Monday, January 31, 2011

Nehemiah Part Five - Debt. It's about debt.

I began my attendance at Calvin College in August of 2001. It was, as I called it, the semester of hell. Aside from your usual adolescent frustration dealing with the major life transition of leaving home and starting college, a few airplanes hit some important buildings, Calvin experienced a bomb threat, my grandfather died, and I became physically sick from anxiety. I’m 6 ft. 2 in. tall and I dropped to 126 lbs. That’s barely enough weight to stretch over the height.

When I went home for winter break, I sat with my parents in our living room and finally told them about my struggles. My father heard all about papers and tests and girls and loneliness and stress. After I finished, he said, “There’s something I need to tell you. The company isn’t doing well.” He then went on to tell me how financial difficulties forced the board to remove him as their CEO.

I soon learned that Calvin didn’t necessarily require payment for the semester before classes began. Instead, they let you attend and then required payment at the end of the semester. My family didn’t want to deal with school loans. At the time, I thought, why would we? Dad had a good job and helped my older brothers through school. We had enough to pay for the first semester of school but there were no guarantees for the spring.

Mom and dad insisted that I return to finish the school year, assuring me that we would make it work. Something in me knew it wouldn’t last. I mean, my parents prayed about sending back to school and felt certain God wanted me to go, but I didn’t feel comfortable with the possibility of debt. When credit card applications came in the mail or representatives vied for my attention at booths on campus, I ignored them. No way, you’re not going to put me in debt when I only work a part-time job. But society demanded I get an education for a job that paid well enough to eventually cover my oncoming school debt.

At the end of the 2002 spring semester, I got a few notices from the school about the money I owed. It came to something like $13,000 for the semester. As a 19-year-old kid, the number gave me a stomachache. Dad held the school off until a man donated the money we needed to pay the remainder.

Again, I told my parents that I was willing to drop out and work, or maybe attend the Community College. They prayed about it and felt that I should go back to Calvin. Dad hadn’t yet found steady work and this time there was no angel donor. The bill came like death during exam week. I managed to live on campus and “work” for one of the professors during the January term. The housing department busted me for living on campus without any registered classes. Eventually, they showed me the door.

My grades hadn’t suffered. Nobody ever had to discipline me for bad behavior. I was a dorm leader and helped lead a Bible study. But schools get pissed when you don’t pay them. I spent the next few days packing my room and explaining to the other dorm leaders what had happened. As friends showed up on campus to help me move, the boys in my dorm said their goodbyes. One kid physically blocked the door. “You can’t leave,” he said. I laughed at the melodrama but the scene still stung.

About nine months later, I sat in my basement watching the 2003 World Series when my mother handed me the phone. A man asked if I was Isaiah. He then began an assault of verbal abuse asking me why I hadn’t paid Calvin for my last semester. Admittedly naïve, I tried explaining myself. The collector ridiculed me and piled on the shame. Mom, standing by, realized what was going on and ran upstairs to get dad. He took the phone and left the room.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “If I knew who was calling you, I would have given it to your father first.” At the time, I was booking a tour for my band and she assumed a venue had called to confirm a date.

A form of hate bloomed inside of me. Who was that guy? What crime had I committed? People ran into financial problems like this all the time. The Kallmans weren’t deadbeats. We’d find a way to pay eventually.

When I last talked to a collector in December of 2007, the late fees and “miscellaneous charges” had pushed $13,000 up past $18,000. By then, I had moved to Nashville and wanted to live responsibly. So of course, I tried to reason with another collector. I gave her the estimated figures of monthly income to monthly expenses, which were nearly the same number, and asked if we could agree on some sort of payment plan.

The woman came back after talking to a shadowy “supervisor” and offered three different options. I laughed aloud into the phone when she told me these options. “Even if I were to sell everything I have tomorrow, I couldn’t make lowest down payment.” I told her I could sacrifice here and there to give twenty dollars a month until I got a steady job and increase my payments with the promise that they would halt any further fees. She refused. I told her I’d get counsel before making a decision. In the back of my mind, I knew those charges and fees were piling up as I waited for the situation to turn.

