Christianity 201

July 31, 2018

When the Answer to “How are you?” is “Not so fine.”

Today’s article has been shortened from its original form at the blog Jesus Unboxed, which we’re featuring here for the first time. Rev. David Eck is the pastor of Abiding Savior Lutheran Church, Fairview, North Carolina, and Chaplain PRN at Mission Hospital, Asheville, North Carolina. In the introduction, David points out that Nehemiah only surfaces once in the three year cycle of the Lectionary. Some of his thoughts below are derived from hearing author Brian McLaren. For the entire passage in Nehemiah, click here. To read the article in its full context click the title below.

Nehemiah: From Despair to Hope (Neh 8:1-18)

…“So, how are you?”…

…if you’re feeling “not so fine” today, that’s perfectly okay…

…Nehemiah gives us some tools for how to cope when it feels like life is an avalanche of “not so fine” days.

First, let me give you a little background on this relatively unknown prophet. The book of Nehemiah takes place after the Babylonian exile. This is a people who had experienced so many “not so fine” days in a row that they had lost count. They were people of despair. They were people who had abandoned all hope that things would get better.

Then, miraculously, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonian army. He allowed the Israelites to return to their homeland, and even gave them some of the resources they needed to rebuild their lives. Nehemiah is all about the rebuilding. Chapter 8, in particular, gives us a lot of wisdom regarding how we can rebuild our lives when we feel like we are a people without hope.

As chapter 8 begins all the people in Jerusalem were asked to gather in the public square in front of the Water Gate. The Water Gate was located near the Southwest corner of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, near the Gihon Spring. It was a place that was open and accessible to everyone.

In this very public space Ezra began reading the Torah, the “law of Moses” to everyone who would listen. For those unfamiliar with the term, the Torah is the first five books we have in our Bibles. It was revised and edited by Ezra and other priests while they were in exile.

And so this brand-spanking-new version of the Torah was read to the people. When Ezra opened the scroll for the first time, the people shouted “Amen, amen!” and they began to worship together. While Ezra was reading the Torah, the Levites, who were the traditional teachers of the Law, moved among the people and helped them to understand how it applied to their lives.

This is something that lasted an entire day. During this gathering the leaders reminded the people “This day is holy to the LORD your God; so not mourn or weep.”

When the day came to an end they told the people, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

What I see going on in this passage is a blueprint for how we successfully navigate the “not-so-fine” times our our lives; times when we have lost hope and despair is our constant companion.

First of all, we need to immerse ourselves in the Word and in worship. The “law of Moses” that Ezra read was defined by Brian McLaren as “the standards of basic human decency.” They contained the Ten Commandments and reminded the people how they were supposed to live in covenant with God and with each other.

In times of despair, it’s important that we immerse ourselves in scripture. This is something we do not do alone. We interpret it together. This circle of interpretation involves the whole family of God: pastors, lay people, poets, musicians and scholars.

It’s important that we have this holy conversation because in 2018 it’s vital that we understand clearly who Jesus is and what he stands for. There are many counterfeit Jesuses out there. If we are students of the Word, we are less likely to fall for them.

My challenge to you… is that if you haven’t read the gospel lately, it’s time to do so. We all need to be able to defend the Jesus we know and love in a world that often makes him into their image instead of the other way around.

Worship is also important during the “not so fine” times of our lives. When we are despairing, when we have lost hope, we need to surround ourselves with those who will remind us of God’s promises to us. They are there to sing the hymns of faith we cannot bring ourselves to sing. They are there to love us and care for us when we cannot love and care for ourselves. We see this happening in Nehemiah 8. It was Ezra’s way of helping God’s people to heal and have their hope restored.

The second thing that emerges in Nehemiah, is that during the “not so fine” times of our lives, we need to practice gratitude, celebration, and service to the needy. Ezra tells the people “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine, and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our LORD; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

When things are going wrong, we need to focus on what’s going right. When things get us all hot and bothered, we need a cool oasis where we can refresh our weary souls.

