The Mission: To Provide Safety


As Nehemiah was making his 900-mile trek to Jerusalem, scripture says officers of the army and horsemen accompanied him. It sounds as if the king suspected there could be trouble for his servant. One thing I think we can safely assume is that he would have been praying along the way, even as he had when he first heard the news about some of the surviving exiles living in Jerusalem without walls or gates. He would likely pray for safety on the trip, but also for discernment and wisdom for the task ahead. It would not be easy under the best of circumstances.

During that period of history, city walls were of extreme importance. Without such walls, residents of the city were at the mercy of any and all marauders who might be in or come through the area. There would be no way for the city to be in control of their affairs. The people of Israel were still surrounded by ‘heathen’ cultures that did not believe in the God of Israel. Beyond gaining plunder, their belief system alone could trigger attacks against them.

At the outset of this series, I noted that hearing of the news led to action. For Nehemiah the first action was prayer and fasting. Now as he finally arrived at his destination, he presents his letters of approval for the task to the governors of that province and the response he gets is not at all positive. So, after three days, he chooses to get up during the night alone except for his mount and inspect the walls and gates to determine what would need to be done. He is so skilled that no one knows he has gone or what he is doing. As yet he had not even revealed who was going to do the work or the extent of his mission.

(Does the Lord call us to survey the condition we find ourselves in, what has broken down our relationship with Him or others?  Doing so is a process best done alone with Him, for He alone can give us the accurate assessment of our condition.)

Now that he has completed his reconnaissance he tells exiles, priests, and nobles what he has come to do. He also makes clear how God had given him favor with the king and then puts it out there for them: “Let us rise up and build.” Once again, we see that this godly leader acts, but this time the action will be beyond prayer and fasting.

(How do we act on what the Lord shows us? Do we move or ignore His guidance?)

When the governors heard the news, they were none too happy and accused Nehemiah of rebelling against the king. Nehemiah, however, knows the mission God has sent him on and makes clear to them that the Lord is going to make this a successful mission and that they have no rightful portion or place in Jerusalem. That sounds gutsy to me on a human level, but it also sounds like this is a man who is sure of God’s call and provision and so he stands.

As I read this, I am challenged to consider how much I pursue the Lord’s leading, how certain I am about His calling, and if I am willing to be so certain that I will and do stand in the midst of opposition to that call and leading. What about you?

Nehemiah has collected all the facts. The city is no longer as large as it was before the exile. Historians suggest the circumference of the city was possibly a mile and a half and encompassed 80 or 90 acres. That sounds small, but please keep in mind there was rubble everywhere and no backhoes or other equipment we could commonly employ today to get this task done.

One other quality of Nehemiah becomes evident as they prepare to rebuild is how well thought out his plan is. He lets everyone know he has divided up the work between various groups with attention to where the groups lived so they could work nearest to where their own homes were located. That certainly was effective to get ‘buy-in’ for the task at hand and scripture catches us up with a picture of how zealously the people began to work. Clearly, he had communicated his mission and now had an organized team setting about the task.

Consider this. This was a small city and likely there were not a lot of people living there. Certainly, it would have been to their benefit to start this project long before now to assure their security, but nothing happened until Nehemiah arrived on the scene.

What a perfect example of why we need a godly leader whose prayers and faith have equipped him or her for the up building of the Kingdom through whatever ministry or place each of us has been called. He or she is needed to protect God’s people.

Make no mistake about it. A godly leader acts.

Next time I want to look at what happens when a godly leader faces opposition. I hope you will join me as we spend a little more time in the book of Nehemiah.


The Long Road Home

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When we stopped in the story in my last post, Nehemiah had just received permission and favor from the king whom he served as cupbearer while in exile to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls and city. He was granted a letter of safe passage and timber from the king’s own forests to rebuild the gates.

As we read the text in the Bible, the next scene is his arrival in his home city of Jerusalem. The thing I pause to consider is what the text does not include. How far was the journey and how long would it have taken him? It can be so easy for us today to give little thought to the distances from one place to another in the Bible and how long it would likely have taken them.

We would not have been talking highways, speed trains, buses, or planes. Even a roadway would have been primitive by our standards. If a person had the means, he might be blessed to ride on a donkey or perhaps a camel. Most of the time, the travel would be on foot for many of the people of that day.

