When Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt Jerusalem, they imported building materials, but they also used the ruins from a city whose walls had been destroyed. Both the Jewish workers and their materials were defeated. The nation of Israel, their temple and their chief city were in shambles, yet it was out of these shambles that the city and their house of worship was built.
At one point, Sanballat, an official of the Persian Empire, ridiculed Nehemiah and his effort to reconstruct the walls. “What does this bunch of poor, feeble Jews think they’re doing? … Do they actually think they can make something of stones from a rubbish heap—and charred ones at that?” Nehemiah 4:2 (NLT). But despite ruined people rebuilding their ruined city using ruined material, Jerusalem was re-established while under the boot of forces which had pillaged their nation and enslaved their people.
Many of those who live in the slum communities on society’s margins today face similar conditions. Like the Jews in exile, our neighbors who are poor have often face generations of exclusion and are forced to live off of the scraps of the middle class and wealthy who benefit from their cheap labor and impoverished conditions. What a good thing that God loves to use broken things to establish his kingdom.
I’ve had the privilege of short stays in a handful of garbage collector communities around the world. The most life-altering stay was the summer my family and I, along with some university students, lived in a garbage community in Cairo, Egypt. All over the world men, women and children live off of the rubbish of others. While Americans bury 80% of our garbage, the residents of Cairo bury only 20%. This is due, in part, to the industry and desperation of people on society’s margins who collect and use the garbage for their day to day existence.
In so many places, people in impossible conditions are building with the ruins of their surroundings. For instance, I love this story of discarded plastic bottles being turned into light for dark shanty homes. It is a testament to God’s imprint in human beings who can “create light” from shear creativity and determination.
Some friends of mine live and work in a depressed and defeated area of Mexico City known as Chimalhuacan. Latin American Mission recently did a feature story on how these ruined neighbors living in a ruined neighborhood are establishing churches, cleaning up their surroundings, and even confronting powerful forces bent on co-opting their transformed lives and neighborhoods for their own political purposes. It is the picture of God’s kingdom being built from broken things in the face of opposition.
“… you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” I Pet. 2:5
God so loves building things out of ruins, that he is even constructing his own house out of the ruins of our broken lives.