Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” I told them that the hand of God had been gracious upon me, and that the king had spoken to me. So they said, “Lets start building!” So, they committed themselves to the common good. -Nehemiah 2.17-18 (NRSV)
It was so little to ask for.
Disillusioned, Joel wondered why.
He served his God in service as a missionary. He built homes, hospitals and orphanages. He lived through wars and helped refugees find found and dignity. After all those years, was it too much to expect a little in return?
Mysteries are all around us; we are simply blind to them. I saw Joel unwrapped more of the Gospel’s mystery for me. He and his wife dedicated over twenty-five years to the African mission fields. The raised their children in a country of leaping African tribesmen. Whey they returned home from their self-imposed exile, they found God fashioned them into faithful people by years of living out the Gospel, feeding the hungry and making peace. Theirs was a faith not of ideas common to their countrymen, but one forged in blood mixed with tears, laughter, joy and most of all sweat.
The problem was that the prime of their lives, where most their friends and neighbors use to buy houses, build equity, create careers, and save for retirement, was spent living in huts, building schools and helping people who could never return the favor.
Coming back to the US in their early fifties gave them little time to catch up. They came back with undervalued skills like peacemaking, digging wells, and building houses without modern equipment. They both worked entry-level jobs. She worked as an academic advisor at a seminary. He worked as part-time chaplain at three different hospitals. They were making do with what was in front of them without complaining.
So, when after a few years, one of the hospitals had an opening for a full time director of chaplains with benefits, he thought his prayer had been answered. If Joel got the position, they could even think of buying a home, and forget living in an apartment. They could help grandchildren through college. The position went to someone fresh out graduate school. His spirit fell. He would serve under a younger manager. He felt like an exile in what he thought was his home. When he shared his struggles in our prayer group, his eyes filled with tears of fear, rage and frustration. It was not fair, and his cry was not of a spoiled child, but truly from a place of unfairness.
Then came a wonder and a miracle.
“Exile” the word Nehemiah knew intimately. Even after he and his people return to Jerusalem, the city was broken and they had to start again. It was hard times rebuilding as rebuilding always is. God remained with them comforting, coaxing, and compelling the returned exiles on their mission. Their faith carried them. Jerusalem returned to glory from their river of sweat. The common work reunited a nation. It was the same faith Joel showed as he composed himself within a deep silence after his outburst. A peace descended on him. In a quiet voice, he said that he would support his new manager. He would make sure she would be a success despite his disappointment.
Love was too important to sacrifice on the cross of regret. When we asked him why? He said that he knew that no matter what God would take care of his family. The new manager had committed no crime against him, and to hold his frustration over her would be unchristian. Love has no room for regret. God may not give him everything he wants, but God provided more than enough.
“I may never own a house. Yet, I have seen children-soldiers guilty over murders and massacres redeemed into peacemakers. I know God has used my life. What could be greater?”
We all find at one point in our lives that we are returning exiles just like Nehemiah. We return to what was our home, and we hope to make that place home again. I learn this in my own journey in asking why my son has to suffer through his medical situation. It, too, is unfair. But, God's joy is always with us. When he palays the joy is unbearably beautiful. We rebuild his home, knowing we can not shelter him from suffering, but can only give him our love, presence and attention. The rebuilding process will be demanding, but like Joel and Nehemiah, we may find out that our real home rests in the loving squeeze and embrace of God.