Tobiahs and Little Foxes

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 13.26-27
Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?”* 

*When reading condemnations of relationships with “foreigners,” such as Nehemiah’s, it is easy to be confused or shocked. Verses like these have been misused to defend White supremacist principles against mixed marriages and to support anti-miscegenation laws. 

However, Nehemiah is concerned, not with racial purity, but with purity of worship and being fully committed to God, forsaking all others, clinging only to him. Other passages in the scriptures help us to understand this truth by showing us God’s compassion for all people, including the “foreign women” in the genealogy of Christ. The point here is that the people were being unfaithful to God, not being unfaithful to their race or country.

Reflection: Tobiahs and Little Foxes
By John Tillman

Nehemiah, after a whirlwind campaign to successfully rebuild the wall in only 52 days, returns to his post with the king, but the story isn’t over. When Nehemiah comes back to Jerusalem later, he has to clean house. In a pre-visualization of Christ’s cleansing of the Temple, Nehemiah has to literally throw out the old baggage of the past (Tobiah and his belongings, Nehemiah 13.4-9) that had somehow crept back into the city and the very walls of the Temple itself.

Many times we stop reading Nehemiah’s story once we see the joyous celebrations of the newly dedicated Temple and the dedication of the wall. It is a great place to stop the story and be happy about the near miraculous pace of reconstruction. We like happy endings. Nehemiah doesn’t quite have one.

Nehemiah leaves us with a note of doubt that the people can ever be faithful. It shows us that after the echoes of the emotional celebrations and worship services faded, many of the people went right back to living the same compromised, religiously ambiguous lives they had been living.

Tobiah had teased Nehemiah and the Israelites that their wall would be toppled by a fox running on top of it. (Nehemiah 4.3) He may have been wrong about the literal wall, but he was right about the emotional commitments the people made. Those crumbled under the “little foxes” of life. (Song of Songs 2.15

That should feel very familiar to us. How many times have we been swept up emotionally in a religious experience on Sunday, or at a camp or a retreat, but then when Monday rolls around we can’t find the will to live up to the change we longed for. Normality crushes out of us the new-life that Christ wants to build in us. Our wall crumbles when the foxes jump up on it.

The ending of Nehemiah shows us the limits of human moralism and the law. We need the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to truly rebuild on a firm foundation of Christ.

When we celebrate emotionally, may we then respond practically and tangibly with action.

May we not allow Tobiahs, who opposed our repentance, to move into our lives to places of influence and comfort.

May we throw out the old baggage, and maintain our walls so that the little foxes do not wreck the spiritual life we cultivate before God.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Call to Prayer
Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations and his wonders among all peoples.
For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; he is more to be feared than all gods. — Psalm 96.2-4

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 13 (Listen -5:57)
Acts 23 (Listen -5:15)

Read more about Repair What Is At Your Door
May God’s church—men, women, youth, children, leaders, laborers, the wealthy, and the poor—join in the work of God that he is calling you to in your community.

Read more about Moving Into the City
Jerusalem wasn’t a glittering capital, even with its restored Temple and rebuilt wall. Being chosen to move there was more like being drafted into military service.

Orchestrating Our Prayers

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 12.31, 38, 40, 42-43
I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate….the second choir proceeded in the opposite direction…The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God…the choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.

Reflection: Orchestrating Our Prayers
By John Tillman

Imagine John Williams walking in to conduct Star Wars or the Jurassic Park score or one of his other masterpieces and there being one banjo and a kazoo… 

Ezra and Nehemiah were rebuilding not just the physical structures of the wall and the Temple, but the logistics and schedules of the workers and musical performers who made worship happen. And as the text emphasizes, this took a considerable investment (Nehemiah 12.47) from the community. 

Music, like little else, has the power to move us, touching us on an emotional and spiritual level. For many reasons (often involving finances) church music in many, many places has retreated from the large orchestras and choirs of the past to pragmatic, small combos of musicians. 

Expansive worship can be expensive. Especially if you are, as Nehemiah and Ezra were, following the precise directions and orchestrations dictated a few centuries ago by a master musician (David) composing in his golden age and having his music performed and arranged by the virtuosic voice of Asaph. Virtuosos don’t skimp on instrumentation.

As much as I personally enjoy a variety of instrumentation and both modern and ancient musical styles, there is something powerful about hearing the full range of sound that orchestral composers imagine. 

