Holy Repair in a Quick Fix World

Nehemiah 2:17-20, 4:1-6

17 Then I said to them, ‘You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burnt. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.’ 18I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let us start building!’ So they committed themselves to the common good. 19But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they mocked and ridiculed us, saying, ‘What is this that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’ 20Then I replied to them, ‘The God of heaven is the one who will give us success, and we his servants are going to start building; but you have no share or claim or historic right in Jerusalem.’


Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he mocked the Jews. 2He said in the presence of his associates and of the army of Samaria, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore things? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—and burnt ones at that?’ 3Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, ‘That stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!’ 4Hear, O our God, for we are despised; turn their taunt back on their own heads, and give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5Do not cover their guilt, and do not let their sin be blotted out from your sight; for they have hurled insults in the face of the builders. 6 So we rebuilt the wall, and all the wall was joined together to half its height; for the people had a mind to work.

The image of Jerusalem he had in his head was no match for the latest report he received about the holy city. In his head Nehemiah imagined the Jerusalem of legend, a city made invincible by its strong walls and yet accessible through its many beautiful gates, he saw the temple shining in its eloquent splendor and the streets overflowing with markets and commerce and the laughter of children. But a group of Jews who had seen it with their own eyes told him otherwise. Jerusalem was destroyed; there was no other word for it. The few Jews who had survived the exile were living in appalling conditions; the walls were a rubble pile of stones and the gates, piles of cinders. Nehemiah tried to blot out the new images that rose up before him, but all he saw now was the devastating remains of a dream that had been demolished. He closed his eyes and wept.

And so begins the story of Nehemiah, the man who is credited with the kind of leadership that can bring order out of chaos and allow the work of holy repair to flourish in a ruined landscape. Much has been written about Nehemiah as an exemplary leader. Given that OCBC is in a time of transition where we are thinking a lot about the role of both lay and ordained leadership, this is a good moment to look more deeply into what Nehemiah has to teach us about leadership. We can learn much from Nehemiah about what to do, as well as what not to do, as effective leaders in God’s work.

Essentially, Nehemiah is engaged in the business of repair. He is not only trying to repair the broken walls of Jerusalem but also the broken religious life of the people of Israel. Such repair is emblematic of the greater work of repair in which God’s faithful are always engaged. As a congregation engaged in the ongoing renovation of this building, we know a lot about repair. I had a long conversation in the hall with Phil Wallace, the man who has been behind much of the renovation of 1151 Mass Ave. I call him Phil The Builder. He was explaining how complicated the restoration of these windows has been, with trying to find the right lead weights to balance out the heavy windows, etc., etc. Repairs always take much more time, energy, and money than we usually anticipate at the beginning of a project. Nehemiah was going back to Jerusalem to engage in repair work. The actual rebuilding of the walls took a relatively short time, but the work of repairing a broken hearted community would take much longer.

There is a concept in Jewish theology known as Tikkun Olam: the repair of the world. This concept grew out of the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, which emerged out of a period of trauma for the Jewish people during the Spanish Inquisition. Repair happens on the interior, personal level as well as on the interpersonal, collective level. We are called to engage in the work of holy repair of our hearts, of our relationships, of our ecology, of the whole cosmos. Repair is our life’s work. In the face of national trauma, exile, and dislocation, Nehemiah is moved to the work of repair, and he discovers that leadership is necessary is repair is going to happen at all. And in a quick fix world, the work of holy repair takes time, perseverance, and dogged commitment.

I find that much of what I have learned about self-differentiated leadership from the work of Ed Friedman resonates with the Nehemiah story. Friedman says that there are three elements of leadership that we must continually keep in mind if we are to be effective leaders. Self-definition, self-regulation, and staying connected.

