Together

It was a big job.

Jerusalem was a big city, rebuilding its walls was a big task, and Nehemiah was facing some big challenges. And there were times when he wondered if his dream would ever be finished.

It wasn’t as if no one had tried. The walls had been torn down about 120 years earlier, when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the city. But the Babylonians had themselves been overthrown, and one of the first things that the new Persian king had done was give permission for work to begin on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezra, a highly respected priest, headed up that project until its completion.

But Ezra’s efforts failed after that. Old family feuds surfaced again. Political enemies created dissension. Turf wars over who should do what paralyzed their efforts. The people were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. And so the walls of Jerusalem remained in ruins, symbolic of the shame that continued to grip the once-proud city.

And this wasn’t just a matter of bragging rights or civic pride. A city’s entire well-being depended on a well-built wall. Without a stable wall, bandits could raid the city and harass its inhabitants. Without a patrolled wall, thieves would loot and plunder at will. Without a secure wall, enemy warlords could even kidnap citizens and hold them for ransom. So for nearly 120 years, with no wall, Jerusalem remained a city without security, without peace, without hope.

Nehemiah was far removed from that despair. He enjoyed both personal and professional fulfillment in Susa, the capital city of the empire, far removed from the trouble in Jerusalem. Yes, he was a Jew, but he had worked his way up to become a trusted adviser to the king, with the honored title of cupbearer. What happened in Jerusalem wasn’t really his problem. Or was it?

When some emissaries from Jerusalem arrived in Susa, Nehemiah asked about how things were back in his homeland, and that’s when he got a troubling report: even though many had returned to Jerusalem a generation earlier, the city walls were still in ruins, the city gates, scorched and worthless.

So Nehemiah began to pray. And he began to have a daring dream of a plan. It was risky – as in, if it didn’t work, he would not only be dismissed from the king’s service, but probably executed. But trusting the future to God, he suggested his plan to the king, who prompted agreed. Nehemiah was made governor and given great resources from the royal treasury to make his dream a reality.

When he arrived in Jerusalem, he rode around the perimeter of the city, surveying it and assessing what needed to be done. And somehow along the way, he came up with an idea.

Nobody really knows what gave him the idea, but it was brilliant. Besides needing the wall rebuilt, the people of Jerusalem also needed their hope and confidence rebuilt. So, thought Nehemiah, why not get them involved in the work?

So here was the plan: he put all the families of Jerusalem to work, rebuilding the section of the city wall closest to their home. You work on your section; other people will work on theirs. That was it. He made sure that everyone knew that each family had a stake in this project, and each individual had a part to play. He made it a matter of honor to work diligently on your section, joining up with your neighbor, knowing that together you would be able to accomplish something great.

For his part, Nehemiah himself went around encouraging and keeping up everyone’s spirits. When would-be enemies conspired to attack, he stationed guards and watchmen at strategic locations, with a promise that if anyone came under attack, everyone would come to help. When economic issues threatened to halt the work, he called in the rich landowners who were exploiting their neighbors and challenged them to do the right thing, and they did.

Everyone worked together. Everyone had something to contribute. Neighbors became friends as they labored side by side. Old grievances were forgotten for the sake of a greater cause. Nobody much cared who got the credit as long as the job got done.

For 120 years, the walls of Jerusalem had been in ruins. 120 years. But under Nehemiah’s leadership, working together, the people of Jerusalem rebuilt them in just 52 days. That’s right – 52 days.

Each of us has a part to play. Each of us has a job to do. And together, we can dream. And with God’s help, what we dream together, we can do. Together.

Who Is My Neighbor?

I was visiting with some friends the other who knew me when I was a pastor in Haskell, and they asked, “So, what is it you’re doing now?”  It’s a fair question.

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I work for a Christian faith-based non-profit organization called Connecting Caring Communities. As our mission statement says, “Connecting Caring Communities (CCC) exists to built meaningful relationships that foster safe, caring and whole communities.”

What that means is both simple and profound. Simple, because God created humans to exist in relationship, with Him and with one another.  Profound, because it’s not easy to do.

As far back as the Garden of Eden, God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone.”  In that context, of course, He was speaking of the relationship between husband and wife, but the principle applies to life in general.  God Himself exists in a perfect relationship, the beautiful mystery of the Triune, Three-in-One Being, of God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.  And He created us to exist in relationship with Him and with others.

Unfortunately, those relationships were damaged along with everything else when our first parents sinned.  As Christians, we would say that Jesus came to rebuild those relationships, to provide a way for us to have our relationship with God restored, and to show us how we ought to live with one another.

When Jesus began His earthly ministry, He was in the synagogue in Nazareth, and read Isaiah 61:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
    because the LORD has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor...
For I, the LORD, love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrongdoing.
In my faithfulness I will reward my people
    and make an everlasting covenant with them.

When Jesus was asked about the most important commandment, recall His answer in Mark 12: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.  Love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.  And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In other words, the most important thing is to recognize the relationship with God on a community level (OUR God), on a personal level (all YOUR heart, soul, mind, strength), and on an interactive level (love your NEIGHBOR).

Or as 1 John says, “No one can claim to love God, Whom he has not seen, if he cannot love his brother, whom he has seen.”

So at CCC, our goal is do anything and everything we can to help build better relationships with neighbors, and to help neighbors build relationships with each other.  We do that through several different strategies, including what we call a “Friendship House.”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA Friendship House is just that: it’s a house where a CCC staff member lives with his or her family.  Our house is in the College Heights neighborhood of North Abilene, near Hendrick Medical Center.  CCC also has Friendship Houses in the North Park neighborhood, and in the Valley View neighborhood.  We work with our neighbors to get to know them, to help them get to know each other, and to work together to build a stronger, better, safer community for everyone.

We do many different things at the Friendship House, including an after-school program, summer activities for neighborhood kids, block parties, prayer walks, neighborhood cleanups, and more.  But these activities are NEVER done as ends in and of themselves; they are all done with the goal of meeting neighbors, building relationships with neighbors, then mobilizing those relationships to grow a better neighborhood.  We want to allow those relationships to develop naturally and organically, listening to each other and growing together.

What does this mean?

  • It means that CCC wants to work with neighbors – we don’t ever want to be a bunch of outsiders who come into a neighborhood with an attitude that says, “Hi, you’re broken, and I’m here to fix you.”
  • It means that we value relationships above things.  We believe that by building relationships, we can restore the fabric of our community, and ultimately, our society.
  • It means that we seek mutually-enhancing relationships.  In other words, we don’t want to maintain a traditional service provider – client model.  We want to walk beside our neighbors and learn from each other.
  • It means that we seek to build on the strengths inherent in every neighborhood and work with neighbors to grow and develop new strengths that can benefit the entire community.

Some people call this community development, or intentional neighboring, or missional living, but really, it’s just living out the Kingdom principle of showing our love for God but loving one another.  When we do this in gentleness and humility, we discover that we don’t have to “take God to the neighborhood” – He has been here all along, waiting for us to love people in His name.

Want to know more?  Our website is currently undergoing to a major rebuild, but you can go to WeCareAbilene.org for more information, or you can visit us on Facebook.  We appreciate your prayers, and if you feel so led, we can always use additional financial support.

Meanwhile, let me encourage you to come along beside us by getting to know YOUR neighbors, where YOU are.  Proverbs 27:10 says, “A neighbor nearby is better than a brother far away.”  Love the people God has placed near you.  It seems to me that if more of us would do this simple thing, the Kingdom of God would grow and spread beyond our wildest dreams.