Personal Musings on a Broken Wall

As we finish reading Nehemiah this week, I thought I’d share a personal story of how an event in my own life helped me connect with what the exiles may have experienced on their return. Every time I read the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah I come to the description of the broken wall, imagine it in my mind, and then move on. Yet something was different for me when I read it a few years ago. As I began to picture it in my mind, God gave me an opportunity to feel it in my heart.


Some of my earliest memories were made in Atikokan, Ontario. I remember the winters (“Fifty weeks of winter and two weeks of poor sledding” is what my father used to say), the lake, the house and the special trips my dad and I used to take to the Steep Rock Iron Mine.


Steep Rock was a natural area rich in iron ore and my father was one of the engineers in charge of constructing a facility that would turn the raw ore into pellets that could be sold, shipped and processed into steel. From time to time dad would take his wide-eyed four-year-old son (me) to the worksite with him. I have some vivid memories of that time and place; memories that are filled with strong and positive emotions.


A few years back my brother, Dave, sent a YouTube video to me that opened my heart to some of what the returning exiles may have felt. It was called "Exploring Abandoned Steep Rock Iron Mine". I thought, “Really? It’s been abandoned? You mean nothing of that massive structure is still being used?” I clicked on the link and began my 14 minute tour at the guardhouse gate.


The sight of the gate supports along with the location of the guardhouse actually quickened my heart. “I remember this!” I thought, but the metal was badly rusted and the guardhouse was nothing but a cement foundation hidden by overgrown vegetation. My video guide then took me to key points throughout the area. Some were unfamiliar, some made me experience de je vu and some caused me to hit the pause button as I sought to mine my own memories that had become buried with the passing of time.


Steep Rock Iron Mine used to be a bustling complex filled with activity and marked by that warm feeling a boy receives when he spends special time with his large, strong and gentle daddy. Seeing the video sobered me. It stunned me. At one point, I began to cry. It was about that time that the Spirit helped me make the heart connection with the Bible stories we just read.


The exiles didn’t just return to broken down walls and a razed temple. The entire area had been abandoned and unused for 70 years which means that nature had already begun to reclaim the land. Wind had covered the temple courts and rubble with a thin layer of soil. Grass, weeds and other vegetation had taken root. When the children were dragged off to exile they carried with them the memories of a bustling city and a magnificent temple. When they returned and saw what now remained…well, it is no wonder that they were disheartened and even wept at the meager restoration effort (Ezra 3:12) while others wept at the thought of how much was lost (Nehemiah 1:4).


I thought about all that David and Solomon did to build that amazing temple filled with wonders, wealth and beauty, and how all of that—all of that—was now gone, wiped away like chalk from a chalk board so that only a smeared residue remained. I, then, thought about my father’s work and the hours and holidays he spent away from the family to build the pelletizing plant and how it, too, was now gone, replaced by rich green vegetation and deep blue water. This reality begs the question. Whether it is David, my dad or any of us, what was the point of all that work and effort?


Acts 13:36 reminds us that David fulfilled God’s purpose in his generation. Preparation for the temple was not the only thing he did. The battles, teaching, songs, worship practices and the other things that were never recorded were all part of God’s purpose for David. The same is true for us. As followers of Christ we are called, equipped and empowered to fulfill God’s purpose in our generation. Truth be told, when we think about doing something for God, our minds often turn to the larger projects, those things that leave a lasting and public legacy. But Scripture teaches that all parts of the body are important and everyone has a key role to play. Fulfilling God’s purpose in our generation, then, can include something as simple and non-noteworthy as giving someone a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Matthew 10:42). Even if not seen by the masses, that which is done to honor Christ will be celebrated in heaven.


As an engineer working for a multinational corporation, my father was a key player in constructing several large industrial sites during his life. After talking with him about this video I was struck to hear him say, “Nothing I built is around today.” That same short sentence has been spoken by countless millions and, if they had been alive to return as exiles, David and Solomon would have said it too.


In this fallen world, “thorns” and “weeds” will eventually overgrow everything we attempt to build. It is part of the curse placed on creation in Genesis 3. At the same time, God promises that our lives are not contained in, or valued by, the big things we do. Every element of our lives fits into the larger story that God is writing through us. When we focus on individual events and compare them to the present day, they can can seem like a sad waste. However, when we choose to place these events in the light of God’s overall narrative, even the seemingly insignificant actions can play an important role in fulfilling God’s eternal purposes. Even when all we see right now is ruin or all we feel right now is grief, the very fact that the all-too-human David fulfilled God’s purpose gives me confidence that God can do the same through you and me.


Every journey contains a few vistas that allow us to stop and ponder. Thanks for letting me share one of mine. Please feel free to share one of your stopping places with me. I’d love to hear your story as we continue this Bible reading journey together.