobody defined “us” and “them” effectively at the time of the Reformation. So you have men like Martin Luther, who never intended to split from the Catholic Church, but his ideas inspired revolts against the religious/political system. There were seemingly endless wars fought over things like baptism and communion. The church and state were still considered one and the same. A challenge to the doctrine of a particular region was no mere theological difference of opinion. It was a challenge to political authority. That’s probably why John Calvin was so careful in writing his Institutes to make sure the king of France understood him perfectly. One slip of the pen, so to speak, meant writing his own death sentence. But then even Calvin, as the uncontested leader of Geneva, wasn’t afraid to punish people for theologically disagreeing with him.

When the church formed, it was meant to bear witness to the power, reality, and salvation of God through Jesus. Two millennia later, literally hundreds, if not more, denominations stand as a testimony of bitterness and infighting in the body of Christ. Is it any wonder that people outside (and with the advent of the Emergent Church, many within) the church regard the teachings of the church as false and hypocritical?

I’m going to spend some time relating the church as I see it in the present age with the condition of God’s people in the book of Nehemiah.

The book is written from Nehemiah’s perspective. It opens with him living in Persia as the King’s personal attendant, or cupbearer. A butler, pretty much. One day, his brother Hanani comes to Persia with some other Judeans. Nehemiah asks about the Jews living in Jerusalem. Hanani responds, “The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.” (Neh. 1:3).

Nehemiah says, “When I heard these words, I sat down and mourned and wept for several days.”

Whenever I read this passage in the past, I assumed that he had either overreacted to the situation (considering he already lived in exile and Jerusalem had long-since fallen to Nebuchadnezzar), he mourned out of nostalgia for the glory days of Jerusalem, or something else was implied in the text that I didn’t understand.

Many Bible teachers place a great emphasis on the walls of Jerusalem when they teach the book of Nehemiah. It makes sense for them to do so because much of the story deals with their miraculous reconstruction. As I read the book now, I see the walls as only one facet of Nehemiah’s anguish. First of all, the people were held in contempt and greatly distressed. These were God’s people, called by His name, bearing the promise to Abraham that his children would bless the nations. Second, the walls of a city symbolized its power. We can see this in all that talk of Jericho’s walls in the book of Joshua. Hanani’s news communicated Jerusalem’s powerlessness, its impotence. Third, the city gates were burned. I went to Israel in 2000 and learned about city gates at the ruins of Dan. The gates of a city were the center of civil government. Judicial matters were often settled there. That’s where the money exchange took place. The gates symbolized the authority of a city, and Jerusalem’s authority had been burned to nothing.

When I thought about the magnitude of this statement in light of these three points, I felt Nehemiah’s sadness for the church. The book “unChristian: What a new generation really thinks of Christianity… and why it matters” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons presents what people outside of the church think of Christianity. It’s a saddening read. If any of you ever felt like asking Nehemiah’s question for the church today, Kinnaman and Lyons have given Hanani’s answer.

The purpose of the church was to bear witness to God’s existence, love, and the finished work of Jesus. It’s supposed to be a testimony. When Jesus asked His disciples in Matthew 16 “Who do people say that I am?” the disciples gave a few varied responses. “Well some people say you’re Elijah, others say Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” After hearing this, Jesus prophesies over Peter in verses 17 and 18. “And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.’” Some people have taken this passage to show Jesus giving Peter authority as head of the church. As I see it, Jesus may have meant something else. God revealed Jesus as His son to Peter, and Peter proclaimed it. It was this that would build the church in sinful world. 2 Corinthians 5:20 says, “Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

But according to Kinnaman and Lyons’ study, it could be said that society holds the church in contempt. When people outside of Christianity think of the church, they speak of the rules and doctrine and dogma. Homosexuality, alcoholism, “secular” media, etc. People who have no understanding of Christ can repeat what they’ve heard preachers on television say about these things, yet they still have no knowledge of Jesus. I don’t have to go too far to hear if people regard Christians as hypocritical, greedy, or delusional. It’s not a universal sentiment, I understand. Those same critics of Christianity often are quick to say, “but I don’t think you’re like that.” They may say that to avoid hurting my feelings, I don’t know. My point is that contempt for the church is a prevalent attitude in our culture and to ignore it would be the same as sitting among piles of burned rubble, powerless and in distress. To accept our current condition would mean giving up on God’s intentions for the church bearing witness to Jesus and overcoming the gates of Hell.