This is exactly what the people did. They set aside their troubles for at least one day. They feasted with one another. and shared a portion of what they had with those who could not afford to feast.

Then they were reminded by Ezra that “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” This is not some rose-colored glasses kind of joy. It’s not even the-glass-is-half-full kind of joy. It’s the kind of joy that believes “If God is for us, who can be against us?” It’s the kind of joy that lives deep inside our souls. It cannot be taken away from us no matter what is happening in our lives and in our world.

We may not think we do not have this kind of joy within us. But, trust me, its there. Our job is to awaken that kind of joy in those around us when they cannot awaken it themselves…

But there’s one more piece of the blueprint we need to examine for how to navigate the “not-so-fine” times our our lives. This occurs in our second lesson which contains a ritual celebration known as the Festival of Booths. It is a festival that Jews celebrate to this very day. Some of you may remember the Jewish Secular Society of Asheville, who does their monthly Shabbat here, set up a booth or tent in our yard this past fall.

The reason why it’s important in Nehemiah, is that the Israelites had not celebrated this festival since the time before the exile in Babylon. Now that they were rebuilding their community, this particular festival was important. They feasted under these booths to remember how their ancestors wandered in the wilderness after escaping from Egypt, as well as how God led them to the promised land.

The important lesson we learn from this festival is that during the “not so fine” times of our lives, it’s important that we remember how God delivered us from difficult times in the past. When we do this, it gives us hope for the future. It helps to replenish the deep well of joy that is our strength.

And so, as we make our way, through these unstable and unpredictable times we are experiencing as a nation, it’s absolutely vital that we remember God’s faithfulness to us in the past. This gives us the strength we need to trust that God will help us to navigate the “not so fine” days were are experiencing currently.

Friends in Christ, there is a lot of wisdom we can gain from Nehemiah. I encourage you to read this chapter during the week, and see what else you can learn from it. Make no mistake about it, God is with us in these “not so fine” times. The joy of the Lord WILL be our strength. If we immerse ourselves in the Word and in worship; if we practice gratitude, celebration, and service to the needy; if we remember the times in our lives when God was faithful to us; we will get though this! Our hope will be renewed as we place our trust in the One, who helped Israel persevere during both an exodus and an exile. Amen!

Copyright ©2018 by David Eck; used with permission.

 

February 22, 2015

The Bible on Depression

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During Sundays in February we’ve been visiting the blog Christian Fellowship Devotions.  Archives at the blog go back to 1996, and today I want to link you to their topical index.

For our final Sunday with them, I wanted to use an older item by Janice that deals with a topic I know is very real to many of you.  (I think by NNAS she is referring to the updated New American Standard.) Click the title below to read at source.

depression

Passages about Depression

Depression — it’s something many of us struggle with — yes, even Christians. Being depressed does not mean you are “not a good Christian.” In fact, some of the “heroes of our faith” went through periods of what used to be called “melancholy.” Sometimes depression is a result of sin, but at other times, it is as Christian psychiatrist Frank Meier says, simply “…the result of life stresses.” Here is a bit of what God’s word has to say about it.

Biblical Examples of Depression

Neh 1:3-4 (NNAS) They said to me, “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. When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. Psa 13:1-3 (NNAS) How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart all the day? How long will my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O LORD my God; Enlighten my eyes, or I will sleep the sleep of death.

Psa 102:9-11 (NNAS) For I have eaten ashes like bread and mingled my drink with weeping. Because of Your indignation and Your wrath, For You have lifted me up and cast me away.My days are like a lengthened shadow, And I wither away like grass.

Prov 14:13 (NNAS) Even in laughter the heart may be in pain, And the end of joy may be grief.

What We Are to Do About Depression?

We should follow Nehemiah’s and the Psalmist’s examples, pouring our hearts out to God:

Neh 1:6-7 (NNAS) 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.

James 4:8-10 (NNAS) Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom.. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.

Find things to be thankful for, even in the most painful times. God will honor that.

1 Th 5:18 (NNAS) In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

Share with a trustworthy friend. Let him minister to you.

Rom 12:15 (NNAS) Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.

