We’ve been working our way through Nehemiah this summer at City Pres. It’s a book about leadership, as Nehemiah goes back to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. It’s obvious to highlight his strategic planning and implementation, which are incredible attributes that get this public works project finished.
But I’ve been captured from the reason it all starts in the first place. When Nehemiah – a cupberear for the king in Persia – gets the news about the trouble and shame in Jerusalem the author reports this, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” (1:4)
Nehemiah then risked to bring this up to the king and ask him if he could go an repair a place for a people that was not exactly his. He had never lived there. Yet he still cared for them. He wanted to do something for them. He wanted to rebuild those walls, and make their lives better.
So we haven’t focused as much on leadership and technical abilities – we’ve been asking God to show us where our heart breaks and what we might do about it together.
Does your heart break for Charleston? A young man walked into a church for Bible study. They welcomed him and prayed for him and he gunned them down because he wanted to start a race riot. And yet the families all forgive him. Does that not break your heart? We’re not okay in our society. Race is not fine. Racism is not over. Terror and fear still rise up. We need to pray and work to make this better.
Does your heart break for the situation in McKinney, Texas? A police officer pulled his gun. Things were unruly and disrespectful, but kids were standing there in bathing suits. One black girl was thrown to the ground and sat on. Does that break your heart? Do you think that is uncommon? Do you think that is justified? We need to pray and work so this can get better.
Does your heart break for the black, pregnant woman arrested in the altercation in the parking lot? Does your heart break for the men who are being shot and killed by police officers? In Ferguson, in Baltimore, in Charleston?
Does your heart break when you stop and realize that in some states there are more black men in jail than in college?
Does your heart break when you realize the cycles of poverty and privilege are powerful and often unseen and impossible to break out of?
We need Nehemiah leaders who risk and lead. But we need them to do so with broken hearts of love and compassion, along with their resolute work. We need to help others who have great trouble and shame, much of which we have caused. We need their forgiveness, and we need to stop pretending we have worked for all we’ve gotten and they have gotten all they deserved. We need to own up to our own sins and the sins of our forefathers and take this seriously and do whatever it takes to make this a better world for everyone, not just better for us and our kids.
Nehemiah confessed this himself when he prayed, “Let your ear be attentive and you eyes be open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses.” (1:6-7)
We confess the sins of racism, of indifference, of sloth, of pride, of greed, of hate, of envy, of arrogance, of scoffing, of removing ourselves, of a lack of friendship and care, of murder and killing, of the misuse of power, of the misuse of justice which is injustice, of blame-shifting, of silence. We confess that those have been the sins of our fathers, of our nation, but they’ve also been OUR sins.
Some of our fathers, mothers, uncles and aunts actually actively stood against Civil Rights. They had their reasons. They had their arguments. They had their blindnesses. We confess that history and are truly sorry. We take these errors seriously and want to rectify them.
Some of our heroes, whatever their reasons, stood on the side of slavery as a viable and reasonable institution to fight for and defend no matter what the cost. They were deluded. They were perhaps fooled or at least foolish. They believed it was right to hate this way. We still honor their statues and valor to fight for something so evil. It’s at the very least confusing.
Some of us still hold on to symbols of hatred, claiming they don’t mean what they mean. We fly our “heritage” Confederate flags without caring what that might mean to others. Perhaps some of us do not truly know what this heritage means and entails, but some do and wish it were that way again. Either way, it is an abomination and we confess this and wish to remove the offense.
We still hold on to words like Redskins with pride. We still resist the removal of these racial slurs through tricky arguments like tradition and honor and private ownership.
And yet – it’s been startling to watch the forgiveness shown in Charleston, especially from the family members. It’s been startling to watch the reaction to that forgiveness. It’s unusual. It’s something people aren’t quite sure what to do with. You can watch the newscasters in their befuddlement as they report on this story – forgiveness! Church as usual. The worshiping community?!
It’s the way of forgiveness, love and mercy. It’s the way of the cross. It’s the way of the saints who are used to being martyred and marginalized for their faith. It’s the way of those who have let their killers into their midst in love. It’s the way of Jesus. And that is amazing! We serve a God of justice and mercy, of compassion for his enemies, who came and lived and died and raised again. We have to hope to see this saints again together with Jesus. They have gone before us – far to soon, and also at just his timing.
Lord, help us to love like the families of the victims of these precious saints in Charleston. May we reach out to each other in a forgiving love that mystifies CNN and the world. May we forgive when we have been mistreated and offended, and even killed. May we forgive when we have been misunderstood, when we have grown up in privilege or underprivileged. May we find love instead of hate. May we find compassion instead of judgment. May we work on the wall together for your glory, for you are great and might, compassionate and merciful, powerful and intimate.
There are many places for us to work where our hearts break:
– The racial problems in our county and world
– The injustices to women in our country and world
– The incarceration rates and practices in our state and country
– The imbalances of the way justice is enacted to different people and races
– The problems of health, poverty and homelessness
– The problems of abortion and with children
– The educational divide between neighborhoods and races
O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayers of you people, who delight to fear your name, and give us success. Give us mercy in your sight, and in the sight of those who have the power to help us make these changes. We are your so-often unfaithful servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand. Amen. (from Nehemiah 1:10-11)