Focal Passage: Nehemiah 1:1-11
In early 1994, we (I and two first-term missionaries) traveled back into the interior of Burundi to visit churches with which I had worked closely and had experienced massive devastation from the coup d’etat that had occurred in October 1993. Our hearts ached and our spirits literally mourned as we drove through formerly populous market towns and vibrant villages now empty or worse strewn with bodies. Much like Nehemiah (1:4a), we “wept and mourned.”
Already, my wife and I (as former missionaries to Rwanda) had mourned the loss of many of our close Rwandan friends who had died in the genocide and dreaded when updates were given about the continuing situation. Words can never accurately describe the anguish and pain that is felt when confronted by such needless suffering.
Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king of Persia. Though information is scanty, news arrives through his brother, Hanani that Jerusalem lies in ruin and the morale of the remnant is low and troubled. According to Josephus, neighboring tribes were continually raiding the vulnerable city. He writes, “the surrounding nations were inflicting many injuries on the Jews, overrunning the country and plundering it by day and doing mischief by night, so that many had been carried off as captives … and every day the roads were found full of corpses.”
Rather than despair, Nehemiah turns his heart towards “the God of Heaven” (1:4b) after a season of fasting and prays an incredible prayer of lamentation and confession. Recognizing the gracious fidelity of the Lord is contrasted to the personal and corporate infidelities of Nehemiah and the people of Israel. “We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses” (1:7).
The sole solution is God’s covenant response to a repentant people — “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants … give success … grant … mercy” (1:11).
Both in Rwanda and Burundi, atrocities continue and lives are lost. But even in the hostility and hopelessness, God continues to be present and acting out His will.
As one Rwandan believer has written in light of not only the genocide but the AIDS epidemic, “We meet here every day for mutual support, prayer and care giving … we are trying to give hope and assistance in the name of Christ.”