One of the my favorite T.V. shows is Aaron Sorkin’s series The West Wing, which chronicles the lives of White House staffers who work behind the scenes to support the President’s political initiatives. Before the series premiered in 1999, the show’s creators spent time interviewing and observing President Clinton’s staff to give them a better idea of the picture they needed to paint.
In the White House, the staff doesn’t report directly to the President. Instead, they report to his Chief of Staff, arguably the most powerful unelected official in the country. The Chief of Staff is stationed just outside the Oval Office and serves as the President’s gatekeeper. He controls the President’s schedule and decides who he hears from and doesn’t. He is the one who informs the President during a crisis and it’s his job to prepare for anything the President might need well in advance of his orders. He will arrive in the White House well before dawn and won’t return home until 9-10PM. The average tenure of a Chief of Staff is only a year and a half!
Nehemiah is one of my favorite biblical characters. As a Jew living in the Persian Empire, he served as cupbearer to the king. In addition to presenting the wine to the king, it was also his job to taste it in case it might be poisoned. He was the one putting his life on the line to serve the most powerful man in the world. As a result, being cupbearer also meant that he was the king’s chief advisor and would often preside over the rest of the palace servants. He was the Chief of Staff.
But Nehemiah’s world wasn’t perfect. The Jews had been exiled from the Promised land for over 140 years, a reality that left them humiliated and defeated. While the king had already allowed for two waves of exiles to return to Jerusalem, he ordered them not rebuild the city. The walls were destroyed, leaving the city defenseless. Aside from its militaristic weaknesses, living in a city without its walls was much like being on stage with your pants down. The people were suffering and no one was better positioned to change their world than Nehemiah.
After months of prayer, chapter two of Nehemiah’s memoirs chronicle a fateful day when the king began to notice that something was wrong.
…I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. And the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart.” Then I was very much afraid.”
Why was Nehemiah afraid? Because one of his primary responsibilities was to insulate the king from the outside world, which meant that even his personal feelings and struggles were to be checked at the door. The servants would even place their hands over their mouths to protect the king from their breath. But suddenly, in this emotionally sterile environment, the king noticed Nehemiah’s breaking heart – and asked about it!
If that isn’t amazing enough, notice what comes next.
“I said to the king, “Let the king live forever! Why should not my face be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ graves, lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What are you requesting?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it.” And the king said to me (the queen sitting beside him), “How long will you be gone, and when will you return?”
Let’s just forget the fact that this is the same king who is responsible for the Jews living in their humiliation. He loves Nehemiah so much that he would go out of his way to ask what’s wrong, then back it up by rescinding his previous order and commissioning his faithful servant to go rebuild it himself!
Christians in Influence
I have no doubt that many Christians, when called to task, will stand up for their faith in their spheres of influence. However, my concern is that the number of Christians in high positions of influence is dwindling. Convicted by the truth of the Gospel, we are known to often fire off those convictions brashly and disrespectfully.
As a result, we have been ostracized in many parts of society, leading some to create these “Christian ghettos” in many industries where it’s safe to profess Christ while losing our influence in the outside world. We’ve done it in music, education, film, publishing, financial management, and even insurance. Meanwhile, many of our Christian versions of these worlds are sub-par. For example, have you watched most of the Christian movies out there?
I desperately want to see Christians living out their faith in the world and attaining influence like Nehemiah’s. But that can’t happen if we are developing our own version of reality in the safety of our churches while brashly firing off criticism to everyone outside. We actually have to engage our culture, remembering to display three character traits along the way.
When you see the love the king had for Nehemiah, its obvious that Nehemiah had shown him respect even in spite of the king persecuting his people. In today’s world, we might be tempted to call that two-faced or cowardly. I often wonder if many Christians today wouldn’t accuse him of being ashamed of God. But Nehemiah understood that his respect for the king would ultimately lead to his ability to influence him in a positive direction. In the same way, we have to show respect for those in power who might disagree with us, even if that disagreement leads to some form of persecution.
There’s no way Nehemiah rose to his position of influence without being good at his job. In fact, bad cupbearers weren’t fired. They were executed. We live in a world that respects things done well. Just look at any Apple product and you understand my point. Excellence and professionalism is a platform in our society. If you don’t care to do things well, you lose it.
There is a right time to speak up and a wrong time to speak up. There is also a right way and a wrong way to do it. Even Jesus chose his moments carefully. While he boldly stood up to his crucifixion, the Gospels offer many accounts of Jesus evading crowds and carefully choosing his words as to avoid it before the time was right. There are times to boldly share your faith and there are times when it’s ok to be silent and listen. Nehemiah prayerfully considered how to approach the king. When the moment was right, God opened the door for him.
Discuss: What suggestions would you offer to others hoping to live out their faith wisely?