February 2, 2013

Try Our Signature Dish!

Restaurants have signature meals, a particular menu item that the place is well known for and with each menu revision, it’s always left intact. Preachers have signature sermon series as well, a particular book of the Bible for which they have great affinity and/or expertise, or if they are academics, a particular commentary that they have authored that stands apart from all their other writing.

For Andy Stanley the signature dish is the Book of Nehemiah — you can read more in his book Visioneering — and when he preaches it, one of the key verses is:

Neh 6:2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.”

But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.   (NIV)

This is a verse about distractions that can take us away from spending time with God and doing God’s work.

Blogger Alyson Browning calls this one of three marks of leadership:

Third mark of leadership – ignore the annoying distractions (chapter 6). In this chapter, we see the enemies of God – Sanballet, Tobiah, and Geshem – attempting to discourage and distract Nehemiah from everything he was doing to rebuild the city of Jerusalem. Nehemiah ignores their plot to distract and harm him. He gives this now famous response, “I am doing a great work and cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” (6:3, HCSB). Nehemiah kept his focus on the task God had for his life and ignored those who were trying to distract him.

Christopher Scott notes that we’re getting an inside look in this story:

One of the reasons I love the book of Nehemiah is that it allows the reader to peek inside the heart of Nehemiah because it was written as a memoir from Nehemiah. Most of the books of the Bible tell about events that happened, but rarely do they tell about the thoughts and feelings of the biblical characters. However, because the book of Nehemiah was written as a memoir, we get to take a peek past what has happended and actually read about what Nehemiah was thinking and feeling.

Michael “Sinbad” Creighton writes:

Nehemiah was doing something that could only be blamed on God. He led a group of people in the rebuilding of the wall around the city of Jerusalem and completed it in only 52 DAYS! And all through the process, he had distractors and distractions. Check it out here. And every time he stood firm in what God was leading and equipping him to do.

Notice the first line of the 2nd paragraph here from Steven Ruff:

Proponents and opponents: those for and against something. Every leader has both in the circle of influence. Nehemiah was no different. He had received word of the condition of Jerusalem’s walls and his heart was broken. He had prayed, sensing a God-given mission, and approached the king for assistance. He made the long trip to Jerusalem, surveyed the situation first-hand, and gave a reasonable and attainable goal to the people. When Sanballat and Tobiah approached Nehemiah, sounding like children on the playground, a choice had to be made. Does he move forward with his plans or does he come down off the wall and argue with them about the legitimacy of his work? Does he make wise use of his time and strength by carrying out the work or does he waste time, energy, and strength arguing whether it could or could not be accomplished? Nehemiah chose in that pivotal and critical moment to not argue. As the work continued and his opponent’s displeasure became louder, he later made his decision known, loud and clear. He said, “So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” [Nehemiah 6:3]

There is a difference between casting and defending a vision before those you lead and arguing with them about the legitimacy of that vision. There is a difference between answering legitimate questions from the organization and arguing with them about it. The difference : the opponent’s spirit. Nehemiah opponents were not genuinely concerned with his vision. They were not there to understand better the work at hand. They were not there to investigate how they might be involved. Instead, their spirit was one that simply wanted to see the work stopped and the Israelites embarrassed. Period. Leaders must decide where they will spend their precious time, strength, and energy. Will they spend it helping their opponents who genuinely want to better understand their vision and decision? Or, will they spend it arguing with an opponent who only wishes to see the work stop or fail? Nehemiah answers this question for us. Leaders lead confidently and choose not to argue, instead, inform and encourage. Ed Stetzer sums this matter up perfectly. He said, “You do not have to show up to every argument you are invited to.”

Like Andy Stanley, I’ve tried to take ownership of this passage, helped by the fact I’ve heard him refer to it several times. Just today I was watching something on a popular media channel and realized that it was serving solely as a distraction. It reminded me of this verse, which led to today’s thoughts. I hope you’ll find the spirit of this principle useful in the days ahead.

January 3, 2013

Construction in Progress

Christian Under Construction

Today’s post appeared originally at the blog Into The Foolishness of God and was written by Shara Case.  It was originally published as  Hand Me Another Brick.

