Overcoming Hardship for a Better Story

The narrative of the book of Nehemiah focuses on the return of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem in order to rebuild their city and to fully restore their worship of the living God. They found the fortress in ruins, and had an extensive amount of work to do. But the ones who returned had faced hardship before. They had lived in exile, under the tyranny of a king who didn’t understand them or their history. They needed to learn a new language, how to cook with new foods. They didn’t have the anchor of the temple for their faith. They only had their memories.

A sermon on Nehemiah 8.

But they had persisted as strangers in a strange place for many years. And then on hearing of the utter desolation back at home, Nehemiah—the king’s official cupbearer—was able to convince the king to let them go back home to rebuild. They made the journey over hundreds of miles, and found Jerusalem just as they had been told. But of course, seeing it in person was significantly worse than what they had imagined because places they had dreamed about no longer existed. And yet these exiles, these ones who had encountered hardship, saw all of that destruction around them not as an invitation to become overwhelmed and give up, but as on opportunity to dream once more and dig in to work. 

11 years ago when I first arrived at St. Mark’s, I told you about Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. In it Don explores the components of a good story. He describes how good stories—stories that are interesting and hold our attention—focus on a character who wants something and overcomes hardship to get it. Don knew this as a writer, but he wondered what it might meant for our lives. He explored the idea that if we’re living a story that isn’t going anywhere—say we’re caught in a cycle of blaming others, or we’ve given up on caring about our work—that things don’t tend to work out. It’s uninteresting because we’re stuck and not growing. That isn’t the kind of story we’d want to read in a novel or see in a film, so, Don asks, why would we want to live it? 

Recently, Don published a more focused book on the topic called A Hero on a Mission. In it he describes the four types of characters that appear in a plot—the victim, the villain, the hero, and the guide—and the way they show up in our interior lives, in our stories. It isn’t like we play one role all our lives—or even a single role on a given day—but those four characters live in us and come out at different times. Like when the villain instinct—the instinct to make others feel small—appears when you’re overdue for a meal. Don makes it clear that we have each of the four character types in us, but sometimes we play one role more frequently than the others. What they all have in common is hardship or grief or suffering. All characters experience some kind of pain or loss in their lives—in movies this is often part of the backstory—and the question is what happens next. How do they respond? 

Victims and villains don’t change at all. They don’t grow. And you can see this in a film, when these characters are exactly where they were at the beginning of the movie. Voldemort in Harry Potter is still looking to have ultimate power and control; or Gollum in the Lord of the Rings just wants to have his precious ring. But heroes?, they change. They see their hardships and work to overcome them, to learn from them. They don’t allow the challenge to stop them. Oh, they’re frightened and unsure and certain that they aren’t the ones capable of doing the hard task before them, but they push through with courage, perseverance, and pluck. Think of Frodo taking that ring across Mordor, or Harry searching for horcruxes. Heroes of course don’t go it alone; they need guides to help encourage and support them, like Gandalf or Dumbledore. These last ones can only offer that guidance because they’ve experienced their own difficult times and made it through themselves as a hero on a mission. Not unscathed, of course. But they’ve learned and changed and allowed their own difficulties to become an opportunity to bring healing to others.

So with these four types of roles available in our lives, Don asks simply, how can we live more intentionally into a good story as a hero on a mission? How can the choices we make in response to hardship not allow us to feel trapped or bitter and cynical, but to be seen as an opportunity to overcome that difficulty and then encourage others to do the same? 

In our lesson this morning we learn that the people who’ve returned from exile lived intentionally as heroes. They’ve rebuilt the temple and the walls around the city of Jerusalem. They’ve found the Torah, and have sought to reestablish living in the covenant given them by the Lord. So the people—and Nehemiah makes it clear that this includes all people, women, men and children alike—gather together at the recently completed Water Gate of the city. The priest Ezra comes forward with the Law of Moses, and he reads it out loud to them. Some of the ones assembled need to have others interpret for them; they’ve been gone so long, or they were born in exile, that they only know Aramaic now and not the Hebrew being read to them. This reading takes a big chunk of the day, and the people begin to weep when they hear the words of the law. Whether they’re remembering the ones they’ve lost along the way, or overcome by a desire to live more faithfully under that law, or just taken with the spectacle, we aren’t given the details. We only know that Nehemiah and Ezra tell them not to weep, but to celebrate and rejoice. “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine,” they exclaim. Enjoy the goodness of this day and all that was accomplished. “And,” they tell them, “send portions of the food and wine to the ones who have nothing prepared.” Take care of the ones who are hungry, who lack the basic necessities, who long just to have a little something to eat. Help them to celebrate too.

Nehemiah and Ezra and the people there live as heroes on a mission. Oh, they won’t—and in coming chapters we see that they don’t—always get it right. But they overcame great obstacles in order to restore their city dedicated in worship to the living God. And they see that in the end their story is not just about themselves, but about others. About giving back so that everyone has enough.

What about you on this Sunday morning? Which role has been dominating your life recently? Have you seen the challenges in front of you and given up? Or have you fallen into the trap of being paralyzed by past failures? Do you too often try to make yourself feel big by making others feel small? Or have you tried courageously to face the obstacles even though you’ve got a bad case of imposter’s syndrome coursing through you, telling you that you’re not competent? Maybe you’ve seen how you have been helping someone else on their journey to grow and mature because of your own past experiences. You’re allowing the experiences of pain in your life to be a way to help others succeed and not as something to keep you from experiencing joy. 

Wherever you are—whatever role comes more naturally to you—I hope that you would seek to live a better story. To become a hero on a mission and to help guide others. To see that when we work together to reestablish a community, or rebuild something we’ve lost, or to create something beautiful, that we find deep meaning in our lives. That’s what God wanted for the Israelites both when they received the Torah during the Exodus and when the exiles returned from their captivity, that they would see the joy and delight in God’s ways and become people committed to following God wholehearted. May we do likewise. May we live great stories as we center our lives on the love, grace, and mercy of God.

Image from Pexels on Pixabay.

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