We know Nehemiah was traveling from Susa, which was in Persia (modern day Iran) to Jerusalem. Historians tell us that he would have most likely taken the long overland route on what was known as the Persian Royal Road into northern Mesopotamia. He would then have needed to head west into Syro-Palestine to Jerusalem. The distance was about 900 miles and would have taken about four months.

The distance and difficulty of such a lengthy trip increases our understanding of why Nehemiah would have needed letters of safe passage through so many regions. Not all of the areas may have been friendly or at peace.

And where was the king’s forest he was permitted to harvest timber from for the gates? Again we look to historians for their guess. It is suspected that the forest was likely in Lebanon, which had been overtaken by the Persians in the sixth century B.C. There were also some areas of the coastal plain of Palestine that may have provided some of the timber needed. During those times the walls would have been made primarily of stone and mud brick, but timber was needed to stabilize the walls and for the gateways into and out of the city.

When I consider the trip, its length, danger, and requirements, I am impacted by the courage, tenacity, passion, and faith of Nehemiah. Prior to his role as a cupbearer, servant/slave of the king, there is no indication of his background. Yet because of his concern for his homeland, his name goes down in history and we hear of him.

How like God to choose an ordinary man whose heart was His to fulfill His purposes!

Today we can be tempted to look for the high profile persons among us for important roles or tasks. Very often these same people seek them for the added prestige it brings them, but not so with God. Time and time again, He demonstrates throughout the Bible that He chooses the youngest, the smallest, the weakest, the most lowly in station.

Clearly God had chosen Nehemiah for the task and the journey. It reminds me of the humbling His choice of any one of us truly is. It also takes my mind to God’s choice of David that we read about in 1 Samuel. Samuel was certain he would find the next king among Jesse’s sons when he arrived at his home. God reminded him in 1 Samuel 16:7 of a characteristic of His election we should all remember:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7 (NIV)

You may doubt your value or usefulness to the Lord for any number of reasons, but look anywhere from Genesis to Revelation and you will discover the truth of God’s words to Samuel.

Join me again next time as we look at another characteristic of Nehemiah as he arrives in Jerusalem.


When Hearing Produced Action


Today in much of the world we are bombarded constantly with new information and news. It comes in ways and forms unheard of not that many years ago. Many of our grandfathers relied on newspapers and radios to hear the news. Then came the television and news magazines that added to and sped up how quickly we learned of something. And now we see many things in real time on computers, phones, iPads, and more. In the cacophony of it all, I wonder what we really hear. Has it all become background noise where we pay little attention? Does it come so quickly that we have knee-jerk reactions rather than more reasoned consideration as we did when newspapers were the only source?

It can be hard for us who are adults to imagine what it would have been like before these things were common in our daily life. Imagine the difference of waiting for the news even 50 years ago. That one is not hard for me. When my husband served in the military in Vietnam, our communication was initially limited to letters that took at least a week to arrive. Then we had small reel-to-reel tape recorders to send audio messages back and forth (We were not quite at the point of cassette tape recorders.) and those still took a week.

If we go back even farther in history and time, we can readily see how long someone needed to wait to hear the news of what was happening. When it was heard, it was often incomplete. The waiting must have been very hard, but perhaps it netted more thoughtful and reasoned responses.

I want to invite you to look back to the Middle East in the fifth century B.C. with me to a story that has much we can learn from today. Lack of faithfulness to God had resulted in the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel (known also as Ephraim) and exile of the Jewish people of the southern kingdom (known as Judah) to Babylon. The sacred city of Jerusalem had been destroyed and the city trampled with walls broken down.

One of the exiles, Nehemiah, served as the cupbearer to the king in the Persian city of Susa in the area we now know as Iran. Each day it meant Nehemiah’s life was put on the line, as he tasted the wine to assure there was no poison within it meant to destroy the king’s life. As a cupbearer, Nehemiah would have been one of the king’s most trusted servants and he would have spent much time in the king’s presence. Even so, he was a slave.


It is unlikely we would have heard of Nehemiah had it not been for one primary thing. He heard news of his homeland and the condition of the city of Jerusalem. Scripture tells us that he wept, fasted, and prayed. The news saddened him to such a degree that scripture says his face showed such sadness that the king noticed. The king, Artaxerxes I, must have been quite observant to notice his servant’s face and ask him about his expression. Such an observation created fear in the heart of Nehemiah because he knew his fate lay in the king’s hands and he had never sought to displease him. The king could have believed Nehemiah was involved in some plot to cause him damage and perhaps order his execution.

