“God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy.”
– Psalm 68: 6
I’ve lately been thinking about what it means to “stand in the gap” for another person. Through my connection with She Brews Coffee House and His House Ministry, both transition ministries for ex-offenders, I’ve been fortunate enough to connect with a ministry of that name, Stand in the Gap Ministries (SITG), whose vision is to fill the gaps “in the social service system, in the ministry of the local church, and in the lives of Oklahomans in need” by providing a spiritual family to come alongside them in prayer and emotional/spiritual support. The SITG process is practical: volunteers commit 3 hours a month for 12 months to meet with, pray for, and love a neighbor in need.
Jim and I, along with another couple, have joined together to become the spiritual family of J, a resident of one of His House Ministry’s transition homes. We’ll meet her for the first time on Sunday, and spend the next 12 months walking alongside her in friendship, mentorship, and prayer. Not only will we get to witness God’s healing and restorative work in her life, we’ll actually get to be a part of it. We will walk alongside her as God heals her heart, unpacks her gifts, and restores her relationships with her children, beginning a legacy that will impact her family for generations to come.
I haven’t met her yet, but I already know that J is God’s favorite daughter. What a sweet blessing it will be to watch Him reveal that fact to her.
“Neighbors are all around us. We love them by joining them on a journey to watch God unearth His new creation in the midst of their poverty and brokenness.”
– SITG training
Though I know and understand what it means to stand in the gap for J in practical terms, as I’ve pondered the concept I’ve been drawn to the biblical story of Nehemiah. In short, Nehemiah was an Israelite in exile serving as cupbearer to the Persian king. After hearing about the destruction of Jerusalem, that its walls had been torn down and its gates burned, he made it his mission to return to the city and rebuild the walls. The remnant that remained in Jerusalem was not only in “great trouble” because of their lack of protection, but they were also in disgrace. The state of the walls brought shame to the inhabitants of the city.
Despite his cushy position in the Persian king’s court and favor with the king himself, Nehemiah took that disgrace personally. When he was informed of the state of Jerusalem and his people, he mourned over it. The Bible says he “sat down and mourned for a number of days, fasting and praying before the God of Heaven.”
Anyone familiar with Old Testament traditions knows that for Jews mourning was no small feat. (Sackcloth and ashes? Yikes.) The Bible is clear that his was not a passing grief. He did not dwell briefly on the disturbing news before turning his attention to more pleasant things. He owned the state of his people as though he were right there with them. He repented of their sins as though they were his own sins. More importantly, to his mind they were his own sins. He felt and understood the intrinsic connection between himself and his fellow Israelites. He could not feel satisfied with the relative strength of his position knowing that his brothers suffered harm and humiliation in their weakness.
When I read the book of Nehemiah, I see a beautiful example of what it looks like to honor and protect the Body of Christ. I know we are connected – joint supplying joint, the entire body working together to build itself up in love – but do I know it the way Nehemiah knew it? Do I feel it in the same way? Nehemiah did not merely shake his head in dismay at what was happening among his people. He didn’t mourn from afar, grieving over what he could not change. He didn’t wait and hope that someone else would do something about it. Nor was he dismayed by the enormity of the task. A small remnant to rebuild an entire city wall? Was it even possible?
Instead, Nehemiah prayed, “God, grant me favor, because I’m gonna do something crazy to help Your people.”
And then he did it.
He asked the king – the same king who had previously decreed that no construction should take place in Jerusalem – if he could return to rebuild the walls. When the king granted permission, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem, rounded up the remnant, encouraged them, and then set about working alongside them to rebuild the city’s walls and gates.
Basically, he saw an issue that grieved him, took ownership of it, and engaged in practical ministry to see God move in that area.
The guy is my hero.
As the work of rebuilding the walls and gates progressed, the Israelites’ old enemies rose up against them. They began attacking the city at the lowest points in the walls, where the workers were most vulnerable. The entire remnant became discouraged by the attacks. They began to say that the wall would never be rebuilt, their city would never be reclaimed, and their people would never be strong again. They were prepared to settle for their old way of life: defeated, in bondage to their enemies.
But Nehemiah was not.
Nehemiah writes, “I stationed people behind the lowest sections of the wall, at the vulnerable areas. I stationed them by families, with their swords, spears, and bows.” He told them, “Don’t be afraid of [our enemies]. Remember the great and awe-inspiring Lord, and fight for your countrymen, your sons and daughters, your wives and homes.”
And so they did. They gathered together in families to protect one another. By doing so the walls were rebuilt, the workers were defended, and the city was strengthened from within.
This must be what it means to stand in the gap for one another: to join together in strength, armed for battle, to defend and protect the vulnerable until they are able to defend and protect themselves. Until the whole body is strengthened.
I don’t know about you, but that’s something I can excited about.