At this time, I’m still waiting for it to turn. But what can I do? They’ve refused my offer to chip away at the debt because, according to people like Elizabeth Warren of Harvard Law, they will make more money in the end if I’m in debt to them forever.

Please understand me, I don’t want to shame my old college. I know that they want to run the school well and pay their staff. A few Isaiah Kallmans could make it hard for them to function financially. I get that. What hurt was the thought, “These people are a part of the church and they’re coming after me!” Something felt so wrong about this. Like, things shouldn’t work this way. And yet, this is business as usual everywhere.

The Outcry

There’s something else I want you to understand. I’m not poor. Sure, I live paycheck-to-paycheck and I only started intentionally saving money at the age of 26. That’s kind of dumb. But I’m not poor.

My friend Josh told me about conversations he would overhear at Skelletones. These punk kids would always talk about how poor they were. They would sew patches on their clothes with dental floss and talk about how they needed to be resourceful just to make ends meet. Of course, they never thought about how dental floss costs about as much as your typical sewing kit but with less thread.

Then, these kids would talk about getting drunk on forties and how they could score cheap drugs. A lot of these kids weren’t living on the street. Some of them had families or other people who would take care of them. None of them were starving. They chose this life. Josh was so upset by this he designed a T-shirt with a picture of a punk holding a forty and a caption reading “Broke Is the New Poor”.

I became friends with the drummer of a punk band in Nashville while they recorded an album at the old Make Your Own Records house. He recently told me about the struggles he had with old credit card mistakes. “I was young and dumb,” he said. “I got my card and thought, ‘Sweet! I’ll get a Macbook! Dad’s recliner is worn out. I’ll buy him a new one!’ I’m still dealing with that stuff.” This happened years ago, but it still haunts him. He and his wife have begun to cut down on their expenses in hopes they will slowly pay off a little more each month. It’s hard, but he wants to live righteously in his finances.

That’s why I’m telling you, I’m not poor. At this moment, I’m just living on little money. My situation is temporary. Things will get better. I also want to live righteously in my finances and I know God will continue to bless me.

Maybe I’m getting that right, but I also must take care not to condemn all the people who got themselves in over their heads. Maybe I don’t have as much school debt as, say, a law student, but I also don’t have a degree. And their job will eventually pay off the loans. I may not have credit card debt, but I also never built my credit. As a no-credit non-student, it could be far more difficult for me to get a car or home unless my situation changes.

I had to keep humility in mind the first few times I read Nehemiah 5:1-5.

“Now there was a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers. For there were those who said, ‘We, our sons and our daughters are many; therefore let us get grain that we may eat and live.’ There were others who said, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our houses that we might get grain because of the famine.’ Also there were those who said, ‘We have borrowed money for the king's tax on our fields and our vineyards. Now our flesh is like the flesh of our brothers, our children like their children. Yet behold, we are forcing our sons and our daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters are forced into bondage already, and we are helpless because our fields and vineyards belong to others.’”

The outcry in verse 2 could at first sound like a socialistic demand. “Why do the rich Jews have more money while we’re starving? It’s not fair!” But this was not a tantrum. This outcry came from true desperation. Think of this, someone is so poor that they get a credit card with a 14% interest rate just to buy their basic groceries. Bread, milk, maybe some toilet paper. Real necessities.

People were even going into debt just to pay their taxes. During a time of famine. So now imagine using that same 14% credit card to pay a 12% State Tax. The immediate problem isn’t solved, just aggravated and postponed.

Others were mortgaging their homes and land. As a man who well knew scripture, Nehemiah would have been familiar with the laws in Leviticus. God had given the Jewish people rules regarding the sale of land. Leviticus 25 made it clear, the land did not belong to the people but to God. He wanted them to steward it well and handle their real estate in a way that set them apart and glorified Him.

