Time and Space for Renewal: Four Meditations on Nehemiah 1
We invite you into four meditations on Nehemiah and the Psalms. Before reading, bring this blogpost with you into a prayerful space, perhaps with a journal. Expect God to stir as you read of his redemptive movements for ancient Israel and as he invites you into a story of Renewal.
A People in Need of Renewal, Nehemiah & Us
Nehemiah 1:1 The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: "In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, 2 Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
As we will explore in the narrative of Nehemiah over the next few months, all believers find themselves in a moment in history, with geographic and historical particulars that bear on their moment in the story of God’s people. The book of Nehemiah plays out in quite a different moment in history than our own, dealing with a different land and a different people covenanted to the same God we know. Nehemiah invites us to attend to his geographic and historical particulars in order to fully appreciate God’s work in that time and in that place. A long time ago a people who knew the one true God found themselves scattered, discouraged, and in need of renewal. They found themselves on the other side of God’s covenantal judgment. This people group, known as Israel, had entered into a covenant relationship with God at his invitation, so they might represent him to the nations. After generations of pride, disobedience, and shirking the mission of God, the Lord did as he promised he would do in this scenario: he exiled them for a season, separating them from their land and their space of worship. And even listed among the challenging words of those covenant curses, attentive readers of the law find the promise of renewal. This is in Deuteronomy 30, just after the details of exile are laid out as the consequence of disobedience from chapter 28:
Deuteronomy. 30:1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, 2 and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, 3 then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. 4 If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. 5 And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. 6 And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.
And thus we enter into the book of Nehemiah - the unfolding of the promise of Deuteronomy 30. We feel Nehemiah a timely word for our own story, an invitation into the sweeping story of God stirring his people back to him in renewal, in a renewed commitment to him, to his purposes, to his covenant, and to his mission. Before Israel could be restored as priests for the nations they needed to mend - their relationship with God, with his ways, with each other. Their needs were not just spiritual, but physical, concrete - they had been scattered by Babylon and then ruled by Persia, swept up in the throes of ancient superpowers. God would need to show up in ways beyond their control for their restoration to be realized. And so what we witness (and in some ways, what we hope to participate in) is the mysterious collaboration between God and people, in responsiveness, moving toward one another in the narrative of renewal. God wooing, directing, and revealing while the people are found repenting, responding, and reconciling.
Today, we wish to enter the very deep and personal space of God’s invitation, which is as important for us today as it was for Nehemiah and his generation. We want to meditate on the text not simply as items of archaeology or history but as the living words that the living God uses to make himself known afresh - even now. This post invites you to spend time in dialogue with Nehemiah 1 and Psalm 51 with the aid of poetry and silence. May we, like Nehemiah, be responsive to the movements of God even as we become aware of his presence. He is with us. So would you go to him repeating the verse below for a few moments as your prayer? Let us open our hearts to him that he may illuminate himself there, showing us our the places in our heart that are hard or hidden or in need of healing. This paraphrase of David’s Psalm 139:23-4 is from Christian Singleton's All Yours.
Search my heart, show me anything that’s not like you
The Activity of Renewal, Spiritual Practice
Nehemiah 1:3 They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire." 4 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.
After an editorial note, Nehemiah serves as narrator of his own story. He interprets his own context, his place in the story of covenant promise broken, of covenant judgment exacted, and of the need for renewed covenant. He understands that he sits in the wake of a particular history, of a relational history between God and his people.
There is a really poignant scene from a favorite film of mine by director Wes Anderson in which a train somehow gets lost. The confused travelers fixate on the observation of one of their colleagues who explained the situation this way: “We haven’t located us yet.” It’s possible that many of us are here in 2022 making a similar observation - “we haven’t located us yet” - not sure of how to interpret the stories that have shaped us over the last few years. Do you resonate with that?
