Sometimes fictional theologians utter such delightful truths that I have to remind myself as I am reading, “He’s not a real person. He doesn’t exist outside this book.”
Jayber Crow is just such a man, stalwart resident and barber in Wendell Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. I love his thoughtful, meandering reflections on life and here is a favorite, copied into my journal a few years ago:
“Christ did not come to found an organized religion but instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temple and into the fields and sheep pastures, road sides and river banks.”
This “un-templing” of religion is well on its way even before the time that Jesus’ feet hit the broken ground of Palestine, and if ever there was “unorganized” religion, we see it in Nehemiah 3, as God’s chosen people attempt to reconstitute a pile of rubble back into the walls of their holy city.
By the beginning of Chapter 4, their efforts had attracted the unwelcome attention of Sanballat and Tobiah, government officials of neighboring lands. For political reasons, the last thing they wanted was to see Jerusalem get back on its feet again. When tattling to King Artaxerxes failed to derail Nehemiah’s re-construction project, these 6th century B.C. forerunners of Statler and Waldorf began heckling the workers, playing to an appreciative audience of their own cronies.
First thing on their agenda? Name-calling. Take your pick: in the King James and the NIV it’s “feeble”; the HCSB renders it “pathetic,” while The Message uses the more sympathetic term “miserable.” Sanballat goes on to criticize their building materials and to bad-mouth their methods. Not to be outdone, Tobiah chimes in with a taunt he must have recalled from his days in middle school: “Why, if a fox climbed that wall, it would fall to pieces under his weight!”
Oh, how we hate to be scorned, mocked, and ridiculed. Whether it’s our appearance, our intelligence, or our competence, we’ve all got tender spots that won’t . . . well, bear the weight of a fox, at least when it comes to being criticized. The truth is that with middle school long behind us, maybe instead of finding Sanballat and Tobiah on the playground, we find them in the mirror. Negative self-talk is a trap, a self-defeating ball and chain that slows down whatever building (or rebuilding) project God has assigned to you.
Nehemiah doesn’t waste any time pondering his critic’s clever banter. He doesn’t look for positive reinforcement from his crew, and the fact that the project was finished in 52 days would indicate that he didn’t need “me-time” to help him fall back and regroup.
“Hear, O our God, for we are despised . . .”
Hear the discouragement in his voice as the anger toward his enemies pours out (verses 4 and 5) in a vindictive, imprecatory prayer. He’s taking his discouragement to a place where it can be safely processed, throwing his worst self at the God of the universe, and waiting for justice to be done.
Then, on to verse 6: “So, we built the wall . . .”
We kept at it.
We got the job done.
Has someone’s scorn or criticism stopped you in your tracks just when you thought you were making progress in your walk with Christ? Are you guilty of being your own personal Sanballat and Tobiah, telling yourself that you’ll fail before you even get started? Remember Nehemiah’s God, and keep on building.
If you’d like to leave a comment or a link to a post about your own wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. This post is the tenth in a series based on the book of Nehemiah, travelling slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link: https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/