Let’s not skip the key to this man’s life. When he heard the bad news, he wept, fasted, and prayed.

It seems likely that because Nehemiah had fasted and prayed at the news, he chose to risk being honest with the king and told him that his sad expression was due to the poor situation in Jerusalem and that he wanted to return there to rebuild the walls of the city so those few inhabitants there could live in safety.

How unusual it must have been that this servant and slave received favor from the king! He was not only given permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, but he also received letters from the king giving him safe passage through the areas he would need to travel and to obtain the timber from the king’s own forest for the gates and walls of Jerusalem.

It seems evident that Nehemiah was a godly man because of how he responded to the news. He heard. His emotional response was to weep from the sadness he felt. His decisional response was to fast and pray. The scripture account does not indicate he began to ring his hands, start telling everyone, or criticize those who had destroyed his homeland and most holy city.

What is our response to news that grieves our hearts?

An initial emotional response is normal and healthy, but do we stop there or act from that place of reactive emotion?

This ancient story of Nehemiah tucked in the Old Testament has much to offer us for our lives today. I want to spend several posts sharing some of the applications we can see from this story. I hope you will join me.

Nehemiah shows us that a godly leader prays.


The Sticky Wicket

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You may have heard the phrase of this title (sticky wicket) and even used it, but did you know the origin of those words? Those non-sports persons such as I needed to check to be certain of the meaning and learned the wicket is the playing surface in the game of cricket. The phrase refers to how difficult it is to play on a wet and sticky pitch and was first used in July of 1882.

But the use of it in the title is really a metaphor used for many other situations and things and one option is that of relationships. God designed us for relationship from the outset – relationship with Him and with one another. Some might wonder if He knew that would be as complicated as it tends to be. We long for relationships at some level and yet they can also be the source of some of our greatest difficulties and wounds while offering us some of our most joyous significant moments.

“…the persistent human cry is simply for someone to love us, to hold us tight. Our need for relationship is even more powerful than our need for food.”

Dr. Tim Clinton & Dr. Gary Sibcy
Photo by Kristina Paukshtite from Pexels

Our challenge to meet that need built into our DNA and designed by our Creator is complicated to the point of sometimes being a sticky wicket. Each of us is extraordinarily complex, made up of multiple physical bodily systems affecting us in more ways than we even notice until one of them breaks down. But it doesn’t stop there. There are all those emotions cascading throughout our typical day and a brain that is breaking down data into thoughts and ideas at a rate that would astound most computer programmers if it could be fully understood. Add to that family history and everything and everyone we meet, and it gets more than a little sticky.

Nearly any story we read exposes us to characters of complexity that weave story lines that are fascinating to us, and we enjoy them more because we observe them rather than being in them. Those are easier to understand than what happened the last time we got together with our family or a group of friends over coffee.

“We’re all such masses of contradictions – we can barely understand ourselves, much less anyone else. And the more we care about someone, the more we have the capacity to wound them.”

Lauren Willig
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And we often blunder relationally because of that without fully knowing what really triggered us in the moment or why we hurt someone we dearly love. How we respond in those situations is significant and sometimes sets up a pattern that can become habitual. Some of us will explode and our feelings accompanied by words will splash over anyone and everyone around us. Some of us will withdraw in our hurt and woundedness and the other person involved will be wounded again without a clear path of what next. A few of us will express our feelings without blaming and then listen to the response of the other person seeking to understand before being understood.

Ah, yes, complicated, and more so when we look at this through the lens we are told as Christians in loving God and others. If we are clear on who God is and his love and grace to us, we can be tempted to want to spend our time with Him and skip the “others” He has commanded us to love. And within the context of loving, He adds our need to forgive (harder still when we feel wounded).

“True friendship isn’t abstaining from hurting one another, but forgiving each other when we do.”

Lauren Willig

How we humble ourselves and follow Christ’s example in loving and forgiving will determine the quality of our relationships and define our relational legacy. It would surprise none of you that the hardest places to walk that out are in our homes, churches, and workplaces where we are bumping up against one another all the time and caught up in dozens of things not connected to that place even though they are affecting us. Those things don’t excuse our behavior, but when others are unaware of them there is going to be a shocked reaction to how we behaved.