If you look around and see that this is the case, then it would makes sense that many churches have given themselves over to a certain sense of powerlessness. Now that isn’t to say that people are not coming to Jesus or that the Holy Spirit is not at work in the world today. There are movements within the worldwide church that have brought and continue to bring the gospel to life. But for every good example of a Church operating in the power of God, there are a dozen others that prefer to think of God’s power abstractly and limited to matters of belief. Or they believe the Holy Spirit’s work was limited to acts of salvation after the Apostles died. Or whatever. All I’m trying to say is that I’ve walked into a lot of powerless churches in my young life, and by “powerless” I mean they don’t recognize and operate in the authority they have in Jesus.

People in the church need to remember that “belief’ and “faith” are not the same thing. Belief for the Christian means they mentally agree with the statement, “The Bible is true.” Faith means that we actually live our lives by that truth to which we have ascribed our thinking. Faith means taking steps according to belief. It’s an active decision to live not just according to the teaching and promises of the Bible. If you believe the whole Bible is true, then the whole Bible is true for you in real life.

I don’t claim that unless you live perfectly according to the Bible every day, then you are without faith. Faith is a gift from God, and it’s a gift that should grow as we learn more about Him. But think of this. The Bible says in Christ we are new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). That means we can no longer do things the way we’ve always done them. We need God to show us how to do things His way. And when He does show us, we have a responsibility to act in that new way. Otherwise your “faith without works are dead” (James 2:14-26). Belief is a start, faith is a continuation.

The Bible also teaches us that we’re given power through the Holy Spirit to minister to people. Jesus gave his disciples this authority in Matthew 10 and Acts 1. Have you considered the things he told those uneducated kids to do? Heal the sick? Cast out demons? Raise the dead? And nowhere in the Bible have I found a passage that says Jesus took this gift away from those that put their faith in Him. Yes, in 1 Corinthians, it says that the imperfect passes when the perfect comes, but I don’t think I’ll see evidence of said perfection until Jesus comes again.

Well if this is true, then why aren’t more churches operating in the truth taught in the Bible they say they believe? Surely their evangelism and ministry would explode if they were to experience the things Jesus promised when He gave His disciples authority and power. They go hand in hand like city gates to city walls. One does no good without the other. Sadly, many churches experience neither.

Nehemiah’s prayer

I think it is important to point out what Nehemiah did in response to Hanani’s news of Jerusalem. The remainder of the first chapter, verses 5-11, is Nehemiah’s prayer.

“I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.”

Now let’s take a look at this prayer. Although Babylon had scattered Israel and destroyed the city of Jerusalem, God had ultimately set this into motion. Nehemiah recognized the situation as the natural result of Israel’s sins. Right away, he begins his prayer by recognizing God as the great and awesome God of heaven. Nehemiah also admits that God promised to preserve His people if they would love Him and observe His commands (Deut. 30). So he fasted and prayed, confessing the sins of Israel and asking for God’s forgiveness.

Although Israel’s condition did come as a result of His law, it wasn’t God’s fault. God is never the one on the defensive and we are not His judge. We answer to Him because He is the ultimate and absolute. He’s complete in Himself and perfect. If there’s anything wrong in the world, we are the ones who need to be held into account.