Hans Zimmer, for the score of the mind-bending film, Inception, assembled the largest brass section that had ever been recorded. For his lofty, dreamlike score for the film, Interstellar, Zimmer employed the unique sounds of the 1926 four-manual Harrison & Harrison organ, currently housed at the 12th-century Temple Church in London and played in the movie by its director of music, Roger Sayer.

We worship in spirit and truth, not according to musical styles and yet, at times, I long for the thick, layered instrumentation that stories in movie houses get, but are rarely supplied to the story of the gospel. Sometimes I miss the inclusive sound of a choir that carries my voice with theirs.

In our hearts, however, we are the new temple of God to replace the one Nehemiah built. No matter what echoes around our ears, in our hearts, we can antiphonally sing scripture back and forth with the Holy Spirit in perfect harmony.

May we become virtuosos of prayer, playing every note in a harmonious crescendo.
May the prayers of our hearts be louder than a thousand brass instruments, and the sighs of our spirit be more vibrant than the air thrumming through a thousand pipe organs.
May the music of praise spill forth from our hearts, as the music of Ezra’s Temple, spilled over Nehemiah’s walls.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
I will offer you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call upon the Name of the Lord. — Psalm 116.15

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 12 (Listen -6:30)
Acts 22 (Listen -4:26)

Read more about Praying as Music
If music is a universal language, prayer can be similarly described.

Read more about Praying Through Ancient Hymns :: Worldwide Prayer
All creatures of our God and King, lift up your voice with us sing…Alleluia…

Moving Into the City

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 11.1-2
Now the leaders of the people settled in Jerusalem. The rest of the people cast lots to bring one out of every ten of them to live in Jerusalem, the holy city, while the remaining nine were to stay in their own towns. The people commended all who volunteered to live in Jerusalem.

Reflection: Moving Into the City
By John Tillman

In our urban-slanted view of culture, it is hard for us to imagine why the population of Jerusalem needed to be propped up by a lottery, choosing one-in-ten men to move into the city. “Who wouldn’t want to live in the city?”, we might think to ourselves.

But when we drill down, we find that in this situation, the city was literally being rebuilt from the ground up and there were armed forces threatening attack. Jerusalem wasn’t a glittering capital, even with its restored Temple and rebuilt wall. Being chosen to move there was more like being drafted into military service than getting to move to a midtown condo.

Cities of the world today need God’s people in them, just like Jerusalem did. Cities simultaneously hold some of the greatest potential for our planet and the greatest evils. 

The urban population, 34% in 1960, has continued to grow over the past 60 years. Today 55% of the world’s population live in urban areas. By 2050, it may be 68%.

The growth isn’t happening primarily in Western mega-cities. Urban population growth is concentrated in less developed regions of the world where for the first time a majority of people are living in urban areas. 

But this is not a situation in which people are trading horrible conditions and deprivation in the country for blissful, glittering, city-of-tomorrow dwellings that futurists expected humanity to be living in a fifth of the way through the 21st century. In fact, 40% of global urban population growth is happening in slums which exacerbates health risks and introduces new hazards.

Cities also produce 80% of the world’s GDP but this statistic is misleading. All the financial productivity of the cities is literally fed by the rural areas surrounding them. Also, very little of the financial benefits earned by cities ever manages to make its way to helping the workers who live in the slums or the rural residents who support the city’s elite.

As we wait for the day we will live in the New Jerusalem, let us not abandon the “Jerusalems” in our own nations.
May we, the church, pray earnestly for cities and ask the Holy Spirit to prompt us what we can do to help the most helpless, and confront the most powerful.
May we make our light shine through good deeds, showing God’s mercy and his grace to us, and turning slums and suburbs into cities on a hill.

*Statistics from World Health Organization.

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Early in the morning I cry out to you, for in your word is my trust. — Psalm 119.147

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 11 (Listen -5:05)
Acts 21 (Listen -5:55)

Read more about Christ: Temple, River, and City
Christ is our city. He is our refuge and rest—our strong tower and protected place—our park of peace in the midst of a frantic and fracturing world

Read more about Christ, the True Hero
It is Christ, not us, who is the hero of our cities and our world.

A Recurring Nightmare

Scripture Focus: Nehemiah 10.39
We will not neglect the house of our God.

Acts 20.20-21
You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus. 

From John:

Again this year, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the United States, we look back to a sermon from Dr. King

Like Dr. King, Paul was interested in actions which spring from the full implications of the gospel. Though racism and slavery took centuries to fall, it was Paul’s theology that struck the killing blow in the 1st century. Dr. King drew from Paul’s teaching, which demolished the cultural and theological foundations of racism and made actions of racial bias and inequity indefensible. (Though some will still try to defend them…)

The gospel is the only theology or philosophy which poisons racism at its root.

