Sunday, November 17, 2013

The Strength of My Hands

For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from their work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen thou my hands” (Neh 6:9).

The book of Nehemiah begins with the speaker discovering that the wall around Jerusalem has been “broken down, and its gates [destroyed] by fire” (1:3). As cupbearer to king Artaxerxes, Nehemiah does not live in Jerusalem with those who survived the exile and returned, but he still feels a deep connection to the hoy city: learning its wall has fallen, he sits down and weeps (1:4). Nehemiah asks God to forgive His people for their sins against Him, and comes to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall (1:4-11). He inspects it without telling anyone what he intends, then convinces the people to “[strengthen] their hands” (2:18) and begin to rebuild, so Jerusalem may no longer live in disgrace.

The people of the Nations surrounding Israel don’t like Nehemiah rebuilding the wall. They mock and deride the Israelites for building it, asking if they are defying the king (2:19). Still, they keep building the wall. Their enemies plot to fight them (4:8), and Nehemiah sets a guard on the wall, and they keep building. Their enemies plot to kill them in the middle of their work (4:11), and Nehemiah places people in every space, one person to build and another to defend. He reminds them not to be afraid of their enemies but to remember “the Lord, who is great and terrible” (4:14). They keep building the wall. The people who carry burdens have the load in one hand and a sword in the other (4:17), and they keep building the wall. They labour at their work and sleep with weapons in their hands, retreating into the city at night (4:21-23).

When the wall is built, with no doors yet in its gates, Jerusalem’s enemies try to trick Nehemiah into leaving the city to meet them, so they can kill him (6:1-2). He refuses to stop the work and leave. His enemies accuse him of wanting to be king, thinking that he will be frightened of Persia’s reprisals (6:6-9). People try to fool Nehemiah into closing himself in the temple, thereby declaring himself ruler of Jerusalem and bringing down Artaxerxes’ wrath (6:10-13). Jerusalem’s enemies try everything they can think of to fill the Israelites’ hearts with fear, so their hands will drop from their work, so that they will give up. Through it all, they keep building the wall until the city is surrounded and its gates are secured.

It’s easy to question why Nehemiah was so hung up on building the wall in the first place, and why he was so devastated to hear it had been destroyed: after all, “the people within [Jerusalem] were few and no houses had been built” (7:4). For Nehemiah, Jerusalem – its temple, its people, and its walls – represents much, much more than just a city, much more even than a home. Jerusalem represents God’s covenant with Israel: that He will be their God and they will be His people; that the people will never cease to be; that a king of David’s line will sit on the throne; that they will be a multitude beyond numbering. The people have come up from Egypt and God has delivered them into their own land, which they shall hold forever as their inheritance.

For Nehemiah, and for most of the Hebrew bible, Israel’s misfortunes happen because of sin. The people are sent into exile, and Jerusalem is destroyed, because they turned away from God through idolatry and did not keep His commandments. The temple must be rebuilt so that the people can keep the laws and glorify the Lord. The people must repent and be purified so the remnant can be restored. The walls of Jerusalem must be built because the city is both the reality and the symbol of God’s promise that He will gather His scattered people from among the nations and return them to Himself.

Each in her own way, we are like Nehemiah and the Israelites building Jerusalem’s wall. We all have work we are called by God to do. God has covenanted Himself with us and we are asked to do His work, to follow where He leads us, to repent and turn to Him anew. Like Nehemiah and the Israelites, we are faced with enemies, forces that try to turn us aside, to step off the path, that frighten us into dropping our hands from our work.

Depression can be that enemy in different ways. It can strip you of your energy and will, leaving you paralyzed. Anhedonia can make you lose interest and pleasure in the people and things that are important to you. You might not be able to concentrate, as if you’re thinking and moving and seeing through a thick fog. You could spend hours sobbing uncontrollably, or numb to the world and staring at a wall, or curled up under a pile of blankets. You could be crushed by fear, and guilt, and loneliness, and the feeling that your life has no meaning and is not worth living. Sometimes you might want to withdraw from everyone. Sometimes you might be afraid to be with anyone because you’re desperately trying to hide the reality of what’s happening to you.

Everyone – no matter who they are – has enemies urging them to drop their hands from building the wall. It’s easy to fall prey to these forces because they’re powerful, because sometimes their way looks simpler, because it isn’t always obvious that we’re doing God’s work. The thing about not building an actual wall is that it isn’t always clear what bits of what we’re doing are part of God’s plan. But we know we’re called to praise and glorify the Lord, and to love God and neighbor.

The story of Nehemiah building the wall shows us that it’s important not to allow anything to let our hands drop from God’s work. We must keep striving no matter what tries to frighten us away. Though the Israelites have been beaten down, have been conquered, are still conquered, and have sinned – they are still building the wall, and God is still helping them.

We are not building a wall, not rebuilding a home, because we have a home in Jesus and it can never fall. We have a temple, and God raised it in three days. We do God’s work, however fragile it may turn out to be, on the firm foundation of Jesus Christ, which will never be shaken.

Like Nehemiah, we cannot expect to do it alone, and we need to learn to admit that. I have to learn to admit that. Sometimes I can’t do it, I can’t be who I want to be. I just can’t. Whatever it is that God wants me to do, I can’t today. I am failing. And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. But God gathered the remnant, and I know when I try again tomorrow He will gather me. Nehemiah wasn’t the only person building that wall, so maybe it’s okay to do it together. To defend us, we have the martyrs and saints, the whole company of heaven, God, and each other. It’s okay to not be able to do it alone. In his moments of weakness, Nehemiah asks God to strengthen him. In darkness, in doubt, in despair, God is the strength of our hands. 


  1. While it is important to continue building, sometimes in the process of creating we allow time to be quiet -- and reflect - 1) we think about the ways we can participate in God's work, 2) we also allow the light of divine love to shine on us - so that it can then continue to shine as if from us. Sometimes our weakness is a reminder that God is our only strength, sometimes fragility is a reminder that I can either conform to the image that God has of me ... or I can resist. I know very well what it is to want to be someone else ... I want to be a better me. But somehow God is saying, well, you - as you are right now - are actually where I can best work with you. Yesterday a faithful friend of mine spoke of spending most of his life swimming against the current - he likened the current to the Holy Spirit -- and said that now he is trying to learn how to flow / float with the current.
    Sometimes we work on the building, sometimes we allow ourselves to be shaped (as if we were a karyatid on a building) sometimes we trust that regardless of our feelings, God is pleased with us ... and God will offer consolations to replace the tears....
    So grateful for the Mass this morning, for the beautiful singing of Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence ...greatful that we have each other and share the love of God

  2. This was beautiful and I loved it. So nice to have someone write about depression and how it relates to our day-to-day life with God and scripture.

  3. You understand call. You understand depression. We're gonna get along just fine. Thanks for writing.