If a person could not financially support himself, he could temporarily sell the land. Then it was the responsibility of a relative to buy back the land so it stayed in the family. In the event that no kinsman could do this, the buyer was obliged to sell the land back to its original owner only. If the seller could not pay off his debt within fifty years, God had appointed a “year of Jubilee” where all debts were canceled and properties returned. God took this so seriously that when the kings neglected the laws surrounding Jubilee at the time of Jeremiah, the prophet foretold of Jerusalem’s coming destruction and their inevitable exile.

Some experienced such financial hardship that they even sold their children as slaves to pay the high interest exacted by their fellow Jews. This went directly against Leviticus 25:39-41. “If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers.” God meant for this to go against the norm of common business practices as a reminder of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt. Not only as a reminder to themselves, but as a testimony to the rest of the world.

The Response

The point was not “We shouldn’t have rich people and poor people. Everyone should be equal.” God had ways for poor people to work and survive (Leviticus 19:9-10) and didn’t demand sacrifices beyond their means (Leviticus 14:21). These rules were put in place to make sure people used their wealth with compassion, acting honestly and righteously with what God had given them. Leviticus 19:15 made it clear to leaders like Nehemiah, “You shall do no injustice in judgment; you shall not be partial to the poor nor defer to the great, but you are to judge your neighbor fairly.”

Clearly, the wealthy Jews had acted unrighteously, ignoring God’s law and financially cannibalizing their own people for profit. Nehemiah realized the gravity of this injustice. I love Nehemiah’s emotional honesty in 5:6, “Then I was very angry when I had heard their outcry and these words.” It’s okay to get ticked at this sort of thing. I spent a summer studying debt, both personal and national, and I got downright pissed. Most people are in debt and creditors want it to stay that way.

Instead of acting out on his emotion, though, Nehemiah took time to consider the matter.

“I consulted with myself and contended with the nobles and the rulers and said to them, ‘You are exacting usury, each from his brother!’ Therefore, I held a great assembly against them. I said to them, ‘We according to our ability have redeemed our Jewish brothers who were sold to the nations; now would you even sell your brothers that they may be sold to us?’ Then they were silent and could not find a word to say. Again I said, ‘The thing which you are doing is not good; should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the nations, our enemies? And likewise I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain. Please, let us leave off this usury. Please, give back to them this very day their fields, their vineyards, their olive groves and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the new wine and the oil that you are exacting from them.’” (Nehemiah 5:7-11)

A few things are very significant about Nehemiah’s response. First, and most notably, Nehemiah repents of his own sin. It would have been too easy for him, in his anger, to blame the rich for their sin. Having removed the plank from his eye, he could see clearly and address the speck in theirs.

This probably inspired the second point in his response. He bought back those sold into slavery. If he bore the same guilt, that would explain his desire to set an example of financial repentance. It does no good to say sorry without demonstrating a change of heart.

Third, Nehemiah presents an opportunity for the men assembled to follow his example. He pleads with them to cancel the debts and return the property. I believe he did this in part to address one of the three areas of brokenness in Jerusalem. The walls and gates weren’t the only parts of the city in disrepair. Hanani had first told Nehemiah all the way back in chapter 1 how the people were held in contempt. By not following the law of God, which they called their own, meant to set them apart, they invited the criticism they found so disheartening.

What follows absolutely amazed me when I realized its significance. When reading verse 8 of chapter 5, one could compare the people to those assembled on Mount Carmel in 1Kings 18 when Elijah challenges the people to choose between God and Baal. Would they choose God or the promise of wealth and prosperity? After Nehemiah’s appeal, the men promise to return the property without further payment or interest. They also want to repent financially. The priests come in as witnesses of this promise and stand as accountability.

In verse 13, Nehemiah makes the oath, “I also shook out the front of my garment and said, ‘Thus may God shake out every man from his house and from his possessions who does not fulfill this promise; even thus may he be shaken out and emptied.’ And all the assembly said, ‘Amen!’ And they praised the LORD. Then the people did according to this promise.”