When we speak of spreading the gospel, may it be with the purpose of eradicating the scourge of racism, rather than apathetically denying its existence or mitigating our responsibility to oppose it.

Reflection: A Recurring Nightmare

By Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

In 1963, on a sweltering August afternoon, we stood in Washington, D.C. and talked to the nation about many things. Toward the end of that afternoon, I tried to talk to the nation about a dream that I had had—and I must confess to you today that not long after talking about that dream I started seeing it turn into a nightmare.

I remember the first time I saw that dream turn into a nightmare, just a few weeks after I had talked about it. It was when four beautiful, unoffending, innocent Negro girls were murdered in a church in Birmingham, Alabama. I watched that dream turn into a nightmare as I moved through the ghettos of the nation and saw my black brothers and sisters perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, and saw the nation doing nothing to grapple with the Negroes’ problem of poverty.

I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched my black brothers and sisters in the midst of anger and understandable outrage, in the midst of their hurt, in the midst of their disappointment, turn to misguided riots to try to solve that problem. I saw that dream turn into a nightmare as I watched the war in Vietnam escalating, and as I saw so-called military advisors, sixteen thousand strong, turn into fighting soldiers until today over five hundred thousand American boys are fighting on Asian soil.

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.…

I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.

With this faith we will be able to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day, the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of God will shout for joy.

*Abridged from A Christmas Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — audio on YouTube (29:52)

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons

Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before the Lord when he comes, when he comes to judge the earth. — Psalm 96.12

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 10 (Listen -4:41)
Acts 20 (Listen -5:22)

Taking Advantage of the Desperate

Scripture Focus: Scripture: Nehemiah 5.9, 13
So I continued, “What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies?…I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, “In this way may God shake out of their house and possessions anyone who does not keep this promise. So may such a person be shaken out and emptied!”

Reflection: Taking Advantage of the Desperate
By John Tillman

There is a reason economically disadvantaged neighborhoods often contain payday lenders and abortion clinics, but few doctor’s offices or grocery stores—monetization of desperation.

From a business perspective, the noblemen confronted by Nehemiah were simply following the market. Payday lenders would describe it as filling a “financial service void.” As lien-holders, the noblemen could have denied responsibility. As long as customers make loan payments, who cares how they get the money? If they can’t pay, it’s their problem.

But as fellow humans, as children of God, Nehemiah challenged the rich to see their actions as directly causing the continuing, systematic enslavement of their brothers and sisters. Systemic poverty was literally tearing families apart.

The economic system these families were trapped in was socially acceptable, market-based, and entirely legal. What Nehemiah challenged the noblemen to do was economically nonsensical, entirely compassionate, and was an investment in the community.

It would be easy for us to dismiss this scripture in Nehemiah as being about the evils of big business, or payday lenders, or “Capitalism.” We are much more comfortable pointing fingers at faceless entities or ideologies. But if we reflect long enough, there are many ways this comes home to us. The undocumented workers who make our groceries cheaper. The millions of workers who must work two jobs—being separated from family—to make one income.

How are our socially acceptable, market-based, and entirely legal interactions with humans dehumanizing them? How can we compassionately invest in our communities, relieving some of the financial pressure that those around us experience and short-circuiting systems rigged to extract as much money as possible from the pain of marginalized brothers and sisters?

As the church, we can be difference-makers, rebuilding the broken in our society. To do this, we must engage in economically nonsensical, entirely compassionate, community investment. Let us pray for churches, political leaders, and ourselves to innovate in this space—to create ways to lighten the burden of the oppressed and to set free the captives.

Divine Hours Prayer: A Reading
Jesus taught us saying: “Do not worry; do not say, ‘What are we to eat? What are we to drink? What are we to wear?’ It is the gentiles who set their hearts on all these things. Your heavenly Father knows you need them all. Set your hearts on his kingdom first, and on God’s saving justice, and all these other things will be given you as well.” — Matthew 6.31-33

– From The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle.

Today’s Readings
Nehemiah 5 (Listen -3:29)
Acts 15 (Listen -5:43)

Read more about In Denial about Injustice
The sins that brought God’s judgment and caused the exile of Israel were multi-faceted. But there is a common thread—injustice.

Read more about The Identical Nature of Greed and Lust
Paul uses the word “command” when speaking to the rich about their responsibility to be humble and generous. It is the same level of authoritative language he uses to speak of sexual sins.