Moses said of God “The Rock! His work is perfect, for all His ways are just; a God of faithfulness and without injustice, righteous and upright is He.” (Deut. 32:4) And in the next verse, he goes on to say, “They have acted corruptly toward Him.” Throughout Israel’s history, they continuously reject God’s commands and “act corruptly”. Since they had broken these commands throughout generations, God had to inflict the punishment He promised in (Deut. 30:17-18) in order to uphold His justice.

And yet, this command God gave to Moses had a condition attached at the end. “But if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.” (Neh. 1:9) Knowing the covenant gives Nehemiah hope and it encourages him to pray.

But the part of this prayer that surprised me most was Nehemiah’s personal confession. He repented not only of his fathers’ sins, but also his own! Over a hundred years had passed since Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem and sent its inhabitants into exile. How could Nehemiah’s sins possibly have caused Jerusalem’s exile and disrepair?

In Genesis 17:9, God has made His covenant with Abraham and says, “Now as for you, you shall keep My covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations.” And again, when God gave Moses the ten commandments, He says in Exodus 20:5-6, “For I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments.” Nehemiah’s demonstration of his knowledge of God’s covenant with Israel leads me to believe that he was probably aware of these verses. The covenant to obey God wasn’t merely the responsibility of those who came before. It was also visited upon the generations to come. Thus, he felt responsible to repent on behalf of his ancestors for their sins.

But then, why did he repent for himself? The verse in Genesis implies that the generations following Abraham had a responsibility to keep God’s covenant. God had told Moses that He would show lovingkindness to those who love Him and keep His commandments. God had promised in Deuteronomy to restore them if they would turn and obey Him. If the Jews were still living in a broken Jerusalem, held in contempt, powerless, without authority, the current generation had probably not repented on their own behalf and changed their ways.

Some might think that Nehemiah stepped into a role of leadership when Artaxerxes, King of Persia, gave him authority as governor of Judah. I say he became a leader during this prayer. He couldn’t take repent for every individual person living or dead who had broken God’s commands, but he knew of his shortcomings and started there. The exile and destruction of Jerusalem happened because of other peoples’ sin. Some people might have looked at the situation and said, “Well, they screwed up. I guess we may as well learn to live with the world they gave us.” The Jews living in the rubble of Jerusalem may have said just that among themselves. Nehemiah looked at the situation and knew that as a lawbreaker himself, his actions directly affected the whole people under God’s covenant.

When he took this responsibility, he showed a characteristic of true leadership. For him, the problem was surely defined. The people had sinned. He had sinned. God promised punishment for sin, but also spoke of future restoration should the people repent.

At the end of the prayer, Nehemiah asks for God’s favor before he approaches the King with his dilemma. As my friend John might say, God had gripped him with a vision. It would require Nehemiah to take risks and display boldness as well as personal brokenness.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Rules Taught By Men - Why Christians need to lighten up.

...As an end to this series on basic Christian living, I thought I might talk a little about the Pharisees. Pastors and teachers can easily portray bits of the gospels as "Jesus vs. the Pharisees", even though it seems theologically He identifies with them more than the Sadducees or Essenes. During a time of an elitist priest class (typically Sadducees) and intense cultural pressure to become more like the Greeks, Pharisees devoted themselves to living God's law, not just reciting it. The word "Pharisee" means "set apart".

Jesus didn't have a beef with the existence of their sect. He had more to say about how their hearts had become hard and proud regarding their righteousness. In Luke 18:9-14, Jesus tells a story about two men praying in the temple. The first, a Pharisee, thanks God that he is not like the sinner standing with him in the room. The second man, a tax collector, pleads for God's mercy because he recognizes his own sin.

Coming home from a Torah study group one night, my mother told me about how some rabbis "built a fence around Torah". This means if the law says you're responsible for the death of a man falling off of your roof, you should build a fence around your roof so you don't accidentally break the law. If Torah says something like "don't cook a calf in its mother's milk", then the fence would keep all meats away from dairy, so they don't even come close to breaking that rule of Torah.