This oath was serious business. Any man’s failure to keep his promise would result in the loss of all his wealth. Shaken empty. The very thing they tried to build through evil would crumble. And please note that their promise to cancel the debts was monumental. Consider a similar situation today. What if all the banks and credit card companies were to say, “We’ve bled the American people nearly dry. We’re going to forgive all the debts and start over.” As of 2008, that would mean $13.8 trillion dollars of household debt erased. But the casual reader could easily pass over the end of Nehemiah 5:13. The people actually fulfilled their promise.

The New Generosity

True repentance isn’t a simple “I’m sorry”. It requires a change of heart, a dedicated difference in thinking. Where Nehemiah once financially oppressed the poor along with the wealthy Jews, now he operates in a lifestyle of generosity and hospitality. Nehemiah 5:14-16 reads,

“Moreover, from the day that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year to the thirty-second year of King Artaxerxes, for twelve years, neither I nor my kinsmen have eaten the governor's food allowance. But the former governors who were before me laid burdens on the people and took from them bread and wine besides forty shekels of silver; even their servants domineered the people. But I did not do so because of the fear of God. I also applied myself to the work on this wall; we did not buy any land, and all my servants were gathered there for the work.”

In these three verses, Nehemiah describes very countercultural attitudes and practices. First, he did not take advantage of the living expenses guaranteed to the Governor and his staff. They denied this benefit to relieve the people of tax burdens. Previous rulers had extorted the people to such poverty that even their servants were better off than the common free man.

Second, it seems the position of governor would have allowed Nehemiah a life of comfort and ease. Instead, he and his staff dedicated themselves to working alongside the people in their effort to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. This was not merely delegated responsibility. He didn’t take on a series of program development and reform. He had a passion to restore the city and dedicated himself to its needs.

Verse 16 mentions a denial of real estate opportunities. On top of the ability to tax and extort the people, rulers could take advantage of the peoples’ desperation. They could buy land for very little money (say, as forgiveness for that month’s tribute) and later sell it for a high price after the restoration raised the property value. Again, as a man who knew the law, Nehemiah remembered God’s command to not move the boundary stones set by his forefathers (Deuteronomy 19:14).

The remaining passage in chapter 5 tells of a daily feast at Nehemiah’s table. Over 150 people every night came to his residence and ate one ox, six choice sheep, various foul, and several barrels of wine a night. Remember that this man refused the king’s food allowance. We can only assume then that Nehemiah paid for this generosity out of his own pocket for twelve years. Simple, straightforward math shows a staggering cost for this kind of hospitality. 4,380 oxen, 26,280 sheep and foul, and a new supply of wine for 150+ people ordered 438 times. That’s a lot of people for a long time. And not only important leaders. The text says other Judeans and foreign guests came and sat at Nehemiah’s table.

I think it was especially important for Nehemiah to invite foreign leaders to these nightly banquets. If the former practices of usury and extortion only added to the nations’ contempt of Jerusalem, the new lifestyle of generosity would silence the criticism. One more stone put in place for the restoration of the Jews as God’s chosen and special people.

Let this encourage you. Inviting people into your home for dinner or a party can seem like a simple thing but I want you to consider it as Nehemiah did. The new generosity allows people to see Christ at work in your home. This comes through how you freely give to your guests, as a visual example of how you interact with your family or roommates, and opens opportunities to speak into their lives with truth and wisdom.

People need to see the power of the living God at work in our lives. What with the stress of credit card bills and all.

Nehemiah Part Four - Avoiding sham battles

Until Skelletones established itself as a venue, punk shows in West Michigan had almost no security. Many of my friends and I hoped our common love of the music would keep the peace. But punk music, and soon hardcore music, brought out all kinds of culturally repressed aggression. Not all the shows were safe to attend, whether due to the venue, bands, or fans. The worst part about the fights at these shows was that no recognized authority could step in and arbitrate. Sometimes enough onlookers would jump in and break it up. Other times, kids hurt each other. One of the members of the band Don Knotts got stabbed over twenty times at one show when he tried to stop one of these fights.