Nehemiah wasn’t exaggerating when he prayed to God saying, ”Hear us oh God, for we are despised” (Nehemiah 4:4). Called by God to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and rally the exiles who were already “in great distress” the task itself was difficult. Upon hearing his calling, Nehemiah sat down and wept for many days (1:4).  He humbly accepted his duty and got to work. It wasn’t long before the enemy was also hard at work:

When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews,and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble–burned as they are?” Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building–if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” Nehemiah 4:1-3

Doing God’s will and His work means coming up against strong opposition from and enemy that would like nothing better than to see us give up and quit. I like smooth sailing as much as the next person, but it just doesn’t work that way in the spiritual realm. God’s people are mocked, teased, threatened and worse for trying to set about the work they have been given. What I love about this story is Nehemiah’s response: 

So I stationed armed guards at the most vulnerable places of the wall and assigned people by families with their swords, lances, and bows. After looking things over I stood up and spoke to the nobles, officials, and everyone else: “Don’t be afraid of them. Put your minds on the Master, great and awesome, and then fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. And it happened, when our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had brought their plot to nothing, that all of us returned to the wall, everyone to his work.” (Nehemiah 4:13-15)

This is how it’s done folks! If only we applied this more often to our own setbacks. Here are some things Nehemiah did that I find amazing:

  • He didn’t ignore the fact that there was a problem; It sounds crazy, but sometimes it’s just easier to stick our heads in the sand and hope for the best. The Israelites weren’t just being mocked, they were being threatened. Their task of rebuilding was in jeopardy. As the opposition grew, Nehemiah knew he could not just do nothing. God doesn’t want us to focus on it, but instead acknowledge it and take it to Him.
  • He didn’t respond directly to his accusers;  He looked around and addressed his own people, reminding them that the Lord God, “great and awesome” would fight for them. How hard this is for me sometimes, in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and instant news of all kinds where everyone has an opinion they want heard. We are called to speak the Truth and share it in the midst of all the backwards things the world proclaims – but we are also reminded to “avoid foolish and ignorant disputes” (2 Timothy 2:23) that only lead to more strife. Nehemiah knew it would be a waste of time arguing with those so set against him – he turned to his fellow workers and he turned to God.
  • He called on the people to PRAY and WATCH; they were to set their hearts to prayer, being watchful for what was to come. Watchmen were set strategically along the wall to be on the lookout for an attack. Being on the lookout places us in a far better position that if we are hit suddenly without warning. Prayer gets us into this position. One without the other doesn’t make much sense, but prayer and watchfulness put together make us strong.
  • He called on the people to PRAY and WORK; The enemy wants to back us into a corner and fill us with fear and discouragement so that we stop our work, or quit altogether. He wants us to sit around and fret. God wants us to keep moving! Nehemiah divided his people up and had half praying while the other half continued the work. They had been assigned something very important, regardless of the opposition that came, they were to stay on task. We do God’s work because we love Him, not because our circumstances are always favorable.

We all have walls that need rebuilding, gates that need fortifying, vulnerable places that need to be patched up so the enemy can’t have access to them over and over. This story encourages me to go after the things God has told me to do without the fear of failure or ridicule nagging at me in the back of my mind.  It is nice when things just seem to fall into place, many things worth having, however, are going to come at a price. How amazing to walk through that fire of discouragement, conflict and disappointment and come out on the other side just where God intended us to be.

“Those who built on the walls, and those who carried burdens, loaded themselves so that with one hand they worked at construction, and with the other held a weapon”… (4:17).

There it is in a nutshell: Hold your weapon in one hand and keep working with the other! Don’t go about it alone, be someone’s watchman. Be a prayer warrior for someone who is hurting. Take your eyes off of the opposition and those who ridicule you – put them squarely on God and restore all those walls that have been torn down, they will be stronger than they ever were before.

Here is another post from the same blog I greatly enjoyed, the story of David rejecting Saul’s armor and going into battle with Five Smooth Stones.