So what do you call a Christian who speaks of Pharisees like demons and Christians who say you can't go to the movies or listen to non-church music? There's nothing in the Bible about the Cinema or Slash Records, but I know kids who couldn't appreciate either because their church said it was evil. They didn't want to listen to Pennywise and backslide.

I can understand creating reminders and safeguards for ourselves because every one of us struggles with sinning. Many men, including myself, have software on their computer to alert others when I may be looking at a dirty website. However, if my church said it was mandatory for every man to have accountability software on their computers, I would totally have a problem with that.

Some churches culturally dress in nice clothes because they want to express their reverence of God in that way. In the book Breaking The Missional Code, Ed Stetzer and David Putman tell of churches with cowboys reserving seats for their hats and holler at every good point in the message. That sort of thing wouldn't have happened in my grandfather's church. But is one church right with how they celebrate God's presence and the other wrong? Is it sin?

The Bible tells us to remember Jesus through communion, to be baptized, to give generously. How we do these things is not so explicit. Is it wrong for the Presbyterian church I visited to dip a hunk of fresh baked bread into wine while another church might opt for a cracker crumb and thimble of grape juice? No. I don't think God frowns on either because He wanted people to remember Jesus by communion. Yet, nations fought wars over this stuff.

The Pharisees tried hassling Jesus about something like this in Matthew 15. They ask Him why His disciples broke the tradition of the elders by not washing their hands before eating. Jesus then points out how the Pharisees had chosen tradition over God's commands. For the Christian today, this begs the question, are we trying to build a fence around God's commands or are we building a cage of man-made laws? Christians would do themselves well to remember the grace by which they've been saved from their sins. It is possible for one to never even realize his heart has hardened in self-righteousness.

Now, I'm aware that some can take the idea of grace too far and forget Romans 6:1-2. By no means should we intentionally live in sin and ignore the Holy Spirit's conviction. Scripture says this too will harden the heart. All I'm saying is that Christians shouldn't build a cage of rules to guard against grace itself. If a person genuinely wants to follow and serve Jesus, we should believe the word in Hebrews when it says Christ's sacrifice has made us perfect and blameless before God. I think the proper attitude would include encouraging, challenging, and praying for God to work in the hearts of our fellow believers.

Sunday, December 5, 2010


A few decades ago, I heard a story in Sunday school about Mary and Joseph leaving Jesus behind at the temple. Since I didn't have many friends at regular school, and my brothers terrorized me at home, the story made me think about how I liked church better than anywhere else. My parents always had us meet together by the front entrance after church, but I sat on the back steps near where we parked. In a way only very dramatic people do, I hoped my life would play out just like the story.

And it did, sort of.

I watched my family's big, blue, diesel suburban rumble away and smiled. I got to stay at church! But instead of sitting with rabbis discussing the Bible, I had three adults asking me if I was lost and where my parents were. It didn't take too long for Mom and Dad to realize they were a kid short. Mom says she asked God where to find me, and He told her, "At my house".

Like the sneaky child I was, I feel like this weblog would hang out on the back steps waiting to be left behind. And like my then beleaguered parents, I could possibly overlook it in the headcount because of the other children demanding my attention.

If I remember right, my parents made it up to me not knowing I wanted to stay at church in the first place. I think they took me to 7-Eleven or Dunkin' Donuts, or something. They were both on the same corner. Following their example, whether or not you wanted to be left behind, I plan on making it up to you.

December will have four essays posted. The first will finish the Basic Christian Living series and the last three will begin my next series. After writing We're In This Together, my friend Abe encouraged me to study more of Nehemiah and begin another writing project. Nearly two years later, I'm still studying Nehemiah (now along with the rest of my church) and only halfway through writing about the book. I figure posting each chapter will encourage me to both stay current with my delinquent weblog and finish at least a first draft of this book idea.

Now, moving on...