A friend describes himself as “older than dirt” just before dispensing a parcel of wisdom or telling a story. My ears perk up when hearing the phrase because what follows is something I need to know.
A similar thought pops up when reading the daily lectionary, often from the Old Testament. The OT is full of very human characters who behave both despicably and heroically. Accounts of their relationship to God are woven through the stories of their lives, whether for better or worse. Reading the daily print or electronic newspaper in the 21st century mirrors OT times: the human condition has not changed.
We are emerging from what we view as an historic pandemic, navigating not only changed personal circumstances but also different church environments. Things are not the same. Life has shifted and so has congregational life. On several fronts, what was taken for granted is no longer the case and we face new decisions.
CMI receives calls offering music from churches that are closing, often from musicians and former choir members with broken hearts. Some musicians retired during or after the pandemic and their programs are not continuing. Other musicians build back smaller music programs with diminished budgets. When money is scarce music programs and personnel are easy targets, jeopardizing worship and music for congregations. Is our current circumstance all that “historic” and unusual? Let’s look at a Biblical source for informative lessons from the past.
In the Old Testament, Nehemiah was commissioned as governor by King Artaxerxes to rebuild a devastated Jerusalem. (See Nehemiah 1:5-11) Reading the story provides some “old as dirt” wisdom for navigating difficult circumstances:
- Before beginning the task, Nehemiah took time to fast, repent, and pray for God’s guidance and mercy.
- At the start, Nehemiah had only a few people who shared his vision to rebuild the walls and secure the perimeter.
- Nehemiah encountered resistance from some (Sanballat, Tobiah and Gesham) who made fun of him and accused him of undercutting the wishes of the king. Yet he persisted in moving the project forward.
- When progress was evident, the people viewed what was happening as a sign of God’s providence. They then were recruited to provide labor, tools, and building materials.
- Nehemiah accompanied his requests for help by calling the people together to hear a reading of the Law. It opened their hearts to respond to his requests.
Nehemiah saw his task not only to rebuild the walls and homes of Jerusalem but also to address the temple, its leaders, and worship of the people. That task included some clean-up, reordering of priorities of space, and funding to pay the leaders of worship.
After a short trip to report to King Artaxerxes, “I then discovered the wrong that Eliashib [the priest] had done on behalf of Tobiah, preparing a room for him in the courts of the house of God. 8 And I was very angry, and I threw all the household furniture of Tobiah out of the room. 10 I also found out that the portions of the Levites had not been given to them; so that the Levites and the singers, who had conducted the service, had gone back to their fields.” Nehemiah 13:7-11
That is, Nehemiah found the temple mis-used. The priests and musicians, without means to live, went back to working in the fields for their sustenance. He set about to correct that, not stopping before reminding God to remember his faithfulness.
14 Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and do not wipe out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God and for his service. Nehemiah 13:14
What can we learn from Nehemiah?
- He did not hesitate to answer the call of God and the king to rebuild Jerusalem.
- He began the journey prayerfully and humbly.
- He solicited a few, committed helpers who shared his vision to begin.
- He stayed the course even when criticized and told he was a fool.
- Progress proved his commitment to Jerusalem and to God that was noticed by the people.
- He brought the people back to hearing the Law read which moved their hearts to support the rebuilding. He understood the project as a faith commitment to be shared.
- He discovered mis-use of the temple and poor treatment of the priests (clergy) and singers (musicians) and set about to restore their ability to provide worship for the people.
Some things do not change. Lives and churches are built and torn down, either literally or figuratively. Human beings are sinful. Confession and reordering our lives with God are necessary parts of a faith journey. Rebuilding often starts with a faithful few listening to God who respond and provide an example for more to join. And, as we have learned through the centuries, musicians are not always paid well or at all, requiring them to make a living another way. Yet, as Nehemiah believed, a true re-building project provides sustenance for the priests and singers who then enable the people to hear the word and open their hearts to God.
Where are you in your own story? Are you a Nehemiah? One who labors to build? A provider of the means for rebuilding? A supporter of worthy visionaries? A priest or singer? If we all take our parts seriously do you suppose our congregations could be healthier than ever in a few years?
Advent, Christmas and Epiphany are upon us with some of the most beautiful music, with soulful texts, in the history of the church. How about choosing music and designing worship as a vehicle to re-connect hearts to God? Perhaps we can be part of a Nehemiah-esque rebuilding of the church?
Blessings and Godspeed to you in these unique and wonderful weeks of the church year.