Compassion and Nehemiah 3

There is no more important posture needed for rebuilding broken things than compassion. It is “a willingness to suffer” with those who languish under the weight of ruins. Suffering with another person involves entering into the mess and, with a Christ-like reverence, being present with them as they rebuilt. As Thomas Merton said in The Sign of Jonas of God’s compassion: “I am noisy, fully of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You [God] live there!”

The ministry of Young Life played an important role in my broken adolescent years. My local leader, Phil, served as a constant presence in my messy young existence. He shepherded me through three impactful weeks of summer camps. He bravely sought me out for short conversations at school events. He was willing to look like a fool, week in and out, performing skits and outdated pop-songs at our weekly club. He even organized regular nerf-war games in his church fellowship halls on Saturday nights. I am confident that he kept us out of a lot of trouble.

I was a mess of a kid, emotionally and relationally. There was no more vivid symbol of this than my first camp experience. The night before our departure, I came down with a wicked cold. I lost my voice and I became a flowing fountain of mucous. By the time we arrived at camp two days later, having sat and slept in a fifteen-passenger van, there were three Kleenex boxes worth of tissue-balls piled around me and scattered throughout the van.

At Young Life camp, arriving in wyld style is one of the most important aspects of the week. They pulled us immediately out of the van and took us on a clothes-soaking inner tube ride on the massive Minnesotan lake. Soaked, we were rushed off for a spectacular introduction to the rest of the camp grounds. I found out later that Phil spent a portion of his free time that day gathering up the moist tissue balls I had left for somebody else to deal with. I shudder. Phil resolved to suffer with me on the first leg of what would be a decisive week of my life. I’m sure this was only a small glimpse of the ways Phil suffered in those years, paying the cost to give me a role model in return. Ruined as my house was, Phil lived with me there for a season.

Without compassion the kingdom of God cannot be established. We see another symbol of this reality in way Nehemiah chose to dwell among Jerusalem’s ruined house. He rallied those living in ruins there. As it tells us in Nehemiah 3, he enlisted everyone as manual laborers. He inspired workers from the unlikely High Priest (and his people) to the Gibeonites (who had some relationship with those in charge of Judea, as the author tells us). This means that there would have been tensions of authority inherent among these two groups. Nehemiah pulled together for a common goal the equivalent of the 2013 US congress.

The author describes this complex community of co-laborers for us. He talks about the work they accomplished there in a counter-clockwise fashion. We read about the work done  at the sheep gate (near the temple) and end up at the little north-west portion of the wall that stood between the muster gate and the sheep gate. In that section the priests, the goldsmiths, and the merchants worked next to one another. Lord, make it true in our day as well. May professional Christians and business men learn to labor side by side.

Some of the workers described focused on the gates, while others performed epic restructuring of long stretches of the wall: “Hanun and the inhabitants of Zanoah repaired the Valley Gate; they rebuilt it and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars, and repaired a thousand cubits of the wall, as far as the dung gate’ (3.13). Some worked in relatively common sections, while others worked near the palace and grave of David. People from all classes and tribes suffered together to rebuild Jerusalem. Only the nobles of Tekoa ‘would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord’ (3.5). There will always be the reticent.

What is most amazing, is that the author of Nehemiah gives us no sense in this chapter of discord or of self-importance rising from one quarter or another. Almost all of the people living there put their shoulders to work. The picture is of great harmony as of that which the psalmist celebrated, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (Psalm 133.1). With such concord, the community would be ready to take their stand against inevitable opposition, as is described in the next chapter as a great cloud of sand.

So what is it that you are trying to build? Who are you trying to recruit? How far will you be willing to go to suffer with your co-workers? Will you bring them together or leave them behind? What lessons do you take from Nehemiah here?

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