Friday, December 31, 2010

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.

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