There is no more important posture one needs, in rebuilding broken things, than compassion “a willingness to suffer” with those who languish under the weight of ruins. Suffering with another person is the willingness to enter into the mess and, with a Christ-like reverence for those whose lives are broken, being present with them in the reconstruction process. As Thomas Merton said in The Sign of Jonas of God’s compassion: “I am noisy, fully of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!”
The ministry of Young Life played an important role in my adolescent years. My local leader, Phil, served as a constant presence in my messy young existence. He shepherded me to three impactful weeks of summer camps, bravely sought me out for short conversations at school events, was willing to look like a fool week in and out performing skits and outdated pop-songs at our weekly club, and organized regular nerf-war games in his church fellowship halls on Saturday nights. I am confident that this kept us out of a lot of trouble we might have otherwise conjured up. I was a mess of a kid, emotionally and relationally. There was no more vivid symbol of this than my first camp experience. The night before departure, I came down with a wicked cold. I lost my voice and I became a flowing fountain of mucous. By the time we arrived at camp two days later, having sat and slept in a fifteen-passenger van, there were three Kleenex boxes worth of tissue-balls piled around me and scattered throughout the van. At Young Life camp, arriving in wild style is one of the most important aspects of the week. They pulled us immediately out of the van and took us on a clothes-soaking ride atop a giant intertube on the massive Minnesotan lake. Soaked, we were rushed off to a spectacular introduction to the rest of the camp grounds. I found out later that Phil spent a small portion of his free time that day gathering up the moist tissue balls to throw them away. I shudder. If anything, Phil resolved to suffer with me on the first leg of what would be a decisive week of my life. I’m sure this was only a small glimpse of the ways Phil suffered in those years for giving me a role model in return. Ruined as my house was, Phil lived with me there for a season.
Without compassion the kingdom of God cannot be established. We see another symbol of this reality in way Nehemiah chose to dwell among Jerusalem’s ruined house and rally together those there living in ruins. As told in Nehemiah 3, he catalyzed everyone as manual laborers, from the unlikely High Priest with his order to the Gibeonites who the author tells us had some relationship to those in charge of Judea. This means that there were tensions of authority inherent among these two groups. The author describes the complex community of co-laborers and their work in a counter-clockwise fashion, beginning at the sheep gate (near the temple) and ending at the little north-west portion of the wall that stood between the muster gate and the sheep gate. This mean that in that section the priests and the goldsmiths and merchants worked next to one another. Would that be true in our day as well. May professional Christians and business men somehow labor side by side. Some workers focused on the gates, while others performed epic restructuring of long stretches of the wall: “Hanun and the inhabitants of Zanoah repaired the Valley Gate; they rebuilt it and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars, and repaired a thousand cubits of the wall, as far as the dung gate’ (3.13). Some worked in relatively common sections, while others worked near the palace and grave of David. People from all classes and tribes suffered together to rebuild Jerusalem. Only the nobles of Tekoa ‘would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord’ (3.5). Lord, let not our nobles be like Tekoan nobility. The author of Nehemiah gives us no sense in this chapter of discord or a sense of self-importance rising from one quarter or another. Almost all put their shoulders to work, and the picture is of great harmony as the psalmist celebrated, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (Psalm 133.1). With such concord, the community would be ready to take their stand against inevitable opposition, coming in the next chapter as a great cloud of sand.