Let us take a moment to reflect on our story as a church family. Let us locate ourselves. The story that has shaped us as a distinct church family began twenty years ago with a group of faithful believers aspiring to plant a church for those on the margins. Under the stewardship of two long-serving teaching pastors, along with other pastoral and ministry staff, and a growing and vibrant team of servant leaders, our church grew, reaching many students and families here in the High Country. In 2020, the pandemic began and we were removed from our place by circumstances outside of our control. We had to navigate community life apart, together. It was Easter of 2021 when we were able again to gather in-person, while also integrating online participation in worship through live-streaming. And as 2021 continued, three of our five staff members stepped out of their leadership positions. And while we held together through these disorienting adjustments each in need of deep processing, we came together sacrificially to serve one another. We came together around tables and over Zoom calls to discuss the weighty matters of church identity, who we are and what we feel God is doing through us. We came together to redefine our vision statement with renewed clarity and direction. We came together to cultivate spaces for conversation, for hope, for healing. And we came together committed to the Word of God and the belief that God is active among us. You may highlight other challenges or successes than I have, but I wanted to do as Nehemiah models here at the outset. We must locate us. We must be aware of our story. I believe God is in it. What is God doing at theHeart? What is he stirring us toward? What is he stirring us away from? Have we “located us yet” in the story of God here in the High Country, in this place, among this people?
Yet regardless of how much grasp we have on our corporate story, the story of us, you certainly have a narrative of your own as an individual. How have you changed since March 2020? Is your faith deeper? Weaker? More complicated? How has your family navigated these challenging times? What looks different in your life? And where is God in all of that? These are tough questions. And we want to start the year off by giving space for you to go to God with them, for us to go to God with them, together. And I hope these thoughts encourage you to wrestle with these things in your prayer life, through practices like the prayer of Examen, asking God to illuminate his presence in our daily existence.
But notice Nehemiah’s response as he enters into the story of his people and their relationship with God through the arrival of news of the unfortunate state of those resettling Jerusalem after generations of exile. It is a story of a remnant who have gone through much and face uncertain days. He receives news of the struggle of this returning remnant in Jerusalem and he knows, regardless of his own privileged status as cupbearer of the Persian king, that their challenging story is his. The report was not only of the ruin of Jerusalem but the spiritual and emotional hardship of the people being as the ASV puts it “in great affliction and reproach.” They have been through much hardship and they feel the shame of disappointment. They came back to their place together excited and hopeful only to find and experience further entropy. What is the Godward response to such a story? Nehemiah shows us. You see - there is no business-as-usual with those who truly seek God, no autopilot mode for Godward intention, no such thing as a casual renewal. God wants the total and wholehearted renewal we read about in Deuteronomy 30 - the circumcision of our hearts -the re-centering of our love of God that would result in the complete and utter transformation of our lives.
Regardless of the discontinuities between Nehemiah’s story and our own - we are not ancient Israel so there are limits to the comparison that we should be aware of - he does show us the proper response to the ownership of a challenging story, the first step in renewal: a string of verbs, a process of activities aimed toward being with God. Hearing, sitting, weeping, mourning, fasting, and praying are all crammed into this fourth verse.
First, he listens to the real state of things. He becomes in tune with the story of his people. He doesn’t plug his ears and refuse to acknowledge the challenges ahead.
Then, he sits. He stills himself. He lets this discouragement wash over him. He lets it break him down and disrupt his life, as he comes to a halt for days. He does not pretend there is no hardship in the spirit of toxic positivity. No, he sits and he weeps for days.
He lets himself feel it all. He lets the pain of others be his pain, their disappointment be his disappointment, their grief become his own.
And he turns to spiritual practice, to timeworn traditions of those reaching out for the touch of God. He turns to fasting and to prayer and to those things that sharpen our awareness of God, that limit our distractions, that make us keenly aware of our hunger for renewal and our need for transformation. And ultimately, these activities are simply vehicles, pathways to walk, touchstones to put ourselves before the presence of God. The Hebrew word we translate as presence is literally “face” (panav) and it is built into the preposition we read as “before.” So, when Nehemiah puts himself before God in prayer and fasting, he is seeking the face of God, for only God’s intensely personal presence can truly renew us.
