Talbot Davis ~ Solutionists: Problemists

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Solutionists is one series where I know exactly where I was when I first had the idea. As some of you know our Zoar Road Campus has a Zoar Road Club which is full of recovery meetings, many of which are open to the public even if you are not an alcoholic. And I drop by periodically just to show that community how much Good Shepherd loves what they are about.

Anyway, several months ago I was in one of these meetings – probably 40 people there – admiring the raw spirituality of the environment, when during the sharing time a man says, “We don’t have a drinking PROBLEM. We have a drinking SOLUTION. We’ve got all kinds of problems – marriage, parents, self-esteem, and money – and what we all have in common in this room is that our SOLUTION to those problems was to drink them away!” And I thought, “I may have just heard the single most brilliant insight into anything, anywhere in my life.” So I ran out to the car, wrote it down, thinking to myself, “that will preach!” and now six months later, here we are!

And that’s also why the first message in Solutionists is called “Problemists.” Because I want to jump from AA into scripture and back into our lives because in the big picture it is fascinating to me how much we confuse our problems and our solutions. This entire series, from faux solutions to real ones, comes from the best memoir in the biblical library, Nehemiah. Yes! A memoir! Written in the first person, sort of selective with details, and, as we are going to see, the facts are arranged in such a way as to put Nehemiah in a good light. More than that: as the book opens up, the main action, the scenario that makes up the dilemma to be solved, has already occurred. It’s like the biggest action took place off-stage.

Here’s the deal: it’s 445 BC. And about 90 years earlier, the children of Israel have returned home from exile in Babylon (more on that in a bit) to a bombed out, burned up city. Jerusalem has become their city of ruins. See, way back in 587 BC, the Jews had been conquered by Babylon and the best and brightest of its citizenry was chained and transported to Babylon to work as slaves. That lasted for 70 years. And then the Persians (Iran) defeated Babylonia in 539 BC and miraculously let the Jews return home to Jerusalem; they didn’t have the resources or the manpower or the wherewithal to rebuild the city well. By the time Nehemiah opens in 445 BC they had started a reclamation project but it was poorly done and the city looked like one of these sad Syrian places you see on TV today: burned up, hollowed out, devoid of both leadership and hopefulness.

Now: all this is not Nehemiah’s particular problem. Look at 1:1: “The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah: In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa…” – Nehemiah 1:11 gives more indication – “I was cupbearer to the king.”

See, he is well over 1,000 miles from his homeland – and he’s probably never lived there anyway – serving in the court of the king of Persia. He’s next to the seat of power, living in the lap of luxury. He doesn’t need to bother with any of these problems. But then he gets a report from the front lines in 1:2-3:

“Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’”

Wall, broken. Gates, burned. People in great trouble and disgrace. So: 587 destroyed, exiled. 539 returned. 90 years later, 445 BC, still in shambles. Why? What got the people of God out from under the protection of God and into this kind of situation in the first place? Why are there very lives broken and burned?

Ah . . . do you remember how I said so much of the stage-setting action in Nehemiah occurs off stage? In this case, in the Old Testament books of 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings? Well, Nehemiah summarizes it well as part of his prayer in 1:6-7:

Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.”

What was that? We have not obeyed the commands. Well, do you remember the first of those commands? No other gods. And yet, if you know the history and you remember Nehemiah’s stage is set off-stage, you realize that throughout the Old Testament, from the earliest days to the latest, from the North to the South, what was the very thing the children of Israel did? Worshipped other gods! Baal (some of you remember the Southern pronunciation of Jezebel), Ashterah, Molech. They thought that by worshipping these other gods along with their Lord that it would give them safety with the neighbors. (Neighbors be like, “Let’s don’t attack! They worship our god too!). They also thought that worshipping the other gods would bail them out in case their own god didn’t come through. And, frankly, some of the men involved wanted the sexual excitement that came from Baal worship, as that usually involved temple prostitutes. So they suffered from fear, insecurity, illicit desire, and their solution throughout their history as a people was to run after little tin gods.

And so I see the predicament that Israel is in – broken wall, burned gate, hollow spirits – and I realize from Nehemiah’s words why that happened and it hits me: they didn’t have an idolatry problem; they have an idolatry solution. Their problems had to do with fear, insecurity, unpopularity, lack of trust, and excess libido. But the solution they sought is the thing that led them into exile and then lingering shame upon their return.