With the one exception of a skinhead dragging me toward the Grand River with threats of killing me, I managed to stay away from most of the real danger. My experiences came more from cheap shots in the pit or secondhand threats by the K-zoo Crew from Kalamazoo. I witnessed more than I experienced.

Mirf handled conflict better than anyone I’d ever seen. For him, resolving this sort of thing started before anyone squared off to fight. He showed love indiscriminately, which created a safe atmosphere at Skelletones. If anyone had any brains, they knew to respect Mirf’s authority. You don’t want to mess with the most popular guy in the room. When fights broke out during shows, he could confront the problem and maintain peace.

Of course, there were problems. Early on, a group of guys from Kalamazoo would drive to shows in Grand Rapids and piss off everyone. They called themselves “The K-Zoo Crew”. Their cheap shots and macho intimidation fostered a lot of ill will between people. Grand Rapids kids wanted to have fun. The K-Zoo Crew wanted “real” hardcore. I don’t know exactly why they hated so many of the kids in Grand Rapids. My friends and I often wondered aloud why, if they hated us so much, those kids would spend the time and money driving to our city.

Over time, the troublemakers moved to cities with “better scenes”, and the others ended up becoming well-loved figures at Skelletones. Before I moved to Nashville, I heard stories about another group of kids, the Great Lakes Youth Crew. They were a more aggressive version of the K-Zoo Crew. Where the Kalamazoo kids seemed to talk more than anything, the GLYC actually caused serious trouble. A fifteen-year-old girl apparently crossed one of them at an Eighteen Visions show. The guy cut her in the back with a razor blade. She didn’t notice at first because she assumed the wetness was only sweat. But then she felt dizzy and went outside for some air. That’s where someone finally noticed her blood-soaked shirt.

If the first part of Mirf’s conflict resolution came from loving people, the second part dealt with a refusal to focus on the problem. He addressed trouble when he saw it, and eventually he hired security, but he didn’t want people to think of Skelletones as a troubled place. An attitude of peace had to be the norm with occasional incidents, not the other way around. And it worked.
In 2005, Skelletones moved to the space below the coffee shop, selling the café portion to some kids who worked for him. They renamed it The Euclid, after a pet hamster. I stayed on staff there as I continued to volunteer at Skelletones.

Shortly after the shift in management, things began to change at The Euclid. Younger kids began to hang out as well as more suspicious people. This bothered me. I’d thought we had cleaned up the neighborhood and started something positive on South Division. But worse than some of the shady people who started to come around, I was more offended at the passivity of the new staff. They wanted to retain the good feeling that Mirf and Annette had established with Skelletones but they didn’t address the problems with a loving attitude. People began to take advantage of their politeness, and eventually, the staff began to lash out without the loving relationships Mirf taught his staff to create.

As much as I hate to admit it, I also lost my temper with people. One guy, Gary, could really piss me off. He panhandled on our block and would sometimes come into the shop. He bothered kids and aggressively told them to give him money or cigarettes. I don’t remember how many times I kicked him out, but I’d always give him a chance when he came through our doors. This isn’t an exclusive club, after all, I thought. He can come if he buys a drink and doesn’t pressure anyone.
I worked on the last night we let Gary come to the Euclid. He sauntered through the door and immediately asked a kid for a cigarette. The kid seemed willing, so I decided to leave it alone for the moment. Justin LeQuire was there by the counter talking with me as I worked. Gary asked him for his lighter before going into the bathroom. “There’s no smoking in the bathroom, Gary!” I yelled.

“I ain’t gonna smoke!” he yelled back.

I was busy making drinks and didn’t feel like dealing with the problem just then. Twenty minutes later, Justin said, “He’s still in there.” I looked from mopping the floor and saw two or three kids standing by the bathroom door waiting for Gary to finish.