Take a moment to pray the words of David when he realized and grieved his own brokenness, his own story of failure, and as he reminded himself of the character of God who is gracious and abounding in steadfast love even amid our disappointments. He, in the lowest point of his story, put himself before God in repentance (Hebrew shuv) - which simply means to turn, turning to face God, seeking renewal. May this be a turning point in our story - sitting where we are with hearts open to change, hearts open to the transformative grace of God. Pray or listen to Jon Foreman's adaption, White As Snow.
Have mercy on me, O God
According to your unfailing love
According to your great compassion
Blot out my transgressions
The Need for Confession, Corporately & Individually
Nehemiah 1:5 Then I said:“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. 7 We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Renewal movements in the biblical narrative are not simply the stories of individuals, but the stories of a corporate whole, a body of people acting collectively to realign themselves to the purposes and graces of God. They begin with tangible acts of corporate repentance, a group of people identifying their collective role in a story, a story that is larger than the sum of individual parts. Oftentimes, we fixate so much on our own stories as individuals that we fail to see the way we are part of bigger stories that shape us, our faith, and our future. It is easier to become captive to the stories we don’t acknowledge we are in. Notice how Nehemiah, who is not a part of the generation that was originally exiled, confesses his own sin as well as his fathers’. If our view of sin is to meet the bible’s demonstrations of repentance, we too must acknowledge the intergenerationality of sin. Sin is an intergenerational trauma. Do we not, to this day, still loom under the shadow of Adam and the shadow of Eve, affected across the generations by their sin? Should we not be surprised, then, when sin patterns reach across generations, whether we inherit bad habits, mentalities, or patterns from our forefathers? Or as we pass our own bad habits, mentalities, and patterns to our children? Shouldn’t we, like Nehemiah, own the bigger story of sin and see our role in it? Nehemiah confesses the particulars, acknowledging that he and his father’s house have played a role in the relational vandalism of Israel’s covenant with God. We do best, then, to name our intergenerational sins, to highlight their twisting, their attempted coupe of God’s story in our lives as individuals and as a corporate whole.
If we ask God together to help us see our sins, what might we find? Do we trust God enough to do so? We need not hide in shame like Adam and Eve attempting to protect themselves and save face. Instead, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, who climbed a tree just for a glance, we should risk humiliating ourselves to be with God, throwing our imperfect selves before Jesus at his gracious invitation to sinners. As James notes, confession and healing are inseparable (James 5:16). Renewal must begin with confession and repentance. And, as Nehemiah and the other renewal movements in the bible model, that repentance will become tangible.
In the days of Josiah, the people repaired spaces of worship, removed idols that cluttered their faith, and burned down the things that threatened their covenant commitments to God. We can expect a similar kind of spring cleaning to follow our hopes of renewal. Repentance and renewal go hand in hand. Repentance is more than heart posture, but a tangible habit towards God. In the book of Nehemiah, we will read of these tangible movements toward God as the people of Israel reach out to God through feasting, fasting, the wearing of sackcloth, and other timeworn rituals meant to give spiritual renewal an embodied expression. But, as David reminds us, before we busy ourselves with a flurry of pious deeds and ceremonies, the sacrifices of our God are a broken and a contrite heart.
Let us go to God in confession starting there: the places our hearts are broken. Where is your heart broken by sin? Is your heart broken by the weight of your own sin, your own failures, your own disobedience? Or is your heart broken by the sins of another? Is it broken by the failings of a loved one? Is it broken on behalf of broader things, such as the plight of the homeless, the immigrant, the widow, the unborn, the needy whose lives are marred by the inequities of a sinful world? Is it broken by the complex racial trauma of American history and its ongoing troubling legacy? Where is your heart broken? Is it broken by your story? Your role in a larger story?