Self-definition means that we clearly define who we are and what we think our job is. Nehemiah is very clear about his identity, his priorities, and what he is trying to accomplish. He goes to the King, and lays out his vision for rebuilding Jerusalem and his people. As the cupbearer of the King, Nehemiah is in a trusted position of leadership already. And as a clearly defined person, he exercises leadership beyond the authority of his position. Nehemiah is not defined by his role, but by his sense of call and his vision for ministry. He has the capacity to re-invent himself: from cupbearer to builder to governor. He successfully occupies each position in part because of his clarity about who he is, what he thinks and believes, and his definition of both self and role.

Nehemiah also has the capacity for self-regulation. When we are under stress we can easily become reactive, our emotionality overriding our capacity to think clearly about how we should function. Nehemiah is over-whelmed by grief and sadness, what I think of as reactivity that is appropriate to the level of trauma he experiences. In a sense, his capacity to enter fully into the loss of his people helps put him in touch with God’s people. But if his leadership begins in lamentation, it does not stop there. Nehemiah could easily get stuck in his despair, anxiety, and reactivity. But he regulates his response in a way that honors his feelings and yet allows him to move forward to function effectively as a leader.

And throughout his story Nehemiah works to stay connected: with himself, with his people, with the king. Through connection Nehemiah engages many others in the work, accomplishing far more than he could ever do alone. He works with a variety of groups, helping each to take responsibility for the repair of a gate or a section of the wall. But one of the places where I think Nehemiah had some struggles with staying connected with others with was in dealing with the resistance he experiences in the re-building process.

And like most leaders who are effective, Nehemiah encounters resistance yet manages to stay on track with his goals in spite of that resistance. In the beginning, he is met with ridicule from those who think that destruction is the final word. But he presses forward and they manage to rebuild the walls and start putting their lives back together in fairly short order, but then the real resistance begins. Nehemiah presses hard to change religious practices. He takes the approach of “let’s circle the wagons” and draw into ourselves as we return to the “true religion.” Nehemiah leaves and when he returns much later discovers that the reforms he pushed did not take hold as he expected. The walls may have been a quick fix, but deep change in response to adaptive challenges takes much longer.

Here is where I take issue with Nehemiah’s approach to change. The more attached he gets to the reforms he wishes to see the more strident and willful he becomes and the less he is able to stay connected with his opposition. Nehemiah starts insisting that those who have taken foreign wives divorce them. His approach becomes rigid. It is here that I look beyond Nehemiah to the larger biblical witness about how to stay connected with those who differ from us. I look to the book of Ruth for guidance. Some interpreters of scripture suggest that Ruth was written as a corrective to Ezra and Nehemiah. Ruth is a narrative about the power of loving kindness (Hesed) to change the course of history. Ruth is about the repair of human hearts, and how her devotion to Naomi led her to Boaz. A foreign woman, whom the people of Israel were not to marry, becomes the grandmother of King David, the ancestor of Jesus. The capacity to be open to the foreign element is one of the things saves the people of God. The story of Ruth cautions the leader who will become willfully cut off in the pursuit of their goals, even if they are holy goals.

The church today is facing a time of extreme dislocation. The image of the church we have in our heads may not correspond with the reality. We are facing a broken, diminished church in our culture. We are called to engage in the work of holy repair, personally and collectively. Last night, at our “Wall of History” event, we talked about Ron Heifetz’s notion of leadership, which distinguishes between “technical problems” and “adaptive challenges.” For Nehemiah, repairing the walls and the city gates was a technical problem solved with known skills of building and repair. But the larger challenge for his people was the adaptive challenge. “How do God’s exiled people return to Israel and rebuild their lives?” In this time of transition, OCBC is called to sort out the technical problems from the adaptive challenges, and to find ways to engage in deep and meaningful change.

Holy repair doesn’t mean that we return to the past, to the way things were, but that we build a new future from the building blocks of the past. Holy repair begins in lamentation, grieving the loss of the way things used to be. But it doesn’t stop there. Tikkun olam, the repair of the world, calls us to more forward in hope, living into the future God imagines for us. May God grant us the courage to do so! AMEN.


  • Pastor Meg Hess