“What are you doing in there, Gary?” I kicked the door. He didn’t answer. “Get out of there, man!”

The door burst open. Gary was pulling up his pants as he came out to yell at me. “Can’t a guy get a little peace when he goes to the bathroom?” he demanded.

Justin held his hand out for the lighter, which he dropped as soon as Gary returned it. “Ow! That’s hot!”

That’s when I noticed the un-smoked cigarette behind Gary’s ear. Wheels turned. Justin leaned in and said, “There aren’t many reasons why my lighter would be this hot.” I looked at Gary’s eyes. He was doing drugs in our bathroom, around teenagers. After years of convincing parents that their kids were safe inside our walls, I felt a new kind of anger.

I gripped the mop handle and came close to Gary. “Get out,” I said. “Get out of here and never come back. If you even see me on the street, turn around and walk the other way. And if you ever try to come in here again, we’ll call the cops.” I didn’t bother to lower my voice. Gary protested for a minute, saying that I couldn’t tell him what to do as I backed him out of the building, brandishing the mob handle.

The room had stopped to watch. I wanted to protect the kids, but publicly losing my temper made them aware of the situation. Instead of keeping the peace, I had emphasized a need for the peace to be kept. It made everyone uncomfortable, including myself. Half of the kids left soon afterward.

After another night, when I publicly announced a crackdown on people who were selling drugs instead of buying drinks, everyone began to talk about how the coffee shop had changed. We focused on the trouble, and so in the minds of people, The Euclid was a troubled place.

Sham Battles

In the beginning of Nehemiah 4, the rulers surrounding Jerusalem continue to mock and ridicule the reconstruction. Having already addressed these men and their attacks, Nehemiah prays instead of getting drawn into a verbal argument. He didn’t need to further defend the “Good Work”. Already, the people had rebuilt the wall to half its height all the way around Jerusalem.

I heard Ian Ashby, a pastor from New Hampshire, speak on this passage at a Newfrontiers men’s conference in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Ian focused primarily on two points in Nehemiah, the “Good Work” and how the people “Worked with a will”.

The “Good Work”, obviously, was a restoration of the heart as well as the walls. According to Haggai, the worship of God in the temple had all but ceased as people sat around the rubble. Jerusalem still had a high priest, Joshua son of Jehozadak. Temple worship still existed. But Haggai rebuked the people for neglecting God by focusing on their possessions.

This leads me to make a point on subtle idolatry. It is possible to commit the sin of idolatry in the name of serving God. Many people in the ministry, if they’re wise, will admit to the danger of making ministry their number one priority. Instead of seeking God and listening for the direction of the Holy Spirit as they minister, a person can get a skewed idea that serving the ministry is the same as serving God.

I won’t make this personal. Go back to Nehemiah. So God gave him the Good Work in rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. Imagine if the walls became their primary goal instead of restoring the hearts of the people to God, living in the destiny He promised. When Sanvalat and Tobiah insulted the work, the Jews might have gotten huffy, righteously, of course. “Who do they think they are? King David took care of a certain nine-foot-tall mocker once.” Now they’re rolling up their sleeves and looking to chop off a few heads. But the rulers mocked the work and Goliath mocked God. God told the people to build. If the people fought instead of continuing the restoration, they would have moved in direct disobedience to God.

Okay, I lied. I’m going to maybe make this a little personal. Listen up, worship leaders. Ever had some “holy hecklers”? You know what I mean, those people who criticize the musicianship or song choice? Or what you wear? Or how much vibrato you used to pull out that last “Hallelujah”? Right, they’ve missed the point of worship. That doesn’t mean you should waste any time or emotional energy wringing your hands or punching pillows. Let’s assume God told you to lead worship and worship as you lead. That’s your job. That’s the obedience He requires. God blesses obedience, so what do you have to worry about? Ask yourself these questions. Are you defending God because you love His holiness and desire to give a reasoned answer to people? Or are you pissed because someone attacked your abilities, your ministry, and you feel like that makes you look bad? Are you righteously miffed or just embarrassed? In other words, who is your God? Your music ministry or the God who gave you the gift of music?