The place your heart is broken may be the very soil tilled for renewal: a broken heart is an open one. That brokenness is the open space, the invitation of God to come and mend. May we invite God into that confessing where we have broken our own hearts and the hearts of others, where we have been broken by others, where we are broken with others. Would you go to God now in a moment of prayer again from Jon Foreman's setting of Psalm 51, White As Snow? Confess your brokenness expecting to be heard, attended to, and mended by God.
The sacrifices of our God Are a broken and a contrite heart
Against You and You alone Have I sinned?
The Belief that God is Responsive, Nehemiah & Us
Nehemiah 1:8 “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9 but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ 10 “They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. 11 Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.” I was cupbearer to the king.
There was no quick fix in Nehemiah’s day. Nehemiah’s renewal, of which we have only read the opening act, was a lifelong pursuit and even then only partially realized. We, by beginning our year with a collective effort to put ourselves before God for renewal, are not in one season, through one series, through one worship service able to shortcut God’s timing and God’s process. Over the next few months, we will be reading through and exploring the roller coaster of successes and struggles experienced by a people clinging to their hope in God and moving forward. There is no shortcut for renewal, my church fam.
Nehemiah’s spiritual disciplines - listening, sitting, weeping, mourning, fasting, and praying - were all the inaugurating movements. He has not yet made a plan. He has not yet called in favors from the Persian king. He has not booked his trip to help the returning exiles. He sits now, poised, awaiting God’s initiative. He has invited it. He has prayed with confidence that God is not only attentive, but responsive. He believes in God’s ingathering, renewing, restoring character - that God would do as God desires as his people turn toward him. And so, as we enter a new year with wonderful things on the calendar, wonderful hopes, and wonderful ideas, may we do as Nehemiah shows us. May our listening, sitting, weeping, mourning, fasting, and praying be our inaugural Godward movements this year.
And may our prayer be like Nehemiah’s. May we pray with confidence that God restores those who turn towards him wholeheartedly. May we pray that God give us favor and success for his namesake. May we pray that God move in our lives in such a way that his loving presence could be seen undoubtedly. May the story of theHeart be one not of our originality, our distinctiveness, or our reputation, but of God’s faithfulness to a people whose hearts, minds, souls, and habits are turned toward him and his purposes.
So, may we, like those in the narrative of Nehemiah, have the staying power of perseverance. May we see this thing out. In the words of my favorite songwriter (surprised?):
“Come on, come on, come on, let’s abandon this darkness. Come on, come on, come on, let’s follow this through. Come on, come on, come on, everything’s waiting. We will rise on the wings of the dawn, when everything’s new, when everything’s new.” - Jon Foreman
God will renew the heavens and the earth. God will renew this blood-soaked soil we tread and trade. God will renew humanity in the likeness of Jesus. God will renew every tired, weary, broken, and hopeless thing at the resurrection. And we, my brothers and sister, get to experience that, in part, in the here and now. We who turn towards God do experience renewal. We get to put on Christ, something Nehemiah's generation could not yet dream of. We get to preview the Kingdom of God in the way we live our lives together. We get to participate in the reconciliation of all things. So, no matter the ruins of our lives, no matter the tides of history that bear on our moment, no matter the failures each of us have experienced, and no matter the pain through which we have walked, we believe God is faithful. And so, regardless of how challenging, slow, or confusing our renewal is, we know it will take place. Our part is the active waiting. That’s what the life of faith is. Not idle sloth. Nor frenetic religiosity. But faithful and active waiting, responding to God as he responds to us. Can we enter the year with that kind of anticipatory posture?
Let us cry out to God through the prayer of a final song, inspired by the plea of another biblical figure hoping for the renewal of his people, the words of the prophet Elijah who so desperately wanted renewal that his prayer brought down fire from the heavens, sent by the living God. May this be our heart cry this morning, that God would answer us as we turn our hearts toward him. This is Jon Foreman's adaptation of 1 Kings 18:36-7, Again. Pray this as a final meditation on God's Renewal for now.