Nehemiah’s story reminds us that the call does not always happen in the same way. While he acknowledges that his work flowed from what God had put in his heart, his ‘call’ does not happen in the same way as that of Moses, Joshua or Gideon. It emerged from what we could consider as a crucible experience in which he was confronted with a serious need.
The crucible experience that forever changed Nehemiah’s life began with a visit from his brother. Nehemiah, a Jew who – because of exile – had likely never lived in Jerusalem, asked his brother about the welfare of the city and its people. The answer was bad. The city wall was broken and the inhabitants were leading a miserable existence in their broken-down city. Nehemiah’s reaction demonstrates that while the Jews could be removed from the city, the city could not be removed from their hearts. Although Nehemiah was living in Persia, there was a sense in which his heart was in Jerusalem.
It’s been a while since Boney-M sang about the Rivers of Babylon! What they sang was based on Psalm 137 where the exiled Jews wept as they thought back to Jerusalem. ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill,’ they sang. You could take the Jews out of Jerusalem but…!
Nehemiah was devastated by the news of the broken city. Weeping, mourning, fasting and prayer became the dominant themes of his life. His prayer (Nehemiah 1) is a model of humility, confession and boldness, rooted in the knowledge of God.
Four months later, God had put a plan in Nehemiah’s heart and he would leave his role as cupbearer to the king in order to make the journey to Jerusalem, where he would lead the work of rebuilding the city and renewing the people.
He would change career – from king’s cupbearer to city governor; and he would change geographical location – from Persia to Jerusalem. His story is one of the most inspiring leadership stories in the Bible.
What happened? He had become aware of something that was so wrong that someone had to put it right.
By way of modern-day illustration, Gemma Wilson is the development manager of a local charity, No More Traffik (she is also my eldest daughter). Four years ago, when she was between her undergraduate and postgraduate courses, she decided to spend the summer researching slavery. The project began in the past with William Wilberforce but led to the realisation of modern day slavery and the millions caught up in it. She was so horrified at what she discovered that she had to do something about it. The experience of that research project became her crucible. Her view of the world changed as did her view of what her own life had to be about.
Crucible experiences do that.
Back to Nehemiah: this particular crucible experience both revealed the kind of person Nehemiah was, notably what really mattered to him, and it also shaped the future direction of his life. Crucibles have that double function: they reveal and they shape the future.
Of course there is a related issue in the midst of all of this: does the need constitute a call? The answer probably has to be not necessarily: it’s not going to be possible for everyone to get involved in every situation of need they encounter.
But we need to be sensitive to a sense of call that comes through the kind of crucible experience that Nehemiah encountered: where some situation is so wrong that something needs to be done to put it right – and the leader realises that they have to act. God uses the crucible to catch the leader’s attention and then begins to put something in his/her heart.