Eugene Peterson offers a powerful observation on all this:

“Because the root of the solid spiritual life is embedded in a relationship between people and God, it is easy to develop the misunderstanding that my spiritual life is something personal between God and me – a private thing to be nurtured by prayers and singing, spiritual readings that comfort and inspire, and worship with like-minded friends. If we think this way for very long, we will assume that the way we treat the people we don’t like or who don’t like us has nothing to do with God.”

Eugene Peterson

And it doesn’t work to ignore the wound and the feelings connected to it. That creates even more infection and consequences both now and long term.

“We live in a vast world of interconnectedness, and the consequences, either in things or people – and all consequences come together in God.”

Eugene Peterson

Perhaps God’s design for relationships was in part to provoke us to see our fallen nature regularly, humble ourselves, and call out to Him for grace, mercy, and love to become more like Him.

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Band of Sisters

In April 1917 a pioneering archaeologist and humanitarian gave an inspiring speech at the elite Smith College of Northampton, Massachusetts, to create a group of 18 volunteers from Smith College (along with backing and supplies) to travel to France during WW I. The Smith College Relief Unit in gray uniforms with touches of French blue went into the Somme in the middle of the war, not far from the advancing enemy lines to provide aid and help to the villagers (largely women, children, and the elderly) trying to survive in the midst of burned out villages, with little food, no medical care, and no supplies as well as traumatization by the constant shelling by the Germans leaving physical and psychological wounds, and the loss of so many they loved.

This largely unknown story comes to life in an historical novel, Band of Sisters, written by New York Times Bestselling author, Lauren Willig. Willig stumbled upon the story when she discovered Ladies of Grécourt, a memoir written by one of the members of the unit. This discovery led her to search out and unearth letters written by various other members of the unit and from these, weave a story of what they experienced using her expert skill as an author to add details that capture the reader and fit the facts she gleaned in her research.

The women of the Unit could not have known what to expect nor realized how ill-prepared they largely were to work in the small villages and countryside with no knowledge of farming or other things needed to rebuild the lives of the people trying to survive there while living in constant danger and threat from the advancing German army. Few of the Unit spoke French and yet here they were crossing the submarine controlled Atlantic faced with trying to find ways to transport the supplies they brought with them to these small villages ravaged by the war.

Their plan included helping the villagers by first supplying food and then finding ways to plant seeds, raise livestock, and improve shelter when every home and farm had been decimated. They were also to develop a school and bring hope where there was none. Two doctors were among the original volunteers in the story, but they could not have guessed how they would handle the wounds that were unseen evidenced by children who no longer played nor seemed to know how to do so after years of war and the trauma it had etched in their memories.

The women of the Unit came from various graduating classes from Smith and did not know each other well. Most were from well-bred high society families who were used to be cared for and catered to rather than serving, but as the story unfolds you discover a group of women who gained courage and bonded together through these horrendous circumstances and rebuilt the small village of Grécourt, their home base, from which they traveled on foot, cart, or creaky vehicles they assembled to reach even smaller villages.

You will get a closeup view of how they learn and grow as women from their home base of the bombed-out chateau of Grécourt, how the villagers begin to come out from their places of hiding to try to rebuild their lives. But in the success of this, your heart will also ache with the characters of the story as the German forces break through the lines and the women of the Smith Relief Unit must leave behind all they have done and begin fleeing ahead of the German onslaught along with the villagers who are being traumatized yet again looking for safety.

The author’s lens will allow you to go inside the relationship of the two heroines, Kate Moran, and Emmie Van Alden. Both are Smith graduates but Emmie from an aristocratic home and Kate whose scholarship won her admittance but whose mother scrubbed floors for a living. They had known each other at Smith but never knew the real person behind the facade each portrayed. Their experience in the unit will cause the facade to unravel and these two will learn hard lessons bringing them to this important truth: “True friendship isn’t abstaining from hurting one another, but forgiving each other when you do.”

This gripping story will remind you “that it isn’t what you have, it’s what you make of it” and give you a glimpse of what happens to people’s lives in a war zone beyond the battles fought and portrayed on film and in books. It will also inspire you to consider what a difference a group of women unsuited for the edge of the front-line battlefield can do when they band together. You will see the depth of character develop in each of the main characters as they grow to love and care deeply for those they came to serve as well as many they had not planned to. It’s a book you shouldn’t miss.