And in 2015, not much has changed. Lord, I had a sick day awhile back and was just feeling rotten – because you know getting sick means you’re a failure at ministry, right? – and, anyway, at the end of the day I binged on a bag of Gluten-Free Sweet Potato chips. But now I know: I didn’t have a chip problem. I had a chip solution to my larger problem of irrational insecurity! And I know that some of the females here – I know this because you tell me – bounce from relationship to relationship to relationship. Looking for something in a guy that’s always elusive. But I want you to realize now that you don’t have a guy problem. You have a guy solution! Or guys who are addicted to time on the internet – and I know this because you tell me! – you don’t have a porn problem; you have a porn solution! Goodness, some of the people here who move from spouse to spouse to spouse, hoping the next one will be “right”; you don’t have a marriage problem, you have a marriage solution. Those of you who cut…cutting isn’t your problem, it’s your solution. Or you who shop compulsively…it’s not a shopping problem, it’s a shopping solution.

And then, for some of you here, it’s that way you substitute a church or a pastor for a living relationship with Jesus Christ. And you don’t have a church problem; you have a church solution – and it’s a failed attempt at what only the Lord of the church can provide. Now: in all those I listed above, I can’t for sure name the real problem. Most often, they have to do with parenting issues, personal insecurity, or, most powerfully, the subtle thought that God is not good (that’s why we choose sin! We don’t think God is as good as the sin!). Yet even if I don’t know the exact problem, I know 100% for sure that the solution you’ve located for that problem ain’t working! Whether you are my friend at an open AA meeting or you’re living on your computer or you’re drowning in credit card debt.

The solution is the problem. You’ve become a problemist.

And that’s what Nehemiah is realizing about himself and the people he is going to represent. I love the wording of 1:7A: “We have acted very wickedly toward you.”

That lets you know that acting out is really acting at – in this case, acting at God. But look where Nehemiah goes next in his prayer:

“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’”

Verse 8 begins with “Remember”! Can you imagine being that nervy with the Lord? Remember what you said, Lord! I hope you haven’t forgotten something, Lord! And then 1:9 contains some of the most glorious language in Scripture: “but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.” I love that. Even if they at the farthest horizon – which Nehemiah was as he prays; 1,000 miles from Jerusalem in Susa! – God will bring them home. But the farthest they could wander from the presence of God – because of insecurity, fear, libido and the false solutions – is still not too far from God’s loving grasp. From his welcome home. They’re never too far and it’s never too late.

And, Lord, it says everything to those for whom the solution is now the problem. You’re never too far. It’s never too late. Your solution may have made you feel that your walls are broken and your gate is burnt and that you are beyond the farthest horizons…but no. The promise God had given to Nehemiah and the Jews is the promise that still stands today. The faux solutions you’ve sought will never have the final word. Because here’s what we get from Nehemiah’s story off-stage and then his appearance here in Nehemiah 1: When you admit the solution is the problem, God surrounds you with his promises.

Because look at the words Nehemiah ascribes to himself and his people: GATHER, REDEEMED, SUCCESS, FAVOR. It all hinges on his “Step 1” of verse six: confession.        We’ve blown it. Our solution is really our problem. And God answers back with this deluge of promises.
It just makes me think of that friend of mine who after years of abusing alcohol stopped drinking. And he said, “Wow! I feel stuff now! I used to numb it all. Now I feel it all. Everything I feel isn’t always good but it is always better than numb.” Yep.

     When you admit the solution is the problem, God surrounds you with his promises.

Or it’s even like Nehemiah’s name. Do you know what it means? “The Lord comforts.” Yep, not our fake self, not the one whose solutions are the problems, but our real selves who lift up all our flaws to the Flawless King.

     When you admit the solution is the problem, God surrounds you with his promises.

So where is it today? You know. Where is it that God is dealing with you, letting you know that your solution is in fact your problem? Where have your solutions given you a broken wall and a burned gate? And where is he encouraging you to dig deeper, to peel back the onion of your own psyche, to see what the real problem is? Based on my experience, it’s usually something to do with mom and dad, something to do with a warped view of how others think about you, or something to do with your sneaking suspicion that God is not really, truly good. That he is not authentically enough. Sometimes our inability to embrace and celebrate how thoroughly we are loved makes us move on to idols. We can’t accept God’s tenacious grace. Oh, if that’s you, just allow yourself to be surrounded in his promises.

It’s why I love that Christ-centered treatment center in New Jersey where the residents do not identify themselves by their addiction (“I’m John and I’m an alcoholic.”) but by their Savior: “I’m John and I’m a blood-bought child of God who already has victory over drugs.” That’s a promise worth savoring.

Speaking of which, let these promises surround you now…

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Talbot Davis is the pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, a modern congregation in Charlotte, North Carolina. He helps lead a talented group of pastors and support staff. He is the author of Head Scratchers, The Shadow Of A Doubt, The Storm Before The Calm, and Solve, all available from Abingdon Press. In another life, he played a lot of tennis. He married up and has two children.

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