[Mel Lawrenz is Teaching Pastor at Elmbrook Church and the author of nineteen books including Prayers for Our Lives: 95 Lifelines to God.]
A survivor shuffles through the rubble of what used to be his home before a tornado pulled it apart into a hundred thousand pieces. What was shelter is now a pile of broken boards and bricks. The man stands beneath empty sky where a roof used to cover his head. He stoops to pick up a family photo, bent and wet. “We lost everything,” he says, “absolutely everything.”
We’ve all seen that kind of picture on television news. The camera is always attracted to desolation. But what we don’t see is the family in the weeks and months that follow as they try to reframe their lives after it has all blown to pieces. We don’t see what happens in a person’s heart when that sanctuary disappears, and the pieces fall apart.
It is hard for us to imagine what it must have been like for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem fifty years after it had been leveled by the Babylonians. Looking across the Kidron Valley they saw rocks and boulders strewn about, some of them still black with soot from fires their grandfathers had seen burning. Jerusalem lay silent, but in the sound of the wind one might have imagined the shouts of men, women, and children on that terrible day when the Babylonian soldiers breached the wall. But worse than anything else was the communal memory of the great temple of Solomon pulled apart wall by wall by teams of horses and ropes, looters scurrying away with bronze and silver and gold that they stripped away. It was not just a devastation that the people thought wouldn’t happen. This was something that couldn’t happen. Not the temple. Not if God was the kind of Lord he said he was.
What do you do when you’ve lost your sanctuary?
On that day, a younger generation of Jews who had grown up in exile on the fertile plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, looked at their ancestral home and contemplated their plans to rebuild. It was time to take a graveyard of rubble and make a new beginning. Time to put the pieces back together. It would take courage to do so. The surrounding tribes would rather Jerusalem remain a pile of stones than become a thriving community again. The enemies jeered. “Can they bring the stones back to life from the heaps of rubble?” But God had given Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor the vision and faith to proceed. Their words built the people up, and the people built the city. Ezra, the spiritual leader of the project, put it this way: “God has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins.”
Remarkably, they began with the heart of it. Before they had protective walls, before they had proper homes, they built an altar. Right there on the high plateau on the east side of the city, right out in the open and within plain view of their enemies, they built an altar as if to say, there is only one place to begin again; we must meet God in worship.
[to be continued]