Nehemiah already told off the hecklers in Chapter 2. What would he say to these new attacks? “What? A fox knock down our walls? Nuh-uh! That’s stupid. You’re stupid.” What if he shifted his focus to these guys? It would have further damaged morale. And this was an attack on Jerusalem’s morale. Sanvalat & Co. wanted Nehemiah to defend himself as the new leader of a broken community and neglect the Good Work. They wanted him to focus on the trouble they made so that, in the minds of the people, Jerusalem would seem like a troubled place.
What did Nehemiah do in response? He prayed. Verses 4-5 of chapter 4 record his prayer. “Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders.” Having already credited the work to God in chapter 2, Nehemiah trusted God to answer the rulers’ taunts.

And God did bless their obedience. Verse 6 tells how the people finished the wall all the way around to half its height because “the people had a mind to work”. Other translations say, “they worked with a will”. They knew their God and obeyed despite the circumstances. It feels god to accomplish something, to complete a definite stage.

When I was in grade school, bullies would make fun of me in hopes that I’d take the first swing so they could blame me for the fight. I fell for this trick a few times until my dad told me not to throw the first punch. But most bullies weren’t happy when I denied them a justifiable fight. Several times, they’d start threatening a first move. A clenched fist, a step forward, maybe a shove. They continued to provoke without making the first attack. Bullies have been using the same tricks for millennia. The rulers in Nehemiah decided to do the same thing in verses 7-8. “Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it.”

Now, surely, Nehemiah has to answer these men, to shove back. He can’t let them get away with this sort of thing, right? It’s not just two guys mouthing off anymore. There are rulers and nations on all sides of them looking for a fight. In verse 10, you can read some of the widespread propaganda.

But Nehemiah stayed focused on the work, responding now with both prayer and security guards. If these guys really wanted to mix it up, they’d have to come into Jerusalem. The Jews would have clearly been on the defense. More importantly, they wouldn’t get fooled into fighting. Obviously, the purpose of the threat was to get the people to stop working, to lose sight of God and His command. If the Jews stopped the reconstruction to train soldiers and go into the field of battle, not only would they waste time and lose sight of the Good Work, Sanvalat would have probably sent word to the king in hopes that he would shut down production. The accusations of Jerusalem’s “rebellious” past would have begun to look like a real problem. Nehemiah would have lost the king’s favor and thus diminished the power of his testimony to the people.
The enemies of Jesus today probably like the present condition of the Western church much like the rulers surrounding Jerusalem. When the walls are broken and the gates are burned, there’s no threat. They can continue living their lives without feeling like God might come in and mess up everything. It’s only when renewal comes, when the Gospel begins to breath life into people and cities, that they rear up and cause trouble. Every movement, every inspired teacher, every church looking to rebuild the body of Christ will face fierce criticism. The criticism will likely turn to insults and maybe threats of harm to persons or property.

Christians can face this opposition in a few different ways. Some decades ago, people formed an organization to show that Christianity hadn’t lost it’s power and authority. The Christian Coalition would use politics to influence culture and take a stand for what they believed. So they fought battles in the media and in Washington against abortion, homosexuality, gambling, liquor sales on Sunday, and so on. Very soon, the culture defined Christians by the things they opposed rather than the God they claimed to serve. It wouldn’t be long before David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons picked up their pens to survey the damage.

I wonder what the Coalition has to say about 1 Peter 3:8-9? “To sum up, all of you be harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit; not returning evil for evil or insult for insult, but giving a blessing instead; for you were called for the very purpose that you might inherit a blessing.” And later, in verses 13-16,

“Who is there to harm you if you prove zealous for what is good? But even if you should suffer for the sake of righteousness, you are blessed AND DO NOT FEAR THEIR INTIMIDATION, AND DO NOT BE TROUBLED, but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence; and keep a good conscience so that in the thing in which you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ will be put to shame.”

Peter tells the church to be “ready to make a defense”, not to look for fights. How often have you felt like somebody suckered you into a fight over religion? I know it’s happened to me at least a few times. And I never felt like I did anything for God in those arguments. Apparently, being defensive isn’t the same as being ready to make a defense.

It appears that readiness is the key. Another example in scripture comes to mind from Judges 7. The story goes that God has Gideon put together an army to fight the Midianites. But the army, God says, is too big. If they win, He says, they’ll brag about how great they were when they defeated Midian. During the winnowing process, God tells Gideon to have all the men go down by a body of water. The men were then divided into two groups, those who squatted down and cupped the water with one hand and those who got down on their knees to drink.

God tells Gideon to keep the men who drank with one hand. I imagine their other hand was free to grab their weapon should trouble come. They were ready while they drank water. The funny part is, come battle time, they don’t even use those weapons. They hold up torches and make a lot of noise, sending the enemy camp into a panic. Still, God wanted them ready.

Of course we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to abortion or give our blessing to homosexuality because the Bible clearly calls those things sin. I’m certain the Holy Spirit directs some people to take up those issues. My point is that the church should address sin and still focus on building the Kingdom of God through the Gospel. Organizations like the Christian Coalition seem to have fallen for the bullies’ trick and gotten themselves into a sham battle. All their arguments and politicizing have caused the average unchurched individual to associate Jesus with hate and politics. If you’re challenged, have a ready answer and make sure they come to you. Don’t go looking for a fight when you’re supposed to be building.

Through the rest of Chapter 4, we see Nehemiah using the strategy of readiness. The people who carry building materials do so with one hand while holding their weapon in the other. Those building on the wall need both hands, so they keep a sword strapped to their leg. In case of attack, there are men with trumpets ready to signal where to gather and defend. Verse 23 echoes back to Gideon’s men. “So neither I, my brothers, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each took his weapon even to the water.”

The Time I Got It Right

When Mirf still ran the coffee shop, he told the staff to pray before opening each night. He and Annette would pray in and for Skelletones all the time. I knew that the peace people felt when they entered the door came as a direct result of God moving in those prayers.

I was reminded of Mirf’s reliance on God when I had another confrontation at work. Thinking back on that night, nobody had yet come in after I opened. It was late November and people would sometimes come in just to wait for the bus by our front window. Not everybody caused trouble, but the occasional nut-job would bother customers so we had to enforce the one drink minimum.

So when Frank came in and stood by the window, ignoring my offers to get him a drink, I told him about the one drink minimum. He glared at me and kept his vigil for the bus. “You’ve got to buy a drink if you want to stay in here,” I said.

Frank turned around and shot back at me, “You’re telling me you’d kick an old man out into the cold because he won’t buy a cup of coffee.”

Instead of keeping my calm, I volleyed back, “Well it’d help for the chill.”

We started yelling at each other until I said, “I told you to leave! You’re trespassing. If you don’t get out of here, I’m going to call the cops.”

“Alright, fine!” He shouted, waving his hands around in frustration. “You’re saying I can stand there outside the door? Everything’s fine as long as I stand on the other side of that door?”

“Yeah, that’d be great.”

Frank zipped up his coat and went outside the door. But instead of walking to the corner to wait for the bus, he kept shouting curse words and blasphemes at me through the glass. A thought came to mind. “Pray.” I began to pray where Frank could see me behind the counter. I spoke aloud and told any blaspheming spirit to leave, even away from our part of the block. Frank’s voice dropped to a mumble and then he stopped talking altogether. After a few moments, he left. I had an especially peaceful night at work.

I sometimes wish I’d remembered that night when I chased Gary away with a mop handle. Prayer worked especially well when Frank shouted at me from the doorway. I don’t know why I didn’t stop to pray before I freaked out on Gary. Maybe I was a sucker for getting pulled into that fight. I don’t know. But addressing a problem and focusing on a problem seems to make all the difference.